Theodore Dalrymple (“Identity as Ideology,” February) is certainly correct to point to the yearning for transcendence that was not—and likely cannot be—obliterated in people like André Hébert when they lose the will to enter into communion with the traditional means of attaining it: the Church. Revolutionary politics does sometimes become an ersatz evangelical religion for young men like the author of Jusqu’à Raqqa.
But the fall of the Soviet Union is not the source of this pathology. It is as old as modernity. Hébert’s namesake, the Jacobin terrorist Jacques-René Hébert, was himself one of several youthful utopian revolutionaries at the vanguard of the French Revolution who rejected (and actively despised) Christianity and envisioned politics as a replacement for religion. This was of course a politics that presented the way to the perfect society as a straight line going right through the guillotine’s lunette. Half a century ago, while the Soviet Union was still successfully defending its empire around the world, societies throughout the West saw the emergence of significant numbers of André Héberts. These youthful anarchists of the sixties and seventies attacked the Soviet Union and the rest of existing communism, right along with the capitalist West, as slave states antithetical to “true” liberation, which they sought through domestic rioting, bombings of police stations, armed robberies of Brink’s trucks, and the occasional kidnapping and assassination.
The cause of André Hébert is not the disappearance of an established anti-West. It is more likely to do with the combination of a general decline in traditional cultural (read: religious) meaning-making institutions and a simultaneously excessive growth in the supply of the college-degreed that is dramatically out of sync with the existence of employment opportunities commensurate with their increasingly narcissistic demands.
The forces that bind the nucleus of today’s radicalism are several, and Theodore Dalrymple names them succinctly: utopianism, personal alienation, thirst for adventure, idolization of group identity, and anger. Anger is the equivalent of the Higgs field, which physicists argue confers mass on everything else. It is the mortar with which utopians wedge together the stones of despair and resentment to build their imaginary towers of human perfection. Anger intensifies alienation and gives it purpose. It turns dislike of one’s circumstances into an accusation against the people deemed responsible and summons the rage to destroy the whole world if need be in order to secure justice. Anger takes the thirst for adventure to the battlefield with the determination to kill others and risk one’s own death. André Hébert’s existential elation in his joining the Marxist PKK forces fighting ISIS in Syria is a more perfect realization of this impulse than we see in American members of Antifa staging attacks on unarmed college students, but no doubt the Antifa thugs picture themselves as warriors risking everything in a glorious fight for justice.
Dalrymple shines a light on the psychology of youthful commitment to identitarian ideologies. The ease with which contemporary Westerners slip into these delusions is not new. As Western civilization secularized, and as intellectuals conjured new paths of redemption and salvation, such vocations in radicalism became more and more available. Perhaps widely available higher education provided the last necessary piece for the phenomena to become commonplace. Go to college and learn how to hate the West, blame your own discontents on society as a whole, and find a reason to commit to perpetual anger.
new york, new york
Theodore Dalrymple replies:
I thank Alexander Riley and Peter Wood for their thoughtful responses to my article.
History being a seamless robe, it is difficult to find the final cause of any historical event or tendency. However, I think for those who looked for transcendence in politics the downfall of the Soviet Union was very important, even for those who were critical of the Soviet Union. The fact is that they often regarded the Russian Revolution as having been initially very hopeful, but its terrible failure from the very first became undeniable and any form of politics that took even distant inspiration from it was no longer possible. But the desire for politics to be a substitute religion remained, hence the proliferation of militant utopian identitarian sects.
While Catesby Leigh’s essay (“Building to No Purpose,” February) fuels the fires of the continuing debate over modernism and classicism, I would venture that there are in fact very few architects—even (and perhaps especially) within the most loyal institutional holdouts of modernism—who would celebrate Hudson Yards as a triumph of contemporary architecture. I teach architecture at both Columbia and Yale, and my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of faculty and students see it rather as an indictment of the financial mechanisms and technocratic priorities that shape the contemporary city.
This could, no doubt, be dismissed as an all-too-convenient conviction that shifts the burden of responsibility away from the architects themselves. And certainly there are other failures that contribute to the abject architectural despair that is visible everywhere in our cities. But if there is any legitimacy at all to this alternative reading of Hudson Yards, then the wretchedness of such contemporary projects shifts from being an indictment of the discipline of architecture toward something rather more comprehensive, and more damning. Indeed, you might argue that the architecture of Hudson Yards exposes, perfectly, the fractured, shortsighted, profit-driven nature of the culture that built it. To counter this through more beautiful buildings would require a very powerful classicism indeed.
Catesby Leigh replies:
I am grateful for Kyle Dugdale’s letter. A more holistic approach to evaluating contemporary architecture is unquestionably in order—one that embraces our self-centered, pathologically mediatized culture; our short-term-oriented, overly financialized economy; and a tax system that appears to encourage the production of vulgar architectural commodities instead of buildings of enduring value, among other things. The British architectural historian James Stevens Curl has taken such an approach in his very important history of modernist architecture, Making Dystopia (2018). My own focus is on what comes of an emotivist design mentality that can’t even figure out what architecture is. But I would have to agree that the “progressive” people likely to be buying condos at the Yards or along the High Line are, more likely than not, beneficiaries of a monetarily juiced economy that encourages speculation and debt, discourages productivity growth, and intensifies economic inequality. Then again, I only know what I read in the papers, and I’m not sure it’s my place as a critic, as opposed to a historian, to take Curl’s approach.
It’s a safe bet that plenty of the architects involved in the mile-and-a-half-long parade of architectural detritus I described in my essay are graduates of Columbia, Yale, and other prestigious institutions. Anyone who doesn’t think our elite architecture schools are deeply complicit in architecture’s debasement is kidding himself. And the notion that the profit motive in real estate development is intrinsically blameworthy is, to put it mildly, a non-starter.