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Home/Rod Dreher/The West, Still Declining

The West, Still Declining

July 4, 2020: Baltimore mob tears down Columbus statue, throws it into harbor

A reader pointed me to this deeply informative interview with Russia scholar Stephen Kotkin, conducted by the New Yorker‘s David Remnick. Kotkin is one of the most informed Russia experts in the world. The conversation is wide-ranging, and I strongly recommend you read it all. Kotkin takes the view that NATO’s expansion did not trigger Russian hostility, but rather that Russia is just reverting to historical type: an militaristic, expansionist autocracy trying to expand, and, because weaker than it thinks, biting off more than it can chew.

Kotkin cautions that nobody really knows what is going on in Putin’s mind, because he is so self-isolated, but it seems clear now that he did not expect the Ukrainians to resist as they have. Zelensky, says Kotkin, was a weak leader who had only 25 percent approval at the moment of invasion because he couldn’t govern. But now his approval rating is at 91 percent because he has shown himself to be very brave. Kotkin makes an important point that it is not very good to have a TV actor and his crew running your country in peacetime, but in this kind of war, it’s a secret weapon.

Nevertheless, says Kotkin, Ukraine is winning the war only on Twitter. In reality, it’s losing. As a military veteran pointed out to me last week, the US needed three weeks to take Baghdad. Wars don’t run on TV schedules. There’s no doubt that Russia can conquer Ukraine in war if it wants to, says Kotkin, but there is every doubt that it can keep the peace. The Ukrainians will make it impossible to occupy.

Do read it all — there’s a lot here, including talk of the oligarch class, the possibility of a palace coup against Putin, and the things that the US is doing that nobody is talking about.

I want to take issue, sort of, with this passage:

[Kotkin:] The biggest surprise for Putin, of course, was the West. All the nonsense about how the West is decadent, the West is over, the West is in decline, how it’s a multipolar world and the rise of China, et cetera: all of that turned out to be bunk. The courage of the Ukrainian people and the bravery and smarts of the Ukrainian government, and its President, Zelensky, galvanized the West to remember who it was. And that shocked Putin! That’s the miscalculation.

How do you define “the West”?

The West is a series of institutions and values. The West is not a geographical place. Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European. “Western” means rule of law, democracy, private property, open markets, respect for the individual, diversity, pluralism of opinion, and all the other freedoms that we enjoy, which we sometimes take for granted. We sometimes forget where they came from. But that’s what the West is. And that West, which we expanded in the nineties, in my view properly, through the expansion of the European Union and NATO, is revived now, and it has stood up to Vladimir Putin in a way that neither he nor Xi Jinping expected.

I’m not sure. I mean, yes, it seems obviously right that Putin thought the West would fold, and he was wrong about that, though it remains to be seen how long the appetite for sanctions remains with Western publics once the second-order effects begin to hurt them. Winter is ending now, but if there is no Russian gas to heat European homes next winter, that will be another story. Similarly, if the economic price Americans have to pay to punish Putin is taken out of our pockets at the gas pump, how much pain will we be willing to take?

And yes, we have indeed seen that the economic power of the West is staggering once corporations all get aboard with a cause and a narrative. But does that mean that the West isn’t decadent? If decadence is a synonym for impotence, then yes, it means that the West still has the power to make its collective will felt in the world.

In my view, however, impotence is only one facet of decadence. I do believe that the West is decadent, but I also believe — see Live Not By Lies — that the forces that defend a morally decadent order are very strong, and will use that strength to punish dissidents from that order. This is why I watch the crushing economic pain the West is bringing to Russia to punish it for its Ukraine invasion, and I think on the one hand good, Putin deserves it, but on the other hand recognize that the same force will be brought down eventually on people who believe the things that I do.

Some on the Right have seen in Putin a counter-example to Western decadence — this, because he promotes religion, and stands against wokeness (e.g., “antiracism,” gender ideology). I get the temptation, and I have praised Putin in this space before for things he has said about wokeness. Some things are true even if Vladimir Putin says them. That said, you don’t measure decadence only by whether or not a leader says the right things about religion, family, and sexual morality. As Kotkin points out, Putin created an economic and political system that does not operate in a strong, healthy way. It is despotic and exploitative. Nobody looks to Russia and thinks, “That’s a great model for how to run a country and a society.” It is decadent. Putin has tried to shore up the Russian Orthodox Church in part to fight the deep decadence in his country that was the result of seven decades of Bolshevik demoralization of the peoples. But he has doubled down on a different kind of decadence.

The West is doing a victory lap now over its standing up to Putin — Kotkin’s rhetoric is an example of this triumphalism — but I think this is wildly premature. We have a bad habit of only being able to direct our attention to one story at a time. The Russian invasion has dominated the headlines for the past three weeks, understandably, but all the things that were going on when the Russian tanks crossed the border are still with us. The likelihood that American liberals will take Putin as a proxy for all the conservatives they don’t like at home is quite high. They will use the Ukraine war, and the West’s response, as a reason to ramp up the culture war against dissident conservatives at home.

Last week, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to cut off funds to Poland and Hungary over so-called “rule of law” violations, including failing to be sufficiently woke on LGBT issues. It’s an incredible thing: both countries are on the front lines of the refugee crisis, having taken in over a million fleeing Ukrainians. You would think that maintaining European solidarity in the face of a warmongering Russia would take pre-eminence over everything else. Wrong. The EU is going to find a way to punish the populist governments of Poland and Hungary, no matter what — even in a time of war.

This does not suggest that the West is remembering who it is. This suggests that the war is going to promote progressivist triumphalism. We are going to see this at home in the US too.

Here is a small but telling example:

Does this suggest that Americans are remembering who we are, or who we are supposed to be: a country where we respect free speech and the right of peaceful dissent? The US is not at war with Russia, but here, on a popular TV show, two co-hosts say that an American opinion journalist and a former member of Congress should be investigated and perhaps jailed for dissenting from the anti-Russian narrative. It’s insane. Again: we are not at war with Russia, but here you have popular media figures calling for prominent people who challenge the dominant narrative to be investigated and punished by the State. Like they do in Putin’s Russia!

This is the next phase of soft totalitarianism in America, I believe. Liberals and progressives in charge of institutions will use Putin’s evil war as a pretext to advance their own culture war on traditional Christians and anti-woke dissidents.

If the loss of the ability to speak freely without fear of repercussions in terms of job loss or in some other way being made a pariah is a sign of decadence, then yes, we Americans are decadent. Putin is decadent because he has to rely on force to suppress dissident opinion. We too are decadent because our ruling class no longer believes in the fundamental liberal values that makes the West, especially the United States, exceptional. Stephen Kotkin says that the Ukraine war makes the conservative case for the West’s decline “bunk,” but I don’t believe it for a second. The fact that the West has mustered a united front to punish aggressive Russia says nothing about the internal problems we face in the West — especially given that almost nobody believed that Russia was any kind of model for the West to follow.

We are still in the grips of a left-wing illiberal ideology — wokeness — that promotes racial identity at the expense of individual dignity and liberty.

We are still a civilization that is working overtime to destroy a fundamental aspect of civilization, the gender binary. Similarly, we are busy destroying the family, the bedrock institution of any civilization. In Florida, the state passed a law forbidding teachers from talking about sexuality and gender to children up through third grade — that’s nine years old — in response to widespread reports of indoctrination aimed at small children, without the knowledge or permission of parents. This is denounced by our propagandistic media as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and Disney is now seeking to punish Florida politicians for defending parental rights in this way.  Gov. Ron DeSantis makes the necessary point — one far too rarely made by Republican politicians — that the interest of parents has to be more important than the desires of woke corporations like Disney:

Is a society whose teachers, whose Democratic politicians, and whose corporate leaders believe it is morally urgent to teach little children that their bodies might be lying to them, and that they might be the opposite sex, or no sex at all, a healthy society? I say no — and Vladimir Putin’s foreign adventurism does not negate that fact. A society in which parents are fighting a David vs. Goliath battle to prevent schools from telling its kindergarten-age children that they might be the opposite sex, and catechizing them in sexual deviance, is far advanced into decadence.

The entire West is suffering from a fertility crisis. We are not replacing ourselves. It’s not just the West; this is a global phenomenon (Russia too), except for Africa. A society that cannot do the most basic function of any society — reproduce itself — is decadent. If it’s not decadent, then what is it?

We are rapidly falling away from the Christian faith, which has been for over one thousand years the unifying principle of Western civilization, and the ground of liberal democracy (read historian Tom Holland’s great book Dominion: How The Christian Revolution Remade The World for an accessible account of how what makes the West distinct comes from Christianity). The French novelist Michel Houellebecq, a superb diagnostician of Western decadence, is not a religious believer, but he illustrates the decline of the West with chilling precision.

Our university system was once the envy of the world. But we are destroying it for the sake of “diversity, equity, and inclusivity.” Rather than passing on the collective knowledge of our civilization, our universities are teaching that the West is nothing more than a long historical pageant of racism, bigotry, and the rest — that there is nothing worth valuing in it. And we have cast out competence and achievement for the sake of social engineering according to woke principles. If this isn’t decadence, what is?

Our elites — that is, those who run the government, corporations, universities, the media, the military, and other basic institutions — are at war with those within the country who oppose any of this. They are also presiding over a country where income inequality is exacerbating divisions within society. And they are willing to use technology to punish dissenters. In Canada, for example, just before the Russian invasion, the Trudeau government set out to seize the bank accounts of protesting truckers, and those who supported them. Russia’s invasion pushed this off the media’s radar, but it still happened. This is why I say that the immense collective power that the State and Big Business mustered to punish Russia will eventually be used against domestic dissidents. What will change is that these same elites will recognize the power they have to inflict ruin upon those they identify as evil can and should be used against their own dissenting populations.

The media and corporate elites are demonizing all things Russian, manufacturing a moral panic. Once again, let me say unequivocally that I believe Russia’s invasion was wrong, and that I hope Putin loses this unjust war. But Putin’s wickedness does not give Americans the right to abandon our own supposed beliefs in liberal democracy and its core principles. But this is what is happening. It was happening before Putin invaded, and it is going to accelerate from here on out. Having enjoyed the pleasure of demonizing the Other all out of proportion to their sins, we will not soon give that up.

Europe, the core of Western civilization, has over the past few decades opened its doors to migrants from other civilizations. Many European nations — Hungary and Poland are notable exceptions — have lost the will to defend themselves. I mentioned recently in this space a dinner I had with a Western European academic who took a big salary cut to move with his wife and kids to Poland, where they felt more secure. He told me about how Muslim immigration had all but destroyed his home city, largely because the ruling class there refused to take a stand against the violent aggression of these immigrants. When the adult son of a local imam called on social media for the murder of Jews and Christians, and nobody stood up to it, he and his wife decided it was time to leave. He told me — and I’ve heard this from many others in my visits to Europe in recent years — that the media in western European countries deliberately downplay these stories, because they don’t fit the multicultural globalist narrative.

Is that not decadence? Being unwilling to defend your borders and your people? The United States is a nation of immigrants, which means we have a different way of handling these issues. But we still haven’t gained control of our southern border. A nation that is unwilling or unable to control who enters it to live is … something other than strong. You might even call it decadent.

Many of our major cities are overrun with violent crime and homelessness, a phenomenon exacerbated by woke elites who refuse to act to stop it, because they are afraid to reckon with the causes of this crisis. They cannot free themselves from the woke narrative, and face reality. Kotkin says Putin probably went into Ukraine because he believed the stories he wanted to believe, and surrounded himself with people who reinforced his own prejudices. This is not a problem unique to Putin and the Russian elites.

The United States launched two major wars this century: on Afghanistan, and on Iraq. We lost both. The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan, and Iraq, though free of Saddam Hussein, has been turned into a de facto puppet state of Iran. Our costly (in blood and treasure) plans to turn both countries into liberal democracies failed. We know too (from the Afghanistan Papers) that in Afghanistan, our generals lied to themselves, to Congress, and to the American people about the prospects for victory there, and kept throwing more and more money and bodies into the maw of an unwinnable war. Despite its terrible execution, Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was the right thing to do. But we are a country that is incapable of holding its military responsible for the failure there. How is this not decadent?

Our military is now administered by people who wish to bring the benefits of wokeness to warfighting preparation. Now we are confronted with stories about this kind of agony, via Military.com:

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Sam Rodriguez’s unit was in Norway for an exercise, but there was a basic issue the service hadn’t worked out beforehand.

Where should Rodriguez sleep?

Norwegian service members share coed dorms, but the U.S. Navy segregates its sailors by gender.

For Rodriguez, who identifies as nonbinary transgender, the Navy policy meant sleeping in what was little more than a “broom closet,” separate from everyone else in the unit a floor away. Rodriguez was the only U.S. sailor on the deployment who didn’t fit into the Navy’s traditional gender divide.

“I felt like Harry Potter,” Rodriguez said in a recent interview with Military.com, referring to the fictional wizard whose abusive aunt and uncle made him sleep in a closet. “They’re able to interact with each other; I’m basically just in this isolation.”

After a week, Rodriguez was moved to the same floor as everyone else, but was still secluded in a different room.

“It made me feel shitty having to be separated from my guys,” Rodriguez said.

The U.S. military has made strides in recent years to be more inclusive for different genders, gender identities and sexualities.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which banned open service by gay, lesbian and bisexual troops, was repealed just over a decade ago. All combat jobs were opened to women in late 2015. And after a roller coaster few years of whiplashing policy, transgender service members have been able to serve openly since last year.

Nonbinary service is a frontier the military hasn’t grappled with yet.

That could change soon, as the Pentagon has quietly been researching how it could allow nonbinary troops to serve more openly.

Of course. Russia’s decidedly non-woke military has struggled in Ukraine, but only in the minds of propagandists and liberals getting high on their own supply does that mean that whatever the US military does to wokify itself must be a good idea.

As Kotkin points out, one of the deep faults of the Putin regime is that it is almost certainly impossible there to question the despot, to bring him news he doesn’t want to hear. If we cannot or will not hold our generals accountable for failure, is this not decadence? Similarly in 2008, with the economic crash, none of the Wall Street Masters of the Universe were ultimately held accountable for their failures.

We live in a society in which the young are addicted to electronic stimulation, including hardcore pornography. Nobody knows how to stop it. Pornography is tearing us apart. But it’s not just the content we watch on our devices that is driving us into decadence; it’s how they are formatting our brains and commanding our attention. Michael Crichton wrote back in 1999:

Today, everybody expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time. . . . [E]veryone must be amused, or they will switch: switch brands, switch channels, switch parties, switch loyalties. This is the intellectual reality of Western society at the end of the century. In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained.The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time is on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.

As you know if you have been reading me for a while, Philip Rieff got there long before the rest of us, with his concept of the therapeutic society and “Psychological Man”.

This is what it means to be decadent. Another definition of decadence is to be able to see what is wrong with your institution, or society, or even yourself, but to be unable to muster the will to act to reform them. Along those lines, the Roman historian Livy said, of his era, “We can endure neither our vices nor their cure.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. As encouraging as it may be that the West has stood united against Russian aggression in this instance, it would be crazy to assume that all is well with us. Russia’s own particular form of decadence does not negate our own. Putin works to distract his people from Russia’s severe problems, including his problematic governance, by ginning up hatred of Ukrainians, and of the West. It is no more accurate or justifiable when our leaders and propagandists do the same thing.

Besides, Russia, though a nuclear power, is relatively poor and weak. If rich, muscular, technologically advanced China chooses to confront the West militarily — say, by invading Taiwan — we will have a much better sense of how strong America and the rest of the West is.

The bottom line here is that Putin’s present and future quagmire in Ukraine, and the sense of solidarity his invasion has called up in the West, does not cure us from our deep cultural, moral, and spiritual sickness. Don’t buy the hype and get strung out on hopium. As I see it, family and religion are the core of any civilization; ours in the West is no different. In 1994, the geopolitical journalist Robert D. Kaplan wrote an influential article in The Atlantic Monthly, titled “The Coming Anarchy”. Nearly thirty years later, this passage has stuck with me:

Built on steep, muddy hills, the shantytowns of Ankara, the Turkish capital, exude visual drama. Altindag, or “Golden Mountain,” is a pyramid of dreams, fashioned from cinder blocks and corrugated iron, rising as though each shack were built on top of another, all reaching awkwardly and painfully toward heaven—the heaven of wealthier Turks who live elsewhere in the city. Nowhere else on the planet have I found such a poignant architectural symbol of man’s striving, with gaps in house walls plugged with rusted cans, and leeks and onions growing on verandas assembled from planks of rotting wood. For reasons that I will explain, the Turkish shacktown is a psychological universe away from the African one.

