Some reflections on our current unraveling
The gyre widens and the vibe shift continues.
The world doesn't feel the same as it did in 2019, and never will again. There is a vague scent of apocalypse in the air. The old political formulas don't make sense. And people are starting to reexamine their old, comfortable, assumptions.
This being written in early October 2023, the example most readily at hand is the war in Gaza. Being a completely ineffable war emerging out of no classical political logic, I would not be surprised if the event has a more lasting impact on the West's fraying political coalitions than the borders of the belligerent countries.
In fact, this small brush war has squarely divided our late republic, less between the citizens’ support for either foreign party, than in their appetites for a new protracted political conflict. Americans might be ready for a fight if they could figure out what being “American” even meant.
From rising crime, creeping inflation, a porous border, and a rapidly declining foreign power structure, not much is making sense in the liberal American order. Certainly, this is the case for the more moderate liberal-progressive types, who are slowly realizing that the viciously fanatical anti-colonial activists, which they trained for decades in American universities, are indeed playing for keeps and not willing to stop when it makes bourgeoise leftists feel uncomfortable.
There is now a new group of people looking at our situation and trying to turn back from the precipice, wondering if there is a way to return to the sanity of previous decades. Even for those ultimately sympathetic to the goals of progressivism, this would be an ideal time to take a step back from the crazier ideas that have become mainstream in the last several decades. Regardless of what we might think about the ultimate ends of leftist ideology, at the moment, modern progressivism is creating chaos, and threatening the entire system with a cascading collapse of wealth and credibility.
There has been a long-standing debate between various members of the dissident sphere (most notably Auron Macintyre and Academic Agent) on whether the system is capable of strategic ideological moderation (a.k.a. “Putting the Woke Away”). However, after everything has been said in this exchange, there is not much of a disagreement.
We all know that retraction is impossible. Aside from merely performative measures that convince nobody, no broader permanent cultural moderation can possibly occur. It doesn't matter how tactically useful such a move might be for farsighted activists or how stabilizing it would be for institutional power, this machine only goes in one direction.
For those interested in reform, the only way out of this mess is through it. And society will have to experience some fully realized crisis, minimally a spiritual one, to recover the wisdom needed to restore sanity.
But, one might ask, why?
Explanations vary. Outside appeals to the finer points of elite theory, most people have an implicit understanding that all modes of conservatism have failed. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t still going to try their hands at turning back the clock and breathing life back into the dying liberal order, even if they understand that many of the issues driving the modern insanity trace their original to fundamental modern values, not easily modified.
Two such conservative reformist examples, prominent in my own mind, are Richard Hanania and Patrick Deneen. Both clever thinkers, Hanania and Deneen understand that the root causes of modern progressive failure do not lie in some recent radical perversion in the late 70s or 80s, but rather owe to fundamental flaws built into our legal and cultural systems going back to the Civil Rights era, if not further back to our country’s origin in Enlightenment ideas.
These propositions are rather uncontroversial for any non-progressive in 2023. Still, it is much harder to come up with a workable solution. Certainly, Hanania and Deneen struggle with this problem themselves, implying throughout their more recent work that our political and cultural crisis might be fixed with just the right set of political readjustments. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that America was a sane place, was it? A small change brought us to this ruin. Why could not a small change restore our glory?
For example, if our problem really is a public square devoid of civic or religious virtue, could this not be undone by reestablishing faith and republican values? Or alternatively, if the source of our woes is simply the regulatory legacy of the late Civil Rights movement, why not simply address the legal issue directly, with legislation and lawfare?
The problem with these reform-minded solutions originates in a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of politics itself. For humans, the political concept is less about specific policies or cultural outcroppings, and more about a religious story that drives their relationship with the world. Whether you learn this lesson from Carl Schmitt, Joseph DeMaistre, or Lorgar Aurelian, the principle remains the same. The core part of mankind's political instinct is found in narrative, identity, and faith. Any change that does not modify this core will ultimately be transient and doomed to eventual failure.
