The temptation with this book is to go full Macaulay and write a ten thousand, fifteen thousand, twenty thousand word review that tells you much more about me and how clever I am than about the book. This temptation I will try to avoid. At least a bit. If you are reading this review I expect you are familiar with its thesis: Legutko has lived in Communist Poland and in Post-Communist Poland and has written this book about the worrying similarities he sees between the two. Everyone must think the same, or else; and the false gods of the Liberal Democratic’ West are not so very different from the idols of the Communist East.
“The atmosphere the systems produce is particularly conducive to engendering a certain type of mentality: that of a moralist, a commissar, and an informer rolled into one. In one sense, this person may think that he performs something particularly valuable to humanity; in another, the situation helps him to develop a sense of power otherwise unavailable to him; and in a third, he often cannot resist the temptation to indulge in a low desire to harm others with impuntiy. For this reason tracking opposition and defending orthodoxy turned out to be so attractive that more and more people fail to resist it.”
Like most of my countrymen, I am used to thinking of political correctness’ as an American disease, so it is salutary and sobering to read a book such as this which is primarily concerned with the impact of the same disorder on the European Union.
The odd thing about reading this book was that as I went on I found myself growing more cheerful and optimistic. It started from the question I have learned to ask myself, whenever I write a long screed complaining about something: What positive alternative is there to this bad thing I am complaining about?’ I think it makes a difference if you can propose a solution, as well as describing a problem, even if (like Dostoevsky) nobody ever remembers your solution and only applauds how elegantly you have stated the problem. So, I thought, what is the alternative to this liberal democracy’ which Legutko does not like, and which I do not particularly like either?
For almost all places, at almost all times, have enforced an irksome conformity. We who lived when Communism collapsed have been lucky enough to have lived through one of those stages of rapid flux from one to another, in which for a brief period of time all the walls seem to vanish like the insubstantial fabric of a dream, and endless vistas of possibility stretch out in all directions. What joy it was in that dawn to be alive...’ But the steady-state condition of human society is not like that.
Legutko never spells out clearly what sort of society he would like to see instead. Is there any time we can point back to and think, that was definitely better than this one? I think if we read any history at all we have to say, no. Was the Poland between the wars a society where hierarchical structures guided people towards high ideals while letting them speak and write freely, harmoniously combining the best features of Christendom and the Enlightenment? I don’t think so. Or is Legutko looking back nostalgically to the glory days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth? I think, though he never says so explicitly, is that something like that is what he would like: an aristocracy, a constitutional monarchy, respect for western culture, and an overarching Church that tolerate minorities magnanimously rather than being a tolerated minority itself. It would be nice to have more detail of this positive vision. He does say: “Christianity is the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology” (And I wish this were true; but atheist statist authoritarianism that puts bread on the table is still going very strong; and Islam is a force looking stronger every day).
Christianity had nigh 1500 years to work on Europe, and very rarely reached the heights of the Most Serene Republic in its best years. I am sure that the average person plucked from a field or street anywhere in Europe between the time of Constantine and the French Revolution had more to fear from speaking their mind if they disagreed with the prevailing orthodoxy than an average person you were to pluck out nowadays. So if Legutko’s preferred vision is a Distributist neo-mediaeval republic on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonealth model, I would expect, from a philosopher and political scientist, more detail about how will get there, and how we will incorporate checks and balances to avoid all the flaws we know Christendom was prone to.
It is not clear how Christianity differs in essence from Communism and Liberal Democracy’, as described by Legutko: “Once a man joins an ideological group all becomes clear to him and everything falls into place; everything is either right or wrong, correct or incorrect.” Except that everything will fall into place in the way Legutko approves of. Furthermore, offering God to Man only as a means to the end of ordering society seems to me to somewhat sacriligious. It is like offering Victoria Falls as a means to make a cup of tea.
Ah, I have worked it out. This is primarily a Euroskeptic polemic, the goal of which is to fire up as many Euroskeptics as possible within a broad tent’ of opposition to the nihilistic vision of European Union. As such, too much of a detailed positive vision would be counter-productive.
Where was I? Ah, why I got more cheerful the more I went along reading this book. Trying to think about where and when, if anywhere and anywhen, humanity was better off reminded me of all the other places besides Central Europe where things were much better than they were thirty years ago. There were a lot of them, and they were places where Liberal Democracy’, broadly understood, was definitely on the side of the Angels. The problems Legutko talks about are problems of Western Europe and its overseas offshoots in the Americas and Australasia. All those places put together have a population less than that of China. While I yield to no man in my loathing for the unelected unrepresentative swill who tyrranise the Renegade Mainland Provinces, things are undoubtedly better than 30 years ago in China by a very great extent, and not only in material terms: people have more access to all the good things about Western culture that Legutko is keen on, there are many more people who, as Christians, are active participants in the Western culture that Legutko is keen on; and the worst excesses of liberal democracy’ seem pretty harmless compared to the things that people have to put up with. In Korea, also, the growth of Christianity and liberal democracy over the past half-century have been positively rather than negatively correlated, as far as I can tell. In India, which again has about as many people as Europe and the Americas put together, people are also not only materially better off, but have much greater exposure to the good bits of Western civilisation, and the switch from Third Way Socialism’ to something more like liberal democracy was a major driver of this. Indonesia has gone from dictatorship to something like liberal democracy; a peaceful and democratic transfer of power is not big news in Nigeria, which also has moved in the direction of liberal democracy with good results; liberal democracy’ is still something people look at as a source of hope in places further to the periphery of Europe, like Turkey and Ukraine. In all these countries of course there are big problems, but political correctness does not rank highly among them. As I read through Legutko’s book, I thought about all these places more and more, and the declining relative importance of Europe and the Americas made me more and more cheerful about the way the world is going.
Legutko valuably points out the pernicious over-emphasis on entertainment’ in the West. We are all doped up on electronic soma 24/7 so we never stop to think about the Ultimate End of Man, or the Nature of Reality, or What Constitutes the Good Life. But I guess, honestly, not too many of us ever thought about those things back when we were tilling our barley fields and occasionally seeing someone who could read in the distance.
It would be gutless of me to review this book without empirically testing its hypothesis. It is obvious from evolutionary biology that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered, as the Catholic Church teaches, and that it is almost certainly a mental rather than a physical disorder.