In June 1978 Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address at Harvard entitled “A World Split Apart.” It was a speech devoted to the emergence of “different worlds,” including our own Western society. On one side of the divide is a freedom diverted to unbridled passion with the accumulation of material riches to be valued above all else. Man is the center in this equation as there isn’t any power above him resulting in a moral poverty searching for meaning.
In days after this speech, the Fourth Estate accused Solzhenitsyn of “losing his balance,” of representing a “mind split apart.” He thought one can say what one thinks in the USA, but democracy expects to be admired. The press argued “the giant does not love us.”
Was Solzhenitsyn right? He did use positive signs in the heartland. “Gradually another America began unfolding before my eyes, one that was small town, and robust, the heartland, the America I had envisioned as I was writing this speech.”
Now we have the luxury of examining the address forty years later. As I see it, Solzhenitsyn was “cautions” based on the way cultural conditions have unfolded over these four decades. The U.S. is preoccupied with material goals, a condition that has reached full efflorescence from the rationalist humanist tradition. The Higher Power to which Solzhenitsyn refers is in serial descent, having gone from more than 90 percent of the populace embracing God to about 70 percent, with the trend line in descent well established.
Accompanying this trend is a debasement in the culture disgorged from moral constraints. I find myself astonished by the fact that at the Tony Awards Robert De Niro, in the most vulgar fashion, attacked the president of the United States, the same De Niro who is the recipient of the president’s Freedom Award, the most prestigious award in the nation.
I am equally puzzled by the granting of a Pulitzer prize to Kendrick Lamar, a rap singer who invariably holds his crotch during performances. And I recognize a complete collapse in standards when Bob Dylan received a Nobel Prize, a prize denied to some of the literary luminaries of the twentieth century. What have we come to?
Solzhenitsyn understood that if God is displaced by humanism any idea the human mind can conjure is possible. Taste, manners, kindness, respect are subordinated for freedom and personal sentiment. “If it feels good, do it.” Even churches and synagogues have lost their way now spending more time on social conditions than religious doctrine. Clearly Western society has not collapsed, not yet anyway. But when it comes to constructing an emotional defense for our way of life, the arguments are banal. There is, of course, the reference to freedom and tolerance, but what about First Principles. Where do we stand on the “naked public square” or the integration of religion into the American founding?
Why would Italian officials cover art work centuries old when there is a visit by one Iranian dignitary? Shouldn’t we take pride in the extraordinary sculptures emerging from our culture? And why should we care whether another religious culture is offended? Is the reverse also true?
Trend lines are sometimes reversed, but if one were to extrapolate from the present to some distant future, the West – with its relativism ensconced – is in trouble of losing its global influence. How does a society unsure of its meaning compete against a fanatical culture that knows exactly what it wants to achieve? Mine is not merely another spirited defense of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, since the gradual decline is with us in every crevice of cultural life. Universities share the orthodoxy of decline. Talk shows have the same chattering voices utter banalities heard before. And truth is shattered by the post modern belief that deep feeling is really what counts. Yes, it is important that Americans read Spengler, if they read at all, but far more important at this time is the removal of cultural filters. Look at America and the West dispassionately. What do you see? And why do you see it?
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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