Weekend Long Read

The Undifferentiated Human Matter of Replacism

Absent intact and confident national Western cultures who know where they came from and who they are, the immigrant waves that retain the most confidence in their collective identity will overwhelm those cultures that do not. And that may not end well for anyone or anything, including the Davos-cracy, including modernity itself.

Just over a year ago, an English translation was published of the 2012 book You Will Not Replace Us. Written by Renaud Camus, a French author and political thinker, it was intended as a condensed summary of lengthier volumes he’d already published on the subject of culture and demographics.

The phrase “you will not replace us” gained notoriety in August 2017 when it was chanted by an assortment of right-wing protesters who had shown up in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the planned removal of Confederate monuments in that town.

There is no excusing the violent extremists who were among those present in Charlottesville, much less the unforgettable and tragic outcome. And it is unlikely that many of the protesters in Charlottesville had any idea that a relatively obscure French writer had coined the phrase they were shouting as they marched across the University of Virginia campus.

But Renaud Camus, whose literary career began in the 1980s as a “pioneering gay writer,” in more recent years has become, as described in The Nation, “the ideologue of white supremacy.” In March 2019, The Washington Post referenced Camus’ book as the inspiration for the mass murder of Islamic worshipers that had just happened in Christchurch, New Zealand. In September 2019, the New York Times described Camus as “the man behind a toxic slogan promoting white supremacy.”

It’s always problematic to discuss anything questioning the demographic transformations sweeping the West. It’s easy and politically acceptable to celebrate diversity, and even gleefully to anticipate the permanent political ascendancy of the global Left in Western democracies, as the demographic character of the electorate inevitably shifts as a result of mass immigration. But to ask whether or not this shift is desirable invites accusations of racism, xenophobia, and white nationalism. It even invites accusations that to open this discussion is to encourage extremist violence.

Given these stigmatizing constraints, the only reason to bother exploring the potential downside of “diversity” is that behind the term “diversity” is possibly the most unexamined, voluntary, abrupt and profound transformation of a civilization in the history of humanity. And what if suppressing this discussion, pretending nothing of consequence is happening, and censoring voices of caution is actually what encourages extremism and violence?

In a New Yorker article written about Camus in 2017 by Thomas Chatterton Williams, entitled “The French Origins of ‘You Will Not Replace Us,’” the Frenchman is described as “a kind of connective tissue between the far right and the respectable right,” who can “play the role of respectable reactionary because his opposition to multicultural globalism is plausibly high-minded, principally aesthetic, even well-mannered.”

That description offers a broader perspective on Camus than one of someone merely motivated by xenophobia or racism. Camus is reacting against globalism as an economic nationalist and as a cultural preservationist. He claims that what he calls a “Davos-cracy” has deemed cultures secondary to having a critical mass of consumers, and that it considers all humans interchangeable. The phrase he’s selected to drive his point home, and repeated throughout his book, is “Undifferentiated Human Matter,” or UHM.

Replacers, Replacists, Replacees, Replacism, Anti-Replacism

Camus begins his book by declaring “replacing is the central gesture of contemporary societies.” But he isn’t just talking about people, he’s talking about everything. Claiming “the world itself is fast becoming just another amusement park,” he describes the process of replacism in all-encompassing terms. In an extended explanatory passage, he writes:

Faux, simili, imitation, ersatz, simulacrum, copies, counterfeiting, fakes, forgeries, lures, mimics, are the key words of modern human experience. Stone masonry is being replaced by ferroconcrete, concrete by plaster, marble by chip aggregate, timber by PVC, town and countryside by the universal suburb, earth by cement and tar….literature by journalism, journalism by information, news by fake news, truth by fallacy, last name by first name, last name and first name by pseudonyms….history by ideology, the destiny of nations by plain politics, politics by economics, economics by finance, the experience of looking and living by sociology, sorrow by statistics, residents by tourists, natives by non-natives, Europeans by Africans….peoples by other peoples and communities, humanity by post-humanity, humanism by transhumanism, man by Undifferentiated Human Matter.

What Camus is defending is more than preserving an indigenous ethnic majority in his country. He is defending, as he puts it, “an order, a prosperity, a sense of generosity in terms of social benefits and safety nets, the sound functioning of institutions which have been achieved through centuries of nurturing efforts, trials and tribulations, cultural transmission, inheritance, sacrifices and revolutions. What makes countries, continents, cultures and civilizations what they are, what we admire or regret, are the people and the elites who have fashioned them….man is not, or not quite yet, some undifferentiated matter that one can spread indiscriminately, like peanut butter or Nutella, anywhere on the surface of the Earth.”

Rejecting most conventional terms, Camus has built his own nomenclature around what he believes are fundamental mega-trends that are not adequately described with existing vocabulary or commonly understood polarities: liberalism vs conservatism, globalism vs nationalism, capitalism vs socialism. Instead, he has come up with the ideology of “replacism,” with three protagonists, “the replacists, who want to change the people and civilization, which they call multiculturalism, the replacers, mostly from Africa and very often Muslims, and the replacees, the indigenous population, whose existence is frequently denied.” He then divides the “replacees” into two groups, the consenting replacees, and the unwilling replacees.

Is France Actually Destined to Replace Its Population?

The concept of demographic replacement brings with it an assortment of tough questions, largely ignored, dismissed, or even censored by the establishment media and mainstream politicians. In France, the government collects no census or other data on the race or ethnicity of its citizens, which means any tracking of alleged “replacement” of the native population has to rely on estimates. Estimates, however, reveal dramatic shifts in just the past two decades.

An article published by the Brookings Institution in 2001 estimated that five percent of the French population was non-European and non-white. From what information can be found since then, that percentage has changed at a blistering pace. According to World Population Review, “when statistics were released in 2008, it was reported that 11.8 million foreign-born immigrants and their immediate descendants were residents in the country; a figure which accounted for around 19% of the total population of the time.”

While a rise from 5 percent to nearly 20 percent in less than a decade is a stunning statistic, it may actually understate the magnitude of the so-called replacement, because it doesn’t take into account birthrates. For example, a chart on the Wikipedia page “Demographics of France,” quoting data available (in French) from the “Institut national de la statistique,” reports that in 2014, an estimated 29 percent of all births in France were to parents where at least one was foreign-born. Moreover, of the 71 percent of births in that year to parents who both were born in France, it is probable that a significant portion of those were to second- or third-generation immigrants of non-European origin.

A 2017 article appearing in the Washington Times, referencing a study published (in French) by the “Institute des Libertes,” offers projections based on known population demographics and birthrates in France. The study predicts that within 40 years, or barely after mid-century, the white population in France will become a minority. This forecast extrapolates from a white birthrate in France of 1.4 children per woman, compared to a Muslim birthrate of 3.4 per woman. If these birthrate disparities persist, France is destined to become a Muslim majority nation within just a few decades, even if immigration were stopped entirely. Among the younger generations of French, that threshold will be reached much sooner.

“Borders Kill.” (Photo by Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Is Integration Possible in France and How Is Mass Immigration Justified?

According to Camus, several false narratives are being spread in France by the “replacists” to dismiss the significance of the current migration by saying it is nothing new. Camus argues that it is preposterous to say that “France has always been a country of immigration,” because “for about fifteen centuries the French population has been remarkably stable, at least in its ethnic composition.” To the extent there was immigration, it was always thousands of people, of European stock and Christian faith, compared to millions today who “have almost all been African and more often than not Muslim.”

Whether or not Camus is a white supremacist is debatable, but his skepticism towards the possibility of integration is unambiguous. He writes “Their African culture and Mahometanism make it a much stronger challenge for them to become integrated into French culture and civilization, all the more so because most of them show no desire whatsoever to achieve any such integration, whether as individuals or communities.” Sadly, without honest, balanced, and well-publicized research into this very question, it is impossible to dispute this assertion.

Other popular narratives, according to Camus, also designed to justify mass immigration, include the claim that France was liberated from the Germans in 1944 by Northern and Central Africans recruited by the Free French. Anyone familiar with the battles of World War II would dispute this based on the fact that the main invasion was at Normandy by American and British forces. While units of the Free French army did land along with other Allied forces in Southern France two months after D-Day, this later invasion was launched after the Germans had begun to withdraw their forces to fight in the north, and in any case, only about one-third of the Free French troops were of African origin.

Another popular myth that Camus claims is promoted by France’s multiculturalists, or replacists, is that North African workers reconstructed France after World War II. This is clearly inaccurate since France’s post-war reconstruction was completed well before the 1970s, which is when mass migrations began from Africa into France.

Possibly what might be considered by replacists to be the most compelling argument in favor of mass migration is that it serves as recompense for the depredations of the French as colonial occupiers. But if the colonial era were so horrible, Camus asks, why is it that millions of Africans “appear to nurture no plan more clearly and cherish no higher ambition than to come to France and live with the French?”

Camus makes an important distinction between European colonialism and mass migration into Europe from Africa, one that calls into question both mainstream claims—that integration is possible, or that mass migration is justified. As he puts it, “France and Europe are much more colonized by Africa, these days, than they ever colonized it themselves.” His point is that the Europeans imposed a military, administrative and economic occupation on its overseas territories, but “this type of colonialism, developed in a political framework, is much easier to end—all that is required is for the conqueror’s army to withdraw.” What is happening in France today is what Camus refers to as “settler colonialism,” which is far more difficult to undo, if not impossible.

If the immigrant vs native French interactions Camus writes about are typical—“making life impossible or an unbearable ordeal to the indigenous people….through aggressive gazes, overbearing posturing to force passers-by down from the sidewalk….the creation in the citizenry of a general feeling of fear, insecurity, dispossession and estrangement….unprecedented forms of hyper-violence up to full-blown terrorist acts and massacres….which in the process secure under their rule additional chunks of territory for themselves”—then eventual integration may be very unlikely, and his characterization of mass migration as a foreign occupation may be more descriptive.

The Case for “Undifferentiated Human Matter”

To criticize the double standard applied by most online and offline media on topics relating to race has been dismissed as “whataboutism,” as if double standards don’t matter, as if differing sets of moral criteria should apply depending on what group or worldview is being examined. This double standard is in effect throughout the West, enforced in matters ranging all the way from online censorship to offline criminality. Camus notes countless Christian church desecrations in France, rarely prosecuted, and compares those to the heavy sentences levied onto protesters who unfolded a banner on the roof of the “Great Mosque” of Poitiers during its construction.

