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Against The New Optimism

Oliver Burkeman has a long-read piece in The Guardian about whether or not life is getting better or worse. [1] It is mostly a defense of the claims by the “New Optimists” that pessimism is grounded on willful blindness to the spectacular material improvements modernity has brought us. But it’s not entirely a defense. Excerpt:

The argument that we should be feeling happier than we are because life on the planet as a whole is getting better, on average, also misunderstands a fundamental truth about how happiness works: our judgments of the world result from making specific comparisons that feel relevant to us, not on adopting what David Runciman refers to as “the view from outer space”. If people in your small American town are far less economically secure than they were in living memory, or if you’re a young British person facing the prospect that you might never own a home, it’s not particularly consoling to be told that more and more Chinese people are entering the middle classes. At book readings in the US midwest, Ridley recalls, audience members frequently questioned his optimism on the grounds that their own lives didn’t seem to be on an upward trajectory. “They’d say, ‘You keep saying the world’s getting better, but it doesn’t feel like that round here.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, but this isn’t the whole world! Are you not even a little bit cheered by the fact that really poor Africans are getting a bit less poor?’” There is a sense in which this is a fair point. But there’s another sense in which it’s a completely irrelevant one.

At its heart, the New Optimism is an ideological argument: broadly speaking, its proponents are advocates for the power of free markets, and they intend their sunny picture of humanity’s recent past and imminent future to vindicate their politics. This is a perfectly legitimate political argument to make – but it’s still a political argument, not a straightforward, neutral reliance on objective facts. The claim that we are living in a golden age, and that our dominant mood of pessimism is unwarranted, is not an antidote to the Age of the Take, but a Take like any other – and it makes just as much sense to adopt the opposite view. “What I dislike,” Runciman says, “is this assumption that if you push back against their argument, what you’re saying is that all these things are not worth valuing … For people to feel deeply uneasy about the world we inhabit now, despite all these indicators pointing up, seems to me reasonable, given the relative instability of the evidence of this progress, and the [unpredictability] that overhangs it. Everything really is pretty fragile.”

This seems right to me. Yesterday I was talking to a woman whose family has for the past few years been taking care of a foster kid who is part of their wider family. The child’s father is absent, and his mother is in and out of jail, lost to drug addiction. The woman who told me this story reflected on how much caring for this child taught her and her husband about the staggering challenges faced by children in these situations.

“There is poverty as the lack of material security, and then there is this,” she told me.

She went on to talk about the kinds of things teachers in Baton Rouge who work in inner-city schools are seeing in their classroom: children who are devastated by trauma. Kids who are in no position to learn because it takes everything they have to survive, given the gun violence in their neighborhoods, and the total breakdown of family. These little kids are being acculturated into chaos.

The woman indicated that some white people (she is white) have the idea that this is a black problem, but this is not so. The foster child in her family is white. Drug addiction, absent fathers, and stable families reduced to rubble is now devastating the white working class and poor, as Charles Murray and others have extensively documented.

This is the world Chris Arnade has been writing about: the Other America. The America of a society that has lost its bindings — to God, to each other, to a vision that offers hope, and a moral sense that enables people to sacrifice to realize that hope. The fragility of what we have achieved is what impresses people like me. From my point of view, our elites have for a long time — generations — been working to destroy the fundaments that enabled peace and prosperity. And not just elites: as history testifies, wealth corrupts societies. There is no avoiding the cycle.

I believe that the loss of a society’s religion ultimately leads to its dissolution. Without a commonly held sense of transcendent meaning, a society loses its will to live, because it has no reason to live. I’m reading right now Michel Houellebecq’s first second novel, The Elementary Particles. [2] It’s an amazing book, though a difficult one to read in parts, because of the pornographic descriptions of sex acts. That’s part of the author’s point: he’s writing about a world grown cold and loveless, where sex has been separated from love, family, and meaning. The novel is about two half-brothers who were abandoned by their selfish hippie mother (Houellebecq’s mother did this to him) and socialized by the aridity of consumerism and materialism. Here is the novel’s prologue:

This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.

At the time of his disappearance, Michel Djerzinski was unanimously considered to be a first-rate biologist and a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. His true significance, however, would not become apparent for some time.

In Djerzinski’s time, philosophy was generally considered to be of no practical significance, to have been stripped of its purpose. Nevertheless, the values to which a majority subscribe at any given time determine society’s economic and political structures and social mores.

Metaphysical mutations—that is to say radical, global transformations in the values to which the majority subscribe—are rare in the history of humanity. The rise of Christianity might be cited as an example.

Once a metaphysical mutation has arisen, it tends to move inexorably toward its logical conclusion. Heedlessly, it sweeps away economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments and social hierarchies. No human agency can halt its progress— nothing except another metaphysical mutation.

It is a fallacy that such metaphysical mutations gain ground only in weakened or declining societies. When Christianity appeared, the Roman Empire was at the height of its powers: supremely organized, it dominated the known world; its technical and military prowess had no rival. Nonetheless, it had no chance. When modern science appeared, medieval Christianity was a complete, comprehensive system which explained both man and the universe; it was the basis for government, the inspiration for knowledge and art, the arbiter of war as of peace and the power behind the production and distribution of wealth—none of which was sufficient to prevent its downfall.

