For years now, many conservative writers, myself included, have increasingly urged engagement in the culture war against the radical left. The truth is that we have already lost that war. Having decisively lost the major ministries of culture – the media, academia, and the entertainment world – the right is now in a position of having to regroup, restrategize, and wage guerrilla warfare in order to dismantle the left’s hegemony and retake the culture. How did we get here? To understand the philosophical underpinnings of the left’s victory, you cannot do better than Michael Walsh’s most recent book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West.
Walsh is an American Book Award-winning novelist, journalist, music critic, and screenwriter. He also writes political commentary for, among others, National Review and the New York Post under both his own name and occasionally his alter ego David Kahane (Rules for Radical Conservatives: Beating the Left at its Own Game to Take Back America). Full disclosure: Walsh is a friend of mine.
In The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Walsh brings his substantial erudition to bear on his best nonfiction work so far, a tour de force about how the “new nihilists” of the so-called Frankfurt School and their philosophy of “Critical Theory – like Pandora’s Box – released a horde of demons into the American psyche.” Disguised as a utopian dream, it– like Satan, a key figure in the book – instead sowed “destruction, division, hatred, and calumny.”
This is not a casual beach read. It’s not even your typical political polemic from the likes of Coulter, Malkin, or Levin, valuable as those are. Though this slim volume runs only just over 200 pages, Walsh’s wide-ranging intellect ropes together grand themes of good and evil, creation and destruction, capitalism and socialism. The book is about, in his words,
God, Satan, and the satanic in men; about myths and legends and the truths within them; about culture versus p0litics, about the difference between story and plot. It is about Milton versus Marx, the United States versus Germany, about redemptive truth versus Mephistophelian bands of illusion and the Devil’s jokes. It concerns itself with the interrelation of culture, religion, sex, and politics – in other words, something herein to offend nearly everybody.
As a former music critic, Walsh has chosen to explore these themes through the lens of art and culture. He delves deep into the world of opera, for example, with side excursions into, inter alia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust, Wagner’s Ring cycle, Beowulf, Biblical myth, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and Rousseau – “one of those liberals who love humanity but couldn’t stand people” – not to mention day trips to pop culture touchstones like The Godfather, Chinatown, Independence Day, and Last of the Mohicans.
“The Devil’s Pleasure Palace” of the title comes from the name of the teenage Franz Schubert’s first opera. Like that palace, the left’s utopian vision is a satanic illusion that has dragged us into Hell. “What the West has experienced since the end of the Second World War,” Walsh writes, “has been the erection of a modern Devil’s Pleasure Palace, a Potemkin village built on promises of ‘social justice’ and equality for all.” But then, “lying is at the centerpiece of both the satanic and the leftist projects.”
And like Satan, “destruction fascinates [the left]; they find satisfaction and even consummation in the tearing-down, not the building-up. Creation is a bore; annihilation is a joy.” They are obsessed with death, a “constant feature both of their philosophy and their political prescriptions, which include not only abortion but, increasingly, euthanasia. Wearing their customary mask of solicitous compassion, they can’t wait for you to die to steal your stuff.”
The work of the Marxist Frankfurt scholars – Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse (whose notion of “repressive tolerance” drives political correctness), and Wilhelm Reich – “was grounded in an ideology that demanded… an unremitting assault on Western values and institutions, including Christianity, the family, conventional sexual morality, nationalistic patriotism, and adherence in general to any institution or set of beliefs that blocked the path of revolution. Literally nothing was sacred.” As they saw it, “[t]he system had to go because it was blocking the Marxist arc of history, that rainbow that would end somewhere, somehow, in a pot of gold in a humble proletarian field.”
The Critical Theory they produced is “the very essence of Satanism: rebellion for the sake of rebellion against an established order that has obtained for eons, and with no greater promise for the future than destruction.” The “serpents” of the Frankfurt school, having learned their lesson from Milton’s Satan, subverted Heaven rather than foolishly attempt a frontal assault. They launched their attack with perfect timing – not when American was weak, but when it was strong, in the post-WWII era, because “when times are flush, people are more inclined to a little social experimentation, especially if it contains a basket of forbidden fruit.” Like an airborne virus, Walsh, says, the “poison of Critical Theory undermine[d] at every step the kind of muscular self-confidence that distinguished Western warriors and leaders through the end of World War II.”
If I have relied too heavily in this review on Michael Walsh’s own words, it is because they cannot be improved upon. The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is a challenging but unique and rewarding work powered by sustained flashes of brilliance. More importantly, it is a rallying cry for conservatives to re-engage in the critical cultural battle which Walsh correctly calls the defining issue of our time. Its outcome will determine whether we who see ourselves as the conservators of the Western legacy – “the primary engine of human moral, spiritual, social, scientific, and medical progress” – will “succumb to a relentless assault on its values” or whether we will rally and crush the left’s “double agents, operating behind the lines of Western civilization.”
The good news is that “the only weapon they have is our own weakness… it is their cowardice that will be their undoing.” Fear is what they sell, and so what conservatives must sell is heroism: “Were we once more to unleash our shared, innate notions of heroism upon the Unholy and Unheroic Left, we would crush them.” After all, “only one side fights to preserve instead of destroy, to honor instead of mock, to improve instead of tear down – to maintain the fence between civilization and barbarism.”
Mark Tapson is the editor of TruthRevolt.org and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.