In France, Camus writes, “non-European youngsters by the thousands can post horrible and very disturbing messages on Twitter or Facebook about European or White people in general without the slightest threat to have their social network accounts suspended or be interrogated by the police; while opponents to mass migration are the permanent target of the most finicky censorship.”

Camus marvels at the fact that contemporary Western Civilization is the first in history to be lenient “towards those who want its eradication while it relentlessly persecutes those who would put up efforts to defend it and work for its salvation.” But what is Western Civilization? Is it bound up with ethnicity, or is it something more intangible yet more profound?

In an irony of history, Lenin’s useful idiots, the leftist movements in Western nations, are now serving not the international communists, but global capital.

In France, the very notion of “race” has been deleted from Basic Law texts. The conventional explanation for this transformation, implemented in the 1970s, was that it reflected the revulsion the French people felt towards Nazism and their horrific experience under German occupation when Jews were being deported to German death camps. Undoubtedly, this is true, but Camus focuses on how the termination of the concept of race fulfills the goals of the replacists.

Mocking the mainstream scientific dogma that proclaims races do not exist, Camus takes the position that “race” embraces “social, literary, or poetic, or taxonomic creations of such considerable impact that proclaiming they do not exist is tantamount to seriously testing the meaning of the verb to exist.” He uses “race” interchangeably with “a people” and argues that conflating biology with culture is to suggest that Europe does not exist, that European civilization did not exist; no such thing as French culture; no such thing as French people—that there are only people with a French passport.

“In industrial and post-industrial societies, especially those where the main industry is the industry of Undifferentiated Human Matter, where man is the producer, product and consumer at once, there is no such thing as a genuine product.”

The “Anti-Racist” Paradox: The True Agenda of the Anti-Racists

If everyone is undifferentiated human matter, and races—biological or cultural—do not exist, how can racism exist? And if races do not exist, why must anti-racists so aggressively enforce a drive to achieve perfect equality among races; why must they insist that all races are equal?

This logical flaw is inexplicable, according to Camus, until you consider how the meaning of anti-racism has changed. Anti-racism no longer means a stance against racism as it is historically understood, it now denotes a stance against the existence of races and a willingness to have them disappear. Camus considers this evolution of the term anti-racism, impelled by the paradoxical concept that races both do not exist and are all equal, was a critical enabling condition for the Great Replacement.

As he puts it, “Paradoxically, without the non-existence of races, the change of race would not be possible . . . since there are no races, there can be no substitution of races . . . change was obvious, and rather unpleasant, but it was not taking place. How could it occur, since it was scientifically impossible?” But why? Who benefits?

It is here that Camus’ opening remarks, “replacing is the central gesture of modern societies,” comes back into play, addressing a phenomenon of which mass migration is only a part, albeit a very, very big part. If the native French are being replaced by settler colonials, then who is orchestrating this, and why? Camus claims “what we are dealing with here is a delegated form of colonization, a colonization by proxy, and that the forces that want it, and who organize it, are not the forces who actually accomplish it.”

Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto

This two-fold colonization, orchestrated by the very rich and implemented by the very poor, is part of the destruction of culture that began before the mass migrations. As he writes, “no people that knows its own classics would accept numbly and without balking to be thrown into the dustbins of history . . . this numbness had to be created.” Here and elsewhere, Camus is not talking about a conspiracy, but rather “powerful mechanisms” created by the combination of ideals and interests. The main ideal; equality. The main interests: “normalization, standardization, similarity, sameness.”

What Camus calls a “powerful mechanism” can indeed explain the rise of globalism without resorting to conspiracy theories. For global investors and multinational corporations to achieve maximum growth and profit, the prerequisites are standardization, free trade, open movement of people and capital, and a growing mass of consumers in every economic zone—dependent, destitute, it doesn’t matter. But to justify this, to make it a virtue, even a populist cause, the ideology of equality and anti-racism are in-turn prerequisites.

This erasure of high culture, this popular contempt for a cultivated class that might perpetuate reverence for traditions and greatness, this devolution, suits the ideology of the anti-racists. But it is useful as well to global commercial and financial interests. In an irony of history, Lenin’s useful idiots, the leftist movements in Western nations, are now serving not the international communists, but global capital.

It isn’t just France, of course, where traditional culture and proud national histories are being deconstructed and disparaged by the Left. In the name of anti-racism, the history of Western Civilization is now being taught in America, increasingly, from elementary school through graduate school, as an unending saga of oppression and exploitation. In the name of equality, SAT scores, and even grades, are being dispensed with in schools and universities, double standards are established based on racial quotas in academia and business, because race does not exist, yet all races are equal. All this paves the way for an erasure of peoples, the replacement of culture and identity with undifferentiated human matter.

The Genealogy of Replacism

On page 138 of the English edition of You Will Not Replace Us, Camus offers a family tree of sorts that pulls together the historical events and ideological evolution which led France, and by extension the West, to its present state. It not only attempts to illustrate the origins of replacism, but also the cultural devolution that he believes made replacism possible. Shown below is a graphic representation of what Camus describes in painstaking detail. Here is the “marital status” of replacism. “Son of Anti-Racism and High Finance (themselves, respectively son of Egalitarianism and Anti-Fascism, and daughter of Taylorization and Ultra-Liberalism, granddaughter of Industrial Revolution and Capitalism), marries Petite-Bourgeoisie, daughter of Democratization and Welfare State, grand-daughter of French Revolution and Proletariat.”

The logic of this genealogy makes a lot of sense. Replacism is ideologically justified by anti-racism at the same time as it serves the interests of High Finance. “Taylorism,” loosely synonymous with “Fordism,” is the system of factory management that evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to break production into standardized repetitive tasks, greatly improving both the efficiency of manufacturing as well as making it possible to hire far less-skilled workers for less money, and making them easily interchangeable. Ultra-liberalism is Liberal ideology as originally conceived, devoted to the virtues of free trade and free movement of capital.

By marrying replacism to petite bourgeoisie, Camus is showing the synergy between a loss of higher culture and the replacist agenda. By depriving Western Civilization of its “cultivated class which is indispensable to culture in the old sense of the word,” by allowing respect for Western Civilization to slowly disappear, indeed by demonizing all vestiges of privilege, and by glorifying the most popular, largest common denominators of human experience, by democratizing education to the point where everyone and nobody is educated anymore, by mass-producing simulacrums of culture designed to appeal to the most universal and primal ambitions, there is no longer a people, there is no longer a unique culture, there is no longer history, tradition, pride, identity, the nation becomes an economic unit and nothing more.

Another fascinating aspect of the genealogy that Camus has described is that it is not just logical, but perhaps some of what he is describing is also inevitable. In hindsight, where would the human path have deviated from these outcomes? Is it much of a stretch to say the industrial revolution was inevitable, or the innovation of mass production and standardization? Is it unreasonable to suggest the rise of workers and unions to the abuses that characterized the first hundred years of industrialization may have been inevitable? Is all that Camus really has to say mere sentimentality, mere nostalgia, is this just a primal scream of a book and the movement it represents merely the last mad roar of a primitive nationalism whose time has come and gone?

Nostalgia and sentimentality may well inform the millions who merely wish that things could go back to the way they were, but for Camus, at least, stronger emotions and reason inform his motivation. First of all, he would probably deride it as thoughtless and typical for his critics to think that objecting to the destruction of Western Civilization, in all of its traditions and values, is mere reactionary nostalgia and sentimental longing for the past. But he also would remind us of the threat we face, not only at the hand of the replacists, but when the replacers eventually confront the replacists.

Replacism, for all its deplorable sameness, for all its drive to conquer and merge all cultures in the name of anti-racism and in the interests of high-finance, at least has a new world to offer. It may be grotesque and shallow, hedonistic and common, replete with addictive gadgets that pass for fulfillment and while away lifetimes, but there is profit, there is order, bread, circuses. There is still civilization, after all, cheapened, flattened, filled with undifferentiated human matter. But what if the replacers have a different agenda entirely?

Camus believes the combination of leftist morals and traditional right-wing business interests gives a unique power to replacism. He writes, “as if the ruthless power in the upper district of Metropolis, had, to top it all and make it worse, the capacity to project to the world the gentle image of the soft social order found in the Alpine pastures of The Sound of Music. He describes replacism as a totalitarian ideology devoted to promoting the replaceability of everything, man included. But he also claims that the only totalitarian ideology in the world capable of rivaling replacism in the world today is radical Islam. What a choice.

Is there such a thing as nationalist capitalism? And if not, is the battle taking shape one between national socialists and international socialists?

Neither Conspiracies Nor Scapegoats Account for Replacism

The phrase “conspiracy theorist” or “conspiracy theory” recently has been weaponized by globalists throughout the West. Wielded along with the more established word weapons, “racist” and “denier,” “conspiracy theorist” is now used as a verbal bludgeon to silence anyone who questions globalization or replacism.

Camus has much to say on this and the related topic of scapegoating. He writes, “The theory of conspiracy theory is one of the most effective, catchy and brilliant inventions of the ideological power and its executive clique, the media, to discourage any reflection on its own workings, on the nature of its power and on the crimes it might have committed. The theory amalgamates all conspiracy theories into one, whose model are the most eccentric views about the attacks of September eleventh against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. But just as being paranoid does not mean you have no enemy, accusing everyone whose views differ from yours of being an adept of some conspiracy theory does not mean there is no plot and no conspiracy.”

Having made that assertion, Camus backs away from alleging there is a conspiracy. Dismissing attempts by others to blame replacism on the European Union, Wall Street, the International Monetary Fund, or Jews, he suggests, in fact, it is “some enormous, bizarre and complex process, so intricate that no one can understand perfectly how they work and why, and no one can master and stop them once they are started.”

This makes more sense than it may initially seem. It returns to the idea of a logical and almost inevitable flow of history. Only at pivotal historical moments can that flow be willfully directed through the exertions of a united people, because so much of its momentum is mechanical. And clearly that is what Camus is calling for, when he writes “it is for us to break the machines which churn out men like others churn out cookies, or Nutella, or surimi.”

Camus explicitly challenges the theory, not his, but prevalent among some right-wing factions, that Jews are providing the money and brains behind replacism. He correctly notes that in Europe they are the first victims of the Great Replacement. He discusses at length how “the change in the population of Europe has made daily life very difficult, if not impossible, for a number of Jews who are almost permanently exposed to very strong Muslim aggressiveness, modern anti-Zionism flourishing both as a form of exasperation and as an excuse, a more decent cover, for very classical Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism.”