Michel Djerzinski was not the first nor even the principal architect of the third—and in many respects the most radical—paradigm shift, which opened up a new era in world history. But, as a result of certain extraordinary circumstances in his life, he was one of its most clear-sighted and deliberate engineers.

We live today under a new world order,

The web which weaves together all things envelops our bodies, Bathes our limbs,

In a halo of joy. A state to which men of old sometimes acceded through music

Greets us each morning as a commonplace. What men considered a dream, perfect but remote,

We take for granted as the simplest of things.

But we are not contemptuous of these men;

We know how much we owe to their dreaming,

We know that without the web of suffering and joy which was their history, we would be nothing,

We know that they kept within them an image of us, through their fear and in their pain, as they collided in the darkness,

As little by little, they wrote their history.

We know that they would not have survived, that they could not have survived, without that hope somewhere deep within,

They could not have survived without their dream.

Now that we live in the light,

Now that we live in the presence of the light

Which bathes our bodies,

Envelops our bodies,

In a halo of joy,

Now that we have settled by the water’s edge,

And here live in perpetual afternoon

Now that the light which surrounds our bodies is palpable,

Now that we have come at last to our destination

Leaving behind a world of division,

The way of thinking which divided us,

To bathe in a serene, fertile joy

Of a new law,

Today,

For the first time,

We can revisit the end of the old order.

Houellebecq is not a Christian, or a religious man of any kind. In fact, he is a ruin, physically and otherwise. But he is a prophet. Here’s something Andrew M. Brown wrote for the Catholic Herald (UK) on the publication of Houellebecq’s more recent Submission: [3]

Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, is set in a France of the near future in which a Muslim is elected president, in a Europe which has reached such a state of “putrid decomposition” that it cannot save itself. It is a shocking vision of where we might all be heading. The book is especially disturbing for Catholics, because it implies that Catholicism, for all that its young adherents have “open, friendly faces”, is no longer vital enough to offer an alternative to Islam. The once great religion that powered 1,000 years of high civilisation during the Middle Ages is, in Houellebecq’s vision, enfeebled.

Far from embodying an alternative to Islam, most Catholics will probably be absorbed willingly into it.

More:

Benedict XVI’s analysis shares striking similarities with Houellebecq’s.

Both reject the rampant individualism, and moral relativism, of the “soixante-huitards”. Both believe that what ultimately results from extreme self-centredness is violence. Sexual narcissists, for example, the heirs to the Marquis de Sade – pure materialists, who have abandoned all moral restraints and totally severed the connection between sex and love – will seek ever more sadistic pleasures. “In a sense,” says Houellebecq in his earlier novel Atomised [the UK title for The Elementary Particles], “the serial killers of the 1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies of the 1960s.”

One of the (many) differences between Houellebecq and Benedict XVI, however, is that the novelist only diagnoses the disease; he does not offer a cure. This is the job of the Church and its teachers, bishops and so on, a job at least as pressing as talking about climate change. In 2012 Pope Benedict told the Vatican’s Justice and Peace council that we ought to “dethrone the modern idols” of individualism, materialistic consumerism and technocracy. Replace them with “fraternity and gratuitousness”, he said, and “solidaristic love”. That sounds rather technical but it’s simple really; he means “love one another; even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In this, Jesus’s new commandment, Pope Benedict says, “lies the secret of every fully human and peaceful social life, as well as the renewal of politics and of national and world institutions”.

From a Christian point of view, it does not matter if a man gains the whole world if he loses his soul. We could have become as rich and as powerful as any society ever was, and we could have driven poverty, disease, and suffering more to the margins of human experience than any society ever did — and we could still lose our souls. Of course a materialist can only measure progress by material standards. By that measure, we are doing better than ever.

But this is deceptive. As I’ve said, I believe that history gives us plenty of examples of societies and even civilizations ruined by wealth. There is no reason to think we will be any different. For example, we continue the 50-year project of destroying the family, and even now destroying what it means to be male and female, and we call it progress. Money and technology will not protect us from the consequences of this folly.

From a spiritual point of view, there is much more reason for concern. As I write in The Benedict Option [4], the Christian church is much weaker in the US than most Christians realize. It’s weaker in that younger people are falling away from the faith in record numbers, and it’s weaker in terms of what Christians believe, with reference to historical Christian orthodoxy. The faith of most American Christians today will not survive the time of testing upon us, because they do not have it within themselves, their families, and their church communities to do so. My book is meant as a wake-up call to this reality, and as a spur to Christians to start doing the things necessary to prepare for the present and coming ordeals.

A reader this morning sent me these words from Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, in a speech to a Eucharistic Conference in Philadelphia in 1976, two years prior to becoming Pope:

We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel.

“We must be prepared to undergo great trials in the not-too-distant future; trials that will require us to be ready to give up even our lives, and a total gift of self to Christ and for Christ. Through your prayers and mine, it is possible to alleviate this tribulation, but it is no longer possible to avert it. . . .How many times has the renewal of the Church been brought about in blood! It will not be different this time.

Stark words, to put it mildly. If you think the opening to The Benedict Option [4] was alarmist, how do you judge the words of St. John Paul II? For contemporary Christians in the West, optimism is untenable, but hope is mandatory. We had better be about digging down deep and discovering the wellspring of hope.

