A reader writes:
I’m an avid reader of your blog – never miss a post – and I deeply appreciate your coverage of the cultural implosion that’s going on in America because of the rise of individual autonomy as our society’s organizing principle, and the dissolution of bonds, between God and man and between man and his fellow man. But I think there’s another angle to the story that’s worth exploring: how deeply it affects the rest of the world, especially in places you might not expect it to.
I grew up in an American expat family living in a Persian Gulf monarchy. This is a place that underwent very rapid modernization in a short time, where the majority of the population literally went from dwelling in mud brick huts and scratching out a subsistence (usually as farmers or fishermen) to living in air-conditioned apartments and villas and working in climate-controlled office buildings, commuting between the two in cars on superhighways. All in the space of a single generation.
Looking back, I can see now that the collapse of traditional institutions was in an advanced stage, even before I left to return to the U.S. for college nearly a decade ago. People became atomized as they moved from their native towns and villages to suburbs in metropolitan areas. From inside those new homes in suburbia, they were bombarded with American movies, music, TV shows, and other mass media, and later the internet. You can imagine how corrosive this was in a conservative Islamic society with strict standards and codes for sexual purity. Every young man I knew was hooked on porn and video games.
What struck me most in reading your coverage of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is how much the cultural decay he describes in Appalachia tracks with what I saw in the rural areas of the country where I lived. Growing up, we were friends with a local family that lived out in the middle of nowhere, in a small village on the very edge of the desert. They were dirt poor and had eleven kids (including a son my age who I was good friends with), but every time we visited them, they were incredibly hospitable. They would really pull out all the stops for us, insisting we spend the night at their house and offering us the best they had in the way of food and company.
We fell a bit out of touch in my early teen years, but when we visited them again later on for a daughter’s wedding, I was amazed at what I found. Their son introduced me to most of the young men in the village who were in their late teens and early 20s. They were all either unemployed or worked dead-end jobs. I assume they were up to their eyeballs in debt, too, since they seemed to have spent a great deal of what money they had on expensive cars and cell phones. Cruising around town with my friend and some of his buddies in one of these cars, to the bass-heavy beat of an American hip-hop track, he pointed out to me the village prostitute – a young man who would, I was told, accept money to have sex with other men in the village while “acting the part of the woman.” (Real, flesh-and-blood women are not available for extramarital sex in this culture.) I was shocked to see my friend slip a pack of condoms into his pocket later on, at his house.
Sex between men didn’t just happen because of the absence of women, though. Even in this small town, outright homosexual behavior among the men was on public display. At the wedding we attended, members of the village performed a very traditional dance where a group of men and a group of women congregate on opposite sides of an open space. The two sides call out responses to one another while they dance on their separate sides, and it’s virtually the only contact men and women have during the whole of the celebrations. During the dance, two young men who had grown out their hair (very unusual in this culture) participated flamboyantly on the women’s side. In a society where women and men are kept strictly separate, no one even bothered to try to prevent them from joining, because it was widely known that they were gay and wouldn’t bother females.
I have many more examples of things like this. If the anti-culture can penetrate an inland village in the deserts of Arabia, is anywhere safe?
My experiences make me skeptical of talk of a “clash of civilizations” between traditionally Muslim and traditionally Christian countries. Modernity, as conceived by Western society, is in the process of erasing Christianity, and it’s already made major inroads in wealthy, conservative Muslim countries. This, I think, is key to understanding the appeal of groups like ISIS. I don’t buy the materialist explanation that ISIS is just a product of the discontents of modernity. Nor do I think that it’s necessarily the logical conclusion of Islam as a religion. ISIS and Al Qaeda are what happens when Muslims who are assimilated to modernity react against it, but retain its key principles. I can’t stress this enough. There’s a whole history behind this that goes back to the Muslim Brotherhood and a time in the late 19th century when Western Enlightenment thinking was introduced in Muslim countries through colonialism and cultural exchange. It’s a long story, but in a nutshell, ISIS, Al Qaeda and the modern Salafist movement are one product of Muslim thinkers’ efforts to fuse Islam with Enlightenment ideas about reason. Even as they claim to reject modernity, they can’t escape it because it permeates their mindset. But that’s another story.
Fantastic letter! Back in 2009, our Jeremy Beer wrote an essay focusing on Philip Rieff’s concept of the “anti-culture”, and how it applies to the clash between same-sex marriage supporters and traditionalists. Oh, how long ago it all seems from the vantage point of 2016. You should be aware that Rieff considered our culture to be an “anti-culture” because it denies the things that any culture needs to sustain itself. Excerpts:
A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece on Philip Rieff for the American Conservative. One of the themes of Rieff’s work on which I focused was his concept of anti-culture—the idea that in the twentieth-century West there had risen to social dominance not any particular culture but a suspicion of all cultures, which consisted in authoritative institutions and internalized psychological demands—you know, guilt. Nothing any longer regulated individual conduct except for the idea that nothing should regulate individual conduct.
I’ve been ruminating on this idea of anti-culture ever since I first encountered it. At first I found it to be one of those insights that is incredibly illuminating. I still think that it’s a useful conceptual tool, but I also think that Rieff had missed an important point, which is that in order to persist, even a therapeutic anti-culture needed to become, well, a culture. And that is what has happened.
