Harrison County, OH. I can remember almost to the day the moment when I first glimpsed the technocracy rising in our midst. It occurred a year ago last summer while my wife and I were journeying to northern Michigan where we have long rented a cabin on a beach for a week, and the events leading to that glimpse remain as vivid for me as, well, Christmas.
We were on Interstate 80 somewhere between Cleveland and Toledo, headed west in a used but well-preserved 2010 Camry, and—already challenged by concrete construction-lane “dividers” that kept twisting us left or right with only inches to spare—who should appear in our rearview mirror but eight spanking new “blacked-out” Chevrolet pickup trucks traveling at high speed almost bumper to bumper with Patriot flags flying, NATO-grade AR-15s stowed discreetly under King Cab seats, and huge, enormously wide spare tires cinched down tight onto every single cargo bed. Looking forward, I saw with relief that the construction zone was about to end, but the minute we spilled out onto what was, clearly, the middle of a blessedly wide, three-lane highway with shoulders, I discovered that we were in fact on an entrance ramp to yet another bobsled track defined by a line of tractor-trailer trucks belonging to Amazon Prime, UPS, and Marathon Oil on our right, and a now completely revved-up, clearly jubilant line of blacked-out trucks on our left. Were we in a movie? It felt like we were. It felt like we were not just watching but somehow in or rather on Mad Max’s Fury Road. Those guys to our left? They were “War Boys,” fresh from a raid on blue-state Cleveland. And those trucks belonging to Amazon? They were “War Rigs,” driven (no doubt) by social justice warrior Charlize Theron or, who knows, maybe even Mad Max himself, aka Tom Hardy, who was done with tyrants and hellbent on backing Charlize up so she could succeed in her effort to redeem “democracy” and restore power to “the people.” And we, Lord help us, were between the two lines of vehicles, hunkered down about as low as we could get to avoid the grappling hooks with cables attached surely being launched from our left, while whatever rogue War Rig Charlize happened to be driving braked defensively and then suddenly accelerated, thereby creating slip streams that kept us hurtling forward past glimpses of Lake Erie algae blooms off to our right and large billboards saying Jesus Saves off to our left. For miles. Indeed, it wasn’t until we reached the spot on 23 just north of Toledo where you see signs for Huron Correctional Facility that we finally found a way to exit and take a deep breath.
What, I wondered, had been going on back there on Interstate 80 as stop-the-steal, QAnon-fueled Patriots seemingly did battle with social justice warriors? Could that be America? Clearly. Wherefrom, though, the spirited aspect to this combat that we all recognize? Is this aspect familiar because, as every newspaper columnist suggests, the American Civil War is about to re-ignite? Apparently so, for safety and distributive justice are non-negotiable first principles for apostles of democracy to the same degree that the freedom to own guns and not be cancelled are non-negotiable first principles for Patriots. As Lincoln famously said, it’s got to be “all the one or all the other.”
Yet if that is the case, why are the two sides so similar? Why are New Right students, in 2023, setting up tables with flyers promoting “free speech” at Sproul Plaza in Berkeley exactly like New Left students once did in 1962 at the same location? Note too that the Left’s tendency to demonize “fascists” owing to alleged “nationalism” (starting in 1938 when American progressives flocked to Spain to fight against Franco and the Catholic Church) is practically indistinguishable from the Right’s tendency to demonize “communism” owing to alleged atheism (starting in 1917 when Bolsheviks took power in Russia). Indeed, the two “sides” are so similar that they are almost interchangeable and, in some cases, interchangeable-in-fact, as when, during the Black Lives Matter movement, Blue State progressivists flipped from their former Civil Rights era position and started advocating for the re-institution of skin color as a criterion for judging suitability in a job search.
Say, though, that one conceded the similarity thesis and adopted “magnetic field” (rather than Civil War) as the chief interpretive key. How would one explain the occurrence of such a field? What would be its power source, and toward what end would the generated power be directed?
