March 26, 2005


The Great Liberal Death Wish (Malcolm Muggeridge, May 1979, Imprimis)

Anyway, these were the golden days of liberalism when the Manchester Guardian was widely read, and even believed. Despite all its misprints, you could make out roughly speaking what it was saying, and what we typed out was quite likely, to our great satisfaction, to be quoted in some paper in - Baghdad or Smyrna as being the opinion of our very influential organ of enlightened liberalism. I remember my first day I was there, and somehow it symbolizes the whole experience. I was asked to write a leader - a short leader of about 120 words - on corporal punishment. At some head-masters' conference, it seemed, words had been spoken about corporal punishment and I was to produce appropriate comment. So I put my head into the room next to mine, and asked the man who was working there: "What's our line on corporal punishment?" Without looking up from his type-writer, he replied: "The same as capital, only more so." So I knew exactly what to tap out, you see. That was how I got into the shocking habit of pontificating about what was going on in the world; observing that the Greeks did not seem to want an orderly government, or that one despaired sometimes of the Irish having any concern for law and order; weighty pronouncement tapped out on a typewriter, deriving from nowhere, and for all one knew, concerning no one.

We were required to end anything we wrote on a hopeful note, because liberalism is a hopeful creed. And so, however appalling and black the situation that we described, we would always conclude with some sentence like: "It is greatly to be hoped that moderate men of all shades of opinion will draw together, and that wiser councils may yet prevail." How many times I gave expression to such jejune hopes! Well, I soon grew weary of this, because it seemed to me that immoderate men were rather strongly in evidence, and I couldn't see that wiser councils were prevailing anywhere. The depression was on by that time, I'm talking now of 1932--33. It was on especially in Lancashire, and it seemed as though our whole way of life was cracking up, and, of course, I looked across at the USSR with a sort of longing, thinking that there was an alternative, some other way in which people could live, and I managed to maneuver matters so that I was sent to Moscow as the Guardian correspondent, arriving there fully prepared to see in the Soviet regime the answer to all our troubles, only to discover in a very short time that though it might be an answer, it was a very unattractive one.

It's difficult to convey to you what a shock this was, realizing that what I had supposed to be the new brotherly way of life my father and his cronies had imagined long before, was simply on examination an appalling tyranny, in which the only thing that mattered, the only reality, was power. So again, like the British raj, in the USSR I was confronted with power as the absolute and ultimate arbiter. However, that was a thing that one could take in one's stride. How I first came to conceive the notion of the great liberal death wish was not at all in consequence of what was happening in the USSR, which, as I came to reflect after-ward, was simply the famous lines in the Magnificat working out, "He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek," whereupon, of course, the humble and meek become mighty in their turn and have to be put down. That was just history, something that happens in the world; people achieve power, exercise power, abuse power, are booted out of power, and then it all begins again. The thing that impressed me, and the thing that touched off my awareness of the great liberal death wish, my sense that western man was, as it were, sleep-walking into his own ruin, was the extraordinary performance of the liberal intelligentsia, who, in those days, flocked to Moscow like pilgrims to Mecca. And they were one and all utterly delighted and excited by what they saw there. Clergymen walked serenely and happily through the anti-god museums, politicians claimed that no system of society could possibly be more equitable and just, lawyers admired Soviet justice, and economists praised the Soviet economy. They all wrote articles in this sense which we resident journalists knew were completely nonsensical. It's impossible to exaggerate to you the impression that this made on me. Mrs. Webb had said to Kitty and me: "You'll find that in the USSR Sydney and I are icons. " As a matter of fact they were, Marxist icons.

How could this be? How could this extraordinary credulity exist in the minds of people who were adulated by one and all as maestros of discernment and judgment? It was from that moment that I began to get the feeling that a liberal view of life was not what I'd supposed it to be - a creative movement which would shape the future - but rather a sort of death wish. How otherwise could you explain how people, in their own country ardent for equality, bitter opponents of capital punishment and all for more humane treatment of people in prison, supporters, in fact, of every good cause, should in the USSR prostrate themselves before a regime ruled over brutal-ly and oppressively and arbitrarily by a privileged party oligarchy? I still ponder over the mystery of how men displaying critical intelligence in other fields could be so astonishingly deluded. I tell you, if ever you are looking for a good subject for a thesis, you could get a very fine one out of a study of the books that were written by people like the Dean of Canterbury, Julian Huxley, Harold Laski, Bernard Shaw, or the Webbs about the Soviet regime. In the process you would come upon a compendium of fatuity such as has seldom, if ever, existed on earth. And I would really recommend it; after all, the people who wrote these books were, and continue to be regarded as, pundits, whose words must be very, very seriously heeded and considered.

I recall in their yellow jackets a famous collection in England called the Left Book Club. You would be amazed at the gullibility that's expressed. We foreign journalists in Moscow used to amuse ourselves, as a matter of fact, by competing with one another as to who could wish upon one of these intelligentsia visitors to the USSR the most out-rageous fantasy. We would tell them, for instance, that the shortage of milk in Moscow was entirely due to the fact that all milk was given nursing mothers - things like that. If they put it in the articles they subsequently wrote, then you'd score a point. One story I floated myself, for which I received considerable acclaim, was that the huge queues outside food shops came about because the Soviet workers were so ardent in building Socialism that they just wouldn't rest, and the only way the government could get them to rest for even two or three hours was organizing a queue for them to stand in. I laugh at it all now, but at the time you can imagine what a shock it was to someone like myself, who had been brought up to regard liberal intellectuals as the samurai, the absolute elite, of the human race, to find that they could be taken in by deceptions which a half-witted boy would see through in an instant. I never got over that; it always remained in my mind as something that could never be erased. I could never henceforth regard the intelligentsia as other than credulous fools who nonetheless became the media's prophetic voices, their heirs and successors remaining so still. That's when I began to think seriously about the great liberal death wish.

In due course, I came back to England to await the Second World War, in the course of which I found myself engaged in Intelligence duties. And let me tell you that if there is one thing more fantastical than news, it is Intelligence. News itself is a sort of fantasy; and when you actually go collecting news, you realize that this is so. In a certain sense, you create news; you dream news up yourself and then send it. But that's nothing to the fantasy of Intelligence. Of the two, I would say that news seems really quite a sober and considered commodity compared with your offerings when you're an Intelligence agent.

Anyway, when in 1945 I found myself a civilian again, I tried to sort out my thoughts about the great wave of optimism that followed the Second World War - for me, a repeat performance. It was then that I came to realize how, in the name of progress and compassion, the most terrible things were going to be done, preparing the way for the great humane holocaust, about which I have spoken. There was, it seemed to me, a built in propensity in this liberal world-view whereby the opposite of what was intended came to pass. Take the case of education. Education was the great mumbo--jumbo of progress, the assumption being that educating people would make them grow better and better, more and more objective and intelligent. Actually, as more and more money is spent on education, illiteracy is increasing. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if it didn't end up with virtually the whole revenue of the western countries being spent on education, and a condition of almost total illiteracy resulting therefrom. It's quite on the cards.

Now I want to try to get to grips with this strange state of affairs. Let's look again at the humane holocaust. What happened in Germany was that long before the Nazis got into power, a great propaganda was undertaken to sterilize people who were considered to be useless or a liability to society, and after that to introduce what they called "mercy killing." This happened long before the Nazis set up their extermination camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere, and was based upon the highest humanitarian considerations. You see what I'm getting at? On a basis of liberal-humanism, there is no creature in the universe greater than man, and the future of the human race rests only with human beings themselves, which leads infallibly to some sort of suicidal situation. It's to me quite clear that that is so, the evidence is on every hand. The efforts that men make to bring about their own happiness, their own ease of life, their own self-indulgence, will in due course produce the opposite, leading me to the absolutely inescapable conclusion that human beings cannot live and operate in this world without some concept of a being greater than themselves, and of a purpose which transcends their own egotistic or greedy desires. Once you eliminate the notion of a God, a creator, once you eliminate the notion that the creator has a purpose for us, and that life consists essentially in fulfilling that purpose, then you are bound, as Pascal points out, to induce the megalomania of which we've seen so many manifestations in our time - in the crazy dictators, as in the lunacies of people who are rich, or who consider themselves to be important or celebrated in the western world. Alternatively, human beings relapse into mere carnality, into being animals. I see this process going on irresistably, of which the holocaust is only just one example. If you envisage men as being only men, you are bound to see human society, not in Christian terms as a family, but as a factory--farm in which the only consideration that matters is the well--being of the livestock and the prosperity or productivity of the enterprise. That's where you land yourself. And it is in that situation that western man is increasingly finding himself.

In Love With Death: The bizarre passion of the pull-the-tube people. (Peggy Noonan, March 24, 2005, Opinion Journal)

God made the world or he didn't.

God made you or he didn't.

If he did, your little human life is, and has been, touched by the divine. If this is true, it would be true of all humans, not only some. And so--again, if it is true--each human life is precious, of infinite value, worthy of great respect.

Most--not all, but probably most--of those who support Terri Schiavo's right to live believe the above. This explains their passion and emotionalism. They believe they are fighting for an invaluable and irreplaceable human life. They are like the mother who is famously said to have lifted the back of a small car off the ground to save a child caught under a tire. You're desperate to save a life, you're shot through with adrenaline, your strength is for half a second superhuman, you do the impossible.

That is what they are trying to do.

They do not want an innocent human life ended for what appear to be primarily practical and worldly reasons--e.g., Mrs. Schiavo's quality of life is low, her life is pointless. They say: Who is to say it is pointless? And what does pointless even mean? Maybe life itself is the point.

I do not understand the emotionalism of the pull-the-tube people. What is driving their engagement? Is it because they are compassionate, and their hearts bleed at the thought that Mrs. Schiavo suffers? But throughout this case no one has testified that she is in persistent pain, as those with terminal cancer are. [...]

Why are they so committed to this woman's death?

They seem to have fallen half in love with death.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Eloi, anyone?

Posted by: ghostcat at March 26, 2005 12:28 AM

In the context of your addendum post, my comment above is grotesquely inappropriate. (It did fit the initial post, though, at least your headline.)

Posted by: ghostcat at March 26, 2005 12:39 AM

Oh, goody. I've been waiting for OJ to post some version of this essay so I can tell everybody to stop whatever you're doing, go out to a local bookstore, buy a copy of The Portable Conservative Reader and read Muggeridge's essay (this is only one version; the book version is the best) around page 600 or so.

Right. Now.

That's an order!

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 26, 2005 1:40 AM

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain.

--John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale," 51-56.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 26, 2005 1:43 AM

Schiavo's father, meanwhile, says Michael Schiavo very nearly has his wish:

A federal appeals court panel refused to order the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube Friday, hours after the severely brain-damaged woman's father said she was weakening and down "to her last hours." [...]

It marked the third time in four days the court had denied an emergency request made by Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler.

As she entered her second week without the tube that sustained her life for 15 years, dehydration took its toll on the 41-year-old woman. Her tongue and eyes were bleeding and her skin was flaking off, said Barbara Weller, the Schindlers' attorney. [...]

Another legal maneuver Friday included a late afternoon filing asking Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer to order the reinsertion of the tube, claiming Terri Schiavo tried to say "I want to live" when her tube was removed. The motion said Schiavo was asked to repeat that phrase and responded: "AHHHHH" and "WAAAAAAA." [...]

Then there's this from a little ways down in the article:

"All the politicians who injected themselves into this tragic and personal matter now need to begin respecting both the law and the legal process even if they disagree with the result that was reached in this case," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (news - web sites)'s Florida chapter.

I cannot put into words just how much I hate the ACLU right now. Night, everyone. I gotta duck on outta here before I violate OJ's profanity rule.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 26, 2005 2:52 AM

Sorry, one more (brief) thing, from Frank Salvato:

Terri Schiavo is going to die. Not because she has a terminal disease. Not because she was convicted of a crime punishable by death, although she did received a death sentence. She is not going to die because she has no one who loves her or because no one will care for her. Terri Schiavo is going to die because a judge from Florida’s 6th Circuit Court ordered that she not be fed. Any other contention is false.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 26, 2005 2:55 AM

That was a seriously good article by Muggeridge.

And just bought the Portable Conservative Reader. :)

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at March 26, 2005 6:32 AM


Yes, the parallel is the point isn't it? Easy enough for us to judge the Nazis or Bolsheviks until we look around and see ourselves behaving similarly.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2005 8:25 AM

oj: why wouldn't we parallel the nazis and communists, almost half our country (going by the voting patterns) are their brethren.

Posted by: cjm at March 26, 2005 11:57 AM

oj -

My original allusion, as you know, was to H.G. Wells' humans-as-literal-livestock. We are all Eloi, we are all Morlocks ... some mor than others. Making that point in the context of Noonan's piece was, er, tasteless.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 26, 2005 12:19 PM


But revealing.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2005 12:29 PM

All is revealing to those who chose to see. The quest itself is the holy grail, and questioning the answer.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 26, 2005 1:32 PM

I am with Matt and Ali - Muggeridge uses words like blunt instruments, and I will be checking out Matt's recommendation forthwith.

I particularly liked the turn of phrase 'compendium of fatuity.' Beautiful.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at March 26, 2005 2:35 PM

Good move, Bruce and Ali! Everyone else should know that the essay recounts Muggeridge's trips to Russia, when Western intellectuals were abasing themselves before Stalin -- who, had he actually come to power in America, would have certainly had them murdered forthwith. Muggeridge had been raised in a socialist family and always thought that educated people had the best prescriptions for making society work, and it was a profound shock to him when he discovered that plenty of extremely smart people were absolute drooling morons when it came to communism.

Muggeridge goes on to ask why, for example, many liberals admired Stalin, or supported brutal dictators in former British colonies while castigating British rule, or poured scorn on the idea that Britain should rearm itself against Hitler while trusting the ramshackle League of Nations to police the world. He concluded that, at some subconscious level, liberals secretly desire to immolate themselves and their society. You don't have to agree with Muggeridge 100% to find this essay a brilliant exercise.

I'm moving into an apartment, and if I can locate my copy of the P.C.R. amidst all the boxes of books I've been hauling up two flights of stairs, I'll post an excerpt.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 26, 2005 5:14 PM