The distinguished Polish professor of classical thought Ryzsard Legutko’s newly translated book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, is a polemical tour de force that accuses Western elites of having willfully and shamefully betrayed their intellectual tradition. His main thesis, that the increasing similarities between communism and liberal democracy are systemic, even inevitable, will undoubtedly stir controversy. No mere academic, Legutko is also a member of the European Parliament who routinely and eloquently challenges his colleagues’ well-worn liberal clichés, much to their dismay.
As he toured America in the 1830s, de Tocqueville was stunned by the fact that normal Americans—not just public officials and lawyers—constantly and vehemently argued about law and politics. The average citizen was “attached to [the law] by a kind of parental affection” because he, however indirectly, helped make it. And discussing politics, de Tocqueville wrote, is “the only pleasure an American knows.”
In an age of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” it isn’t clear we have these virtues any longer. With the death of Antonin Scalia, the nation lost not only a great Supreme Court justice, but also an exemplar of this increasingly rare American type.
Fifty years ago Evelyn Waugh died on Easter Sunday at his home in Somerset. He had just returned from Mass with his family. According to Fr. Philip Caraman, Waugh left the little village chapel at Wiveliscombe looking “benign and at peace, with a kind of tranquility and serenity that as a priest one often meets in people who are dying.” Margaret Waugh wrote not long afterward that she believed her father had prayed for death that morning.
As recently as twenty years ago—maybe even just fifteen years ago—you had to know about the Spanish Civil War. That is, you had to know about it if you wanted to be a political commentator, a public intellectual, a voice in the ideological battles of the American public square.
To be an intern or a cub writer at the Nation or the Weekly Standard, the New Republic or National Review, even the editorial pages at the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, you had to be able to talk about Alger Hiss and the Pumpkin Papers. Sacco and Vanzetti. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.