Saturday, May 29, 2021

Second Hand Mythology, Part II – The End of History

In my last post, I introduced the concept of “second hand mythology” in order to describe how, in virtually all cultures – even the outwardly secular ones – the core myths of the culture’s dominant religion are endlessly recycled as a lens in which to view worldly events.

I briefly described Marxism as such a belief system: look closely, and you can see the invention of private property as a sort of ‘fall’ from which the teachings of Karl Marx will redeem mankind; once enough people accept his teachings, the whole world will be transformed into a workers’ paradise of classless harmony, universal brotherhood, and splendiferous wealth shared by everybody. All of these things – the fall, the redeeming doctrine, and the promised future paradise for true believers – derive from Christian sacred history.

But most of my previous post was dedicated to sketching out, in detail, the Myth of the Chosen People – the idea that a certain nation has somehow been selected to play a unique role in history and to ultimately redeem the world. While the chosen ones may sometimes fall short of their true nature, suffer for their sins, and experience the ebb and flow of worldly fortune, they’ll never stop being the chosen people. In other words, nothing they can possibly do will change their status as destiny’s darlings, or reduce them to playing a role in world history no bigger than that of their neighbors.

I described this myth’s origins in the story of biblical Israel; then, I described its reappearance, with all the essential points intact, in one of the classics of twentieth-century literature, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Pieces of the Chosen People narrative can be found in most of our society’s epic storytelling, though it seldom shows up in so complete a form – there are things that an author can do with seven or eight millennia of elf genealogies that he cannot do when all the events of his tale happen in the same century).

Now a myth, once implanted firmly in the subconscious mind, is not going to stay confined to either religious or recreational storytelling. It will inevitably determine how a society sees its own history and politics as well. But before I talk about how the American Right’s perception of American history has been distorted by the Chosen People myth, I will need to take another detour, this time to describe the Myth of the End of History.

Shortly after I posted the Chosen People essay, one of my more thoughtful readers criticized the idea that Marx and Engels’ notions about progress toward a paradisiacal future were repackaged Christian eschatology. He said:

“Here is what is undeniable: over time, and unevenly in both temporal and geographical aspects, the human animal has enormously increased his understanding of how the world really works. And with the triumph of capitalism, that understanding has been turned to systematically increasing ‘the forces of production.’ So there is room for optimism. If we can align our economic, social, and political systems with this marvelous freeing of the human mind... what can't we accomplish?

“So... why hasn't this happened? Why has history not come to an end, in Fukayama's sense, where we all recognize the superiority of liberal democracy and a market economy? And what can we do to help this uneven, and now challenged, process along?”

This commentator made a point that’s worth addressing. Technological progress is a real thing, and over the last three centuries or so, a handful of societies have relied upon the combination of applied science, free market capitalism, and democratic governing institutions to achieve a never-before-seen degree of personal freedom and material prosperity.

The resulting mood of optimism was certainly strong with Francis Fukuyama when, in 1989, he wrote an essay entitled “The End of History.” Fukuyama’s thesis was that the Marxist concept of history, as a series of stages in which each form of political economy is replaced with a better one, until an end-state is reached which can’t be improved upon, was mostly correct… but that it was actually liberal democratic capitalism, rather than communism, that would be left standing after the final bell.

 Like myself, my commentator sees pretty clear evidence, in recent happenings in the United States, that our society is not on track toward a future of perpetual improvement, or even of holding onto the gains of the past. In other words, Fukuyama’s talk about the End of History was premature. But before digging into the question of whether our society can be put back onto the track that Fukuyama, and myriad likeminded thinkers, say it ought to be following, it’s worth asking whether the underpinnings of his theory hold up to basic scrutiny.

For example, if history will ‘end’ once all major countries have become liberal democracies, that necessarily implies that, once a country has become a liberal democracy, it cannot later become something else. A quick glance at history doesn’t support this assertion: there was, for instance, that time in 1933 when the Austrian corporal at the head of the Nazi party got himself made Chancellor of Germany, and there was also the near-simultaneous transformation of Spain from a liberal democracy into a military dictatorship with Francisco Franco as Caudillo.

And if you’re willing to go way back in time, and define “liberal democracy” a bit loosely, then you have to include the time that the Caesars took over the Roman Republic.

Another crucial, and even more overlooked, rotten pillar in Fukuyama’s theory was the assumption that his own nation – the United States – was a healthy liberal democracy in the first place. But the real America of 1989 was a society in which the ruling class used judicial decrees like Roe v. Wade, plus unlimited executive power in warmaking and foreign policy, to exclude voters and elected representatives from the bulk of government policymaking. To insist that this isn’t a problem because the things the technocrats imposed on the country were good is to miss the point; the measure of a democracy is not whether the laws are good, but whether the common man has a say in their making.

But enough talk about Fukuyama. He is only one specimen of a class that includes many, many thinkers: these were the Hegelians. The crux of Hegelian theory, whether presented by George Hegel himself, Marx, Fukuyama, or anyone else, is the claim that the historical dialectic – the process by which a culture repeatedly revises its form of political economy through the intellectual dance of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – will come to a halt once everybody recognizes the superiority of whatever system the Hegelian thinker in question happens to like best. (For Hegel, who got the whole thing started, the end-state was a Prussian-style “enlightened monarchy.”)

Even outside the Hegelian school, there are plenty of other versions of the myth on offer; Charles Fourier, a contemporary of Hegel and the grandfather of most socialist movements, had one that is far too colorful for any summary to do it justice, though you can read some of the details here. But ultimately, all of these End of History myths – all of these claims that, once everybody believes the things that the myth-maker believes and starts living the way the myth-maker says he ought to live, human conflict and history as we know it will cease – are all variations on the same theme.

