November 28, 2017


Walker Percy and the Politics of Deranged Times (BRIAN A. SMITH, 11/27/17, Law & Liberty)

In his 1971 novel Love in the Ruins, Percy offers a tragi-comic parable for our deranged times. Set in the "near future," the novel depicts Americans driven to extremes in much the same way we are today. Percy wrote:

The old Republican Party has become the Knothead Party, so named during the last Republican convention in Montgomery when a change of name was proposed, the first suggestion being the Christian Conservative Constitutional Party, and campaign buttons were even printed with the letters CCCP before an Eastern-liberal commentator noted the similarity to the initials printed on the backs of the Soviet cosmonauts and called it the most knotheaded political bungle of the century--which the conservatives, in the best tradition, turned to their own advantage, printing a million more buttons reading "Knotheads for America" and banners proclaiming "No Man Can Be Too Knotheaded in the Service of His Country."

The old Democrats gave way to the new Left Party. They too were stuck with a nickname not of their own devising and the nickname stuck: in this case a derisive acronym that the Right made up and the Left accepted, accepted in that same curious American tradition by which we allow our enemies to name us, give currency to their curses, perhaps from the need to concede the headstart they want and still beat them, perhaps also from the secret inkling that our enemies know the worst of us best and it's best for them to say it. LEFT usually it is, often LEFTPAPA, sometimes LEFTPAPASAN (with a little Jap bow), hardly ever the original LEFTPAPASANE, which stood for what, according to the Right, the Left believed in: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-Pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia.

Percy often said that the novelist aspires to be a prophet in reverse: he hoped that telling the truth about ourselves now might spare us future heartache. The comic sadness here is that this is a paragraph you might see today satirizing our own political life.

But the story itself offers more hope than this couple-paragraph snapshot of politics suggests: the protagonist, Dr. Thomas More, takes the reader on a wild ride through Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. A scientist with a tragic family history, More believes he's stumbled upon a world-changing invention with the possibility to save humanity or destroy it. And while that sounds like the groundwork for a dystopian thriller, Percy uses a few days in More's life to remind us that all the technological and medical fixes for our alienation evade what we really need from our family life, our community, and our churches - places of rest that give us the capacity to live well. From clues in the book and some help from Wikipedia, you can determine the main action of the novel is meant to take place on July 1-4, 1984. Percy's sense of humor here is telling: Tom More earns himself a new birth of freedom on July 4th, one against Orwell's prophecy.

Percy remains a guide to our times he offers us help in how to muddle through our ideologically divided times. He reminds us that we can never secure lasting victories in politics, indeed that the entire language of "problems and solutions" that we indulge in is a category error. Politics is the world of tensions and dilemmas that never fully resolve themselves. 

Politics is best thought of as follows: there is an eternal tension between the competing urges for personal Freedom and personal Security which the Republic seeks to resolve by engendering universal liberty instead of either. Our sense that history has cycles or pendulum swings is just a function of the continual motion between the extremes back towards the American middle, a motion driven by the Deep State which is to say our system, our institutions and our people. 

We have an emotional desire to be living in apocalyptic times or especially deranged ones, so that we can cast ourselves as remarkable too, even heroes for confronting the epoch. That's why Donald's supporters need to see him as a unique threat to the Establishment and the Left needs to see him and Vlad as an existential threat. The reality that he's just a racist nitwit who we elected accidentally and who can accomplish nothing is too anti-climactic to be borne. Of course, that's not much different than the past 8 years when the Left thought they'd summoned the Obamessiah and the Right saw a gay Muslim socialist while the rest of us enjoyed a continuation of the consensual governance of the past several decades.

Posted by at November 28, 2017 5:52 AM