David Brooks’s column today is really interesting. He’s been asking college students how they see the world. He concedes that he’s only been talking to elites so far (it would be fascinating to see what students from big state schools and Christian colleges have to say), but still, as Brooks puts it, the results are “striking.”
Among the results: They have diminished expectations from life. They have lost faith in institutions. They no longer believe in the American idea (this is something that is in part the result of terrible history instruction, Brooks indicates). And:
I asked the students what change agents they had faith in. They almost always mentioned somebody local, decentralized and on the ground — teachers, community organizers. A woman from Stockton, Calif., said she was hoping to return there. A woman from Morocco celebrated the uneducated local activists who operate from a position of no fear. They are just fighting for the basics — education, health care and food. “We want change agents that look like us. We want to see ourselves moving the country forward,” one Chicago woman told me.
I came away from these conversations thinking that one big challenge for this generation is determining how to take good things that are happening on the local level and translate them to the national level, where the problems are. I was also struck by pervasive but subtle hunger for a change in the emotional tenor of life. “We’re more connected but we’re more apart,” one student lamented. Again and again, students expressed a hunger for social and emotional bonding, for a shift from guilt and accusation toward empathy. “How do you create relationship?” one student asked. That may be the longing that undergirds all others.
Religion doesn’t come up in this column, but it gave me insight, I think, about why so many readers of The Benedict Option are Millennials. I don’t have any figures for US sales, but one of my knowledgeable French readers said that my audience there is 18-to-35-year-olds. Anecdotally, I have found that the most enthusiastic readers in the US are in the same age bracket.
In fact, it was really striking to me to read Brooks’s interviewees talking about how their hope for change is in local politics, and in the search for connection. This is what I talk about in my book’s chapter on politics. Excerpt, from a passage about the Czech anti-communist dissident Vaclav Benda:
Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis” — a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order. Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”
At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square.
For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community. Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.
[start Benda quote] I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime — partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature — has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities. [end quote]
From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or re-establishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders” — formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture—but to “push outwards, infinitely.”)
Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.” In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.
What’s especially fascinating to me is that Benda’s idea arose from an attempt to seize some sense of agency and humanity in a system that was totalitarian, and that gave no place for dissenters to operate. Why would an idea that arose from conditions of communist dictatorship speak to young people living in capitalist liberal democracy? That’s an important question — one I hope to find good answers for in the Czech Republic when I visit there in a couple of weeks.
To start, though, one thing I noticed reading the writings of Havel, Benda, and other dissidents is the way they spoke of atomization as characteristic of life under totalitarianism. There was no social trust; you never knew who was working for the regime secretly. People felt alone and without hope, or the ability to change their conditions.
Why do people feel like that today in the West, despite the proliferation of a technology (social media) that is supposed to make us more connected than ever? Is Benda’s “parallel polis” an answer both to the totalitarian vision embodied in Orwell’s 1984, as well as the totalitarian vision embodied in Huxley’s Brave New World — which is far more like what we’re living with?
Pope Benedict XVI once said that we in the West are living in a “dictatorship of relativism.” What if Millennials intuit the oppressiveness of that, even if they can’t articulate it? What if the SJWs are reacting against terror of alienation and meaningless, but are revolting using methods and in favor of changes that will only deepen their own personal crisis?
We have one enormous advantage over Benda and his colleagues: we have the freedom to choose to live another way, without being thrown into prison. Yes, it will cost us something to live counterculturally, but it won’t cost you your liberty as it cost Czech dissidents. Why not try the parallel polis? I write about it in a Christian mode in The Benedict Option, but Brooks’s column suggests that it might be possible in a secular form.
By the way, The Long Night Of The Watchman, an English translation of Vaclav Benda’s collected essays, has been published. I am conducting an e-mail interview with the book’s editor, Flagg Taylor, at the moment, and will soon publish it here. Meanwhile, check out this radio interview with Taylor on Benda.