Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam.
In the closing minutes of the film Moscow on the Hudson, Vladimir Ivanoff, a Soviet defector, sits in a New York coffee shop trying to make sense of the country he has come to. It is a free country, but the nature of its freedom appears both bewildering and destructive. The America he lives in has freedom, but no purpose. It often appears to be open to all the wrong things and none of the right ones. A place free of religion, of morality and of meaning, that offers mercantilism and hedonism, that allows individuals to lose themselves in a system that echoes with a freedom that is so vast as to be inhuman.
People from around the world are drawn to America by the idea of freedom. It is not difficult to envision what freedom is when you live under a dictatorship. Freedom becomes the opposite of tyranny. But the more complex question is what is freedom without the constant of tyranny? What happens when freedom is cheapened and when the founding principles of a nation are forgotten?
Those are among the subjects that author Alexander Maistrovoy explores in his book, Agony of Hercules or a Farewell to Democracy (Notes of a Stranger). Alexander Maistrovoy is no stranger to tyranny. But he finds himself a stranger in a West which has turned its back on its values and appears to be nihilistically embracing its own destruction at the hands of Islam and the radical left.
The world that Alexander Maistrovoy discovers is descending into totalitarianism, gripped by a senseless madness it abandons its values, forgets its past and embraces a chaotic hedonism that can never be equal to the full measure of its unhappiness. It is a world where human rights means tyranny and the tyranny of Islamic law means freedom, where dictators are heroes and democracy is a shell game.
As Maistrovoy writes, “The words ‘democracy,’ human rights,’ ‘social justice,’ ‘liberal values,’ ‘humanism,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ rain down from all sides… they are repeated like a spell, a magic mantra, a prayer.” But the magic spell means nothing. Those using the words do not understand their meanings. Instead the invocation of lost principles becomes a cargo cult ritual that licenses destructive impulses. There is no mantra or spell that will transform Islamic law or leftist tyranny into liberal democracy. Instead the rituals and word games mask the scale and steepness of the descent.
Alexander Maistrovoy had already seen a society where religion was replaced by a utopian political creed that promised heaven on earth, but offered only lies, manipulation and tyranny. It is possible to create a democracy of cannibals, but such a society would merely democratize abuses. Likewise a society without laws is also a society without justice. Human rights organizations that deny the rights of the individual while focusing only on the group are not human and offer no rights.
But Agony of Hercules is not mere mourning. Instead Alexander Maistrovoy strives to rediscover the founding ideals that make a society possible. He explores the ideas of the past with the aim of revivifying the future. He begins with a journey through “democracy” exploring how philosophers and thinkers linked the political to the moral. Without a moral society, democracy and freedom become forums for vice. The universalization of the franchise also reduces politics to the level of the lowest common denominator. Individual freedom without individual self-improvement is the tyranny of the Id.
A country that cannot distinguish virtues from vices will also be unable to distinguish freedom from tyranny. A society without virtue has no freedom except the pursuit of its instincts and pleasures, it acts out its most destructive impulses and cloaks them in moralistic rhetoric about freedom, and eventually it submits to the tyranny of an aberrant moral order such as Islam that offers it purpose and meaning.
The “magic spells” and “mantras” do not create virtue. The words “freedom” and “equality” do not bring their literal meanings into being simply by invoking them in support of some dubious cause. Often those who use terms such as “human rights” or “social justice” have the exact opposite result in mind.
Ideas only have meaning when we understand their originating principles. And understanding these principles also imposes rational limits on these ideas. These limitations can make it possible to implement ideas virtuously, rather than in the service of destructive impulses. By exploring the history of democracy and parsing the language of human rights, Alexander Maistrovoy makes a compelling case for the virtuous limitation of such terms so that they do not apply to every terrorist or tyrant.
Agony of Hercules or a Farewell to Democracy surveys a world where law and ideas have been perverted until everything exists purely as a political tool. This politicized system may use the familiar terms as mantras, but it is an embryonic totalitarian system. And its incipient totalitarianism is sympathetic to other totalitarian movements whether those of Islam, fascism or the radical left.
The “Stranger” finds a West that has retreated from virtue and meaning so that democracy means the rise of Islamic separatism at the expense of republican secularism. Worse still it is a West where no one any longer seems to understand that an ideology that casually murders non-Muslims and abuses women is not compatible with any of its notions about what a free society ought to look like.
Agony of Hercules or a Farewell to Democracy represents a serious and difficult task of intellectual labor. In the West it has become all too easy to offer one of many surrenders to the prevailing climate of the day while accepting a world where the society and the individual are “doomed to emptiness, fatigue, hopelessness and self-deception”. And sometimes it takes a “Stranger” to see clearly the good and the evil that we have come to take for granted as part of the background scenery of our world.
In his introduction to Agony of Hercules, Alexander Maistrovoy sees a world where “the Eloi are flittering in the last rays of the setting sun, while the shadows of the Morlocks are already looming.” It is a world at the end of time that has forgotten the centuries of intellectual labor that gave birth to it. It is a predatory world where false ideas have teeth, where the Eloi youth welcome Morlock refugees only to run screaming from their clutching hands. It is not a fantastical world. Instead it is our world.
If we are to recover virtue, then we must also recover the ideas that made virtue possible. And Agony of Hercules or a Farewell to Democracy offers a valuable contribution to the task of rediscovering not merely ideas or virtues, but the virtue of ideas and the idea of virtue.