The Upheaval Reading Thread (#1)

Hello all,

I’m currently working on an essay on China, and what its rise may have to do with all this upheaval business. This is a huge topic, however, so the necessity of figuring out where to best start and what to focus in on first means it is taking me a little while.

In the meantime, I thought I’d start something new by sharing some of the better things I’ve read over the last 1-2 weeks that help to explain or elaborate on the themes I’ve been writing on, or which I’ve otherwise found especially interesting and worthwhile.

To my great pleasure, I’ve discovered that somehow I’ve ended up with a community of readers that are especially smart, well-read, and from all over the world. So I would also be genuinely interested to hear what you have all been reading, and I’m sure others here would be as well. What has helped you understand the state of the world today? Go ahead and leave a comment below.

And if for some reason you haven’t done so yet, make sure you subscribe first:

I’ll plan to makes this a series that continues every other week, as along as it’s something people enjoy. Anyway, here’s my list:

1. Marc Weitzmann, “France’s Great Debate Over the Sources and Meaning of Muslim Terror” (Tablet)

[Correction: I initially mislabeled this as an essay by Pierrick Juin; it was written by Marc Weitzmann, while Charlie Hebdo’s Juin drew the included cartoon]

Read as a follow-up to my last essay on France, this article by Marc Weitzmann provides a powerful commentary on the evolving debate over Islamism in France, and what it says about French society today. He concludes that:

There is a civil war in Islam today, a war that knows no borders, and it explains what’s been going on in France much better than any abstract debate over laïcité. What Kepel’s vision shows us, in other words, is that France’s future will be bloody.

Also, you get fun anecdotes like this one:

When they came back, Diane wore the niqab and became a pious Muslim. Back home, in her mother’s living room, she expressed her new faith status in rather unorthodox ways, like raging against her mother’s “white privilege” and against the whole Western world, which was controlled by the Jews and the Americans, and then sitting down to watch manga in silence on TV for hours. Manga, she said, were like religion, they made you forget everything, which was good preparation for war.

2. Paul Kingsnorth, “The Dream of the Rood” (Substack)

Like me, the novelist Paul Kingsnorth has found himself thinking about what happens when the (largely subconscious) religious foundations of a civilization – or its “sacred order” – rather suddenly erode away and disappear. Except that he’s a far more skilled writer than myself:

Your personal attitude to that ‘living faith’ is beside the point here. In one sense, whether the faith is even true is beside the point as well. The point is that when a culture built around such a sacred order dies then there will be upheaval at every level of society, from the level of politics right down to the level of the soul. The very meaning of an individual life – if there is one – will shift dramatically. The family structure, the meaning of work, moral attitudes, the very existence of morals at all, notions of good and evil, sexual mores, perspectives on everything from money to rest to work to nature to kin to responsibility to duty: everything will be up for grabs.  Or as Dostoevsky has one of the Brothers Karamazov put it more pithily: ‘Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted.’ The West, in short, was Christendom. But Christendom died. What does that make us, its descendants, living amongst its beautiful ruins? It makes ours a culture with no sacred order. And this is a dangerous place to be.

3. Suzannah Lipscomb, “Why are women becoming witches?” (UnHerd)

Follow Kingsnorth’s essay on the void created by the collapse of any “scared order” in society with this fascinating piece, which explores the explosive growth in popular interest in the West (especially among otherwise secular young women) in witchcraft, magic, and the occult. Lipscomb’s explanation, as a historian: “humans have always turned to magic when they feel helpless.”

4. James Lindsay, “Bourgeois Overproduction and the Problem of the Fake Elite” (New Discourses)

Ok, this is cheating a bit, because this is actually a “podcast.” Podcast is in scare quotes here because this is really an hour-long monologue / rant that’s been re-framed into being a member of a respectable medium. And it’s great. Not many people could pull that off… but James Lindsay, co-author of the invaluable Cynical Theories can.

Here, Lindsay takes a theory by Peter Turchin, who I’ve mentioned before, on “elite overproduction” (or the tendency for decadent societies to produce far more overeducated elites than there are elite-level jobs, leading to large numbers of underemployed, resentful elite-class intellectuals who tend to start spending their free time starting revolutionary cells), and adapts it a bit. The festering problem in the West, Lindsay posits, is not the real “elites” with actual power (like Jeff Bezos), but rather all the overproduced, upper-middle class bourgeoisie “fake elites,” who find they can never be the wealthy, respected elite they aspire to be, and instead become “a breeding ground for ressentiment in society.” Horrified at the idea of ever being mere working class, but scrabbling desperately with one another for status, they have found another solution: they’ve set themselves up, not as the nobility, but as the First Estate, the new clergy, who produce essentially nothing but the “right” opinions. Now, they’ve created their own job market (e.g. critical theorists, diversity consultants) out of thin air. But, still, in this hyper-competitive world of the overproduced bourgeoisie, the surest way to move up is to take someone else down – hence “cancel culture” and the vast, elaborate, ever-changing, mandatory “correct” vocabulary, which functions as a way to help weed out any of the competition who can’t keep up.

Overall, this is an especially interesting alternative secular, class-based explanation for the ideology of the “New Faith” that relies less on the “it’s literally a new religion” argument that I still favor. As a bonus you can actually read, here are two pieces that make very similar arguments: one by Michael Lind on “The New National American Elite,” and this one, which argues that “wokeness” essentially replicates the dynamics of a medieval guild in order to artificially limit professional competition.

5. Christopher Rufo, “The Child Soldiers of Portland” (City Journal)

Honestly just outright disturbing from start to finish.

There you go, that’s my top 5 from the last two weeks. This is an open thread, so let us know something you’ve been reading that you’ve found helpful, or otherwise discuss what you’d like (just keep it civil and respectful please).