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Home/Rod Dreher/A Prophet Crying In The Valley

A Prophet Crying In The Valley

Isaac Weitzhandler, author of unpublished 'Houellebecq In The Valley'

You have to see this hilarious garbage from Microsoft:

Wes Yang, tweeting part of the same cringey presentation:

Yep. Yang’s remark highlights why culture is paramount regarding the advance and durability of wokeness. If telling everybody what your pronouns, race, hair color, and clothes are before addressing them is what it takes to work in a place like Microsoft, you will have people falling all over themselves to comply. There’s not a political solution to this. It’s certainly dorky, which is not the worst thing in the world, but behind these ridiculous woke rituals there’s a nasty ideology.

These clips bring to mind something I heard out in northern California last weekend, from a longtime tech employee in Silicon Valley (he’s deeply closeted as a Christian conservative): that the tech culture in the Valley is both ideologically monochromatic and utterly confident that it knows best for everybody. What happens in Silicon Valley does not stay there, because the people who run the tech industry have unparalleled reach into our lives.

In his latest Substack newsletter, Paul Kingsnorth writes:

I believe that we are heading fast into the creation of something unique in human history: a global anti-culture, entirely unmoored from reality itself, and at war with it. It is not limited to any particular political or cultural tradition: though it arose in the West, from peculiarities of Western history, it has since become universal. It manifests at present as a hybrid of two of the most successful products of modernity: capitalist economics and leftist politics. The hybrid is not as strange as it might seem: the modern project, whether infused with the theories of ‘left’ or ‘right’, whether presented by Karl Marx or Ayn Rand, is ultimately the project of liberating humanity from the chains of both nature and culture.

In a way, there is – or once was – a kind of nobility in this project, this attempt at breaking the bounds, soaring to the stars. It is the pursuit of cosmopolis which I wrote about here some weeks ago: a utopian attempt to replace religious and ethnic conflict with universal peace and love. But ideal societies have a nasty habit of turning into mirrors of the things they set out to replace. Liberatory ambition can never be sated. Like a dictator marching on Moscow, the Machine doesn’t know when to stop, and now we can see where this project of globalised liberation is leading us: into the world of the nihil, the empire of technique.

While in Orlando this week, I ran into a law student named Isaac Weitzhandler, who is studying at Stanford. He took up the law after first training as a scientist. At the National Conservatism conference, he was handing out copies of a self-published manuscript called Houllebecq In The Valley. He approached me and gave me one, knowing of my admiration for the French novelist. I read it on the way back home yesterday, and wrote this morning to my literary agent and my editor at Sentinel saying that I thought it had serious potential. Let me explain.

Weitzhandler (henceforth, “Isaac,” which is easier to write) has penned a book-length protest against the vapidity of our culture, and in particular the role of science and technology in dehumanizing us. It reads like an urgent cross between Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, Live Not By Lies, and How Dante Can Save Your Life. In fact, Isaac sounds like a Houllebecq character, if Houellebecq (pronounced “well-beck”) wrote about people who were mentally and spiritually sound. That is, Isaac recognizes the inhuman emptiness of contemporary culture, as Houllebecq’s characters do, but he is determined to resist it, not surrender to it. An excerpt:

So , what do we do when we find ourselves at home in a place that is evil?

We say no, knowing that the world will put us down, and understanding that it must be so. We know that all seems to be lost but we have something indomitable inside of us that makes it impossible to give up. And we try our best to feel the surges of love in our chests, to know that they come from God, and to decipher His meaning.

Our world is overwhelming and all-encompassing and impossible to stop, and we know that to stand up to it will be to be swept away.

All we can do is what Houellebecq has done, what Solzhenitsyn said was the key to our self-neglected liberation, which is to say and to swear:

I WILL NOT LIVE BY LIES.

The “valley” of the book’s title is Silicon Valley, where Isaac grew up. He was born in 1990, and is very angry — justly! — that the older generation did not preserve the institutions and ways of life that are necessary for the rising generation to have a normal, healthy life. Excerpt:

I didn’t learn until my twenties that Stanford had stopped teaching Western Civilization to all of its students before I was even born.

