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A Brief Note on the Idea of a Public Orthodoxy

It is difficult to imagine literal book burnings being undertaken anywhere in America, save by a handful of eccentrics - though it is, of course, worth observing that mere eccentricity is no blemish on a man's character, at least not necessarily. A man may stand in contradiction to his times, and yet those times may themselves stand in contradiction to reality, being unreal, possessed of innumerable illusions and fantasies. In a less atomized, transient stage of our history, it might well have been possible to conceive of a small town or hamlet, somewhere in the vast expanses of our nation, taking a stand against some piece of salacious or pernicious literature, confident that it would be difficult to circumvent the ban. That time, some might argue, for the good, but mostly for ill, given the proliferation of "literature" of a type once proscribed under obscenity codes, has passed for the nonce. Protections once afforded to political and religious discourses, though not to sub-rational performances and displays, have been extended to cover these latter, while signs of contraction in the original protected sphere have been observed. Few limitations are imposed upon obscenities of any type, and yet it is illegal to air certain types of political discourse within two months of an election.

All of these things, however, are beside the present point. For, while we may speak somewhat jestingly of consigning certain works to the flames, what we are doing, if we do so reflectively, is expressing the conviction that there either is, or ought to be, a public orthodoxy, and that it is preferable that this orthodoxy be explicit when necessary. The rationale of any sensible book-burning - to continue in this vein - is simply that a society which reposes upon certain determinate traditions and customs may proscribe assaults upon these foundations that, in prudence, are deemed sufficiently grave or provocative, particularly likely to occasion scandal. No society is obliged to extend its protecting shelter, nor the dignity of "right", to its own subversion, and the means thereof.

Without belabouring the point, the singular and salubrious virtue of actually consigning to the flames some pernicious piece of writing is that of honesty: the declaration that there obtains, if fact, an orthodoxy which we mean to uphold. That act announces that there shall be no confusion, no ambiguity; certain ideas and the practices they sustain are excluded as inimical to a way of life. Now, the American settlement, which extended the freedoms of speech and religion to actual political, cultural, and religious discourse, rested upon a tacit understanding: America was a broadly Christian nation, at least in the cultural sense of the term, and this understanding established boundaries, however spacious, within which these freedoms were exercised. The Mormons were compelled not merely to abandon the pagan practice of polygamy, but to desist from the propagation of the doctrine, and this on Christian grounds. Seditious literature was confiscated, and its promoters sanctioned, and so forth. The American settlement was latitudinarian, though capable of firmness, and even the former quality was rooted in history. That older America would leave the dissenter and heretic to his rantings; but, goaded and provoked, would take an emphatic position. The older America, that is, would still declare, "Here we stand." Would still, that is, exhibit the virtue of honesty and clarity in self-definition and defense.

It need not be reiterated that this America is no more. Actually-existing America conjures neologisms in order to avoid the imperative of declaring definitively that certain ideas are inimical to her, as in a certain war on an asymmetrical military tactic. And actually-existing America maintains the forms and fictions of a robust public deliberation as to the common good, when the reality is that a concinnity of interests ensures that discourse is corralled within narrow confines, whether on foreign policy, economics, immigration, or any number of other issues. Deviationists are, of course, denounced, as xenophobes, protectionists, isolationists, or any number of other devil-terms. What, then, is the problem, insofar as the question of public orthodoxy is concerned? Do we not have one, and is it not declared?

The problem is first, that we are schizophrenic, in that our self-conception is of a nation with only the most minimal of creedal requirements, while our political and social practices say otherwise. Those creedal requirements are rather vague, and yet turn our to mean very specific things under the ministrations of the establishment. Second, and more substantially, what orthodoxies we observe are manifestly not the expressions of the deliberate sense of the people, as reflected in their representatives, but expressions of those interlocked, sometimes conflicting, but fundamentally uniform, interests. Which is why we will we suffer the same foreign, economic, and immigration policies, even if three-quarters of the people oppose the lot of them.

In other words, it would represent an advance of honesty were the establishment to openly ban and burn literature opposed to its cherished dogmas, an end to the dissembling which gives us the fiction of openness and the reality of constraint. And when this is grasped, we can perceive that the illusion of openness, of genuine options, is the means by which consent is constructed; we tolerate the charade because we believe that we might yet change it.

Ah, for the simplicity of a book burning, which would compel men to declare where they stand, and where also their enemies stand!

Comments (12)

"The older America, that is, would still declare, "Here we stand.""

The problem is that older America, did not at it's inception codify or make explicit in the Constitution, the religious grounding of our nation.
Centuries later we are left with a procedural liberalism, contract law, a materialist conception of human nature and a hollowness at our core.

