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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

American Babylon & The Kolakovic Moment

Pondering the poison of American popular culture as the West teeters on civilizational collapse
American Babylon & The Kolakovic Moment

Here's news from Europe on the edge of an economic catastrophe: a major power company in Vienna is on the verge of bankruptcy because it bought energy futures, and now, with prices soaring, it can't cover the cost of its losses. The state will probably have to bail it out...but what happens if all the state energy suppliers go bankrupt? The friend who sent that story to me said, "Imagine a Vienna with spotty electricity (at best)! And it’s not even winter yet. And Vienna is incredibly windy. This is the kind of thing that topples governments."

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Yes. Viktor Orban said so earlier this year, and has been saying it all year. But who listens to him? He's a Bad Man, I am told by our media, and by Western governments and scholars.

I was just down having breakfast at my hotel in Rome, and spent it with a couple of Polish Catholic women who were part of the conference I addressed over the weekend. I asked them about the approaching winter. They're afraid. Everybody is. One of the women told me that people who can afford to buy wood-heated stoves to heat their houses have been trying to buy them, but the waiting list is three months long.

In that same conversation, that woman -- I'll call her Anya, but that's not her real name -- told me that she agrees with the young Poles who told me that her country is going to go the way of Ireland in the next decade: with a near-total collapse of the faith. She told a story about how when she was younger, and had no faith (she was raised by an atheist father), she went to study in France. It shocked her how totally ideological the courses were -- this, at one of France's most prestigious academic institutions. Though she herself was not religious, the crude politicization of scholarship was not something she, as a Pole, was prepared for. And this ideologization of academic life -- even in the sciences (she was following a scientific course of study) was spreading out of the universities, through the media, into everyday life.

She eventually returned to Poland, and quickly became alarmed by the vulnerability of her own countrymen to this ideological virus coming from the West. "You have to understand that for us Poles, and for all of us who lived under Communism, anything that comes from the West means freedom. It's seen as good. Polish people back then had no idea what was coming for them, and what the West was going to do to us. I could see it coming, but nobody would listen to me. Now it's happening everywhere in Poland."

We talked about how these malignant ideas are being carried abroad on English language media. Wherever English media are consumed by the young, there the poison enters. Remember that point.

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I shared with her this tweet by the scientist Steven Pinker, decrying the ideological takeover of a major scientific journal:

Yes, she said, her father was raised in Communist Poland to believe that Science was the way to truth. There are lots of people who believe that, she said -- and now they are being manipulated by ideologues who have captured scientific institutions, like this magazine.

I reflected ruefully on how just a few years ago, a lot of us had confidence that the ideological disease that was rotting the humanities would not be able to breach the defenses of STEM, because science and technology depend on maintaining a connection to reality. But we were wrong. The ruling class of our civilization would rather have the entire thing fall down around us than see its insane woke ideology falsified.

After breakfast, I came upstairs to pack for the journey back to Vienna, but I put off the task to read Abigail Shrier's latest dispatch on her invaluable Substack. She talks about the trend of parents putting their children in educational programs that promise instruction in a language other than English. She said that she had intuition that there is something more going on here than just parents wanting their kids to gain the skill of speaking another language. She followed that intuition, and she concluded that parents don't so much want their kids to be more Japanese, Chinese, or whatever; they want their kids to be less American.

Why might that be? Excerpt:

I dislike parenting books as a rule and distrust most who hold themselves out as “parenting experts.”But I’m a sucker for excellence. And when a string of parents insisted to me that the smartest things they’d ever read about parenting were from MIT-educated physician and best-selling parenting book author, Leonard Sax—I got in touch.

Dr. Sax lectures internationally about raising kids, which he frankly thinks America, as a society, is doing poorly. American parents are not authorities in their own households and they don’t enforce even basic behavioral standards with their children, he says. “Fifty years ago, boys wanted to be men. But today, many American men want to be boys. And that there are many American men who want nothing more than to sit with their twelve-year-old son and play Call of Duty and games like that—they have no clue of the role of the father. They just want to give their kids a good time.”

Sure, American parents are lax. So what? It’s far deeper than a little lassitude, he explained. The culture we’re surrounding our children in—by so many metrics (mental health, physical fitness, drive)—it’s making them worse. “We now have very good research comparing American kids who speak English at home to immigrant kids who don't speak English at home,” he said. “American kids who speak English at home are much more likely to be anxious, depressed, disengaged, and experienced non-suicidal self-injury compared to kids who don't speak English at home, using speaking English at home as a proxy for engagement with American culture.” When he advises immigrant families in the United States, he tells them not to speak English at home.

