Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Disintegration And Its Discontents

We are coming apart as a civilization, and the unwinding is going to be ugly if we aren't very careful

Sit down, folks, this is going to be one of those long, rambling posts. TL;DR? Read Houellebecq.

I see that there’s a lot of online controversy over this out-of-context quote from my Christchurch post over the weekend:

Everything Tarrant identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilization is true.

If you read the entire post, it’s crystal-clear that I’m not endorsing Tarrant’s actions or his manifesto, but rather pointing out that the killer identifies truthful things in his critique of a decadent West. As I said in the piece, in the same way that we have to recognize that Islamic terrorists base their murderous ideology in some true things, we have to do the same thing when it comes to white nationalist terrorists like Brenton Tarrant.

There are many people who react emotionally, and who think that to give any ground at all to terrorists is to in some way justify them. A lot of us on the Right — I was probably one of them for all I know — felt that way about the 9/11 terrorists. Clearly a lot of people on the Left feel that way about Tarrant. We always face the risk of falling victim to that double-edged French saying, “To understand all is to forgive all.” That is, if we try too hard to enter into the mind of a criminal, we might end up agreeing that he did the right thing.

(Side note:  a college professor told me recently that he was teaching the Albert Camus novel The Stranger to his students, and that none of them could grasp that the protagonist’s signature act, killing an innocent Arab, was morally wrong. It wasn’t that they were anti-Arab; it was that they understood why the title character did what he did, and forgave him for it. This is not the point Camus wanted to make!)

Let me give you an example of something I learned that rocked my world. Back around 2006 or so, I went to Dubai, to an Arab media conference. The event brought together journalists and TV producers from around the Arab world. I went to write about it. It would be fair to say that I had an unreflective view of the introduction of mass media into Arab culture. If anything, I thought it would be a good thing, to introduce some churn into those rigid societies. I was pretty optimistic.

I had a conversation there over coffee with a veteran journalist from Lebanon, a man who was a secularist. He told me that what Westerners don’t understand is that the advent of satellite television and the Internet in the Arab world caused a tremendous shock to the systems of those countries. He said, and I’m paraphrasing,

“You in the West have had mass electronic media for almost 100 years, and you’ve all adjusted to the changes it has brought. Now, consider that a hundred years of modernization is suddenly appearing inside Arab cultures that are far more rigid and traditional than the West ever was in the modern period. How do you think people are going to react?”

I sat in on a panel of some young Westernized Arabs who were part of a project to bring MTV, or something like it (I can’t recall precisely), to the Arab world. They were very optimistic about the positive social change they were sure their project was going to bring to the Middle East. But I had had a different conversation earlier with an expat Egyptian journalist living in the West, who was much more critical — from a liberal point of view! She said that the advent of satellite TV in her country had mostly empowered religious conservatives. She came from a Muslim family that was part of the cultural elite, and had seen some of her sisters take the veil. She feared for the future. Her point to me was that the idea that introducing technology, especially media technology, into a traditional society can only bring positive change is dangerously naive.

I bring this up in context of the role immigration, multiculturalism, evolving standards on gender and sexuality, and globalist economics play in the development of Western societies. All these things are typically seen by liberals and progressives as unambiguously good things. But this is dangerously naive. To be clear, they are not unambiguously bad things either!

Here’s what I mean. Take this excerpt from a Washington Post Plum Line interview with Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination:

Plum Line: How do you view white nationalism as a policy problem?

Buttigieg: In the narrow tactical sense, it’s something we need to stay ahead of and monitor the way you would any kind of violent radical movement from abroad.

There’s a deeper phenomenon going on. As we see dislocation and disruption in certain parts of the country, from rural areas to my home in the industrial Midwest, and in the economy, this leads to a kind of disorientation and loss of community and identity. That void can be filled through constructive and positive things, like community involvement or family. And it can be filled by destructive things, like white identity politics.

Yes, it absolutely can. I find it hard to believe that that loss explains Tarrant, who seems to have been radicalized not so much from the circumstances of his life, but from his anti-social nature, and his living online. (It is worth noting too that many of the Islamist terrorist leader are not poor Muslim men, but those with educations.) Still, when people of any race or religion lose the things that ordinary folks have always used to understand who they are, and to find dignity in life, they become easy targets for hateful race fanatics, religious fanatics, or political fanatics.

Here’s a thoughtful comment by a reader going by the moniker One Male:

Every time I read about poverty or the bribery scandal of rich people buying their children’s way into colleges, the focus is always on poor blacks and Hispanics. There are more poor white people in the US than poor blacks and Hispanics combined. Having come from an impoverished area, I get to watch what society does to all these poor people. On top of the neglect they receive if they happen to be white men, they also get to endure verbal abuse and being blamed for the debauchery of the wealthy. Of several cousins and a brother, only one cousin and myself managed to go to college and make a career.

Regardless of whether all these poor white males are deserving of scorn or not. Regardless of whether they could do better for themselves or not. Constantly beating on a malnourished dog doesn’t make the dog happy, more confident or docile. Beating on the dog will eventually result in hopelessness — and we are already there. Now the dog is starting to attack. When it attacks it isn’t going to care what hand it bites. It is going to bite whatever hand is nearest.

The other day in another post there was a debate about what a John said and Rod’s own response was somewhat dismissive. What I’d like to highlight is that regardless of the merit of John’s view, he and many like him believe it. They believe it because they live it, and when you’re at the bottom every mole hill looks like a mountain. Countless white men in this country have no support, have no prospects and have no future.

My little brother is a great example. He didn’t go to college and wasn’t very smart but he was willing to work. He got a decent job doing hard work and ended up breaking a disk in his back. Now he is unhireable, and the company in question didn’t pay for the medical charges. He’ll never be married, never have kids and never attain what society constantly reminds him is success. He’ll be told he’s worthless, and on top of that, entitled.

The solution to society’s ills are undiscussable. Families are important to happiness. For people to have families they have to have jobs and women willing to marry them. Statistics show that women don’t marry below their own earnings or education. Everything is geared toward more women in the workforce. More women in college. More women in the military. More women in engineering. The net affect is a smaller and smaller pool of women willing to marry men like my brother.

No marriage no family. No family no connection to society. More men with nothing to lose and being told how worthless they are is a recipe for violence. Not because I want it to be, but because that is nature. And lo and behold, the brilliant thinkers of the world have decided that ‘nature’ no longer exists such that a man is a woman and a woman a man.

The illogic of our beliefs have been piling up for some 200 years now. That those beliefs are falling over on people and killing them is said to be senseless and yet … it is not senseless. In fact it is the only logic that matters, and that logic is the base of all existence. It can be said to be natural because it is nature itself. Fight it at your own peril but you will lose. Nature doesn’t care about right and wrong. Nature only cares about truth.

I have lots of criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, but their existence forced me to think more about how the matter of policing looks from the point of view of many black Americans. It didn’t kill me to consider their point of view, even if I couldn’t agree with them fully. Along those lines, here are a couple of stories about displacement that I offer for your consideration.

Back in 2011, I moved back to my hometown in rural south Louisiana. West Feliciana Parish, my home, is the least populated parish in the state. People had been frustrated in the past few years with the inefficiency of the old-style “police jury” form of government, dating back to the early 19th century. Some local folks pushed for a new, update form of parish government. There were lots of public meetings to discuss the issues related to it. I started to attend them.

It was striking to me to see how racialized they were. Broadly speaking, whites were for the reform, blacks were against it. In the public meetings, some black citizens used paranoid, even racist, rhetoric to demonize the reform. I found this hard to understand. The arguments for the new system were very clear. If you didn’t like the proposal, then make an argument against it. Don’t rely on calling those who support it racist, and accusing them of making a power grab. In fact, some of the whites favoring the reform were friends of mine, and people I knew to be political liberals. They were just tired of the good ol’ boy system, and wanted change.

Then I thought about the black people who were coming to the meetings and speaking out. All of them were older than me, and had lived through a time in the parish when the white leaders were members of the Klan, or at least fellow travelers. That was within living memory. It wasn’t part of my memory, and it wasn’t part of the memory of many of those white citizens who wanted change (they had moved there since the 1970s). But you don’t just set aside those experiences. (And by the way, if you want to know why I will never, ever support white nationalism and white supremacy, read this 1964 article about events in my own hometown.)

