For those seeking a coherent lens through which to decipher the West’s rapid decline, I can’t recommend The Papist’s Guide to America enough. Penned by Daniel Schwindt, the work serves as an excellent catechism on the intellectual history of liberalism, the perils of democracy, and the proper posture of Catholics resisting their degeneration. At just over 150 pages, it’s also concise and compact, making it an ideal read for those feeling too busy to engage lengthier primary sources. Indeed, with a decent cup of coffee or a worthy Scotch, one could easily traverse the book in a couple sittings on a back porch.
The work is directed towards an American audience, but it is every bit as applicable to Australian, European and Canadian readers. Our governments are walking off the same cliff – just at slightly different speeds – and the magisterium of the Church remains universal. Schwindt’s work is a call to arms for all sons of Rome.
I reached out to Mr. Schwindt for an interview and he generously fielded some questions for readers. Our correspondence follows below:
I grew up in a conservative, middle class Texas household, veered left in college, then found “enlightenment” in libertarianism. As I grew further into adulthood, however, I studied more philosophy, history, and anthropology, embraced Catholicism, and gradually realized how destructive, utopian and incompatible with the Gospels (not to mention basic anthropology) libertarianism becomes. I ended up immersing myself in distributism, Catholic integralism, and traditionalism – rendering me politically homeless – which is incidentally one of the themes of your book. How would you characterize your own political background? What prompted your awakening?
My background is similar. Ours was a conservative Catholic home that was really more of a Conservative catholic home. We never missed mass, but the only priests who mattered were Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. After listening to my father preach magisterial Reaganism for so many years, without modification or elaboration, I was ruined in terms of political participation.
It wasn’t so much the hypocrisy of both parties. It was more personal. I was heartbroken at what the political scene had done to my father. It destroyed his mind, or at the very least, paralyzed it. He was reduced to parroting whatever mindless slogans and juvenile arguments he’d picked up on the radio that day, and I’d have to listen to it. I had always wanted to trust his judgement, as any child does, but it was clear that he had surrendered its use at some point in time prior to my birth. I blamed our political culture for reducing him to this, and learned to see it as a malevolent force that had basically deprived my father of his reason. In the decades since, I’ve seen the same thing happen to others, over and over, and usually their madness increases in proportion to the time and energy they spend on the project. That’s probably why I didn’t rebound to the Left, or adopt another ideology. I just gave it up on the whole thing.
Like you, I wound up alienated from the dominant social concerns of my own people, but my response to this was probably a bit more drastic. I basically embarked on a five year run of almost continuous drinking. I was a bonafide alcoholic, and it wasn’t pretty. If that sounds like an extreme response to something as small as “politics,” please keep in mind that, in our society, politics is the only culture we’ve got. It is the whole of our public dialogue, and everything else that slips in is appropriated by it. If you don’t talk the political talk, then you don’t get to talk at all. It’s like being trapped at a never-ending Superbowl party where you’re the only person that doesn’t like football.
My “awakening” came at about the age of twenty-three when I re-discovered the Catholic Church. I won’t get into the details surrounding that event, but the result was a redirection of my energies. I quit drinking. I began to read. I somehow wound up with a copy of Hilaire Belloc’s The Crisis of Civilization, which was formative for me. I moved on to the encyclicals, mostly those of Leo XIII. I began to take the fight outside of myself and began trying to productively engage the culture that had so disturbed me. Having found a basis of sanity and stability, I was able to deal in a healthier way with the ambient insanity of the American scene. Then I started writing.
One of the crucial components of your book is unpacking the intellectual history of liberalism – which ultimately undergirds the platform of the GOP every bit as much as the DNC or libertarianism. As such, most American conservatives are liberal without knowing it. Can you elaborate on that idea a little for our readers?
In order to get at the problem of liberalism, we have to see political philosophy as something that existed before the year 1776. This, in itself, presents a serious obstacle to anyone who grew up in the intellectual bubble that is American politics. But if we can manage it, we will run head on into the Enlightenment, and we’ll meet thinkers like John Locke. John Locke was huge in terms of the development of modern political philosophy. He wrote about freedom of speech, tolerance, the separation of church and state, self-ownership, and about ‘rights.’ He was formative for the guys who would later write the Constitution of the United States. In fact, Thomas Jefferson proudly displayed a portrait of Locke on his wall.
So what has this to do with liberalism? Well, aside from being acknowledged as the single largest influence on the Founding Fathers, John Locke is also called “the father of liberalism.” He was a liberal. His followers were liberals. Liberal is the proper term for the school of thought he promoted, and to which the American Founders adhered.
