Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Review: To Fight Against This Age

Rob Riemen. To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism. Translated from the Dutch by the author. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018. 171 pages. $19.95 hardcover.

I was prepared to learn from and take heart from this book, which contains the essay "The Eternal Return of Fascism" and the allegorical symposium "The Return of Europa: Her Tears, Deeds, and Dreams," both first published in 2010. But I came away unimpressed by Rob Riemen’s thinking about fascism and how to oppose it.

In the early 21st century, the enemy, as Riemen sees it, is indeed fascism: he regards "populism" as nothing more than a euphemism for an array of political movements that feed on fear and ignorance, worship power, and long for "the return of an unattainable past." For Riemen, fascism is “mass democracy,” “the bastard child of democracy.” Yet he never explains the differences between democracy and its illegitimate offspring.

To defend against fascism, Riemen invokes values underlying “the European ideal of civilization”: “absolute spiritual values,” “spiritual absolute values,” “universal timeless values,” “absolute values such as truth, justice, compassion, and beauty,” values he sees as now lost in a chaos of subjectivity. Riemen thinks that without some transcendent basis for values, nothing is true, everything permitted. But what does it mean to call, say, justice or beauty an absolute value? And what do we say to those who equate justice with, say, amputations or beheadings? Those who lay claim to absolute values may be the most intolerant among us.

But Riemen gets into a deeper muddle: while he sees culture as the preserver of “all that is timeless and of spiritual value,” he also says that “because truth is absolute we have to be prepared for the changing shapes of truth.” Thus culture requires “being open to the new, searching for new forms that can stand the test of time.” In other words, truth is absolute and timeless, but its shape changes. What then is it that stands “the test of time”? Riemen would do well to consider the possibilities of contingency: we need not believe our values to be absolute and timeless to argue for them as useful and right. Indeed, how could we ever know that our values are timeless?

As for “the European ideal of civilization,” Riemen’s idea of European culture is selective and at times preposterous. Riemen’s Europe, the true Europe, is devoid of colonial and imperial ambitions, and has always had humanism as its “defining characteristic.” This Europe is no place for people devoted to everyday distractions and gadgets, those who “know nothing of the life of the mind or spiritual values.” Here Riemen sounds a bit like Ignatius J. Reilly.

And Europe, on Riemen’s terms, is unique among the cultures of the world, “‘because it tries to understand the deeper significance of being human.’” This observation is imparted in what Riemen calls “the true story of Europe,” told by a character in “The Return of Europa,” an old man named Radim (ostensibly a fictional character, though he seems to be Radim Palouš, a Czech dissident and philosopher). Someone had better tell the Gilgamesh poet and the Buddha that Europe beat them to it.

An alternative to this book that might lead to a better fight: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017). Where Riemen dispenses platitudes (we must “live in truth,” “create beauty,” “do what is right”), Snyder offers pragmatic advice grounded in recent history: “do not obey in advance”; “defend institutions.” That kind of advice may prove more useful than platitudes.

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Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit : “Demagogues and charlatans”

comments: 1

Frex said...

"Do not obey in advance" blew me away when I heard it and recognized how often I have done that, and how important it is not to.