July 20, 2024

If you had described conditions in today’s United States to the average American at the turn of the 21st century, he would have thought you a madman.

Since the 19th century French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s grand tour of their country, Americans have learned to pay attention to smart European observers who see the United States with loving but critical eyes. Polish philosopher Zbigniew Janowski is the latest in a long line of intellectuals who have taken the measure of America—though unlike Tocqueville, Janowski’s observations emerged not from an extended visit, but from living and teaching college in the U.S. for 25 years.

And, crucially, unlike Tocqueville, Janowski has not penned a paean to America, but as a man who lived and suffered under communist totalitarianism, warns the people of the United States that they are in urgent danger of succumbing to a softer form of the same thing. This is not quite fair to Tocqueville, who, despite his admiration for the new liberal democracy in North America, was troubled by the fear that democracy there would become decadent in a way the world had not yet seen. Zbigniew Janowski contends that it now has.

Janowski opens his Homo Americanus: The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy In America (St. Augustine’s Press), with a quote from the Bolshevik Alexander Zinoviev, who defined Homo Sovieticus (Soviet man) as one “generated by the conditions inseparable from the existence of a Communist (or Socialist) society. He is the carrier of that society’s principles of life.” Janowski makes an unnervingly persuasive case that the American democratic character has degenerated into something servile—and that, in turn, is producing a decadent totalitarianism.

Janowski shares this insight with many who immigrated to America to escape Soviet bloc Communism. They have been warning for some time that what we call “wokeness” is a form of soft totalitarianism—this, based on comparing their daily observations to their traumatic memories. What sets Janowski apart, of course, is that he is a man of deep learning, who in this book goes deep into the roots of our despotic malaise. In this, Homo Americanus is a worthy companion to The Demon In Democracy, an earlier volume published by another Polish philosopher, Ryszard Legutko.

Like Legutko before him, Janowski asks questions that are at best uncomfortable for liberal democrats, and at worst heretical. We still have the Cold War habit of getting our backs up when anyone dares to question what institutional elites are lately calling ‘Our Democracy’ (by which they mean unquestioned rule by liberal elites). But nobody today believes that the models of post-Soviet Russia, or even the totalitarian-capitalist colossus that is the People’s Republic of China, pose threats to liberal democracy, in the sense of offering systems more appealing to Western peoples. The enemy this time is … us.

“Democracy in 21st century is no longer a system that requires responsibility, intellectual alertness, and moral discipline from its participants,” Janowski writes. “It is a realm which promises to fulfill everyone’s infantile and unrealistic whims.”

No doubt owing to what he saw in the classroom, as young adults from the richest and freest society that ever existed manifested as petulant, spoiled brats, Janowski has grave doubts about America’s future. I first heard these kinds of thoughts from a European friend who had spent a year at Harvard, and came away shocked by how emotionally and intellectual fragile the students were—and how America’s most prestigious university catered to their immaturity. My European friend said this would surely have grave consequences, not just for America, but for Europe too.

Janowski had two and a half decades teaching in U.S. college classrooms to inform this statement in Homo Americanus:  “Society ruled by intellectually adolescent adults is bound to lose not only its freedom, but against any civilization that understands that there is a difference between children and adults, and that adults always win.”

He means that people who live in reality, and who operate according to the rules laid down by reality, always prevail. Those who insist on utopian ideological fantasies will sooner or later come to ruin. Janowski is a critic of America, but one who loves his adopted country. He intends Homo Americanus to be a guide to swerving the country from the cliff’s edge at the last minute, if such a thing is still possible. First, though, Americans have to wake up from their childish ideological slumber.

In this, Soviet Man, with all his cynicism, had an advantage over his American counterpart, who remains fat and happy and self-deceived:

By all comparative ideological standards, the new American is as ideologically minded as the former Homo Sovieticus was, if not more. It is not an exaggeration to say that the difference between Homo Americanus and Homo Sovieticus is the former’s near-total lack of awareness of living in an artificial reality. The lack of cynicism on Homo Americanus’ part, was the saving grace of Homo Sovieticus. Cynicism allowed man under communism to distinguish between the dictates of the totalitarian state—which he followed to save his life and that of his family—without losing his mind. Homo Americanus is a real believer. He is a product of an egalitarian ideology. So are his views and emotions, which naturally create a bond, and these form the base of his relationships with other people, often finding expression in social institutions. Yet the new Homo Americanus does not seem to see it, nor is he frustrated by the fact that his emotional and instinctual needs are not fulfilled. He does not feel a dissonance between what he wants and what the egalitarian ideology requires him to want, which is the reason why he is complacent in accepting rules, regulations, and laws that the former Homo Sovieticus rebelled against and despised.

If you had described conditions in the United States today to the American man on the street at the turn of the 21st century, he would have thought you a madman, or some kind of catastrophist freak. Medical schools admitting incompetents on the basis of race? Scientific faculties hiring only those who pass an ideological litmus test? Biological males having their ‘womanhood’ backed by the force of federal civil rights law, and even some states giving themselves the right to seize some minor children from their parents, for the sake of mutilating them chemically and surgically in sex change operations? It will never happen, they would have said, not in America.

Yet it has happened, and nobody has taken to the streets to protest. I struggled to understand why this is—until I read Zbigniew Janowski. It all goes back to a fanatical devotion to equality, which clashes with the American’s belief in freedom.

