I. A river of reviews run whenever Paul Johnson releases a tome. He is getting on in age, but still managed to publish a biography of Winston Churchill last year. Yet I am not going to jump into the onrushing waters and pen a short treatment of his books, hardly doing justice to them. Neither am I going to write a mini-hagiography of this deservingly celebrated historian and cultural commentator from Britain. Rather, I am going to comment on some reasons why Johnson's writings have achieved international popularity. A popularity not in the sense of a fashionable sensation of the moment, but of permanent remembrance.
II. Johnson is an anomaly. When contrasted with that vast egalitarian plane of left-liberal rhetoric in the media and academia, he juts out like a church steeple with its bell continually ringing. He is a not writer of "passion", but of iron principle. In some ways, he is a intellectual reflection of his political friend Lady Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady". As the principle belongs to reason, so does Johnson's writings stand against the storm of unreason currently ravaging all over the halls of government and university departments. He stands, as it were, in the middle of a politicized public square and bellows his No! to the modern liberal élites. And what he says, they do not like. It goes something like this: Economic prosperity, political freedom and cultural advancement in the West are directly related to a robust middle class population, with values grounded in Christian morality. An examination of history shows that this is the case. It has been the ideas of the radical Left, particularly in the twentieth century, which have been responsible for totalitarianism, warfare, genocide, economic chaos, political instability, the decline in civility, and, yes, even environmental catastrophe.
III. Johnson's indictments are sweeping though he substantiates them with similarly sweeping defenses of the views he upholds. He does not just condemn and leave the matter alone. He provides precise reasons thereafter as he speaks with a definite purpose in mind. For most liberals, no personal responsibility appertains to history as error and farce are considered extraneous to man. For Johnson, responsibility is certainly involved as external society is considered to be a function of the inner condition of man, namely his sense of morality and his adherence to reason.
IV. Johnson's real sting, however, comes from that fact that he is a polymathic historian with a strong polemical inclination. He sets up world history not as a mundane and meaningless sequence of determined events, but as panoramic story of purposeful individuals determining history, for better or worse. His narrative encompasses everything, from particle physics and financial statistics to geopolitics and cosmology. If he does not like the social implications of a certain politician's policies, or if he deems a philosopher's notions illusory, he will say so and systematically explain why he has come to that conclusion. If you agree with him, that's good. If not, then that's tough. Don't even bother trying to coax him otherwise with refutations on minor facts and figures, as some scholars do, usually jealous of his success. Don't even try to contend him in a book review, as he does not read them. By the time you have designed your argument, he has already completed another book and scores of magazine articles.
V. Johnson's straightforward phraseology especially helps in conveying his opinions with persuasiveness. Just a few words written and one knows exactly his stance. He was not afraid to entitle a book Enemies of Society, wherein he speaks of "the Fascist Left" and "vulgar Marxists" and of how they - and this was in the 1970s - have undermined Western culture in all areas of human concern, in education, the arts, economics, politics, science, philosophy and morality. This book was written during the heyday of collectivism, when institutions of learning were beginning to be overrun by the propaganda of the "social sciences", a subject Johnson deems unscientific and whose impact on Western society has, he says, been calamitous. Intellectual superstars of the time like Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse, literary critic George Steiner, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and media philosopher Marshall McLuhan are all identified as "enemies". One reviewer of Enemies of Society remarked that "the tone is forthright - which may be a polite way of saying that there is something to infuriate almost everybody". Infuriating indeed was his Eighties bestseller Intellectuals. In concise yet information packed chapters he gives an undisguised exposition of the moral depravities and intellectual hypocrisy of Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Sartre, Hemingway, Chomsky and other notables canonized by the Left. In Modern Times, a history of the twentieth century that has been translated into fifteen languages, he speaks of the "east coast liberals" in America, a bulls-eye characterization with which he seems to relish. The resignation of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal was largely attributable to, Johnson said, a "media putsch". A deduction that would infuriate media superstar Bob Woodward and his Washington cronies. The putsch is usually written in the context of a violent or military overthrow of government, as in Hitler’s beer hall putsch in 1923 Bavaria. For the American media to be indirectly compared in this manner is evidence of Johnson’s insightfulness and ability to scour into the morass guilty secrets that many wish were left unsaid.
VI. It is Johnson’s very mode of frontal assault which astonishes the reader. Perhaps not since the valiant Hilaire Belloc has Britain produced a writer of such stalwartness. You are either thrilled by the cold blast of his pen or you are enraged at having your views denounced to the T. Some would call his unwavering decisiveness a black-and-white "divisiveness". However, it is very refreshing to hear someone who believes in absolutes and uses them as a gauge to judge the affairs of the day... and mean it. That grey shade of relativism which is so ardently expounded by the Left, whether it be under the guise of situational ethics or progressivism, always leaves one hanging in mid-air. All this does is to engender cynicism as relativism works only to break down every value and norm upon which a civilized society is based.
