The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West
New York: Encounter Books, 2015
I had high hopes for Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: a mini-history of the Frankfurt School and its pernicious effects on Western Civilization. This is a story that definitely needs to be told, even if the horse we’re beating has been dying for a while now. Kevin MacDonald dedicates an entire chapter to the Frankfurt School in The Culture of Critique. MacDonald identifies the Frankfurt School as a group of mostly Jewish intellectuals who used what’s known as “Critical Theory” to undermine Western Civilization. These intellectuals included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, George Lukács, Herbert Marcuse, and others, who in many cases owed as much to Freud as to Marx. According to MacDonald, Critical Theory was an evolutionary — and very racial — strategy to rid the world of anti-Semitism. The Frankfurters did this by producing “theory” which condemned all things that bind gentiles together culturally, namely race, country, religion, and family. When whites are single, agnostic, cosmopolitan, and non-racial, they found, they would be less likely to hate Jews. Whether such developments would harm gentiles in the long run was not their concern.
In any case, the Frankfurt School has had a devastating effect on the world, especially on that of white gentiles. So any book criticizing the criticizers should be a welcome addition to the growing canon of Alt-Right literature. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, noticing William Kristol’s and Victor Davis Hanson’s endorsements on the back of the dust jacket sleeve was the first bad sign. Immediately, I thought, “It’s not going to use the J word.”
And I was right.
Imagine someone writing a history of the NBA and only mentioning in passing once or twice that the vast majority of the best players are black. That, in a nutshell, explains the approach of The Devil’s Pleasure Palace.
The book, of course, is not without worth. It is astonishingly, it somewhat gratuitously, erudite. It is also very Christian. When Mr. Walsh talks about the Devil’s pleasure palace, he means it quite literally. He refers to God and Jesus like a sermonizing pastor and always describes the left as unholy with a capital U. Remember the serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting Eve with knowledge? Well, that’s the Frankfurt School tempting America’s youth with promises of a glorious cultural revolution and a politically correct socialist utopia. Throughout the book we have extensive references to the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust, Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and the mythological pontifications of Joseph Campbell. The Good-versus-Evil, Hero-versus-Villain story paradigm is something the Frankfurt School, with its academic and scientific trappings, sought to eradicate and replace with moral relativism. Mr. Walsh does a good job of pointing out the dire ramifications of such elevated sophistry, namely, the cheapening of Western culture, our increased cynicism and nihilism, the broadening of the Leviathan state, our lack of will to fight and defend ourselves, and our willingness to embrace hostile Islamic immigration, to name a few.
Mr. Walsh also has a lot to say about classical music, Wagner, especially, given the mythological sources of many of his operas. He points to Wagner and his famous “Tristan Chord” as the beginning of the end of the Romantic Period in music, which led inexorably to the atonal implosion of modernism spearheaded by Schoenberg in the twentieth century. He sees the abandonment of the tonal center in music to be perfectly analogous to the Frankfurt School’s abandonment of (or hostility towards) traditional Western values.
Mr. Walsh also loves movies, apparently, and peppers his prose with so many off-the-cuff movie references, from Zinneman’s High Noon to Antonioni’s Blow-up to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan that one could engage in a drinking game every time a movie is mentioned.
For a young, bright, libertarian-minded college student, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace would make a nice primer on why he should shift his viewpoints rightward. The book is a veritable treasure trove of Western culture, and, armed with Google, a young person can learn quite a bit in a short period. Older people too, since I had never heard of Eric Hoffer before reading Mr. Walsh. Now, I know Hoffer as a mid-twentieth century conservative philosopher and longshoreman whom I need to read. Thank you, Mr. Walsh.
As nice as it is that Mr. Walsh decides he wants to skewer the Frankfurt School, he comes from the Hayek-Buckley axis of conservatism where race differentiates people little more than haircuts and clothing. He mentions the overall Jewishness of the Frankfurters a couple of times in passing, as if it were all a coincidence, and then, on page 84, dedicates all of two-thirds of a paragraph to the subject. Here it is:
Ascribing innate “racial” or cultural traits is a dangerous business in the aftermath of the Holocaust; still, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the members of the Frankfurt School were Jewish, as were many of the early Bolsheviks, including Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Zinoviev; like all Bolsheviks, they were fiercely anti-Jewish, banning teaching in Hebrew and religious instruction (not that it saved them from Stalin, whose own Georgian anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s). Nevertheless, although Jews made up a high percentage of the German intellectuals of the period, well out of proportion to their small share of the population, the philosophical terms of the debate were German, not Jewish.
There is so much stupid in this passage, one hardly knows where to begin. First, why the scare quotes over “racial” when it follows the word “innate”? Is Mr. Walsh suggesting racial traits are not innate? He is correct about how the Holocaust has made discussing Jewish racial characteristics dangerous. But so what? In the Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Mr. Walsh paints himself as a tough-minded, truth-protecting paladin in the service of a much-maligned Western Civilization. There is no end to his transcendental scorn of the Frankfurt School. So why is he suddenly getting all skittish about the Jews? It’s not like Jews are not central to his narrative. Then there’s his claim that the Frankfurt School was “anti-Jewish,” which he proves by listing a couple of anti-religious measures taken by the early Bolsheviks. First, the latter does not prove the former, obviously. Second, early Bolshevik policy was anti-religion, not anti-Jewish. All religions suffered similar restrictions in the early USSR. Finally, the Frankfurt School did not go after Judaism nearly as much as it went after Christianity. Kevin MacDonald has shown that many of the Frankfurters identified as Jewish, at least culturally, and had little negative to say about Jews and Judaism.
Finally, note how Mr. Walsh glibly resolves the Jewish question by claiming that the “philosophical terms of the debate were German, not Jewish.” He offers no proof of this, no footnote, no bibliographical source. Just his word. Indeed, earlier in the book he openly admits that the Frankfurters were influenced greatly by Marx and Freud. Yet, being Jewish had absolutely nothing to do with their designs on the Western World. Throughout the book, Mr. Walsh refers to the Frankfurters as German. They were not German. They were Jewish. They did not feel they belonged to German society even before the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. They felt even less allegiance to Western Civilization as a whole. This is why they felt no compunctions when attempting to destroy it. You cannot find a quicker, sharper, Occam’s Razer reason than that, regardless of how “dangerous” it is to say it.
Regardless of one’s opinions of Jews, we should all realize that nobody should have it both ways. And both Jews and blacks are very good at doing just that. Whenever members of their race do something admirable, race becomes a critical part of the conversation. Note how often blacks won’t shut up about blackness when discussing the Harlem Renaissance. Note how often many Jews will crow about Jewishness when discussing Nobel laureates in physics. Yet when members of their tribes do bad things, they suddenly get cagey and defensive and ask why we need to bring up race at all.
Michael Walsh buys into this double standard completely, and his work will ultimately suffer for it. He rails against a problem without sufficiently addressing the problem’s causes. According to Mr. Walsh, the Frankfurters were simply evil. Or, in a theological sense, Evil. Well, okay. But how did they get that way? Why were they that way? Ironically, for a book that decries political correctness, it’s author yields to political correctness when it matters the most. To do so would be too “dangerous,” you see.
Since Mr. Walsh likes to reference movies wherever possible, here is one for him. Remember that great scene in Reservoir Dogs in which Mr. Blonde calmly listens to Mr. White rant and rave about their botched heist? Blonde then asks White quite provocatively, “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?”
This is a question I was dying to ask Michael Walsh while reading The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. Because it seems all he wants to do is bark.