Almost always one reads a book of future-looking political theory long before or long after its substance has been proven or disproven. It is quite another experience to observe theory offered just yesterday as it morphs today into reality. So it is with The Decadent Society, released in February, a month ago. It sharply identifies our problems, and speaks abstractly of possible futures for both America and the rest of the world, in which our problems are solved, or not. But all changed futures require a mechanism of change, that in February we were lacking. Now, the Wuhan coronavirus, and, much more importantly, its knock-on effects, have delivered a possible mechanism, and a changed future rises in the shadows. History has, perhaps, returned.
A few weeks ago, I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Quentin Tarantino’s movie delivered to me what I have been seeking. Namely, the exact point America careened off the path to flourishing, abandoning our long, mostly successful search for ever-increasing excellence and achievement. It was 1969. As the shadows lengthen and the darkness spreads, perhaps it does not matter when twilight fell. But why twilight fell does matter, and much of the answer can be found in the pages of Amity Shlaes’s new book, Great Society, which narrates the decade’s massive expansion of government, and of elite power, all in the service of the Left, that we were told was certain to give us Utopia, but instead destroyed our civilization.
For Americans who think that so-called liberal democracy is neither, and in any case is a dead end, successful modern societies with a different political model always intrigue. In the West, notable such are Hungary and Poland, who have effectively executed a mild and tentative turn away from the most extreme vices of liberal democracy, though there is a long way to go. Singapore, which has apparently successfully blended economic success, certain virtues, and limited democracy, offers another possible model, one with a longer track record. Unfortunately, Singapore’s example is of very limited use to a future well-run America, and this book of the thoughts of Lee Kuan Yew, who built modern Singapore, helps show why.
We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes. We watch movies, and we instinctively put ourselves in the place of the hero, not in the place of the villain. We read the histories of twentieth-century tyrannies, and we assume we would be the resistance fighter, not the collaborator, informer, or toady to the new archons. Maybe we would be heroes. But probably not, if history is any guide. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 The Captive Mind explores, through the author’s personal experience, what motivates seemingly morally strong, thoughtful men to instead cooperate with, and often embrace, evil. Sadly, this question is as relevant today as seventy years ago, which makes this book very much worth reading for its insights into the future, as well as into the past.
Attacks on digital technology for destroying our capacity for attention are a dime a dozen. Despite its title, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head is not such an attack. It is far more ambitious. Somewhat to my surprise, it is a direct assault on the Enlightenment for ruining the habits of mind and practice that lead to human flourishing. Crawford says modern man is subject to delusions, birthed by the Enlightenment, that diffuse our perception of the world in a fog of unreality. He therefore sets himself up in as the paladin of reality, a champion badly needed by our times, offering a return to the solidity of the real, through excellence as developed in skilled practices.
Rusty Reno, editor of the prominent religious conservative journal First Things, here couples an original diagnosis of how we got to the vicious decay of now with very muted prescriptions. This is a good enough book, earnest and intent, but it is cramped. Reno offers as an alternative not strong gods, nor even coherent positive visions of the nationalism and populism of the title, but only the tired and repeatedly failed call to return, though some unspecified mechanism, to vaguely conceived virtue. I’m all for virtue, but Reno refuses to acknowledge that, more likely, and more desirable, the strong gods are those who will inevitably, as Kipling said, with fever and slaughter return, to scour the Earth in preparation for the rebirth of actual, living virtue.
I am a Sohrab Ahmari fanboy. I endorse his recent full-throated calls for creation of a post-liberal future, and admire that he has boldly claimed the mantle of leadership. What matter if Ahmari’s prescriptions are not yet fully coherent? The mark of a true leader is one who can inspire others to follow him. A man who claims to know with precision every step along the way, and the solution for every problem, is an ideologue or a grifter, not a man of destiny. This short book, Ahmari’s first, though barely three years old, is interesting primarily not for its topic, the ideological degradation of contemporary art. Rather, it’s interesting for what it shows about the arc of Ahmari’s thinking, about the march of post-liberalism, and about how art relates to post-liberalism.
I am fascinated by what is to come. For someone who came of age imbibing the narrow, facile, weak, always-second-place conservative pieties of the late 1980s and the 1990s, the chaotic fluidity of today’s Right is something entirely new. There are no straight lines of sight; all is a jumble of splintered mirrors. In this chaos, of which Trump is only one manifestation, it is a sign of something, or rather of many things, that this self-published book by an pseudonymous author, calling for adoption of a supposed ethics of the Bronze Age, is receiving a lot of attention. And as much as I hate to admit it, or think I hate to admit it, the philosophy that runs through this book is likely to drive a lot of discourse, and action, in coming years.
We in America have long thought highly of ourselves. This feeling crested during the early Cold War, when most Americans believed that our “system,” our way of life, was superior to any other—especially Communism, but more broadly any based on any other values. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winner, was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 because he was too famous to be killed. We initially praised him; he vigorously attacked Communism, and we assumed that meant he endorsed our American system. But he disabused us of that assumption in this famous speech, given as the Harvard commencement speaker in 1978. The reaction of the American elite was frothing fury, and Solzhenitsyn was cast out from polite society. Examining his speech now, forty years later, we can see what Solzhenitsyn got right, and what he got wrong.
High architecture, that of grand buildings, is a bridge between God and man, and a sinew binding state and people, the ruling class and the masses. Low architecture, that of daily living and daily use, is key to satisfaction in the life of a populace. Thus, a coherent and uplifting architecture, high and low, is, and has always been, necessary for any successful society. I will return below to what architecture we should have, why, and what needs to be done to achieve it. Today, though, we most definitely don’t have a coherent and uplifting architecture, and Robert Stevens Curl, in Making Dystopia, explains what the abomination of Modernism is and why it utterly dominates our current architecture.