While identifying Muslim immigrants as the source of revived anti-Semitism in Europe, Camus dismisses the role of “classical occidental European anti-Semitism,” referring to it metaphorically as “a derelict shop in the dilapidated historical downtown, now entirely driven out of business, and fashion, by the enormous shopping malls in the banlieues.” He notes that many Jewish communities in Europe that survived the Holocaust are not going to survive the Great Replacement, with thousands of Jews now being driven out of France every year.

The experience of European Jews today in the face of mass immigration of Muslims has led Camus to conclude that while there are some prominent Jews involved in promoting the Great Replacement, such as George Soros and others less known, he believes that in recent years the proportion of replacist Jews and anti-replacist Jews is now almost reversed, with anti-replacists predominating. And he makes a claim, similar to sentiments observed by Churchill a century earlier, that “Jews are very much divided on that issue [replacism], which makes them no different than any other community.” It may be fair to say that Camus sees the Jewish community, certainly in Europe, as a microcosm, split on the polarizing issues of our time in a way reasonably proportional to the rest of the Western elites.

And perhaps in this we will come a recognition that Zionism is only one form of nationalism, and Jews and Gentiles alike throughout the West will begin to coalesce in support of preserving the peoples and cultures of all Western nations. Camus writes “Israel belonging to the Jewish People, with Jerusalem as its capital, is the model and the essential reference, at least in Western culture and civilization, to all sense of belonging. If those three did not belong to each other, it would be the end of all belonging. If Jerusalem were not Jewish there would be no reason for Paris or Saint-Denis to be forever French, for London or Winchester to be English, or indeed for Washington or Concord to be American.”

Jerome Gilles/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Flight 93 Civilization

If you believe even half of what Camus has to say, Western Civilization is all but doomed. It is to be replaced either by a generic replacist world consisting of undifferentiated human matter, or an Islamic world, which would take shape in the aftermath of a cataclysmic conflict in which the replacers overthrew the no longer useful replacists. What can be done?

Towards the end of his book, Camus calls for “remigration” of immigrants out of France and back to their nations of origin. To accomplish this, he views the European Union, currently controlled by replacist interests, as something that could potentially be taken over by anti-replacists. As he puts it, “The continent is being invaded, the nations which are part of it should stick together and resist, not try and find salvation one by one, in dispersion and isolation.” But he reemphasizes how what threatens European civilization is bigger even than colonization, writing “when we Europeans started to be subjected to another, more brutal and direct colonization, we were submitted to an Islamisation of our Americanization.”

American cultural power, such as it is according to Camus, populist, egalitarian, flattened, Petite bourgeoise, is almost—stress, almost—a proxy for globalism sweeping away the unique cultures and peoples of the world. Camus might say that America, when it comes to replacism, is as much a culprit as a victim.

Which brings us to America, where, just as in Europe, resurgent nationalism—unwilling replacees—contends with a daunting coalition of replacists, replacers, and willing replacees. The eventual outcome hangs by a thread, and no matter what the outcome, so much can go wrong.

In 2016, an influential essay entitled “The Flight 93 Election” compared the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with the choice passengers faced on the doomed Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. As he put it, “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.”

Written by Hillsdale College research fellow Michael Anton, who went on to serve for a time as a senior adviser in the Trump White House, this essay addresses all of the same issues of replacism, in the broadest context of the term. The dispossession of the American people, culturally, economically, and eventually, through actual physical replacement. Anton manages to make his points without inviting quite the opprobrium that Camus has attracted, but his words—a breath of fresh air to many but an unforgivable transgression to others—were so frank and so incendiary that he initially wrote under the pseudonym “Publius Decius Mus.”

What Camus has dubbed the Davos-cracy, Anton called the “Davoisie,” as he implicates America’s conservatives as “sophists who rationalize open borders, lower wages, outsourcing, de-industrialization, trade giveaways, and endless, pointless, winless wars.” Anton went on to reserve an entire section of his essay for the “other” issue, writing that “The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes.”

Anton’s description of America under a Clinton administration is almost synonymous with how Camus describes France under Macron, differing only in the particulars. “A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent… We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the Social Justice Warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.”

Three years after Trump’s stunning upset victory, the power of the Left in America remains pervasive and growing. Under the twin ideological poles of anti-racism and climate action—which is a proxy for economic replacism—they have more or less consolidated their hold on academia, and continue to expand their influence in government at all levels along with most major corporations. Imagine if Trump had lost.

Characterizing the U.S. election of 2016 as a last chance to have a chance, a last chance to avoid certain death, was accurate. Now the battle is joined but the odds remain stacked against the anti-replacists. The Davoisie in all its power is doing everything it can quiet the passengers and regain full control in the cockpit. The Flight 93 Civilization remains fitfully airborne, but for how long?

To the extent Renaud Camus fights a lonely battle, with the smug opinion-makers of the world stigmatizing him and everyone like him as a “white supremacist,” chances are France will become a nation of undifferentiated human matter, or an Islamic state, or some hybrid of the two. But France will no longer be France.

The Inchoate Rebellion Against the Ruling Class

Across the United States and Europe, a rebellion is brewing that lacks coherence or unity. Indeed many of the rebellious groups are battling each other at the same time as they share a rage against the Davos-cracy. In France, the Yellow Vest Movement which has gripped that nation for over a year has attracted far-left and far-right demonstrators.

While the Yellow Vest Movement in France was sparked by rising fuel taxes, the duration and intensity of the protests bespeak years of frustration. What unifies the participants is the punitive cost-of-living in France, but there is no apparent agreement on the cause. To speculate as to the cause, for the Right, immigration is the primary factor; for the Left, global capitalism is the main reason. In fact, they’re both correct.

The unemployment rate among immigrants in France in 2018 was 15.3 percent, nearly twice that of non-immigrants at 8.3 percent. This ratio is virtually unchanged for over a decade. While it is now almost impossible to find reports connecting the Yellow Vest protests to anger over immigration—which means nothing—even President Macron has agreed to new, tougher immigration enforcement. In November 2019 the New York Times quoted Macron as saying“The bourgeois live in areas with few immigrants and do not encounter immigration in their daily lives. It is France’s working classes that live with the difficulties of immigration, and have thus migrated to the far right.”

On the other hand, huge sectors of the French economy have been devastated since the introduction of the Euro in 1999, and this consequence of globalization would have happened with or without immigration. Two searing, pessimistic visions of where this is leading are found in books by the bestselling French author Michel Houellebecq. His 2015 book, Submission, describes a bloodless transition in France from a secular republic into an Islamic theocracy. His 2019 book, Serotonin, includes chapters describing how France’s agriculture industry, which for centuries was a vital, productive, diverse ecosystem comprising hundreds of thousands of independent farmers, was within just a few years nearly wiped out by foreign imports and corporate takeovers.

It would be simplistic and inaccurate to characterize the Yellow Vest Movement as either Right or Left, just as it would not be accurate to describe Marine Le Pen’s National Rally political party as right-wing. The Yellow Vest Movement is a populist reaction to replacism, for mostly economic reasons. The National Rally candidates are a nationalist reaction to economic and cultural replacism.

This illustrates how Camus has invented a term, replacism, that not only transcends conventional definitions but creates space for new combinations of political ideologies to form. Why should the anti-replacists be capitalists instead of socialists? Capitalism has been the justification to impoverish the middle class and fill the nation with foreigners. Globalist (or international) capitalism has been rejected by all within the otherwise inchoate Yellow Vest Movement. Is there such a thing as nationalist capitalism? And if not, is the battle taking shape one between national socialists and international socialists? That would make sense.

The Rise of the Bronze Age Mindset

If Renaud Camus now plays the role of “respectable reactionary,” a book that has quietly sold its way into influence and infamy is Bronze Age Mindset, self-published in 2018, written by a pseudonymous author “Bronze Age Pervert,” which he typically shortens to “BAP.” Bronze Age Mindset is a book that disrespects pretty much everything about modern life. Instead, the author exhorts readers to aspire to become the piratical, fearless figures of Bronze Age antiquity. Talk about reactionary!

The author, who in his book periodically dispenses with grammar, recently surfaced to publish a response to a review of Bronze Age Mindset written by Michael Anton. Both the review and the response are valuable reading for anyone trying to understand the evolving mindset of the anti-replacists. Because closely linked to the reactionary resistance to both cultural and economic annihilation is, obviously, a rejection of the so-called ruling class. This sentiment, and little else, unites the Yellow Vest Movement in France. A feeling of being betrayed by the ruling class also informs movements in the United States that are otherwise bitterly opposed to one another. BAP writes:

What you are witnessing is the unraveling of the postwar American regime—or what is mendaciously called by its toadies the ‘liberal world order’—in a way that is far more thorough than the disturbances of the 1960s, and with consequences that will be far more dire. The ‘altright’ doesn’t exist and has nothing to do with the media representations of it as a form of ‘white nationalism,’ or even—and here is what is crucial to understand—just ‘white males’ or just the ‘right wing.’ The same phenomenon is taking place on the left, and there is much more crossover than older people realize: there is much more involvement also by nonwhite youth and particularly by Latino, Asian, and multiracial youth in this phenomenon than people want to admit.

In BAP’s essay, titled “America’s Delusional Elite is Done,” he accuses the conservative intellectual establishment of failing to oppose “the violent racial hatred and other forms of unprecedented insanity coming from the new left,” including “the destruction of the family, and the new push to groom children on behalf of transsexualism and other supposed sexual identities.” He points out that “this one crucial matter extends the appeal of the ‘frog people’ far beyond that of any one racial or ethnic group.”

So where Camus saw cultural deconstruction as a prerequisite to ethnic replacement, to be resisted, BAP sees resistance to cultural deconstruction as something that is unifying various ethnicities. Economic globalism and cultural deconstruction may have left France open to ethnic replacement and ethnic conflict, but in the United States, these same two mega-trends could form a reactionary and multiethnic solidarity. The difference is that the Yellow Vest Movement unifies a diverse assortment of factions based, so it appears, purely on economic grievances. In the United States by contrast, among the still gestating Bronze Age resistance, the economic factors are present but equally unifying are the cultural grievances.

In the long run, France and the United States face very different challenges with respect to mass immigration. Compared to America, France is a nation poorly equipped culturally to absorb and assimilate millions of immigrants, and—can we say this?—the immigrants entering France are not easily assimilated, insofar as they are mostly African and mostly Muslim. Moreover, France’s mostly secular native population will not find much common ground with the social conservatism practiced by Muslims, whereas a far higher percentage of white Americans are Christian, practicing variants of Christianity that overlap almost completely with those of immigrants to the United States from Latin America.

