Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Failsons Of Weimar America

Crisis of manhood: 'If they think a strongman won't harness this, they're wrong'

Yesterday I posted something about the parallels between Weimar Germany and contemporary America. In it, I quoted this from a profile of the Chapo Trap House guys, leftie podcasters in Brooklyn:

At the Genius office, as people set up chairs on the floor below us, Menaker described the generic Chapo fan as a “failson”—which Biederman, who is twenty-six, defined as the guy that “goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, and gets back to gaming and masturbating.” As for the women fans—who make up maybe twenty to thirty per cent of the audience, they guessed—“they all seem to be success-daughters,” Menaker said. “They’re astrophysicists or novelists, extremely on-point and competent people.”

Christman saw a political lesson in the show’s fan base. “The twenty-first century is basically defined by nonessential human beings, who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborers,” he said. “That manifests itself differently in different classes and geographic areas. For white, middle-class, male, useless people—who have just enough family context to not be crushed by poverty—they become failsons.” The “Chapo Trap House” guys are sincerely concerned with American inequality; at the same time, their most instinctive sympathies seem to fall with people whose worst-case scenario is a feeling of purposelessness. “Some of them turn into Nazis,” Christman continued. “Others become aware of the consequences of capitalism.”

A reader, a 27 year old reader  who is an Orthodox Christian, responded in an e-mail, which I reproduce with his permission:

Your ‘Weimar Germany, Weimar America’ put to words what I’ve been thinking for some time now. Seeing how strikingly similar our situations were/are, I think we are headed for serious trouble. I say this as a 27 year old who looks around and sees many of my peers who are failsons. I mean, if gamer culture is any indication of how bad it is…

I didn’t want to comment in the thread—I don’t want to be taken out of context—but I see many commenters dismissing the possibility that we could be headed in a similar direction. As an Orthodox Christian, I think that is absolutely foolish. A huge swath of man-children who are hooked on hardcore porn and violent video games, feel aimless and emasculated by a society that tells them they are worthless, and have been “raised” in a post-Christian, post-family, absentee-father era, etc…are not a neutral force. Not for the Evil One, they aren’t. Their more base instincts of aggression and violence are merely being subdued and distracted in materialistic hedonism, and their higher instinctual desires for manliness and order can easily be hijacked for nefarious purposes by the some Leader. If Donald Trump of all people was able to inspire some failsons to clean up their act, I can only imagine what a charismatic and seemingly disciplined fringe leader could inspire.

I said this to my brother in conversation yesterday: we are a generation with no virtue, no humility, no respect for the sacred or for authority, enslaved to the passions, etc. Such a generation is ripe for being radicalized, were it not for our comfortable distraction in our materialistic hedonism. For the failsons, it’s easier to just keep looking at porn and playing video games. For others, all our SJW outrage is channeled mostly into social media rants and a few actual protests in order to feel morally superior—no one’s actually experiencing injustice, they just think someone else is. But take that all away? Say, with a huge economic meltdown? I’m afraid we will have an entire generation that will be in utter panic and rage, and they will have no residual virtue to fall back on because they were never raised with it to begin with. Hard times will strip a man down to what he’s made of. Men like your father and my grandfather were made of hard-work, self-reliance, and the Christ-haunted Protestant cultures from whence they came. Hard times stripped them down to that.

It will not be so with my generation. When our fancy universities, nice cars, smart-phones, video games, and job prospects are all taken away, what do we have to fall back on? Nothing. No church, no community, no family, no virtues, no work ethic, nothing. Only our rage and our petulance. If people think nothing will come of this, they couldn’t be more wrong. If they think a strongman won’t harness this, they’re wrong. A stupid billionaire megalomaniac buffoon just did a successful test-run on it.

Your Ben-Op book can’t come soon enough. We’re headed for tumultuous times.

The reader said that leftist blogger James Howard Kunstler made the same point more eloquently in this post, following the 2015 school massacre in Oregon. In it, Kunstler said that our is “a nation physically arranged on-the-ground to produce maximum loneliness, arranged economically to produce maximum anxiety, and disposed socially to produce maximum alienation.” He goes on:

What concerns me more than the gun issue per se is the extraordinary violence-saturated, pornified culture of young men driven crazy by failure, loneliness, grievance, and anger. More and more, there are no parameters for the normal expression of masculine behavior in America — for instance, taking pride in doing something well, or becoming a good candidate for marriage. The lower classes have almost no vocational domain for the normal enactments of manhood, and one of the few left is the army, where they are overtly trained to be killers.

