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Not Optimism, But Hope

In twenty years, America has gone from the apogee of patriotism after 9/11 to a mire of discord, depravity, and the demise of faith.

Tattered American Flag After Hurricane Sandy

On September 11, 2002, when I was a columnist for the New York Post, I stood on the perimeter of Ground Zero waiting for the start of the anniversary memorial service. At precisely the moment the ritual began, a wind so fierce that one television commentator called it “biblical” began to blow. It was the outermost fringe of an Atlantic hurricane, but its timing and intensity felt eerie, especially as the winds did not die down until the end of the ceremony.

That afternoon, a journalist friend who had been with me that morning phoned and asked me in an anxious voice to come over at once. When I arrived, my friend showed me to her home office. She pointed to a small Revolutionary War-era American flag framed under glass hanging on the wall. It was torn from top to bottom.

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“I’ve had that flag for years,” she told me. “I’ve looked at it every day that I’ve worked in my office. When I got back from Ground Zero, it was torn from top to bottom.”

No one else had been in the apartment. The back of the picture frame was sealed. 

Both of us were Christian and knew well the Gospel account that when Jesus of Nazareth died, the veil in the Temple split in two, marking the end of an age. We knew, then, that we might be looking at a sign that America had reached some sort of abrupt end, or was under divine judgment.

I was able to settle my mind at the time by looking at the facts. The United States, then preparing to go to war in Iraq, was the world’s sole hyperpower. I was, to my everlasting regret, part of the conservative majority who believed our cause was just and that, given America’s overwhelming military might, we would quickly prevail and set things right in the Middle East. The only people who didn’t know this were cowards, fools, and ideologically deluded people like those who launched The American Conservative that year. 

Twenty years on, the dissident antiwar vision of Pat Buchanan, Scott McConnell, and Taki Theodoracopulos has been thoroughly vindicated. And yet it has been a hollow victory, and not only because the United States is once again barreling towards a foolish war of choice, this time with infinitely higher stakes. The neocon pundit David Frum, who in 2003 infamously denounced this magazine’s founders and other antiwar figures of the right as “unpatriotic conservatives,” never admitted error. In fact, just a few weeks ago, in response to some criticism of America’s blank check for Ukraine, he reaffirmed his confidence in that infamous screed’s judgment. (“The piece caused a ruckus at the time, but it’s been all too sadly proven prophetic,” he tweeted.) And why not? He has the prevailing winds of official Washington, Republican and Democratic alike, at his back. 

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It is also a hollow victory because the last twenty years have been the fulfillment of the torn-flag prophecy. Something tectonic cracked in our country at the beginning of this century. The fracturing is profound and at this point seems unstoppable. It is hard to know what exactly there is left to conserve of traditional American life and virtue.

The list of evidence for this doleful conclusion is long, but I think there are a handful of core issues that radically limit the ability of conservative politics to address the crisis effectively. They all come down to this: A civilization that fails to transmit its values to the next generation will die. We have not only failed to do that, we have actively created a culture in which doing so is exceedingly difficult. 

Earlier this year, the political scientist Eric Kaufmann released the results of his study of the political views of young American adults. Kaufmann told a conservative conference I attended that the right had better make fighting the culture war its top priority. Why? Because the young are overwhelmingly left-wing and illiberal. That is, they do not respect traditional classical liberal values like free speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religion.

These basic American values have been affirmed by every generation of Americans, of all political stripes. But no more. A majority of Generation Z sees these rights as license for bigots to abuse minorities. Kaufmann calls this “cultural socialism.” He wrote in City Journal that “the young adherents of cultural socialism are steadily overturning the liberal ethos of the adult world.”

When this generation comes to power, it’s lights out for liberty—unless the right can turn things around. It is hard to see how that might happen, based on current trends.

Second, the entire American establishment has been captured by the cultural left. The Waterloo for conservatives was the emergence of woke capitalism, that is, the defection of Big Business to the cultural left. The decisive moment came in April 2015, when Indiana passed a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A coalition of major corporations threatened the state with economic punishment if it didn’t repeal this “bigot” law. Indiana caved. Two months later, the Supreme Court issued its Obergefell decision, legalizing same-sex marriage. 

Since then, Big Business has been arguably the most powerful engine for advancing cultural socialism, perhaps as a way of buying off the left to prevent it from implementing economic socialism. Conservatives used to think business was on our side or, at worst, neutral. Now, not only does it use its immense clout against us on cultural issues, it also makes it clear that if one wishes to rise in business, one had better adopt the illiberal identity politics ideologies promoted by human resources departments.

When TAC first appeared, the left held the news, entertainment media, and universities. Now its ideological hegemony has conquered middle-class professions, especially law and medicine, as well as elementary and high school education, sports, and the military. If you want to be part of these institutions, you must conform. Neutrality is increasingly not an option.

We approach a condition I call “soft totalitarianism.” There are no gulags and no secret police, but we are living through the steady politicization of all aspects of life and the use of social and economic coercion—as distinct from police-state action—to enforce the new ideology. The stunning advances in surveillance technology and culture over the past twenty years, as well as the post-9/11 development of the national security state, have given would-be totalitarians immense power.

Who resists this effectively from the right? Donald Trump? For all the good that MAGA did, it succeeded mostly at frightening and scandalizing the left and providing high ratings for the media. But the left can put us in jail, determine how our kids are educated, control access to good jobs, set the boundaries of permissible discourse through its commissars, and radically reshape society in ways most people two decades ago could scarcely have imagined. The right-wing masses satisfy themselves with emotionally gratifying performative shtick, while the left solidifies control that looks more and more like Huxley’s Brave New World with each passing year.