Until very recently, America’s dominant culture emphasized the importance of assimilation, and even in its atrophied, discredited current state, America’s ability to assimilate its immigrants remains robust. Asian immigrants entering the United States typically come from successful, developed nations, bringing a strong ethic for higher education and entrepreneurship. America’s Muslim immigrants constitute a far smaller fraction of America’s immigrant population, and on average they have more education and skills than the waves of Muslim immigrants entering France. For these reasons, America is far more likely than France to eventually absorb its immigrants while leaving its culture relatively intact.

But BAP isn’t done. Perhaps he offers further encouraging words to those conservative nationalists whose demographic awareness has made them give up when he writes the following: “Conservatives pretend to be able to recruit Latinos to their cause with the degraded ideology of Jack Kemp but Latinos see David French call forced ‘drag queen’ visits for schoolchildren ‘part of free life,’ and want nothing to do with it. We are far better at recruiting Latinos, and as the example of Bolsonaro among many others shows, this new, energetic and popular form of the right is a Latino movement, and it is the future.”

And where is the Davos-cracy in all of this leftist debauchery and conservative cowardice? BAP is one with Camus in implicating the “large monopolies that promote mass immigration, mass surveillance, and the most bizarre type of speech restrictions, not only on its own employees, but now on American society at large.” In America, the NeverTrumpers and Libertarians, and all of what Michael Anton may have been the first to refer to as “Conservatism Inc.,” have been worse than useless, they have been puppets of the Davoisie.

Finally, BAP’s observations are in accord with Camus on how the meaning of “equality” has been entirely perverted by the replacists. BAP writes:

It is indeed possible to oppose this vicious and exterminationist hatred on purely liberal and racially egalitarian grounds. But this didn’t happen, which puts the lie to the claims that traditional conservatives care about equality under the law or about any of the ideals they claim to espouse. We are now faced with a left that has embraced a dialectic of racial and class destruction in a context where belief in absolute human equality is professed at the same time that no one believes in it anymore.

In the 21st century, the United States and Europe, France in particular, faces increasingly radicalized, politically disenfranchised, economically abandoned, embittered masses. What mindset they adopt, what alliances they form, may be the surprise of the century.

Photo by Samuel Boivin/NurPhoto

The Solution to Replacism Is a Community of Nations

Camus considers an “orderly and peaceful” remigration of millions of French immigrants back to their nations of origin to be the only way to preserve French culture. It is hard to imagine how this could ever happen. But it is probably true that either assimilation or remigration will be necessary in France in order to avoid either civil war or submission to Islam. Houellebecq’s book of that name is not in the least far fetched, although if it were to happen it prefigures a larger eventual clash, since an Islamicized West would still have to deal with China and other Asian nations that remain committed to preserving their own cultures.

Which begs the question: What does it take for a nation to be willing to fight to again assimilate its immigrants? In France, the economic challenges caused by globalization have already sparked the Yellow Vest Movement, which led to dramatic recent shifts on immigration policy by Macron. But can France, and the other Europeans, recover a sufficient belief in their own history and traditions and identity to demand others assimilate to their ways, instead of the other way around?

In his 2017 book, The Strange Death of Europe, British conservative author and journalist Douglas Murray suggests that those forces still extant in Western societies that resist the leftist derangements of our time—the secular and the religious—put aside their differences and unite to save their civilization. That’s an interesting idea not only because it might enable a critical mass of resistance to arise, but because it represents a new synthesis of Western culture that might help defuse the mutual resentment of Right and Left. They’d better get busy.

Nothing BAP discusses, either in his book or in his essay addressing Michael Anton’s review, offers a solution. BAP describes his work as that of a Samizdat, those Eastern Bloc dissidents who reproduced and distributed censored and underground publications critical of the regime. Anton, for his part, adheres to the ideals of the American Founding Fathers. To which BAP responds, “he [Anton] should admit that this form of government would today be called white supremacism or white nationalism, as would Lincoln’s later revision of it, as would indeed the America of FDR and Truman, not to speak of Theodore Roosevelt.”

Indeed it is. By the Left.

So where does Camus cross the line? How is Camus the “ideologue of white supremacy?” Why did Michael Anton have to use the pseudonym “Publius Decius Mus” when writing candidly about the Davoisie’s embrace of mass immigration into the United States? Why is Bronze Age Mindset written by “Bronze Age Pervert,” instead of whoever lives behind that name?

Camus answers this repeatedly in his book. Anti-racism has come to mean anti-white. Examining the phenomenon uncovers endless examples and makes a strong case for the truth of this statement. Neo-commissars variously described as Chief Equity Officers now infest public and private bureaucracies in departments of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” They manage aggressive staffs, expensive and empowered, micromanaging everything from micro-aggressions to the precise ethnic proportions represented in the personnel headcounts of every institution in America. This is authoritarian, totalitarian fascism, bureaucratized and masquerading as anti-fascism. It is explicitly racist, yet it markets itself as anti-racist. That is already a reality in much of America, and it’s spreading fast.

In Europe in general, and France in particular, the same applies. If you question the future of your nation, based on utterly indisputable facts—consistent and immutable voting patterns by ethnicity, leading societal indicators by ethnicity, demographic reality—you are branded a “white supremacist” and the consequences are swift. In ascending order: Unwelcome in polite society. Banned or suppressed online. Fired from your job. Denied various public and private services. Prosecuted and fined. Imprisoned.

And yet the movement of anti-replacists isn’t necessarily “white,” at all. The Yellow Vest Movement isn’t white, and it is ideologically heterogeneous. The rising Bronze Age reactionaries in the United States aren’t ethnically pure, and their ideology remains very much in flux. For these reasons, practical nationalism—centrist but honest, faithful to culture and tradition, having expectations of immigrants instead of the other way around, willing to protect national industries in defiance of the libertarian Davos-cracy, able to put the national interest first—still could have a future in the West. And it may have nothing to do with “whiteness” at all.

The alternative, prosecuted by the Left and condoned by a cowardly Right establishment, is Balkanization based on race and gender, even though race and gender “are a social construct.” It is enforced equality according to race and gender, even though all races and cultures are already equal, and in any case, “race and gender are social constructs.”

The alternative, prosecuted by the Davos-cracy, is to flatten the world, erase borders in the interests of commerce, and reduce humanity to undifferentiated human matter. How does this square with the “celebration of diversity” that informs every coopted institution of the Davos-cracy, from mainstream media to monopolistic multinationals? It doesn’t until you return to one of the first points Camus makes, where he emphasizes that replacism isn’t merely to turn humanity into undifferentiated human matter, but to create simulacrums of culture replacing genuine culture. The iconic buildings and monuments and historic plazas of Paris or London will be faint and boring ruins compared to the neon recreations of those same places around the planet, in cities turned into theme parks. The commodification of high culture is the essence of replacism.

Understanding this fact, that replacism is a wholistic repatterning of all national cultures and a wholesale erasure of national economies, is crucial to refuting the claim that to be anti-replacist is to be a white supremacist. The journey into the future, with technology and globalization whipping forward faster than anyone can fully track or comprehend, changing everything in decades, then changing everything yet again, and again, will not be weathered without the strength of national cultures that embrace and cherish and share a common faith, tradition, values, patriotism, being part of something.

Absent intact and confident national Western cultures who know where they came from and who they are, the immigrant waves that retain the most confidence in their collective identity will overwhelm those cultures that do not. And that may not end well for anyone or anything, including the Davos-cracy, including modernity itself.

To the extent Renaud Camus fights a lonely battle, with the smug opinion-makers of the world stigmatizing him and everyone like him as a “white supremacist,” chances are France will become a nation of undifferentiated human matter, or an Islamic state, or some hybrid of the two. But France will no longer be France.

Weekend Long Read

This essay is adapted from “Trump’s World: GEO DEUS,” by Theodore R. Malloch with Felipe J. Cuello (Humanix Books, 336 pages, $27.99)

Davos: Peering Behind the Elite Curiosity Curtain

At Davos, investment dollars flew like sand in the desert wind. The Chinese wanted factories, and they lined up from Nortel to Motorola just to shake hands. Big Pharma met and colluded on patents and pricing. Want to sell airplanes? Autos? You name it, even armaments. It was a global bazaar of high-altitude wheeling and dealing with high price tags.

Thomas Mann, the German Nobel laureate and author of The Magic Mountain, made Davos famous for its mystical and curative powers. For him, it was a sanatorium to overcome the disease, psychological stress, and damage inflicted by modern life. In some ways, it remains so.

These are my personal impressions as a former executive board member of the inside, albeit they are but a snapshot in time. Davos is many things to many people, but it remains a curiosity. It was also, according to many accounts, the place Bill Clinton got the bug and started his own Clinton Global Initiative—seeing gold in them thar hills.

Today on its 50th anniversary, Davos is synonymous with a different kind of cult. It is the cult of business celebrity; elites from every avenue of life, every industry, every country, leaders and wannabes who will do anything to be seen there, especially during the last week of January, when the World Economic Forum conducts its annual meeting.

They pay over $70,000 just to be invited, or $1 million to be members, according to The Guardian. It has become the hub of political, economic, cultural, and every other kind of power imagined by postmodern globalist man. In fact, it is about the emergence of what the ringmaster at Davos calls “Davos Man,” (he actually borrowed the phrase from the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington) a kind of ubermensch who can transform the world. Nietzsche would be proud.

This wasn’t always the case. After World War II the German part of Switzerland in the far eastern part of the land and up in the rugged mountains was underdeveloped. Skiing, new hotels, and better train service brought in more tourists, but it wasn’t until a half nutty, half brilliant professor of business policy brought his European Management Forum there in 1971 that it started to take off.

In its own words, the WEF is on a mission: “The World Economic Forum is an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging leaders in partnerships to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.” Over the course of its history, the World Economic Forum has achieved a limited record of accomplishment in advancing progress on some key issues of global concern. It has also placed itself as the epicenter of New Age globalism—a new ideology. Globalism is not the same as the gradual process of globalization, which sees countries involved in more and more trade and investment across borders. Globalism is a movement toward and a belief in one-world government.