This means that the Republicans and Democrats are both Locke’s children. They differ only in terms of which parts of the creed are more comfortable for their sensibilities. They bicker, but they bicker over a shared inheritance. That’s why they are both constantly employing “rights” rhetoric–a telltale sign that you are dealing with Lockeans. Democrats fight for the right to do whatever one wants with one’s own body, without interference from any external pressure, come what may. The Republicans argue for precisely the same sort of freedom when it comes to one’s wealth. If there is a common theme between the two, it is that the individual is superior to the common good, and if his decisions wreak havoc in the social sphere, then sobeit. The Right and the Left merely differ on what sort of social evils they are willing to accept.
The 2016 Election seemed to symbolize the apex of failure for our two-party system. We had two candidates that no one seemed to like. Many refused to vote out of disgust, while most others voted against the candidate they feared or hated more. One of the side effects of this collapsing political credibility seems to be the rise of libertarianism, particularly among millennials. Having traveled that road myself, I can sympathize. I fear, however, that should libertarianism become widespread, it will become every bit as destructive to the common good as socialism. What do you make of the libertarian impulse in America?
I was a big fan of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind when I first discovered it years ago. My thoughts have changed since then, but I still agree with most of what he said about “American nihilism.” Liberalism undermines the legitimate claims of government by rejecting the concept of the common good, preferring instead to talk about “individual liberties.” Regardless of the rhetoric, this means that no social contract is possible. Even the lofty prose of the Constitution will only be effective insofar as long it is superfluous. When the people change, the Constitution either changes with them or is reinterpreted in a way that is more acceptable. In other words, the Constitution is a certificate of approval that the nation awards to itself. It is never effective as a censure.
To put it another way, democratic governments have always survived by flattering the people, not by adopting sound political principles. When things are good, and when there is some solidarity in the population, and even a shared belief system, then such a regime can survive and even give the impression of noble purpose. But when things get ugly, and when the people fall out of unity and begin to lose all respect for the government–in other words, when they cease to be flattered–then the problem starts to shine through, and the government, which was never really legitimate from the standpoint of its own philosophy, is openly declared as such. The result is libertarianism.
One interesting argument you present in the book, relying heavily on Alexis de Tocqueville, is the relationship between liberal democracy and ignorance. How does the former cultivate the latter?
Tocqueville’ Democracy in America basically demonstrated that individualism makes you stupid. He said that we Americans were all individualists and at the same time unconscious followers of Descartes. By this he meant that for each American, the individual ego is the beginning and end of knowledge. We trust ourselves and ourselves alone. There are two problems with this…
First, we need the knowledge of others. To use a simple example, we all learned to tie our shoes from someone else, who learned it from someone else. If we’d chosen to learn instead by means of “rugged individualism,” many of us would have gone through childhood with a ball of knots around our ankles. Some of us would have probably just discarded the shoestrings altogether. The point is, if we’d insisted on “thinking for ourselves,” we’d have been dumber for it. When we insist on approaching life this way on a social level, it ends the same way: ignorance. But most of us didn’t go that route with our shoelaces, nor do we go that route socially. And that leads us to the second problem.
In reality, we actually get most of our knowledge from others. There is very little that we know that we actually thought out or discovered on our own. That’s all healthy and human and normal. What isn’t normal is when we refuse to acknowledge this, usually by adhering to an ideology that tells us the opposite: that we are in fact capable of figuring out everything on our own. And we aren’t just capable–we are actually better off if we do it that way. This is America, after all. We have “freedom of thought” and so we have no reason to degrade ourselves by depending on some external authority for our knowledge. Not in politics, and certainly not in religion. So we are each capable of forming an opinion for ourselves on anything and everything, no matter how complex. All our opinions are, in theory, the result of our own intellectual handiwork. But the reality is very different. Whether we like it or not, we all tie our shoes the same. We insist that we are “thinking for ourselves,” but as Tocqueville explained, we inevitably wind up thinking what everyone else is thinking. We chose to deny our need for a teaching authority, and as a result we unconsciously allowed the general public to become that authority. We surrender our treasured judgment to the herd.
Despite the fact that liberalism, which historically champions freedom of speech and the exchange of ideas, informs the ideology of the Left, we seem to be reaching a bizarre and sinister tipping point. The vanguard of the Left – SJWs and campus activists – now conflate ideas they find distasteful with violence and physical oppression. As such, they work to suppress ideas and speakers that don’t share their worldview. We’ve seen videos of witch hunts and vulgar attacks on professors and administrators who run afoul of students for ludicrous trivialities. We’ve even seen arguments that rationality, debate, and the idea of free speech itself are tools of oppression wielded by white males, rendering them null and void for today’s enlightened Jacobins. Do you see this as an overreaction to Trump that will eventually subside, or as a natural outgrowth of liberalism that will continue to metastasize?
