VCU Libraries via Wikimedia Commons

A friend of mine is traveling the Mediterranean this week and shared a photo of a statue in front of the ruins of an ancient Roman temple.

Inscribed on the pedestal were the opening lines of Constantine Kavafis’ Ionikon — words that might feel rather relevant to many a Virginian today:

Just because we broke their statues,
because we drove them out of their temples,
the gods did not die for all that.
Oh, land of Ionia, they still love you,
your souls still remember them.
As it dawns on an August morning
your air stays brimming with their lives;
and some ethereal youthful form,
indefinite, with a fast sweep,
passes above your hills.

The opening lines from the Book of Lamentations — “How lonely sets the city once so full of the people!” — aren’t even well read today.

After all, how many of us actually read Sacred Scripture with any real intent anymore? Why did Jeremiah (from where we get the polemic jeremiad from) weep over the city of Jerusalem and its fall to the Babylonians? Lamentations expresses a deep and abiding faith in God even in the face of national ruin as the Kingdom of David succumbed to decadence and finally defeat and enslavement.

Kavafis is probably best known for his poem Waiting for the Barbarianswhere the citizens of the city await the arrival of a horde of barbarians who — despite the preparations of the citizens themselves — never arrive:

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

That surely seems to be the spirit of the times, doesn’t it?

Richmond’s Monument Avenue is now simply Richmond’s Pedestal Avenue — no monuments, no heroes, no memorials nor memories…

Just ruins.

Some Courage for the Days Ahead

Once upon a time, Americans used to believe in this thing called civilization. We educated our children so that they might become civilized, to share in the tradition of our fathers and forefathers, to understand that the arc of history rarely if ever bends towards justice and that civilization is a fragile thing that must be defended against the barbarians.

Allen Guelzo and James Hankins wrote a marvelous essay in the pages of The New Criterion — the heirs to the great conservative tradition that National Review helped inspire — touching on this precise point:

The Roman Empire, for its part, recognized a duty to civilize the barbarians who came under its rule. In the typical Roman view, the barbarians were impoverished, semi-nomadic peoples living in villages rather than towns. They engaged in incessant warfare as a way of life and had little or no commerce. They spoke myriad ethnic languages that inhibited their participating in the Roman order and kept them from accessing the resources of civilization, its arts and sciences and philosophy. They worshipped strange, bloodthirsty gods and sometimes engaged in human sacrifice. Their way of life, in other words, prevented them from being not just Roman, but fully human. The Romans believed that their state had a duty to bring peace, order, commerce, education, and settled agriculture to barbarian lands. These were the preconditions of civilized life, thanks to which the barbarians would be able to achieve what the civilized world had already achieved: economic security, political integration, and personal moral and spiritual development. Barbarians would thus acquire full humanitas, a Latin word that can also be translated as civilization.

It might require coercion to subdue the barbarous, but the belief of the more principled Romans was that subduing the barbarians by force in the short run would enhance their potential for full humanity in the long run. This was the mission civilisatrice of imperial Rome, imitated in later times by the Spanish, English, and French Empires — though all too often that mission turned into something hypocritical, corrupt, and was invoked merely to justify outright conquest and exploitative forms of colonialism.

The barbarians have enjoyed a good 50 year run in the United States.

True — we have stemmed the tide from time to time. Reagan. Bush. Even with governors in Virginia: Allen, Gilmore, McDonnell.

Yet the barbarians have infiltrated every institution, every bureaucracy, every public school and every university. Aesthetes who believe moral right and wrong to be matters of taste and pleasure alone; people who believe that grift is more valuable than gain. That grievance for historical wrongs is more important than excellence in the pursuit of future prosperity.

Yet the mature, the educated and the sober — too polite to resist what seems for a time to be youthful exuberance — allow the barbarians to become more than a minority. The barbarians most certainly argue among one another, they even surrender that which is sacred to the secular, and soon enough they have children of their own with no taste for Hemmingway or Shakespeare:

“The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading them. You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

— Ray Bradbury, as interviewed in the Seattle Times, “Bradbury Still Believes In Heat Of `Fahrenheit 451,” (1993)

What happens? Education, trades, sciences, the arts, philosophy and all that is excellent, good, beautiful and true is debased for experiences, travel, consumerism and temporal pleasures. We no longer feed our souls but rather our appetites.

Which means that the barbarians must be FOUGHT.

Winning Elections Isn’t Enough; Devolving Power From Institutions to Individuals Is the Way Forward

Win or lose in November, Republicans need to dig deeper and figure out what — if anything — we are willing to defend. As a friend and mentor reminds me constantly, it is culture that commands.

Yet the catch is this.

It is not enough to hire new politicians. The institutions that hold this collective power over our daily lives must be devolved back to institutions that matter — localities, communities, and individuals.

No better place to start than public education and school choice, where funding students rather than systems ought to be the focus of ever parent. Same to be said for trade schools and STEM academies, where Republican gubernatorial challenger Glenn Youngkin has pledge to make this a priority on Day One if elected as governor.