For decades, kids of American-born parents generally outperformed those of recent immigrants in school and had lower crime and better mental health related outcomes. But in recent decades, evidence began to emerge that length of time spent in the United States was associated with declining outcomes. This is the “immigrant paradox,” so named because it shocked the researchers at the time: the more time immigrants spent in this country, the worse their kids fared by all sorts of metrics.

“Being American-born and raised to American parents is now a major risk factor for bad outcomes,” Dr. Sax said. “Being American-born and raised to American parents is a major risk factor for anxiety, depression, disengagement from school non-suicidal self-injury and many other bad outcomes, being children of immigrants and not speaking English at home now predicts good outcomes.”

She goes on to say that Dr. Sax clearly struggles with having to tell people that American culture is toxic to children and families ... but he believes it is true. Dr. Sax identifies the core problem as the reflexive anti-authority view at the core of American popular culture -- that is, how everything in pop culture catechizes and disciples children to despise their parents and parental authority. They are destroying the idea of the family. Remember this from last summer, from the popular pre-K television show "Blues Clues"? It's about how sexual desire and gender identity define family. It's happy-clappy song taught to little children:

Shrier goes on:

From my years of research into the stunning spike in transgender identification among teen girls, this may be the most important take-away: social media, schools, doctors, therapists, even teachers now actively work to undermine parents’ authority and pry kids away from the values and protection of their families.

Please, please, please, read the whole thing. Abigail Shrier is a treasure.

This is the same point I make in The Benedict Option: that if you want your children to hold on to the faith, or even moral sanity, you are going to have to understand that to be a faithful Christian (or Jew, or Muslim) in post-Christian America requires you to be consciously countercultural. And that means not simply holding the correct countercultural views, but undertaking practices that inculcate resistance to the poison of post-Christian American (or European) society.

It's so very important to form small communities. Yesterday I was in a group that heard a few words from Cardinal George Pell, the brave Australian who endured imprisonment on false charges of child molestation. He told us about the importance of surrounding yourselves with people who understand the world in the way that you do, so you can help each other maintain focus. This resonated with the advice I received from dissidents against Communism, and relayed to readers of Live Not By Lies: that forming small intentional groups is the most important thing we can do now, because it is within the solidarity of those groups that we keep our sanity, and we are able to help each other.

Readers, you might have dismissed my two books as alarmism. But what they predicted is happening right now. Our civilization is in free fall, and the culture of the United States is -- it grieves me to say -- poisoning the minds of the entire West. Back in 2015, before I started writing The Benedict Option, I visited the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the saint's birthplace, and put my ideas to Father Cassian Folsom, at the time the prior of the monastery. He listened, and then said that any Christian family that wanted to make it intact (meaning, with their faith intact) through what's coming had better commit to some form of this idea.

We're here. Catholic Poland is falling. Every single Polish Catholic I talked to at this conference -- and there were more than a few here -- said the same thing. Some of them, echoing the words of the late Polish Benedictine priest-monk Wlodzimierz Zatorski, blamed in large part the corruption and the arrogance of the Polish Catholic hierarchy for this calamitous state of affairs. It's not entirely the fault of the institutional church, not by a long stretch, but Polish Catholics tell me that the institutional church has its head in the sand about what's happening, and how its leadership has contributed to the collapse.

In any case, now is not the time to get sidetracked pointing fingers. As I explain in Live Not By Lies, the Croatian priest Father Tomislav Kolakovic arrived in Slovakia in 1943 bearing the prophetic news that when the war ended, the Soviets were going to be ruling Slovakia -- and that the first thing they were going to do is persecute the Church. He got busy founding groups for prayer, study, and action to build a resistance. The Slovak bishops opposed him. They thought he was alarming people, and they didn't like how one result of his activism was to empower the laity (they were very, very clericalist back then). But Father Kolakovic kept working, because he knew that they were blind as bats, and if the Catholic laity trusted their bishops, they were all going to be crushed.

Everything happened exactly as Father Kolakovic foresaw. Because he and his allies worked so hard to built a network of prayer and activism cells, the Slovak underground church was strong.

I can't say it often enough: We are in a Kolakovic moment in the West! The collapse we are seeing in energy markets, and in scientific journals, mirrors a deeper moral and spiritual collapse. We in the United States, it pains me to say, are leading the West off a cliff. Wake up, see what time it is, and start preparing yourself, your family, and your community for hard times ahead. Per Abigail Shrier, you have to do all that you can to insulate your kids from American culture. Last summer in Hungary, I talked to a puzzled Hungarian woman -- a conservative Catholic -- who couldn't imagine why her 19-year-old son had accepted gender ideology. In conversation, she told me that he said that his generation (of Hungarians) is exploring the meaning of gender and sexuality. They weren't getting this in school. We concluded that it was being pumped into the minds of Hungarian youth by English-language media, social media, and culture. She told me that when the boy turned 17, he announced to his parents that he was only going to pay attention to English-language media, which is to say, media from the US and the UK. That did it.

