Gatekeepers serve an invaluable function in a healthy society. At their best, they ensure institutional competence, even excellence, and thus stability and a measure of continuity. They ensure men like George Santos never make it on a ballot, that films like Cats never get greenlit, that plans to demolish Manhattan’s Penn Station are thwarted, that editors itching to bowdlerize Roald Dahl never get hired. They make society possible. But when the barbarians have already sacked the city—or the citizens have themselves grown terminally barbarous—gatekeepers serve a different purpose. They now exist to exclude partisans of the old regime, to enforce a new status quo. Identity, loyalty, and political utility, not competence, are the new standards. The gates now exist to keep the barbarians in. Those who hope to recover the dignity of the city’s institutions must look beyond its walls for help.
In The Revolt of the Public, Martin Gurri characterizes our present political crises as contests between the “Center” and the “Border.” The Center represents established power, the collection of large, hierarchical institutions of private and public life that once shared a monopoly over information. “The Border, by contrast, is composed of ‘sects’—we would say ‘networks’—which are voluntary associations of equals. Sects exist to oppose the Center: they stand firmly against.” But, importantly, Border sects do not aspire to replace the Center. Rather than govern, they “aim to model the behaviors demanded from the ‘godly or good society.’”
The upshot of the digital revolution is that the Border possesses unprecedented means of disrupting the Center’s narratives. Consent can no longer be reliably evoked by trusted authorities because they’ve lost monopoly control over information. For instance, the Biden administration’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine enjoys nothing like the unanimity with which Americans initially embraced the second Bush administration’s war against Iraq. Ready access to countervailing information ensures that the public knows when the Center betrays or fails them. Political authority thus rests on unstable ground; successful incursion from the Border is an ever-present possibility. Gurri anticipates it will be many decades, perhaps a few generations, before we achieve a settlement fitted to the new information ecosystem.
In the meantime, institutions of the Center that wish to survive must adapt to the new order of things. In the West—indeed, in most of the world—the Center has been hollowed out by elite malfeasance. One need look no further than the collusion between federal authorities, tech and pharmaceutical giants, and legacy media to advance the pandemic response and whitewash its failures to appreciate why the American public’s trust in the Center is at an all-time low. Authorities refused even to countenance dissenting voices from the Center itself (for example, the Great Barrington Declaration), let alone those from the Border. Had they done so, they might have emerged with more of their credibility intact.
We shouldn’t assume, however, that because the Border is opposed to the Center, it doesn’t also contain wolves. Among the Border sects one finds ethno-nationalists, religious extremists, eco-terrorists, anarchists, and nihilists who just want to watch the Center burn.
But one also finds disaffected members of the Center wandering to the Border, disguised by pseudonyms. And for good reason: Although Americans are unlikely to be imprisoned for Border discourse—as the blogger Hoder was by the Iranian regime, a fate Gurri dwells on at length—they do risk social ostracism, loss of employment, debanking, harassment, and even physical violence. “Normies” of the Center would be startled to discover how many respected journalists and public intellectuals maintain small, anonymous “lurker” accounts to keep their finger on the pulse of Border discourse and to test-run ideas they’re hesitant to share under their real names. One finds so many incisive critics assuming noms de guerre because anonymity protects them from the Center’s reprisal, freeing them to say the unsayable. Prophecy, of course, has always been a Border vocation.
The Border may even contain sects with positive, coherent visions for building new institutions or reforming the best of the old. Most importantly, it boasts what we might call a “Border phenomenology,” a way of seeing that has unlearned the prejudices of the Center and retrained vital instincts. This explains the foresight of Twitter anons who recognized the threat of Covid early and also saw through the lies of our public health establishment about the virus’s origin and the efficacy of masking, lockdowns, and vaccines.
Establishment gatekeepers ignore this lesson at their peril. Only institutions capable of assimilating Border perspectives have hope of longevity. Gatekeepers of resilient institutions must be more permissive and, paradoxically, more discriminating. Intelligent voices from the Border must be cultivated as leaven, and the Center must become conversant in Border pidgin. The Border is alive with transformational and destructive energies; an agile, discerning Center institution will harness the former for renewal, while seeking to defuse or to redirect the latter. Progressives of the Center understood this and endowed university chairs to domesticate radicals of the 1960s and ’70s like Angela Davis. This neutralized them as political liabilities, but neoliberalism proved too strong a solvent; mainstreaming terrorists did nothing to arrest the universities’ decline. Conservatives must be more discerning. Border personalities should be cultivated for the power of their ideas, not their radical chic, and with the expectation that influence will run both ways.
In practice, this means Center institutions not yet captured by barbarians will need to acknowledge their liability to purblindness and decadent repetition, and choose to reject classism and credentialism. They must become willing to slum without considering it slumming—lest their ivory towers themselves become ghettos. They must develop a tolerance for risk, an openness to the unknown. Barbarians have indeed taken the city. But there’s no reason to believe we can’t take it back. And as gatekeepers of the conservative Center learn to practice hospitality to the anonymous stranger from the Border Lands, the more fellow travelers we’ll attract, and the swifter our long march back through the institutions will be.
Justin Lee is associate editor at First Things.
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