Night of the Demon

If anyone thought the 2016 revolt against the institutions was transient recent events may force a reconsideration. Instead of dying down open political war now permanently grips Washington. Abroad, time has healed no wounds; immigration issues have not dissipated in Europe, on the contrary riots are rocking Germany  The British are still rushing bald-headed toward Brexit with all the incalculable consequences that entails.  What can’t be happening is.

According to sources quoted by the NYT “ideological agendas” have spread to the Catholic Church. After the Vatican’s ex-ambassador to Washington Archbishop Carlo Vigano claimed a gay and left wing mafia had been protecting sex abusers within the Church and naming Pope Francis as the Left’s man an issue was reliably anti-clerical suddenly turned into conspiracy story.   Jason Horowitz in the NYT  concluded that politics must be behind Vigano’s allegations.

The letter, a bombshell written by Carlo Maria Viganò, the former top Vatican diplomat in the United States and a staunch critic of the pope’s, seemed timed to do more than simply derail Francis’ uphill efforts to win back the Irish faithful, who have turned away from the church in large numbers.

Its unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks amounted to an extraordinary public declaration of war against Francis’ papacy at perhaps its most vulnerable moment, intended to unseat a pope whose predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years.

Politics, as Ross Douthat notes, explains “why certain organs and apostles of liberal Catholicism are running interference for [alleged abuser] McCarrick’s protectors — because Francis is their pope, the liberalizer they yearned for all through the John Paul and Benedict years.” But can “politics” or even “ideological agendas” explain why the culture wars raging raging across the world look so similar.

Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles Robert Barron has a theory.  He suggests that the Church — and perhaps the world at large — is struggling not just against a few disorganized human beings but something more powerful: an evolving, self-programming, viral “demonic element” that is almost impossible to destroy.  When Barron says the devil he means just that:

When I was going through school, the devil was presented to us as a myth, a literary device, a symbolic manner of signaling the presence of evil in the world. I will admit to internalizing this view and largely losing my sense of the devil as a real spiritual person. What shook my agnosticism in regard to the evil one was the clerical sex abuse scandal of the nineties and the early aughts. I say this because that awful crisis just seemed too thought-through, too well-coordinated, to be simply the result of chance or wicked human choice.

Demons? Devils?

Lest one think Barron a metaphysical nut,  his notion of the devil closely resembles the social media concept of the ‘meme’, a word coined by Richard Dawkins’ in the 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It is “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and replication … [like] melodies, fashions and learned skills [that] generally replicate through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient copiers of information and behavior

Memes are information objects that are in some sense alive, able to morph and become sufficiently viral to take over a host and produce copies of itself from its resources.  Just as melodies can reproduce so can perversion.  Such a thing would act like Barron’s demon, turning “seminaries into ‘cesspits'” or converting ancient universities into foundries of civilizational destruction as the case may be.  This property was so powerful thirty years after Dawkins published his book he thought it might better have been titled The Immortal Gene.

Yet what should have been unstoppable wasn’t. The big mystery continues to be why an all-conquering meme suddenly found itself thrown back by ideas of almost equal force with no obvious origin. An opinion article in the NYT by Paul Krugmanacknowledges the existence and power but not the provenance of this sudden counterforce.  Worse, Krugman warns the left might actually lose to this mysterious power.

There was a time, not long ago, when people used to say that our democratic norms, our proud history of freedom, would protect us from such a slide into tyranny. In fact, some people still say that. But believing such a thing today requires willful blindness. …

We’re currently sitting on a knife edge. If we fall off it in the wrong direction — specifically, if Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress in November — we will become another Poland or Hungary faster than you can imagine. …

The point is that we’re suffering from the same disease — white nationalism run wild — that has already effectively killed democracy in some other Western nations. And we’re very, very close to the point of no return.

Krugman uses the term “white nationalism” (AKA Nazism) not because it has explanatory power, but because like Bishop Barron he needs a word for his nameless foe. The developers in Silicon Valley were not so easily frightened and having launched memes themselves confidently undertook to tame it.  Working on the hypothesis that the liberal project was temporarily stymied by a random rogue fad, the social media companies took energetic steps to both contain it and prevent it from going viral.

This was accomplished by suspending accounts, censoring “hate speech” and algorithmically shadow banning ideas whose replication they wanted to prevent.  This would theoretically limit the hostile ideas to a backwater where they would stagnate, wither and die. Theoretically.

Imagine their surprise at news that dozens of engineers at Facebook posted a challenge to its ‘intolerant’ liberal culture. “We are a political monoculture that’s intolerant of different views,” Brian Amerige, a senior Facebook engineer, wrote in the post, which was obtained by The New York Times. “We claim to welcome all perspectives, but are quick to attack — often in mobs — anyone who presents a view that appears to be in opposition to left-leaning ideology.”

Since the post went up, more than 100 Facebook employees have joined Mr. Amerige to form an online group called FB’ers for Political Diversity, according to two people who viewed the group’s page and who were not authorized to speak publicly. The aim of the initiative, according to Mr. Amerige’s memo, is to create a space for ideological diversity within the company.

The liberal orthodoxy reacted with typical outrage. “The new group has upset other Facebook employees, who said its online posts were offensive to minorities. One engineer, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation, said several people had lodged complaints with their managers about FB’ers for Political Diversity and were told that it had not broken any company rules.”  How did the revolt inside the castle start?  Krugman’s warning seems eerily apt. Nowhere is safe. It could happen here.

When the totality of cultural warfare and revolution now raging throughout the world is summed we may be watching an event bigger than the fall of the Soviet Union. The event doesn’t have a name yet, on the day we finally understand, it will. But understanding may prove the most difficult part.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Could it be true?

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Books:

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

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