Here the answer (as I learned while studying the puzzle over dinner) came swiftly and surely, for one had only to look at the chart of similarities to understand its shape. Current-day iterations of progressive and conservative positions tend to generate excitement because they are billed as new, be that iteration the current New Left critique of FDR’s reliance on southern Democratic Jim Crow-oriented political machines to secure a New Deal, or the current New Right “common good” critique of neo-con belief that Catholic social teaching and American founding principles are compatible, or the Trump-inspired National Conservative critique of “theocon” agendas and Reaganite economics. Ultimately, though, each of these ascendent political ideologies privileges a strong, massively centralized state so as to either (1) install safetyism in an effort to deflect attention from the theft of middle class assets like jobs in American steel mills, (2) enforce Church teaching rather than suffer violations of same, or (3) regulate corporate power in an effort to protect families, neighborhoods, and estuaries. As did older iterations when we as a country decided to (1) protect ourselves from “fear” via New Deal legislation (as occurred in the FDR era), (2) contain “communism” via massive military build-ups (as occurred in the early fifties when William Buckley and Brent Bozelle controlled the levers of conservative power), and (3) commit to unregulated capitalism (as occurred in the nineties when Michael Novak and George Weigel controlled the levers of conservative power). No matter which iteration of progressive and conservative positions one looks at, one notices that the power of multinational corporations and the centralized state enabling them has either grown or is projected to grow.
Bingo: corroborating evidence indicated that the magnetic field postulated earlier was real. And on that not completely happy but (to me) relatively restful note, my wife and I signaled for our bill, procured two cups of hot China black tea, and (after thanking our very patient waitress) got back on the road.
Somewhere past Bay City, though, right around the spot where the highway climbs, aspens appear, and land tilts north, I got to thinking more about how the magnetic field governing conservative and progressive positions appears not only to be extant but intensifying, seeing as how constitutional lawyers on both “sides” are now working hard to mine the Fourteenth Amendment’s “privileges and immunities” clause as well as the “due process” and “equal protection” clauses to even further lock in top-down agendas in the face of potentially hostile state power. This, right as charges of “fascism” and “communism” are increasing. (As I write, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, has just published an article in The Guardian titled “The Republican Party is Hurtling Toward Fascism.”) Might it not be the case that our collective hostility to totalitarianism (whether we define that as “fascism,” per the Left, or as “communism,” per the Right) is itself an attempt to divert attention from the possibility that we ourselves, as a liberal democracy, are and always have been a totalitarian state in the making? After all, Nazi and Soviet versions of totalitarianism were to an important extent pathological expressions of a collective longing for the sort of social cohesion that obtained in medieval Christendom, what with Nazi ideologues favoring the volkish “bund” aspect on view in the feudal countryside, and communists like Lenin idealizing the guilds on view in soon-to-be urban “communes.” Therefore it stands to reason that conservative and progressive interpretations of each other’s positions as “totalitarian” in shape and import could be accurate.
“Twas new to me,” said Tocqueville, when he first caught a glimpse (in 1839) of the technocracy we were apparently destined to build. After rejecting “tyranny” and “despotism” as appropriate labels, he resorted to describing “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose.” Looking up, he saw “an immense tutelary power… which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate.” He called that power “absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing,” and he furthermore noted that it “foresees and secures [men’s] needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, [and] divides their inheritances.” Then comes the punchline: “Each individual allows himself to be attached” precisely because “it is not a man or a class but the people themselves that hold the end of the chain.” What would Tocqueville say if he could see what we now see? Would he say “I told you so”? I think not. Far from saying “I told you so” I submit that the “religious terror” under whose spell Tocqueville professed to be working while writing Democracy in America would be increased. For what we are seeing now is not just tutelage but fraudulence of the deepest order as new technological advances are sold and positioned as salvific in a Christian sense when in fact they destroy the incarnational underpinning for any and all genuine versions of that same Christian sense.