What’s more, in the lifetime of the black people at the meeting, the black population of the parish had gone from just over 50 percent to something like 33 percent today. I can’t find the official demographic projections, but if memory serves, the black population was expected to decline in the next decade to around 20 percent of the overall (N.B., you have to be careful looking up Census figures; West Fel is home to 5,000 or so inmates at Angola State Penitentiary, most of whom are black). It hit me at one point in one of those meetings that the black people of the parish have lived through a steep decline in their political power, based on population decline. Once the agricultural economy went away in West Fel, there was little work for unskilled people to do. Unskilled black laborers moved to where they could find work.

The black people objecting to the new proposal might have been wrong — I believed they were — and they might even have been paranoid, even racist. Still, these were people who had finally achieved the right to vote, just in time for the economy to shift under their feet, and for an economics-driven exodus of blacks out of the parish to get underway. Think of the trauma! This is not to justify their political case against reform, or to paternalistically sympathize with their racist fear. But it is to acknowledge that what reformers were asking of these citizens was a lot. It was also the case that some of the blacks who spoke out against the plan were not college educated. These were country people who had not mastered the mode of discourse educated people of all races use. They were at times crude. But again, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel bad for their loss, and their sense of displacement.

Another story I lived through. Back in 2005, my wife and I bought a renovated house in a gentrifying neighborhood of Dallas. We had moved to the city in 2003 from New York, and didn’t have much in savings. We paid $165,000 for it. We loved the little Arts & Crafts bungalow. The neighborhood was fine, but close enough to the bad part of town that we could some nights hear gunshots. Some of our friends in the city thought that we lived in the barrio.

The thing is, in the 1980s and most of the 1990s, that neighborhood of early 20th century houses had been a slum plagued by drug violence. All those beautiful old houses were falling down. Our neighbors were a working-class Hispanic couple, and told us how much nicer it was to live in the neighborhood with all the new people (read: gentrifiers) coming in, because now it was safe to walk down the street, and to sit on your front porch at night without having to worry about stray bullets.

The neighborhood was changing fast. The people who were there before we got there — poor and working-class Hispanics — were moving out. They were selling their houses and getting good prices for them. Besides, they didn’t want to be in a neighborhood where the people weren’t like them. Before we moved in, I had a vaguely hostile opinion of gentrifiers, but living in the neighborhood, I could see how gentrification had done objective good for the neighborhood. Houses of historic architectural significance had been saved and restored. Streets that had been war zones were coming back to life. Our neighbors remembered a time when our own house had been a drug house. The man who bought it cleaned it up and made it livable again for a family, not a junkie.

But the people who had lived in that neighborhood before had been displaced. When we moved in 2010 to Philadelphia, we sold the house in a real estate market that had not recovered from the 2008 crash. Despite having put about $50,000 in improvements into the house, we sold it for exactly what we paid for it. That was the only offer we got. You can imagine how we felt a couple of summers ago when we saw the same house on the market for something like $370,000! The buyers had done nothing to it; the market had simply changed that much in seven years.

We heard too that our Hispanic neighbors had moved away. I imagine they got a good price for their house, which needed a lot of work. But I also imagine that as retirees, they could no longer afford the property taxes in that gentrified neighborhood. Had we stayed in Dallas, I’m not quite sure that we would have been able to keep up with the property taxes.

That was the first house I ever purchased. You know how they say that when you have your first child, suddenly you start looking at the world differently? That’s how it was with buying my house. I had lived as a renter in a lot of different places over the years, but I had never really regarded my previous neighborhoods the way I did when I looked at it as a property owner. I had a financial stake in the neighborhood’s stability, and that meant that I cared more than I ever had before about signs of improvement or decline. That, plus trying to understand how what I had thought was unambiguous progress — look, the neighborhood is being restored, and it’s becoming family-friendly again! — might not look that way to my neighbors … well, it made me realize that issues related to displacement were more complicated than I had reckoned.

When Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s 2007 study on diversity came out — the controversial one in which he found that the more diverse a community is, the less social cohesion and social capital it has — I understood it in a way that I wouldn’t have before, as someone who didn’t own a home in a neighborhood. Previously, I had believed that anyone who didn’t want people of a different race moving into their neighborhood was nothing but a racist, end of story. Now I saw that those people might, in fact, be racist, but they might also have a normal human instinct to want to live around people like themselves, because it’s easier to trust people who are like you in most ways. People like my wife and me — educated, and formed by living in institutions and in social communities that were fairly diverse — were not inclined to think about diversity and society in morally complex ways. It went against the narrative of our professional class.

Living and working in Dallas during the first decade of this century, and trying to get a handle on the immigration issue, taught me how educated cosmopolitans like me game the system to roll over people who don’t have the same skills we do to manufacture the narrative. I’ve mentioned a number of times in this space how invisible poor and working-class white people, and their interests, were in our media deliberations on the immigration issue. Generally speaking, those people were thought of by people like us as backwards racists who didn’t need to be consulted or considered, only overcome.

We media people didn’t send our kids to public schools whose classrooms were overwhelmed by migrant children who spoke no English. We didn’t have to use public hospitals whose waiting rooms were jammed tight with immigrants, legal and illegal. Our lives pretty much intersected with immigrants only at restaurants and when we needed carpentry or lawn work. They were not a threat to our way of life.

True story: I went to an impoverished Dallas school once, around 2004, as part of a press tour. I saw a sweet little Hispanic boy, the son of immigrants, stand in a class room and give an oral report on his hero. Know who he chose?  Santa Anna, the great villain of Texas history, the general who took the Alamo. I kid you not. I thought, man, Texas is changing. I am not a Texan, and had no feelings about the Alamo one way or the other. But you’d have to be an idiot not to know that many native Texans — white ones, anyway — have very strong feelings about the Alamo as a condensed cultural symbol.

Here’s the thing: the kind of Texans who feel strongest about things like the Alamo are also the ones least likely to have access to a sympathetic media, and least likely to be able to articulate their concerns in a way that the dominant cultural and media narrative would find acceptable. Come to think about it, in that way they’re a lot like the poor rural black folks in West Feliciana.

I bring all of this up because of the controversy over the New Zealand shooting, and my mention in an earlier post that I believe the murderer was not wrong to mention demographic shifts in Europe as a sign of the decline of European culture. This is in no way to endorse Tarrant’s racist conclusions, nor certainly to endorse his violence. It’s simply to point out that it’s folly to expect people to sit back and watch their countries’ populations decline relative to that of migrants moving in, and to be sanguine about it. Even if you favor immigration, intelligent political management means that you have to take very seriously the social disruption that this kind of tectonic social change will bring.

Last year in France, I met a farmer who had been to nine funerals of neighboring farmers who had committed suicide. Nine funerals! The French government believes that these small farmers have to be allowed to die off because they are economically inefficient. Do you think this farmer I talked to, who had buried nine of his neighbors, gives a rat’s rear end about whether or not he is sufficiently diverse and committed to cosmopolitan international values to satisfy people in the salons of Paris? The only thing keeping him together, body and soul, was his profound Catholic faith.

Guess whose new novel is about people like that farmer? That’s right, Michel Houellebecq’s.

European culture is either dying, or it’s changing into something we don’t yet know. Wherever you come down on that issue, nobody can deny that the changes underway now are massive, and that they are driving European politics. (This is also true of US politics, though less so.) When people are not allowed to discuss these changes without being called racist, then the only ones you will have speaking out are actual racists. The 21st century is going to be a century of unprecedented migration around the globe, in part driven by global warming, and in part by the radical imbalance in population growth in Africa. Look:

If you are a European looking at this graph, you must be filled with a sense of foreboding. The politics of Europe for the rest of this century are going to be driven by nothing greater than migration. Has there ever been an entire civilization that has peaceably yielded to an alien civilization moving into its territory, if it had any alternative? I’m not asking to be rhetorically provocative. These questions have to be faced honestly by political leaders of all parties.