Russell Kirk once said that the institution most important to conserve is the family. How are we doing? It is true that there are fewer divorces today than there were in 2002, but there are fewer marriages, too. We seem to have produced a generation of Americans who have forgotten how to form families, in part because they have not been shown by their own troubled parents, in part because they grew up in a radically individualistic, anti-family culture. 

Gender ideology is rampant. According to Gallup and other surveys, around 25 percent of Generation Z identifies as some form of queer. Polyamory is rising. So is the number of young adults who never have sex, and not because they choose not to. It is difficult to imagine that these young people will ever mature into a stable sexual identity, especially as we now live in a decadent culture that cannot even say what a woman is. It is a gross understatement to say all this will have a tremendous impact on family formation. 

At the root of all these problems is the collapse of Christianity as a binding source of values. Conservatives have been lamenting the decline of religion for decades, but we really have crossed a Rubicon. Religious identification peaked in the U.S. in 1991 and has been steadily declining since. With Generation Z, it has plunged. There is no reason to believe that young Americans raised with only a tenuous connection to religion will return to church as they age.

It is true that religious scandal—especially the revelations of clerical sex abuse that gutted the Catholic Church beginning in 2002—has played a role in the decline of faith. But it started long before. In 2005, sociologist Christian Smith published his landmark findings showing that a shallow, pseudo-religion he termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” was the actual faith of the overwhelming majority of young Americans. They believe that life is about being happy, feeling good about yourself, and being nice to others. 

The late social critic Philip Rieff saw it all coming. In his under-appreciated 1966 masterpiece, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Rieff diagnosed the end of religion with the birth of psychology. For Rieff, this meant that Western man abandoned the pursuit of virtue and instead sought well-being. Though himself an atheist, Rieff thought this would lead to cultural collapse. In his view, all cultures must have some effective mechanism to forbid certain acts. The contemporary West is the first culture in history to forbid forbidding and is, therefore, per Rieff, an anti-culture, or a culture of death.

Was he right? Perhaps what Rieff diagnosed was not the end of culture itself but the end of a culture—a culture based on Abrahamic religion moderated by Enlightenment liberalism. After all, the cultural socialists now holding the commanding heights of Western civilization have no problem issuing Thou Shalt Nots. It could be that the culture coming into being through wokeness is going to be stronger than we think. It has the minds of the young, especially the brightest and most ambitious, and if the state imposes a social credit system it will have immense power to enforce its ideology.

If so, it cannot last forever, any more than the Soviet Union could. Soft totalitarianism is too detached from hard reality. But that does not mean that our culture and civilization will turn back to Christianity or to the classical liberalism of the American founding. 

Don’t get me wrong: I support most political efforts to push back hard against illiberal leftism. Note well that skilled activists like Christopher Rufo and Matt Walsh have done more to roll back egregious leftism than nearly all Republican politicians. It’s only that politics alone can’t do the job. The culture-making capacities of Western civilization are moribund—especially the churches. Without a spiritual rebirth, we are not going to make it.

Soft totalitarianism is too detached from hard reality. But that does not mean that our culture and civilization will turn back to Christianity or to the classical liberalism of the American founding. 

This is why I have championed what I call the Benedict Option. It’s the general term to describe the movement of Christians (and not only Christians) away from shoring up the Empire (the phrase is Alasdair MacIntyre’s) and towards focusing instead on forming small communities within which faith and virtue can thrive and be passed on to the young. “Benedict” is St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, who left the chaos of barbarian-ruled Rome to found monastic communities in the countryside.

It dawned on me about fifteen years ago that some version of this model, adapted by the laity in accordance with their particular traditions, would be the only real hope that the Christian faith and the Western intellectual tradition would have to survive the suicide of the West. Everything that has happened since then, especially in the five years since the publication of The Benedict Option book, has only deepened my conviction that this is the way. 

What else is there? We could well live to see a radical right political movement following the implosion of this Weimar-like culture, but no sane conservative can possibly want a replay of 1930s Germany. Reading Hannah Arendt’s 1951 study The Origins Of Totalitarianism is deeply unsettling, given how almost all the signs she identified as precursors to totalitarianism are vividly present in contemporary America. It could be that having failed to conserve anything from the past, American conservatives of the near future will face a battle to conserve truth, faith, and moral sanity while the ignorant armies of the radical left and post-Christian right clash in the long night ahead. 

Where is the hope? For Christians—and I am one—hope is not the same thing as optimism. If that were the case, the martyrs and confessors would be fools. No, Christian hope is the certain conviction that no matter how bad things get, if we suffer for the truth, there is ultimate meaning in our pain. That God will use our endurance and witness to advance the good, within His providence. 

That is my hope, and that is my confession as both a Christian and a conservative. It’s all I have. This has been a bad twenty years for America, which traveled from the apogee of patriotism and solidarity after 9/11 into the mire of discord, depravity, and the demise of faith in institutions. It would be overreach, and maybe even a logical fallacy, to blame the Iraq War for all that followed, but it’s hard to deny that this act of hubris was the beginning of our end. 

In a much-discussed 2004 Ron Suskind profile about the Bush team at war, an anonymous senior administration official (allegedly Karl Rove) said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Is it really so far from that to the left’s claim that we can create our own reality through imposing language rules, through surgeries, via technology, and other means at our disposal? It is hard to know what role conservatism has to play in a post-Truth world. 

Then again, who knows what’s coming next? Most of the dissidents who stood up to the Soviet Empire did so without believing that they would ever live to see its demise. They resisted evil solely because it was the right thing to do. So it must be with us today, come what may. Nations fall, empires crumble, and their faded standards turn to tatters, but Truth—and our duty to bear witness to it—endures forever.

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