Death rates among American children are on the rise. Young people are killed by homicide and car accidents, and they are killing themselves by drug overdose and suicide. Mortality rates for ages one to nineteen rose by 10.7 percent between 2019 and 2020, and went up another 8.3 percent in 2021. These increases are the highest over a two-year period since the government started collecting data on these matters fifty years ago.
Undoubtedly, the COVID lockdowns contributed to the problem. The lockdowns were sold as a heroic effort to “save lives.” In the stampede, a few courageous epidemiologists such as Jay Bhattacharya warned that this draconian measure would be bad for young people, retarding their forward progress in education and undermining their mental health. They were censored by social media and widely denounced, only to be proven right.
Disastrous as the lockdowns were, larger factors are driving the rise in mortality among the young. Over the last generation, progressives have gained control of nearly all our institutions, aside from religious communities that cleave to orthodoxy. Those once charged with sustaining norms now sponsor transgression. We are beginning to see the deadly consequences of their leadership.
The Rainbow Reich has become the leading engine of social transformation. It does more than advance LGBTQ causes. It wishes to transform the structure of society. In the past, we praised what was normal and censured what was perverse. Now we are encouraged to do the opposite.
The Los Angeles Dodgers recently honored the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence with a “Community Hero Award” before the game played on “LGBTQ+ Pride Night.” The San Francisco–based gay organization specializes in hyper-sexualized mockery of Catholicism. Members take on names such as “Sister GladAss of the Joyous Reserectum.” It’s hard to imagine anything more mainstream, All-American, and “normal” than major league baseball—and yet our national pastime now joins the elite-endorsed war on decency. The same can be said of Bud Light, another example of our leadership class’s blithely celebrating perversion as the harbinger of a liberated future.
As I recently observed in this column (“Permanent Revolution,” June/July), today’s Establishment embraces transgender activists and other people who “push the boundaries.” They are prized as agents of cultural disintegration. Won’t we all be better off if there is no concept of normal, no authoritative center of society to which we are encouraged to conform? Freedom and liberation for everyone!
One need not have a degree in child psychology to recognize how distressed children become when there is no stability or structure in their lives, no settled expectations, no concept of the normal. Those who dominate our society aim to bring about exactly that condition. Twelve-year-olds on the cusp of puberty are instructed that masculinity and femininity are social constructs. Restrooms and locker rooms become zones requiring careful navigation. Some peers have two mommies, others two daddies. Pronouns are open questions. Drag queens visit the local library. And we wonder why we’re witnessing a great deal of anxiety, depression, and emotional stress among the young? “Problematize” gender! What could go wrong?
At the same time that we’ve blurred the boundary between male and female, we’ve legalized marijuana, and in jurisdictions with progressive district attorneys we’ve effectively legalized petty crimes. Pornography courses through the digital world of the young without the slightest effort of regulation by civil authorities. Those of us who try to buttress the institutions that can anchor the lives of young people—two-parent families, churches teaching moral truths, schools with discipline—are denounced as regressive authoritarians, fascists, and haters.
The trends are so pronounced that it is difficult not to despair. Our society combines a decline in fertility with a rise in early death. Meanwhile, those in positions of power rev the engines to drive us further down the road that has brought us to this dark place. Elites may look at Bud Light’s declining market share or Target’s woes and decide that it would be prudent to be more cautious. But I see little sign that corporate executives, Ivy League presidents, museum directors, public school administrators, mainstream media editors, or any other members of our elite have the slightest inclination to reverse course. They wave the rainbow flag, whether out of conviction or because they perceive (correctly) that doing so is a requirement for membership in our Establishment.
John Paul II warned against the culture of death in the West. Those who run our country are determined to give us a deadly culture, good and hard. It’s not enough that New York, California, and other states have lifted almost all restrictions on abortion. We are urged, “Shout your abortion!” Instead of a generally tolerant culture in which one turns a blind eye to perversion, we have one in which the reluctant are cattle-prodded into affirmations and celebrations. I predict a continued decline in life expectancy. More young people will meet with early deaths. I fear that our elite will ignore this trend. They already are, at the same time as they compliment themselves for having built a culture in which men can dress as women. Joe Biden recently pronounced such persons to be “some of the bravest people I know,” paragons of “strength, joy, and absolute courage.” The drag queen: Moloch’s priests in twenty-first-century America.
We’re living at the end of an era. That reality hit me while I listened to a series of speakers at a recent conference in London. Sponsored by the Danube Institute, it took the theme of “recovering conservatism.” This way of framing discussion suggests that conservatism has been in some sense “lost”—or, perhaps better, has lost its way. How may we “find” what has been lost, get ourselves back on track?
The speakers offered a variety of insights, analyses, and prescriptions. Yet the presentations suggested a common assessment: Conservatism must shift from an emphasis on freedom to an emphasis on belonging.
Freedom, innovation, openness, creativity, entrepreneurship: These were characteristic themes in the Reagan and Thatcher years. Wouldn’t “recovering conservatism” mean scooping up this legacy and representing it to the twenty-first-century public? Belonging, solidarity, loyalty, family, nation: These themes have a very different ring to them. They strike notes of consolidation. Doesn’t a turn in this direction represent a betrayal of conservatism rather than its recovery? William F. Buckley reviled the Leviathan state and inveighed against the perils of collectivism. If he were still on the scene, wouldn’t he resist those who give priority to belonging over freedom?
I cannot tell you whether or not WFB is rolling over in his grave, but I’ll note that the impresario of the conference was John O’Sullivan, a special adviser to Thatcher in the late 1980s and editor-in-chief of Buckley’s National Review in the 1990s. I do not wish to imply that O’Sullivan endorsed all of what was said at the conference or that he would accept my formulation of the underlying sentiment. But it is telling that one of the most articulate spokesmen for late-twentieth-century Anglo-American conservatism orchestrated a gathering in which freedom, though not denied, was sidelined, and a new emphasis—belonging—came to the fore.
The emphasis was the right one, because, by my reading of our current situation, we need to turn toward solidarity motifs. This turn does not “betray” conservatism. It responds intelligently to new realities. After World War II, a varied but coherent consensus rose to dominance in the West. In recent decades, that consensus has eroded, and now it is failing. For this reason, conservatism is changing.
The first pillar of the postwar consensus concerns political economy. The measures devised to fight the Great Depression and (even more so) the wartime mobilization of industry established institutions and expectations that moderated conflict between labor and capital. After the war, Western countries erected stable social welfare schemes funded by reliable economic growth.
Politically speaking, it was Goldilocks capitalism. The interests of labor and the interests of capital remained distinct, but they were far better aligned than they had been before the war. Within this relatively stable system, it was the job of conservatives to speak up for the interests of capital and resist the tendency of social welfare programs to enlarge the state and enervate individual self-reliance and initiative. Ronald Reagan has played such an important role in the history of postwar conservatism because he underscored these priorities.
The second aspect of the postwar consensus was cultural. Our elite adopted an open-society imperative. It was thought that cultural norms and traditional authorities needed to be made more flexible and less judgmental. This imperative underwrote criticism of 1950s “conformism.” It gave traction to feminism and gay liberation.
As I explain in Return of the Strong Gods, the open-society imperative presumed a background of stable authority. To use the terms I drew from Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the last issue, the push for greater flexibility and inclusion relied upon a Party of Permanency to apply the brakes as needed. The postwar right played this role, relying on its socially conservative constituency to provide ballast in a rapidly changing society. Phyllis Schlafly’s successful mobilization of that constituency to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment offers a signal example.
Foreign policy constituted the third pillar. In order to counter the Soviet Union, the United States erected a global system—the “free world,” as it was known. The system was American-dominated, but it promised to provide favorable conditions in which participating nations might flourish.
U.S. military power grew to colossal proportions in order to deter communist aggression and protect the American-led system. This power was not cost-free. Throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. was spending 10 percent of GDP (sometimes more) for defense. (Current defense spending runs at 3 percent of GDP.) It was the job of postwar conservatism to block liberal attempts to siphon funds away from defense. This task required regular reminders of the perils of communism and ongoing resistance of temptations to compromise with the Soviet Union. Here, too, Reagan is important, because he renewed these conservative tasks in a time when resolve had waned in many sectors of society.
All three pillars of the postwar settlement have crumbled, not necessarily because they were intrinsically weak, but because the world has changed. The collapse of the Soviet Union affected the economic, cultural, and geopolitical dynamics of the West. The world was no longer divided into two zones. The way was opened to globalize the American-led system. To a degree that had been unimaginable since the last phase of global commerce in the British-led system prior to World War I, commercial enterprises could leap borders. Corporations sought out countries with low labor costs in which to make goods and countries with low taxes in which to incorporate and park profits. In these and many other ways (government acceptance of mass migration, for instance), the Goldilocks economy of the golden decades after World War II was undone.
Conservatives largely refused to acknowledge the way in which globalization had torn up the postwar social contract. I remember my dismay when the Republican Party featured videos of entrepreneurs touting “I built that” during the 2012 convention that nominated Mitt Romney. This slogan reflected an outdated commitment to promoting the interests of business owners against what conservatives imagined to be a “collectivist” mentality on the other side of the aisle. But by 2012 it was not clear which side of the aisle was the party of business. The richest Americans had shifted to the Democratic Party. Some of Barack Obama’s biggest financial supporters were Silicon Valley titans whose wealth rivaled that of the robber barons who bankrolled the Republican Party during the Gilded Age. Instead of balancing the establishment left, by the second decade of this century, conservatism was putting its weight behind the same interests that neo-liberal Democrats had come to support: the interests of capital.
There are two ways to sap the spirit of self-reliance. One is by seducing with government handouts. The other is by de-industrializing the economy and starving the average American of meaningful work while championing careers out of reach for all but the most talented. If conservatism is to be “recovered,” careful thought must be given to reconfiguring the rules of the free market such that a high-school-educated person “belongs” as a productive member of society. Put simply, conservatives who care about the freedom of ordinary people, understood as economic self-reliance, need to make a 180-degree turn and champion the interests of labor. Nobody at the London conference put it so bluntly, but it was striking that some hinted at the need for such a turn.
In Return of the Strong Gods and in this column (see above), I have detailed the damage done by an increasingly dogmatic open-society imperative. Too many young people now grow up with no father at home and no Father in Heaven. They are taught that their nation is besmirched with sin and does not merit their loyalty. Gender ideology undermines their capacity to be at home in their bodies. We have lost any balance between liberation and obligation, openness and boundaries, transgression and authority. As a consequence, we have lost a great deal of what used to be “home,” a place in which we belong.
Since 1945, our liberal elites have had command over cultural policy. They sponsored the open-society imperative, which has transformed American society. In this settlement, conservatives are tasked with a largely reactive role. Their job is to temper excesses and slow the pace of change.
In the last issue, I laid out this dynamic in some detail. The gravamen of my analysis was that the Party of Change is now unhindered, leading to the culture of death I describe above. This state of affairs suggests that the open-society imperative has reached its expiration date.
The end of the postwar era means a reversal of roles. Conservatives must assume control over cultural policy. The task is complex in detail but simple in concept. What the twenty-first-century West needs is a revolution of moral re-regulation not unlike what was undertaken during the Victorian era. Conservatives need to rebuild structures of authority in which people can escape their bondage to self-love and enter into the freedom of self-possession, the freedom that allows us to belong to ourselves and those whom we love rather than to our undisciplined impulses, consumer desires, and debilitating addictions.
A revolution of authority is not inevitable, but it seems likely. We cannot live without a home, without opportunities for belonging. In that revolution of authority, progressivism and its agenda of liberation will become the secondary and reactive rather than primary and creative force in our culture. Today’s shrill accusations of “white supremacy,” “fascism,” and “authoritarianism” follow the script formulated in the late 1940s. (See The Authoritarian Personality, an extraordinarily influential work of propaganda masked as social science.) This rhetoric is now nearly a hundred years old. Its urgent use reflects liberal elite panic. They hope to resurrect Hitler in order to forestall the reversal of cultural power that will come with the turn toward moral re-regulation, the erection of guardrails in society.
The third pillar, the American-led system, is under stress. What made sense as an anti-communist alliance has become an empire of globalized American business interests defended by the U.S. military and legitimated by the rainbow flag. It’s not clear that those business interests align with the interests of American workers. And the rainbow flag is the progressive battle flag. It is a divisive symbol, not a unifying one.
During the Cold War, we needed strength and resolve to defend the American way of life against communist aggression. But times have changed. There are many good reasons to stand firm against Russia, China, and Iran. But conservatives should not champion strength in order to defend global business interests and the Rainbow Reich. In 2023, conservatism needs to enter into a season of reflection. What are the deepest foreign threats to the American way of life? How should American power be configured to guard against those threats? Answers are not easy, but few of the habits of mind that were formed since the end of the Cold War are likely to be useful.
Astute readers will have noticed that my three pillars echo the three elements of postwar “fusionism”: free markets, social conservatism, and hawkish anti-communism. Fusionism will endure, but it will be reconfigured to meet the actual challenges of this century, rather than the imagined challenges conjured by nostalgia for the last century.
The middle decades of the twenty-first century will be quite different from the postwar era. Our crises are not born of collectivism, over-regulation, or an oppressive middle-class morality. We are not threatened by a totalitarian adversary driven by a universalist creed that demands world domination. Our challenges arise because an unbridled progressivism sponsors deconsolidating, liquifying forces that insist upon their universality—and it uses American power to seek world domination.
The open-society imperative has run its course. The time has come to consolidate around a grounded- or anchored-society consensus. The speakers at the London conference suggested as much. I hope we can arrive at that consensus before the increasingly decadent, flesh-eating permanent revolution ruins even more of what needs to be rebuilt.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ One of the New Testament words for “freedom” is eleutheria. It appears in St. Paul’s formulation: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). The concept does not entail lack of constraint along the lines of many modern definitions of freedom. Here is Joseph Ratzinger’s gloss on the meaning of freedom: “It means the possession of full rights, full membership, being at home.” He goes on to say, “The free man is one who is at home, that is, one who really belongs to the household. Freedom has to do with being given a home.”
♦ The culture of death marches onward. Here’s the summary of the State of Washington’s expansion of doctor-assisted suicide:
Washington SB 5179 Death with Dignity:
Increasing access to the provisions of the Washington death with dignity act. . . . Expands the health care providers authorized to perform the duties of the Death with Dignity Act to include advanced registered nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Reduces the required 15-day waiting period between the first and second oral requests for medications to seven days and eliminates the 48-hour waiting period for the written request. Permits medications dispensed under the Act to be delivered or mailed.
Other states are moving in the same direction.
♦ Not only are young people killing themselves; they support others’ doing the same thing. Charles Camosy reports that recent polling in Canada shows that the younger generation (those eighteen to thirty-four years old) are more likely than their elders to approve of assisted suicide for those without terminal illnesses. Sixty percent in that age cohort think it’s okay for a disabled person to end his life; 41 percent endorse assisted death for a person in poverty. These are shocking numbers. As Camosy observes, the high levels of support among young people likely stem from deceptive propaganda. The Canadian establishment has a feel-good name for lethal injections. They call it “medical assistance in dying” (MAID). But a disabled person or a person in poverty is not dying. He is very much alive, and any program that facilitates ending that person’s life is properly described as killing. For this reason, Camosy proposes that we speak of PAK (“physician-assisted killing”), not MAID. He’s absolutely right.
♦ National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently expressed doubt about the economic consensus that “markets always allocate capital productively and efficiently—no matter what our competitors did, no matter how big our shared challenges grew, and no matter how many guardrails we took down.” I wish he had the courage to see (and say) that the same is true for morality and culture. Liberation and “inclusion” are not always net gains for society. Taking down the moral guardrails has led to a great deal of misery.
♦ On May 1 in New York City, Jordan Neely, a mentally ill man with a history of violent assaults, died while being restrained by Daniel Penny, a fellow subway rider, during a psychotic outburst. Heather Mac Donald offers an assessment:
All the pathologies afflicting American cities were present in that . . . fatal encounter and its aftermath: the grotesque parody of compassion that is conventional homeless policy; government’s elevation of the supposed interests of the anti-social and dysfunctional over those of the law-abiding and hard-working; anti-white race-baiting and racial bathos.
But the May 1 confrontation between the ex-Marine Daniel Penny and the mentally ill Neely stands for more than failed policy. Reaction to Penny’s intervention illuminates as well the war on manly virtues and their attempted replacement with an emasculated dependence on bureaucrats and social workers.
The press became inflamed with outrage, depicting this tragic episode as an instance of lethal white supremacy. (Penny is white; Neely is black.) Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Penny with second-degree manslaughter. We have come a long way from 1964, when New York was horrified by reports that Kitty Genovese had been robbed, raped, and stabbed to death outside her apartment in Queens while dozens of people watched from their windows and did nothing. More than thirty years later, the popular TV show Seinfeld capped its long run with a finale that ended with all the characters imprisoned for violating a local Good Samaritan law. Today, authorities propose to imprison those who take the risk of intervening to protect their fellow citizens.
♦ Commenting on the media consensus that Penny overreacted to Neely’s aggressive behavior, UnHerd columnist Kat Rosenfield notes an interesting contradiction in progressive attitudes. #MeToo adopts a hyper-vigilant attitude toward potential threats to women, even as we’re instructed to accommodate ourselves to potentially dangerous vagrants on public transportation.
To sum up: a man who reposts an off-colour joke is advertising his innate misogyny, to the point where women should feel uncomfortable sharing a workplace with him. But an agitated and clearly unstable man announcing to a crowded subway car — as Neely reportedly did — that he’s been pushed to the brink and is ready to die, or go to prison for life: why in the world would you find that menacing?
This sudden rediscovery of the merits of resilience would have been almost refreshing, if not for the whiplash of its promotion by people who up until very recently were arguing that a tweet made them unsafe.
♦ Liam Morrison was in his seventh-grade year at a public school in Middleborough, Massachusetts. One day, he wore a T-shirt to school emblazoned with these words: “THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS.” School officials removed him from class and told him he could not return until he removed the shirt. The same school displays signs that say, “Rise up to protect trans and GNC students” and “Proud friend/ally of LGBTQ+.” The Massachusetts middle-school kerfuffle epitomizes our regime. You can burn an American flag, and those with power will rally to protect your right to do so. Question the rainbow flag, and you will be punished.
♦ At a middle school in Burlington, Massachusetts, students tore down LGBTQ banners and chanted, “U.S.A. are my pronouns.” The school principal wrote to parents expressing her dismay. To tighten the grip on dissent, she promised to set up a procedure by which students could submit anonymous reports of “hateful incidents.” The school district’s superintendent denounced the student protest. A school board member said, “I didn’t think this could happen in Burlington.” One marvels at the incomprehension. Young children bombarded with pro-gay propaganda, shepherded into obligatory cheerleading for perversion, tutored in transgender ideology—who would imagine that they might bridle and resist?
♦ Paul Kingsnorth’s account of his religious journey, “The Cross and the Machine,” is among the most read of our articles in recent years. Former junior fellow Hunter McClure recently sent me a poem by R. S. Thomas that evokes the dark abyss that Kingsnorth juxtaposes to Christ’s life-giving light:
‘The body is mine and the soul is mine’
says the machine. ‘I am at the dark source
where the good is indistinguishable
from evil. I fill my tanks up
and there is war. I empty them
and there is not peace. I am the sound,
not of the world breathing, but
of the catch rather in the world’s breath.’
♦ In the early 1980s, Philip Glass visited my alma mater. As I recall, his small ensemble performed portions of “Music in Twelve Parts.” Glass’s rapid and repetitive music is both mesmerizing and infuriating, and I recall not being able to decide whether I liked or disliked it, or even whether it counted as “music.” So, I was delighted to read a detailed and thoughtful assessment in The Lamp, written by Aaron James. In James’s judgment, the best pieces by Glass express the repetitive monotony of mass consumer culture, and do so both as musical protest and aestheticized affirmation. In this way, Glass captured a paradoxical truth about the modern condition. James:
He saw something deeply contradictory and ambivalent in our relationship to modernity: we love the modern world and we hate it; we find it inhuman and alienating but can’t imagine ourselves apart from it; we rebel against it only to find ourselves more securely tied to it than ever.
Whether or not James is right about Glass, he’s surely right about our relationship to modernity. Even those among us who rage against its vain pomp and empty splendor cling to our smartphones and relish global travel.
♦ A friend commented on New York’s policy of providing free pre-K for all children: “We’re living in a strange time. We de-institutionalize the mentally ill while rushing to institutionalize small children.”
♦ Oliver O’Donovan writing in The Desire of the Nations:
The doctrine that We set up political authority, as a device to secure our own essentially private, local and unpolitical purposes, has left the Western democracies in a state of pervasive moral debilitation, which, from time to time, inevitably throws up idolatrous and authoritarian reactions.
Richard John Neuhaus founded First Things in order to ensure that our liberal and democratic regime would be leavened by a religious and metaphysical vision, thus remediating, as best we can, the moral debilitation of Western democracies.
♦ Gene Outka died on May 1. For many decades he taught Christian ethics at Yale. I was among his graduate students in the 1980s. Gene was an exemplary mentor, indulging my intellectual (and verbal) volatility while gently reining me in. His moral seriousness and solidity of intellect were plain to his graduate students, which meant that his signature grimace always gave us pause. He was also a superb lecturer, as I learned while serving as his teaching assistant. On more than one occasion, the undergraduates gave him a standing ovation after a particularly stellar performance. I knew close to nothing about anything when I began graduate study at Yale. Gene’s seminars sent me in the right direction, and his example helped me understand what it means to be a university professor and a Christian, someone with exacting intellectual standards who, when all is said and done, answers to God, not the academy. I’m grateful to have fallen under his influence. May he rest in peace.
♦ Calling all readers: New ROFTERS groups are forming!
Michael Krell of Falls Church, Virginia is convening a new group: michael[at]mkrell.com.
Eric Onderwater is heading up a new group in Toronto, Ontario: ericonderwater[at]gmail.com.
An active group in Spokane, Washington seeks new members. Contact Matthew Wood: mwood[at]gprep.com.
♦ I’m happy to report that our spring campaign exceeded our expectations. We raised nearly $600,000 from more than eight hundred readers. We’re grateful for this outpouring of support. We have ambitious plans to expand our readership. Your commitment to First Things has been and will remain crucial for our success.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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