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A storm is coming. Earlier this year, I wrote about the cultural and political disruptions sure to arise from mass migration, and how they would combine with collapsing birth rates in the West, and the economic madness of the green transition (“Engines of Destruction,” January 2024). The results of the June elections for the European Parliament indicate that discontent is rising. Unfortunately, our problems are likely to worsen. The United States anchors the security of the West, and our foreign policy is in disarray.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, America pursued an ambitious program. Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs traveled to Moscow to advise the Russian government on how to manage its rapid transition to a free-market economy. American political consultants, NGOs, and intelligence operatives put their shoulders to the wheel of “democracy promotion.” These efforts may have been haphazard, even incoherent and counterproductive. But the promise was clear: The arc of history bends toward capitalism and liberal democracy. Russia, our Cold War adversary, could (and would) be brought into the aborning “rules-based international order.”

A similar promise was made about China. The World Wide Web networked the Middle Kingdom into the global village. Hollywood exported movies. Chinese students flooded American universities. In 2001, China was invited into the World Trade Organization. Yet another adversary would embrace our way of life, we were told. It might take time, but a prospering China integrated into the “rules-based international order” was thought to be a sure thing.

These promises were bipartisan. In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush insisted that freedom was for the whole world. Barack Obama struck a different but closely related note in his second inaugural address, when he solemnly announced that the world envied our diversity. The rhetoric of America’s benevolent triumph was nearly universal. America was not building an empire. We were inviting the entire world to receive the glorious inheritance of all mankind (which came to include tutorials on why we’re not to use words like “mankind”). America was but a custodian of this inheritance, the argument went, not an aggressive power.

The plausibility of this dream of global prosperity and cultural progress has been collapsing for quite some time. Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the Russian military action as “an incredible act of aggression” and harrumphed, “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in a nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext.” History (of which, again, America is but the custodian) will not countenance such actions!

The year 2022 saw another Russian outrage, a failed blitzkrieg in Ukraine that has turned into a grinding war on the borders of Europe. Moscow seems poised to digest the eastern provinces of that unfortunate country. On October 7, 2023, an Iranian proxy slaughtered more than one thousand Israelis. Another proxy fired missiles into northern Israel. Yet another proxy shut down the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, China has continued to militarize the South China Sea.

I don’t wish to detail the international situation, only to highlight the obvious. After the Cold War ended, the United States invested ideological, economic, and military resources in a grand project of global unity. The enterprise was not undertaken naively. Planners knew that there would be tensions. Nations might compete. We would need to face down bad actors like Saddam Hussein. But the ambitions were grand—and the pursuit of them was embraced by very nearly our entire establishment, right, left, and center. Human rights would undergird a worldwide consensus. International institutions would mature into effective instruments of economic, technical, and legal coordination. Open trade would bring prosperity to everyone. And the whole system would be backstopped by American military power, at no great expense and without domestic backlash.

You need not follow the news closely to recognize that this project has failed. After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration imposed “super sanctions,” promising that such measures would bring the Russian economy to its knees. These measures, and the confidence with which they were imposed, reflected the old consensus, which presupposed the end-of-history dream world. But the outcomes contradict that fantasy. Countries commanding nearly half of global GDP refused to join our sanctions regime, exposing the obvious fact that the “rules-based international order” is not international and never has been. It has always been an instrument of American power.

I’m reluctant to use the word “empire.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States did not establish colonies. But the term has become unavoidable. The international order was made in our image, an ersatz empire, as recent events have revealed. Faced with the prospect of Russian aggression, the demilitarized nations of Europe are forced to operate as American vassal states. When it comes to independent foreign policy, is Germany all that different from Belarus? The same question can be posed about the State of Israel, as well as Japan, Australia, and other nations in the deepening shadow of China’s military buildup.

The rise of a coalition of nations opposed to U.S. global leadership poses difficult challenges. But I fear those challenges will become crises. And they will do so because of the persistence of self-serving illusions.