Much of what used to be the working class is now an idle class that can only dream of what it means to be a man and they are bombarded with the most sordid pre-packaged media dreams in the form of video games based on homicide, the narcissistic power fantasies of movies, TV, and professional sports, and the frustrating tauntings of free porn. The last thing they’re able to do is form families. All of this operates in conditions where there are no normal models of male authority, especially fathers and bosses, to regulate the impulse control of young men — and teach them to regulate it themselves.

The physical setting of American life composed of a failing suburban sprawl pattern for daily living — the perfect set-up for making community impossible — obliterates the secondary layer of socialization beyond the family. This is life in the strip-mall wilderness of our country, which has gotten to be mostly of where people live. Imagine a society without families and real communities and wave your flag over that.

President Obama and whatever else passes for authority in America these days won’t even talk about that. They don’t have a vocabulary for it. They don’t understand how it works and what it’s doing to the nation. Many of the parts and modules of it make up what’s left of our foundering economy: junk food, pointless and endless motoring, television. We’re not going to do anything about it. The killing and the mayhem will continue through the process of economic collapse that we have entered. And when we reach the destination of all that, probably something medieval or feudal in make-up, it will be possible once again for boys to develop into men instead of monsters.

I watched the entire speech Richard Spencer gave at his recent white supremacist conference, and I thought, “What a beer hall putz!” I think the media are blowing him and his movement entirely out of proportion. As Jamie Weinstein points out (BronyCon is a gathering of adult men who fancy “My Little Pony”):

Still, attention must be paid. In his speech, Spencer said some true and important things. But they are all entwined with false, malicious, and evil things. It is very, very easy to imagine some deracinated, anxious young white man finding in this barbarism a kind of solution to the problems of his life. What else is there? Same with the Nation of Islam and young black men. Same with street gangs. As I’ve said a thousand times here, this is precisely what the campus SJW mentality is calling up, but not even the SJWs are as effective at calling this up as are the atomizing forces in mass culture — as Kunstler and my reader both understand.

The reader adds:

We have to do the Benedict Option. There Is No. Other. Choice. At this point, when people accuse us of withdrawing, I think “Yep. So?”

UPDATE: A reader who is a pastor writes:

I was raised in a ‘Benedict Option’ home, though my parents would have not understood the phrase.  We were taught, prayed for, and guided and encouraged to live in pursuit of God.  My mother said that her goal was to keep us out of sin, as much as it lay within her powers to do so.  I was a lousy parent in many ways, but the one thing I did was to see that my children were given heavy doses of Scripture when they were young.  My daughter lapped it up, and has as much, if not more general Bible knowledge than some seminary graduates.

My son lives an openly atheistic life, and rejects every tenet of Christianity.  He is barely employed, and has done a great deal of experimenting with drugs and heavy drinking.  Do I feel a failure?  Does anyone need to ask?  How often does the question arise, “Where did I go wrong?” Even if I had a clear, definitive answer, it would provide no consolation.  I pray, sincerely, that you will never have to go through what I have gone through.  I have seen better parents than me raise children who dropped out or came out.

The problem with the Benedict Option is in part that many people, even professing Christians, are not interested in it.  As a minister, I struggle to preach (for example) on marriage when I have not just divorced people, but couples my congregation who have shared spouses through multiple marriages. (They all get along famously now, even though I think adultery was involved at one point; I can’t absolutely prove it, but I think it.  So Heather does have two mommies and two daddies and it’s all very cozy).

Most Christians today, the ones I know anyway, are pretty apathetic about the culture wars, simply wanting to raise ‘nice’ kids who play every sport, manage to marry and get a job and/or attend college, and repeat the cycle in the next generation; or they cling to voting Republican.  My family was very concerned about protecting kids from the world.  This was expressed in ways that seem anachronistic, quaint and legalistic to most people today.  Perhaps so, but the motive was pure, because the world was falling apart (isn’t it always?) and we needed to save our children.

I look forward to your book (I have pre-ordered it) and think it is sorely needed.  But I do wonder……

I think it is very, very important for both supporters and critics of the Benedict Option to understand that it is not, and must not be, about beating up people who have failed, or who have experienced failure. It has to be tough love, indeed, tough self-love — asceticism is central to it — but it has to be lived as merciful, in the sense of trying to give people what they (what we) need to live whole lives despite the radical brokenness in the world around us, and within ourselves. And we have to accept the finitude of any human effort. The Benedict Option will never be a failsafe option, because it cannot be. To expect too much from it is to set oneself up for bitterness and disillusionment.