USA Today: The Stunning Incoherence of American Civilization
by Reid Buckley.
P. E. N. Press (North Carolina), 442 pp. +
index, $22.95 cloth, 2002.

How does one review a book that begins with a chapter entitled, “This
Blessed Land,” in which the author declares, “I am
obliged to  make a public declaration that I cannot love
my country,” and which ends with the claim, “We are
vile”? Is this a dark cynical tome of Swiftian barbs and
Menckenian bitters? Or is it an unnecessary, stentorian alarm
that trumpets the dangers and doom of a country without a culture,
a community without a core, a nation whose pilgrims have lost
their way, turning our four-century pilgrimage into the mere
wanderlust of a people who have gone astray?

Mr. Buckley documents with forthright honesty that we are “vile” because
we have lost our virtue; and, he contends, many Americans who
still prize and attempt to follow and attain virtue do so without
remembering the foundation of faith from which all virtue comes:
the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman tradition. He asks frankly, “What
is going on here?”; and he responds that “purse and
power are king,” that “the bared breast leads to
the flaunted pubis,” that, “Shorn of its mythic past,
which can only be transmitted through language, the most technically
advanced civilization is barbarian, as is ours.” However,
his book is not just a negative diatribe against the deviance
of our society; he asks, “What’s to be done?” And
he probes, “What can we do? . . . It is insufficient to
beat one’s breast and cry out, Lord, Lord . . . The greatest
affront against the Holy Spirit and the sin most awful in magnitude
is despair. . . [A]ccording to the understanding that is given
to me, while yet I displace space in this world and am able to,
I am obliged to give witness; as are we all.”

How, precisely, does Mr. Buckley bear witness? His thesis is “that
we in America have become mortally corrupted; which is reflected
not only in our morals and mores, but in the ethos that rules
us.” His convictions, devotion, and rhetoric remind one
of the lines of Matthew Arnold, the great critic of Victorian

once more, then, and be dumb!
the victors, when they come,
the forts of folly fall,
the body by the wall.

Just as Jacques Maritain lambasted Western culture two generations
ago in The Peasant of the Garonne, so also Buckley bears
witness. Maritain spoke against “kneeling before the world.” He
warned, “Let us beware of those brotherly dialogues in
which every one is in raptures while listening to heresies, stuff
and nonsense of the other. They are not brotherly at all. It
has never been recommended to confuse ‘loving’ with ‘seeking
to please.’ . . . We must have a tough mind and a tender
heart.” If one combines Swift, Mencken, Arnold, and Maritain,
one brews, not milk, not malt, but a bracing brew that is “no
downstream beer,” no mere defeatist diatribe against which
Gustave Flaubert contended, “Our ignorance of history makes
us libel our own times. People have always been like this.” Mr.
Buckley candidly confesses, “My temperament works allusively
and anecdotally, eclectically and personally. . . . I am a reader,
not an historian. . . . I am no scholar, as I’m sure is
evident, and this book does not purport to be a scholarly document.”

How, then, does Buckley proceed?

First, aphoristically: he provides terse, laconic, colorful,
summary proverbs: “[W]hen our young can express themselves
only through grunts or their gonads, it’s a high crime
against civilization . . . We like pottage.
We like licking those greasy fingers, the drippings off federal
and state spoons, the greasy soup bowls. . .When one is a gadfly,
one either gets swatted or brushed off . . . Bad taste, though
socially a curse, is an affliction for which no one may be held
morally culpable, because it can’t be helped. . . No-fault
insurance has spilled over into no-fault morality; or maybe it’s
the reverse . . . Let’s not forget, this is the society
that can’t define the present tense of the verb ‘to
be.’” At
Christmas, “we no longer send pictures of the Madonna and
Child; we send pictures of ourselves and our children.” Such
morsels and jewels are generously sprinkled throughout the text.

Second, anecdotally: the first section, entitled “Perceptions
of Honor,” is a nostalgic narrative of South Carolina ladies
and gentlemen of previous generations struggling against dishonesty
and hypocrisy through the code of chivalric Christianity. This
story is filled with dramatic and challenging episodes, personal
correspondences and honorable, if imperfect, characters. While
acknowledging that, “No way can any one claim Christian
sanction for dueling,” Buckley maintains that, “The
Code Duello affirms that though life is precious, one’s
life is not so precious that it can accommodate dishonor.” Thus,
even with its roots in pagan morals, dueling is “the paramount
duty to defend right order, a shorthand for honor.”

Third, allusively: Mr. Buckley’s book is filled with numerous
classical references from Aquinas, Newman, Cicero, Jefferson,
Aristotle, Franklin, Washington, Augustine, Plato, Blake, et
. These are employed over against many illustrative references
to modern TV, computers, advertising, athletics, carnality, education,
etc. in order to demonstrate what we have forgotten. Mr. Buckley
may be no professional scholar or historian, but he is something
equally (or more) valuable—a well-read, well-bred scholar-gentleman
who will brook no moral or theological or intellectual laggards.