This religious dimension of politics is indeed why wokeness (the mature consequence of the 1960s cultural revolution) did not become prominent until the coming-of-age of the baby-boomer's children, the Millennials. The old-school radicals of the Anti-Vietnam War protests and the Free Love Movement were in many ways more extreme than modern woke activists, but their radicalism was an adult affectation built on a religious substructure of a classic American identity. For the millennials, however, progressivism was the only serious religion that they ever knew. And they believed it.
Likewise, the problem with virtually all mainstream "solutions" to the cultural crisis is that they don't grasp the magnitude of what a true religious conversion would look like. At best, they imagine policy shifts that arrest the progressive drift forward but leave the fundamental narrative logic of the religious system in place. This means that eventually, the spiritual sensibilities of our society will intervene and undo whatever conservative policy proposals were enacted, no matter how sane or prudent.
But what would a genuine conversion from progressivism to something distinctly anti-progressive even look like? It's hard to say.
No one has a firm understanding of how such a cultural shift would work since virtually all religious movements of significance for the last two centuries have gone in the opposite direction. It can't be moderate or measured, however much we might want a soft landing. And anyone not getting a sense of vertigo thinking about the proposition is not thinking about the proposition seriously.
The particulars of this issue are easier to recognize via example. Here, it might be useful to examine the two most obvious instances of leftist overreach, often cited as opportunities for rightward reform: first, contemporary urban de-policing, and second, sex reassignment for “transgender” minors.
Both of these policy positions are manifestly insane. Both policies have resulted in large-scale social harm with many victims. And both are inexplicably promoted at all levels by presumably moderate politicians and government administrators.
For example, on the issue of crime and policing, we have witnessed the most marked acceleration in American urban decay and violent crime in decades. The cause is obviously a refusal to apply increased discretional policing within African-American communities or enforce vagrancy laws on homeless drug users. The result is unsafe cities, record crime rates, closed businesses, and unlivable urban communities with even well-to-do progressives looking for a way to escape the mess they created.
Alternatively, on the issue of gender transitioning for minors, America has seen an unprecedented spike in adolescents seeking drugs and irreversible body modification, strikingly similar to other social contagions (such as anorexia or bulimia) in the 1990s. However, not only has the government and medical establishment failed to address this problem, they have poured gasoline on the fire, standing behind questionable (likely false) research, pushing for untested medical procedures, and vilifying whistle-blowers as dangerous radicals. All to assert a mutability of physical sex that even very young children can recognize as manifestly false.
So right away we have two slam-dunks for the reformist crowd. Easily demonstrable problems brought about by bad policy with reformist solutions with broad public support. So what are the chances that these solutions will be implemented and made permanent? Very small.
Any "return to sanity" that might be proposed, while yielding results in the short term, would be dissonant with the religious narrative of the ruling class. A reformist policy position willing to hold back the worst of things might work, for a time. But sooner or later the true believers are going to start asking those nagging questions about why so many Africans are being put in prison and why the medical establishment is holding back so many starry-eyed children from pursuing their dreams, achievable only through pre-pubescent genital surgery.
Thus even as the fire rises those sitting at the foot of the flames will deny its heat even as it consumes their bodies.
Recently, a spate of killings of progressive activists has thrown the social media space into a buzz. I suppose urban murders are not an altogether uncommon event, given the general decline of public safety. Still, the recent killings involved an uncommon amount of irony. Each victim seemed to have walked blindly into danger, with very little awareness of their situation. Furthermore, each of their social media profiles was chock-full of anarchist-style activism and support for urban de-policing policies, often even mocking skeptics concerned with the growing danger of crime in their cities.
But perhaps more strange than the victims themselves, were the responses of their colleagues. Often barely pausing for breath, reflection, or remorse for their fallen friends, before reposting another reason to support "the cause". It would seem that even death itself was little more than a speedbump to the political fervor that organized their lives. Still, watching their reaction from the outside did put me in mind of my own journey away from the progressive worldview, and how the liberal narrative slowly became unraveled in my own psyche.