I never thought I would live to see the day when the United States of America became a clear and present threat to the faith and morals of the world. Don't read me as saying that therefore China and Russia are good, sensible, trustworthy, and all that. I don't believe that at all. I am saying, though, that don't believe that the cruelty and repression of Putin's Russia and Xi's China makes the US and the EU the good guys. They aren't. I spent the weekend listening to what Christians from all over western Europe are saying about the collapse in their own countries. I talked to a young Catholic man whose family fled Germany to France because they were being persecuted for homeschooling. Now the Macron government is cracking down on French homeschoolers. Another French Catholic talked about how gender ideologues have all of a sudden captured their local primary school, and how parents are just now finding out what kind of garbage has been pumped into the heads of their children, without their knowledge.

A Kolakovic Moment. We're there. Don't sit back and think the corruption is going to pass you and your family by. Get active fighting it as best you can, where you are, to save what might yet be saved. But also work hard to separate your children from the poison of American popular culture. Understand what Dr. Sax is saying: we parents are abdicating our responsibilities to our children, because we too have surrendered to the poison.

America is Babylon now. I never imagined that I would live to see us go from the Shining City On A Hill, the one that gave light and hope to those living under the darkness of the Orwellian totalitarianism, to having ourselves become a Huxleyan totalitarianism. I seem to recall having read that Pope John Paul II warned his nation after Communism's fall that they have freed themselves from one materialist tyranny (Communism), but that they had better be on guard against replacing it with another materialist tyranny (Western hedonism and individualism). The warning was ignored. Years ago, PBS's Frontline program did a documentary on John Paul II. Here's a quote from Roberto Suro, a Washington Post journalist who covered him, talking about John Paul's legacy:

At the end of the day, when you look at this extraordinary life and you see all that he's accomplished, all the lives he's touched, the nations whose history he's changed, the way he's become such a powerful figure in our culture, in all of modern culture--among believers and not--taking all of that into account, you're left with one very disturbing and difficult question. On the one hand, the Pope can seem this lonely, pessimistic figure--a man who only sees the dark side of modernity, a man obsessed with the evils of the twentieth century, a man convinced that humankind has lost its way. A man so dark, so despairing, that he loses his audiences. That would make him a tragic figure, certainly.

On the other hand, you have to ask, is he a prophet? Did he come here with a message? Did he see something that many of us are missing? In that case, the tragedy is ours.

The tragedy is ours, yes. Resist!

UPDATE: Reader J.H. writes:

Oh, Dr. Sax.

While I'm sure he accounted for family income, parental educational attainment, and all the usual factors, I'm not sure whether it would even be possible to measure economic confidence.

Parents who go through the expensive and labor-intensive process of moving here from another country and getting permission to stay generally do so for economic reasons. They see this country as, in some sense, a Land of Opportunity. They believe in something like the American Dream. This is especially true if they come from a country where nepotism is everything and a small group of elite families hoards all the opportunity.

Parents who have spent their whole lives here, however, have seen pretty much nothing but decline. Even when collective or personal income is rising, it's more precarious every year, with no end in sight. We all know this and yet there's a kind of taboo on speaking honestly about it with one's kids. It's like a sin against America's civic religion, or an act of child abuse, to express anything except utter confidence in the availability of infinite opportunity to those who have what it takes and apply themselves.

Does Dr. Sax really think that what besets young Americans these days is somehow a separate phenomenon from the deaths of despair among their elders, the lying flat/failson phenomenon, and the mass killings at schools and elsewhere that used to be rare but now it seems like there's a new one every week? Do those parents enrolling their kids in foreign language immersion programs imagine that those programs will protect the kids from contact with it?

Just last week I saw a blog post asking how new graduates applying for their first jobs could give an honest answer to the inevitable question about where they see themselves in five years when they can't imagine anything resembling a decent future at all.

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JON FRAZIER
JON FRAZIER
Re: When he advises immigrant families in the United States, he tells them not to speak English at home.