Artificial intelligence has been around for a while, at least since 1956, but its growth has increased to the point where observers are starting to predict major social upheaval as more and more jobs currently performed by humans (driving cars, making a jet, even flying one) become automated. Now, however, upheavals are spreading to more areas of society owing to the arrival of “generative” intelligence where machines learn from experience and even converse with humans in whatever language we ask them to speak. Witness the arrival of ChatGPT, the online site where many of us have already posed relatively complex questions to a “generative pre-trained transformer” and received written replies in which one can discern roughly speculative power if not (yet) the ability to say decisively that one thing is unqualifiedly right or another wrong. Thanks in no small part to the appearance (Feb 2023) of a WSJ op-ed (“ChatGPT Heralds an Intellectual Revolution”) co-authored by Henry Kissinger, of all people, about the kinds of security risks embedded in this kind of artificial intelligence, ChatGPT has become a hot issue, and thanks to the entry of Noam Chomsky, Kissinger’s presumed nemesis, into the fray by way of an answering (March 2023) NYT op-ed (“The False Promise of GPT”), the issue has become hotter still. (In addition to being a linguist of great distinction Chomsky stubbornly advocated for Palestinian interests while Kissinger worked to legitimize Israel’s right to maintain control over territory claimed during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.) Chomsky, not surprisingly, argues that Kissinger and his co-authors overestimate the degree to which generative intelligence is dangerous, arguing that “the amorality, faux science, and linguistic incompetence of these systems” merit “laughter” rather than concern. But so far as I can tell, Kissinger and his co-authors do make one quite valid point, which is that though this exponentially growing artificial intelligence machine can’t yet converse with us as fellow human beings might, its “answers” regarding the statistical probability of success for one option or another given circumstances too complex for us to grasp will surely outrun our ability to understand those answers. It will be as though a new kind of divine “revelation” is at hand in the face of which signs will have to be taken (believed and acted upon) purely on faith rather than on faith joined to reason.
This, at the very moment when the Catholic Church, the presumed guardian of incarnational logic that permits and underwrites faith-joined-to-reason, is demonstrably failing in its duty as trustee of that same logic because it is vulnerable to the same furious winds that are fueling the arrival of technocracy. I’m not just talking about Catholic schools failing in their duty, as occurred in my neighborhood recently when the Benedictine president of St. Vincent University in Latrobe, Pennsylvania censured a faculty member who had staged a conference in which a speaker from Hillsdale College bemoaned how woke thinking deprives students of argumentative skills. Rather, I am referring to the ways in which Vatican II, the Council which formally, finally, and irrevocably positioned incarnational logic as the Church’s theological, philosophical, and liturgical center, is being overshadowed and in some cases blocked from view by increasingly clamorous debates about the worth of that same council given liturgical abuses that occurred in its wake.
Let us be clear. Given the failure of the Kantian Enlightenment project and Nietzsche’s “read” on that failure, Vatican II was (for all of us and not just Catholics) a necessary civilizational advance. Though Nietzsche may appear (on the basis of book titles like The Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil) to be an enemy who threatens Christendom, he was in fact the guy who proved brave enough to notice, out loud, that modernity, in the most hopeful, Enlightenment-based (progressive) sense, had ended, and that we now live in a post-modern world. He didn’t cause “relativism” or the idea that religion is a smokescreen. Those things were already here in our midst, functioning as reasonable, evidence-based conclusions regarding the extent of our predicament after Kant’s postulated “noumena” proved unreachable and “is” got severed from “ought.” Far from censoring or demonizing Nietzsche, then, we should be definitively answering his charges and turning the corner on “relativism” by playing our best card—namely, paragraph 22 in Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s constitution on “The Church in the Modern World”—so as to proclaim that, far from being a handicap or a count against those who trust in the universality of truth, historical determinants and tradition are, per incarnational logic, the means by which universal truths come into view.
That’s a stunningly effective argument that the entire world needs to hear. Pope John Paul II even went out of his way to backstop it in 1998 when he published Fides et Ratio. Yet almost from the day the Council ended in 1965, we (Catholics as well as Protestants) have failed to meet this challenge. Now, however, we appear to not just be failing to play our best card. In addition, we appear to be actively erasing any and all memories that it might even exist by ceding the all-important ground on which liturgical battles are fought to conservative, allegedly “traditional” Latin Mass (TLM) advocates who not surprisingly have the upper hand in battles against so-called liberal Catholic progressives who interpret Vatican II as an invitation to eliminate reverence.
There is much that is good in the TLM movement. Latin has long served as the vernacular, if you will, of the Roman Church, and so it should remain. Also, Gregorian Chant is a treasure of inestimable importance that should never, under any circumstances, be abandoned. But one need not abolish the Novus Ordo to accomplish these things. Rather, one can restore these goods and even say mass ad orientem (toward the east) rather than ad populum (toward the people) simply by fine-tuning the liturgical renewal called for during Vatican II and promulgated by Paul VI in 1969. The problem with the TLM movement is, first, that it overlooks this latter fact, and, second, that its promoters either blame Vatican II for problems that existed before the Council was convened, as film-maker Cameron O’Hearn does in his widely viewed Mass of Ages project, or claim, as OnePeterFive contributor Peter Kwasniewski and Saint-Benoit prior Dom Alcuin Reid O.S.B. both do, that they are Vatican II loyalists when in fact they aren’t owing to their a priori commitment to the idea that the Council of Trent should function as a kind of last word that is best left unchanged.
These kinds of dishonesty create havoc, and the havoc only gets worse when TLM advocates imply, as they do, that the text of the seven hundred year old Canon of the mass has changed when, except for seven words, it hasn’t. But that sort of havoc pales next to the kind posed by the third problem with the TLM movement, which is that it encourages gnostic, distinctly private mystical experience on the part of congregants who, thanks to being ordinary people, are not qualified to join in the extra-ordinary sacrifice of a mass performed by priests. In other words, the Tridentine Mass accentuates and to some extent solidifies an already problematic divide between nature and grace that all of us can fall prey to (let alone neo-Scholastic theologians) if we lose sight of the incarnational logic that unites them. And there’s the rub. Like the ascendancy of the new technology called artificial generative intelligence, the ascendancy of the TLM movement presages a growing divergence of faith from reason, a growing dependence on spectacle rather than understanding, and a corresponding diminution of word-made-flesh reality.
Faith and reason aren’t opposed any more than freedom (the rallying cry of Patriots) and distributive justice (the rallying cry of social justice warriors) are opposed! Yet, thanks to the presence of a magnetic field generated by the sunderment of Word from flesh, faith and reason now function inside and outside the Church as seemingly opposed alternatives.
Not a happy state of affairs.
Back to the culture at large though. Surely there are signs out there that things are not as bad as they seem? To consider this question, I decided as a kind of thought experiment to sample representative works by the best of the conservative Right and the progressive Left, and—given that readable liberal theorists (outside of Rawls who published sixty years ago) turn out to be as rare as conservative-leaning novelists are—I decided to focus on Harvard-based political theorist Adrian Vermeule and Upper Manhattan-based novelist Amor Towles, to assess the climates in which conservatives and progressives, respectively, do their thinking.
These are both great writers!
Take Vermeule, whose “Beyond Originalism” essay (Atlantic Monthly Feb 2020) and follow-up book, Common Good Constitutionalism (2022), almost instantly changed the terms according to which all New Right theorists (and not just integralists) debate and think. His thesis that the either/or of “living constitutionalism v. originalism” should be retired is persuasive, and Vermeule certainly ups the ante a notch when he talks, in his book, about how the two schools of thought “comprise a symbiosis of rivalry, exploiting the other as its necessary hate object and fund-raising target” to the point where they are “co-conspiratorial” against “classical tradition.” What, though, is classical tradition? According to Vermeule it is the tradition that should be ruling constitutional interpretation in this country, and he defines that tradition as an amalgam of natural law, Anglo-Saxon common law, and a cluster of Roman laws that emerged 27-23 B.C. during the Roman Imperium as bureaucrats exercised authority that had been “delegated” to them by the Emperor in such a way as to—get this— institutionalize the practice of what the Catholic Church was later to call “subsidiarity.” That’s a bold thesis no matter how you cut it, but so far as I can tell it can only be cut one way, which is as an occasion for fear—fear that our already massively centralized state will become more so and that the common, Jeffersonian understanding of subsidiarity as locally owned power granted to kings on condition that kings not behave tyrannically is about to disappear.