The truth is that we have a culture that is growing in its psychological power, and increasing its sociological foothold, everyday. We have our thou-shalt-nots. We live within a web of mutually reinforcing nos, taboos, do-not-discusses, and impossible-to-think-otherwises. This web is the harder to see, sometimes, because it is rooted in an ideology that claims to be content-free, neutral, procedural—liberalism (in the deep philosophical sense, needless to say). This is the point of Jim Kalb in his The Tyranny of Liberalism, and I think that he is substantially right. Kalb sums up the ideology of liberalism as the enforcement of “equal freedom.” But it is important to understand, as Kalb does, that this ideology does not simply issue in a set of political or social doctrines, but in a culture in the profoundly anthropological, Rieffian/Freudian sense. And the culture of liberalism—like all cultures—is essentially subrational.
I think that we are seeing this play out concretely in the case of gay marriage. More and more, it has been noticed, proponents of gay marriage find it impossible to believe that they share the globe, much less the same nation, city, or (God forbid) neighborhood, with people who cannot see that gay marriage is an obvious right and cause of justice. Gay-marriage proponents appear to be irrationally angry, but think of it this way: they are disgusted by the fact of opposition to same-sex marriage much in the same way that, say, American pioneers on the prairie were disgusted by the culinary habits of the American Indian (eating dogs, digging in to a freshly killed buffalo and eating its raw organs, etc.). The ways in which the cultural Other thinks, the things he believes, if they are intelligible at all, are usually simply abominations, and that is that.
I recently attended an evangelical Christian wedding in Indiana. The celebrating pastor spent a good five minutes excoriating the concept of same-sex marriage. It seemed strange, and viewed in isolation it was clearly out of place. But in cultural terms, it was understandable. The resurgent populism that we see so much of lately, and that is proving to create pliant material for power-seeking right-wing demagogues, represents the desperate cry of a culture under siege. This populism is the inchoate yelp of people whose cultural terms are failing them and are no longer validated by their social and political institutions. Like cornered Indians pushed into mountain retreats, many of our Middle Americans are retrenching, engaging in ancient rituals now out of anger and dismay as much as piety, lashing out, and with all of this thereby confirming to the dominant coastal Other their basic inhumanity.
Eradication or education—these are the only two choices, bellowed the editors of pioneer newspapers, referring to the heathen wild Indians in their midst. How much more humane to educate than to eradicate? replied the good-hearted liberals who heard the question, and accepted its terms. And so they saved the Indians by ripping their babies out of their mothers’ arms at gunpoint and marching them off to schools to learn the ways of their culture, or How to Be Human.
Now we know how it feels. A powerful new culture is asserting itself. We are reprising a very old story, indeed.
Read the whole thing. It appeared in 2009, and is as fresh as the day it was published — even fresher, in light of the way public school officials are interposing themselves between parents and children who say they are transgender (see the updates on this post from earlier today). As the “pioneers” have become far more powerful on this front than they were in 2009, the “Indians” have become far weaker. Does this mean that the Benedict Option will be the Christian equivalent of self-defined reservations?
Maybe — and anybody looking at quality of life statistics on Indian reservations today cannot take any comfort in that metaphor. On the other hand, I was reading something this week — maybe one of you posted it, but I can’t find it right now — talking about how during the pioneer days, European settlers noticed something strange about their interactions with the Native Americans. Europeans who had been kidnapped by Natives and who grew accustomed to living tribally only very rarely could be persuaded to return to civilization. Many of them, when dragged back, longed to return to live in the more primitive way — and if given the chance, they returned to the tribe. Conversely, Natives brought to live among Europeans usually failed to thrive. This puzzled European Americans, who thought the benefits, material and otherwise, of their civilization was perfectly obvious. And yet.
Is there a lesson in this for us orthodox Christians in the Benedict Option age? Talk to me.
UPDATE: A reader points out that the Native American anecdote came from yesterday’s excellent David Brooks column, which is correct. Thanks! Excerpts:
In 18th-century America, colonial society and Native American society sat side by side. The former was buddingly commercial; the latter was communal and tribal. As time went by, the settlers from Europe noticed something: No Indians were defecting to join colonial society, but many whites were defecting to live in the Native American one.
This struck them as strange. Colonial society was richer and more advanced. And yet people were voting with their feet the other way.
The colonials occasionally tried to welcome Native American children into their midst, but they couldn’t persuade them to stay. Benjamin Franklin observed the phenomenon in 1753, writing, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
During the wars with the Indians, many European settlers were taken prisoner and held within Indian tribes. After a while, they had plenty of chances to escape and return, and yet they did not. In fact, when they were “rescued,” they fled and hid from their rescuers.
Sometimes the Indians tried to forcibly return the colonials in a prisoner swap, and still the colonials refused to go. In one case, the Shawanese Indians were compelled to tie up some European women in order to ship them back. After they were returned, the women escaped the colonial towns and ran back to the Indians.
Even as late as 1782, the pattern was still going strong. Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”
I first read about this history several months ago in Sebastian Junger’s excellent book “Tribe.” It has haunted me since. It raises the possibility that our culture is built on some fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled.
The native cultures were more communal. As Junger writes, “They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”
Please read the entire Brooks column. This information is going to be important to me as I revise (again) the Ben Op book.