Perhaps it is the apocalyptic mood brought on by the impending visual collision of the sun and the moon, but after the events this weekend in Charlottesville, I can’t help but wonder whether we are witnessing the end of civilization. That is, I am not looking up to the sky for the end of the world, but up north to Charlottesville as the definitive sign that Americans have made the final leap away from civility and into barbarism. A protest that was met by a counter-protest (was there another protest in there somewhere?) turned deadly and no amount of outrage will stop the barbarian invasion that is already underway. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. As Lincoln once prophetically uttered, “… Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
While many of those men and women who populated the White Supremacist “protesters” resemble the savage Germanic invaders that sacked Rome, barbarians were found in both camps. It is not savage behavior that marks the barbarian per se, but the unwillingness to engage the other in a reasonable conversation according to reasonable principles. In short, the barbarian is the one who kills civility by rejecting the role of human reason in human affairs
We Are All Barbarians Now
It is easy to see how the white supremacists fit the barbarian bill—there is no reasonable argument that can ever justify their position. It is evil through and through. But how can we say the other side, in protesting against this evil is also barbaric?
In his book, The American Cause, Russell Kirk says that for any people to remain civilized, they must have a defined body of principles upon which they all agree. That is, there are always two ways to compel a man—by argument and by force. Compelling by argument means that there are a set of foundational principles, those that brought the people together, that can be applied to compel another person as to why a thing should be a certain way. This is why Fr. John Courtney Murray said that “civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.” That is, the disagreement is over the application of the principles. Once the principles themselves are called into question then there is no way to argue and force must be used. A nation without principles is one that is uncivilized.
Kirk says that these principles fall into three main bodies, two of which are moral and political. The moral principles have to do with what they think of God and human nature. The political have to do with their ideas of justice and injustice. That is, American civilization has always been bound by “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Take away this self-evident creed and you take away any basis for civilization.
The Roots of American Barbarism
And herein lies the root of American barbarism. America is a Christian nation and we have rejected that. The debate over whether the Founders themselves were Christian or not is inconsequential. The point is that they were so informed by Christian morality, that even if they may have actively undermined it at times, they still framed with a Christian mentality.
“All men created equal.” Where would such an idea come from except from Christianity? At no time was this ever believed until Christianity took hold of the world. Personal sovereignty? Only because Christianity teaches that authority itself comes from God and man is free so that only with the consent of the governed can one rule over another. Right to the “pursuit of happiness?” Human nature is a fixed entity by God such that only certain activities lead to genuine thriving.
What Charlottesville represents is the civilizational suicide that Lincoln warned against. The irony is not lost on me that his memorial statue is the latest to be defaced. We can reject our slaveholding past without rejecting the Founding altogether. Instead we have rejected the great principles that this country was founded upon and now find ourselves unable to engage in an argument. We forget that it was the proper application of the Founding principles that put an end to slavery. As if this wasn’t destructive enough, we are all barbarians now because we have rejected God and made human nature whatever we want it to be.
The point is that the counter-protesters had no ground to stand upon to say that the White Supremacists were wrong. If human nature is malleable then we aren’t created equal. If this is the case, then who is to say that whites aren’t better than African Americans or Jews? With no Big Daddy in the sky watching over us and judging us, we cry out when Big Brother Donald Trump sits on the fence pointing fingers at both sides. What we saw in Charlottesville is just a harbinger of things to come. There will be more and more protests and with no other way to engage, more tragic endings like we saw.