The WEF logo itself puts the organization in the very center of the globe’s sphere; and Herr Professor Dr. Schwab is the “Wizard” of this “Oz,” behind the curtain, who makes the whole thing run—just as in the movie.

The Davos Model

Every year now, for five decades, high in the wintry alpine resort of Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, the world’s elite convenes under the auspices of the World Economic Forum. They have what is termed “convening power.” It’s all over the news. But not much is really known about the organization—the convener. Everyone sips schnapps and talks about the future of the globe under the banner “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild.” The “Re-” word is always the operative phrase! Be sure to use it in every sentence and you can pass “Go.”

True, Davos can be cynical and trite. The best thing to be said for it is perhaps, as I once put it in the Weekly Standard, that it does not really believe the answer to the world’s problems is more Marx. But they do come close. Davos phrases abound: rethink economics, redesign governance, put (European) socialist values back in business, promote financial literacy, the future of this and that, risk abatement, and on and on. Frankly, while the WEF is full of suggestions, most of them are half-baked.

Here is a sample insight from Davos: “At times of panic credit markets have a tendency to freeze.” Here is another: “The bubble forms when expectations exceed reality.” Cue the applause from the civics class.

The WEF applauded the public rescue of banking and government-inspired guarantees (bailouts), and their mantra has been “print more money” and, when in doubt, “strengthen regulatory measures.” We also need much more “coordination” to defeat systemic risk, according to the Davos line. Did Keynes really get it right? Is Big Government good government? Do markets always fail when left to their own devices? These questions are verboten in Davos—for the hallmark of all believers here gathered is that government is the solution—perhaps assisted by some special council, formed of course by “FOK”—friends of Klaus (Schwab).

Davos wants to tame the “animal spirits” of the market, which are not good and must be tamed. Their authority on this is none less than the turncoat, George Soros, a former robber baron and greenmailer who saw the light. Radical stakeholder capitalism enters left stage, with improved statistics, and a Sarkozy or now Macron–style Commission on Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. We can change accounting as we know it and have a perfect “global solution”—a super–International Monetary Fund. At Davos it is always a globalist solution. Besides dumping the dollar, the world must also have “international consensus” since the United States has been so naughty and learning to share power and give up control can be difficult. But it is necessary.

For Davos Man (and occasionally now a woman or two), an all-powerful global central bank will run money, ignoring notions of national interest; but like gun ownership, the spread of capital will also need to be controlled. We will also need a Tobin carbon tax collected by the United Nations. Bill Gates’ version of “creative capitalism” flies well here, and he goes to Davos every year—where he preaches that we must all “give back” and invest entirely on a social basis. His zeal is perennially featured these days, now that he’s retired from bad, old Microsoft.

Ironically, in the end at Davos—powerful and lucre filled as it is—money is the great taboo; it’s what leads to subprime lending and to bad capitalism. Realizing that the love of money is the “root of all evil,” a “competent global economic citizenry” must fight the inherent flaws of capitalism. If we don’t fight capitalism, we are warned, we could end up with Chinese-style authoritarianism.

At Davos, it’s repeatedly said, we can’t do “business as usual” any longer, and most certainly America, who started all this money madness and interventionism, cannot dictate since the United States is no longer a “hegemon.” A thin veil of anti-Americanism lurks behind a lot of the content at Davos. It is a cabal of multilateralism with an impresario professor as its progenitor.

It’s interesting to note that, through all the sermonizing and flagellation at Davos, short shrift is given to the classical virtues and religion. Instead, the underlying credo here is the need for more confidence in global government, since finance is an imperfect tool for managing risk in an uncertain world.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Schwab’s Intentions

I went to Davos for the first time in 1988 as a special guest of Herr Dr. Schwab (K-man to his friends). It was fascinating and certainly involved many leaders and business types, mostly from Europe and especially the Third World. Some were on the make and others on the take.

Throughout 1989 Schwab courted me, had me to dinner over and over, invited me to meetings, and pressed me to give him advice on how to stretch the goals and involve both more CEOs and particularly top Americans from all walks, across all sectors and in every major industry group. In his thick, German accent he would say, “Vell, Ted, kunt vie change die velt?” He wouldn’t stop and at one point stuck his lieutenants on me as well. One was an attractive woman with long, dark hair, an American named Gail Bidwell. She was good looking and bright, and she and her German counterpart, who was ill with cancer, both kept calling on me in my office at the U.N. Schwab had Lester Thurow (economists refer to him as “less than thorough” for his popularizing tendencies) over from MIT. He invited me to lunch. The minister of finance was in from Pakistan; could I spare time for “an interesting” dinner? The head of the central bank of XYZ was here; could I convene in a few hours? No end.

By 1990 he had asked me to serve on some loony council and to help prepare the agenda for the next annual meeting. What were the “veally big questions, mit ein Q” going to be? He asked in his dreary, thick accent.

His staff was mostly low-level flunkies and hangers-on, very young, no higher degrees, just yes-men and plenty of women (many were sexy and were randy with the professor, I later discovered), as well. They reported directly to the Wizard of Oz, as we referred to him behind his back. I was pitching in, adding key names, and, eventually, they asked me to moderate some sessions at the big confab.

My boss at the U.N.-Geneva, Hinteregger and others, were slightly jealous as they were not invited. The head of the U.N. was there, and increasingly more and better CEOs were attending. With my invitations we got some of the top Americans to join the ranks. Even Coca-Cola came, and they brought so much Coke with them it could have filled entire lakes with that fizz.

Schwab also had an in-house rag, a glossy vanity magazine with lots of pictures of leaders at his meetings and articles by those same leaders. It had a goofy look and name: World Link. The idea was to link world leaders permanently. He also devised a failed electronic system to do the same that was well before its time. He called that Welkom. Way too Germanic, I thought. Schwab got me to write a few pieces for his publication, on the U.S. economy and on reform in Eastern Europe and published them with my picture. It was all rather flattering.

The organization was, however, far too Eurocentric, and he knew it and wanted to break out and step up. He knew of my background, history, and work in academia, industry, on Wall Street, in politics, and as a diplomat. He wanted my help and convinced me that we could work together. Pronounce that in German three times!

When we talked privately, Schwab said we were both “thinkers and doers.” He liked to ask that trick question of people: which are you, a thinker or a doer? Pick one and you were wrong. Now, I was warned that Schwab used people, ran through directors like water, and was a first-class name-dropper. Some said there was no substance in his doings, just frills, a media fest. He was a pompous windbag to some. In checking him out I found out some things I didn’t like. He was a German (born in Ravensburg, 1938 where Hitler had come to power), not Swiss, reportedly with strong ties to those who fled to Switzerland. Like Waldheim, he had Nazi-youth in his résumé and tried to hide it. Davos has always been known as a place for the rich and the sick; that much is well established. Not much has changed!

The two most secret items at the World Economic Forum were the budget and the VIP list and its attachment, noting their “guests,” i.e., who they were sleeping with. The budget was not a public document, and it showed the income at well over $100 million. Less than half came from membership fees . . .

The Nazi Party in Switzerland was headquartered there. In 1936, a famous assassination of Wilhelm Gustloff, the top Nazi in all of Switzerland by a Yugoslavian Jew named, David Frankfurter was in all the international headlines and made the Nazis machine irate. The Nazi connection in Davos is noteworthy given the now established Swiss complicity in the German war effort, hidden accounts, stolen goods, holocaust victims, and the anti-Zionism that continues to this day. The World Economic Forum even in recent years has itself called for the boycott of Israel (before it retracted it). Schwab was in total cahoots with the Swiss government. In fact, the Swiss Federal Council paid many of his bills

Why? Because the WEF strategy was to get people to Switzerland to invest there, to bank there, and to use its central location and supposed neutrality. It was all a clever public relations tool or ploy for the Swiss.

Schwab lacked good American connections and didn’t sell particularly well in the CEO corner offices with his thick accent, professorial look, and all this mystical (we called it Davosian) talk about a better world and partnerships for this and that, which sounded like and were mostly “you give us money and we make you a member; more money and you can be a higher-order member; more yet, and you’re on some board.” He was, simply put, what some people call an old-fashioned snake oil salesman.

But the companies were buying from Arthur Andersen to A. T. Kearney to Booz Allen Hamilton and hundreds more. The membership consisted of more than 1,001 companies; some were only midsized but from all over the world. He sold memberships as a way for them to meet other members. Clever. Too clever? He took some hits as a grandstander and then many more from the anti-globalists on the Left and Right. Protests mounted in the tiny ski village, and he had to get the Swiss troops to guard everything.

At a certain point at Christmas 1990, Schwab had me to dinner at his own house in Cologny with his wife and children. It was one of those Swiss chalets on the lakeside, quite large and immaculate. He asked me at dinner if I would consider some arrangement whereby, I could join him and go onto the executive board full-time. Money was no problem; he said they would match what I was being paid, although that amount was the highest paid to any employee, so I should keep it quiet. I would get six weeks’ vacation, home leave, and could travel anywhere in the world I needed to go. The offer was interesting, but I had a job, and the term was set. I said I’d think about it and wanted to work with him in some fashion. Klaus is a hard person to say no to, as he is so fawning. He also makes it appear that the noble mission to save the world that he has created is, well, missionary work.

I had to tell Hinteregger, and I knew it would break his heart. So, we worked a deal out whereby I could spend a portion of my time working on WEF affairs and gradually shift over. By the end of the following year, I would switch teams and play for Schwab and the Davosians and appease the gods of business. Schwab meantime had to do some fast moves to get me a Swiss work visa and to tell the U.N. he would not poach any more people. He also went to his Geneva bankers and arranged for me to not only get a mortgage but to get the right to buy a house in the Canton de Geneva. These were not small things. The WEF as a Swiss Foundation has lots of pull with the cantons, especially where it is based, and in Graubünden, where Davos is situated. It is not a lightweight by any means.

I became not just involved but seminal to the Davos planning and helped set the themes and choose the speakers. Klaus and I made many trips together to the United States and other capitals to get the heads of state and captains of industry on board.

I was brought into the super-secret World Wide Web brainstorming on the future forecasts of the global economy. Those sessions brought together chief economists from leading organizations, banks, and certain economic ministers to spin a story about what lay ahead and where the challenges lie.

At Davos itself, I was a panel moderator of a half dozen sessions and in the big stage held forth as the questioner or respondent on the big economic sessions. My favorite one included the likes of the chairman of the U.S. Fed, the CEO of a global bank, the CEO of Salomon Brothers, my old pal John Gutfreund, the new head of the bank set up for Eastern Europe, a leading French intellectual, the president of the World Bank, and the CEO of Moody’s, the rating agency. I beat up on each of them but let John off the hook. I ended by having each of them play the role of one of their counterparts and tell the “honest” truth. It was a hoot and brought the house down in laughter.

