Millennial Builders In The Ruins
Reader WJQ comments on the David Brooks column querying college students that Brooks describes as “a generation emerging from the wreckage.”:
The kids Brooks talked to sound like young cultural liberals. They’re the vanguard of our own Cultural Revolution — ready to destroy everyone and everything to advance a cause they can’t even adequately describe. I live and work among them. Everything they’re really angry about (racism, police brutality, opportunities for economic advancement among women, individual autonomy, gay rights, etc.) is actually better now than it was for previous generations. They just can’t see it because they’ve been educated to believe that society is inherently oppressive, that our foreign policy is based on exploitation, that the history of their country makes it irredeemable, that clear advancements don’t matter because they are done in the service of some shadowy white Christian patriarchy, and that Trump’s presidency justifies all of their biases.
Their parents and grandparents lived through Vietnam, much more tense racial division, rampant police brutality, enormously disruptive economic disasters, far more commonplace discrimination against working women, and the AIDS crisis in the gay community, and (horror of horrors) the election of Ronald Reagan. The liberals in that generation debated what good American society has to offer, decided it offered nothing, and then educated a generation to agree with them.
If, instead of focusing on groups they worry about, Brooks asked them if life is good for white cultural conservatives right now, they’d probably all agree that it is, and that it always has been. Theirs is a culture of grievances, and what Brooks highlights is the unhappy emotional consequence of being so consumed by grievance that you can’t even appreciate near absolute success in every area you profess to care about.
I’m a young cultural conservative who is attracted to the Benedict Option, and I don’t agree with these people about anything. I think there is a coherent American culture, but that these kids and their educators are taking a sledge hammer to it. Racism, police misconduct, sexism, anti-gay bigotry, American blindness to human rights tragedies of its own making, and economic mobility are all smaller problems today than they were a generation or two ago. It’s not perfect, but I haven’t seen any metric the left cares about that convinces me it was better a generation or two ago.
The real challenge for cultural conservatives, and this blog struggles with this every day, is to not succumb to the temptation of this grievance culture even as we recognize that we’re being pushed aside. These people can’t even appreciate near total victory in culture and politics. We should remain more grounded.
I’ll bet that if Brooks interviewed young cultural conservatives he’d hear a lot about the ways education and culture have failed, but he’d also hear less despondency. People who know where they stand on first principles, particularly those who are grounded in faith, don’t need society to constantly validate their convictions. People who are unmoored do.
The Benedict Option is a response to one thing: the collapse of Christian faith in Western society (including among Brooks’s subjects). That’s a monumental loss, and we should lament it, but its entirely separate from what these kids are upset about, which is incoherent. They will get older, gain power, and continue the dismantling of society that their parents and professors started. Our task is to provide an alternative based on the boundless optimism offered by the convictions of our faith.
I wouldn’t say “optimism,” but rather “hope” — but still, I agree with this post. That last paragraph is what Patrick Deneen and I prescribe. Some critics accuse us both of thinking far too small. I can’t speak for Deneen, but in my case, it’s that it’s very difficult to think beyond liberalism to what kind of “solution” might be possible for the entire society. It strikes me that it is far, far more important to build up our little platoons of believers in place, staying involved in politics as we feel led, but putting most of our energy into constructing local forms of community capable of resilience as the political order around us decays and morphs into whatever is coming next. From a Christian point of view, it doesn’t matter under what system of government and economics we live; if you’ve lost the faith, and your children have lost the faith, you have lost the most important thing.
Besides, St. Benedict and his monks “saved” the West not by trying to save the West, but by controlling what they could — that is, building up small communities of intense faith — and working outward from there. There’s a lesson in that for us.
As I keep saying on this blog, it’s really interesting to me to interact with Millennial Christians in France. They simply don’t have hanging about them the sense of heaviness and anxiety that you often see around conservative Christians my age and older. My sense is that they’re already made their peace with the fact that as Christians, they are and always will be a minority living in the ruins, and they are not going to spend the time they are given lamenting the loss. There is something wonderfully liberating about having truly turned your back to Rome (in the sense that St. Benedict did), and accepting cultural exile.
Being with them compels me to reflect on why I spend so much time in this space pointing out signs of the times, evidence of our civilization’s decline and fall: because most Christians in the US still haven’t come to terms with what is perfectly obvious to young Christians in Europe. I wish I had some kind of statistical measure, though, of the extent to which Millennial generation conservative Christians in the US shared that outlook with their French counterparts.
This reminds me of something I read many years ago on one of Sharon Astyk’s blog posts. She was quoting a speech she had heard at a conference on resilience in the face of collapse. The woman who spoke pointed out that 1,500 years ago, her ancestors in western Europe lived through the collapse of the Roman Empire. This was not only a collapse of political and economic order, but a catastrophic material collapse as well. And yet, they planted crops amid the ruins of Rome, and got on with life. So should we, the woman said. And eventually, after centuries of darkness, something good grew up out of that soil.
UPDATE: Interesting comment from reader Dan R.:
One thing that I often see in both conservatives and liberals, but probably more often liberals, is a lack of actual connectedness to the things they advocate for and get angry about. Like, they post about it sometimes, and maybe go to the Women’s March or Pride parade occasionally, but they mostly get angry about things that happen far away to other people. It almost feels like a video game sometimes. “The Parkland teens are racking up points!”
As I enter my late twenties, I am shocked at how many friends have retreated into a tiny orbit. In some ways, they are more connected than ever: they can see news across the world as it happens, anyone they’ve ever met is a click or text away, they can how on an airplane for less than a paycheck and go almost anywhere. But in another sense, their lives slide along on tracks: commute, work, (sometimes school), Netflix, bed. In some cases, kids keep them tied to the house, but in most cases, it’s just…nothing, they just don’t do anything. They have acquired considerably nicer possessions over the years, but that’s it.
Most of them (the liberal ones) are pretty vocal about gay rights, but they hardly seem to have sex themselves. They hardly know any racial minorities, or poor people. Aside from work, they don’t have a raison d’etre. They don’t go to church, they don’t play softball, they don’t work out, they don’t read. (My wife and I joined a book club composed of people who all got pretty solid grades in college. We were the only ones to read more than half the books, and some of the books were pretty easy reads. Somehow, no one else had time). Even the liberal pieties don’t go that deep. They might “care” about, say, gun control, but generally don’t know much about the issue, or really do much besides maybe post about it.
The above paragraph paints with a pretty broad brush, but I think at least parts of it are true for the majority of your younger middle-to-upper class. In many ways, the Sixties and Seventies were a more immoral time than the one we live in, but there is at least a certain courage of convictions that comes from trying to tear down the system and dying of a cocaine overdose. Even most of the “radicals” today are basically consumers whose personal brand involves protesting. They aren’t really living in the world they are trying to create, because the world they have chosen is so small.