There are times when a certain slide in the former bulwarks of Western culture reveal the vast divide between the opposing poles of cultural thought in the West. Such a moment was this morning's announcement of Barack Obama as winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Peace.
Americans released a collective 'huh?' at the news. The prestige of the Nobel had been slipping in recent years, but it had still held some cache as a universal prize. Nobel had been about things everyone could agree on - it was, to some extent, something everyone could point to and say "This is what is best about humanity."
This morning's announcement was grinningly partisan - the opposite of universal. There can be no explanation for Obama's success other than an endorsement of a point of view cherished by the elites that pull the levers at Nobel. They say as much themselves, as President Obama has accomplished nary a minor success in the realm of international relations. Nobel has thrown their weight behind Obama as a political reality.
My thoughts, on hearing the news, wandered to musings on the much-discussed erosion of Western cultural institutions. Thinkers whom I respect very much have described Western culture as in a state of quiet bloodletting - the form still stands while the substance is drained. Many of us think that the edifice is still intact, while its mortar is slowly being dissolved.
The point is that Nobel used to stand for something. Awarding the Peace Prize to someone who has done nothing is a frank betrayal of its legacy. It quietly revealed itself, for a shocking moment, to be devoid of gravitas - a grinning zombie-version of its former self. What else that we lean on is ready to fall to dust?
One of the best expressions of what I am talking about was spoken by a Jesuit at a conference at Assumption last year. I can't remember his name, but he was from Fordham. He said that the West is spending its cultural capital. An affluent heir can spend for quite a while - keeping up the appearance of affluence to all but those who can see the books. When the capital is gone, he is not only without means but without the foundation upon which those means were based.
I can't help but feel that we are entering a new time. As von Balthasar said, "It can't go on much longer like this."