Here, by the way, is the original, written in the eighth century BC, in the Kingdom of Judah, by the prophet Isaiah:

“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.’

“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Most people who believe in this prophecy today are Christians who view it as something that will happen after Christ’s second coming, rather than as a part of temporal history. But at the time the prophecy was given, none of that doctrinal framework existed.

To the ordinary, uncritical Jewish listener, this was simply the way that the future was going to be. Eventually, the day would come when Israel’s long persecutions would cease, the surrounding nations would recognize Israel’s God as the true God, their leaders would go to Jerusalem to learn God’s laws, and because of all this, there wouldn’t be any more wars.

The ironic part of this is that the first half of Isaiah’s prophecy actually happened! It took a while, but by the time two millennia had passed since his death, the inhabitants of every country known to Isaiah – plus plenty more he had never heard of like England, Russia, and Malaysia – believed Isaiah’s God to be the only true God, made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and studied various holy books which they believed to contain the words and laws of the God of Israel.

There were only two problems. First, most of the people who were trying to practice Isaiah’s religion were practicing it wrongly – at least, by Isaiah’s standards, and often by each other’s as well. For example, Christians ate pork, Muslims circumcised their sons as teenagers rather than as babies, and so forth.

The second problem was that there were still wars.

One of the benefits of looking at why the partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy didn’t put an end to history is that it shows that there are actually a lot of different things that have to go right in order for the End of History myth to pan out.

First, good ways of organizing a nation’s religious, political, or economic affairs must inevitably attract more converts than bad ones. Second, once a good system is adopted, there must be no backsliding. Third, as a religion or ideology spreads, it must not mutate so seriously that its various offshoots end up locked in irresolvable conflicts with each other. (This last point is the horn on which the ‘swords into plowshares’ part of the vision was so cruelly broken).

If you want to look at the “mutant spawn” problem in terms of political economy, rather than religion per se, just consider that all forms of “capitalism” – a family of economic systems that includes things as different from each other as the slave economy of the antebellum South is from Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism With Chinese Characteristics” – are descended,  through various lines, from the mercantilist market economies of seventeenth-century England and Holland.

There is no good reason for a prognosticator of future events not to expect equally severe divergences – and resulting conflicts – in whatever ideologies happen to survive into the future.

Now, it’s worth noting that the Isaiah-Hegel-Marx-Fukuyama framework, in which history is the story of everybody adopting worldviews and ways of life that are more and more like that of the author of the story, is far from the only way to interpret world history.

One useful alternative comes to us in the work of Herodotus, the Greek writer whom later generations would know as the “Father of History.”

Herodotus produced his great work, known simply as The Histories, in the late fifth century BC. In one sense, this book is a history of the Persian Wars, since the Greek city states’ epic resistance to the aggressions of Darius and Xerxes provides much of the work’s substance. But in another sense, it’s a history of the world, because in it, Herodotus tries to write down literally everything he knows about the various tribes and kingdoms that exist between India in the east, Sicily in the west, Hyperborea in the north and Ethiopia in the south.

Herodotus tells a tale of the rise and fall of empires. The humiliation of the seemingly omnipotent Persians when they try to take on the Greeks is, of course, the centerpiece, but there are plenty of other empires whose downfalls grace the pages of his work. National greatness, he explains, is fleeting:

“The cities which were formerly great have mostly become insignificant; and such as are at present powerful, were weak in the olden time. I shall therefore discourse equally of both, convinced that human happiness never stays long in the same place.”

There are no Chosen Peoples in the Herodotean worldview, and there is no End of History. Somebody like Croessus or Cyrus may think that his kingdom is fated to impose lasting order on the chaos of human events, but in the end, nations burdened with such an attitude grow soft and decadent, and the Gods punish them for their hubris by allowing smaller, tougher nations to defeat them in battle.

Herodotus was an ethnographer as well as a historian, and he gave detailed accounts of the ways of life of the dozens of cultures that figured into his work. Oftentimes, he praised or criticized a particular custom. To give two examples, he thought the Greek practice of competing in athletic games for no reward other than glory to one’s home city was instrumental in bringing up a race of tough fighting men, and he also believed – in accordance with a widespread legend – that there was something in the diet or habits of the Ethiopians that made them live much longer than other races.

However, Herodotus did not expect that all other nations would respond to the Greek victories over Darius and Cyrus by adopting Greek-style athletics, nor did he anticipate that everybody would soon flock to Ethiopia in a quest to discover and imitate the secret of Ethiopian longevity. In his view, every nation had its own laws and customs, some better, some worse, most just adaptations to the climate and other unique circumstances of its homeland. From time to time a nation adopted an innovation, either spontaneously or by imitating its neighbors, but there was no overall rhyme or reason to this cultural drift.

To many modern thinkers, the Herodotean worldview must seem dreary. A history with no direction, no protagonist, and no goal is alien to the minds of thinkers as diverse as Isaiah, Virgil, Saint Augustine, Oliver Cromwell, George Hegel, and Karl Marx.

But, judging by his style, Herodotus was witty and charming, not dreary at all, and it’s easy to sense the love that he has for his subject matter. As far as Herodotus was concerned, the Gods were at work in human history – it just so happened that their plans didn’t involve a single nation or culture triumphing forevermore.

As Herodotus’ life neared its close, his adoptive home city of Athens, flush with the success of the Persian Wars, was beginning to build an empire of its own. Part of Herodotus’ purpose in writing The Histories was to provide a subtle warning to the Athenians against becoming like the thing they had defeated. And the consequences of their failure to head his warning would provide the subject matter for the next great historian, Thucydides.

Like the contemporaries of Herodotus, you and I don’t live in a nation that’s been marked out for any special role as history’s protagonist, and acting as if we did is bound to end in grief. Empires will keep rising and falling long after the United States is a distant memory.

And while we do live in a world that is being remade by technological change, the same thing could be said in Herodotus’ time. The Greeks were a clever and innovative people, but their innovations did not make their civilization immortal.

So it will be with America and the “liberal global order” in general. This is not something that can be avoided; it is just something that we will all have to come to terms with, if we are going to make a constructive response to the challenges of our day.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Second Hand Mythology, Part I – The Chosen People

I think it’s fair to say that one of the most overlooked dimensions of modern politics and society is the role that myths play in shaping people’s thinking. And when I say “myth,” I don’t just mean it in the crude sense of “stories people tell that aren’t true,” the way you might see the word used when a comfortably lit magazine publishes an article with a title like “Five Anti-Vaxxer Myths, Debunked.”

No, I mean “myth” in the sense of a story that’s ingrained so deeply into the way that a culture sees the world that it continues to shape people’s thinking even when they’re not consciously aware of it.

A good example of this is the way that so many people raised in Christian or recently-Christian cultures will eagerly try to win converts to faddish diets which – in the imagination of their promoters – are the one true way for people to eat, and will, if adopted widely enough, banish everybody’s health problems. The Myth of the Redeeming Doctrine is, of course, at root a Christian idea, and cultures where Christianity has lain heavily upon the land are the most likely places for somebody to start insisting that a new set of beliefs, currently possessed only by himself and a handful of disciples, is bound to take over the whole world because of its unique ability to liberate us all from hitherto universal human ills.

The really ironic thing is that the traditional myths of a culture will continue to shape that culture’s thinking, even during ages of rationalism when the culture’s leading thinkers believe that they have cast these myths aside.

Consider the case of Buddhism, which originally began as a rationalist reaction against India’s traditional Hindu religion and which, in its earliest form, abjured the worship of the Gods entirely. (The prayer wheels and the veneration of Bodhisattvas, so well-known in the modern world, were later inventions).

And this wasn’t because the Buddha denied the existence of the Gods. Rather, after seeing so much suffering in the world, and seeing no way to deal with it except by renouncing desire, he essentially said: “Look at the way the world is! Obviously, the Gods haven’t attained enlightenment; therefore, we shouldn’t worship them.”

The really curious thing here is that the early Buddhists never really seemed to question the basic assumption, within Hindu cosmology, that the purpose of life is to seek enlightenment and to liberate oneself, through spiritual practice, from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. The only real difference was that, after this basic element of Hindu mythology had been imported into the rising Buddhist philosophy, it no longer involved the Gods.

This omission would be corrected over the next few centuries of religious evolution, since godless religions do a poor job of meeting people’s spiritual needs. As it turns out, most men and women want to worship something, and will find something to worship, even when their leaders tell them that they shouldn’t. (Just think of how the first generation of Chinese Communist intellectuals would feel about all the Daoist temples that now have altars dedicated to the ghost of Chairman Mao!)

Look a little way’s back, and you can see that Marxism itself is a textbook example of this same process: like early Buddhism, it is parasitic on a religion it claims to reject, in this case Christianity.

To wit: Marx and Engels denounced religion as “the opium of the masses,” but still won their following by parroting the distinctly Christian idea that the world is headed toward a future of classless harmony, universal brotherhood, and splendiferous wealth for all. The Workers’ Paradise of Marxist eschatology, however, does manage to differ from the Christian New Jerusalem in a few notable ways, namely:

(1) Since God doesn’t exist, there is no need to wait around for him to return before it can be built, and

(2) Getting there depends on following the preachments of Karl Marx, rather than those of Jesus and his Apostles.

By this point, you might be wondering what relevance the concept of “Second Hand Mythology” has to American right-wing politics. Sure, the Left is quite adept at repurposing the myths of an abandoned religion – every conservative thinker of any significance is aware of the fact that the ideologies of wokeness and “white privilege” are just creative reworkings of the Christian concept of original sin, stripped of the possibility for redemption and forgiveness. But could it be that the Right is also under the spell of its own secularized myth?

I think that the answer is yes. And I’m not talking about the short-lived Trumpist apocalypse cult that blossomed after last year’s election – I actually have something much deeper in mind, something which begins with the following myth:

The God who created the universe has appointed David to be King over his chosen people, Israel. David’s new kingdom is destined to fulfill the high and mighty promises made by the Lord to the Israelites’ righteous ancestors – rugged, nomadic herdsmen with names like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua. King David is a great warrior who unites the Twelve Tribes of Israel, wins new territory for his people, and drives the Philistines out of the Promised Land. Then, David’s son Solomon reigns after him, making a name for himself as the wealthiest and wisest ruler in the known world.

But by the time of Solomon’s death, trouble is already brewing, and most of the Israelites feel like Solomon has oppressed them with his burdensome taxes. A man named Jeroboam leads a rebellion and makes himself King of the northern Ten Tribes, but the Lord, though displeased with the House of David, leaves Solomon’s son Rehoboam in control of Jerusalem and the tribe of Judah, in order to fulfil the promise he made to David that his heirs would sit on their throne forever.

Again and again, God sends prophets to call the northern tribes to repentance, but they never listen, and their idolatries eventually wear down even his great patience. So God abandons them to the Assyrian conqueror, and these “lost tribes” are never heard from again. In the south, things don’t go quite so badly; while most Kings of Judah are idolators, some, like Hezekiah and Josiah, try their best to get their kingdom back onto the covenant path. But the righteous are too few in number, every passing century sees Judah becoming weaker while its enemies become stronger, and though the southern kingdom outlasts the northern one, in the end it, too, is conquered by foreigners – this time, the Babylonians.

