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What is the 21st century going to be about? If you had asked me 20 years ago, on, say, Sept. 10, 2001, I would have had a clear answer: advancing liberalism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, a set of values seemed to be on the march — democracy, capitalism, egalitarianism, individual freedom.
Then over the ensuing decades, democracy’s spread was halted and then reversed. Authoritarians in China, Central and Eastern Europe and beyond wielded power. We settled into the now familiar contest between democratic liberalism and authoritarianism.
But over the last several years something interesting happened: Authoritarians found God. They used religious symbols as nationalist identity markers and rallying cries. They unified the masses behind them by whipping up perpetual culture wars. They reframed the global debate: It was no longer between democracy and dictatorship; it was between the moral decadence of Western elites and traditional values and superior spirituality of the good normal people in their own homelands.
The 21st century is turning into an era of globe-spanning holy wars at a time when the appeal of actual religion seems to be on the wane.
He mentions Xi Jinping, who is reportedly cobbling together some pseudo-religious mishmash of anti-Western beliefs, and Vladimir Putin, who has infused Russian Orthodoxy with nationalist passion. He alludes to unnamed religious authoritarians who weaponize religion for the culture wars, both in America and in other countries. Brooks goes on:
The pseudo-religious authoritarians have raised the moral stakes. They act as if individualism, human rights, diversity, gender equality, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and religious liberty are just the latest forms of Western moral imperialism and the harbingers of social and moral chaos.
Those of us on the side of Western liberalism have no choice but to fight this on the spiritual and cultural plane as well, to show that pluralism is the opposite of decadence and is a spiritual-rich, practically effective way to lift human dignity and run a coherent society.
This is an important column. It’s partly wrong, but in being wrong, it tells us something important about the current moment.
First, Brooks is right that some leaders around the world are marshaling religion for their own political uses. What he doesn’t seem to recognize, though, is that this is not always cynical, or at least not always entirely cynical. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has spoken about his desire to revive Christianity in Hungary, which Communism left heavily secularized. I have been told by people who know him that Orban was not very religious as a young man, but that his faith has grown as he has aged. I couldn’t possibly say, but I believe him to be sincere when he talks about the impossibility of Hungary having a future as Hungary without its ancestral Christianity as a spiritual and cultural foundation. He has said that Hungary came into being as a nation when St. Stephen the King was baptized, and united the Magyar tribes. If a would-be authoritarian leader wanted to unite the Magyar nation today, there are easier ways to do it than to appeal to a religion that is scarcely practiced by contemporary Hungarians.
I don’t know how sincere Orban’s heart is — that’s between him and God, I guess — but I know that the policies he follows, and his political vision, are based in Christian thought and tradition. He is taking an unpopular stand for Christian virtues and teachings — for example, his government’s acts to protect children from LGBT propaganda is causing Hungary a world of hurt in the European Commission — in a time when almost no other European governments will do so. It’s hard to see the advantage of this if he doesn’t in some sense believe it. Anyway, some things are true even if Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin say and do them.
Secondly, Brooks recognizes that ultimately the liberal West really is engaged in a religious war. I’m very pleased that he has done this, because it’s true, and it vindicates the views of those outside the West (and of those like Orban who are inside the West, but oppose Western-style liberalism), that the post-Christian West really is engaged in an imperialistic attack on them.
It’s strange how Brooks faults these supposedly bad authoritarians for construing this post-Christian liberalism as “Western imperialism,” but in the next paragraph calls the West to attack these rival cultural visions with an eye towards defeating them. Well, which is it?
I can tell you for a fact that in Poland, Romanian, and Hungary, I have had many conversations with people who are convinced that they are under attack by cultural imperialists from the West who despise their local Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian cultures as backwards, and who are using various means to conquer them and dispossess the locals of their traditions. And they’re right! The fact that good and decent people like David Brooks don’t think of this as imperialism, but as enlightenment and liberation, makes it no less imperialistic, and no less aggressive.
Besides, is the lesson the United States has for the world really “that pluralism is the opposite of decadence and is a spiritual-rich, practically effective way to lift human dignity and run a coherent society”? How could anybody call contemporary America a “spiritual-rich” [sic] place? Christianity is collapsing, but people are not signing up for other religions. The only forms of religion that seem to be declining more slowly are the conservative ones; those that accept the values Brooks extols are declining faster than the rest. Besides, we live in a legal and social regime that is increasingly determined to persecute any religious expression that conflicts with homosexuality. This is “spiritual-rich”? No, it is spiritual impoverishment of an acute kind.
