Mark Anthony Signorelli turns his review of Mark Steyn’s After America: Get Ready for Armageddon into an essay supplementary to Steyn’s book, arguing the author’s view of cause and effect can be improved by reading a much earlier (1930) attack on the same forces of dissolution by the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset.
Throughout his book, Steyn catalogues the demoralizing effects of unlimited government upon the American citizenry. No one can ignore the power of the case he presents. But as much as government overreach erodes the character of a people, the debased character of a people manifests itself in arbitrary government. Bad institutions make bad people, but bad people also make bad institutions. Our ugly politics is every bit a reflection of our cultural failings as are our worthless schools. Steyn is not unaware of these facts; one of the passages I found most compelling in his book was when he argues that the truly horrifying thing about the rise of Obama was the fact that the majority of the American people had been duped by such an evident buffoon. Our folly created his administration, and all of its works. So Steyn clearly understands the way a people’s faults can manifest themselves in inept government. Still, the obvious emphasis of his book is on the causal relationship which runs opposite, on the way that inept government debases the character of a people. I think that emphasis is misplaced; I think the effects of a people’s character on the character of their government are more fundamental, more decisive to their happiness, and more subject to reform than the effects which flow from a corrupted government upon the citizenry. Or, to put the point in a different way, I believe that culture is far more consequential for the maintenance of a well-ordered community than politics. Steyn himself advises that, “changing the culture is more important than changing the politics,” but since the emphasis of his book is on the way that bad politics has changed our culture for the worse, he actually seems to undermine this bit of advice.
The book that most effectively delineates the ruinous social mechanisms of liberal democracy is The Revolt of the Masses, by the early twentieth-century philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. For Ortega, modern western society was marked by the rise to power of the “mass-man,” the unqualified or uncultivated man, who, lacking all necessary intellectual and moral training in the duties of civic life, had nonetheless asserted his immutable right to impose his own mediocrity of spirit upon society: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The mass-man is not bound by any traditions or maxims of prudence; he cares only about having his own way in the world. And when he is taught (as all modern political theory teaches him) that the state is a manifestation of his own will, he freely grants it an unlimited scope of action, just as he (theoretically) grants himself a perfect freedom of action: “This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention, the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State…when the mass suffers any ill-fortune, or simply feels some strong appetite, its great temptation is that permanent, sure possibility of obtaining everything – merely by touching a button and setting the mighty machine in motion.” The consequences of this trend are catastrophic:
The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine. And as, after all, it is only a machine whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital supports around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism.
Exactly as Steyn describes it in his book, some eighty years later. But what Ortega makes us see is that “big government” results from the prior moral corruption of the people, in particular from their unbounded self-love and self-assurance. It destroys them in the end, but at the first, it was their creature.
An only-too-common journalistic meme today features the metrosexual hero dipping a sensitive toe into the dangerous (and profoundly alien) waters of manliness. Our sissified hero goes hunting or visits a shooting range. He actually handles (and fires) a gun. He finds that he is enjoying himself, and begins to understand why people hunt or shoot.
But, then, before it is too late (and he has to join the NRA and start voting Republican), in a final moment of clarity, lovingly depicted in purplest prose, the author regains politically correct control of himself. Unlike such insensitive clods as Samson and David, Odysseus and Achilles, Xenophon and Arrian, Balzac and Shakespeare, Ivan Turgenev and Ernest Hemingway, George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, our modern urbanist is too morally sensitive, too sophisticated and intelligent, too ironic to condone guns or hunting.
The latest account from the field, in yesterday’s (26/March/2006) New York Times Magazine, is provided by Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan.
Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, or nerves. My eyes venture deep into thickets my body could never penetrate, picking their way among the tangled branches, sliding over rocks and around stumps to bring back the slenderest hint of movement. In the places too deeply shadowed to admit my eyes, my ears roam at will, returning with the report of a branch cracking at the bottom of a ravine, or the snuffling of a. . .wait: what was that? Just a bird. Everything is amplified. Even my skin is alert, so that when the shadow launched by the sudden ascent of a turkey vulture passes overhead I swear I can feel the temperature momentarily fall. I am the alert man…
Since there’s nothing he can do to make the encounter happen, the hunter’s energy goes into readying himself for it, and trying, by the sheer force of his attention, to summon the animal into his presence. Searching for his prey, the hunter instinctively becomes more like the animal, straining to make himself less visible, less audible, more exquisitely alert. Predator and prey alike move according to their own maps of this ground, their own forms of attention and their own systems of instinct, systems that evolved expressly to hasten or avert precisely this encounter.. . .
wait a minute. Did I really write that last paragraph? Without irony? That’s embarrassing. Am I actually writing about the hunter’s “instinct,” suggesting that the hunt represents some sort of primordial encounter between two kinds of animals, one of which is me? This seems a bit much. I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I’ve read it in the past, in Hemingway and Ortega y Gasset and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene, it never failed to roll my eyes. I never could stomach the straight-faced reveling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground — a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect. So it is for Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, who writes in his “Meditations on Hunting” that “the greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them.. . .” Please
And yet here I find myself slipping into the hunter’s ecstatic purple, channeling Ortega y Gasset. It may be that we have no better language in which to describe the experience of hunting, so that all of us who would try sooner or later slide into this overheated prose ignorant of irony.
José Ortega y Gasset
Irony — the outside perspective — easily withers everything about hunting, shrinks it to the proportions of boy’s play or atavism. And yet at the same time I found that there is something about the experience of hunting that puts irony itself to rout. In general, experiences that banish irony are much better for living than for writing. But there it is: I enjoyed shooting a pig a whole lot more than I ever thought I should have…
In this, I decided, was one of the signal virtues of hunting: it puts large questions about who we and the animals are, and the nature of our respective deaths, squarely before the hunter, and while I’m sure there are many hunters who manage to avoid their gaze, that must take some doing…
..we are left standing there in the woods with our uneasiness and our disgust, and disgust’s boon companion, shame. I did not register any such emotion in the moments after shooting my pig, but eventually it dawned, or fell on me, like a great and unexpected weight. It happened late that evening, when, back at home, I opened my e-mail and saw that Angelo had sent me some digital pictures, under the subject heading “Look the great hunter!” I was eager to open them, excited to show my family my pig, since it hadn’t come home with me but was hanging in Angelo’s walk-in cooler.
The image that appeared on my computer screen hit me like an unexpected blow to the body. A hunter in an orange sweater was kneeling on the ground behind a pig the side of whose head has erupted in blood that is spreading like a river delta toward the bottom of the frame. The hunter’s rifle is angled just so across his chest; clearly he is observing some hoary convention of the hunter’s trophy portrait. One proprietary hand rests on the dead animal’s broad flank. The man is looking into the camera with an expression of unbounded pride, wearing an ear-to-ear grin that might have been winning, if perhaps incomprehensible, had the bloodied carcass sprawled beneath him been cropped out of the frame. But the bloodied carcass was right there, front and center, and it rendered that grin — there’s no other word for it — obscene. I felt as if I had stumbled on some stranger’s pornography. I hurried my mouse to the corner of the image and clicked, closing it as quickly as I could. No one should ever see this.
What could I possibly have been thinking? What was the man in that picture feeling? I can’t for the life of me explain what could have inspired such a mad grin, it seemed so distant and alien from me now. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that the man in the picture was drunk. And perhaps he was, seized in the throes of some sort of Dionysian intoxication, the bloodlust that Ortega says will sometimes overtake the successful hunter. And what was I so damned proud of, anyway? I’d killed a pig with a gun, big deal.
Like the image of the two filthy hunters I’d caught in the convenience-store mirror earlier that afternoon, Angelo’s digital photo had shown me the hunt, and the hunter, from the outside, subjecting it to a merciless gaze that hunting can’t withstand, at least not in the 21st century.
The pig got shot, and the prig went home to Berkeley to scribble and emote. Personally, I would say that Mr. Pullan’s merciless gaze of Modernity is as fatal to the truth as a properly aimed 130 grain .270 round is to California feral pig. Pullan thinks he speaks for the enlightened spirit of human progress. In reality, his irony is a only a fashionable pose, and his voice only the voice of conformity echoing the infernal spirit which denies: