For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. – CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man
As the indefatigable James Kalb is too courteous to say it himself, this reviewer will say it for him: He told us so.
Back when too many other Catholics were singing happy paeans to the consumer society, Mr. Kalb was quietly, patiently, and thoughtfully warning us of insidious tendencies within democratic capitalism. Since then, we have seen migrant caravans storm the border, bishops reflexively throw a pro-life activist under the bus for wearing a ballcap, and church services suppressed in the name of public health while more favored enterprises got a free pass. We have seen mostly peaceful protesters loot, burn, and destroy public monuments with impunity, even as the FBI has become a political arm of the Beltway and the World Economic Forum openly boasts of its plans to remake mankind.
Those finally waking up to the collapse of America and the West are invited to get their bearings by first consulting The Tyranny of Liberalism (ISI, 2008) and Against Inclusiveness (Angelico Press, 2013). Meanwhile, those of us who have already been following Kalb’s work can find a sliver of reasoned hope, along with some insight by which to endure, in his third examination of the modern crisis: The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church.
In his summary of our predicament, Kalb highlights the inherent link between LGBTQ and the technocracy so beloved by a certain type of “conservative.” Under liberalism all deep claims about reality are ruled out as potentially oppressive, Kalb explains, which means that reality itself is regarded less as a given to be respected than as an infinitely malleable resource to be transformed through technology; Nature is seen less as a gift to cultivate than as an obstacle to conquer or circumvent.
Such a position necessarily leads to the surreal mindset now observable throughout America. “In the long run, accepting a world we do not dominate requires supernatural faith. Without it there is no escape from the view that for us man must be the measure, his desires the standard, his truth and identity what he decides for himself, and everything that might restrict him an enemy to be destroyed. If there is no God then man becomes God. We cannot carry the load, so the result is catastrophe.” So the technocratic left represents a perverse theological project, an open-ended jihad against Nature. Even the global environmentalist movement is all-in for this jihad, occasional neopagan rhetoric about “Mother Earth” notwithstanding.
As religion precedes culture and politics, Kalb continues, the technocratic faith of the Man-God can only be successfully confronted by the faith of the God-Man, so America’s future depends less upon the next presidential election than upon the Church’s leadership – which is, quite frankly, a chilling thought. Too many bishops give the impression that they have no idea what is afoot, that they live in an alternate reality where all is just fine and the top priority is not to rock the boat. Homilies too often consist of harmless platitudes, from which we could never guess just how anti-Christian pop culture has become, just how many Catholic youth are hooked up to Internet sex tools, just how many adults have dropped out of the Church, or just how committed Big Tech is to reengineering the human race. Indeed, there are even a few bishops who apparently regard the unprecedented surge in unbelief, colossal pornography industry, record apostasy, and transhumanist agenda to be much less worrying than the continued existence and use of the Latin language.
Kalb, for his part, clearly believes there is a lot of positive good which we laity can do on our own. At the same time, he also insists that the clergy as a class needs to clean up its act, and up its game:
Ordinary Catholics can help in several ways, for example by growing in the Faith, living in a Catholic manner, and cultivating their independence from an anti-Catholic world by disengaging from electronic media and instead studying history, pursuing literature, old books, and the arts, and reconnecting to sources of Catholic tradition like the Bible and the lives of the saints. But such voluntary and informal efforts have their limits. The Church needs to reestablish her intellectual independence […] In recent decades Catholic institutions have tended to assimilate to the world around them, which has made resistance to liberal modernity within Catholicism anti-institutional. This situation must change, and the leadership of the Church must once again pick up the torch of resistance and rebirth. The logic of the situation and the natural tendency of well-founded institutions to return to type make such a change inevitable, however much some ecclesiastical bureaucrats and even high-placed churchmen fight it.
If Kalb’s analysis is correct, the Church will simply have to break with liberal ideology sooner or later; in the long run the latter will not tolerate any vestige of Catholicism, no matter how much Catholics bend, twist, and compromise their faith. Supernatural grace presumes human nature, which is precisely what is targeted by the most avant-garde facets of the technocratic project.
Since “communities have boundaries,” and “settled identities define themselves in part through contrast,” the liberal establishment regards both as “bigoted, oppressive, hateful, and implicitly violent,” even if liberal spokesmen are rarely candid enough to say so outright. While liberalism declares wars upon settled identities – i.e., any identity rooted in reality – made-up identities are by contrast increasingly celebrated as being daring, creative, and redemptive. Where natural masculinity has long been an object of mockery and skepticism by feminists, for instance, transgenders’ fictive sexual identities are elevated precisely because they are fictive. Likewise, even as healthy young men and women are encouraged to postpone marriage and parenting in favor of cosmopolitan hedonism, or the pursuit of an ostensibly glamorous career, homosexuals are avidly encouraged to “marry” and adopt.
And while Oscar Marion, jazz music, Zora Neale Hurston, and the history of black Baptist churches are all interesting and worthwhile objects of study, the technocratic regime hardly celebrates the heritage of African-Americans and other minorities because of a deep concern for history and culture per se. Rather, the reason for the continual ostentatious promotion of minority identity is that such promotion provide a means of obscuring America’s Anglo founding. In the end, the liberal absolutist is obliged to regard all human cultures – including those of minorities – as quasi-fascist impositions upon the solitary, self-defining individual. It is only for the moment and only as an instinctive pragmatic strategy that liberalism concentrates its attacks upon the prevailing cultures of Western nations, using minorities as political wedges to be promptly discarded whenever they have fulfilled their purpose.
For liberalism’s theoretical goal is to abolish all inherited meaning, such that individuals are free to pursue what Kalb calls “do-it-yourself identity.” This pursuit has already effected a terrible cost, Kalb argues, as it represents
a liberation that alienates people from their past, their surroundings, the people around them, and even – since they no longer know who they are – themselves. We are social beings and not economic abstractions, Nietzschean supermen who create our own moral reality, or machines able to dispense with such concerns. Traditional identities and the social arrangements they articulate – family, religion, cultural community, nation, particular civilization – enable people to understand themselves, connect with others, and think about their lives coherently. Depriving people of such things disrupts all that, and leads to loneliness, depression, feelings of pointlessness, and various addictions and obsessions.
While the personal despair and social dysfunction produced by liberal theory are of course deadly serious, there are even profounder concerns at stake – such as human dignity itself. Under liberalism “we can choose what we will be,” Kalb remarks, “but when that identity is deprived of all content and effect that freedom means very little.” So “in the interests of safeguarding identities, the system effectively abolishes them by making them trivial.” When a man can become a woman by saying so, how much can womanhood really mean? When anyone from anywhere can become American through an administrative process, what does American nationality really mean?
In effect, the so-called “WEIRD” governments – “WEIRD” being the fashionable acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Revolutionary, and Democratic – stand for a system of sentimental nihilism. For “the attempts to eradicate ‘racism,’ ‘sexism,’ ‘homophobia,’ and the like, which are defined ever more loosely, are in substance attempts to destroy normal human ties – those consisting of obligations to particular people based on specific affiliations such as family, inherited community, and religion – and replace them with abstract commercial and bureaucratic arrangements considered more just and rational.”
Clearly American Catholics need to revisit what it means to be American, as well as what it means to be Catholic. We also need to reexamine the old question of what justice and rationality really are, for as we pervert justice and reason we make it harder and harder for grace to work in us and through us. For far too long we have all taken “normal human ties” for granted, regarding them casually and with little gratitude. As the song puts it, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church
By James Kalb
Angelico Press, 2023
Hardcover and Paperback, 211 pages
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