So, while I believe there are non-religious reasons to be skeptical of the New Optimism, there really is no reason why faithful Christians should be gulled by it. The spiritual matters more than the material.

UPDATE: A reader writes to say that he has just finished reading Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment:

I was struck at the end of the book when the narrator recounts Raskolnikov’s apocalyptic dream. Raskolnikov, of course, had murdered two women earlier in the novel out of a misguided attempt to become the Extraordinary Man (what Nietzche would later call the ubermensch). The dream is sort of a horror show of what would happen if everybody embraced this nihilism and believed himself to be an Extraordinary Man. I’ve bolded a part that stood out to me because of its description of our time. But I am also struck by the solution to the plague of nihilism in the dream: essentially, it is the Benedict Option.

One of the things I noted in one of the discussions that we had was that nihilism and the postmodern rejection of reality is the natural outgrowth of the Cartesian model. Descartes’s attempt to save reality by locating it within cognition (cogito ergo sum). But as the Raskolnikov character demonstrates in Crime and Punishment, the cognitive self is not necessarily the unity that Descartes had hoped; and with its fracturing, and entire reality based upon his model has fractured as well.

Anyhow, here is the relevant passage. It is in Epilogue II on page 461-462 of the third edition of the Nortion Critical Edition translated by Coulson:

“He had dreamt in his illness that the whole world was condemned to fall victim to a terrible, unknown pestilence what was moving on Europe out of the depths of Asia. All were destined to perish, except a chosen few, a very few. There had appeared a new strain of trichinae, microscopic creatures parasitic in men’s bodies. But these creatures were endowed with intelligence and will. People who were infected immediately became like men possessed and out of their minds. But never, never, had any men thought themselves so wise and so unshakable in the truth as those who were attacked. Never had they considered their judgement, their scientific deductions, or their moral convictions and creeds more infallible. Whole communities, whole cities and nations, were infected and went mad. All were full of anxiety, and none could understand any other; each thought he was the sole repository of truth and was tormented when he looked at the others, beat his beast, wrung his hands, and wept. They did not know how or whom to judge and could not agree what was evil and what was good. They did not know whom to condemn and whom to acquit. Men killed one another in senseless rage, They banded together against one another in great armies, but when the armies were already on the march they began to fight among themselves, the armies disintegrated, the soldiers fell on their neighbours, they thrust and cut, they killed and ate one another. In the towns, the tocsin sounded all day long, and called out all the people, but who had summoned them and why nobody knew, and everybody was filled with alarm. The most ordinary callings were abandoned, because every man put forward his own ideas, his own improvements, and there was no agreement; the labourers forsook the land. In places men congregated in groups, agreed together on some action, swore not to disband–and immediately began to do something quite different from what they themselves had proposed, accused one anther, fought and killed each other. Conflagrations were started, famine set in. All things and all men were perishing. The plague grew and spread wider and wider. In the whole world only a few could save themselves, a chosen handful of the pure, who were destined to found a new race of men and a new life, to renew and cleanse the earth; but nobody had ever seen them anywhere, nobody had head their voices or their words.”

87 Comments (Open | Close)

87 Comments To "Against The New Optimism"

#1 Comment By Khalid On August 1, 2017 @ 10:21 am

I think Grumpy Realist makes a very good point. I hear this from mullahs all the time- a disproportionate focus on sexuality and moral decadence ( read: the decadence of women). Hardly ever anything on the economic system, with its focus on an unbridled individualism, or on the military- industrial complex.

The problem for the so- called religious or cultural conservatives is that some of them have supported an unfettered capitalism and not been very much concerned about communities, the working class or the environment.

#2 Comment By post tenebras lux On August 1, 2017 @ 10:25 am

The problem is not the world. The problem is that for decades, the “conservative” churches have let the spirit of worldliness slowly drip into congregational and family life, all while railing against the sins of a worldly society. The sheep follow and seek pastors who itch their ears. The sheep who hear their master’s voice are in the minority, not just in society, but in their own congregations. As another commenter stated, the church has lost its saltiness. The church over focuses on the sins “out there”, and minimizes or rationalizes the leaven within. In sum, the church is finally reaping what it has sown- worldliness. Yet it continues to blame the world. A strange combination of Rousseau and Puritanism.

[NFR: Rarely have I heard a pastor at any church “rail” against anything. Has anybody else here? — RD]

#3 Comment By Joan On August 1, 2017 @ 10:34 am

Oh, Rod. Sometimes I think you have two religions: Christianity and traditional community worship. You sound like you really believe that, when there’s lots of social pressure on individuals to act like Christians, that means there’s a lot of faith, rather than a lot of hypocrisy. And maybe that, when unhappy couples are forced to stick together through punitive divorce laws and more social pressure, that means they aren’t actually unhappy, or that their children somehow have a better experience of life than they would if the parents went their separate ways before the home atmosphere got all bitter and toxic. (Yes, I’m writing from experience here.) 

Traditional communities are held together by traditional economics: small communities whose economies are made up of family farms and small family businesses, education that mixes ages and is fitted in around the need for child labor, and a modicum of alienation and even hostility from the outside world to maintain community loyalty. In this sort of environment, the peer group is naturally weaker than the family and a childhood spent working with ones parents gives an early experience of subordinating oneself to a stronger and wiser individual that predisposes the child to faith in an omnipotent and omniscient deity. While I won’t go so far as to argue that the Amish and the polygyny-practicing jack Mormons owe their survival as communities entirely to the fact that those communities are organized in just this way, I’m sure that it is a contributing factor. 

The factors breaking down traditional family life are not the media, porn, and Richard Dawkins. They are easy travel, the laws against child labor (which mean that most of us have little or no experience of making a contribution to the material support of our households of origin), and an economy in which most people get their grocery money from some large organization that pays little or no attention to their family relationships. Furthermore, we don’t work alongside our parents from an early enough age to be impressed by their mastery of economically valuable tasks we can’t do yet (as opposed to modern housework, most of which is aesthetic labor of the sort that our ancestors seldom had time for). We lose our awe at them at such an early age that we never develop that capacity for awe that predisposes a person toward lifelong religious devotion. I also suspect that the disappearance of economically valuable livestock from most households is a factor because children don’t learn from an early age to place a high value on offspring. If you want to see the faith restored on a society-wide scale, you’ll have to crash the industrial economy and keep it crashed. Never let it arise again. 

#4 Comment By Rosita On August 1, 2017 @ 10:53 am

“I’ve lived my spiritual life witnessing the self-interest of Christian institutions, churches and their affiliates. My contempt for their ease and comfort out of their privileged positions in society is exceeded only by my contentment that they are suffering the decline of their power in direct proportion to the self-interest which motivated them to acquire, maintain and use that power. In all of that, I am admittedly resembling Rod’s Law of Merited Impossibility. I won’t be surprised of some (most) will dismiss me on that basis, even as I qualify it to observing that some of the ex-powerful really do deserve their desserts, and projecting that to Christians as a group is at least as egregious an example of corrupted privilege as those ex-powerful have demonstrated.

What goes around comes around: There is documented evidence of the Christian hegemony harming others. Those others and their allies are beginning to replace that hegemony with one of their own. They will seek revenge, q.e.d. They’ll call it justice, reparations, what-have-you, but it will be the deliberate use of power to punish, oppress or suppress those they believe deserve it. They are prepared with ideological justifications for how they will use their power, and the only difference between them and the former Christian powerful is that they won’t be citing The Holy Bible.”

Captured my sentiments perfectly. Thank you for this!!!!!

#5 Comment By March Hare On August 1, 2017 @ 11:20 am

“When Christianity appeared, the Roman Empire was at the height of its powers: supremely organized, it dominated the known world; its technical and military prowess had no rival. Nonetheless, it had no chance.”

For people whose entire world view seems to be based on the decline of the (smaller, poorer western half of) the Roman Empire, would it be too much to ask that you get the basic history right? Yes Jesus was born and died when this empire was at its height–some of Jesus’ older relatives may have been old enough to remember Jerusalem before the Romans arrived. They’d only ben there for 60-some years. But this is NOT true of the period in which Christianity actually grew. Much of that growth took place in the second and third centuries, when the Empire was a political, economic, demographic and military mess.

When Constantine had the miraculous vision that led to his conversion, he was preparing for a battle against fellow Romans, and this military infighting had been a common event for many decades.

“When modern science appeared, medieval Christianity was a complete, comprehensive system which explained both man and the universe; it was the basis for government, the inspiration for knowledge and art, the arbiter of war as of peace and the power behind the production and distribution of wealth—none of which was sufficient to prevent its downfall.”

Again, could we actually look at what was going on inside that church? Even diehard Catholics concede that the church leadership was wildly corrupt at this time. It was a complete, comprehensive system all right. But with the exception of some really cool painting and architecture, that system was hardly worth defending.

#6 Comment By JonF On August 1, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

Re: Rarely have I heard a pastor at any church “rail” against anything. Has anybody else here?

Well, my priest in Ft Lauderdale once railed against people arriving way late and then sneaking out right after Communion to raid the coffee and donuts in the hall. But that’s about it for religious railery in any church I’ve been to.

#7 Comment By KS On August 1, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

@Joan, you are too easily dismissing the effect of all our autonomy including on women. That is houellebecqs critique.

Culture put a lid on the harshest aspects of our Darwinian instincts, for men their polygamous nature and for women their hypergamous nature. In return you got something like a stable family unit with all its benefits (and costs too).

If the family unit is broken now it is in large part because women no longer value it.

And there may be value in this for some women. The extra autonomy is invigorating.

What houellebecq observes is the dark side of this autonomy. In the end we are social creatures. Having all kinds of autonomy is interesting at 25, you can swipe left and keep looking for something better. At 45 less so. And life is a continuous procession if getting old.

Everything has a shadow side.

#8 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On August 1, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

The factors breaking down traditional family life are not the media, porn, and Richard Dawkins. They are easy travel, the laws against child labor (which mean that most of us have little or no experience of making a contribution to the material support of our households of origin), and an economy in which most people get their grocery money from some large organization that pays little or no attention to their family relationships. Furthermore, we don’t work alongside our parents from an early enough age to be impressed by their mastery of economically valuable tasks we can’t do yet (as opposed to modern housework, most of which is aesthetic labor of the sort that our ancestors seldom had time for). We lose our awe at them at such an early age that we never develop that capacity for awe that predisposes a person toward lifelong religious devotion. I also suspect that the disappearance of economically valuable livestock from most households is a factor because children don’t learn from an early age to place a high value on offspring. If you want to see the faith restored on a society-wide scale, you’ll have to crash the industrial economy and keep it crashed. Never let it arise again.

Joan,

Not for the first time (assuming you’re the same ‘Joan’ who comments here and on other TAC pages), but this is a super-smart and really good observation. I’ll try to respond at more length in a bit, but +1000, I agree wholeheartedly and couldn’t say it any better.

We are facing a very serious crisis today, but it’s not really (in my view) a crisis of sexual morality, or a crisis of the family, or a crisis of orthodox faith, or even a crisis of inequality although that’s a very serious problem on its own. First and foremost it’s a crisis of how late capitalist society has distorted human labour, separated us from the processes of growing and making things, and rendered labour increasingly superfluous.

Such a system is poisonous to human nature and I just hope it falls sooner rather than later, although I fear that when it does fall the collapse isn’t ging to be pretty.

#9 Comment By Erich Schwarz On August 1, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

“We are also running out of gas, literally. It might take a few more decades and of course some doomsayers have been proven wrong. But the naive extrapolation of the Optimists can hardly be taken seriously either.”

I’m 53. I’m old enough to remember 1977, forty years ago, when I was being told that doom was inevitably going to come soon, for pretty much exactly the same reasons that I’m being told it now.

There’s several different objections one can have with the “New Optimism”. One objection, that I take to be Mr. Dreher’s point, is that it measures the wrong things. Another objection, that I take to be the point of the ‘running out of gas’ commenter, is that, sure, things *look* like they might be working out, but Nemesis is going to punish us for our hubris any minute now!

To the latter, I have a question: what external, observable, objective observation could anybody else make that you are willing to agree would prove you wrong?

Is there any trace of falsifiability in your prediction of doom, or is it reality-proof?

Because this is the year 2017 A.D., I have been hearing this song of doom for four decades, and I am not entirely convinced that it’s accurate. How many more decades am I supposed to wait before I’m allowed to believe my own lying eyes?

#10 Comment By Erich Schwarz On August 1, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

“What goes around comes around: There is documented evidence of the Christian hegemony harming others. Those others and their allies are beginning to replace that hegemony with one of their own. They will seek revenge …”

This commenter, and people like this commenter, are creating an incentive structure in which the way to be a successful, happy, safe Christian will be to kill all the non-Christians, and let God sort them out.

Are these ‘whee! revenge!’ commenters totally sure that they want to experience the consequences of this rather poorly thought out political decision of theirs?

Because, make no mistake: this is how you get Trump; and this is how you get the alt-Right. When decent conservatives are the prey of leftists, that’s a Darwinian selection in favor of … rather less decent conservatives.

#11 Comment By JonF On August 1, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

Re: Culture put a lid on the harshest aspects of our Darwinian instincts, for men their polygamous nature and for women their hypergamous nature.

Can we please dump the word “hypergamy”? Parsed literally it means “Marrying A WHOLE LOT”, like Liz Taylor or Henry VIII (see: “hyperactive” as an example of what “hyper-” should actually be used for as a prefix).

Re: If the family unit is broken now it is in large part because women no longer value it.
And there may be value in this for some women. The extra autonomy is invigorating.

And men have nothing to do with this supposed trend? Wow. I mean, just wow– let’s whitewash half the human race of its sins.
And happily in the real world most people, men and women, still want to get married, whether they actually do or not. Perhaps we might even consider what practical impediments might exist to their doing in cases when they don’t.

#12 Comment By Indrid Cold On August 1, 2017 @ 5:08 pm

As a heathen, it seems to me that Christianity is itself largely responsible for the condition Europe finds itself. A totalitarian ideology that inspired Islam in the first place, it is why EU leaders insist on flooding Europe with ‘refugees’. Our poor brethren from Africa need to move in so the whole world can be poor.

#13 Comment By Seven sleepers On August 1, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

@Zach

“How is that not monstrous?”

Ju ever wonder why the people that worship “Non-binary” have the most monstrously binary thoughts?

So, in your example, the choice is between starving to death and religious or *every* need is fulfilled and atheist….wow. Sounds like you live in a magical kingdom already. No middle ground on either of these huh?

#14 Comment By Dave in Georgia On August 1, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

The true conservatives are always optimists — we’re positive things will get worse.

#15 Comment By Judith Sylvester On August 1, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

“[NFR: Rarely have I heard a pastor at any church “rail” against anything. Has anybody else here? — RD]”

I gather you have never been to a Pentecostal church service.

#16 Comment By Erich Schwarz On August 1, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

“If you want to see the faith restored on a society-wide scale, you’ll have to crash the industrial economy and keep it crashed. Never let it arise again.”

So, basically, the argument is that the entire human race needs to be reduced to poverty and kept there forever to have a reasonable likelihood of not losing its soul?

That’s going to be hard to get people to agree to, and relying on ‘inevitable’ collapse may not be the most reliable strategy either.

#17 Comment By daniel On August 1, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

I often wonder what Walker Percy would have made of Houllebecq. I doubt Houllebecq has ever read (or heard of?) him, but there are times it seems he’s been cribbing from Uncle Walker, line by line, trope by trope, theme by theme. (Unnattached, over-abstracted, often brilliant single men with unruly libidoes wandering lost in the nihilist landscape of consumerist modernity, etc.) I’ve searched online for commentary comparing them, and the only thing I remember was a review in the Washingtonian magazine reviewing Soumission with a quote from Lost in the Cosmos.

My knowledge of literature and Novels is pretty deficient , so the similarities may be just a common 20th/21st century existentialist angst that maybe is shared with Updike or Bellow or Mailer or whoever. Still….

#18 Comment By Craig On August 1, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

Interesting comments by Joan and KS.

I am curious about Rod’s observation that history has given us many examples of societies and even civilizations that have been ruined by wealth. It would be nice to have specific examples cited (and counter examples also given).

The developed parts of the world are vastly richer and enormously better off than they were in 1800. Shall we discard all of that economic progress out of concern for our spiritual well being? I find it hard to embrace the notion that spiritual health can only thrive in under conditions of economic deprivation. Bring back famine, plague, and war to purify our souls? How grim.

#19 Comment By Pusillanimous On August 1, 2017 @ 8:58 pm

these kinds of doomsday analyses tend towards the narcissistic, but in reverse. One constantly sees one’s own religion and culture in decline, and some enemy in the ascendant. It’s a reversal of the usual inflationary self-obsession we have seen not just in Christianity, but in many other religions, including Islam. But the truth is, all religions are in decline, especially Islam, which has even less of a chance of surviving the modern world than Christianity. Christianity, especially of the traditional sort, has plenty of problems to face in its face-off against the modern world, but none that are truly insurmountable. Islam, on the other hand, has a hard time bending without breaking. That is why its fundamentalists are so violent and uncompromising. They realize they have nowhere to go but Jihad. Whereas Christians have lots of options. Including the Benedict Option, though that is far from the only one.

#20 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 1, 2017 @ 11:37 pm

[5]:

This commenter, and people like this commenter, are creating an incentive structure in which the way to be a successful, happy, safe Christian will be to kill all the non-Christians, and let God sort them out.

Don’t use passive-aggressive phrasing, Erich. It looks pompous. If you intend to be pompous, just own it.

“This commenter [sic]” is a Pagan. That really doesn’t matter as much as the last 15 centuries or so of non-Christians being killed by Christians, or nominally being saved by them, who expected God to just send them all to Hell if they failed to convert. In the meantime, if you had been reading “this commenter [sic] and people like this commenter [sic]” with any level of comprehension, you’d see this commenter [sic] describing, not offering an opinion.

It doesn’t matter. Rod knows exactly what I’m talking about. I’m sorely tempted to offer you a troll biscuit, especially with both of your posts, but you might magically change it to straw and make a man out of it.

#21 Comment By KS On August 2, 2017 @ 12:44 am

@JonF,

“And men have nothing to do with this supposed trend? Wow. I mean, just wow– let’s whitewash half the human race of its sins.”

They don’t. Men still carry the old chivalry in them, and marriage and family generally give a man purpose and meaning. They root him. Polygamy for men is still deeply frowned on.

Majority of divorces are initiated by women. Our post-modern culture encourages a woman’s hypergamy in the name of personal freedom.

There is a built in unhappiness in the concept of marriage. Man must squash his polygamous nature. After the sex has gotten stale, he has to keep at it, and find ways to find his wife attractive. He has to resist the temptation of the attractive girl he ran into the other day etc. etc. The marriage won’t work otherwise.

Woman has to squash her hypergamous nature. Yes, there is another guy down the block who has more money and higher social status. And the husband looks like just an ordinary fellow. But she has to resist the impulse to go mate with the higher status man. The marriage wont work otherwise.

In return for enduring this pain of suppressing primal instincts, you get the benefits of a stable home, the depth of the pair bond, family, culture etc.

The contract only works when both parties are ready to squash the harsher sides to their instincts. It doesn’t work when only one side is asked to.

Houellebecq (indirectly) just points out the darkside of this hypergamy (among the other dark sides he points out. He is an expert at pointing out dark sides). If you are feeling unhappiness in your marriage you can work on it or you can leave, yes, but how many such marriages will you leave? At some point you will burn out. Going on a first date at 25 is exciting. Going on a first date at 45 is a bad chore. At 55 an ordeal. (for most, there will be degrees and exceptions)

#22 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On August 2, 2017 @ 3:10 am

Kudos to connecticut farmer for reminding us the difference between optimism and hope.

#23 Comment By Johannes On August 2, 2017 @ 5:10 am

It has nothing to do with “punished for hybris”. It is all science and common sense. (For some very general reflections on why we cannot keep adhering to the growth dogma, check out “Do the math” by a physics professor.)

You probably do not believe that there is an infinite amount of fossile fuels? So we are going to run out *eventually*. Obviously, there is quite a bit still there and we are willing to accept lower returns of energy invested than before to get it. But at some stage this will not work out anymore. We will witness effects even earlier. Behold the boom-bust of the tar sand exploitation that only is financially viable if oil is very expensive.
So we are going to go all wind and sun, then. To use these sources is a good thing but it cannot replace fossile fuels. One cannot produce the huge steel rotors for windfarms with energy from windfarms, one needs the more concentrated energy of fossiles.

