What Makes a Radical?
Late liberalism creates conditions that allow extremism to appeal as an answer
Another weekend spent in Budapest while I wait for my visa to allow me travel across Europe. Although it’s beautiful, Matt and I intend to make Budapest our home in the next year. However, I find it frustrating that I’m here, having to pay for hotel rooms and rent a Vienna flat I cannot access. I also miss out on planned research trips. It’s my fault for not being aware of visa regulations. I don’t think anyone can blame me for it. It’s a great opportunity to get to know more about this city as well as the country.
Last evening, I had dinner in an old-style restaurant located north of the city. It was situated in Obuda, the area that is now known as Obuda. It’s called Zold Kapu Vendeglo, and what they serve there is pork knuckles and Czech beer, as well as assorted other Middle European dishes. Friday in Orthodox churches is fast day, which means no meat. However, I was invited by friends to come and try the food. Friends, I enjoyed the beer and the knuckle, which made me very happy. There is so much stress in my life, and it can become overwhelming. While I write this, Professor Longhair is playing “Big Chief” while I sit in a cafe listening. It makes me happy. Even a bit of New Orleans can be found on Magyaropolis’ Muzeum korut.
I’m still thinking back to all that was said at last night’s dinner. They were young Christian couples I had just met. They were both in their early 20s. They will soon marry. He is American and she is Hungarian. They are very nice to me.
The man, whom I will call Jeremy, told me that he was a drug addict and had fallen into extreme-right radicalism before converting. His family is from the American South, and he comes from middle class families. He was a radical. I inquired about his journey. It was easy, he said. He was an outcast, isolated nerd at school. Online life offered him the opportunity to find companionship and solidarity. Jeremy said that the ranks of the far right are filled with outcast young men who are desperate for meaning, purpose, and solidarity (N.B., Hannah Arendt said in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism that this condition is why so many are swept up in totalitarian political movements.) Jeremy stated that when you’re suffering and no one seems to care, it is easy for others who can give a reason why and how you feel.
He said that he was motivated by a passion for finding the truth, and you would be amazed at how many young far rightists could say the exact same thing. Although he didn’t say it exactly like that, he meant to point out that today’s young people live in an environment where no one trusts authority. However, it is impossible to live without trusting authority. Radicals who make a claim to authority, that is when they are passionate and convinced about their rightness, can prove to be a crack for young minds looking to find certainty. As Jeremy spoke, I kept thinking about this amazing essay by Katherine Dee, about where mass shooters come from. It is
Dee wrote in it.
As a researcher about the Sandy Hook shooting victim Adam Lanza, I noticed a consistent theme. Yes, there was something obviously wrong with the material circumstances of America in the early 21st century–an economy that seemed incapable of providing for the many, decaying institutions, the ubiquity of our screens. There was more. There was something more. We now live in an environment where the individual is at the center of everything. Our world had changed from one of moral absolutes and broad social and communicative forces to one of all-consuming solipsism, or as Christopher Lasch described it: “culture of Narcissism”, where the self is at its center.
This narcissism manifests in our constant identity crises where we chase an imaginary “true se” and are constantly distracted. It’s evident in people who look at themselves in their smartphones and computer screens like prosthetic selves. We share a mutual inability to be committed to any aspect of life that could make it meaningful. This includes children, a partner, or setting roots in one place. This is the basis of Western humor. It is pervasive in Western humor. We are compelled to drink and smoke until we die because everything is meaningless.
In the world of this individual, everything was and nothing. He/she was the architect of the future, and the hapless cog within a large and dark black. One could murder in this world with only the awareness that everyone was just an accidental piece of flesh, bookended by eternity, and that meaning is a trick.
The debate about more or less guns misses what is really at the heart of this matter. It’s the modern liberal world that created the conditions for mass shootings. This world took as its telos maximization of individual autonomy and so guaranteed total alienation. These killers couldn’t cope with liberalism, as the rest of us struggle every day. Even the more thoughtful takes on fatherlessness and mental illness are only still addressing the symptoms of the disease. Until we see this, the ground of the problem, we will be no closer to answers, let alone solutions for these 21st-century horrors.
These are the exact people Jeremy was referring to. This was exactly the type of person Jeremy used to be, before he discovered Jesus Christ. He spent time with a radical Catholic street gang, which is strange. It was a group of young males who had this idea that they should live together in community (“The Benedict Option was a book we all read,” he said), and try to lead people to the Catholic Church. They were simply young, impulsive radicals who wanted to find trouble and they found it. They were addicted to drugs and alcohol, with very little Catholicism.