Much of this book is an exploration, in Janowski’s lively, sharply observant prose, of how contemporary America shares a startling number of characteristics with Communist totalitarianism. Readers of my 2020 book Live Not By Lies will be familiar with this critique, but Janowski amplifies it considerably, and with greater philosophical depth.

And psychological depth. In fact, Homo Americanus testifies to how in contemporary times, the religion of Christianity and the philosophy of the classical Western tradition have collapsed in favor of vulgar mass psychology. As Philip Rieff (whose name is curiously absent from this volume) saw coming six decades ago, the ruling regime is therapeutic-totalitarian.

That is, it violates religious and philosophical standards that have guided us for time out of mind, all for the sake of protecting the feelings of sacred classes. And what are we to protect them from? The terror that they might be unequal—that there might be a such thing as a natural hierarchy, and it might not favor them. Thus, one of the worst insults you can sling at a dissenter to marginalize them is to dismiss their views as -phobic: homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and so forth. It psychologizes dissent by construing it as a mental pathology. Janowski’s chapter on Jordan Peterson, the courageous psychologist who became a global intellectual superstar for standing up to his Canadian persecutors, makes this point powerfully.

The chapter on sexual totalitarianism is Janowski’s most provocative. He decries the politicization of private life by liberals, in part because “they destroy the young people’s emotions and individuality before there is any chance to develop them during the educational process by exposure to something beautiful or sublime.” Yet the best chapter in Homo Americanus is the one on how the control of language serves totalitarian ends by falsifying reality. This is something that every intelligent person who lived under Communism has had to live with. Yet as Janowski avers, in America today, the masses accept without protest seemingly endless ideologically-driven changes in language, which forms the structure of how we think about reality.

Writing about “Newspeak,” the Orwellian term for politically determined reform language, Janowski writes: “In contrast to Communist Newspeak, American Newspeak is not concerned with political power per se—that is, who the holder of power is (which Party)—but with politics as a method of enforcing an ever-wider range of egalitarian rules.” This is an important point. Americans’ idea of totalitarianism comes from Cold War history. We don’t have one-party, top-down rule (Americans think), so how can it be totalitarian?

Orwell showed us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that totalitarians subvert reality by changing the words we use to discuss it. Janowski demonstrates how widespread the practice has become. According to Janowski, Americans are mutilating the language to achieve “the abolition of social hierarchy in order to abolish privilege.”

In fact, several years ago, a historian in Warsaw told me he feared for the post-Communist generations in his country, for precisely this reason. They have no experience of how power manipulates language to subvert thought. The wily cynicism of this man’s generation served as a kind of vaccine. Those raised after the end of Soviet tyranny have no immunity—and, said the man, were becoming infected with bizarre ideological ideas migrating through the Internet from America.

This is why it is vital for Europeans to read Janowski’s book. As an American living in Europe, it astonishes me how easily American thought and American fads pass into the European cultural and intellectual sphere. In 2021, a Budapest district governed by a left-wing deputy mayor erected at her direction a temporary statue memorializing both George Floyd, the black American drug addict who died in police custody. It seemed perfectly natural to this Magyar city official that all right-thinking Budapesters should take up this American issue as their own.

Similarly, as my European friend who studied at Harvard said, Europe is a cultural vassal continent of America, as well as a military protectorate. If America falls apart, Europe will be in serious trouble too. Homo Americanus warns that the steep decline of Christianity in both Europe and the United States removes the most important bulwark against totalitarianism. Janowski says that “both forms of totalitarianism—hard and soft— were born out of an anti-Christian rebellion and must be understood as such. The new, post-Christian political vision does not merely consist in a simple replacement of one worldview by another, but in introducing a totalitarian vision in lieu of a religious view of politics.”

But can religion really save us? It too has become radically compromised by the same egalitarian spirit. “Politics is no longer an art of government that makes citizens good and virtuous, but an art of tailoring suits to satisfy the mass-man’s desires,” Jankowski writes. The same thing could be said of contemporary Christianity, which has become, in the memorable phrase of the sociologist Christian Smith, a kind of “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

So powerful is Janowski’s catalogue of American democratic decadence that his chapter offering suggestions for pulling away from the brink can only disappoint. This is, I think, because Jankowski has not criticized the way of life in 21st century America as a betrayal of democracy, but as its inevitable outcome.

It didn’t have to be so. I wish Jankowski had written at greater length about how Christianity as the pre-political grounding of democratic politics might have spared us democracy’s decadent excesses had it remained strong. But then, as Rieff was among the first to grasp fully, the therapeutic revolution that transformed democracy also transformed religion. Homo Americanus is a bitter work, true, but it is strong medicine from a muscular writer. I found it hard to put down.

In any case, the reader of this excellent, punchy book will at least grasp the hard but life-saving truth its author tells early in its pages: that if America doesn’t grow up, put aside its infantile unrealism, its people doom themselves to live as perpetual children, under the firm hand not of Big Brother, but of Big Daddy. If Janowski is right, and the American Man, like Soviet Man before him, is “the carrier of [his] society’s principles of life,” then the only way forward for him is to repent, refusing the culture of death, and choosing real life, not its ideological simulacrum.

Is This Infowars’ Last Broadcast? Patriots Rally Behind Alex Jones and Crew

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *