Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Empire And ‘The Desolation Of Reality’

Having lost our sacred tradition, and wracked by consequences of imperial hubris, we Americans are 'set down naked beneath the stars'
Screen Shot 2021-09-05 at 7.26.41 PM

Hello all, from Siena, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I’m spending the night here before heading out tomorrow with a friend to make a pilgrimage, more on which tomorrow. Meanwhile, Ross Douthat’s column today makes for extremely sobering reading. He writes that America looks like a declining empire (an observation that I have heard again and again over the last eight days from worried European conservatives):

The American imperium can’t be toppled by the Taliban. But in our outer empire, in Western Europe and East Asia, perceived U.S. weakness could accelerate developments that genuinely do threaten the American system as it has existed since 1945 — from German-Russian entente to Japanese rearmament to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Inevitably those developments would affect the inner empire, too, where a sense of accelerating imperial decline would bleed into all our domestic arguments, widen our already yawning ideological divides, encourage the feeling of crackup and looming civil war.

Which is why you can think, as I do, that it’s a good thing that we finally ended our futile engagement in Afghanistan and still fear some of the possible consequences of the weakness and incompetence exposed in that retreat.

Oh look, it has just been reported that the Taliban are holding American hostages:

More humiliation of America is on the way. If you were alive in 1979 for the Iran hostage drama, you surely have a sinking feeling in your gut.

Are we Rome? I have had that question front to mind for at least twenty years, I guess. Sixteen years ago, when I first started writing about the idea that became my book The Benedict Option, the concept of America as an exhausted imperial power seemed kind of insane. We were the globe’s hyperpower, and though we had walked into a buzzsaw in Iraq, most people would not have taken seriously the late Imperial Rome comparison. To refresh your memory, what gave me the Benedict Option concept was philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s comparison of our time to the last days of the Roman West, and his claim that people of virtue today – those who want to hold on to the old traditions of the West – should make an exit of this dying civilization and form communities within which those virtues can be lived out.

When he said that we await a new and doubtless very different St. Benedict, he meant that we need a figure like Benedict of Nursia, who can respond creatively to the crisis of our time, and forge a new way of living fruitfully under these circumstances. My own claim is that all of us faithful small-o orthodox Christians must be Benedicts of the 21st century. This dying empire is not going to be saved, so the best we can do is figure out concrete ways to keep the Christian faith alive through this new dark age, preserving the light for the rebirth we pray will come, though surely long after we pass from this earth.

My project received what I counted as a tremendous vote of confidence in 2015 when, visiting the Benedictine monastery in Norcia (the saint’s hometown), the then-prior, Father Cassian Folsom, heard me out, then said that any Christian family who expects to endure through the coming storm will have to follow some version of the Benedict Option.

I published the book in 2017, as you know, and it engendered immediate controversy. I expected that, and some of the debate was good. After all, I could be wrong, and if so, I want to know it. But most of the griping was from people who had not read the book, and were sure that I was simply saying to head for the hills and pull up the drawbridge. As I made clear in the book itself, I don’t believe that there is any real head-for-the-hills escape available to us, but we must nevertheless figure out ways to live with a disciplined faith even as we remain embedded within society.

The example I point to is Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, the three young Hebrew men from the Book of Daniel, who were so embedded within Babylonian society that they were advisers to the king. But when that king ordered them to worship an idol, they all chose the prospect of martyrdom before apostasy. For us, the Benedict Option lesson is to figure out how those faithful Hebrew men lived in Babylon without letting Babylon live in them. If we can master that, we have a chance.

A year ago, I was in Nashville to speak at a Q conference. Backstage, I met a young megachurch pastor from Portland, Oregon. He told me that when The Benedict Option first appeared, most people in his circles thought it was too extreme. “Now, it’s our reality,” he said. He explained that in just three short years, his congregation had gone from being tolerated in Portland as harmless eccentrics to being despised as wicked. He added that what happens in Portland will not stay there – that this is coming for all of America eventually. He is now a proponent of the Benedict Option.

In 2021, the late Roman metaphor is a lot less extreme than it seemed in 2005, or even in 2017. Again, read the Douthat column. I fully agree with him that the US had to withdraw from Afghanistan, but that the withdrawal, and the hubris that led America to attempt nation-building in the first place, reveals us to be a nation in imperial decline. One can be grateful that we are moving away from empire – I certainly am – while also recognizing that such a decline will have seriously bad consequences, or at least is closely associated with seriously bad consequences.

It seems increasingly clear that this century belongs to China. I don’t like this at all. China has figured out what neither Mao nor Stalin knew: how to be rich and totalitarian. The Chinese also seem to be figuring out from watching us how to avoid some of the things that are leading to our own disintegration. Did you notice that the Chinese have now banned young people from playing video games for more than three hours a week during the school week? When I read that, I thought about my physician friend telling me a couple of years ago that he is starting to see in his office a parade of young men from good middle class families who are failing to thrive. All they want to do is play video games and smoke pot. The Chinese also have taken a harder line against LGBT thought and expression, banning LGBT accounts from the WeChat service.

Recently in Hungary, I spoke to a middle-class Catholic woman who was deeply distressed about her son. She said he’s 19, and pays attention to no media other than English-language news and entertainment. Consequently, his views are all informed by the biases and convictions of the US and UK media class.

She says he asked her recently if she had ever kissed a girl. She told him of course not, and expressed shock that he asked her such a question. He shrugged, and said there’s a lot of same-sex experimentation among his peers. They have all bought into gender ideology, and believe that sexual desire is and should be fluid, and so should gender identity. Mind you, this is in Hungary, a country that is more socially conservative in these matters than the US. The Orban government passed a law this past summer forbidding LGBT propaganda from being broadcast or otherwise disseminated among young people, but the truth is, in an era where the young learn English, and the Internet exists, a law like that – and it’s a law I support — is going to be of limited effectiveness.

One worries about this behavior because that sort of instability makes it harder to form stable families, which are necessary for the continuation of civilization. But that’s not all of it. The Hungarian woman told me her son and all his friends say that they don’t want to have children. They are all terrified of climate catastrophe. Imagine that: this boy’s grandparents and great-grandparents endured World War II; his grandparents and parents endured Communism. He was born into a free Hungary, one that was growing more prosperous than the previous two generations could have dreamed, and yet he, and his generation, are losing the will to live, and dissipating themselves in hedonistic chaos and despair.

A year ago, I cited in this space information from the Democratic data guru David Shor indicating that 30 percent of adult American women aged 25 and under consider themselves to be LGBT. Unsurprisingly, the fertility rate in the US is at an historic low. There is a connection. Presumably some of these women who identify as lesbian will want to have children at some point. Those who identify as bisexual may marry and want to start families (though good luck finding a man who wants to commit to raising kids with a woman who might leave him for another woman), but notice that this sexual confusion occurs during the prime childbearing years of these women. The most important thing that any generation can do is produce the next generation. No families, no children, no future.

China is facing a population crash. Its leaders understand that the future of their country depends on its people being willing to produce future generations. They do not want to encourage Western ideologies that make that task more difficult.

In 1947, Carle C. Zimmerman, head of Harvard’s sociology department, published his book Family And Civilization, which deserves to be rediscovered. In it, he traces in history the connection between family structures and civilizational thriving and decline. Zimmerman found that the strongest family form is what he called the “domestic” family: one that offers more freedom to the individual than its predecessor, the “trustee” family (i.e., the clan), and one that is stronger than its successor, the “nuclear” family. In studying ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages, Zimmerman found that family structure goes in cycles: trustee à domestic à nuclear. Then there is civilizational collapse, after which the cycle begins again. Zimmerman writes of our own time:

There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this family together. Mankind [by which he meant Western man] has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well. Whatever may be our Pollyanna inclination, this fact cannot be avoided. Under any assumptions, the implications will be far reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is social. It is no longer familistic; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.

He goes on:

The only thing that seems certain is that we are again in one of those periods of family decay in which civilization is suffering internally from the lack of a basic belief in the forces which make it work. The problem has existed before. The basic nature of this illness has been diagnosed before. After some centuries, the necessary remedy has been applied. What will be done now is a matter of conjecture. We may do a better job than was done before; we may do a worse one.

Zimmerman wrote this in 1947. He missed the Baby Boom, but otherwise he is right on target. Moreover, as I wrote last year, David Brooks authored an essay pointing out that we are living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. Brooks quotes academic experts who observe that in America (and I would say the West generally), people see marriage now in terms of adult self-fulfillment, not primarily about raising children.

To that I would add that we have taught our children to regard sex itself as primarily a matter of self-fulfillment. We don’t think that sex is for anything other than making one happy in the moment. This is sexual nihilism. We have reached the point where we instruct our young that freedom means the liberty to mutilate themselves sexually, and destroy their capacity, both biologically and psychologically, to reproduce and raise morally sane, healthy children.

Ours is a culture that wants to die.

Similarly, I am always struck when I visit Europe by how passive most Europeans are in the face of waves of migration washing over their continent – waves that are going to turn into a tsunami in this century, given the African birth rate. We saw this in ancient Rome too, with the barbarian invasions. Romans lost the capacity and the will to prevent other peoples from taking their lands. Central European peoples – Hungarians and Poles, in particular – seem to be the only ones who are willing to fight for their own existence as a people.

Three years ago, in a speech to university students, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said:

A situation can arise in one country or another whereby ten percent or more of the total population is Muslim. We can be sure that they will never vote for a Christian party. And when we add to this Muslim population those of European origin who are abandoning their Christian traditions, then it will no longer be possible to win elections on the basis of Christian foundations. Those groups preserving Christian traditions will be forced out of politics, and decisions about the future of Europe will be made without them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the situation, this is the goal, and this is how close we are to seeing it happen.

I’m telling you, Viktor Orban is perhaps the only Western leader who has such a clear vision about the crisis of our time. It is not just a political crisis. It is an existential crisis for Western civilization. The fact that Orban understands what so many of the rest of our leaders do not, or will not, and the fact that he has the courage to say these things in public, tells you why I think that the future of the West, if we have one, depends on Hungary more than we know. Americans who don’t know a thing about Hungary repeat the moronic allegation that it’s a “fascist” country — something even Orban’s Hungarian critics don’t do.

Unlike Orban, who is not ashamed of his culture, Western European elites – and American ones too – can only describe Western civilization as a catalogue of horrors leaving suicide as the only honorable option available to Westerners. For example, I learned just the other day that Cambridge University, one of the oldest and most venerable in the West, is on its way towards “decolonizing” its Classics department. 

If the Soviets or the Nazis had invaded Britain and forced this on Cambridge, we would know exactly what we were seeing: an attempt to subjugate the United Kingdom for a totalitarian ideology by erasing its historical memory. This is happening now – and it is being done by people inside Britain – by a thoroughly corrupt elite that seeks to destroy the foundations of their own civilization in the name of utopia.

For civilizations, patricide is suicide. We know this. We are watching it happen. We execrate the fast and abandon the future. We have concluded that ours is not a civilization worth defending, and propagandize our young to believe the same thing.

I will not defend a social and cultural order that despises the Christian faith, despises the traditional family, despises our common civilizational heritage, and that is working to punish, even persecute, those who will not take a knee before its idols. I will not fight for this culture of death. Will you? Should you? How can we defend America, our home, as patriots, without defending what decadent America has become? Is it possible?

These questions are going to come rushing to the fore domestically as American power recedes. In Italy these past few days, and again in Hungary this weekend, I have heard the same refrain from Catholics: the belief that Netflix in particular and American popular culture in general is corrupting their children. They grew up admiring America, and what we stood for; now they see us as an agent of their own destruction. How are they wrong? The culture producers who are doing this to the Europeans are doing it to us Americans too, and doing it to the whole world. Two years ago, at a Benedict Option conference in Massachusetts, I heard a Nigerian Anglican bishop talk about why his country needs the Benedict Option. I found this hard to understand, but he explained that the influence of US popular culture, pumping its morals into the heads of Nigerian youth through their smartphones, was alienating the next generation from the Christian faith, and Christian morality.

I want to say one more thing about Viktor Orban, drawing on that 2018 speech I cite above. When I tell you that the American media lie constantly about what Orban is, this is what I mean. They say he’s a fascist. Tell me, does this sound like a fascist to you?

The upcoming elections are therefore of the utmost importance. In these elections we must demonstrate that there is an alternative to liberal democracy: it is called Christian democracy. And we must show that the liberal elite can be replaced with a Christian democratic elite. Of course in Central Europe there are many misconceptions related to Christianity and politics, and so here I must make an incidental observation.

Christian democracy is not about defending religious articles of faith – in this case, Christian religious articles of faith. Neither states nor governments have competence on questions of damnation or salvation. Christian democratic politics means that the ways of life springing from Christian culture must be protected. Our duty is not to defend the articles of faith, but the forms of being that have grown from them. These include human dignity, the family, and the nation – because Christianity does not seek to attain universality through the abolition of nations, but through the preservation of nations. Other forms which must be protected and strengthened include our faith communities. This – and not the protection of religious articles of faith – is the duty of Christian democracy.

Orban went on to say that Christian democracy is “illiberal” in these senses:

  1. Liberal democracy favors multiculturalism, while Christian democracy prioritizes Christian culture
  2. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration
  3. Liberal democracy favors “adaptable family models,” which Christian democracy “rests on the foundation of the Christian family model.”

You can say this is illiberal – and Orban would agree with you. But “fascist”? Give me a break.

You see maybe why I think that with the possible exception of the Poles – I don’t know enough to say one way or the other – Viktor Orban is the only Western leader who reads the signs of the times, and is prepared to fight against the dying of the light. American conservatives ought to stand with him, and with Hungary. The alternative is the decadence and dissolution we see around us – and that is also coming to Hungary, borne by pervasive Anglo-American pop culture. Maybe Hungary too will capitulate. But it’s not going down without a fight.

Part of that fight has to include the formation of Benedict Option-style communities, as places of spiritual and cultural regeneration. To that end, I was thrilled to see that PM Orban recommended the Hungarian translation of The Benedict Option to his people. That’s it, second from top:

We need to do this too in America. Eventually reality will reassert itself, but until it does, we have to create families and communities strong enough to resist the onslaught. And we need to elect political leaders who are prepared to fight, and fight intelligently, instead of grift and own the libs, while the libs move from strength to strength.

Finally, on the drive back to Italy today from Hungary, I made it halfway through Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, by Philip Sherrard, the late English convert to Orthodox Christianity. I’m reading it for research into my next book project. Sherrard says in the book that the recovery of our sacred tradition is a matter of civilizational life and death:

It is a matter that concerns our survival in every sense of the word, spiritual, cultural, physical. For the rot has eaten so deeply into the fibers of our world, has so weakened all the threads of the social fabric, every established bond of authority and institution, of family or state, and has so exposed the emptiness of our man-made, man-centered ideas, our illusion of human happiness and prosperity, our calculations of self-help and mutual aid, that everything to which we have been used to look for support or guidance is now, if not actually destroyed, at least so insecure that we can have no confidence in it. Whether we like it or not we have come into the desolation of reality. We are set down naked beneath the stars. Nothing stands between our poor, forked, famished human condition and the great spiritual principles we have tried for so long not to confront. We known now that we cannot escape, and that it is useless to pretend to take refuge in any less absolute predicament.

That insight gives a certain perspective on the famous MacIntyre paragraph:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages.  Nonetheless certain parallels there are.  A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.  What they set themselves to achieve instead–often not recognizing fully what they were doing–was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.  If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point.  What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.  And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.  This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.  We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.

MacIntyre is not telling us to created these little communities for the sake of shoring up the imperium. He is saying that the crisis is too deep for that. Read in light of Sherrard’s lines, we see that to save what we can, we have to begin with our own repentance, our own turning away from the wicked city of the plain that is in the process of destroying itself.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I think you may not understand (as do a lot of conservatives who aren’t single) into how fast the culture has changed with respect to female sexuality and the multiple paths of lesbianism in this regard that has led to the rapid expansion of its membership among women.
If you have young women who are conventionally attractive in mainstream culture, they are going to be aggressively encouraged to engage in sexual conduct by peers for male attention, and there will be similar pressure to eroticize female friendships to open up the possibility for a threesome.
And of course if they aren’t attractive, and don’t want to participate in the male harem fantasy subculture, they can go the radical feminist lesbian standpoint where they don’t need to cater to conventional standards of beauty or appearance.
As far as why men seek out such women, it is because our current culture places high emphasis on the idea of achieving a threesome. The argument that makes a mockery of the Christian ideal of marriage is that achieving that is the brass ring.
There is of course no mention of all the jealousy, destroyed trust, skewed emotions, and all the rest that comes along with this.
This also drives the incel phenomenon, because you end up in the situation where a relatively small subset of men are able to achieve these “ideals” and the rest are left out in the cold and feel anger, resentment, and bitterness because culture has said you are a loser unless you can land a gorgeous woman.
It also massively skews the self-image, emotional development, and general status of young women because they are expected to act and behave like prostitutes and porn stars to land a socially desirable man. The whole idea of situational sexuality as a desired trait among middle and upper class women is likely to strike those outside the West as just as incomprehensible as we see Greek pederasty.
The other commentary on the Douthat column is that Rome could tolerate losses on the frontier because they still had the fundamental idea of Romanitas, the common culture, and solidarity that was sufficient to conquer the ancient world.
We don’t have a modern equivalent. Our closest thing to common culture is in fact an anti-culture where any kind of solidarity is discouraged and discarded, which is why only 1/3 of Americans know or care who their neighbors are.
The outer empire doesn’t matter from the broader security standpoint, it does however matter to keep the cheap flow of goods and resources that sustain the bread and circuses of the masses. You lose that and then the simmering tensions at the core erupt, much like they did in ancient Rome when the Egyptian grain supply required to maintain the public ration was threatened.
Readers, please be patient — I am going to be away from the keys all day, and I won’t be able to approve comments till tonight.

UPDATE: Finally made it back to a wifi connection! Found this from a reader in Australia:

I read your article EMPIRE AND THE ‘DESOLATION OF REALITY’ and was impressed by it.

I’d like to make a few points.

The physician friend you referred to was on to something of vital importance. The failure to thrive that he noticed might in part be an effect of the habitual substitution of virtual or simulated experience for physical and social ones.

The mind intoxicated by a barrage of fantasy (digital entertainment, information etc) rebuilds itself so that the new neural connections become fixated on the unreal. This delivers an addictive dopamine release.

Over-stimulated by artificial lights and sounds, the natural world (of which real, embodied people are a part) becomes progressively less interesting than the forceful stream of intense stimuli…eventually the natural and social world becomes comparatively dull.

People who have been submerged in virtual realities (social media, TV, video games, the internet etc) may well end up experiencing the world as if in a state of partial dematerialization. Ego ideals become progressively unrealistic (the doorway to somatic and gender dysphoria), the concrete becomes lost in the haze of the abstract.

Throw in cannabis (which compromises the function of the frontal neo-cortex) and other drugs, as well as the indoctrination of ideologies marketed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue and the end result is life-denying confusion and futility.

Real life people (family, neighbours, potential friends and lovers) have difficulty competing with idealized perfection on offer in the virtual world.

Destabilised by all this, people become less capable. It is a form of curated disability, which suits a society in which personhood is understood in therapeutic terms.

This tendency l suits the needs of a system in decline, which would have difficulty meeting the needs and expectations of truly healthy and vital young people.

Managing the expectations of the many so that they settle for less (in terms of family formation) ensures less insistent pressure for either good government or the wages capable of sustaining intact families.

The substitution of simulacra for physical reality (the creation which is a blessing that one hopes was/is given without regret) was a theme in some of the Gnostic cosmologies. If memory serves, one of the Gnostic heresiarchs taught that malicious angels fabricated a glass or crystal model of a Heavenly City which they used to dupe pious visionaries.

The sense of the world as an embodied menace, an attempt to construct or induce, states of constant threat, is akin a form of diabolic assault. You do not have to believe in the literal existence of disembodied spirits (I do not) to understand the potential this has for anxiety disorders (such as depression).

The reappearance of a para-gnostic sensibility across so much of our culture together with the growing estrangement from nature should alarm us all.

To finish on a positive note: the decay we are witnessing is distressing, but things decay because they need to do so before renewal can take place…so hope is the ultimate realism. Telling the truth and being kind (as you, Rod, do) robs the system of a portion of the evils it needs to reproduce itself in its present state of decay.

Though I am not a Christian, I think Juliana of Norwich put it brilliantly: “all will be well and all manner of things shall be well”.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now