Jeremy said that he had been enamored of white supremacy as a teenager. He explained that he was raised in a black community and believed the Martin Luther King colour-blind gospel, which tells us to not judge people based on their skin color but their content. Progressive race-radicalism was then introduced under the name of Anti-White Critical Race Theory. Jeremy, in his high school years, didn’t use the term Critical Race Theory. However it became clear to him that culture has shifted from race-neutral liberalism towards an objectively antiwhite position. He described being bullied, alienated and facing diminished economic prospects. But, he received a sudden message that he had been granted privileges and was the only thing wrong in the world because of his skin colour. He felt that everything in his body rebelled against the situation, which is understandable. However, he believed white supremacists were the only ones who could meaningfully counter it.
To be clear, he does not believe that! He helped me understand the ways in which a young man such as him might be radicalized and influenced by neo Nazism and other white supremacists. He was drawn away by the growing awareness of the fact that this lifestyle was an avenue to death, with the hatred, violence and use of drugs and alcohol. He believes that today, for all of us, the best way to get out of this mess is to live a life of radical Christian discipleship. This includes building up spiritual spaces, strengthening families and communities, as well as simply living through the present.
His fiancée, who I will refer to as Noemi (or Noemi), said that she used to wander around similar neighborhoods in Hungary while she was younger. Noemi stated that young Hungarians face difficult times because of the low salaries and poor economic outlook. It is rare that she managed to find her way in religion here. Her family was nominally Protestant, she said.
Noemi stated that Hungarians still suffer tremendously from the 20th century. Jeremy and I both agreed that what is most remarkable to a foreigner who arrives in Hungary is the realization of how aware every Hungarian, regardless of political affiliation, is of the Trianon Treaty. This treaty settled Hungary’s accounts for World War I and removed two-thirds Hungary’s historical territory. It appears, on paper, that Trianon only carved out areas of Hungary in which a majority were not Magyars and then either transferred it to other nations (e.g. Transylvania, Romania) or made new countries out of it. It’s complicated. Many Magyars live in these areas, just as their forefathers did. You suddenly found yourself in another country if your ancestors were Hungarian. This was due to a treaty. The graves of your ancestors were not in Hungary anymore, they were in another country. This story is not new to me. However, it was something that struck me deeply when I heard it again from a young lady who had been born around eighty years after the treaty was signed.
The humiliation of it is hard for us Americans to grasp. Jeremy suggested that this is what our Southern ancestors must have felt like when Civil War was still something we care about. It was funny because when I learned that the South lost the war, I was only six years old. My dad’s Coast Guard friend from North America came over to see us and made jokes about how the Yankees were whipping us. My dad was incredulous and asked me, “Daddy, did they win?” He said, “Yes, sir, they won.” He said it, I can remember where I stood in the kitchen at the time. It was then that the terrible truth hit me. My mind had never considered that I might ever have been part of a nation (so-called) that lost a battle. Now, it’s funny to think about that — although I am glad the South won the war because we fought in a terrible cause, the sense of humiliation felt here in Hungary a century ago is very real. They lost not only the war, which was declared by the Austrian Emperor who ruled over the Magyars and other countries, but also that most of their country was taken away in the aftermath. To understand how humiliating, and psychologically, it must have felt for them to reject the Trianon Treaty. You do not have to support the Confederacy in order to see what complete defeat means for the white Southerners.
Meaning of what I am saying is that I don’t believe one side or the other was right in relation to war. To understand the psychology and causes of radicalism I am referring to my attempt to enter into it. Noemi described how many Hungarians are today so disillusioned.
Noemi spoke out about the superficial patriarchalism in Hungarian society. She said that this country was a de facto matriarchy. Hungary lost many of its men during the 20th century wars, so women were forced to step up to manage the business. Noemi, who appears to be in her twenties said that there had been a blatant gender gap in her high school education. The stereotype of boys as “triflers” who could not be expected to accomplish much was that they were expected to make a lot, while girls were taken seriously and required to meet higher standards. It is actually indicative of prejudice against men, which George W. Bush described as “the soft bias of low expectations.” Noemi believes that women in Hungarian households are surprisingly the breadwinners. This social shift has deep psychological implications.
