In “Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”
The key word in Chesterton’s aphorism is “right.”
Rebellion brought America into existence, a revolution predicated on specific issues: liberty and taxation without representation. The men and women of 1776 focused on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” founded a republic, wrote a Constitution that remains one of the world’s most profound documents, and left untouched such institutions as the church, the family, and free enterprise.
The French Model
Less than 20 years later, France also raised the banner of revolution, a violent upheaval that differed radically from that of the United States. The new government outlawed the Catholic Church and replaced the Triune God with the goddess Reason. Citizens deemed traitors to the revolution were carted through the streets of Paris to the guillotine and beheaded. The state issued decrees controlling speech and behavior, crushed its opposition in regions like the Vendée, and wreaked havoc on an already failing financial system. Napoleon eventually brought order from this chaos by assuming the mantle of emperor and dictator.
The French Revolution, and not the American, has served as the prototype of revolt ever since.
And it is the French model that we have seen at work in America for the last 50 years.
Just as French intellectuals—Rousseau, Voltaire, and others—laid the foundation for the French Revolution, American teachers and professors have produced two generations of students who were rarely taught love of country in the classroom and who were instead fed narratives of leftist ideology portraying the United States as a racist, sexist, and capitalistic hellhole, a blood-drenched land of oppression and failure.
At Guilford College in the early 1970s, I took a course in the history of post-World War II India. The professor, a visitor from some university in California, neglected to address that history but instead spent nearly every class attacking Richard Nixon, the American family, and the middle class. After a paper I submitted to him came back marked B-, I decided to conduct an experiment. Having received his permission to rewrite the paper, I changed my conclusion to fit what I judged to be his worldview and received an A. Any temptation to join the left died that day.
In the article “I’m a Former Teacher. Here’s How Your Children Are Indoctrinated by Leftist Ideas,” Douglas Blair recounts several examples of such indoctrination from his four years of teaching in elementary school. When he had his class making paper tepees for a Thanksgiving project, other teachers told him this was “cultural appropriation,” and Blair was ordered to desist. When he asked students to research famous men and women of Britain, he looked at one girl’s list and asked, “Well, what about Winston Churchill?”
“Oh, no, not him,” she replied. “He was a racist and didn’t think women should have rights. He wasn’t a good guy.”
By Their Fruits, You Shall Know Them
Today, we are reaping the terrible harvest planted by these sowers. Mobs in the streets tear down statues, loot stores, burn and pillage, and beat and sometimes murder their fellow citizens, all in the name of equality and social justice. Even worse, in some of our cities, government officials abet these vandals, allowing them free rein in their destruction and praising them for calling our attention to their grievances.
And the focus of these riots and protests? Chesterton’s Everything. The middle class, the family, the history of our country, God—all are under assault. Even Mother Nature is not exempt from this revolt, as we see when men and women claim it is their “right” to change their sex.
This scattergun approach to rebellion might be summed up in a line from the movie “The Wild One,” when someone asks biker Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando), “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” and he replies, “What’ve you got?”
Rebelling against everything means standing for nothing.
In other words, nihilism.
Darkness Falls: The Culture
Even more threatening to our culture are the attacks by the electronic mob. Step out of line, post something on social media that offends someone—anyone—and you encounter the wrath of these digital Visigoths. In the last decade or so, professors, celebrities, and even ordinary citizens have fallen victim to the group-think crew, their reputations destroyed, their ability to earn a living forbidden them, their families verbally assaulted and threatened.
But this ravenous mob doesn’t stop with the living. It hunts down writers, artists, politicians, and military heroes from the past, and works around the clock to eradicate them from our memory and our history books.
Let’s look at their latest victim.
How Cancel Culture Works
Until now, most literary critics judged Flannery O’Connor as one of America’s great 20th-century writers. Her short stories appear in any anthology worthy of the name, and professors teach her work in classrooms across the country. My Advance Placement students read her novel “Wise Blood” and her short story “Revelation,” which I regard as one of the finest ever written by an American writer.
Now O’Connor is under attack as a racist. In a recent essay in The New Yorker, Paul Elie, who included a highly favorable portrait of O’Connor in his biographical study of four American writers, declares her a racist, not for her books and stories but for some things she said and wrote privately. The mob has already come a-running; some readers have denounced her, and Baltimore’s Loyola University has erased her name from a dormitory.
In “Flannery O’Connor and the Ideological War on Literature,” Charlotte Allen defends O’Connor and explains the devastating effects of cancel culture:
“The fact that this debate is taking place at all, however—whether or not Flannery O’Connor was a racist, how racist or not she might have been, whether she redeemed herself from her racism via her writing or grew past her racism morally—is exactly what has gone fearfully wrong. The primary evil of cancel culture isn’t toppled statues or renamed buildings or even destroyed livelihoods. It is that, once cancel culture has come for an artist, it becomes impossible to take that artist’s artistry seriously … Henceforth, it will be impossible to give a public lecture about O’Connor, teach a college class, write a critical essay, or adapt her fiction to stage or screen without appending a dreary prologue rehearsing all the arguments about her attitudes toward black people. And in the midst of such arguments, all nuance, humor, characterization, and subtlety in the works themselves gets flattened or lost. This is what cancel culture does: It reduces literature to ideology.”
Kneeling Before the Small-Minded
In fact, cancel culture reduces all that it touches—art, beauty, family, and love—to ideology. Once we see all of reality through political glasses, once we accept the notion that “the personal is political,” all that we treasure becomes dross. The magic of life vanishes.
As may be seen by its advocates, both the young rebels in the streets and their older allies, cancel culture also reduces adults to infants, toddlers with no sense of nuance or history who smash our past and our culture as a 3-year-old might kick apart a sandcastle.
While they are amusing themselves, let’s ask some questions.
Where among these destroyers are philosophers comparable to Socrates and Plato? Where are the great writers like Cervantes, Shakespeare, and so many others; the political geniuses like John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; the painters and sculptors like Michelangelo, Titian, and Rembrandt; the composers with the talent of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven?
We kneel before the small-minded when we might stand on the shoulders of giants.
We can mount those once sturdy shoulders of Western civilization by studying and passing along its gifts to our young people. The climb will be arduous—the lures of popular culture are many and seductive—yet how else can we defend and save Western culture unless we ourselves understand it, absorb it, and love it?
Time to cancel “cancel culture.”
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.