I suggested to Schwab that because we had so many bankers from around the world going to Davos, we should create a World Financial Services Forum meeting as a subset. He was afraid of that for some reason, I think because he did not speak “financese.” We decided to have a governors’ meeting with CEOs alone and then on the last day open it up to the entire financial services industry. It succeeded wonderfully and completely sold out. I chaired both sessions and played Phil Donahue at the latter, with a roving mike, sticking it literally in people’s faces to get instant responses. Everyone wanted to go to Davos, and this was a new way to include more people, and most critically, collect their lucrative fees. The head of Citibank wondered out loud why nobody had done this before. He knew it was a cash cow.

Nicholas Ratzenboeck/AFP via Getty Images

Bringing in Cold War Adversaries

The two countries that were weakest in representation at Davos were the United States and the USSR (until it broke up in 1992).

I was given a mission. The United States was the easy part. Getting the right people, the stars, the CEOs, and the think tank heads and members of Congress and the administration was just a matter of pecking away and showing them the materials and noting the benefits: personal and institutional. The toughest sell was their most precious commodity—their time itself. But with spouse programs, superb skiing, Audi driving schools, and all the socializing and partying, who wouldn’t want to join the world’s greatest schmooze fest in an Alpine village? Besides, it was tax-deductible, and the fees were paid to a foundation!

The most powerful elites in the history of the world all gathered in one place? And that place is Davos? The media certainly ate it up. They enjoyed themselves and the after-hours drinking and dancing more than the participants themselves. They came in droves. It made their jobs easy having so many world leaders in one small town, captive to give “exclusive” interviews.

We let companies break stories there. Countries could do the same, but usually only those who had paid some huge tab to sponsor a reception, a gala (complete with famous rock bands), or initiate some new policy announcing it to the world. Turkey’s then prime minister asked to be admitted to the EU one year, which caused quite a stir; they even made peace with the Greeks. The Alpine countries announced an initiative to save the Alps another year. The Aga Kahn announced his new Central Asian University. The West Germans announced the unification there and the bold one-mark policy. It took the roof down. The U.N. unleashed a program for corporate citizenship there. Every year the U.N. or World Bank came up with some new, far-fetched proposal. Most of these initiatives lasted about a year, some two, and then fizzled out, soon to be replaced with a new, far more urgent one. They too fizzled in about the life span of a newt.

The other country that was underrepresented was the USSR. They were suspicious of market capitalism and didn’t quite know how to use such a forum. But when glasnost hit and the leaders bent to the West, the doors swung wide open.

I was sent to Moscow three times, and twice with the perky Maria Livanos, who was Klaus’s go-to girl. A rich, bossy, very organized Greek who lived for the Davos energy boost. She was a real groupie. We talked the Soviets into both sending a high-level delegation with top ministerial leaders to interact at Davos, but also into doing what we called a “country forum” in Moscow that would bring hundreds of investors and their companies to learn more about the opportunities and changes sweeping their country. We said cash in the form of foreign direct investment would flow the next week. They ate it up. We ate too much caviar! I even bought—well, traded Marlboros for—a few extra pounds of the fish eggs to eat at home. A box of cigs would buy just about anything in the USSR in those days.

The first Soviet delegation to appear at Davos was in 1990, and I was asked to be their official host. I went to the Zurich airport tarmac to greet the Aeroflot flight arrival on a red-carpeted runway. When he stepped off the plane, their delegation head, the all-powerful Arkady Volsky, head of all industry in the USSR, gave me a bear hug and presented me with the most beautiful Russian red fox hat you have ever seen. He greeted me in a dacha-like laced, Russian accent. With him were 20-odd CEOs of all the giant Kombines, oil and gas, autos, agriculture, steel, timber, minerals, you name it. A few of their top pro-market economists who spoke good English were also along for the ride and the free show.

The Forum paid their freight completely, and boy could these guys—only one translator female—drink! It was a demanding group, but we bonded, and everyone wanted to meet and hear from them. Volsky’s sole demand was that they be put up at a good hotel with a swimming pool. He was a daily swimmer. We accommodated. We also organized a giant powwow with a Soviet at each table of eight, and the room was so overflowing that people were gathered around the outer walls. Everyone at Davos wanted to know what the market opening meant for him or her and their corporate interests in a future Russia.

Six months later we put on the show in Moscow, and more than 250 Western business leaders seeking to do business in the new Russia eagerly attended and paid big bucks (OK, Swiss francs) to be there, to have dinner in the Kremlin and to seize the day. Deals were struck and relations enjoined.

At that time many of the pundits wondered about the future of perestroika and Gorbachev, our man in Moscow. One of my favorite little stories about one of these visits to Moscow in this time frame, in the dead of frozen winter, was the accommodation we were given. Volsky’s people, for safety and effect, in a chauffeured ZIL limousine, met us at the airport. Rushed off to the elite Little Oktoberist hotel, we were greeted like VIP party members of the Politburo.

I don’t think any foreign dignitaries had stayed at this small, elite, off-limits Party hotel before. It was posh and filled with goods in a non-Soviet sort of way, but it was meant for upper-echelon apparatchiks from the nomenklatura. After a late dinner and the obligatory Stoli, I checked in for the night. At about 2 a.m. my phone rang, and I awoke from a deep sleep. I couldn’t figure who would be calling me at such an hour. It was a soft woman’s voice, and she said with a delicate Russian accent, “Do you vant kompanie?” My brain lit up and I shot back and spontaneously answered, “No, and I don’t want photos, either” and hung up. They were still the old Soviet Union.

At lunch the next day, I had a reserved table arranged with Boris Fyodorov, who had a Western education from, of all places, the University of Glasgow (Adam Smith’s birthplace), and he had just become head of the central bank. He was polite, had good questions, and seemed somewhat embarrassed.

We had caviar, the best from the Caspian Sea, the finest Soviet champagne, and Georgian red wine. We had three delightful courses of fish, beef, and pork with roasted fresh potatoes and many vegetables. Dessert was a fine chocolate torte, served with strong coffee. It was the best meal I had ever had in the Soviet days. When the bill came, he took it after I pleaded to pick it up. The cost was 78 rubles. The exchange rate may have been one to one officially, but we got ours for exactly 78-to-1. The elegant lunch cost all of one dollar. How long could this last? I wondered. Was the USSR ready to implode?

Behind the scenes at Davos and in the various country capitals, however, real business got done. At Davos and at the country forums around the world, real businesspeople, top executives, paid hard cash not to be photographed or just for bragging rights—well, not entirely; they came and spent money to get access to important people to do deals.

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The Global Bazaar of the Bizarre

I was involved in dozens of those in Eastern Europe, India, Brazil, and most prominently, in the United States. The U.S. forum had been poorly attended and deadly dull. It was hard to get top speakers. These things are a dime a dozen in Washington and happen nearly every other week. So, we reinvented the U.S.S.  country forum, and I got all of my old pals and their bosses, and their bosses’ bosses, to come, if only for a few hours. It had a who’s who cast. With these players we were able to bait the hook and pull in all the gullible Europeans and Third Worlders who badly wanted closer access to the real American leaders and power brokers. It worked and became another cash cow. We held it at the Willard Hotel and it oozed power.

Behind closed doors is where all the collusion and cartelization took place, ha-ha. At Davos, two bankers met from UBS and Swiss Bank Corp, and later you read of a merger. The steel company of Holland sold out to their counterparts in India. Investment dollars flew like sand in the desert wind. The Japanese wanted plants in America; hello Mr. Governor (you give tax holiday, let’s shake on it). The Chinese wanted factories, and they lined up from Nortel to Motorola just to shake hands. Big Pharma met and colluded on patents and pricing. Did I see that? I swear the oil companies had a cartel going. And ADM it was said, cooked the price of corn fructose, right there. Want to sell airplanes? Autos? You name it, even armaments. It was a global bazaar of high-altitude wheeling and dealing with high price tags. And Schwab got not just praise but perhaps a cut—or at least more sponsors in the process.

There were closed dinners only for Goldman Sachs clients and lunches with Price Waterhouse where the latest and greatest author on some exotic subject held sway. The Business Exchange office had people waiting to get in to make appointments with a potential supplier, vendor, or joint venture partner. There was a fee for that service; did I mention it? You could rent a Soviet reformer or a university president; any and everything was for sale. Jeff Sachs, the notorious Harvard economist, was there rounding up country clients for his reform and anti-IMF packages. Whenever we heard he had signed someone up, it was time to “short” the countries’ debt, as I knew his advice would lead in just one direction—down.

Bono and the movie star set were parading as intellectuals and begging for donations for their favorite causes. Angelina Jolie in a hot tub, some swami in a headdress talking about inner spirituality, and a German theologian talking interfaith dialogue—it was so Davosian

It was all there like a marketplace, the Agora. Mr. Zia, have you met Mr. Singh? Oh, you two are enemies? Well, not here in Davos. We all get along and do business. Jews and Arabs not allowed to meet? Everyone had a so-called “project” to sell. No one knows that here. And all the while the cash registers are going cha-ching for the impresario, the Wizard of Oz. They were not just stroking his ego and bowing to Swiss acumen but coughing up fees, donating again and again.

There was a lounge in the upper reaches of the huge concrete Congress Hall and a busty Texan, a former Miss Texas, I believe, worked it, serving coffee of every delight and catering to the “needs” (need to ask) of the delegates, as well. Massages, rubdowns, she knew how to please, and the lounge always seemed full for some odd reason, even at eight in the morning.

It was hard to keep going at that pace for days on end. There were partying, receptions, and dancing late at night into the wee hours of the morning. Is that the young Mr. Baja I see dancing with the Swissair stewardess(es)? Did I mention Klaus handpicked the prettiest stewardesses, and they were assigned to Davos as escorts? A lot of older men had that thank you, madam look on their faces in the morning briefings. There was considerable one-upmanship, too. Who has the biggest wallet, deal, and penis, kind of talk.

Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

One final tale at Davos involved a former employee journalist, an Irish-American from Chicago, who drank far too much. He also laughed a lot.