VII. The Left loathe Johnson. He has identified their furtive travesties and has placed them on display for all to behold. He identifies the environmental lobby as being largely responsible for the OPEC crisis of 1973. He castigates Western intellectuals who praised the Communist system of the Soviet Union while Stalin exterminated millions. He believes that colonialism was a good thing and, from what I hear, has recently made an endorsement for its recommencement in some modified form. Mahatma Gandhi, that post-colonial icon of everything that the United Nations represents (namely, inutile passive resistance), was a "political exotic, who could have flourished only in the protected environment provided by British liberalism... About the Gandhi phenomenon there was always a strong aroma of twentieth-century humbug". Johnson realistically describes Gandhi as almost Manichean in his aversion to food, dirt and sex. Then comes the broadside: his "teachings had no relevance to India's problems or aspirations".
VIII. Liberals would love to have such a cultural soldier on their side. Johnson has that knack to encompass all the angles of subject matter and then trap his opponents into a corner, rendering them helpless. There are two things that the Left maintain and Johnson despises. Namely, moral relativism and social engineering, which he states are the two greatest banes of the twentieth century. Communism, its offshoot Nazism and similar leftist ideologies operate upon the premise that morality is an artificial social construct, and that the State (embodied in the fatherly leader) is lord of all citizenry.
IX. What others find problematic is that Johnson is a practicing Roman Catholic of the conservative kind, proud of it, and not embarrassed to express himself as such. However, his Catholic beliefs are not presented in a triumphant fashion, and he therefore does not alienate his Protestant and Jewish readers. In The Quest For God, a rarity for Johnson as it lacks his usual polemical diction, a very personal account of his beliefs is provided. It leaves those familiar with his historical works and journalism wondering how such an undaunted aggressor could compose a humbling, sometimes vulnerable, profession of faith. But in this book a problem arises. Forget that he seems to want to induct a new age of global vegetarianism and that he dislikes the writings of Bl. John Henry Newman (bizarre). He also hopes (at least then in the late 1990s when The Quest For God was written) for womyn priests in the Catholic Church. Certainly, a heresy to be rebuked and it is (again) bizarre, since it comes from a conservative Catholic. I do not know whether he still holds this belief today. Anyhow, maybe it is one of those peculiar preferential quirks particular to the English, like cucumber sandwiches and cricket. Totally unexplainable.
X. Nevertheless, on the balance of probabilities, it is the very combination of his intellectual polemicism and conservative religious beliefs which is the key to his popularity. A reigning stereotype nowadays, stemming especially from the Sixties, is that intelligence and conservative religiosity are incompatible. They are mutually exclusive traits and one person cannot possess both. Either you are culturally adept and irreligious, or you are intellectually obtuse and a religious fanatic. Not so with Johnson. His encyclopedic acumen as informed and guided by traditional religion contravenes the presumption. The fact that he is highly respected by both leading politicians and the general public alike is further proof of this observation.
XI. For example, Johnson's A History of the American People was welcomed in the United States not just because any one of his new books is something to which many look forward to reading. More importantly, it related to the fact that at last someone furnished a thorough, readable and novel-like account of American history without the undercurrent of anti-American sentiment. This book makes it very clear that America played/plays a very significant and unique role in modern history. Not only this, it has that uncommon quality to engage the specialist and the general reader alike. It is not a "feel good" history that imbues an overblown sense of righteousness. Neither is it a "Republican history" as some Democrats maintained. Proper and objective history is non-partisan, otherwise it would be political. For it is this politicization, this deification of politics, which Johnson abhors. Rather, Johnson's history is a pro-American, pro-free market, pro-religious chronicle that makes Americans feel proud about their country. Not much of this comes from the university presses these days. The current wave of historical revisionism is persistent in its attempts to discredit America's Founding Fathers so as to advance whatever agenda. The ideologues of multiculturalism have torn asunder the principles and values upon which the United States has evolved. Occasional misdeeds and evils committed in the past are made to overshadow the general good effected, from America's inception as a country to the present day.
XII. With the advent of the "culture wars" in recent years, the situation is changing. Cultural conservatives have entered the public square in full force and are beginning to challenge the dictates of the ruling liberal establishment. Some have called this a reactionary tactic of the Right. In actuality, it is not a reaction but a retraction. A sort of pulling back on the reigns of a cultural chariot on a downslide to all-out nihilism. And before the contemporary "culture wars" began, more than anyone else it was Paul Johnson who defended Western culture from the attacks of its enemies.
NOTES / REFERENCES
1. The phrase "enemies of society" is a variant of "enemy of the people" or "enemy of the state" or "public enemy". It originates from the hostis publicus of Roman civilization.
2. In 1998 it was revealed that Johnson had a 11-year adulterous affair, widely publicized. When contrasted with the moral imperative expressed in his writings, hypocritical to be sure. He confessed to being a "sinner" and, being Catholic, forgiveness and redemption are involved. Again, it is the being versus behaviour issue, where the latter is regularly taken to disqualify religious belief absolutely. Never letting an opportunity to humiliate someone go to waste, Christopher Hitchens gave Johnson a thrashing upon the revelation. See C. Hitchens, "The Rise and Fall of Paul "Spanker" Johnson", Salon Magazine, May 28, 1998. LINK
3. Recommended books by Johnson include: Offshore Islanders: A History of the English People (1972), A History of Christianity (1977), Enemies of Society (1977), The Civilization of Ancient Egypt (1978), Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s (1984), A History of the Jews (1987), Intellectuals (1988), The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (1991), To Hell with Picasso & Other Essays (1996), A History of the American People (1997), and Napoleon: A Life (2002).