We have known since the early 70s that we are ruining the environment and depleting important resources. Except for a few local changes and a lot of lip service we have not changed anything. There are more cars on the roads than ever before. In countries that still have decen public transport this infrastructure has often changed for the worse partly because of mismanagement, partly because of the power of the automotive industry lobbies.

#24 Comment By Martin Mugar On August 2, 2017 @ 7:40 am

The French writer Celine(not the singer or handbag maker)is not only a precursor to Houellebecq but looks a lot like him.He described an equally destitute time and is unmatched in his nihilism. Although there is more wit and humor a kind of whistling in the dark humor.
[6]

#25 Comment By Ben H On August 2, 2017 @ 10:14 am

Maybe the most loathsome characteristic of the globalist class is the pervasive moral self- congratulation.

This phony optimism is an attempt to tap into that (speaking tours!).

#26 Comment By Erich Schwarz On August 2, 2017 @ 11:29 am

“You probably do not believe that there is an infinite amount of fossile fuels?”

We’ve got a very large quantity of carbon-based fuels, actually; hundreds of years, if we use coal. More importantly, and more positively for those of us concerned about global warming, is that we have an essentially *infinite* amount of non-carbon-based energy — because E = mc^2.

For more on this general topic, see:

[7]

#27 Comment By Erich Schwarz On August 2, 2017 @ 11:44 am

Mr. Dreher: apparently the doomster critics of technology are correct, because I’ve tried to post a comment four times and had it just disappear into the ether. Possibly, on your end, all of these comments are showing up. If that’s happened, please delete all but the first one. Meanwhile, I hope we get better at running nuclear power plants than we seem to be at transmitting bits over the Intertubes…

#28 Comment By Tate On August 2, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

The modern phenomenon of sustained economic growth should not be underappreciated. The fact that we’re able to communicate with one another like we currently are, rather than toiling in the soil all day, is an artifact of sustained economic growth. The fact that children are able to spend their labor efforts in educational pursuits as a matter of course, rather than working most of their waking hours, is due to economic growth. Indeed, the fact that they survive to adulthood with few exceptions can be attributed to economic growth. Pointing this out is not Pollyannish.

The quotation about Ridley really understates just how unprecedented world economic progress is. And most people have no idea. Most think the poor are getting poorer (indeed, at one point in “The Benedict Option,” Dreher seems to think that ‘increasing economic inequality’ means some people are necessarily getting poorer).

Should hearing that the portion of the world population living on a dollar a day has been halved over the past couple of decades automatically make one happy? Not necessarily. But to think of it as irrelevant as to whether the world is getting better seems callous and narcissistic.

#29 Comment By JonF On August 2, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

KS,

A long-untended field populated by taurine quadrupeds would have less you-know-what in it than your comment absolving men of any sin in matters of the heart and hearth and putting all the blame on women.
You need to get out more. If you do, and look at the world through naked eyesight not ideologically tainted glasses, you will find that men and women both behave badly at whiles, and there are good reasons why some of them have no success at romance– and why when they do wed their marriages later fail. “There is no one righteous,” as Scripture says, “No one!”

As I pointed out above the word “hypergamy” is nonsense, unless applied to people who have racked up an astonishing number if trips to the alter. Moreover if you pay any attention to reality wealthy high-status men tend to prefer wealthy high-status women as wives these days, perhaps even more so than in the past. There’s even been a fair amount of commentary on the fact that there is less and less marriage across classes than there used to be. Barring very unusual circumstances a working class woman will only find a working class man as a potential lover and husband, no matter what childish dreams she had of a prince sweeping her off her feet. So no, women are not all waiting for some rich guy. They would however like a guy who attends to basic hygiene and has a job and does something more than play video games and pop the cap off another cold one all day long.

#30 Comment By KS On August 2, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

@JonF

*shrug* you can deny, (and your last comment is pretty lame, just another way to shame men). But the reality is out there. Most divorces are initiated by women. Eat Pray Love was the ultimate hypergamous fantasy (as was fifty shades) and so was wildly popular.

Eat Pray Love: lady is bored, goes on a holiday, meets exotic foreigner to marry,which is a great boost of social status when she returns. BTW in real life the eat pray love lady divorced her brazilian beau.

Fifty Shades: regular college girl meets ridiculously rich guy who has nothing better to do but role play in her fantasies all day long.

Hey we all have our fantasies, men have them too lol.

Our culture still suggests requirements for men for things like marriage but currently says that all requirements on women are wrong.

Even the restraints on men are diluted, with a complete map-less autonomy held up as the ideal. And that is Houellebecq’s critique, that without a map we don’t have a clue. Ultimately culture is just that, a map, laid out by those who took the journey before, like messages in a bottle as Joseph Campbell called them.

Now some of the map may get obsolete and need to be refreshed periodically, but our ideal is of a map-less autonomy. Mostly we flounder. We have no idea how to navigate the waters, no idea how to make things work.

And all that map-less autonomy atomizes us, makes us elementary particles. Get it, that’s the name of the book.