Go back to the top of this long piece, and read what Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg had to say about the white working class, and their sense of displacement. There is no way that any political leader can speak meaningfully to them if they believe that that leader sees them as losers who deserve their fate, because they’re bigots. Similarly, no political leader can speak to blacks, Hispanics, or anybody else with credibility if those populations see them as losers who deserve their fate. Our own politics in the US is going to grow increasingly nasty and divisive because our political parties have become so tribalized. Many of us are coming to believe that the Other Party sees people like us as the Enemy. I know I do. You — left or right — probably do too.

We have to find some other way. Do you think we can? I’m not hopeful, but I know that if we don’t, the alternative is a future with a lot more people in it like the New Zealand killer. They won’t all be young white males. They will come from all kinds of backgrounds, ethnic and otherwise, as people fear that they are losing something that gives them dignity, meaning, and purpose. The ruling class in this country — I’m talking about people like me: educated people with stable jobs and families, and with megaphones — had better pay attention. I return to the lesson I learned from watching the angry black people protesting against local governmental reform. Their anger and anxiety made no logical sense — until you thought about how much they endured under white supremacy, and how they were watching their political power slip through their fingers, because their population had declined so starkly in a single lifetime.

There was no way they could get what they wanted, politically. They just did not have the numbers within the polity to sustain the power they once, all to briefly, held. The new system was not designed to disempower them at all. They had simply failed to show up for the future, same as the native European populations today (though in the case of Europeans, it’s a matter of sub-replacement fertility; in my home parish, it’s a matter of long-term economic in-migration of whites and out-migration of blacks). The point is, managing this kind of loss within a community’s members, and not just treating them as history’s sore losers, requires a lot of political skill, including the ability to empathize with the displaced, and in a more meaningful way than simply pulling a long face and saying, pro forma, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I wish there were a clear, easy solution to these problems. In my part of the world, it’s not hard to see poor people — white and black — who are caught in intractable situations of despair because of the choices they have made, and the way they look at the world and their place in it. I am thinking of a particular white family I know whose members are just barely getting by, and who are caught up in a tangled mess of marital infidelity, abandoned children, drug and alcohol abuse, and so forth. If those folks won the lottery tonight, they’d be broke in a year, and some of them would be dead from drug overdoses. Those people’s poverty and despair is not the fault of George Soros, or immigrants, or black people, or anybody else except (primarily) themselves. But that’s just that particular family. If one of the young men in that clan became Very Online, he might find white nationalism to be very much to his liking, because it blames other people for his miserable situation.

On the other hand, the kinds of jobs that gave people like that a way to support themselves despite their flaws aren’t around anymore, not like they used to be. That clan doesn’t have anything to do with religion, but if they did, they would be hard-pressed to find churches that expected much out of them in terms of changing their behavior. Society around here has become far, far more accepting than it was only 50 years ago, when I was a kid. On the up side, you are free to fail miserably, and nobody will care. On the down side, you are free to fail miserably, and nobody will care.

The changes that have come over our country and our civilization over the past 50 years are staggering. Think back to what I said in the beginning of this post about the Arab media conference. There was no way to hold back the technological changes coming to the Arab world — nobody I talked to there thought they were — but those I spoke with did warn me about the instability and radicalism that would be unleashed by these changes.

Come to think of it, I had a conversation at that same conference with an American academic who was an expert on the Mideast. I won’t name him here, to protect his family in Syria. He was talking about his family members there, and how they and so many Syrians were not admirers of the Assad regime, but they had come to support him out of abject fear that the civil war in neighboring Iraq would come to their country. By then I had soured on the Iraq War, but I still found it hard to work my American mind around the idea of believing that it was better to support a murderous dictator who tortured his opponents than accept the risks of freedom.

Now look at Syria. It has been destroyed by civil war. So much for us naive Americans and our refusal to understand how tribalism works within the fallen human condition.

I’ll leave you with this line from the sociologist Robert Nisbet, in his classic midcentury book The Quest For Community. He’s talking here about modern man: “What he has become isolated from is the sense of meaningful proximity to the major ends and purposes of his culture.”

What are the major ends and purposes of our culture? Of European culture? Of Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand culture? Can we even say anymore?

I don’t think we can. This is why we are disintegrating. If we can’t find a way to reintegrate ourselves strongly around something life-affirming, then we had better find a way to manage the disintegration with as little violence as possible. We don’t have all the time in the world to figure this out.