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Friday, December 21, 2018

Remembering Who We Are…Hope in the Midst of the Ruins of Our Culture

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morning prayer for Cathey

The late scholar Mel Bradford once used the wording “remembering who we are” as a title to a book of finely-honed essays about his beloved Southland. It seems to me, as Bradford so artfully and gracefully suggested in his writings, that it is memory, both individual and collective, which is essential not just to the passed-on heritage of any culture, but to the very existence of that culture. We remember the deeds, the sayings, the handed-down lore, the usages, and the faith of our fathers and grandfathers (and mothers and grandmothers). Their lessons, their admonitions, their successes (and failures), their examples, even their everyday customs inform us and our actions, and, indeed, help shape our lives and view of life. Historically, these are in many respects the very same accoutrements that give definition and offer the earliest structure to our existence, that define us, and that also provide an inheritance which we, in turn, impart to our offspring and descendants.


It is thus memory that is integral to the continuation of a culture and a people. We inherit the wealth and the richness of the remembered past, and we are impelled to both add to it in our own way and also pass it on. To quote the 12th century theologian, John of Salisbury (a quote often favored by my mentor, the late Russell Kirk):  "We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."

A society—a culture—that discards memory, that cuts itself off from its inheritance, whether purposefully or accidentally, deprives itself of the accumulated wealth of that heritage. Of course, there are always those who revile the past and its legacy, or at the very least, seek to modify or transform it. And, no doubt, change and reform, in some degree, are always necessary to any well-functioning society.

There is a fascinating quote from Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s famous novel detailing the turmoil of mid-19th century Italy, The Leopard (Il Gattopardo): “Things will have to change in order that they remain the same.” There is a wonderful film based on that novel starring, quite improbably, Burt Lancaster which director Luchino Visconti directed (1963), in which the tensions between the immemorial past and the circumstances created by change are vividly explored.

No society—no culture—can completely denude itself of its inheritance and its history and actually survive. Such experiments in total revolutionary transformation have inevitably ended in bloodshed and incredible destructiveness—in the massacres of the French Revolution, and more recently, in the Gulag and the concentration camp, or in blood-soaked Maoism.

mazi persecution of catholicsOver the past half century and more we have witnessed a different kind of revolution; it does not employ as weapons of choice the tank and bayonet, nor the Gulag as the final destination for unrepentant opponents—at least not yet. It has been an unfolding, all-encompassing cultural movement spanning decades, subverting and then incorporating in its service diverse radical revolutionary elements injected into our educational system, into our entertainment industry, into our politics, even into the very language we use to communicate with each other. The “violence” it metes out is mostly of the cerebral nature, not of the physical kind, but rather predicated on shame, humiliation, fear of the loss of a job or reputation, and the playing on the natural human desire for conformity, while steadily upping the ante in our laws—constantly moving the goalposts of what is acceptable. It is the kind of intellectual “violence,” now writ large, that once impelled people to look the other way when their neighbors were hauled off to Siberia under Stalin, or to Dachau under Hitler.

And it has been highly effective, utilizing as its major weaponry the terrifying twins, the ineradicable accusations of “racism” and “sexism,” and a whole panoply of sub-terms that accompany such charges: “white supremacy,” “historic white oppression,” “colonialist imperialism,” “misogyny,” “toxic masculinity,” and increasingly expanded to incorporate terms like “anti-migrant” or “anti-transgender” bigotry.

The overarching desire of this Progressivist Revolution is, in fact, not reform—not what Lampedusa’s character the Prince of Salina says consolingly about some things changing so that other things can remain the same. No, it is incredibly “post-Marxian,” making the older Communist and Marxist revolutionary dreams seem tame in comparison. It invokes and demands a total reversal, a complete transformation in which nearly all, if not all, of those institutions, those traditions, and that inheritance vouchsafed to us from our ancestors is rudely discarded, rejected, and vilely condemned as racist, sexist, fascist—in other words, our remembered past is cut off from us.

And we are then naked before history, isolated individuals, without a heritage, without a past, without family, and without memory: neutralized and bland “tabula rasa” vessels to be filled with the “new” Progressivist ideology that will convert us all into the model obedient automatons only hinted at in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four or by Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov’s deeply disturbing 1994 film of Stalin’s Russia, Burnt By the Sun.

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Such attempts have always run aground when eventually confronted by human nature itself, those God-given natural characteristics ingrained in the human being and psyche that desperately seek belonging, family, a usable history, and memory. In the past all putative totalitarian systems have been impelled to offer substitutes in an attempt to satisfy those natural longings.  Verifiably, none of those ersatz replacements has worked, whether the Goddess of Reason enthroned in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, or the deification of the Worker and Party (or of Chairman Mao) under Communism, or modern appeals to a debauched and poisonous corruption of Christianity.

Yet such efforts continue, and in our day with increased feverish and fanatical determination. Just take a look at the Web sites of such zealous groups as the Workers World Party (centered in Durham, NC), Redneck Revolt, Black Lives Matter, or various Antifa-related outfits. The chiliastic vision of some future Utopia bleeds through nearly every line, it is right around the corner, if only—if only—all those white supremacists and racists, all those male misogynists, all that historic, European-originated and colonialist bigotry and oppression, could be swept from the scene, and, of course, if only those monuments to Confederate veterans or to Christopher Columbus, and maybe to Fr. Junipero Serra, too, could be secreted safely away in some remote museum (just a small first step, of course, in the continuing revolution).

Stefan 19661

And our timorous and pusillanimous elites, those cowardly “guardians” of our culture, those globalists and “deep state” denizens, and those political prostitutes, give way in fearful obeisance and run, cowering, to hide in the tall grass.

It is the lunacy—the sickness—of the madman, but unlike the outbreaks of such contagions in the past, its modern roots are far more demonic, and it is far closer to apparent success. It is best described perhaps in the words of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his visionary poem written almost 100 years ago, “The Second Coming,” an intimation of the final emergence of the “Rough Beast,” an incarnation of what can only be described as the “anti-Christ,”

            “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
            Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
            The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
            The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
            The best lack all conviction, while the worst
            Are full of passionate intensity.

            Surely some revelation is at hand;
            Surely the Second Coming is at hand.


            The darkness drops again but now I know
            That twenty centuries of stony sleep
            Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
            And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
            Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

This, then, is the ultimate challenge and the multifaceted Enemy—the Legion—we face, which appears to have victory and domination within its grasp. And it is why we must never lose hope, for Our Creator is still Master of the Universe, and His promises are as valid and true now as ever before.

Our watchword—our abiding confidence—may be summed up in the words of early 20th century Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno in his volume, The Tragic Sense of Life: “Our life is a hope which is continually converting itself into memory and memory in its turn begets hope.”   

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Last modified on Friday, December 21, 2018
Dr. Boyd D. Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey, a native North Carolinia, received an MA in history at the University of Virginia (as a Thomas Jefferson Fellow) and served as assistant to conservative author, Dr. Russell Kirk, in Mecosta, Michigan. Recipient of a Richard M. Weaver Fellowship, he completed his doctoral studies at the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain. Then, after additional studies in philosophy and theology, he taught in both Connecticut and in Argentina, before returning to the United States. He served as State Registrar of the North Carolina State Archives, retiring in 2011. He is the author of various articles and studies published in several different languages about political matters, religion, and culture and the arts.