To see the twenty-first century truly, one’s eyes must learn a different set of aesthetics. One must reject the overly stylized images of travel magazines, with their inviting photographs of exotic villages and glamorous downtowns. There are far too many millions whose dreams are more vulgar, more real—whose raw energies and desires will overwhelm the visions of the elites, remaking the future into something frighteningly new. But in Turkey I learned that shantytowns are not all bad.

Slum quarters in Abidjan terrify and repel the outsider. In Turkey it is the opposite. The closer I got to Golden Mountain the better it looked, and the safer I felt. I had $1,500 worth of Turkish lira in one pocket and $1,000 in traveler’s checks in the other, yet I felt no fear. Golden Mountain was a real neighborhood. The inside of one house told the story: The architectural bedlam of cinder block and sheet metal and cardboard walls was deceiving. Inside was a home—order, that is, bespeaking dignity. I saw a working refrigerator, a television, a wall cabinet with a few books and lots of family pictures, a few plants by a window, and a stove. Though the streets become rivers of mud when it rains, the floors inside this house were spotless.

Other houses were like this too. Schoolchildren ran along with briefcases strapped to their backs, trucks delivered cooking gas, a few men sat inside a cafe sipping tea. One man sipped beer. Alcohol is easy to obtain in Turkey, a secular state where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Yet there is little problem of alcoholism. Crime against persons is infinitesimal. Poverty and illiteracy are watered-down versions of what obtains in Algeria and Egypt (to say nothing of West Africa), making it that much harder for religious extremists to gain a foothold.

My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. [Emphasis mine — RD] Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone. Turks, history’s perennial nomads, take disruption in stride.

The future of the Middle East is quietly being written inside the heads of Golden Mountain’s inhabitants.

The future of the West is being written inside the heads of our poor too — and of our shrinking middle class, who, thanks to technology, consumerism, radical individualism, and the militancy of woke elites and the institutions they control, are being weaned off of the fundamental values that made America great. We are not going to vote ourselves out of this crisis — a pseudo-solution in which decadent American conservatives like to believe. Despite what many decadent American Christians believe, we are not going to evangelize our way out of this crisis, not without an even greater emphasis on discipleship (this is what The Benedict Option is about).

Cast your eyes towards Ukraine, and take pleasure in a decadent Russia’s folly and failure there (though don’t let yourself believe that Ukraine is winning this war; even Kotkin admits that this is not true). I will join you in hoping that Russia loses its imperialistic gambit. But I will not join you in believing that all is well with the West now, that the supposed spell that had sapped our self-confidence has been broken. The facts do not bear this out. I expect Western elites to draw — groundlessly — more confidence from Putin’s failure, and to ramp up wokeness and policies that are leading to our decline and decadence.

What would prove me wrong? A return to liberal democratic principles of free speech, tolerance, and judging people by their individual qualities, not as bearers of collective identities. Reclaiming the Civil Rights era’s liberal defense of individual dignity, and a refutation of neoracism. Universities returning to their core mission of education, not politicization or social engineering. A rediscovery of religion, not as a therapeutic adjunct to consumerism and hedonism, but as a binding creed. A defense of the importance of the gender binary, and the normative importance of the traditional family, even as we recognize that we live in a society that is more tolerant of sexual difference. A society in which elites are held responsible for their failures, and our politicians recognize that a society in which the rich get richer while more and more people fall into poverty and hopelessness is not a society worth defending.

The few Western conservatives who looked to Putin’s Russia as a solution for our own decadence have now been relieved of their illusions. The much more powerful, and far more numerous, liberals, progressives, and neocons who look to Putin’s Ukraine invasion as the nullification of claims of Western decadence are not going to be easily relieved of their illusions, if they ever are. E pur si muove.

 

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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