John had taken a job at the International Labor Organization in Geneva as a press officer after his Davos stint, and he invited me to dinner one night at a less-than-reputable restaurant in Paquis near the red-light district. He had someone I “had” to meet. When I got there, we had drinks at the bar, and he took me to a backroom to meet Sergei, a Russian. We broke bread and exchanged pleasantries.

Near the end of the meal, he said, “I have an offer for you; would you be willing to work for us in exchange for money? We like your access to people, leaders, and businessmen, and it could be of use to us.” I got up and said on leaving, “No thanks, and I don’t appreciate such KGB solicitations.” John seemed disappointed, as he clearly was on their take.

The two most secret items at the World Economic Forum were the budget and the VIP list and its attachment, noting their “guests,” i.e., who they were sleeping with. The budget was not a public document, and it showed the income at well over $100 million. Less than half came from membership fees; more than half was an outright line-item gift from the Swiss federal government, and that didn’t even include the vast sums of money that were spent on security, military, and otherwise.

When some protests materialized one year, those costs went through the roof. Best of all was the super-secret list I mentioned above. I once, in jest, joked that I had mistakenly given that list to the press. By leaking it to the equivalent of People magazine, the world would know the next day who was in bed with whom, both boys and girls, and notice that many were, well, not exactly married. No one thought it was funny, but of course, I was only kidding.

The other favorite story I can personally relate is the battle over pricey real estate. Naturally, the biggest CEOs and heads of states wanted the best rooms. What’s new? But there are only so many of them to go around in a small ski village like Davos. Or next-door Klosters, which was viewed as second-class. They came at a steep price, and priority went to the loudest complainers. The president of Peru was lodged in prime top-floor space in the best, Hotel Belvedere (and with a mistress, I might add). When the CEO of Salomon Brothers at the time arrived, he had shabby accommodations, unfit for the king of the money game. In a normal diplomatic protocol, a head of state would outrank a CEO, but not at Davos. We kicked the president out of his room with apologies so we could please and satisfy the CEO and his perky wife, Susan. Money talks and power walks. Wicked Solly traders probably shorted Peru’s debt the next day just to rub it in.

The lesson in this Swiss power tale is, simply, never trust before you verify. It worked well for the Gipper, after all.

Weekend Long Read

This essay is adapted from “How to Keep From Losing Your Mind: Educating Yourself Classically to Resist Cultural Indoctrination” (TAN Books, 384 pages, $24.95)

There Are Great Books

All lists measuring greatness are subject to reconsideration—the truly greats remain on the list with the passing of centuries.

Those classics that are called the Great Books are most closely associated with Mortimer J. Adler and Robert Hutchins.1 When Hutchins became president of the University of Chicago in 1929, he hired Adler to teach philosophy in the law school and the psychology department. Upon arriving, Adler, rather brashly he admits, recommended to Hutchins a program of study for undergraduates using classic texts. Adler had taught in the General Honors program at Columbia University begun in 1921 by professor John Erskine. Hutchins asked him for a list of books to be read in such a program. When Hutchins saw the list, he told Adler that he had not encountered most of them during his student years at Oberlin College and Yale University. Hutchins later wrote that unless Adler “did something drastic he [Hutchins, referring to himself] would close his educational career a wholly uneducated man.”2 Hutchins remained president for 16 years before serving as chancellor until 1951, and the following year, they did something drastic.

In 1952, Adler and Hutchins published the Great Books of the Western World in 54 volumes.3 Adler and Hutchins included the 714 authors they considered most important to the development of Western Civilization.4 The influence of their Great Books movement on American culture for several decades was considerable and continues to this day.

Their selection of books from over a half-century ago has held up rather well. For example, I compared them to the 2007 list published by journalist and cultural critic J. Peder Zane. Zane asked 125 leading writers to list their favorite works of fiction.5 Zane found that the 20 most common titles listed by the writers were:

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1877)
Madame Bovary, Gustav Flaubert (1856)
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1869)
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1884)
Hamlet, William Shakespeare (1600)
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (1913-27)
Stories of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871-72)
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (1602, 1615)
Moby Dick, Herman Melville (1851)
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (1860-61)
Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)
The Odyssey, Homer (9th century B.C.)
Dubliners, James Joyce (1916)
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
King Lear, William Shakespeare (1605)
Emma, Jane Austen (1816)
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)

Adler and Hutchins included all these books except for the two by Nabokov and Marquez. In spite of their absence, modernity is well-represented in the Great Books by Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, and William Faulkner, among others.

Zane’s survey refutes the claim that lists of “greats” reflect only the opinions of middle-aged white men. The 120 writers interviewed by Zane would satisfy any diversity requirement. If someone asked the same number of philosophers, historians, or scientists about their favorite books, I predict the results would have been much the same: the new list would contain a majority of acknowledged classics with the addition of some more recent and specialist books.

Poetry

Classic poetry is well-represented in the Great Books—Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, and Eliot are there, plus others. But poetry read in the context of the Great Books can be approached as a source of ideas or as another link in the history of ideas. This is a mistake. Poetic language is a linguistic fusion of form and content, a creation that resists being plucked for concepts to fill in the philosopher’s timeline.

Someone might object to the continued relevance of poetry because no one reads poetry anymore except when assigned in a classroom. However, poet and critic Dana Gioia reports that poetry has undergone a cultural revival outside of the academy, where poets have often found a steady paycheck. Gioia calls it “a tale of two cities”; a new generation of poets is finding their voice in the real world:

They work as baristas, brewers, and bookstore clerks; they also work in business, medicine, and the law. Technology has made it possible to publish books without institutional or commercial support. Social media connects people more effectively than any faculty lounge. An online journal requires nothing but time. Any person with an iPhone and a laptop can produce a professional poetry video. Any bookstore, library, cafe, or gallery can host a poetry reading.6

A 2017 study by the National Endowment of the Arts shows that 11.2 percent of American adults, 28 million people in the United States, still read poetry.7 But young adults, in particular, ages 18 to 24, are leading the return, with 17.5 percent reporting regular poetry reading, a doubling of interest since the last such study in 2012 (8.2 percent). Regardless of how many poetry books you have on your shelves, or how many you see at your local bookstore, poetry thrives. Human beings need to sing, to express themselves beyond the limits of discursive reasoning.

Like music, poetic language engages the reader at an emotional level that goes untouched by philosophical reasoning. Before the philosophers, it was Homer who instructed the Greeks about gods and heroes. But his epics were sung, not read. The Iliad and Odyssey were sung by bards who held them in memory for a thousand years before they were written down.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Wilfred Owen

If someone assigned me the job of introducing poetry to neophytes, one of the first books I would assign my students is the poetry of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). His life was short because he went to war, dying exactly one week before the end of World War I. After college, Owen went to Paris where he taught both English and French. He witnessed the beginning of the war and two years later returned to England where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. His experience in battle is recorded in the poetry which was inspired, in part, by time spent in a hospital with the already-established poet Siegfried Sassoon

Owen could have stayed home but returned to the trenches where he died four months later. I’m amazed at what Owen wrote before turning 26. In “Disabled,” he writes about a soldier returned home without his legs, in a wheelchair, watching football from the sidelines:

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.8

In “Strange Meeting,” Owen imagines a soldier jumping into a crater in no man’s land and finding the corpse of an enemy soldier staring at him: “By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.” The live soldier addresses the dead one: “Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” But the corpse interrupts:

“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world”9

The glory of war as told by Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Caesar Augustus was read in school by soldiers on both sides of the trenches. What this soldier found instead was “the pity of war, the pity war distilled.” With his thoughts of glory extinguished by death, he imagines himself back in battle:

“Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were. 

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”

A spiritual sense pervades these lines: “I would have poured my spirit without stint.” The bloody “chariot-wheels,” a reference to Homer’s Iliad, are cleansed “from sweet wells,” like Jacob’s Well (John 4:5–6), a pilgrim site in the ancient city of Nablus for centuries. The dead soldier tells the one living, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” and then offers him his forgiveness with the words, “Let us sleep now.” At the end of this ghastly encounter, Owen concludes on a note of nobility and common cause. 

Reading Owen answers our questions about what men experience in battle, how they are able to face death, and how they cope with the experience of battle. The best literature takes us to places and circumstances we can only vaguely imagine and gives us access into the interior lives of people we would otherwise never know.

Making Lists

An indispensable guide to classics is The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by literary scholar Harold Bloom. He organizes his book around 26 select authors, including the poets Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Goethe, Whitman, Dickinson, Neruda, and Pessoa. His appendices, however, include lists of other books he considers canonical catalogs by era—Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic, and Chaotic—and by country. Bloom’s book is one of the best sources I have found to help one become familiar with the names and works of important writers around the world, and he has published a remarkably helpful set of lists for the reader.

Although classic texts are included in some high school and college curricula, it’s the rare student who can deeply appreciate King Lear or Macbeth as a teenager or young adult. The worldly profundity of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, for example, is lost on all but a few teenagers, as it was lost on me. Books like Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and The Great Gatsby pose the same challenge. We want to introduce young readers to the classics, but, frankly, these, like many other classics, are books for grown-ups.

Philosophy and theology are central to any version of the Great Books—they address discursively those questions that have arisen in the lives of every person since Adam and Eve—meaning, morality, truth, justice, love, death, and eternity. Some philosophers and theologians, however, are more easily approached than others. There are always technical terms to master; for example, in Greek philosophy, the concept of Logos (“word,” “reason,” or “order”) which also plays a central role in Christianity: John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word “ (λόγος, Logos). Every philosopher and theologian wrote in a historical tradition. Readers who pick up, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas will quickly see that he quotes from Scripture, Greek philosophers, Patristic Fathers, Roman writers, and Arab theologians. However, with some patience and access to online reference works, readers can acquire enough background knowledge to read Aquinas intelligently.

Later philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger are more difficult and test the patience of the nonspecialist. With the reader in mind, I discuss mainly the ancients and medievals in How to Keep From Losing Your Mind. These works are foundational for understanding Western civilization, and their influence is seen throughout the philosophy and theology that followed. 

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Greats and Classics

Greatness is measured in many ways, and any list of greats should be subject to criticism. I remember asking my then-college dean at a dinner party to name his top 10 novels, and he answered that “top 10 lists” were “nonsense.” A bit surprised, I replied, “But they are such great conversation starters!” He reluctantly agreed, but I had made a more important point than I realized at the time. Reliable lists are the answer to “Where do I go next?” 