To even contemplate such a thing makes me weep. Didn’t anyone think of the children who would grow up aimless, wandering and lost?

I was one such child. I grew up in the aftermath; the ruins and destruction were all I ever knew. It took me years to even understand that there was something missing.

What does it mean to grow up in a civilization that has severed its tie with history? How can one be a child in such a world?

Well, in fact, a child is all you can ever be in such a world — and this has something to do with why Isaac’s generation is so amenable to totalitarian politics. From Live Not By Lies:

Forgetting the atrocities of communism is bad enough. What is even more dangerous is the habit of forgetting one’s past. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera drily observes that nobody today will defend gulags, but the world remains full of suckers for the false utopian promises that bring gulags into existence.

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child forever,” said Cicero. This, explains Kundera, is why communists placed such emphasis on conquering the minds and hearts of young people. In his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera recalls a speech that Czech president Gustáv Husák gave to a group of Young Pioneers, urging them to keep pressing forward to the Marxist paradise of peace, justice, and equality.

“Children, never look back!,” [cries Kundera’s character Husak], and what he meant was that we must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory.

A collective loss of historical memory—not just memory of communism but memory of our shared cultural past—within the West is bound to have a devastating effect on our future. It’s not that forgetting the evils of communism means we are in danger of re-creating precisely that form of totalitarianism. It’s that the act of forgetting itself makes us vulnerable to totalitarianism in general.

Put another way, we not only have to remember totalitarianism to build a resistance to it; we have to remember how to remember, period.

Isaac writes that discovering Houellebecq was finding a writer who describes the world in which he (Isaac) actually lives. That is, Houellebecq made him realize that he, Isaac, the dissident, the stranger to this world, was not insane. “We should all be asking ourselves: Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing?” he writes. More:

Silicon Valley is a modern nightmare. It is a dystopia. It is an evil force in the world. It is an awesome, terrifying, and brutal machine that has unmade our humanity and reconstructed it in its own image.

In remaking our humanity it has left space only for the most limited ethical considerations. It is something that must be stopped, even though it has created a world in which it is increasingly impossible to say so.

What is needed is not to discuss how the Valley can be more “ethical,” or to talk about how it can be better “regulated,” but to say no to the whole thing, the entire project.

Michel Houellebecq says no to the world. In that, I join him.

One thing I love about this book is the directness and passion of the author’s voice. He writes prophetically without being a scold — not an easy thing to do. Isaac trained as a biomedical researcher, and says in the book that it’s an open secret in the field that scientists can’t reproduce results in a wide variety of fields. The scientism we live by is unwarranted, he says, but we keep living out this lie because we find it useful. It keeps the money flowing, and satisfies the public that Science Is In Command. Isaac is not at all anti-science, but says that the contemporary scientific field has grown alarmingly indifferent to results, satisfying itself with simply keeping the whole machinery rumbling along. Isaac says that it functions as “a money procurement and jobs program for themselves and for future generations of people like them.”

Isaac says that Houellebecq’s message to young people is that they live in a society that sells them an idea of what the good life is, but which makes it impossible to realize the good life. That is to say, the idea itself — the Design Your Life ideal — makes achieving a truly good life impossible. He explains the culture of the “personal statement,” in which institutional gatekeepers (e.g., college admissions personnel) as seventeen-year-olds to write a testimonial to their bespoke view of the world. But most people, especially teenagers, lack the experience or even the capacity to come up with something daring and original — nor should they have to. More:

For Houellebecq, most people do not have the capacity to make conscious choices about right and wrong in all or even most areas of their lives; they need norms to make for them a path of least resistance.

Stripped down to its essence, the goal of modern liberalism is to help each individual break free of all these norms. What I encountered as a student was the embodiment of this goal in our educational institutions.

In America, the personal statement is the opposite of a path of least resistance. It tells every young person: no matter how much you feel that there is a well-trodden path that is attractive to you, you must not follow it. You must take the path of most resistance, which is being a trail-blazer and making your own new path.