Of the recent tragedies, I found the killing of Philadelphia-area progressive activist, Josh Kruger most pertinent to my own reflections. Kruger, himself a prominent gay activist with a long history of verbally attacking conservatives, had just completed a long series of posts denouncing skeptics who felt Philadelphia's de-policing policies were making the city more dangerous. When Kruger was found murdered in his Philadelphia home shortly after mocking Dilbert creator Scott Adams for his concern about rising crime, the irony was palatable.
But, in fact, the real story was stranger yet.
As it turned out, the youth who murdered Josh Krueger was an ex-lover, who, as per the testimony of his family, had been groomed by the activist into a sexual affair via drugs and blackmail at a very young age. Subsequently, the story soon became even stranger with the excavation of tweets from Josh Kruger complaining about his own history of being a victim of "sexual abuse" at almost an identical age as his ex-lover who ultimately murdered him.
What struck me in this situation was how starkly the real story contrasted with Josh Kruger's public presentation. On the surface, there was the dissonance between his uber-confident professional progressive public face and his double life as a semi-criminal low-life. But then also, at a psychological level, there was the contrast between Kruger's professed identity as a victim of abuse and his alleged role as a victimizer.
The Kruger affair seemed to expose a myth of the modern progressive religion that I once devoutly believed, the trope of the eternally noble homosexual, or the "Good Gay".
Perhaps I am dating myself here, but when I was a progressive in the early 2000s the image of the "Good Gay" was in its prime. Homosexual men were the central religious icon of the left, the symbol both of progressive aspirations and their cultural dominance. I was never clear how this perception entered into my mind at a very young age, yet it seemed obvious that gay men were just better, across the board: more professional, wiser, better at understanding the opposite sex, and better at navigating the complexities of life itself.
After all, "Marriage Equality" was the most important issue of our time. Gay matrimony was not just a matter of fairness, it was a spearhead towards a more scientific, more emancipatory, and reasonable understanding of sex itself. This was the age of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Sex in the City, Will and Grace, and many real-world gay luminaries who I took very seriously.
Among this company, the figures of Andrew Sullivan and Dan Savage figured prominently in my own intellectual development as each helped me navigate the rocky terrain of sexuality and religion. But in hindsight, it is surprising just how heavily each man leaned their intellectual brand on the trope of the "Good Gay".
With Andrew Sullivan, there was always the pretense of being the considerate and well-read British queer. Tied to prudence and contemplation, Sullivan seemed content to follow the traditions of his ancestors as far as a conservative gay man could. Like W.H. Auden and Oscar Wilde before him, Andrew Sullivan was knowledgeable and fascinated by the mystery and wisdom of the old world, while at the same time unjustly forced to remain outside of his faith due to the bigotry of religious fundamentalists who didn't understand the true depth of their beliefs.
On the more secular side, the sex advice columnist Dan Savage became the living symbol of the new expert-driven approach to consent-based relationships. He was the guy who "got it" and who could make the increasingly troubled relations between men and women all make sense. He was “good, giving, and game”. He was open to new experiences, but still in a “monogamish” relationship with a life-long partner and a child. Who better than to be the new visionary for what sex should mean in the 21st century?
Yet as time went on, the more I learned about each of these men, the more the image of the "Good Gay" began to disintegrate.
Andrew Sullivan, far from a considerate English gentleman, revealed himself, over time, to be a supremely small thinker. Prone to petty vindictiveness, emotionally incontinent outbursts of rage, and strange obsessions with celebrity politicians, the man demonstrated absolutely no understanding of the consequences of the reforms he demanded. Like all Boomers, Sullivan’s worldview relied on the traditional moral assumption of the West existing indestructibly for his ideas to make any sense. Once the last remnants of the old world began to fall away in earnest, his commentary shifted from reasonable introspection to wistful and useless platitudes about how things “should be”.
Likewise with Dan Savage, the illusion of reasonability was short-lived. Savage's presentation of a common-sense post-sexual revolution method for achieving monogamy, was anything but what it claimed to be. What started as a more transparent approach to handling adultery, later transformed into an excuse for virtually all infidelity with the podcast host jokingly issuing "non-monogamy permissions slips” to those who called in.
Here again, in Dan Savage, was also the petty political vindictiveness, where the podcast host (often praised for his balanced and fair takes) took great lengths to viciously put down his political enemies by employing transparent moral double standards. And these double standards only worsened post-2012 with the re-emergence of feminism and the "Me-Too" movement, with Savage endorsing any number of impossibly puritanical consent-based restrictions on hetero-sexual sex that he had very obviously never practiced in his personal life as a gay man.
In fact, Dan Savage's emotional instability and on-again/off-again puritanism mapped closely to my own experience with gay men. Far from the uber-confident "Good Gays" I saw on TV, the homosexuals I knew in real life were deeply troubled; perhaps sympathetic in their own right, but often coping with early-life sexual trauma in a highly self-destructive way.
I wouldn't say that the men I've known in these kinds of situations were evil people, but they were struggling, and their lives were, for lack of a better word, more than a little squalid. Yet, for whatever reason, none of this darkness ever manifested publicly in their self-presentation. Instead, it was always the same campy effeminacy, the smiling mask over the wounded soul, contradictions covering up a more conflicted existence, and preaching about a high standard of health and morality that was, from what I could tell, completely absent in their lives.
It's exactly this quality that I now see again in the story of Josh Kruger. What to make of this poor soul participating in the abuse of another man while bemoaning his own status as a victim? I am sure there is some sympathetic way of reading his story. But, sympathetic or not, harmed victim or devious villain, fraud or understandable loser, what marks Kruger's story is just how poorly it fits into the classic Hollywood image of the “good gay”, and just well how it fits into the pre-20th century understanding of sexual deviancy.
Under the ancient conception of homosexuality, men's lust for other men was viewed less as an equal and opposite force to men's attraction to women, and more as something exogenous to healthy human behavior writ large. Homosexuality was an extension of uncontrolled male sexual energy, more akin to what we would call a para-philia" or a “kink”. As such, the practice was something to be contained and kept private, to the extent that it was considered licit at all. There was an understanding that if this kind of activity was allowed to go on publicly, and in an unconstrained manner, it would inevitably invite other pathologies which would erode and destroy the social fabric itself.
But, political and cultural biases aside, might we ask if the ancient conception of homosexuality was more aligned with reality than our modern view?
To ask the question in 2023 is to answer it.
Not only have all of the slippery slope predictions of the old religious right been vindicated, the only way we can even pretend that the new order is working is by reframing our social values in a way that would look transparently insane to any person born before 1960.
Ok, man. Maybe it’s not a problem that people aren’t having children, that our social system will collapse imminently, and that our culture will die with us. I mean, how does that affect you PERSONALLY?
That argument might sell to nihilistic Millennials, but not so much to any other human who has ever lived on earth.
It’s strange when you think about how historic attitudes to sexuality are framed by the left, as if our society is uniquely homophobic. Yet, if any scion from one of these more “open” civilizations (such as Ancient Greece or Japan) were shown the modern LGBTQ movement, they would recommend the greatest amount of punitive violence imaginable, even if they themselves had engaged in some recreational buggery on the side.
There is no rational way to justify modernity’s attitudes towards deviant lifestyles. And yet, despite it all. I can never really emotionally internalize the reality of the old perspective. No matter how many of the seedy realities I observe, the fictional image of the "good gay" from Will and Grace and Sex in the City is always the rule, the Josh Krugers and Dan Savages are always the exceptions. And so I proceed within the mode of the practical “blue-pill”, ignoring the underlying social problems at an emotional level just so I can carry on.
I suppose I could justify this attitude as a kind of charity. It’s always good to assume the best of people. But maybe, this is my own weakness as a modern person. A functionally progressive perspective is necessary for living in modern America. I have to work in a liberal environment. And while I understand so-called "red-pilled" realities, living inside them emotionally from day to day would be exhausting and unsustainable.
But that being said, what would it mean for our perspectives on these issues to fundamentally change at a deep religious level? How would it feel to wake up in a world where everyone saw clearly the insanity of the modern world, as their ancestors certainly would have? What would be the implications of a leadership class and a popular front willing to make the necessary corrections?
Nothing friendly. Nothing comfortable. Maybe, Nothing humane.
Because once the old gods of religious passion have stirred from their slumber there really is no putting them back in the bottle. That’s the problem with real belief. Whether we like the results or not, true faith binds us to harsh realities we rather wouldn't face, and obligations we rather wouldn’t carry out.
I am reminded here of The Divine Comedy. As Virgil and Dante descend to the deeper circles of the Inferno, a transformation takes place in the disposition of the poet. At first, Dante is distraught at witnessing the damned souls, suffering for eternity for the finite crimes of their temporal lives. How could this be a truly deserved end? Do not the condemned deserve pity, even if they are condemned by Perfect Justice itself?
But, by the time Dante and Virgil arrive at the lower levels of Malbolge, hearing the stories of the crimes of the condemned as they go, the poet begins greeting each new sinner with indignation and scorn. Dante now understands that the sinners residing in Hell built their own prisons and destroyed their own souls in the process. What is being punished now is nothing more than the sin itself. Could true justice require anything less?
Here I should clarify my own position. I do not believe that the suffering of the damned glorifies the hosts of heaven. And if hell is eternal, I do not believe its agonies weigh on the minds of the saints, for better or worse. Still, Dante is pointing at an eternal truth. Just as fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, hatred of evil is the beginning of moral vitality. And if the defect of our age is characterized by anything, it is a lack of moral vitality.
I recognize this defect in myself more than in others, but weakness is weakness and must be exposed. Our age is tired and effeminate. We can’t look at the past without chortling vanity, we can’t look at the future without craven delusion, we can’t make eye contact with man himself without reducing him to manageable quantities, and we can’t even acknowledge the existence of evil.
But if there is one thing we might take from the ancient understanding of spirituality, it is that inequity, whether acknowledged or not, summons its own destruction. The wages of sin are death. And once a crime against nature has been committed, the furies will seek vengeance upon the perpetrator, whether or not he believes in their existence.
Our ancestors, both pagan and Christian, understood this reality. We pretend to forget because all of us know, deep in our souls, that our civilization is guilty of the one unforgivable defect that the fates never fail to punish: spiritual weakness. And so justice will come to our degenerated society just as it does to the degenerated criminal, the deluge carrying away everything that cannot stand upright, the rain falling on the just and the unjust alike.
I suppose this is where we return to our own year of 2023, in a civilization racked by crisis after crisis of its own making. People are sleepwalking through these times because no one wants to wake up and take note of the situation, for fear of what that reality might imply, or ask of them. We all know the bitter winds of prophecy that blow in the air. We know the idols of the old order are hollow and waiting to crumble, but we still seek shelter in their shadows even as we curse their falseness.
Will things ever change? They have to. Truth cannot be denied, and eventually, the old vengeful gods will return. Perhaps in the form of a new terrible but heroic figure? A king? A prophet? Some combination of the two?
You hear a lot of speculations like this in the dissident sphere. But often I feel there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what our age requires to fully bring about change.
People say they want truth and justice. But we already can see truth and justice in the modern world. We see the truth every time we walk outside and open our eyes. And we see the requisite justice in every one of our nightmares. Instead, what our age lacks is a way to process these realities in a way that is not collectively suicidal, a way to re-awaken the emotion of healthy human spirituality without unleashing our self-annihilating death instinct.
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to think this process can be accomplished peacefully. Religious awakenings are typically very violent affairs.
However, I think critics misunderstand the role that a monarchical leader will play in the process of civilizational transformation. The sovereign is not concerned with creating violence, but restraining the violence already coming, directing it toward educational ends, and towards the purposes of revitalization. He is less a sword of a new justice and more a shield that prevents natural consequences from obliterating everything from the old world.
Thus, as always, the mark of any true prophet, the mark of any true king, is not anger, but mercy. The ability to mold weakness into strength and to give the new generations a chance at life.
Will this prophet be able to wield the power needed to root out our sinful natures, rediscover passion, and build an ark to ride the blood-dimmed tides now loosed upon the world? If so it will require a reconciliation only reachable with Divine Mercy.
A new leader might direct humanity back to that providence.
Or at least I pray that he will. Because mercy is what we all need. If there is to be hope for any of us.