Sohrab Ahmari’s Corrective to the Cancellation of the Past
REGISTER BOOK PICK: The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos
The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, by Sohrab Ahmari; (Convergent Books); 320 Pages
The toppling of statues memorializing historic figures, the disappearance of the Western canon from universities and the decline of organized religion all signal Americans’ growing disenchantment with the legacy of their forebears.
The past has been rendered toxic, at least in the minds of many young Americans, by the Establishment’s failure to stamp out racial and economic injustice, and for its adherence to moral norms restricting personal freedoms, particularly sexual rights.
Sohrab Ahmari, a Catholic convert and an Iranian-American immigrant, has followed these developments in his present role as the opinion editor of the New York Post and as a public intellectual who has debated the future of the conservative movement. But in his third book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, Ahmari responds first as a Catholic father.
The author cherishes the religious and philosophical tradition he embraced as a young adult, and now yearns for his 4-year-old son, Max, to make it his own. But Ahmari knows that Max and his peers will also be subject to powerful forces that inculcate an alternative faith in the taboo-shattering power of scientific and economic progress.
So this book is designed as a corrective to the culture’s cancellation of the past, a stance that has left the next generation ill-equipped to face challenges that define the human condition in every age. And more than anything else, his book is about human freedom, its joys and pitfalls.
Ahmari approaches this ambitious goal in a series of chapters that each pose a highly relevant question, like, “Can You Be Spiritual without Being Religious?” “Does God Respect You?” “What Is Freedom For?” “Is Sex a Private Matter?” He recruits historical figures spanning the ancient and modern world as practical guides, and their well-told stories make the subject matter more accessible to the lay reader.
The teachings and martyrdom of his son’s namesake, St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who died at Auschwitz, bookends The Unbroken Thread. St. Maximilian’s fateful decision to take the place of a fellow prisoner slated for execution by the Nazis testifies to the radical, self-sacrificial vision of human freedom grounded in the crucible of the cross.
But despite Kolbe’s early appearance, The Unbroken Thread, which is divided between “The Things of God” and “The Things of Humankind,” is not modeled on the lives of the saints.
True, St. Thomas Aquinas makes an appearance in a chapter entitled “Is God Reasonable?” But when Ahmari draws us into a subsequent discussion about the respect due our parents, he turns to Confucius. And when he addresses the practice of keeping the Sabbath, he taps Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish theologian and Holocaust survivor who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s. It was Heschel who defended “the liberating promise of Sabbath restrictions” as the key to a perennial conundrum: “How do we live with things and people and remain free?”
Likewise, St. Augustine and Howard Thurman, the Black civil rights leader and theologian, are deployed to address the critical role of faith in public life and to counter voices demanding the privatization of faith.
“What rulers believe about the final good shapes their views of the common good,” writes Ahmari, in his treatment of Augustine’s writings on the City of God and the City of Man. “If they believe the point is to grow in virtue, politics will be shaped by that.”
The testimony of this Catholic saint and the like-minded U.S. civil rights leader both contribute to the book’s conclusion: Submission “to divine authority safeguards human dignity at the level of the individual (Thurman), and the political community (St. Augustine.)”
In his earlier memoir, From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, Ahmari reflects back on the politicized Islamic theology of post-revolutionary Iran where he spent his childhood, and witnessed the operations of the “morality police” responsible for enforcing religious norms. This was a religious and political system, he wrote, that left “little room for the individual conscience and free will, for the human heart, for reason and intellect.”
The Unbroken Thread is primarily concerned with the values transforming the U.S., “the land of the free.” Probing the interplay of market forces, conscience and the common good, the author mines the testimony of a 20th-century prophet, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who shocked the world with his account of the brutal war against human dignity in the Soviet Union’s Gulag concentration camp system.
Exiled from his native country, Solzhenitsyn lived for a period in the United States and was invited to deliver the 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, where he shook the world for a second time with a stinging indictment of Western materialism.
At Harvard, the Nobel laureate contended that a flawed understanding of human freedom and moral fallibility had paved the way for a ‘new religion of market fundamentalism and libertinism,” with little care for those who fell behind.
Americans readily embrace freedom, he observed, in Ahmari’s retelling. But, too often, they fail to distinguish between “freedom for good and freedom for evil,” though the “latter doesn’t even qualify as freedom, since it breeds self-degradation.”
Solzhenitsyn’s moral witness still retains its prophetic power today. However, the grand ideological battles of the Cold War era have given way to a different brand of public discourse shaped by racial and sexual identities and personal grievance. For this reason, readers may be more intrigued by Ahmari’s decision to place Andrea Dworkin, the late radical feminist, at the center of a chapter that explores the question, “Is Sex a Private Matter?”
A major figure in the anti-pornography and anti-prostitution movements of the 1980s and 1990s, Dworkin broke ranks with socially progressive feminists who stuck with free speech and sex positive arguments.
She rejected the notion that sex was either a “private matter” or “harmless fun,” and so anticipated the #MeToo movement by several decades.
Ahmari’s narrative touches on Dworkin’s own sufferings at the hands of abusive boyfriends, an experience that may have shaped her “anti-sex” message. He doesn’t buy Dworkin’s attack on sexual intercourse as a “reinforcement of male dominance,” but he sympathizes with her refusal to accept the soothing bromides of the Sexual Revolution.
Modern young women will identify with Dworkin, and that is surely what Ahmari intended. She courageously crossed political lines to join with religious activists and working-class communities fighting porn shops, But the tragedy, as he makes clear, is that this abuse survivor and social reformer could not go further and rethink discarded virtues and norms designed to curb lust, and protect the human heart.
Dworkin’s personal and public struggles, and other well-told stories in Ahmari’s timely book offer valuable insights that will pave the way for sustained engagement with the young.
The urgent need for this work cannot be doubted. For as Ahmari concludes his reflections, the social trends that fill parents like him with unease also come into sharper focus.
If an ever-greater number of young Americans are choosing not to marry or raise a family, and if too many have become ensnared by drug addiction or subject to debilitating depression and anxiety, then surely one explanation is the removal of the guardrails that offered order, structure and hope.