Fourth, argumentatively: Mr. Buckley declares his thesis near
the beginning of the book. However, his presupposition, his assumption,
his basic principle, appears near the end:

“human intelligence
(with its inspired properties) may penetrate the last biological
and astronomical riddles of the universe without rendering
the essential stubborn and unanswerable last question, the that
of the Big Bang that believers ascribe to Him
. . . And if faith in God is necessary to our survival,
as our guts tell us, and as historical experience tends, it
seems to me, to teach us, then belief in a Supreme Being must
be (1) that which distinguishes the human being from the rest
of Creation, (2) in itself evidencing the existence of the
Supreme Being. . . Since we are able to conceive of Him, He
is; . . . Deny Him if you wish, but try to get along without

And he
undertakes his argument from this principle by describing, analyzing
and criticizing our corrupt culture in the following areas: honor;
values; manners and morals; sex; law; religion. Space does not
permit exposition and critique of all these concerns. Regarding
education, he rightly states that bureaucrats and educationists
cannot reform education because they do not know, or have forgotten,
or do not care about, the primary purpose of education. He also
remarks that the current generation of teachers is no source
of renewal, either. Fed the pap and ablum of self-esteem and
moral relativism, ignoring the distinction between wisdom, data
and opinion, reducing the riches of education from the thirst
and search for wisdom—perpetual, permanent and eternal—to
the manual skills of computers, VCRs and birth control, dumbing
down to the techne of “how” from the nous,
the telos and the logos of life, such teachers
become mere policemen in public schools, mere trainers of technicians
and rug merchants in colleges and universities. “If the
bureaucrats don’t truly want to reform education, and if
the teachers can’t because they are themselves the product
of an ignorance that was gestated pedagogically so many generations
ago, who will?” The problemis that, “Most institutions
of higher learning today, whether public or private (and I am
speaking of the good ones, not the football factories), wouldn’t
give Plato ten minutes of their time when it comes to his antique
notion that the purpose of education is to produce good men.” Buckley
is relentless (and right!): “the object of a liberal education
remains to promote virtue.” Without such virtue, we avoid
the purpose of education; and this leads ineluctably to the vise
of our current culture, which is vice and the void.

Genuine education has been debased for five centuries by rationalism,
materialism and relativism, the author claims. And such decline
produces sensual perversions in a society where people “do
not make love, but have sex,” where the magazines for men
(Playboy, Penthouse and Club) and
for women (Redbook, Cosmopolitan and Glamour)
tell and show them how. The women’s magazines have been
transmogrified from ladies’ magazines into sex manuals;
and the men’s magazines are pubic publications of pseudo-sophisticated
sensualism. Mr. Buckley does, indeed, admit that, “Any
one who believes that he is immune to prurience is deceiving
himself. We must nevertheless look our culture in the eye, in
order fairly to assess it for what it is.” We have forgotten
that, “Hunger rules other species; we are famished for
the eternal bread of life.” We have, instead, chosen a
spiritless fast-food diet; yet, “The most sensitive observers
of the human condition know that beyond reward and punishment,
nothing other than religion suffices to rule the human heart.” Nevertheless, “Christianity
preaches an outrage . . . the Universe will never give conclusive
testimony to God the Almighty Father, Creator of heaven and earth
. . . God is the living unknowable; we human beings are the knowing
un-knowing . . . faith by its nature defies reason, though it
is supported by reason and is congenial to reason.” And
thus, Mr. Buckley bears witness.

Yet, for all his catholic faith and courage, it is insufficient
for Mr. Buckley to mention “the Supreme Being,” which
he does frequently. That God is God, the Idea—and
God is not an idea. Every one has a conception of ultimacy, but
God is not a concept. The primum mobile, the summum
, and other ideas of God do indeed indicate that all
of us are created in His image; but the god of the deists will
not do, for the deists imprison God in His own deity, while the
natural world goes on and on and on and the moral world of humanity
inclines this way, declines that way. Buckley speaks of “the
ennobling of mankind by Jesus Christ.” However, if our
culture is vile, we need a redeemer, not a virtuist; a saviour,
not a savant; a Lord, the Lord, and not just a liberal
liberating education, which indeed may produce gentlemen, but
not the catholic (as Newman contended). The desideratum is the dabhar,
the Hebrew word for Word or Action; what is lacking is the logos,
and not only the Heraclitan logos, or the stoic logos,
or the Neoplatonic logos, but the living logos,
the Lord who declared in John 13:13, 17: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and
rightly so, for that is what I am. . . . Now that you know these
things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Formally, the editing of this book is spotty: there are numerous
misspellings; the semi-colon is frequently misused; the footnote
form is inconsistent; and, although there is an excellent index,
there is no bibliography. Nonetheless, the overwhelming judgment
is: Reid is a good read! He describes; he proscribes; he prescribes.
We need more such scribes, and not the scribblings of the deconstructionists,
not the chattering of pundits, nor the coddling of the clergy.

John S. Reist Jr. is
a professor of English at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale,