Dueling Nihilisms

Nihilism took center stage in a debate between Aleksandr Dugin and Bernard-Henri Levy. “For me, the embodiment of nihilism today is you (Dugin), and your friends, and the Eurasian current and this morbid atmosphere which fills your books and the way in which you dissolve the very idea of human rights, of personal freedoms, of singularities in some big blocks of community, big faith, sacred origins and so on… In Moscow there is a morbid atmosphere of nihilism, (…) for this great Russian civilization today there is a bad, dark wind of nihilism in its proper sense, which is the Nazi and Fascist sense which is blowing on this great Russia.”

The answer to this came not from Dugin to Levy, who is a tremendous thinker and probably committed to the ideas of liberty he champions, but instead during a debate between Dugin and Frances Fukuyama – Fukuyama of course being a stalwart defender of American nihilism.

After listening to Dugin’s exposition of the importance of culture, Fukuyama in is normal facile way – hiding a simplicity of mind, but not well – responded, “It seems the thing you’re opposed to is gay marriage” and followed up with “don’t worry, Russia will get there too.”

Get where? And to channel Dugin (God forbid) – “Well, yes.” Fukuyama’s liberalism is the pseudo-intellectual defense of nihilistic ‘progress’ for its own sake and against any arguments to the contrary. It’s the defense of the Godlessness we see in the west that so many Americans also protest; the destruction of the family; the cheapening of that sacred holy bond between a man and a woman that is a reflection of the natural order into which we as humans were placed by our creator. The ‘Hunger Games’ world of the capital where bent people exist at the expense of thirteen enslaved districts – districts where they don’t have time for aesthetic operations and bizarre benders because they have to work and save and collect and try to build a place for themselves against starvation. And who doesn’t love Katniss?

And what about Russia? Russia, today, is suffering from a profound nihilism. “The problem that must be faced is that Russia’s ambitions for the geopolitical carcass of the former USSR without socialist ideas have turned the malign imperialist aspects of the Soviet Union into the most toxic variant of nationalist imperialism.” That carcass has been breathed to life by resuscitating ancient mythologies lost in unknowing by small groups of men weaned on Heidegger. They are mourning the humiliating loss of empire by reaching back into the mists of time; the mystical role of the Orthodox Church, the ancient spirituality, suffering and hardship that for Russians ennobles and purifies. But beneath the pens of Dugin and Mamleev this mythology smells too much of blood and hair. An earthy naturalism has become a rank nationalism.

The problem too is none of these nihilisms are real. Mamleev and Dugin argue for Slavic a-morality where the only thing that matters is the great Eurasian project out of which will emerge mother Russia the matron of nations; but only after rivers of blood. Fukuyama eschews morality altogether, effectively denying natural law in favor of positive law and a society of miserable people who know no hardship, living as they do at the expense of the future and upon the borrowed resources of their children (who they are no longer having). Out of this desperation, they have endeavored to satisfy any deranged desire in their search for fulfillment. Or in other words “Everybody did what was right in their own eyes”. Yes, I believe I read that somewhere (Judges 21:25 – for the progressives, that’s in the Bible).

But which is right? To extinguish myself under the tank treads at the service of Novorossiya or scamper around in a vapid search for meaning beyond the next fad or craze or aberration?

A fool’s choice. But a scary one. What happens when two nihilistic societies try and cancel each other out? That’s how a black hole is formed.

I once did a book review of Patrick Deneen’s book “Why Liberalism Failed”. “Liberalism in its original intent was about freedom, freedom from outward constraint to be sure but also freedom from our own ungovernable human urges. Self-control, restraint, discipline.” Liberalism, as it has been re-interpreted by progressive America (and the West, plenty of cocaine-sniffing liberals in Frankfurt too) is about removal of all restraints. To do what you want, when you want. “You do you” is the mantra.

“Deneen’s main contention is that our liberal project, at least how we have recently come to define it, has been taking us down a very dark, self-destructive path. We have focused the efforts of our civilizational struggles on the need to free us from each other, from any bonds that might be interpreted by anybody as restrictive – oppressive. An entirely external locus of attention – ignoring the important role of ‘liberty’ in self-governance as we cast our nets ever-further afield, searching vigilantly for oppression in all its forms and fables.”

But culture does matter. Our ties to each other and the land upon which we have grown up is important. Our desire to build in community a society where all of our children want to live. Our willingness to give up our most base desires and predilections because we know that they are not conducive to a life more abundant. That actions have consequences; and that ideas do indeed matter.

These two nihilisms are now facing off, and they both have the bomb.

The way it was – last time we faced off against the Russians it was the lovers of liberty against the evil empire. But this time it’s murkier. Because so much of what Russia says it objects to is not wrong – a plastic world where family, propriety, dignity, anatomy, environment, faith – all these are simply tools of oppression to be overcome by means of the totalitarianism of a powerful state and then glossed over by the market – through consumption. No, you can’t have your statue of Robert E. Lee, but here’s a fast-food burger with a plastic toy. And so much of what the ‘liberals’ object to is not wrong either – because Vlad does not represent all of the Russian people; tyranny is violent mostly against the poor; and the tremendous corruption of the Russian regime has led to an unjust war in Ukraine in which Russia is committing war crimes.

But it’s not too late. Deneen offers us the way it could have been. A reminder. That we arrived here from our culture. Not culture that demands I lie down in front of a tank at the service of a corrupted despot in a bunker. But also not “pop-culture”; instead that idea of culture that comes from the word cultivate – to carefully prepare the earth for the seed, to fertilize it, protect the plant as we watch it grow and mature; prune it and keep the predators away and nurture it, for we need it to produce a bountiful harvest of golden fruit not only once, eschewing a tomorrow as we satiate our immediate pangs of hunger but also again and again and yet again. For ourselves and our children and our children’s children.

That is a world that both God-fearing Russians and freedom-loving Americans I think can agree upon.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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