Using the Aphorism to Challenge Liberalism

According to a recent survey, the average college student’s idea of Tyrannosaurus rex is modeled on Barney the purple dinosaur. Accurate portrayals in movies and textbooks make no difference: students continue to believe T. rex stood upright instead of pitched forward like the real thing.

Once people get ideas in their heads it takes very little to keep them there, and the problem applies to Catholicism no less than paleontology. A veteran professor of history at a Catholic university notes that

despite their terror concerning grades in my courses, almost all of my students completely ignore the pro-Catholic, record-straight-setting information I give them, and recite the dominant errors and mantras aimed against the Faith on tests. As far as I can determine, this is in no way due to deeply-rooted conviction on their part. Rather, it merely indicates the power of the propaganda fed them from practically every social channel since early youth. They simply cannot expel the erroneous and hostile words from their heads.

So how do we drive the historical and philosophical equivalent of fluffy purple dinosaurs out of discussions relating to the Faith when information doesn’t penetrate, discussion doesn’t help, pleading doesn’t work, and nothing we say seems to make any difference? What’s needed, it seems, is shock and awe, or at least their closest literary equivalent: paradox, aphorism, and other forms of pointed statement or questioning that disrupt settled expectations and stick in the mind where they can continue to do their work.

 

Among their other benefits, such verbal devices could provide snappy responses to anti-Catholic talking points. The assumptions of public discussion presume liberal secularism. They are part of a comprehensive outlook on man, society, the world, and reality itself that most people don’t exactly believe but don’t know how to escape. The result is that Catholics get tongue-tied, or give up points they shouldn’t, because they’ve already accepted their opponents’ basic principles and don’t know how to avoid one objectionable consequence after another. We need the verbal equivalent of jiu-jitsu to turn the assumptions and discussion around. Paradox, aphorism, and pointed inquiry seem to fit the bill.

G. K. Chesterton  was a master of the strategy as applied to everyday public discussion, and I think that’s at least half the secret of his popularity. Nicolás Gómez Dávila was another great Catholic aphorist, although one who worked at a less popular level. And at a higher level still, thinkers like Pascal and Simone Weil said things suitable to shock almost anyone out of his torpor.

In an age of memes, tweets, and spin the tradition of aphorisms that transfix and transform seems to have vanished. It’s not at home in a world that rejects boldness and truth in favor of focus groups and what seems likely to sell to this demographic or that. The anonymous English scholar who blogs as Deogolwulf has composed some good aphorisms that debunk the errors of secular progressivism. He doesn’t present himself as Catholic, though, and his recent compositions are all in German, so the rest of us need to step up as well.

A good paradox or aphorism requires imaginative and literary talents, and few of us can match Chesterton in that regard, let alone some of the others I’ve mentioned. Still, as GKC himself said, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” So with that in mind, and to do what little I can to help get things started, I’ll list some snappy questions I included in my book The Tyranny of Liberalism, and append some items a friend gleaned here and there on the internet. Others can and should add their own.

Given where they appeared, mine have to do with secular liberalism, the movement that has given us Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism.” So they don’t cover everything we must deal with, but may nonetheless be useful against a major fortress of anti-Catholicism:

  • If liberalism is tolerant, why all the propaganda and reeducation programs?
  • If it’s based on consent, why the emphasis on judges, experts, bureaucrats, and theorists?
  • If it’s skeptical and empirical, why the demand for radical transformation of all social arrangements everywhere?
  • If liberalism unleashes creativity and emphasizes the individual, why does it make everyone and everything the same?
  • If it lets people choose their values, how can it prescribe their opinions of other people’s values?
  • If choosing my values is good, why does it become bad if I choose cultural cohesion and somewhat traditional sex roles?
  • How can “diversity” (respecting differences) and “inclusiveness” (eliminating the effect of differences) be the same?
  • What can freedom in private life amount to if government insists on the reeducation of children and radical reform of family life?
  • Equal celebration of cultures means that particular cultural standards must be driven out of social life, since otherwise one culture will dominate others. How is that different from the abolition of culture?
  • What’s the difference between saying someone has to treat beliefs about God and morality as equally worthy, and saying he has to treat his own beliefs as personal tastes and thus not beliefs about God and morality at all?

A friend has gathered other aphorisms and pointed comments from the web. Again, they’re mostly political, but that can be hard to avoid at a time when secularism makes all things political:

  • What gives us freedom of spirit without self-control is disastrous. (Goethe)
  • Liberalism bases human dignity not on having a human essence, but on having an active will.
  • When liberty is worshipped as an end in itself, it results in the vulgarizing inclination merely to do what one likes.
  • The leftist is fashion-sensitive precisely because fashion provides the stimulating novelty that alone dulls the pain and boredom of life in a Godless, meaningless universe.
  • In the absence of virtue the soul gorges on imitations of virtue such as liberalism.
  • Liberal society—forever trying to turn anomalies into the norm.
  • License is no friend to the poor.
  • The real dichotomy is not between democracy and other types of government, but between an authority based on the will, and an authority based on something transcending the will.
  • The Great Lie is none other than the promise made by the serpent in Genesis 3:22—the promise that by joining the cosmic revolution against God and His order man could become a god unto himself, defining reality itself by will alone.
  • As a lie accrues power, it seeks to obliterate any vestige of the truth that could expose it.
  • It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. (Upton Sinclair)
  • Modern Man is ashamed of innocence and prides himself on understanding evil, while the Christian is ashamed of his knowledge of evil and seeks understanding of Good.
  • The faithful believer experiences a deep and abiding inner assurance that cannot be transferred to another person and is thus quite baffling to those without it.
  • A coincidence is an event in which God chooses to remain anonymous.

James Kalb

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James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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