Sleek Barbarians

Behind the West's civilizational crisis is a bait and switch cultural appropriation -- and we fall for it

“Sleek barbarians” is a term and concept articulated by contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski which I have tried to popularize and disseminate in the English-speaking world. I do so because the concept seems to have even broader application here than in Poland (though Poland does not lack for its own “sleek barbarians”). The term is found in Stawrowski’s 2013 book, Clash of Civilizations.

To understand “sleek barbarians” one must first understand the broader parameters of Stawrowski’s thinking. Pace the end-of-Cold-War “thinkers” who announced the “end of history,” convinced their ideas of “liberal democracy” had won and that maybe the fundamental modern cleavage was between “the West and the rest”– those who made an act of faith in their version of “liberal democracy” versus those who didn’t (think Mideast jihad types) — Stawrowski argues that the fundamental fissure is to be found in the West itself. The fundamental fault line is between the tradition of the West, of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, versus an Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment caricature of the “West” and its tradition that rejects its Judeo-Christian roots.

The latter, however, is not unlike the cuckoo, a lazy bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, getting them to do the incubation for them. The caricaturists have appropriated the terminology — words like “rights,” “freedom,” and “dignity” — but invested them with meanings not just different from but opposite to what they ever meant in Western culture. That is how we get the “right” to kill your offspring, the “freedom” to commit suicide or redefine reality (like marriage) to your liking, and an endless chain of “microaggressions” against “dignity” on the part of those who reject the consequences of what the cognoscenti now denominate as “rights” and “freedom.”

The redefinitions of the West’s traditions now propagated as “rights” and “freedom” constitute, in the West’s tradition, barbarism. It is barbaric to say a woman has the “freedom” to end the life of her prenatal child up to birth. It is barbaric to say that there is a “right” for an adult male in minimal clothing to twerk pornographically on a public street in full view of children. It is even barbaric to pretend that such barbarism is simply a matter for discussion and compromise over tea and crumpets.

How do “sleek barbarians” fit into all this? They’re the folks who advance these agendas. They push the agendas, implement them, advocate for them, and fight opponents of those agendas. Why “sleek”? Well, once upon a time people who killed weak kids or groomed them were considered barbarians, and they looked the part. Today their haute couture has led them out of dishevelment into tailored Saint Laurent, Burberry, Coach, and Gucci. These folks don power suits to get injunctions in courts against laws banning genital mutilation of minors by white-coat-clad “experts.” These folks in power suits also indict doctors who spill the beans about others doing genital mutilations of minors.

(An aside as an apology: We might imagine the Germanic tribes of fifth century Europe as barbaric, but it was the toga-clad dads of Rome that were abandoning their kids under the patria potestas, while one suspects no few numbers of ancient Greek elites would have felt quite comfortable at drag queen epic story hours.)

What reminded me of the “sleek barbarians” was a story in the June 16 New York Times: “The Resistance to a New Trump Administration Has Already Started” (link here). The story itself reports very little news: all the folks who have pushed woke policies these past four years are busy devising Lawfare Plan B on the contingency that the Biden Administration is thrown out of office November 5.

What grabbed my attention, however, were the pictures. They caught my eye because they embody visually what Stawrowski was getting at: three people, two lawyers and a fundraiser for leftist causes, all in “power” clothes.

The advocate of illegal aliens is standing in the archway of a neo-Gothic college building, surrounded by all the stuff we like about campuses: arches, real stone, seals carved on walls, cathedral-like lights. The backdrop for the left’s money man is the front façade of a classical-style building with six Doric columns, a college or government building. The other lawyer is standing in a lush grove in Hyde Park — a perfect representation of the cooptation of tradition of which Stawrowski speaks.

Ask yourself why the Times didn’t put the illegal immigration lawyer against a backdrop of vulgar graffiti spraypainted on a city wall. Ask why the other lawyer is in Hyde Park at noon (and where the nearest London “bobby” is) rather than in Devoe Park in the Bronx at, say, 9 pm – and would she be dressed that way for her evening walk? Given the Hyde Park allusion to robust free speech, ask whether she believes in equally robust freedom of speech on social media, whether she wanted a Facebook Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner or a federal “dis/misinformation board” twisting platforms’ arms to take down what the “guardians of democracy” didn’t like. Ask the money rainmaker why, given the “exploitative nature of capitalism” being what it is, his backdrop reminds you of the New York Stock Exchange. Why isn’t he instead standing in front of some start-up cannabis shop near an inner-city school, next to his micro-fund grant recipient? Ask whether he’s got the lawyer on the phone to ban the Trump Administration initiative that required government buildings be built in classical rather than “innovative” or brutalist style.

We saw this during the “campus occupations” earlier this spring. Cowed college presidents put pictures of their campus cloisters on their new student brochures and alumni newsletters, not the trash collections of Quad Tent City. And if you doubt sleek barbarism is a thing, ask the students defending terrorist rape, kidnapping, and murder on October 7 “which” river and “what” sea define the borders of the Palestine they demand be “free.”

Just as Stawrowski observes about the barbarians’ “cultural appropriation” of Western words in the service of anti-Western anti-values, so those pictures are worth a thousand words. None of these folks who is ready to “resist” wants to take a picture in front of the cultural trash that their “resistance” generates. (It’s the same with the Church: nobody, except some “liturgical planner” you don’t know nor want to, takes pictures in front of the refurbished “Our Lady of Pizza Hut Catholic Community.” They take those pictures — especially for the bishop’s annual appeal — in front of the grand church that looks like a church still standing in the diocese after the infestation of planner locusts “renewed” the diocese into… ruins.)

No, the sleek barbarians take the pictures, use the language, and steal the heritage of the West, all the while laying their cuckoo eggs in it.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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