To be honest, the SJW group is one that I’ve struggled to understand and analyze. Due to my background and temperament, I can at least empathize with the typical conservative, liberal, or libertarian. But the phenomenon you are describing escapes me. In a strange way, they are getting at the truth. The idea of free speech, in actual practice, is a tool of oppression, if you mean that it is an illusion and that thanks to that illusion, public opinion is easily controlled by whichever group controls the media machine. But that’s not really what they mean.
I really liked the analogy you employed of a physician treating a sick patient to describe Vatican II. Many traditionalists lament or even reject Vatican II, considering it a surrender or infiltration by modernism. You present a vision of continuity, and argue that the Church had no choice but to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty. Can you flesh out that idea?
The conflict surrounding Vatican II usually boils down to a confusion between principles and their applications. The Catholic Church is the possessor of a certain set of immutable principles. Obviously these principles cannot be modified in any way. It is the job of the Church to maintain them and work to realize them in the world, at least insofar as that is possible. This is done through the development of applications of doctrine. Applications are “relative” by nature. They can and should change, since their purpose is not to be unchanging but to facilitate the realization of a higher principle in a given time or place. They will always be tailored to a certain type of person, or a certain culture, or a certain historical epoch. That they are tailored in this way is due to the fact that they serve as a “medium” between absolute truth, on the one hand, and an earthly existence subject to constant change, on the other.
In times of accelerated chaos, traditional organizations must act decisively in order to develop new applications that fit the altered conditions. This is called a “re-adaptation” and is a role that John Paul II expressly claimed for the Church, explaining that,
“continuity and renewal are a proof of the perennial value of the teaching of the Church…because it is subject to the necessary and opportune adaptations suggested by the changes in historical conditions and by the unceasing flow of the events which are the setting of the life of people and society.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 3)
It is only when organizations lose touch with their principles that they become unable to adapt to new epochs. When this happens, they cling to certain applications as if they were the principles themselves. Thus, they become stagnant and eventually disappear. The fact that the Church was able to pull off something like Vatican II is one of the strongest evidences of its legitimacy. Not an argument against it.
One of the factors in the success of outlets like The Patriarchy and the Maccabee Society seems to be the growing alienation that so many young people in Europe, Australia and the Americas feel within their postmodern neoliberal societies. Humans hunger for the good, the true and the beautiful – which ultimately point to a transcendent reality (the logos) that the postmodern secular order denies them. Other than your book, which presents an ideal primer, what works or encyclicals would you recommend to young sons of the West who are feeling this alienation and want to anchor themselves in a more sacred and eternal ethos?
For anyone who lives in a modern liberal society, the encyclicals of Leo XIII can offer a powerful contrast to the ideology that most of us are fed from the cradle to the grave. Particularly Immortale Dei and Libertas. The benefit here is that they are short, easy, and for Catholics they carry an intrinsic credibility. Ivan Illich is also quite good, claiming to have written “the epitaph of industrial civilization.”
Beyond that, I’d encourage people to explore a few of the more unconventional writers. I’m thinking of Rene Guenon or Julius Evola. Evola’s name has surfaced recently, and not always with the best of associations. Try to ignore this. Those groups read Evola like Hitler read Nietzsche—which is to say, they likely don’t read him at all. At any rate, Evola offers a valuable perspective, especially in his “survival manual,” Ride the Tiger. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West is another one that’ll rearrange your mental furniture. Buy one of the older, two-volume editions. I loathe abridgements.
If there’s one component of your book that some readers may resist, it’s your defense of Pope Francis. As you know, he’s often criticized for his off the cuff remarks, being too ambiguous, Amoris Laetitia, the dubia, championing causes like climate change and the refugee crisis which are generally associated with the Left. How would you counsel a Catholic who feels concerned with Francis’ pontificate?
My defense of Pope Francis should be understood as a defense of the principle of hierarchy. That’s something any traditionalist can understand. Liberalism represents a total rejection of that principle. My blatant ultramontanism is meant to act as a remedy. The point is not so much that Pope Francis is great; it is that egalitarian liberalism is toxic and that we ought to find some way to immunize ourselves against it. If I were speaking to another culture, or at another point in history, perhaps I’d recommend some other approach. But for American Catholics, too much “popery” is almost never the problem. Quite the opposite. Hence my recommendation.
Any future plans or works in progress for another book?
Right now I’m working on the second volume of The Case Against the Modern World: A Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought. There may be a third after that. The theme could really be elaborated endlessly, but it is mostly negative in character. My larger project is a positive presentation of traditional doctrines and their application in the social sphere. But that one is a very long way from completion.
Is there a place (Twitter, YouTube, blog, website) where interested readers can follow you?
I’ve tried the blogging routine, but I don’t have it in me. Same goes for social media. I include my email in all of my books, and that’s probably the best way to get in touch.