How is the moral chaos we have “practically effective” in social terms? We are wrecking the psychologies of our youth with gender ideology. The pseudo-religion of Wokeness, which has conquered all the institutions of our liberal democracy, is training people to despise others on the basis of race. The Chinese, the Russians, and others correctly see that we Americans are destroying our country. Brooks talks about “those of us on the side of Western liberalism,” but he apparently misses that old-fashioned liberalism is being eviscerated right here in America by the progressives that liberals refuse to confront.
There is no spiritual richness in this ideology. There is no practical effectiveness. It is decadence, it is chaos, it is self-loathing, it is a culture of death. Any sane academic system outside of the West would do well to wall itself off from the madness that is eating our universities from within. At Princeton, the pogrom against Classics professor Joshua Katz is being led in part by Classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who, on a video produced by the university to orient incoming freshman, said that it is the role of the university to give students “the tools to tear down this place.” See here.
We are increasingly ruled by nihilists. It is simply dizzying to imagine why anybody in the world would see what we are becoming in America today as an example to them of how to organize a spiritually rich, practically effective society. This is certainly not to say that Russia, China, Hungary, or any other country on earth is utopia. But they are wisely looking to woke America as an example of what not to do.
Look, I have Orthodox friends in Russia who are discouraged by the partnership between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin government. They are discouraged because they believe it corrupts the Church. I am inclined to agree with them, though I can’t say much because I really don’t know the religious situation in Russia. About Hungary, though, I can say that from a traditional Christian point of view, you have less to worry about in Orban’s country than you do in the countries of Western Europe. This summer, I heard some Hungarians musing that some Christians from Western Europe may one day seek asylum in Hungary, for the sake of religious liberty. It is by no means a silly notion. Talk to traditional Western European Christians about this if you don’t believe me.
Daniel McCarthy’s column today casts Brooks’s piece in a particular light. McCarthy says that whether the West wants to recognize it or not, it has been fighting a holy war for at least twenty years. Excerpts:
To say that the War on Terror is unwinnable because it’s a war on an abstraction is true enough. In practice, however, the War on Terror is simply a name that’s been slapped on America’s post-Cold War engagement with hotspots in the Islamic world. That isn’t a war on an abstraction, but it is a war of a curious character. It’s not like war with Japan or the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So what sort of conflict is it?
It’s a war of religion. And like a classic war of religion, its objective is the claiming of territory for the faith and ultimately the conversion of the people who live there. This is what it means to bring liberalism and democracy to Iraq or Afghanistan, or indeed to the Islamic world as a whole. The 1991 Gulf War had more limited objectives, of course, but those objectives proved to be self-unlimiting. We rescued Kuwait — and maybe by proxy Saudi Arabia — but this left a lingering question of what to do about Iraq. The only answer, according to the secular religion of America’s leadership class, was conversion. Iraq must become liberal and democratic one way or another — by sanctions, by threats, by invasion, by occupation. This would redeem Iraq, and Iraq would redeem its neighbors, above all Iran.
The reality, of course, is that Shi’ite militias wield much of the power in democratic Iraq, and Iran exerts a considerable influence on its neighbor, not the other way around. In Afghanistan, where the American work of proselytizing was ongoing for 20 years, the old heathenism was never stamped out and speedily reasserted command once the armed missionaries left.
Terrorists like bin Laden have often sought to justify their crimes by claiming to act in defense of their faith. Bin Laden was even known to claim that al-Qaeda’s existence was partly inspired by the sacrilegious presence of US troops in the holy land of Arabia. The mundane truth is that bin Laden wanted power, and anti-Americanism was a path to that. A garden-variety dictator like Saddam Hussein had power in one sense, but bin Laden wanted something different and potentially greater — al-Qaeda was internationalist in orientation from the beginning. Its founder wanted to be a revolutionary. His religion was entwined with that.
Perhaps ironically, Western policymakers are the opposite: they think of themselves as revolutionaries, when they are more like theologians. They believe that their faith is the end of history itself, and if only a strange people can be introduced to it, they will invariably adopt it. How can they fail to, when its truth is so obvious? Western leaders were not always like this, but the end of the Cold War taught a new generation of leaders — baby boomers like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — all the wrong lessons.