This late June morning, as I write, a Wall Street Journal article details the ways in which China, Iran, and North Korea have buttressed Russia’s military and economic power. The Journal reports, “The speed and depth of expanding security ties involving the U.S. adversaries has at times surprised American intelligence analysts.” Surprised? Are our “experts” so cocooned in post–Cold War confidence that they fail to recognize the widespread resentment of America’s presumption to run the world? I fear the question answers itself.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, but I venture to guess that the combined military firepower of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran (and its proxies) is substantial, perhaps equal to any force that the United States and its allies can bring to bear on short notice. How is it that we have allowed such a coalition to emerge? The Journal reports this expert opinion: “Russia and the other nations have set aside historic frictions to collectively counter what they regard as a U.S.-dominated global system.” I marvel at the formulation, “what they regard.” In effect, our policymakers suggest that the Russia-China-Iran-North Korea alliance rests on a misconception. Putin and Xi need to wake up to the truth. The
“global system” is not U.S. dominated but U.S. sponsored—for the sake of world peace, prosperity, and the triumph of abortion and gay rights . . . er, human rights. It is nothing so narrow and parochial as the imposition of America’s national interests or our activist ideologies.

Maybe the Great and the Good in Washington recognize reality, and they mouth the old pieties out of habit; or perhaps they sense (accurately) the political danger of being the first to break with established orthodoxies. Can you imagine the domestic furor that would be visited upon a Secretary of State who suggested (again, accurately) that a foreign policy promoting gay rights and other progressive causes is a virtue-signaling luxury we can’t afford in an era of great-power competition? But I worry that we are led by true believers. Some imagine that the United States has been ordained by God to defend “democracy.” Others think that we have a secular mission to promote “reproductive freedom” and LGBTQ rights around the world (the arc of history, and so on). Others are technocratic worker bees, animated by the falsely modest ambition to be evenhanded administrators of a rules-based international system—if only the “revisionist” powers would stop undermining it.

I am not a hard-hearted “realist.” I harbor the hope that the United States can be a force for good in the world. But we are living in the ruins of the failed utopian project undertaken after the end of the Cold War. It was gestated by the hubris of men and women who imagined that the United States, the country that uniquely combined vast wealth with a twentieth-century tradition of militarism, possessed a nearly unlimited power to shape world events. Recent years have shown the limits of our power. I expect harsher lessons before the decade ends. America won’t be a force for much of anything, good or bad, unless our leaders master their hubris. Only if they do so, and get on with the grim task of determining what can be saved and what must be sacrificed, will we be able to maintain our republic, ensure our prosperity, and sustain our freedom of action so that the next generation may dream new—and one hopes less utopian—dreams.

Pride Month

I did a good bit of traveling in early June. Only in mid-month did I settle back into my regular routines, walking to work through midtown Manhattan with my miniature dachshund, Mabel. As I traversed the avenues, I noticed a striking fact: Pride flags are conspicuously absent. Yes, a large Pride flag flutters in front of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue. There’s a clutch of them at Rockefeller Center, and small flags hang in the windows of a few businesses here and there. But compared to recent years, the city manifests few outward signs that Pride Month is in full swing.

What accounts for the disappearance of the banner of the Rainbow Reich? Matthew Schmitz offers his answer in this issue (“The Fall of Pride”). I have some thoughts as well.

A simple answer is success. We’re talking about New York City, and perhaps the rainbow gauleiters have taken yes for an answer. LGBTQ and the rest of the alphabet soup is so thoroughly established that it’s easy to take the rainbow agenda for granted and just get on with life. I can imagine an exchange in the West Village. “Hey, you going to the Pride Parade this weekend?” “Oh, jeez, forgot it was Pride Month. Can’t join you. I’ve already made plans for a session at Soul Cycle that afternoon.”

The take-it-for-granted reality of gay rights suggests another explanation. The Rainbow Reich is today’s dominant cultural regime. Those of us who dissent must do so delicately. Anyone who talks like Pope Francis (“frociaggine”) is immediately censured, not just by progressives, but by conservatives as well. By contrast, the New Yorker can publish trans writers who swing rhetorical machetes, and in so doing win applause. And there’s the rub. We’re living in a time of record distrust of institutions—and the rainbow agenda has become the house ideology for very nearly all of them, from universities and museums to Fortune 500 companies, the NFL, and the organization formerly known as the Boy Scouts.

One hundred thousand people die from drug overdoses each year. Mentally ill vagrants sleep in the streets. Migrant tent cities occupy public soccer fields. Young people report mental health problems at record levels. At drug stores, deodorant and toothpaste are under lock and key. People are smart enough to know that they were lied to during the pandemic. Perhaps none of this has anything to do with gay rights and trans activism. But causality does not matter. When your ideology is the regime’s ideology, it is implicated in the regime’s failures.

Put simply, maybe Pride flags have ceased to festoon Manhattan’s buildings for the same reason Joe Biden suffers from low job approval: People don’t think things are working well, and they blame the rainbow-waving powers that be.

Perhaps there is still another reason. As Schmitz notes, in 2018, the wedge of black, brown, and other colors was added to the original rainbow design of the Pride flag. This was done to effect symbolic “intersectionality,” the unification of various progressive enterprises that seek the liberation of the marginalized. After October 7, 2023, pro-Hamas protests erupted at many universities. Although they waved the Palestinian flag, not the Pride flag, the hardcore supporters of Hamas were joined by students and outside activists devoted to defeating the patriarchy, calling out white privilege, and other progressive causes. It became clear that the Pride flag was the anti-Israel flag, the flag of those who denounce “settler colonialism.” As a consequence, the rainbow symbol has lost its feel-good, “affirming” character. It’s a battle flag now, and quite a few people, including some who thought of themselves as on the left, are realizing that it’s the flag of destructive, barbaric, anti-civilizational forces, which must be opposed.

We’re living in a time of change. Above, I note the rapid transformation of the international scene. Very different but equally dramatic changes are underway in American society. A recent poll by the French marketing firm Ipsos shows a slight decline in support for gay marriage among Americans. Fifty-one percent of respondents believe that gay couples should be able to marry, down 8 points from the peak of support in 2021. The decline is astounding. Since the 2015 Obergefell decision, we have been bombarded by LGBTQ propaganda. The Rainbow Reich has captured the media and our educational institutions. Yet support for gay marriage is declining?

Gay marriage is only one aspect of the cultural revolution that has transformed our lives over the last two generations. Widespread divorce affects far more people, as do the torrent of pornography and the deterioration of male–female relations. Yet gay marriage is an important symbol. It promised to stabilize the liberationist ethos of Stonewall by uniting it with the normative institution of marriage. (This view was promoted by Andrew Sullivan and many others.) In effect, gay marriage promised a cessation of hostilities. Progressivism would no longer attack the basic patterns of traditional life, as those patterns generously opened themselves to those formerly marginalized.

I never believed that promise. Transgender ideology follows directly in the train of gay marriage, which is why progressive activists have found it irresistible. If we can redefine marriage, the most fundamental and primordial form of human relations for all cultures, then we can redefine what it means to be a man or woman. After Obergefell, a child can have two fathers, or three. It’s no great leap from that fantasy to the transgender dogma that a father can become a mother. Perhaps the American public is waking up and realizing that it was sold a false bill of goods. Far from establishing a stable basis for “inclusion,” the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage signaled the license to redefine absolutely anything and everything.

The Rainbow Reich is an ugly, dysfunctional place in which to grow up. In absolute terms, the Zoomers are the generation most loyal to the Rainbow Reich. But as Schmitz documents, support is falling faster among Zoomers than among any other generation. In 2021, Gen Z support for gay marriage ran at 80 percent. In 2023 it dropped to 69 percent. Results shows a similarly sharp reduction in support for transgender ideology. The sexual revolution’s grandchildren are beginning to revolt against the revolutionaries. We’ll know we’re on the brink of a cultural Thermidor when a group of Yale students gathers on Old Campus to burn the Pride flag.

Forceful Words

On May 11, Harrison Butker gave a commencement speech at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. The Kansas City Chiefs’ star kicker understands our present situation. We live in a society dominated by a post-Christian elite that ignores the principles of natural law and is hostile to the teachings of the Catholic Church. He offered the graduating seniors sound advice (for the most part), and his words were unvarnished by the usual softening pieties about diversity and inclusion.

Seemingly channeling Pope Francis, who often slams priests, Butker criticized clergy for failing to live their vocations. I must demur. I’m more often inspired than discouraged by the priests and bishops I meet. Butker chastised the leadership of the Catholic Church for its widespread and sometimes eager conformity to the COVID lockdowns. Here I agree. He told the students, “We cannot buy into the lie that the things we experienced during COVID were appropriate.” Amen. He also commended the traditional Latin Mass, noting that a young person who goes to the Latin Mass is likely to find a community that will support his efforts to live the fullness of the Catholic faith—a true statement, although my own parish is not TLM and provides exactly that kind of support.

For the most part, though, commentators ignored these provocations. They focused on Butker’s remarks to the female graduates. In so many words, he told them that they have been told “diabolical lies” about what will bring happiness and fulfillment in their lives. Rather than harkening to the secular world’s claim that they should covet careers, promotions, titles, and awards, the women graduating should recognize that the most important vocation for most of them will be as mothers and wives.

One organization objected that talk of mothers and wives advances “harmful stereotypes that threaten social progress.” Another lamented, “Butker reinforced toxic stereotypes about men, power and control.” And so on, and so on. Women of the world unite! A tall, bearded football player is scheming to keep you barefoot and pregnant!

Butker introduced his remarks about marriage and motherhood with a general observation: “Each of you [men and women] has the potential to leave a legacy that transcends yourselves.” Few of us are Nobel Prize winners, famous writers, or even respected community leaders. For the overwhelming majority, sustaining a marriage and having children, nurturing them, providing for them, and launching them into adulthood constitutes the most profound enterprise of self-transcendence. Marriage and children draw us out of our me-centered existence. It requires us to serve rather than be served.

One might object that this truth holds for husbands and fathers, not just wives and mothers. Quite true. However, Butker reads the signs of the times correctly. Yes, young men are messed up in many ways: basement-dwelling, video-gaming man-children. But when it comes to family life, the progressive propaganda is directed toward women (and often against men). Women are told that career success matters more than marriage and children.

Is it “harmful” and “toxic” to counter the “female empowerment” rhetoric with frank, unnuanced statements about the supreme vocation of motherhood? I don’t think so. In truth, Butker is sounding a fair warning to women who believe the lies, and there are many women who need to hear it. Women in the United States are not being socialized into traditional female roles. They are not getting married, and they are not having children. One study shows that nearly 20 percent of women in America aged 40 to 44 are childless. Rates of infertility rise along with professional success. Among high-achieving women in that age cohort (those earning $100,000 or more per year), close to 50 percent do not have children. This is not a formula for happiness. Butker was right to speak bluntly.

Not everything Butker said hits the mark. (He made a strange remark about federal legislation that criminalizes saying “who killed Jesus.”) But on the whole the speech was a welcome broadside. As Flannery O’Connor observed, when society is in the grip of false and distorting ideologies, “you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” I’m grateful to Harrison Butker for following her advice.


♦ Henri de Lubac writing in Paradoxes of Faith: “When the ecclesiastical world is worldly, it is only [a] caricature of the world. It is the world, not only in greater mediocrity, but even in greater ugliness.”

♦ De Lubac, from the same source: “There is nothing more demanding than the taste for mediocrity. Beneath its ever-moderate appearance, there is nothing more intemperate; nothing surer in its instinct; nothing more pitiless in its refusals. It suffers no greatness, shows beauty no mercy.”

♦ Douglas Farrow writing in his Substack newsletter, “Desiring a Better Country”:

It is sound doctrine, even sound political doctrine, to say that none but the virtuous are good and that none but the good are free. The vicious may know and enjoy a form of freedom, derived from the works of the virtuous, but they remain bound by their own vices, as if their feet were in the stocks. Their politics, and perchance their religion, represent vain attempts to liberate themselves.

Thus the paradox of a free society (a happy paradox, not a debilitating one): It must shepherd its members toward virtue in order to sustain a culture of freedom, and at times the shepherd must thwack the recalcitrant with his crook.

♦ The mainstream press is catching up with reality. In early May, Tim Sullivan penned a report for the Associated Press on the rising tide of conservative Catholicism. Guitar masses are out; Palestrina and Gregorian chant are in. Women are wearing head coverings. Priests are preaching about sin and redemption. There’s more Latin and more incense. By Sullivan’s reckoning, the changes, though by no means universal, are significant. Mass attendance is down. Today, many from Catholic backgrounds do not bother to have their children baptized. Against this larger trend of decline, those who remain engaged grow in importance and influence. A Georgetown University research center reports that only 9 percent of nominally Catholic millennials attend Mass at least once a week. It goes without saying that this small group, many of whom have large families and adhere to doctrinal norms, will shape the future of the Church—and that future won’t be to the liking of guitar-strumming Baby Boomer Jesuits. More often than not, the young people in the pews are the “backward-looking” and “rigid” types whom Pope Francis censures. Sullivan cites a study of theological and political attitudes held by priests. It shows marked differences between the older, now retiring clergy, who tend to be liberal, and younger men at the outset of their vocations, who hold conservative views. As one priest told Sullivan, the young priests “say they’re trying to restore what us old guys ruined.” Another older cleric was more direct: “They’re just waiting for us to die.” I urge fraternal solidarity, not enmity, not just among priests, but among all Catholics. But the impulse toward restoration is sound. As C. S. Lewis observed, when you’ve gone a long way in the wrong direction, to get back on course, the first thing to do is turn around and go back the way you came.

♦ Marijuana has surpassed alcohol as America’s favorite addiction. In 1992, fewer than one million Americans were daily smokers of pot. In 2022, the number had soared to 17.7 million. In the same year, 14.7 million Americans reported drinking alcohol daily. Writing for UnHerd, Mary Harrington speculates that the ascendancy of marijuana bespeaks a cultural change. In Anglo-American culture, coffee, cigarettes, and afterwork booze were part of a culture of work. Factory workers chugged Budweiser at the corner bar when their shifts ended. Corporate managers poured martinis at home after a long commute. By contrast, here in New York, I often smell pot as I walk to work in the morning. It’s not the aroma of productivity.

♦ The political scientist Ryan Burge keeps his eye on data about American religious trends in his Substack newsletter, “Graphs About Religion.” He notes that a 2023 Pew National Public Opinion Reference Survey reports a small decline in “nones” (those who say that they have no religious affiliation). This trend includes younger people. Burge plots data showing that among people born after 1980, there has been no growth in nones since 2020. He speculates that we’re experiencing “the end of an era in American religious demography.” His assessment: “The rise of the nones may be largely over now.”

♦ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “The meaning of life lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”

♦ On his LinkedIn page, Piero Tozzi, staff director of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, posted a call for Google and YouTube to restore a Hong Kong protest song that the tech giants had taken down at the request of the Chinese Communist Party. He notes that the ready compliance with the CCP’s dictates runs counter to the corporations’ stated commitments to human rights. Below the posting, the AI function recommends reading about the role of human rights in corporate activities. Click through and you get instruction about how diligently Google and YouTube adhere to human rights in their corporate decision. I suppose AI stands for “artificial indoctrination.”

♦ Reflecting in the European Conservative on the present fixation on racial identity in film and on the stage, Anthony Daniels makes a trenchant observation:

The obsession with social justice (a moving target if ever there was one)—of which the absurdities and contradictions of theatre casting outlined above are but a minor example—is inconsistent, hypocritical, absurd, boring, literal-minded, unsophisticated, divisive, intellectually nugatory, humourless, trivial, and narcissistic, as well as power-mad. It destroys everything it touches, including the stage.

♦ In 2023 Christopher Rufo exposed the fact that Texas Children’s Hospital was maiming minors in the service of transgender ideology. The Texas Legislature passed a bill prohibiting transgender medical procedures for minors. Now Rufo reports that the Texas Children’s Hospital has persisted in practicing “gender-affirming care,” committing Medicaid fraud in order to fund the prohibited procedures (“The Murky Business of Transgender Medicine,” City Journal). Federal officials have not stood idle. As the controversy became public in 2023, they were “busy assembling information.” The target? The whistleblowers! “A federal prosecutor, Tina Ansari, threatened the original whistleblower [Eithan] Haim with prosecution.” Then, in early June, “the stakes intensified. Three heavily armed federal agents knocked on Haim’s door and gave him a summons. According to the documents, he had been indicted on four felony counts of violating medical privacy laws. If convicted, Haim faces the possibility of ten years in federal prison.” A sadly familiar story. The rule of law turned into an ideological weapon.

♦ Gen Z writer Freya India writing in her Substack newsletter, “GIRLS”:

It’s hard to put this into words but I think, in some ways, what we actually want is to be humbled. People say Gen Z follow these new faiths [namely social justice, climate activism, and other urgent progressive causes] because we crave belonging and connection, but what if we also crave commandments? What if we are desperate to be delivered from something? To be at the mercy of something? I think we underestimate how hard it is for young people today to feel their way through life without moral guardrails and guidance, to follow the whims and wishes of our ego and be affirmed by adults every step of the way. I’m not sure that’s actual freedom. And if it is, I’m not sure freedom is what any of us actually wants.

♦   John Hilton-O’Brienseeks to form a ROFTers group in Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta, Canada. His email is hiltonjohn[at]

     Patricia Zander of Lisbon, Portugal also seeks to form a ROFTers group. Get in touch: pattizander[at]

     Nathan Williams of Cullman, Alabama wishes to gather readers for a regular ROFTers group: nswpublic[at]

     A ROFTers group in Brentwood/Franklin, Tennessee is looking for new members. To join, get in touch with the convener, Robert Turner: aslanfarm[at]

♦ Our spring campaign is underway as this issue goes to press. We’re blessed with a generous readership. To date, more than six hundred people have given nearly $600,000. We are almost certain to exceed our goal. I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone who donated.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

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