Isaac reflects on the bitter irony that his people, the Jews, endured centuries upon centuries of persecution and hardship. Some of them arrived in America, a place where they could finally live in peace. Now they have been assimilating themselves out of existence:

The crisis of intermarriage for American Jews  has been well-documented. Centuries of forced expulsion, violence, rape, mass murder, and genocide did not so seriously threaten the continued existence of the Jewish people as modernity and secularism do today.

… For millennia, nothing has been more important to us than the survival of our people. Now we live in a country that leads us to throw it all away. And for what?

More:

The people who built this system will cling onto it with everything they have because they don’t have anything else. How can I tell my cousins and aunts and uncles that everything they imbue with such importance — SATs and colleges and organic chemistry and all the rest — that it’s all worthless, that it’s worse than worthless, that it’s evil?

How is this what we believe in? Is there really nothing more around which to orient our lives? This abyss is what American have given us. And yet we can’t stop saying how great it is, and participating in all of its sacred rituals.

In this is an echo, from Live Not By Lies, of what the Budapest teacher Tamas Salyi told me: that free-market liberal democracy has done more to erase from the memory of the post-communist generation the substance of what it means to be Hungarian. What the slaves to the Soviets could not do, consumer capitalism has done.

Isaac’s writing about how hard it is to live out what all healthy civilizations expect of their young — marriage and family — is particularly wrenching. For example:

If you do manage to find someone with whom you want to start a family, you get no support from your society’s institutions: you’re on your own. If you fail, there are again no guiderails or safety nets: either one of you can leave, any time, with no consequences. Things just didn’t work out, that’s all.

Supposedly, we live in a culture that doesn’t prefer any specific individual or family arrangement, and instead leaves everyone free to choose. Really, we live in a culture that is against the family. Marriage as a norm is dead: you can still do it, but the one thing that you can’t do is proclaim your belief in its goodness.

Isaac says that Houellebecq’s idea of love as dependence on another — of sex as the union of two souls, and new life as the natural and blessed fruit of that union — is alien to Silicon Valley culture. More:

Houellebecq says that someone of my generation cannot feel his kind of love, or even understand it, and that if we could feel something like it, it would make us feel “uncomfortable, as if it were something ridiculous and a little shameful, like stigmata in ancient times.”

That’s not how I feel. I don’t know if I can feel his kind of love but I think I do, even if I can’t understand it. And it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. No, reading his description fills me with a terrible longing for a world which I fear I will never know. That there were once truths and laws about love and family and sex that were unbreakable and more important than all of us — I can understand the idea but I don’t think I will ever feel it to be true. And I will never be able to make it true, even in my own little corner of the world, no matter how hard I try. Because even if I do manage to build my own little island, the violent sea will still be against us, and the best we will be able to do will be to hang on for dear life.

Isaac Weitzhandler is thundering in the desert here:

It’s monstrous what we’ve done; we’ve thrown away everything, all of it, and now people grow up in isolation and live lives of quiet desperation; at best they are able to construct a family for a few years, but still, the maxim of our world remains that we are born alone, live alone, and die alone.

… How can we call this by sterile names like increasing social atomization and fraying societal fabric? We should call it the destruction of love and happiness and the destruction of society too, because that’s what it is. How can it be that I have to strain so mightily just to say that this even exists? That it is so hard to say that saying it brings me to the point of insanity?

Later in the book, Isaac speculates as to why the DYL (Design Your Life) philosophy is winning. Excerpt:

It is selfish. The primary input is a want, and the method is built around just giving people what they already want. There is no moral imperative, no “should”; there is no interrogating the want, much less trying to change it; DYL just takes what we already wants as a given and tries to fulfill those wants. This is selfishness.

It is individualistic. There is no shared aspect of DYL: it offers no blueprint for a shared life with anyone — not even in marriage or family and certainly not in society in general. It is a kind of shared selfish dreaming, but instead of knowing that “the dream is teaching the dreamers how to live,” it tells us all to just keep dreaming.