#31 Comment By Rob G On August 3, 2017 @ 7:41 am

If historical-societal optimism is part and parcel of your ideology then anyone who questions such optimism must be tarred as a “declinist” and/or an opponent of (or at least a stumbling block to) Progress.

If Progressives believe, as they must, that despite the occasional regression humanity is constantly improving “overall,” it makes it almost impossible to posit any instance of decline, because such an instance must necessarily be ultimately insubstantial. The overall “forward” motion of history will eventually subsume all such instances, just as a river subsumes all eddies and back-currents. All conservative examples of decline must be therefore recast in one way or another so as to fit the supercessionist metanarrative. Needless to say, this makes debates about “progress” and “decline” quite difficult, as is evinced constantly on this blog.

#32 Comment By JonF On August 3, 2017 @ 1:27 pm

Re: your last comment is pretty lame, just another way to shame men

Some men need to be shamed, KS. Having a “y” chromosome does not grant you a halo over your head. I’ve known a few of that clan (and please note, I’m a guy, as Rod and Franklin and Leslie Fain can attest; this is not some personal bitterness talking as I suspect may the case with you). Now, are there men who have been screwed over by women? Absolutely! But there are also women screwed over by men– because people (yes, people in general) can really suck, and some people (not women, not men, people) are total jerks, users, liars, cads, b***es, and worse.
Your “men’s whine” ideology is quite frankly one of the more ludicrous faragoes of fermented nonsense I have read hereabouts. I suppose every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and this is just the other side of some of the more rancid flights of dark fantasy penned from the fever swamps of the crazier misandrist left. But both ideologies need to be sunk in the ocean deeps, “to the betterment of mankind and the detriment of the fishes.”

And meanwhile here’s a fact to chew on: married men are, on the average, healthier, happier (by self-reporting) and have more sex than their single brethren. And for both sexes as one ages and becomes less attractive to the opposite sex (or to one’s own if that’s how the screen door swings) marriage affords affection and companionship on a level not easily available to those who are alone. Men do indeed get something worthwhile out of marriage.

#33 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 3, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

KS,

Your basing your argument on popular culture is beyond naive. Such things obtain attention — and profits for their “makers” — well out of proportion to their resemblance to reality.

Please read up on the documented history of marriage laws, domestic violence and the original reasons why women were “given” the right to own property, deny their husbands sex on demand, and have legal recourse when they were the targets of violence.

I won’t argue statistics with you. I will politely rub your nose in the fact that the vast majority of child abandonment of the last century was men leaving. Most of them never bothered to file for divorce.

#34 Comment By KS On August 3, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

@jonF

On an individual level ymmv whether man or woman, but on a cultural level it is true, our current zeitgeist encourages requirements for men, and none for women. Our culture actively encourages a woman’s hypergamy.

Of course men get things out of marriage, that’s what I wrote, you read that didnt you? Marriage roots a man, gives him meaning and purpose, ends the confusion in his head.

Marriage gives different things to woman, namely a safe space to raise the children, especially in those early years when the infant needs continuous care.

And that brings us to a different point: another film, ‘as good as it gets’. Magnificent film of course, great acting, funny, tender love story. Fiction yes, but still, do note that the story only works because Jack Nicholson’s character is very rich. Ask yourself would it work if he wasn’t. Nope.

And the story also works because she needs him. His financial clout helps pay for her kid’s bills. That encourages her to see the goodness in him, to go past his OCD.

Ask yourself, would the story work if she was rich? Of course not. She could afford the child’s treatment herself. Now eventually she fell in love with him, but the need made her take the effort to go past his obvious issues. If she didn’t need to, why would she have made the effort.

Now this is not to say that she shouldn’t get rich. Of course she should. Here we are discussing the consequences intended or not, good or bad.

And that’s the thing our culture of plenty-o-choices makes it easy to avoid making the effort. You can always swipe left (man or woman).

In practical reality, making relating work is a lot more mundane. No matter how rich and groomed the guy will always have some annoying habits. No matter how alluring the girl will always have something that drives the guy crazy. And day-to-day relating is less about glamour and more about just making daily habits tolerable.

So it is for most things besides dating and marriage. Choice, abundance make it more difficult to accept the hardship required to make things work, whether your marriage, your business, the art project you are working on. So they require extra discipline on our part.

#35 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On August 3, 2017 @ 11:18 pm

Blah, Blah, Blah, some of the first writing was a lamentation on the human condition. Egypt: 3,000 B.C. Humanity has been declared dead and gone for a long time. We ain’t going anywhere.

#36 Comment By JonF On August 4, 2017 @ 6:28 am

Re: Marriage gives different things to woman

Well, different people as individuals get different things from their marriages, but everyone, men and women both, gets companionship, practical help with stuff, and (unlike mere roommate situations) sex.
Your last comment abandons the ideology and makes some sense. My last word on this topic is simply this: Beware of fitting people onto the Procustean bed of (any) ideology-== most of us do not fit.

#37 Comment By JD On August 4, 2017 @ 8:37 am

Isn’t there also a self-aggrandising reason for wanting to believing in cultural catastrophism ? If the falling away from Christianity did not result in utter ruin, could the faith still claim to be as important as its adherents say it is ?