The wars John F. Kennedy fought, the Pacific War in which he served and the Cold War he waged as president, had attainable ends, however idealistically they might be portrayed in propaganda. The wars of the post-Cold War era have drifted toward unattainable visions, whose academic and technocratic articulation only serves to distract from their basically eschatological character. So these wars are never won — not 30 years after the Gulf War and 20 years after 9/11.
I would love it if David Brooks would immerse himself in the novels of Michel Houllebecq and see if they affect his view on the pseudo-religion of Western liberalism. If you can only read two, start with Submission, and then read The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq is not a religious believer, but he sees clearly that the godless society we have created in the West, one devoted to individualism and hedonism, cannot sustain itself. A great book to read is Without God: Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror, by the American literary critic Louis Betty. I interviewed Betty by e-mail a couple of years ago; here is an excerpt:
[Louis Betty:] One of Houellebecq’s most remarkable qualities is his consistent anti-liberalism—“liberalism” meant here in the classical sense as an idea about human moral and
economic freedom that emerges from the Enlightenment (I’m not referring to left-liberalism in the US). On the one hand, his novels paint a gloomy portrait of the consequences for family and community of the sexual revolution; essentially, they expose the underbelly of a social movement, championed by the modern left, that fancies itself sacrosanct and morally unassailable. So, in the moral sense, and especially vis-à-vis moral concerns surrounding sexuality, his treatment of the sexual revolution has a way of shocking left-liberal sensibilities.
On the other hand, MH is no great advocate for unfettered economic freedom. His novels suggest (or even demonstrate, if that’s a proper term for describing the work fiction does) that moral and economic liberation go hand in hand, and that it’s the very ideas and conditions that allowed for human economic emancipation centuries ago that eventually gave us the sexual revolution and the moral dissolution that arguably followed it (i.e., an increase in the divorce rate, more children born outside of marriage, etc.). The modern right, which likes to sing the praises of the free market but tends also toward moral and religious conservatism, isn’t primed to appreciate this rapprochement of material and moral license.
Ultimately, Houellebecq’s fiction points to a fundamental incoherence in modern, liberal political thought. You don’t get sexual freedom without the sort of economic emancipation free markets allow (it’s hard to multiply sexual partners when, say, you’re totally beholden economically to a spouse. That is, at least not without significant danger to yourself—just read some 19th-century social novels and you’ll see what I mean!). At the same time, you don’t get economic freedom and self-determination without a loosening of the moral constraints that material necessity used to hold in place. In any case, whatever side you’re on politically, the most important thing to understand as far as reading MH is concerned is that both of these visions—human flourishing understood either as economic or moral-sexual liberation—are materialistic and reductive.
And, rather obviously, they also fail adequately to address human beings’ metaphysical needs, which liberalism is content to leave up to the individual. Religion’s purpose, as I see it, is to order collective life sub specie aeternitatis, but you don’t get that when the hard work of metaphysical consolation becomes a private affair. In the vacuum, alternatives inevitably arise, some of the most pernicious of which we see today: ethnic and racial identitarianism, religious extremism and terrorism, and a tolerance and even embrace of totalitarian rhetoric across the political spectrum. I’m synthesizing a bit on Houellebecq’s behalf, but I think this vision can help us make sense of much of the tension we’re seeing today.
As distasteful as he can be, I would rather read Michel Houellebecq on the state of the Western soul than establishment liberals, because Houellebecq sees things that they do not and cannot. We live in a country where the ruling class is having to turn the country into a soft totalitarianism to suppress dissent from the Weimar America dystopia it is creating. I don’t see that any other country in the world has figured out the secret to creating a good, just, and stable society — but they can surely see that importing the ideology from contemporary America is a recipe for decadence and decline. It is awfully rich for Western liberals to lament the authoritarianism of other countries when the United States is fast becoming a country where religious traditionalists and social conservatives are being shoved to the margins of society, and face job loss and professional ruin for contradicting the views held by the people in David Brooks’s class.
Contrary to what Brooks says, we are not settling into a contest between “democratic liberalism and authoritarianism,” but rather between different kinds of authoritarianism. Alas, he has fallen into the old liberal claim that foreign bad guys “unified the masses behind them by whipping up perpetual culture wars.” It is impossible to get a Western liberal to grasp how aggressively Western liberals whip up perpetual culture wars, both at home and abroad. Their belief in the righteousness of their own ideology is such that to resist it in any way, or even to regard it as aggression, is a sign of wickedness. To borrow a line from Daniel McCarthy, how can they fail to accept Western liberalism, when its truth is so obvious?
* This article was originally published here
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