She spoke out about fatherlessness in Hungary. According to official statistics, almost half of all births in Hungary are to unmarried women — higher than in every US state, except a handful with large black or Hispanic populations (the overall out-of-wedlock birth rate in the US is 40 percent — a staggering statistic, and sign of social decay; in 1960, it was five percent). Social science has established the connection between fatherlessness and many social ills, including multigenerational poverty, crime, and substance abuse. The palinka had been flowing freely at that point in our conversation, so I can’t remember the precise points she was making, except to say that Hungary, like other Western nations where the traditional family model has broken down, faces huge problems. Although same-sex marriages are not allowed in Hungary, same-sex domestic partners are. Homosexuality is also not permitted. Budapest is more open to these issues than most other cities. I believe it is important to understand that the Orban government has attempted to strengthen traditional marriage in order to not only increase the birth rate but also to restore the marital bond, which will be the legal framework for childbearing.
How one does that outside a meaningful recovery of religious belief and practice, I have no idea. I’ve mentioned in this space in the past how shocking it was to me in 1980 to go to an evening assembly at my high school, and to see girls — black girls — I saw every day in the halls at school, there holding their babies, with their own mothers (never a father present). This was quite a shock. Although it was well-known that childbearing outside of marriage was an option for blacks (my school is half-black), it was still taboo for whites. I was able to see the chaos of it all and understand why so many black people in our region were poor. With a child, how could one focus on their studies? In the black community, childbearing out of wedlock was considered normal. We now know that this is a trend in white working-class society, and it has been for 40 years. The out-of-wedlock birth rate in the US today for whites is 29 percent — and that is concentrated in the white poor and working class. Only the wealthy and middle classes are able to marry. The developed world is experiencing a decline in Christianity as well. While it might sound reasonable and kind to normalize non-traditional family structures, which is not Christian, what it actually means is that you are giving up the possibility of stopping father absence. It will have devastating effects on social trends. This was not the case for the US black community. They were an outlier. It is now happening to all of us.
This morning I was reading from a new history of Budapest, written by Victor Sebestyen (it’s not yet available in the US; I bought my copy in England). I had Noemi’s tales of how the past affects the present, and Jeremy’s tales of paths to radicalism, on my mind as I read about the 18th century in Hungary. The social system under Habsburg was fundamentally unjust for the vast majority of Hungarians. It was a parasitic group that mutilated the face of the poor, making it seem as though they were being exploited. The Habsburg monarchy pushed the Hungarians around with a vengeance. Reading this historical record, it struck me that any young patriotic Hungarian citizen would need to feel inspired to rebel. The Habsburgs wiped out the Hungarian Jacobins. Given the bloodthirsty nature of Jacobins, this was a good thing. Still, reading all this, I was reminded of this passage from Live Not By Lies:
At dinner with a Russian Orthodox family in Moscow’s suburbs, my stomach churned at the talk about Soviet oppression that the mother and father of the household lived. “I don’t know how anyone could believe what the Bolsheviks claimed,” I replied glibly.
” “You don’t get it?” asked the father sitting at the top of the table. “Let me explain it to you.” He then launched into a three hundred-year historical review that ended with the 1917 Revolution. This was the story of powerful and wealthy elites including clergy bureaucrats who treated peasants worse than they did animals.
” The Bolsheviks are evil,” said the father. But you can clearly see their origin .”
The Russian man was correct. It was hard for me to believe. I was chastened. The cruelty, injustice, intransigence, and sometimes sheer stupidity that the imperial Russian government and its social order displayed does not justify all that happened. But it does help explain why the revolutionary Russian generation wanted to believe in communism. The communist party promised to provide a way out from the misery and muck that has been the fate of Russian peasants since the beginning of time.
In Live Not By Lies, I describe an America that is increasingly unstable, and vulnerable to totalitarianism. While I will not repeat this diagnosis, let me reiterate that every sign of totalitarianism in America today is clearly visible. I believe this will be a far more dangerous form of left-wing totalitarianism. This is due to the fact that the elites have beliefs and implement policies in line with them, but also because younger generations, especially the Zoomers, are more Left-leaning and illiberal from the Left than the older generation. Jeremy also believes that right-wing authoritarianism could emerge. It wouldn’t be totalitarian because of how the American Right currently views authoritarianism. This distinction is meaningful but unnecessary. We are at the edge of something spectacular, which I believe we all can agree on. A young Hungarian told me that he had voted against Orban in spring elections. But now, the young man is happy that Orban won. He believes that something terrible is on the horizon and that there is a capable, strong prime minister to guide Hungary through this.
I’d ask you to think about the possibility that all the political change that has swept this country in the last six years is nothing when compared to the new changes expected over the next six. You might consider that we are in a prerevolutionary time — the type of moment which often leads to something new and unexpected.
