A newsletter about what it’s like to live in a country when you’re watching its democracy undergo a seemingly preventable erosion. Toward the end, I make a case against cynicism as a response.— Jared Holt (@jaredlholt) July 4, 2022
Edited by @samthielmanhttps://t.co/Y1FMzfIvA4
Media: @mariaressa to @brianstelter @ReliableSources: "Over the last six years in particular, this death-by-a-thousand-cuts of our democracy has become full-blown. We're at an existential moment. The world has come closer and closer to a word I don't use lightly: fascism." pic.twitter.com/cUL3HUOAcU— Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) July 3, 2022
I’m not going to shit on July the 4th this year. As I have explained, I am feeling better and more confident of victory. Truth be told, I didn’t expect to be where we are today so fast.
Basically, I no longer believe in the myth of progressive liberalism. I don’t believe this country was born liberal. I don’t think history is on the side of progressive liberals. I don’t think the future is a slow and inexorable slide into a more liberal and more degenerate version of the present.
If the American Revolution had never happened or had been defeated, the American colonies would have still been infected by 19th century liberalism, which was pulsating through Britain and other European countries. Formal independence from Britain didn’t lead to cultural independence or economic independence. Victorian America remained a cultural satellite of Britain. It was racist and sexist and liberal because the Mothership which was the world hegemon at the time was all of these things.
As I have thought more about why we ended up in this terrible place, I have put more emphasis on the 20th century. The challenge of Darwinism, for example, which American elites wrestled with in the late 19th and early 20th century like their counterparts in Europe could not have been avoided. The same is true of the rise of mass media technologies (radio, film and television) which shifted cultural power away from the countryside to the metros. The same is true of urbanization which made New York our dominant metropole. The same is true of the World Wars which we would have only entered even sooner as a British dominion. The same is true of the cultural shift toward modernism which began in Western Europe and spread across the entire West. Formal borders didn’t stop the spread of this sensibility.
The tone of our culture – cynical, self-absorbed, self-hating, hyper-individualistic, permissive, decadent – is the backwash from the World Wars. Western culture has been in this funk since World War II. It is not unusual in the wider scope of history for decadent periods to follow in the wake of major wars. The mainstream culture contains the seeds of its own demise. We’re living through a period which will end at some point. The reigning ideology of our elites, which is progressive liberalism with a modernist sensibility, which rose in the 1920s and 1930s will be taken to its logical conclusion by our elites, exhaust itself, run out of answers and generate massive new social problems which will be the preconditions of its demise.
Every 100 to 120 years the dominant culture rots and combusts like this. The last such explosion was the World Wars. The rot and malaise of fin de siècle Europe ended in the wildfire of World War I. The culture that we live in today when the current period began was new and vibrant in the 1920s. In that 20 year period between World War I and World War II, American culture radically shifted as elites became modernist, cosmopolitan, antiracist and technocratic. The culture pivoted away from 19th century ideals which were rebranded as Freudian -isms and -phobias. The old hegemonic culture was shuffled off the national stage into backwater towns and rural areas as one version of America died and the next began. The earliest stirrings of the so-called “mainstream” can be traced back to the 1910s.
Seen in this light, the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution look different. Two cycles ago, Americans were swept up in the wider Age of Revolution. The culture rotted and combusted as sleepy, backwater and relatively wealthy colonies suddenly became violent, radical and restless. There was a devastating war and cultural upheaval which solved polarization between Patriots and Tories and led to an era of national renewal after a fringe movement was thrust into power. This was all done and justified in the name of Enlightenment ideals which were fashionable at the time.
Progress is a myth. Stable countries inexorably destabilize and fall into violent periods. Healthy countries rot into decadent periods like China in the 19th century. From the standpoint of the 1990s, it seems incredible that America would fall apart so fast and the culture would become this decadent and polarized and the population would become this radical and receptive to violence. The “moral arc of history” isn’t moving toward liberal progress either. History is reactive with one cultural era tending to be totally repudiated in the next. Progressives only make sense when you realize they were repudiating the Victorian era. They were reacting to the 19th century which passed over a century ago. They were reactionaries.
These abrupt twists and turns which seem in retrospect to end one historical era and begin another are eternal. The American Revolution was one twist in the road in one unexceptional country. There is no such thing as an “End of History.” The current elite and their decadent culture and their senile, doddering president will be swept away in time. Their world is going to come crashing down on them in a way that we are unable to imagine today. We’re probably going to live to see it.
All elites tell themselves the same comforting story – the wildfire, the flood, the hurricane, whatever natural metaphor you prefer to describe the process of cultural renewal – isn’t going to come. This time it is different. We being special and different will rule for all eternity. It never works out that way in the long run. The storm clouds rapidly form on the horizon. It starts pouring.
Enjoy your Independence Day and take comfort in this: no one alive in this country today has lived in a time when there have been more radicals in the United States. It is also radicals who break with the status quo, who pioneer new ways of living and dealing with the pressing problems of the day and who fertilize and renew dying cultures. That’s the function of radicals or “extremists” who surge in number at the end of every historical cycle. Then radicals or extremists live long enough to mature and mellow out when the culture reproduces itself, the new culture takes hold and the old culture passes away.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams lived through one of these periods. They were radicals in their youth and lived through a period of violent upheaval. They mellowed out with age and died in a relatively placid America after the storm passed. The storm which will define our lives is just over the horizon and it too will pass. The outcome of this crisis will leave its stamp on the country for the next hundred years.
We’ve been gifted the Joe Biden presidency which is discrediting progressive liberalism and our elites. Could we have invented a character who better symbolizes how ossified and exhausted the status quo has become? Joe Biden is the beginning of the end.
Note: I have optimistic moods and pessimistic moods. It comes and goes. I’m just feeling optimistic these days. Not everyone sees it that way and that is fine. I was a lot more down in the Dump years.