Not a good place to be for those of us who want to protect those human goods that make life worth living from being swept away by a tide of ideological innovation.

Maximos has given us a fine distillation of the argument for a public orthodoxy. I associate myself with this argument.

However, allow me register my hesitancy to endorse the statement "It need not be reiterated that this America [i.e., the America committed to a reasonable public orthodoxy] is no more."

That seems too strong to me. For one thing, Americans are given to snoozing on this sort of thing; it takes awhile to rouse us, even when the peril is imminent. So while it may be that the various ideological narcotics of our age will prove potent enough silence and befuddle us for good, this is still an open question. Recall that great men like Whitaker Chambers thought the effects of the narcotics were already irreversible back then; alas that Chambers did not live to see Ronald Reagan.

"This America" is not no more; she is just trussed and bewildered by a thousand wild theories, distracted by lucre, and betrayed by her leaders. A sad state, to be sure, but not yet a tomb.

Consider, by analogy, the towering resilience of Maximos' own Church, which has endured an oppression more complete and awful than anything yet contemplated by Liberalism. The Jihad has not extinguished the light of hope and truth in Byzantium; and neither shall Liberalism extinguish America.

Not yet at least.

Consider, by analogy, the towering resilience of Maximos' own Church

Yes, but does America have a Divine guarantee of its existence?

Yes, but does America have a Divine guarantee of its existence?

It should be simple to find out; just do everything you (Americans) can do for America's survival. If you shall succeed you will have the proof of a Divine guarantee.

Please note I said "simple" not "easy".


"This America" is not no more; she is just trussed and bewildered by a thousand wild theories, distracted by lucre, and betrayed by her leaders. A sad state, to be sure, but not yet a tomb.

True and wonderfully encouraging words, Mr. Cella.

One wonders if that can be said about "This Europe" too.

I think it can, Mr. Hanski, but I admittedly have much less evidence or experience to back it.

As for Divine guarantee, we have only that which provides for the endurance of what is just and true; and there is still much that is just and true in America.

Perhaps I'm missing the point, but it seems like we're pushing something like the Gamaliel Principle of assessment here. To the extent we are doing so, I dissent.

There's no connection between continuation and truth (or goodness). History does not work that way. Evil, you'll remember, has endured since from before the beginning of our world. Some evil religions have endured for many, many centuries, with no end in sight. Indeed, far from withering away, they seem to be growing all the while. Further, some good things come to nothing in history. The Gamaliel Principle of assessment is deeply flawed.

To make the point from a different perspective: If one were a devout Catholic, one might wonder why the Reformation has endured for half a millennium, with no reduction in sight. In fact, judging from the latest Pew data, Protestantism is expanding in America while Catholicism in America is shrinking. Or from a Protestant perspective, one might wonder how God could have left the church in darkness for so many centuries, a darkness that continues for about a billion Catholics worldwide even now.

If there is a divine guarantee of existence, we don't know who has it.

"Without belabouring
the point, the singular and salubrious
virtue of actually consigning
to the flames some pernicious
piece of writing..."

OK. Enough. The poetry if fine, but gets in the way of the prose. Calling Alan Greenspan.

Alan Greenspan? My, that is harsh! Greenspan's utterances were usually so obfuscatory, so (pseudo)-Delphic, that Derrida's oeuvre is a model of limpid exposition by comparison.

Derrida's oeuvre is a model of limpid exposition

I know when I'm licked.

There is no need for literal book burnings when figurative ones suffice.

The stray remark of a talk show host or a politician can create a trial by fire in the press and the blogs. Unemployment or exile can result from one "gaffe."

I think the public orthodoxy that now exists is explicit enough about what it does not tolerate. We all know that doing thing that are or appear racist, sexist, or (in recent years) gay-bashing will land you in hot water if you're a public figure, and rude looks or employment problems if a private citizen. Blasphemy and obscenity are generally tolerated or encouraged, while objectors to such are derided.

While accusations of heresy are often opportunistic and outrage is often selective, such inconsistency is nothing new.

"If there is a divine guarantee of existence, we don't know who has it."

I think we do, as Chesterton reminds us;

"At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.

It was supposed to have been withered up at last in the dry light of the Age of Reason; it was supposed to have disappeared ultimately in the earthquake of the Age of Revolution. Science explained it away; and it was still there. History disinterred it in the past; and it appeared suddenly in the future. To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch it, it grows."
G.K. Chesterton
The Five Deaths of the Faith
from The Everlasting Man

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