But the Lord doesn’t wholly abandon his people. David’s house can no longer rule as kings, but one of his descendants, Salathiel, is made governor of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. When Babylon is in turn conquered by Persia, Salathiel’s son Zerubbabel is permitted, by the grace of King Cyrus, to lead the Jews back to Jerusalem and rebuild Solomon’s temple. But even after this wondrous revival, the Jews keep turning away from God, who visits yet more afflictions on them.

The land of Judea is reduced, in the course of centuries, to a backwater province of the Roman empire. The House of David is reduced to a poor family of itinerant carpenters, whose link to Israel’s past is unknown outside of family lore. Then one of these carpenters, a man named Joseph, takes his pregnant wife Mary to the town of Bethlehem – the same town David himself raised sheep in a thousand years earlier – so she can give birth to the mightiest King of them all….

For nearly two thousand years, Christians have been telling and retelling this story: the story of the Chosen People, who again and again turn away from God and suffer for it, but who always manage, by the skin of their teeth, to hang onto their special place in the world. And their destiny – which neither their own failings, nor anyone else’s malice, can overcome – is that one of their Kings will become the Messiah.

Unsurprisingly, this myth has permeated Christian thought, and worked its way into every sort of storytelling that you can find in Christian (or formerly Christian) cultures. Just consider, for a moment, how this familiar story reappears, in different garb, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Many thousands of years ago, three tribes of rugged, nomadic Men, known as the Edain, wandered into the western marches of Middle Earth and fought fearlessly alongside the High Elves to defeat the powers of evil. As a reward, the Valar, beings of pure spirit who watch over the world as viceregents of the Creator God, raised a new and bounteous island called Númenor out of the western sea for the Edain to live in. As Númenors first King, the Valar chose the half-elf Elros, a descendant, on the human side, of Beren, Tuor, and Eärendil, the bravest of the Edain heroes of old.

For many generations, the descendants of King Elros ruled over their Promised Land in righteousness, and the Númenorians prospered. They were renowned throughout Middle Earth for their wealth and wisdom, and their ships were greeted with joy in all the countries they visited. But as time passed, the Númenorians became lifted up in pride, their covetous Kings set to work building an empire and dominating other Men, and the sight of a Númenorian vessel on Middle Earth’s coastlines became an occasion of dread.

Eventually, for their sins, the Númenorians suffered the fate of Atlantis, and their whole island was drowned in the depths of the sea. But at the last moment, a nobleman named Elendil, leader of a party of dissenters called “The Faithful,” departed for Middle Earth on a storm wind with nine tall ships full of his followers, intent on preserving the ancient royal line.

Which he did. After defeating Sauron in battle (it was the decision of Isildur, son of Elendil, not to destroy the One Ring right then and there that set up all that future drama with the hobbits) Elendil’s people established two kingdoms, Arnor and Gondor.

Both of these kingdoms started off with almost as much wealth and power as old Númenor, but with the passing of centuries, they both declined. Gondor, the southern kingdom, lost much of its population and territory, and ended up being ruled by stewards after the old royal lineage died out in a plague. Arnor, in the north, was battered even more by military defeats and internal dissensions; in the end it was completely destroyed as a kingdom, though its royal line survived as the chieftains of a nomadic hill folk, called “Rangers.”

One of these Rangers was Aragorn son of Arathorn, familiar to any reader of The Lord of the Rings, which tells the story of how Aragorn and his brave companions went on a quest to destroy the ancient evil that his ancestors had failed to destroy, how they regained Aragorn’s long-lost throne, and how they restored both of his kingdoms to their primeval glory and splendor.

Now, it wasn't strictly necessary that Tolkien’s novel had to focus on Aragorn and his contemporaries instead of centering the story on one of Aragorns many, many noble ancestors – somebody like Eärendur, Lord of Andúnië, or Mallor, King of Arthedain, or  Araglas the Ranger – and relegating the whole business with Aragorn, the One Ring, and the hobbits to the book’s long and detailed appendix. Tolkien chose to do it the way he did because that is how the story of the Chosen People is always told – from the perspective of the chosennest person in the whole lot.

It’s no different, really, than when a Christian church spends so much time reading about and discussing those three brief years when Jesus was gathering and teaching his disciples, and totally glosses over the centuries that passed when the Davidic line was represented by such half-forgotten figures as Jehoshaphat, Eliakim, and Matthan. Religions are built on stories, and a good story-teller knows how to separate the major characters from the walk-ons.

But at the same time, a Christian with a sense of personal humility is bound to feel at least a little haunted by the thought that, if he had lived a few millennia earlier and been a part of the David-to-Jesus story, he would almost certainly not have been a beneficiary of one of Jesus’ miraculous healings or even, for that matter, a witness to them.

No, what is more likely is that he would have had his place in the armies of the Philistines when David slew them in heaps and piled up their foreskins, or in the herd of captive Israelites driven to Babylon like so many human cattle in the days of Salathiel, or among the homely Judean peasants who bought furniture from the family of Joseph the carpenter without the slightest inkling of how famous one of the little boys in that family would soon become.

But those haunting feelings would be a rarity, an occasional indulgence among the more philosophically minded believers. Most of the time, just like any other Christians, these people will be vicariously reliving the experience of Jesus’ most intimate associates through the familiar rituals and sacred texts that form the backbone of their religion.

And therein lays the rub. Men and women whose worldview is shaped by the Myth of the Chosen People will see a great deal of human history – secular and religious – through that lens, whether they’re aware that they’re doing so or not. And the unfortunate fact of the matter is that history seen this way is history seen through a funhouse mirror.

Anyone who looks in the mirror will end up thinking that whatever time and place he happens to live in is the nexus of human history. And he will also end up thinking that, like most folks in the Chosen People stories, he can meet the challenges of his day in a mostly passive manner – yielding ground again and again while waiting for somebody stronger than himself to come along and put things right – without ever jeopardizing the promise of ultimate victory.

And that, as I will explain when I continue this series, is a very dangerous way of viewing the world, especially when all the objective evidence indicates that one’s nation, and one’s way of life, are undergoing a steep and possibly terminal decline.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Taking Peak Oil Seriously

One of the frustrations of being a declinist blogger with a predominantly right-wing audience is that my readers will try to see everything I post as an answer to the question: “How can we stop the Left from destroying our country?”

When actually, the questions that would make more sense are along the lines of “How can we stop our country from being destroyed?” or “How can we survive the destruction of our country?”

Basically, I am unable to see the defeat of the Left as my goal, because I think that western civilization’s problem, at the core level, is spiritual rather than political.

Unfortunately, saying this puts me in the company of a lot of quietist thinkers, who insist that the old virtues of the Christian West can be restored by people who focus mainly on improving their private, spiritual lives, in the confidence that if enough people do this, the political triumphs of the Left will either go away, or won’t matter as much.

It is as if a man stops reading his Bible, attending mass regularly, and fasting during Lent. Then, after a year or two of this, he starts downing a pint and a half of gin every evening, bashing in other guys’ faces in random barfights, committing a string of cheque frauds to pay for his habit, and sleeping with prostitutes. Upon hearing about all this, his priest remarks that, since the breakdown of the man’s relationship with God came first, his problem is ultimately spiritual rather than temporal, and that if he just goes back to praying and attending mass like he should, the rest of his life will fall back into order without him having to give up his daily pint and a half of gin.

In this rather gaudy analogy, the cessation of the man’s religious observance corresponds to the disappearance, in the western body politic, of a number of virtues that are necessary to maintain a political order based on representative democracy and human rights. The daily pint and a half of gin corresponds to the western nations’ collective decision to allow a plutocratic, socially-leftist oligarchy to seize control of their governing institutions.

Spiritual renewal is not possible for a society that is content to live under the oligarchy. In other words, if the human material of a society proves to be the sort of wet, rotting wood that won’t ignite into the flames of revolution when the government decides to start promoting sex changes for middle schoolers, then no religious revivalist is going to come along and kindle the fires of spiritual renewal with that same wood!

In a sense, then, I’m even more pessimistic than Rod Dreher & Co. (In a different sense, I’m more optimistic – I don’t believe in the concept of a One True Faith or think that the religious beliefs a man holds during one lifetime will determine his fate for eternity. Thus, in my view, the rising generation of Americans, having been raised with little or no religion, will generally have miserable lives, but they’re at no risk of losing their souls.)

But I digress. As American civilization continues to collapse, there will still, I think, be chances for a few brave individuals, who are willing to oppose the system by accepting burdens that almost everyone else won’t accept, to escape. Hence the final variant on the question with which I opened this post: “How can we survive the destruction of our country?”

There will be no large-scale turnaround – at least, not until a century or two of hardship clears away the rotting carcass of what our secular-hedonist civilization has become, and stimulates the growth of a new, tougher version of American culture.

And that's where Peak Oil comes in.

American conservatives usually have a pretty easy time grasping the idea that the political defeats their movement is constantly complaining about – government support for the sexual revolution, the rise of the welfare state, the transfer of most political power in the US out of democratic institutions and into technocratic ones, etc. – are manifestations of deeper spiritual problems in our society.

What is harder to grasp is the idea that these aren’t the only manifestations of these deep spiritual problems. Indeed, there are other manifestations which have not become partisan political issues at all, and yet others on which the Left, rather than the Right, holds the better position – though as usual it does little or nothing to enact its ideals in the real world.

For example, I believe that the same arrogant attitude toward nature is behind the idea that boys’ and girls’ bodies are interchangeable, and the idea that nothing bad will happen if we keep on treating the Earth as if it contained an infinite supply of oil.

Now, I know that when a lot of people hear about Peak Oil, they think of the activists who spent the 1990s and early 2000s talking about how the exhaustion of the world’s petroleum supply was going to cause a rapid collapse of global civilization at some specific date in the near future, the year 2005 being the top candidate.

This was based on the telegenic, but false, idea that Peak Oil means a precipitous drop in the supply of oil, even though, in the original theory, it means what its name implies – a “peak,” or a time of maximum output, at the height of a bell-shaped curve, after which production will slowly decline, though equal amounts of oil will be produced on both the near and far sides of the curve.

The fixation on the year 2005 is more forgivable, because that fixation stemmed from the fact that M. King Hubbert, the geologist who invented Peak Oil theory in the 1950s, predicted this date for maximum global petroleum production.

Now, Hubbert’s key realization was that the oil production curve for a productive area of any size – a single well, an oil field, a province, or a country – tends to follow a bell-shaped curve, with the highest productivity in the middle. Early in the curve, new oil is being discovered faster than it’s being extracted; later on, discovery rates fall below extraction rates, but extraction keeps rising; after the peak, rates of discovery are near zero, and extraction rates fall in turn.

Because he was the first geologist to come up with good ways to estimate future production in an oil province, including production from as-yet-undiscovered reserves – rather than including only known reserves and getting a wildly wrong answer, like many oilmen had done before him – Hubbert became famous. His successful prediction that oil output in the continental US would peak around 1970 gave him a lot of credibility, especially during the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, when America was floundering through the transition from mostly-domestic oil sources to an import-based oil supply.

Naturally, a lot of people were concerned when the year 2005 approached, since that was the year for which Hubbert had predicted global Peak Oil. When it didn’t happen, a lot of conservatives insisted that Peak Oil had been debunked.

Think, for a moment, about the logic behind those feelings. If some guy in the 1950s, working with a much more limited understanding of petroleum geology than we have today – especially when it comes to hydrofracking, tight oil, tar sands, and the like – underestimates how much oil is in the Earth, does that mean that Peak Oil isn’t a problem? Or does it just mean that nature has given us more rope with which to hang ourselves?

And hanging ourselves we are. The United States consumes 22 barrels of oil per person per year. Most of the industrialized world uses around half that: Germany and Japan use 11, Britain and France 9, and Russia 8.

The fact that America requires so much more oil than these other nations to maintain what is, in most ways, an identical standard of living, is a reflection of the extreme neglect into which American infrastructure has fallen. We have almost no high-speed rail, doing nearly all our long-distance travel by automobile and airplane, and much of our built environment, especially in the suburbs, has been designed for a car culture only, and is virtually unwalkable.

The glut of oil and gasoline that makes our country liveable in these circumstances is going to go away over the next few decades. You don’t actually need a detailed forecast of when Peak Oil will come in order to predict this – you really only need to know that America’s present status as a huge net petroleum importer is only sustainable as long as the dollar-dominated international economy holds up.

When the rest of the world dedollarizes – and I would be very surprized if that hasn’t happened by 2040 – we Americans will lose our cheap oil imports, along with all the other cheap imports with which our ruling class has replaced our once-great manufacturing sector. Thereafter, we will all become much poorer. And we will be stranded in a built environment designed mainly for cars, even as most of us can no longer afford one.

In the end, the United States will have transformed into a third-world country, resembling Russia in the 1990s or present-day Mexico. This is, admittedly, a difficult concept for most Americans to wrap their heads around, since a “bad” future, when it shows up in our collective imagination at all, generally looks like total apocalypse (as in I Am Legend) or high-tech totalitarianism (as in Bladerunner).

Well, I am predicting a different kind of future. My favorite Peak Oil blogger, John Michael Greer, calls it “the Long Descent” because, as he sees it, the descent into third-world conditions (and eventually, when resource limits bite even harder, into a fully-deindustrialized, agrarian society) will be gradual – just like the depletion of the petroleum that makes our extravagant lifestyles possible in the first place.

From the point of view of someone who believes in the myth of progress – that is, someone who thinks that newer technologies are bound, as if by a law of nature, to be better than older ones – such a future sounds absurd. After all, there are so many other energy sources that we can use after fossil fuels are gone – biofuels, solar power, wind, hydroelectricity, nuclear, and so forth.

The problem is that all of those other technologies are already in use and, sans government subsidies, none of them are economically competitive with fossil fuels. Conclusion: once the fossil fuels are gone, and only alternative energy sources are left, energy will become much more expensive, and we’ll all have to use less of it.

Full-spectrum conservatives – people who revere their national past, who look for the unintended consequences of every policy, and who are suspicious of attempts to radically remake society – have no good reason to shy away from these conclusions. If the evidence indicates that the boons of the petroleum age will turn out to be ephemeral, and that America actually took a wrong turn by putting a car in every garage, then we should be willing to return to the sort of slower-paced society in which every generation of Americans lived from the Plymouth Fathers to Teddy Roosevelt.

Now, before I wrap up this article, I should probably answer the question of what I think about Peak Oil’s sister issue, global warming. My belief is that it’s real, but it will probably be slower and less apocalyptic than alarmists like Greta Thunberg would have us believe. It will not wipe out the human race.

Even a worst-case scenario – the melting of all the Antarctic ice and a 216-foot sea level rise – will take centuries to play out, and will simply restore the Earth to the warmer climate equilibrium which has existed, off and on, for two-thirds of the last 100 million years. The Earth’s climate has changed many times before mankind came along, and nothing that we can do is going to be any more dramatic than what nature does on her own every few million years.

Now comes another big question: what should an individual American do about this? Well, one option is to vote for the Democrats, because they’re the party that runs for office on promises to address the Peak Oil/Climate issue.

This is a bad option. Democrats have shown, time and again, that while they are happy to put American coal, oil, and gas producers out of business through litigation and regulatory harassment, they will do nothing to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Given the power, they will replace domestically-produced fossil fuels with foreign imports, and that is all. CO2 emissions stay the same, the jobs go to Arab or Russian oilmen instead of to Americans, and the Dems call it a win.

This is the usual modus operandi of the Left. Wealthy liberals virtue-signal with policies that claim to advance some fashionable leftist cause – environmentalism or antiracism or whatever – but it always turns out that the burdens of the policies fall entirely on the working class. It is the same when it is blue-state mayors tolerating race riots in poor neighbourhoods but not rich ones, as when it is members of the Sierra Club, with carbon footprints the size of a whole Appalachian village, jetting around the country to sue coal miners out of their jobs.

So the political option is dead in the water. Which leaves the declinist option: admit that the body politic is a rotting carcass, animated by neither your own principles nor anybody else’s, give up on voting your way out of the problem, and be the change you want to see in the world.

Reduce your own consumption of fossil fuels. Travel by bicycle, bus, and train when you can. Learn to grow your own food, and to get by with fewer frivolous consumer goods. Live in a small, well-insulated house. And so forth.

This won’t change the overall direction of the country. But if you do it, then you, personally, will not be a part of the problem anymore. Also, you’ll learn useful survival skills, and when the whole country is dragged, slowly but surely, into the deindustrial future, you’ll be ready.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Book Review - The Noah Option

Today, I am going to do another first for Twilight Patriot: reviewing a book by an author who personally asked for the review, and was kind enough to send me the book for free. Michael McCarthy is a semi-retired corporate trainer who lives in North Carolina; he recently discovered my blog, became a big fan, and asked me to review his debut novel, The Noah Option.

In case you’re wondering whether McCarthy is riffing off the popularity of Rod Dreher’s 2017 book The Benedict Option (which was my first thought, too) it turns out that he isn’t, since The Noah Option was published back in 2009, apparently as a response to the wave of anti-capitalist, pro-big-government rhetoric that hoisted Barack Obama into the Oval Office.

According to McCarthy, his novel was inspired by Atlas Shrugged, though it’s easy to tell that he has very different religious views than Ayn Rand did, and he displays them in his book by making his heroes men and women of faith.

Also, if you're asking whether the choice of title indicates that this is a story about mass dieoff – in the sense of all but eight people in the whole world being drowned – don’t worry; McCarthy’s book is actually a lot less violent than the biblical story which inspired its title.

I am not going to praise the literary aspects of McCarthy’s storytelling. The characters constantly make long, blocky speeches with no resemblance to the way people talk to one another in real life, and at times they interrupt their conversation even further to make longwinded references to the author’s favorite novels, plays, and political philosophers, such as Thomas Sowell.

The main characters have no apparent flaws, weaknesses, or inadequacies to overcome: from page one, both the hero and the heroine are the perfect lover, the perfect friend, the perfect athlete, the perfect scientist or businessman, and the perfect Christian – at least, within McCarthy’s own “prosperity gospel” sense of what that entails. Near the beginning, the two leads get in a small lovers’ quarrel, which is resolved two or three pages later; otherwise, none of the sympathetic characters ever have any disagreements with one another.

Now, since this is McCarthy’s first novel, and since I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he has gotten better at the craft of writing with his subsequent works, I will spend the rest of my review analysing the underlying political and scientific assumptions of The Noah Option, and the suggestions it makes about America’s future. I will, as always, be frank about where I think the story gets things right, and where it gets things wrong.

The cover pitch for the novel begins as follows: “A tsunami of coercion and control floods the nation, wrecking lives and livelihoods....” After we open the book, we find that our heroine, Grace Washington, is a geneticist at Tuskegee University, where she creates GMO seeds for maize and other food crops. Everybody – hero and villain alike – agrees that these seeds can “end world hunger.” Like Norman Borlaug, the real-world botanist on whom Grace is modeled, she has won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

As I hinted they would, this character and her accomplishments strike me as unbelievable on account of being too perfect. Unlike the real Norman Borlaug, who won his Nobel Prize after a lifetime of work, Grace Washington is still a nubile young woman in at most her early thirties. And her seeds are far superior to anything that exists in real life, GMO or not. We’re repeatedly told that they yield four times more food than ordinary seeds, on one tenth as much land, using one tenth as much water, with one tenth as much fertilizer.

This sort of thing is what makes the scientist in me go, “Wait, that’s not how the real world works.

In the real world, after all, technological change is more gradual and involves more trade-offs, i.e. the real Green Revolution involved a lot of higher-yield crops that also required more fertilizer. A similar principle was behind Dr. Borlaug’s most famous achievement, his creation of higher-yielding dwarf plants: unlike wild cereal grains, which have evolved to grow as tall as possible in the struggle for sunlight, domestic grain usually grows in a field where everything is the same height; thus, it can be bred to be shorter and put its excess energy into making bigger seeds.

In the world of The Noah Option, on the other hand, being a geneticist means that nature is like a video game, where if you figure out how to hack the control panel, you can arbitrarily upgrade an organism’s stats to whatever you want them to be.

This simplistic way of looking at the world morphs into the downright silly in the person of Isaiah Mercury, Grace’s brilliant, software-developer boyfriend. His role in the story is to create a program that allows any farmer, anywhere in the world, equipped only with a flip phone, to sell his crops to any buyer, without a middleman – for instance, a farmer in Botswana can now sell his grain harvest directly to a miller or baker in Kenya.

There is no mention of how the grain is going to get to Kenya. Indeed, if McCarthy had even thought about that question, he might have realized that the need for road, rail, and sea transport – and not the lack of brilliantly designed software – is the reason that real farmers, whether they’re poor or not, usually sell to a merchant rather than to the end-user of the food they’re growing.

Thus we see, in both hero and heroine, the cult of the omnipotent entrepreneur in all its Randian hyperbole.

Thankfully, McCarthy’s portrayal of the business accomplishments of several of his minor characters is more balanced, and more realistic. We see, in Grace’s hometown, two friends of hers who are, respectively, a cosmetologist and an auto mechanic. Each has, through a lot of hard work, grown his or her business to the point of being able to employ half a dozen or so young people, starting them off at the bottom rung as teenagers, and helping them advance in the trade until they make a high enough wage to support a family.

Things are going well for each business until, near the beginning of the novel, new, draconian occupational training laws force each of these businesses to lay off most of its employees. This is indeed something that frequently happens in the US today, mostly to small businesses, though sometimes at a larger level as well – just look up what happened to Great Lakes Airlines after the FAA raised the flight experience limit for copilots from 250 hours to 1500.

Then you have the problem of large, controversial construction projects – mines, pipelines, ferries, wind farms, and the like – going through years of construction only to have their permitting process reopened in court by private environmental activist groups, and then getting halted by injunction moments before completion.

McCarthy includes this sort of thing in his book, with the bad guys waiting till the last moment to file their lawsuits, so as to cause maximum economic pain to the corporation that built the infrastructure and to its working-class employees. Meanwhile, the environmentalists themselves keep riding high on the hog, driving down the freeways in their gas-guzzling SUVs, covered in anti-fossil-fuel bumper stickers.

But after this, the author gets into self-parody by having the feds demand that every grocery story lock up all its chocolates and other candy, putting them behind glass like the drugs in the pharmacy section, in order to protect overweight people from their own appetites.

One of the ways in which the liberal elites in McCarthy’s book are such cartoonish caricatures of the real thing is the utter frankness with which they display their hatred for everyone less powerful than themselves. For instance, the activist group litigating against Grace Washington’s seed company repeatedly says, both in courtroom arguments and on the nightly news, things to the effect of: “We are seeking injunctive relief against you, Ms. Washington, because we do not want you to feed the third world. As everyone knows, there are too many people on this planet, and feeding them all will prevent the global population from declining to a sustainable level….”

Also, the leftist President and his cabinet have somehow managed to make a law to the effect that important government officials in need of organ transplants can kill random citizens and take their organs, because “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Basically, the liberals in The Noah Option talk the way that Michael McCarthy wishes real liberals would talk, so that everyone would see what monsters they were, and then the revolution could get started.

Which, in this story, turns out to be a remarkably bloodless revolution. Grace and Isaiah, on the verge of seeing their life’s work destroyed by leftist litigants and regulators, are contacted by members of the “Constitutional Resistance Movement,” who smuggle them to a secret hideaway in New Zealand, along with all their employees and all of the moveable capital of their respective companies, so that they’re essentially just as wealthy in their new home as they were before.

Our hero and heroine, along with the actual organizers of this plot, make long speeches over secret internet channels announcing their plans to the whole American public, and calling upon all the productive members of society to do what they just did – vacate their homes and businesses under cover of darkness, leave a little drawing of Noah’s Ark on the window to show everybody they’ve left their collapsing country behind, and then get themselves smuggled into a Noah Option refuge in Canada, New Zealand, or some similar place. (Just why Canada and New Zealand, which are as much under leftist control as the US, are suddenly willing to shelter huge numbers of right-wing anti-government dissidents is never explained).

The origin of the Constitutional Resistance Movement (CRM for short) is equally murky – we hear nothing of the huge amount of work that must be involved in creating a resistance movement, the long prison sentences that would inevitably face many of its early leaders and organizers, or the internal conflicts over methods and purposes that afflict all real insurgencies.

The CRM just shows up when it’s needed, to smuggle people into New Zealand, or break our heroes out of prison, or set up roadblocks and force “enviro-hypocrites” to be photographed in front of their bumper-sticker-laden SUVs, so that people on the internet can laugh at them. But unlike in the real world, none of these hijinks ever explodes into a firefight with government forces.

Three of the heroes, on various occasions, get captured by the authorities and imprisoned. They always escape, bloodlessly, within a week, and immediately celebrate by eating barbecue. One of the jailbreaks occurs during the middle of a show trial that was probably meant to evoke the ghost of Stalin, but ended up looking more like the courtroom scene from Idiocracy.

At the end of the story, well over ten million of America’s most hardworking and upstanding citizens have vanished into the “ark refuges.” Without these producers keeping the goods and services moving, the American system of government has collapsed, and the President is left standing bewildered in a mostly-empty White House, wondering why there’s no cream for him to put in his morning coffee.

To make a long story short, even though Michael McCarthy and I agree with each other about much of what’s wrong with America’s present system of government, The Noah Option presents a vision for America’s future that is very different from my own.

My vision is about what happens when the American Right keeps responding to social and political change in the same way it has responded for the last 50 years: with too little energy, courage, or intelligence to turn things around. (Rod Dreher and Mencius Moldbug have broadly similar outlooks, and are among my most important influences).

Michael McCarthy’s vision, on the other hand, looks to me like another tired iteration of the old and well-worn fantasy that if we just wait long enough, and give the Left enough chances to look idiotic, then somebody, somewhere, will do something. Grace and Isaiah do not create the Constitutional Resistance Movement; it just shows up when they need it. They do not have to choose between becoming wealthy and famous versus withdrawing from a society that doesn’t share their values; they just wait until they’re presented with a means of doing both.

In the real world, though, belonging to a resistance movement means accepting a large chance that you’ll spend much of your life in prison, if you don’t get yourself killed outright – think of Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, or Klaus von Stauffenberg.

Also, dealing with American decadence by emigrating doesn’t mean hightailing it to New Zealand with your multi-million-dollar company in tow. It’s more likely to mean giving up your nice house and your car and your whole social circle to get a job as a teacher or something in a place like Borneo where you’ll be poor – maybe not by Bornean standards, but definitely by American standards – because the alternative is raising your family in the land of white privilege bracelets, antiracist struggle sessions, and Genderbread Man.

By this point, I’ve already been writing for a rather long time, so I’m not going to get into a lengthy description of my own ideas about how American society is likely to evolve in the future. Like I already said, you can read them in other posts, like this one and this one and this one, if you care to.

But The Noah Option, however well it might satirize the contemporary Left, fails as an emotionally or intellectually satisfying tale of oppression and defiance. It fails because, in real life, the heroes aren’t as perfect as McCarthy writes them, the problems they confront aren’t as simple, the villains are neither as cartoonishly stupid nor as transparently evil, and, most importantly, resistance to the new tyranny won’t be as easy, or as imminent, or as widespread, as most conservatives wish that it would be.