But that doesn’t end the fight by a long shot.

  • Critical Race Theory already is enshrined in the Code of Virginia. By state code, school administrators and school boards are forced to address equity in the classroom. The power to keep parents away from their children is jealously reserved by the Virginia Education Association as they pressure local school boards to make them the sole arbitrator in collective bargaining disputes — a position that will greatly enhance their disproportionate ability to target and destroy Republicans at the local level.
  • Gender ideology is being pushed by woke capitalism. Youngkin himself has had to struggle against this as a CEO with Carlyle Group. McAuliffe is more than happy to weaponize this as other progressives have done in places such as Georgia, Florida and Texas — refusing to host events such as the MLB All Star Game and even pressuring companies to relocate.
  • Local and state media resources and information hubs need to be reinforced. The flattening of the news media hasn’t precisely increased our ability to be well informed. The old Virginia blogosphere is dead; the new digital media landscape is still being forged.
  • Virginians need to fully fund and trust our local and state law enforcement. Few things anger me more than people treating local and state law enforcement with contempt. Even liberals along Richmond’s Monument Avenue got religion real quick when violent BLM/Antifa mobs decided to visit last summer — and quickly. Their job is to enforce our laws — every LEO and first responder in Virginia is owed our respect and gratitude. Sure — there are bad apples in law enforcement just as there are bad priests, politicians and prosecutors. Nothing that can’t be fixed by good LEOs, priests, politicians and prosecutors who love nothing more than prying them out from their own midst — a concept we used to call honor.
  • Small businesses and more of them. Pete Snyder’s marquee issue is not to be ignored. Small business loans in the form of supporting our microfinance institutions are critical. Linking those microfinance loans to our STEM-H academies means that a young teenager graduating from high school can learn a trade, buy their own tools, and immediately get a loan and become a mechanic, start their own carpentry business, open a dry cleaning business or become a small scale printer for a local community. WalMart and Amazon might not be going away anytime soon, but let’s not succumb to the corporate at the expense of the local.
  • WORK FROM HOME. COVID should have taught us that cubicle culture is dead, dead, dead. Working from home for state government and state agencies with a radical push to online — Department of Motor Vehicles and the Virginia Employment Commission — could use that investment immediately. Other state agencies should do likewise — one or two days in the office is enough, plus it would alleviate some of those transportation problems we like to talk about so much…

I’m beating around the bush a bit, but you can see the general thrust of the idea. Localism, devolution of public services, putting parents back in control of their education dollars and allowing them to take their resources where needed with a state-formula for how much a child’s education should cost to meet the spirit of the Virginia Constitution — and $12,000 per student average is just about what a private or parochial school charges — is precisely what the doctor ordered.

Yet what it does in more concrete form is that it makes parents and citizens engaged in their own prosperity — and their own governance — in a serious and real way. Washington and Richmond are abstractions; words we use to describe a function. Liberals have used these abstractions to great effect, the so-called “gods of the city” to which every citizen must propitiate and pray.

If they can do it? We can do it.

One more item regarding the barbarians. Not just because they are barbarians. The French philosophe Voltaire was a master of the quip, those witty one-liners abused so often as a means of silencing debate. Having mastered the technique, Voltaire more often than not found himself the victim of the technique — employed to the point that it eventually destroyed discourse in France to the point where the Jacobins of the French Revolution arose from the ashes of the Bastille. So the quip Voltaire used to fight back is a little more than ironic:

“Un bon mot ne prouve rien.”

Which is what the barbarians so often use.

Jonah Goldberg once observed that the political left substituted sneering for intellectual confidence. Yet there is a response to this that low-information voters — for all their sneering — cannot avoid:

“Aristophanes once wrote, roughly translated; “Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, and drunkenness sobered. But stupid lasts forever.”

Bonus?

Aristophanes never said this. Aristophanes actually said this:

CHORUS: I envy you your happiness, old man. What a contrast to his former frugal habits and his very hard life! Taught now in quite another school, he will know nothing but the pleasures of ease. Perhaps he will jibe at it, for indeed it is difficult to renounce what has become one’s second nature. However, many have done it, and adopting the ideas of others, have changed their use and wont.

— Aristophanes, Wasps 1450-60

Roughly translated, Aristophanes argues that the solution to the problem of barbarism is to just get drunk and stupid.

Wasps — of course — is a comedy in the Greek style. The Athenians would have recognized the irony and humor in this. On the other hand, we might be a bit more inclined to lift a pint to Volstead rather than crack the spine of a book.

Of course, I can’t repeat the 41 Roman Emperors in chronological order. But I can tell you a little bit about the decadence and spirit of Rome, Byzantium, Christendom and the history of the English-speaking peoples. But that’s because I took an interest in my own education.

That’s an individual responsibility we can’t slough off to institutions. Yet until we teach ourselves and inculcate this in our children, perhaps we can stave off Tolkien’s long defeat of history for a few more generations.

I doubt we are close.

Thus ends my own jeremiad for the times. 11 days until Election Day.