He then lists the reasons for his conclusion. These include inflation, frustrations with the current state of the country and voter disengagement from both political parties. (Again, read your Arendt!) He concluded:
If I was a pragmatic political operator who wanted to create a perfect presidential candidate for the moment, I would start with making him or her culturally conservative. The candidate should be able to demonstrate by his or her appearance, style and speech that they are not from the elite coastal education establishment. The candidate should be able to communicate with working- and middle-class voters about values, and to show a full appreciation for patriotic sentiments.
Then, I would make the candidate economically centre-left. The economic anxiety of working class Republicans and the Bernie Sanders Young’s economic worries would be combined into one large populist riled package. College debt forgiveness. A home-building program aggressively to lower prices. It took everything.
Then, I would have the candidate convey one unpartisan message: Everything’s broken. He or she could then offer an array of institutional reforms that would match those offered by the Progressive movement more than 100 years ago.
I think that I am looking for something like Theodore Roosevelt. It’s not clear. It’s impossible to predict what’s next. I do not even know the categories.
David, a friend of mine has long longed for Teddy Roosevelt. It’s hard to tell him but the American Viktor Orban is what he wants. The American Orban must be uncompromising in its attack against wokeness and anti-Americans, as well as offer specific legislation and policies that will reverse it. It will be difficult for future historians to understand why the Democrats and other elite US institutions embraced such a culture of cultural conflict and divided Americans on racial grounds at a moment when nation unity is more important than ever. The elites’ “successor ideologie” to liberalism, Wokeness, is an ideology that generates radicalism for everyone. This justifies the leftist soft totalitarianism and encourages rightists to embrace illiberal reactions, including white supremacy. Brooks does have a point. I hope we are able to be guided by someone who is hardline against wokeness and will address the economic hardship of the youth and working class.
Live Not By Lies has sold 170,000 copies in the US since its September 2020 debut, despite virtually no coverage from the mainstream media. As far as I know, it has been mostly through word-of mouth. Although the media tried to dismiss it as alarmist kookery because the message was frightening and held them and institutions similar responsible for increasing American oppression, to the point where they could implement totalitarian controls, the truth is that the media has not. It makes an eloquent argument and presents evidence that immigrants from communist countries to the US can sense in their bones. David Brooks’s newly found sense in America that the country is in a pre-revolutionary phase would be something immigrants from communist countries have felt for over a decade. This was something the well-known bestseller Live not By Lies identified. While I do not want to be under the oppressive rule of the Left or Right, we could all end up in the same situation as the Spaniards who were forced to make a choice between right-wing authoritarianism and left-wing totalitarianism after the centre was destroyed. Americans must pray, hope, and work to find a group and leader that can defeat woke totalitarianism and not succumb to the evils of the Right. You can’t stop young right-wing extremists from becoming more like Jeremy before his conversion to Christianity. We need to hope we can crush wokeness democratically. The Russian father explained that you do not have to praise Bolshevism in order to see the fact that Bolsheviks were born out of actual repression and mass exploitation by elites.
However, referring to Katherine Dee (“The world constructed by modern liberalism which took as its telos maximization of individual autonomy and so guaranteed total alienation”), we must remember that any gains in protecting American traditional liberties are negligible without the reaffirmation of Christian faith and biblical, Judeo-Christian principles that underpin and constrain liberalism. Although it is difficult to believe in this point, who knows? Jeremy is correct: The main point is to be devoted to Christ and build strong families and strong communities to help you weather the storms. Whatever you may wrongly think from having read about the book, not having read the book, this is the Benedict Option.
I’ll leave you with this passage from Live Not By Lies, which should be read as a kind of coda to the Brooks “pre-revolutionary” column:
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In 1905, Moscow high society gave a banquet in honor of the Russian arts impresario Sergei Diaghilev at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Diaghilev, who had just curated an extraordinary Saint Petersburg exhibit of portraits after a thorough tour of wealthy private houses in the area, had just recently been awarded the honor. This dinner was intended to celebrate Diaghilev’s success. Russia was poised for something great, Diaghilev understood. He raised his hand and made this toast:
We are witnesses of the greatest moment of summing-up in history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away. Without fear, doubt, or hesitation, I offer my support to the crumbled walls of beautiful palaces and the new commands of an aesthetic. As an uncorrigible sensualist I can only hope that the coming struggle does not harm the conveniences of life and that death is as beautiful as it is illuminating.
Russia’s youth artists, intellectuals and cultural elite expected the fall of class divisions and autocracy and the rise of liberalism, equality and secularism. Instead, they received dictatorship, gulags and the suppression of freedom speech and expression. Communists sold their ideology as progress to the gullible optimists.
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