Reclaiming Civil Society: From Voluntary Servitude To ‘Parallel Polis’


In an important article in the October issue of The Atlantic titled “The New Puritans,” Anne Applebaum takes eloquent aim at a growing illiberalism that has colonized large parts of civil society. It is dominated, Applebaum argues, by an arbitrary censoriousness, “ritualized apologies,” and “public sacrifices.” The ugly scenes it gives rise to are not recognizably American and do not belong in a truly free state or society. As Applebaum demonstrates, more and more cultural and civic institutions are succumbing to self-enslavement, paying obeisance to the angry mob and to an ideological mindset that repudiates independent thought and any sense that our civilized inheritance is worth preserving and sustaining. Applebaum insists that authentic liberals have suffered the worst from the ideological mob, and she has a point – but this has much to do with the reality that bona fide conservatives have long been marginalized within, or simply driven out of, higher education and major elite cultural and social institutions. With some exceptions, they largely operate within ghettoes, however vigorous or effective, over which the woke have little control.

Beyond these conservative ghettoes, an ascendant wokeness angrily jettisons free speech and the legitimacy of free intellectual debate and disputation. In these circles, diversity never means viewpoint diversity. To be sure, this not-so-soft totalitarianism coexists with a system of electoral and political contestation – with democracy, as we more commonly call it. But for how long? The center clearly is not holding.

Formally, America remains a “free country” by the standards, let’s say, used by Freedom House to classify such things, but with large and growing pockets of censoriousness and “cancel culture” – the mad Orwellian desire to erase from historical memory any person who resists the tyrannical ideological nostrums of the present. A dictatorial “presentism,” as George F. Will has called it, dominates nearly all judgments about the historical past. It is strictly verboten to put one’s self empathetically in the shoes of historical figures facing choices and circumstances significantly different from our own. Abraham Lincoln, for example, should not have been fighting the grave evil of chattel slavery and doing everything within his power to preserve the Union. Instead, he should have spent all his time denouncing white racism and white supremacy in some anachronistic display of woke purity.

Such is the surreal logic that leads woke ideologues to cancel and repudiate men and women who used to be civic heroes. In this mindset, the Founders must go, Lincoln must go, and Winston Churchill must go; for Black Lives Matter, Martin Luther King Jr. must go, too – didn’t he esteem the “promissory note” of liberty, equality, and human dignity so evident in our country’s great Founding documents? Shakespeare and the Western classics deserve no place in university curricula, which no longer give a whit about “the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s still wonderfully relevant formulation. Ideological purity and racial and sexual quotas are what matter, reflecting a strange obsession with skin pigmentation and human genitalia (and the accompanying and paradoxical creation of an infinite number of arbitrarily chosen “genders”). These new criteria of judgment are literally bizarre, far from the worlds of lived experience and common sense. Civic and moral nihilism, accompanied by angry fanaticism, is at the heart of woke ideology and all its works.

What is to be done? The conservative Christian man of letters Rod Dreher is undoubtedly right to invoke the great call of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel for decent men and women to “Live not by lies!” as they confront a new crushing and demeaning reign of mendacity. That was a proper moral and existential response to the totalitarianism of old that corrupted so many souls, and it remains a necessary response to a new soft totalitarianism that is eroding civil society in the United States and increasingly in other parts of the Western world. But we also need to think and act politically in response to the new coercive nihilism and the regnant “culture of repudiation,” as Roger Scruton so suggestively called it.

Here I take my bearings from Václav Benda, the Czech Catholic dissident from the period of his country’s communist captivity who wrote with great luminosity and insight about the need to create a “parallel polis.” Benda was dealing with a full-fledged totalitarian state where oppression came from on high and seemingly obliterated any possibility of a true civil society. As Benda wrote in the second of two famous essays on the parallel polis, existential resistance to the suffocating ideological lie must (and had already) given rise to new civic initiatives, however harried and repressed, that went beyond the natural or existential “resistance of life to totalitarianism.” There must be a “deliberate expansion of the space in which the parallel polis can exist.” “The killing winds of totalitarianism,” as Benda called them, will strike at these initiatives with all their force – but new institutions and initiatives will emerge in response, and the forces of totalitarianism will gradually become demoralized as “new territory” is conquered by the forces of liberty and human dignity. So was Benda’s hope, one that turned out to be vindicated in the annus mirabilis that was 1989.

The analogy to our current situation is inexact since our despotism comes largely, if not exclusively, from forces within civil society (and with the angry Twitter mobs as their sans-culottes). But the rise of Substack as a source of independent journalism and intellectual resistance by leading voices on the right, center, and independent left provides an imitable model of how to outmaneuver the forces of repression. (An honest, courageous, and independent liberal such as Bari Weiss is helping to show the way.) New universities and classical schools are no doubt needed since accreditation agencies at every level are committed to locking in the culture of repudiation and the new religion of diversity and inclusion (misnamed “equity”) in perpetuity. Groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, under the energetic leadership of Johnny Burtka, now rightly see their role as providing the education in citizenship, statesmanship, classical political economy, and the Western classics that are now more or less crowded out of mainstream institutions of higher learning. Hillsdale College provides a practicable model, as does its Barney Charter School Initiative, which helps create and support independent classical academies. And the admirable efforts of Heterodox Academy, founded by the politically unclassifiable psychologist Jonathan Haidt in 2015 to defend the place of viewpoint diversity and “constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning,” are more important than ever.

The advocates and practitioners of the “parallel polis” that I propose must be adroit since the forces of negation and cancellation will do what they can to thwart, discredit, and abolish these new and necessary initiatives and institutions. If the cancelers succeed in stamping down one such effort, new efforts must immediately begin in its place. Those of us committed to escaping and overcoming the new totalitarianism must also self-consciously define the new institutions as ones that in principle refuse woke, politically correct, or ideological self-definition. We must bear in mind Robert Conquest’s law: Institutions that are not explicitly non-progressive or anti-ideological will become leftist and ideological in due course.

Our goal should be to build a vibrant civil society open to true debate and disputation. This parallel polis will show a path forward for all Americans – left, right, and center – who want to live and breathe freely. The path of anti-woke resistance is open to all patriots and independent thinkers who refuse voluntary subjugation.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

Daniel J. Mahoney is a senior fellow of the RealClearFoundation, senior writer at Law & Liberty, and professor emeritus at Assumption University.

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