As for Towles, he is trickier to assess because in addition to writing hugely successful books in which evangelical Protestants and the Midwest in particular are depicted as falsely as you might expect them to be, Towles uses powerful and quite winning narrative skills to not only defend the crucial importance of Western Civilization, but also to define aristocracy and associated wealth as earned and in that sense available to all regardless of one’s standing at birth so long as one refuses to be bought (if one is poor) and is willing to risk all (if one is rich). In other words, Towles’ work does stand as a rebuke to anyone who claims that progressives have lost access to common sense.
At the same time, though, one can’t help but notice that, ever since the appearance of his entirely convincing Rules of Civility in 2011, there has been an increasingly escapist dimension to Towles’ work—and I don’t just mean that he persists in thinking of America as a meritocracy when to an important extent the accelerating divide between rich and poor in this country now derives from decisions by multinational corporations and their stockholders to outsource manufacturing. Chiefly I mean that there is now an embalmed aspect to the places and time periods that serve for Towles as settings when he attempts to laud America as “our last best hope.” In The Lincoln Highway, it’s as though government “for, by, and of the people”—in its best sense—is preserved rather than re-membered, and, as a result, the book reads like a well-curated exhibit of things that used to be but no longer are. Dare I call it the literary equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie or, even better, Americana music? Often the time-specific riffs that Towles plays to evoke places like Ogalalla, Nebraska in 1952 with its “motor courts,” or Italian East Harlem restaurants in the Bronx where there are “no menus and every table is spoken for,” are performed as T. Bone Burnett would perform them—i.e. sharper and more effectively than the artists who first created the riffs that we now think of as names for those places and times owing to the degree to which the original riffs derived from what was actually heard rather than what people wanted to hear.
Bottom line: our predicament appears to be every bit as sobering as it first seemed to be.
What, then, to do? Given that the technocracy rising in our midst is already strong enough to enable residency in a world that promises sight for the blind, safe speech environments, let alone safe highways, a pleasing mix of historic preservation districts, reliably painless medical procedures like joint replacements, sanitized versions of literary classics, mutual respect for lifestyle choices that conform to whatever catalogue of choices health czars deem appropriate, “smarter” attention to soil needs and (therefore) more food rather than less, I have no doubt that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount will, in the future, seem less and less relevant. How, then, can we possibly preserve access to the kingdom Jesus gave his life to establish?
So far as I can tell we have just one way forward at this point: to look at the shadows displayed on our laptop “walls” long enough to discern there the traces—call them shadowgraphs—of an incarnational center’s removal, and then, through the negatives that those shadowgraphs in effect are, “see” that same incarnational center clearly enough to understand that we now face a choice between continued residency in an increasingly alluring technocracy, or committing to a postulated “outside” where it is certain to be colder and a lot more dangerous. Many of us, naturally, will not find the courage to take this risk. But others, surely, will. And when they do, it is just possible that enough of us more cowardly ones may go with the brave, and if that happens it is possible that sufficient critical mass will be reached for a tribe or perhaps even a whole town to start naming things as Helen Keller named them when she discovered that the word “water” meant water flowing over her hand. Should that happen, we could—like Ms. Keller—regain a whole world of real things in which to live and think. Bowl, pencil, star, darkness, lichen, wolf, friend, foe, granite, tide. It will be like it was in 1150 yet different! It won’t be “Christendom,” for that world is gone. Yet in essence it will be the same, because everywhere we look we will see instances of what can only be called, and will still be called, the incarnate Word.