Is is scientific. It seems technical and certain; it looks scientific because it has charts and quantities and arrows and flowcharts. It feels proven and valid to people. (Is this how people once felt about the Bible?) It is koumbaya and scientific at the same time: it is a new religion.

It destroys. It asks people to push beyond their limits and to make themselves uncomfortable, to go outside of their comfort zones. We are teaching ourselves to accept this in every context because we are against the very existence of moral imperatives (interdicts, as Rieff would call them). This is an instantiation of destroying: it is a way of reprogramming our minds.

It is all form, no substance. It uses positive-thinking slogans for something that is very insidious; it reformulates something bad with positive words so that you can’t criticize it. And by only talking about form, it seeks to give people control over their lives, but as long as they don’t know how to even begin to consider the substance, they are swept away.

We need to remind ourselves now: For the big questions, there may or may not always be answers, but there is certainly a lot of asking and thinking and reading and writing. Now, we deny all of this. DYL rejects the bigger questions, rejects any larger meaning or suffering or shared morality. It doesn’t even deny them explicitly; it simply assumes that they do not exist and fulfills its own prophecy by programming them out of existence in people’s minds.

It denies people’s suffering even as it also engenders it. And at the same time, it denies the beauty and profundity of mystery and what we don’t understand. It is destruction: it is anti-culture.

He is talking about soft totalitarianism. He is talking about the kind of totalitarianism that is described by Mustapha Mond, the. World Controller for Europe in Huxley’s Brave New World, praised as “Christianity without tears.”

One more passage:

To live here feels impossible — there is simply no help at all, for anyone, in anything. It is a brutal country full of shiny things to distract its people from the loneliness and suffering that it engenders. We are surrounded by sex and drugs and junk food and pornography and money and consumption. To say it sounds tired because we don’t even bother to denounce it anymore; it appears to us as normal, natural.

Nowadays LeBron James can say that the most important work of his life is becoming a billionaire and we all admire him for this, as if it is deeply moral. At least before we had some shame; we had retained enough of the remnants of a moral structure to know that we were supposed to be ashamed about just wanting to consume. But we’ve lost that now; there is no more second degree.

It’s a country where we’ve broken the chain. What else can we do? What can be done? How should we live? What is good and bad? What is right and wrong?

No one is there to tell me or anyone else. And it feels SHAMEFUL to even ask. We are ashamed of the idea that there might be things that we should and should not do, because all we want to believe is that we’re good and we should do whatever we want. This is the argument that gay marriage crystallized: if we want it, then it must be good.

We have eroded every possible moral structure that could stand up to that argument until they were all gone, and then a new barbarism swept through the gates.

Houllebecq In The Valley is an exhilarating read. Towards the end, Isaac quotes this from Houellebecq’s Serotonin:

God takes care of us; he thinks of us every minute, and he gives us instructions that are sometimes very precise. Those surges of love that flow into our chests and take our breath away — those illuminations, those ecstasies, inexplicable if we consider our biological nature, our status as simple primates — are extremely clear signs.

Isaac adds:

What happens after the coping doesn’t work?

Houellebecq has a definitive answer and a tentative one. The definitive answer is that we fight. The tentative answer is that we find God.

This is near to where the book ends. I hope and I pray that Isaac Weitzhandler finds a publisher for this extraordinary book, which is a scalding antidote to the Microsoft woke capitalism nonsense, and the worldview that produces such trivial crap as those videos with which I led this post. Isaac’s book is not ready for market yet — he needs to add to it, and for me, the thing that he needs to add most of all is an exploration of the God answer. If Isaac finds the right publisher and the right editor, this very good first draft could become a powerful, even viral, short book — a statement of generational rebellion, and a prophetic declaration of hope. What a blessing it was to run into this young man in the hallway of the Hilton in Orlando, and to receive his manuscript. If you are a publisher or an agent who would like to be in touch with Isaac, and to get a copy of the Houellebecq In The Valley manuscript, write me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com, and put ISAAC in all caps in the subject line.

UPDATE: A reminder: I am only offering to put you in touch with Isaac if you are a publisher or an agent. I am trying to help him get literary representation, and/or a publisher. Thanks.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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