That one rates a real "WTF?" We are to believe that one language is inherently more neurosis-inducing than others? The only way I can see how this could happen would be due to people whose native language is not English finding it a bit stressful to speak another language 100% of the time

And it isn't "American" culture that is alienating: it's the culture of the 21st century in its entirety everywhere. It's the technology, folks. No, we can't live without it now (something like six to seven billion people who die horribly if we pulled the plug), but we pay a price since it forces us to live very different lives than what our species evolved for. And yep, that's a problem whether you're in China, Peru, Botswana-- or Hungary.

As for the collapse of a big energy company, been there, done that-- anyone remember Enron? A whole lot of people lost a whole lot of money-- but we weren't left freezing in the dark.

Live not by fear.
schedule 4 weeks ago
    ROBERT GRANO
    ROBERT GRANO
    Western culture is spearheaded by America -- hence the tendency to call it "American culture" -- and that is inseparable from the technology that's being used to spread the culture globally. Paul Gottfried was writing about this 20 years ago, and it's only gotten worse since then.

    The problem with English isn't that it's more neurosis-inducing, but that its current form is being intentionally debased. I saw this 30+ years ago when I was a English Lit major and again, it's only gotten worse since.
    schedule 4 weeks ago
      JON FRAZIER
      JON FRAZIER
      I occasionally watch foreign language stuff. I can follow along in French, Spanish and (to a lesser) extent Russian shows. Except when the dialogue veers into modern day slang, which it often does in such offerings. A Spanish series I watched sometimes seemed like every third word was "puta" and another third were "mierda". And Russian has some cuss phrases that could make your eyebrows fall out (I cussed out an impossible phone tree AI with one of these gems last year-- it immediately put me through to a live human). There's nothing unique about the English language's facility for vulgarity and obscenity.

      This sort of plaint reminds me of the Old Left which always managed to make everything America's fault (or more broadly the fault of the West), even when dealing with the common and universal sins of mortalkind.
      schedule 4 weeks ago
    Michael Campbell
    Michael Campbell
    Live not by fear, but don't live deluded either. I shouldn't put my hand above the gas burner in the kitchen while chanting "live not by fear".

    US culture is pretty alienating and to a degree it's also the culture of the 21st century. "We're all living in Amerika..." US influence is everywhere, culturally, linguistically.

    One poster here once said something that has stuck with me "The most endangered right in the 21st century may be the right to a non-Western culture". That the right, not the left, would be able to get this in many ways also encapsulates the shifts that have occurred, and why the right is now the counter-cultural side.

    Obviously oil and electricity and all that are kind of baked in to how we have society set up now, but there is a whole lot of technology that you are better off actually never touching. It adds negative value. I'd wager that smartphones add negative value to the lives of like 75% of people that have them at least. We need them only in the way that alcoholics "need" alcohol or upper class people "need" fancy clothes.
    schedule 4 weeks ago
Giuseppe Scalas
Giuseppe Scalas
A common theme of my family life is my wife and me reading the riot act to my daughters for their sluggishness when learning English. So, I'm ambivalent. In today's world, not being able to speak English is like not speaking Latin or Greek in the Roman Empire. But it's also true that a lot of the most toxic mass-media products are only available in English. Maybe, a good compromise is to delay the learning until a less vulnerable age is reached.
schedule 4 weeks ago
    JON FRAZIER
    JON FRAZIER
    You need to broaden your horizons. As I just mentioned above there's some pretty raunchy stuff out there in other languages produced in other nations. And not just in western Europe. Russia has been infamous for years for its porn.

    Languages are best learned young. Not knowing a languages is no protection from vulgarity. See: subtitles.
    schedule 4 weeks ago
    Michael Campbell
    Michael Campbell
    I think a major factor is that knowing and regularly speaking another language gives you access to a frame of thought that is not English. I know Spanish and speak it regularly, I know Latin America very well, and from my perspective knowing these does help my thoughts to have a significantly greater level of perspective than they would if I didn't have that.

    Basically all languages and cultures other than English have more contact with their "traditional" sides, and even if you do have good contact with that in English, you can benefit from the perspective that another offers.

    I feel much more able to say "no, this is not 'the way things are' - this is just Anglo progressives being idiots", knowing how other cultures think. You might not even realize the tools that being Italian gives you to think outside of our Anglo box, because for you it's just who you are.
    schedule 4 weeks ago
      Michael Campbell
      Michael Campbell
      To a non-Anglo, I think it's perfectly good and normal to learn English, I would just say to also be proud of who you are and where you come from. The people more inclined to get in trouble would certainly be those who discard their own culture and language as worthless, backwards, etc and treat as gospel everything that comes from English. Kids should learn English as a tool, but also understand that English, Anglo thinking, etc is not inherently superior. Just different.
      schedule 4 weeks ago