Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

Gifts of the Magi

Gifts of the Magi
Photo by Rick Oldland / Unsplash
Talk Presented at "The Mistletoe Masquerade 2023", Washington D.C.

I have learned, doing talks more than a few times in 2023, that the easiest way to open is with a joke or, failing that, complaining at length about something that the audience finds irritating. However, at this stage in our Civilizational decline, finding such a topic proved difficult. People have been tired of complaints about leftists since the end of 2020. Our politicians and culture have already passed through the event horizon of self-parody. Society has reached the point where the fact that the government is run by people with debilitating mental illnesses is dismissed as “ho-hum”, and our slow slide into the sinkhole of infrastructure collapse is treated as just something we have to get used to.

So, for want of something to complain about, I returned to Twitter (always the best place to get recriminations shipped in fresh, daily). I know it's a faux pas to reference the internet in a real-life talk, but it's useful to capture the Zeitgeist. And, when scrolling through my feed, one common theme became apparent. Whether it was the sordid life of Boogie 2988 (sometimes called the biggest loser of the internet) or the inexplicably more sordid life of Destiny (often called the biggest “winner” of political YouTube), whether it was the latest TikTok featuring hysterical wine aunts complaining about the decline in public safety, or young women moaning about being broke corporate slaves, one question became impossible to ignore.

Why does the Millennial generation suck so much?

I say this without any sense of elitism or self-deprecation. It's an honest inquiry. We all know the Boomers are clueless. Then there are the Zoomers, who have their own problems. But it's only my generation, the Millennials, who seem to possess an odd demonic agency that compels them to consistently choose the wrong over the right, the fake over the real, and the easy over the good. Whatever the flaws of those who came after or before us, it is in the millennials that you can see civilization’s rot most clearly.

Just look at everything that has declined over the last 20 years: the disappearance of teen subculture in the late 90s, rock music’s decline in the late 2000s, or, later still, the gradual disappearance of good television and movies in the late 2010s. People blame social media and social control for this degeneration. But a more frightening prospect is that all of these fixtures fell apart when the Millennials took possession of them.

Our generation has the reverse Midas Touch. Everything we lay our hands on turns to shit. Whatever we inherit, we destroy. It’s even hard to come up with positive things that you can associate with the millennial generation. I remember things that I thought were cool from my youth, like early internet culture and grunge music, but those were all the products of the generation before my own. What does the Millennial generation have to give to the world? Ed Sheeran? Marvel Movie fandoms? “The Humans of Flat Design”? And, I am not even going to mention the quintessential millennial, Sam Bankman Fried, because I need to keep this talk under 30 minutes.

But in the process of examining Millennial culture, I stumbled across what I think embodies the Ne Plus Ultra of my generation’s affectation: a short TikTok video entitled, Hanks-giving Day, 2023.

Yes, that is “Hanks-giving”,  a hipster version of Thanksgiving organized around the personality of Hollywood’s favorite golden boy, Tom Hanks. At the celebration, each of the attendees wore a delightful costume in tribute to Tom Hanks, whether it was Woody from Toy Story, the guy from Castaway, or a call-back to Hank’s roles in Philadelphia or Saving Private Ryan. I also think there were at least four or five references to the film Big in the space of 10 seconds. As you might imagine, the video seemed to encapsulate the essence of aging hipster culture. Every word was dripping with sarcasm, and there wasn't a single shot of a party-goer who didn't seem to be winking at the camera, pretending to be a decade younger than they were. And, as if to provide the perfect canvas, the entirety of the clip was narrated by a woman with such extreme vocal fry you could smell the scent of Chardonnay wafting off the microphone she was speaking into.

I certainly wasn’t alone in my reaction. For at least the right-wing side of Twitter, Hanks-giving Day, 2023 became everyone’s favorite lolcow for a hot internet minute. But was this hipster celebration a proper target of such disapprobation? Characteristically, Dev, better known by his handle “Short Fat Otaku”, pushed back. After all, was Hanks-giving all that bad? The hipsters weren’t hurting anybody. It’s just people having a good time. Can’t you just let people enjoy things?

Well, when you put it that way, Dev, No. I don’t think I can just let people enjoy things. Because Hanks-giving wasn't simply a particularly cringe-worthy Thanksgiving, it was a representation of everything wrong with the Millennial generation, start to finish.

And it's odd because the devil is truly in the details. If one were to modulate any characteristic of Hanks-giving, it would immediately become innocuous. I remember being young and doing silly ironic costume parties like this, it was more or less a staple of my late college years. But all of the celebrants of Hanks-giving looked, well, old, at least old enough to be celebrating something they sincerely believed in. Conversely, I also might imagine a group of serious Tom Hanks fans, holding an annual Thanksgiving dedication to their favorite actor. But then none of the people celebrating Hanks-giving even seem to be particularly interested in Tom Hanks beyond what ironic references they could make. The celebration of Hanks-giving didn't seem to have anything to do with Tom Hanks or anything to do with the celebration of Thanksgiving. It was just spectacle. It was just content.

Hanks-giving didn’t exist for the edification of an actual group of people at an actual place and time. It was designed to be a performance, specifically a performance for the internet. As such, everything had to be wrapped up tightly in performative narcissism, hidden from sincerity, always ready to offer an apology about what it was saying, always trying to capture that moment when the creators were the cool kids in the room, preserved forever in a moment on social media.

I don't say this to put these people down, I recognize this impulse in myself. For my sins, I am an online “content creator”. And even before I became something of a right-wing killjoy, I remember a younger version of myself being devoted to making edgy ironic posts on social media, trying to capture attention without sincerity or self-awareness. But I would plead my case in the name of youthful ignorance. Young people aren't supposed to be mature. That's why society gives them allowances and time to grow up.

But the Millennial generation never did grow up. I remember mentioning, to a friend, that the Millennial generation never will truly recover from COVID. It wasn’t the virus itself that was the problem. It was the role the disease played in our lives. Before COVID, the Millennials were the generation that was happening. After COVID, we were old. I guess two years of enforced retirement does that to a person. No one can comply with such tyranny and still call themselves “young” and “disruptive”. My generation had to bid farewell to an era of their lives, and a way of seeing themselves.

But there is a problem with getting older. Modern people aren’t taught how to do it. What modern people are taught is discourse and optics. This is what Millennials excelled at, as the first internet generation. In the game of rhetoric and appearance, the conversation never ends. You can always offer another defense of your position, or, failing that, just retreat into total irony. But you can't mount an apology against time, or use sarcasm to get yourself out of the process of aging. Death accepts no arguments.

I think the Millennial generation knew, from the start, that there was something different about the time in which we lived. Despite what we were told, everyone knew that the pattern of life the baby boomers had outlined wasn't going to continue. But I think we fundamentally misunderstood what was required of us. We thought we were being asked to join an eternal summer, an infinite expanse, and the only thing that might threaten our ascendancy was the act of delay, not going fast enough, and not embracing the spirit of youth hard enough. When these opportunities evaporated or never appeared, our generation made another critical mistake. We retreated inside of ourselves to look for the infinite horizons we were promised within fantasy. The logic seemed to be that, if modernity had failed, if post-modernity never materialized, we would simply construct META-modernity and continue the path of growth within ourselves. Here was where the Millennial generation would discover itself, in digital identity, in the universes we created within our minds, and inside the worlds within the mainframes of social media sites.

In a recent essay, the infamous blogger Zero HP Lovecraft got to the heart of this phenomenon while examining the uniquely Millennial genre of multiverse fiction (or fiction set across infinite alternative universes) as seen in works such as Rick and Morty, Bioshock Infinite, or Everything Everywhere All At Once. Multi-verse fiction is the quintessential embodiment of the Millennial obsession with the meta, a world of infinite possibilities that inevitably refocus on individual self-reflections, iterating out in all directions, containing all possibilities, but never breaking from the general familiar form.

The ultimate problem with multiverse fiction, or all elements of meta-modernism, is that man is not a multi-universal creature. He is not a meta-organism. He is singular. He exists in the flesh. He has a time to grow, a time to live, and a time to die. And the growth he experiences comes from struggling with things outside of himself. By imagining a multi-verse that is little more than rippling reflections of the self with variations, one is not participating in an act of exploration, but rather retreating to the familiar. As Zero-HP points out, the multi-verse reduces all possibility to various iterations of the ego, with all plots only concerning whether the ego can find catharsis and satisfaction. It is essentially how a toddler views the world.

And Millennials employed all this strange, futile escapism to avoid a much more prosaic reality, that our generation was not intended to be an expansive one, but rather a diminished one. We are not the children of summer, cheated out of their fun. We are the children of autumn and early winter, only belatedly coming to accept our role.

Today, I think we arrive at an opportune moment to learn from this particular season, that time between Thanksgiving (or Hanks-giving) and Christmas that we Catholics call "Advent".

I think it's a truth universally acknowledged that this season is the most evocative in the Western calendar. Even growing up in a very secular household, I could feel the spirit in the air everywhere. It was intoxicating. In fact, as a child, I always found it odd to learn that Advent and Christmas were considered secondary in importance to Lent and Easter within the Christian tradition, something that I still find somewhat emotionally dissonant as a mature believer. But while Christ’s Passion is powerful when recalled at any time of the year, Christmas and Advent are more connected to a particular season and that season’s pagan spirit.

Every American kid, secular, Christian, or otherwise, knows the feeling. The season has a certain rhythm to it, building up layer after layer, each ceremony possessing incredible significance, even though each step is tiny. The lighting of the Advent candles, the decoration of the tree, the carols, and even the preparations for Santa, all are ceremonies to cultivate a spirit of divine anticipation. As the days get shorter, and the weather more miserable, the spirit of joy emerges from the bleakness.

Purists and scholars of the Christian tradition may scoff at the idea that these secular practices contain the meaning of Advent. As many know, most of the Christmasy things Americans cherish come from the 20th century, as part of a crudely secularized version of Protestant Christianity, if not directly invented by the Hallmark company.

But I believe that you find this same spirit of longing, anticipation, and focus on the small things across time in the Christian tradition of Advent. And I find this feeling most prominently in poetry. Here, I would reference, my favorite poet, William Butler Yeats, and his own Christmas verse, titled The Magi.Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedNow as at all times I can see in the mind's eye, In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones, And all their helms of silver hovering side by side, And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more, Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied, The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

I always liked Yeat’s poetic style because of the groundedness of his verse, the way it sinks into the scenery, and the way that it seems separated from any particular time. Each scene falls with a weight that suggests something that is not said, and tugs on a memory that can't be recalled, whether it is the motifs of the blue sky and rain-beaten stones, the ancient faces held in anticipation, and the contrast between the foreshadowed death at Calvary and the new life that exists on the “bestial floor”. And, centering this, is Yeat’s image of the Magi themselves, the pagan scholars that form the implicit frame of every Christmas story.

The Magi are known for their part in the nativity, but as Yeats eludes, this was only the capstone of their lives. In their ordinary existence, the Magi were scholars of a dying pagan order. They were thinkers whom time had left behind as a consequence of an ancient spiritual mistake in the East, witnessing a similar mistake being made again in the West. These were the men who could see no good in their world as it existed, waiting for something, anything, that was different, vital, and true. They, like us in the Millennial generation, were the children of winter.

I remember another childhood favorite, C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, where the author describes Narnia under the tyranny of the White Witch as existing in a state of “Always Winter and never Christmas”. When this pattern is disrupted by the heroes’ arrival, Christmas returns to the land, and a bizarre scene takes place where Santa Claus himself shows up to distribute gifts to the Pevensie children in the form of weapons to prepare them for the battle against evil.

As a young reader, I always thought this plot twist a little silly (Santa distributing weaponry to Children?), but it hits a pivotal theme in Lewis’s tale as it mirrors the Magi’s gifts to Christ. The Magi do not come with gifts simply to celebrate the Messiah’s birth. Their presents are not instruments of comfort. They aren’t even sacrifices. The Magi provide the Christ-child with tools to prepare Him for His life, a life that the Magi cannot imagine. The gifts they bring are the best things from their old world, and, as such, they symbolize the beginning of a new one, starting with gold, His glorious birth, to frankincense, His luminous ministry, to myrrh, His sorrowful death. Each object represents a piece of wisdom that the Magi have gathered from their own civilization’s Winter and which they hope may lead to a greater Spring beyond the scope of their pagan vision.

For my part, I do hope for a similar set of gifts to be given to my generation to help us through these hard times. Now, I am obviously not the man to perform this great task. But to finish this talk, I can here offer my approximation of the lessons that I've learned in my very brief time witnessing the beginning of Winter, a wisdom to be received in the spirit of Advent.

The first lesson that the Advent season provides, is simply the realization that winter is here. Winter is a time of waiting. We have to start with humility. We have to understand that our generation was never meant for greatness, not in the way that we were raised to believe in it as children. Our generation is meant to bear witness to the signs of the time and to gather the flame as the cold approaches. We are meant to remember what deserves to be preserved. Awareness of reality is what the age calls for, not a descent into illusion. Wisdom is what the age needs, not intelligence, or being “the smartest guy in the room”. Like the creatures of winter themselves, it is better to see them be seen. It is better to understand than to be understood. It is better to look outward than to proclaim your presence to the world. Because the world of Winter is a place that we do not yet fully understand.

The second lesson of Advent is simply that community is life. We were once a generation of individuals, but we need to learn that no man is an island. And this is a lesson that winter most certainly teaches. The deep bulb survives, the scattered fruit perishes, the root stays intact, the flower withers away. In times of scarcity, the wolf finds a pack. People always ask me why I emphasize basket weaving as the first and most important step in becoming involved politically. It's not because I necessarily believe that there is going to be a great populist political organization that emerges out of the project (although, I certainly hope there will be in the form of things like the Old Glory Club, and the Beowulf Foundation). But, more fundamentally, we must rediscover public life to be properly human. The main objective of basket-weaving is just to relearn the aspects of community that have been systematically forgotten over the last 60 years, and which COVID almost killed entirely. Community forces you to interact with the bold souls around you, to learn things from their experience, and to constrain your excesses to their expectations. Perhaps that seems very basic to those of us who are better socially adjusted. But in the younger generations, we see an entire cohort that does not know of any of this. And even more mature people don't nearly have as much experience with community-building as they should.  If we want to build the institutions of Winter and the sub-structure of a better existence, we must start with learning the fundamentals of deep personal interaction, the giving of ourselves to others, and the fruits that come with that.

The third lesson of Advent, I would say, is simply that there is power and smallness. This is the mistake of the modern managerial state. You see this all the time in the Biden administration. They have a system that does not work in its particular elements, and they try to cover it up by making their solution larger, incorporating more and more things into the system to try to defeat the problem of incompetence or low quality in the aggregate.

Oh, so we can't manage a city's economy. So let's take money from the federal government and nationalize the economic issue. We can't handle local fiscal responsibility, so let's borrow from the central bank and print money. We can't win a war ourselves against a third-world country, so, let's start three new proxy wars.

Unsurprisingly, this never works. The complexity builds and builds and builds until the entire system collapses under its weight. We are not the kind of civilization that can build large things anymore. Salvation will be found in the small and the true. And we must be pioneers in this direction.

The focus on small things elucidates a strange corollary to Zero-HP’s notion about the multiverse’s hollowness. Just as the generalized multi-verse is the foundation for imagination’s death, the local and particular is the natural setting for its rebirth. True originality can only be found in moments of direct experience, in the things done for their own sake, and in the trials that we didn’t expect. This, I conjecture, is where the true heroism of the Millennial generation will be found, not in great epics of revolutionary change, but as tales of personal awakening, of the realization of place and time, the act of aging gracefully, and the rediscovery of a new dream.

And a new dream is the final and greatest gift we may receive, in this season of Winter. One thing that you can’t help but notice in 2023 is that everyone talks like we have no future. Like there's nothing to be optimistic about. Like there's nothing to look forward to. But all this means is we don't have the proper imaginative tools to see what future lies in store. Our intellects are too completely bound to the old world, and even conjuring a mental image of what a true and realistic victory would look like remains an impossible task.

My friend, Blackhorse, frequently puts a question to me. When we think back to other great foundings: the crowning of King Charlemagne, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the landing on Plymouth Rock, or the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, could we imagine something similar happening today? What would it take for us to believe that a new civilization-founding event could occur, right now? The mind reels with the difficulty. A new beginning is everything that we're working for, everything we hope our children will inherit, and everything that the human race needs to survive. But yet, I can't imagine it. I haven't seen the things yet that would allow me to imagine it. I haven't cultivated the true lessons of our season.

And that, I think, is where we find the true joy of Christmas. Because, Christmas marks the greatest of all generative moments in human history, witnessed, not least, by three foreigners, kneeling before a cradle in a manger. It was there that those Magi witnessed the culmination of their entire lives and the birth of a new world that they could not understand. It was there that they left before Him what they thought was best and received only the hope that something greater was to come. And it is there that we arrive again with each new Christmas, looking to the next year, looking to our futures, looking to the possibility of a new kingdom, either temporal or divine, brought to life by a star rising in the east, journeying towards Bethlehem to be born.

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