Let’s imagine a situation that I am sure has happened over and over: You’re listening to the car radio, flipping through channels; you hear a snatch of music that makes you stop, and you listen enthralled to the end. (This has happened to me more than a few times.) You wait to hear the announcer name the piece and the composer. You hear, “That was the ‘Violin Concerto’ of Samuel Barber.” “Who is Samuel Barber?” you ask yourself. What else did he write? Does anyone else write music that sounds like that? The Internet has made the answers very easy to find. You can read about Samuel Barber (1910-1981), see a list of his works and the best available recordings. Search further and you can find other composers who, like Barber, wrote music in a “late-Romantic” style. Good lists are invaluable to tell me what I don’t know.

Barber’s “Violin Concerto” inspires me to declare my description, not definition, of greatness. A book, a film, or a musical composition is great when you think to yourself, “I want to listen to all the music (or read the books and watch the movies) by this composer right away.” You may consider this too subjective, but I know I’m not alone in having that thought after reading Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust, Homer, Dickens, or Jane Austen; listening to Brahms, Dvorak, or Stravinsky; or watching the films of Kurosawa, Welles, or Eisenstein. As the late Harold Bloom put it, “I think that the self, in its quest to be free and solitary, ultimately reads with one aim only: to confront greatness.”10

Let me clarify one thing: I am using the words great and classic as though they were interchangeable. There’s a distinction. Take, for example, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It’s a well-known classic novel about World War I. Remarque portrays the absurdity of the war for the soldiers on both sides who were expected to “go over the top” day after day. Remarque’s novel, published in German in 1928, had the good fortune of being translated into English the following year. Then the novel was made into an Oscar-winning 1930 film, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” directed by Lewis Milestone.11 Remarque’s book is still very readable, a classic novel about war and the First World War in particular.

However, when you compare Remarque’s novel to Magic Mountain (1924) by Thomas Mann, the limitations of Remarque’s novel are evident. Whereas Remarque explores the experience of life in the trenches of World War I, Mann’s scope is more universal, possessing layers of meaning about the shattering of European civilization as the result of the First World War. Magic Mountain depicts a turning point in Western culture through the fate of one man, Hans Castorp, who lives in a sanitorium for seven years trying to recover his health.

The most important criteria to use in determining greatness is the opinion of experts. Everyone has their personal favorites—arguing about why, say, one film is better than another is part of the delight of filmgoing. Experts, however, are qualified to make the hard call: to answer the question, where does this film or that book rank in comparison to the others? When I want to buy a new car, I ask the opinion of the mechanic who has been working on my cars for 20 years. Anyone who knows what is required to be an expert at anything will recognize the depth of knowledge needed to measure a book, a movie, a musical composition against all that has come before.

But it should be said, experts are not always right. Consider the list of Nobel Prize winners for literature. The first literature prize, given in 1901, went to the French poet René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme (1839–1907) “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.”

Prudhomme was a strange choice given the competition. In the previous decade, Dostoevsky had published Brothers Karamazov (1880). The next year, Henry James published A Portrait of a Lady followed by The Bostonians in 1896. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was published in 1854, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, along with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles. In addition, Tolstoy published his “Kreutzer Sonata” in 1890. Searching for Prudhomme, I found only one of his books in English translation, the 1875 Les vaines tendresses.

Imagine being Sully Prudhomme when he received a letter from the Nobel committee and realizing he had beat out Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Twain, Stevenson, Hardy, and Henry James. He may have also thought of other writers active at the time: Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola, Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw. In the work of these “also-rans” we find inexhaustible stories of the human condition, universal in scope, all told with faultless command of language. All lists measuring greatness are subject to reconsideration—the truly greats remain on the list with the passing of centuries.

Endnotes

1) There were precursors to Adler and Hutchins’s Great Books. For example, in 1886, Sir John Lubbock published his list of “The Best Hundred Books, by the Best Judges” in the Pall Mall Gazette. See W. B. Carnochan, “Where Did Great Books Come From Anyway?” Stanford Humanities Review, vol. 6, 1995. Sir John’s list can be found here: Alex Johnson, “The Book List: Meet Sir John Lubbock, Godfather of the must-read list,” Independent, April 24, 2018. 

2) Mortimer J. Alder, Philosopher At Large: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1977), 129.

3) Mortimer J. Adler and Robert Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, 54 vols. (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1952). A complete list of books can be found at “Adler’s Great Book List.”

4) I had the privilege of knowing and working with Dr. Adler later in his life, and I contributed several essays to his series of volumes, The Great Ideas Today.

5) J. Peder Zane, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books (Boston: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).

6) Dana Gioia, “Introduction,” Best American Poetry 2018 (New York: Scribner, 2018).

7) Sunil Iyengar, “Taking Note: Poetry Reading Is Up—Federal Survey Result,” June 7, 2018.

8) Wilfred Owen, The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (New York: New Directions Publishing Company, 1993), 67.

9) The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, 35.

10) Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Riverhead Books, 1994), 485.

11) Hilton Tims, Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003), 55–60, 69–72.

Weekend Long Read

This essay is adapted from “America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It”
(Encounter Books, 447 pages, $32.99)

Americanism and the Spirit of American Liberty

The time has come for Americans to rediscover the philosophy of Americanism, a philosophy which says that, despite our differences of race, ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or place of origin, all men and women are equally free, morally sovereign, and self-governing.

In 1782, just as the American War of Independence was coming to an end, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, who had come to North America from France in 1755 and by 1765 had settled in New York, published Letters from an American Farmer. In it, he asked a fascinating and enduring question: “What then is the American, this new man?” Crèvecoeur’s question suggests that 18th-century Americans were somehow different from all other peoples, and thus he invites us, some 230 years later, to reflect on the nature and meaning of America.

Crèvecoeur’s new man was the existential embodiment of Thomas Jefferson’s “American mind.” He practiced and made real the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The moral, political, social, and economic philosophy associated with the American mind is sometimes reduced to a single word: “Americanism.” The “ism” suggests that being an American is part ideology, part way of life, part attitude, and even part personality. Broadly defined, Americanism is that philosophy which identifies the moral character and sense of life unique to the people of the United States, and which, under distinctive conditions, was translated into practice by millions of ordinary men and women in late 18th- and early 19th-century America.

Interestingly, the idea of Americanism has no foreign counterpart. No other nation has anything quite like it. We may speak of a French, an Italian, or a Persian culture, but there is no Frenchism, Italianism, or Persianism. Americanism, by contrast, is more than just a culture steeped in historically evolved folkways (i.e., the forms and formalities associated with speech dialects, food, music, dress, architecture, etc.). America’s traditional folkways are no doubt different from those of any other nation, but such cultural accouterments do not capture the essence of the American mind. My book attempts to explain the revolution in thought that culminated in the creation of what Jefferson called the American mind. We now conclude with a brief overview of the world created by Crèvecoeur’s new man—the world later described by Alexis de Tocqueville in his magisterial account of Democracy in America.

As we now know, the content of the American mind was synonymous with the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration forever associated the American way of life with a social system that recognized, defined, and protected as sacrosanct the rights of individuals. The greatest achievement of the American Revolution was to subordinate society and government to this fundamental moral law.

The radical transformation in thought and practice that followed would have enormous implications for the development of a new American society in the century that followed. The revolutionaries’ ethical individualism promoted the idea that human flourishing requires freedom—the freedom to think and act without interference, which means security from predatory threats against one’s person or property. Freedom requires government, but only government of a particular sort—the sort that protects individuals from force and coercion and that defines a sphere of liberty in which individuals are free to pursue their own welfare and happiness. Within that protected sphere, American revolutionaries and their 19th-century heirs created a new world unlike anything anywhere else.

The revolutionaries’ natural-rights republicanism was the product of a relatively recent revolution in thought that had its source in 17th-century England, originating in the Enlightenment ideas of Bacon, Newton, and, most importantly, Locke. These ideas were first injected into the intellectual life of the colonies in the early 18th century through the universities and the book trade; polemical writings such as Cato’s Letters, by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, then democratized these ideas through the newspapers. The radical individualism associated with the natural-rights philosophy armed the Americans with an entirely new morality that would provide the foundation for an unprecedented political, social, and economic system.

The moral philosophy of the American Revolution was closely associated with the idea of self-government—that is, with the idea that individuals must govern their own lives in the fullest sense of the term. Prior to the American Revolution, wrote John Taylor of Caroline, “the natural right of self-government was never plainly asserted, nor practically enforced; nor was it previously discovered, that a sovereign power in any government was inconsistent with this right, and destructive of its value.”

Ultimate sovereignty rests with the individual and not government. After the Revolution, “the natural right of self-government” was made “superior to any political sovereignty.” The Americans now believed, said Tocqueville, “that at birth each has received the ability to govern himself.”

In this new world, the individual replaced the government as the primary unit of moral and political value. This meant sovereign power began with self-governing individuals and extended outward in concentric circles of voluntary association, but never beyond the reach of a man’s control. Thomas Jefferson described the relationship between individual self-government and the various layers of political government this way:

The way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.

All government in postrevolutionary America (local, state, or federal) was grounded on the free political association of individuals who retained ultimate authority and sovereignty over its power. Political power was imploded down to the local level. The Americans, Tocqueville observed, “have a secret instinct that carries them toward independence . . . where each village forms a sort of republic habituated to governing itself.” Government was to have no power that was not explicitly delegated to it by the people and for specific purposes. Or, as John Taylor put it, the “sovereignty of the people arises, and representation flows out of each man’s right to govern himself.”

The ideal of individual self-government set in motion forces that weakened the centralizing tendencies of government power. “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun?” asked Jefferson. His answer was clear: “The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.” The men who designed America’s constitutional system understood and accepted the truth that Lord Acton’s famous maxim would much later capture: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In 1788, James Madison wrote in Federalist 48 that “power is of an encroaching nature, and . . . ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it.” A few months later, Jefferson noted pithily, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” 

Thus the great question confronted by America’s revolutionary constitution-makers was this: How could the grasping power of government be tamed and harnessed in a way that would serve the legitimate functions of government? The Founders’ revolutionary solution to the problem posed by the expansionary nature of power was to subordinate governments (the rule of men) to constitutions (the rule of law). By constitutionalizing their governments, they would constrain arbitrary political rule with the rule of law—laws universal and objective, known and certain. Government officials would be denied discretionary power in applying the law, and the law applied to one man would apply to all men. 

“In questions of power,” Jefferson declared, men were not to be trusted, and so they should be bound “from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Between 1765 and 1788, American revolutionaries invented and then implemented the architectonic idea of the American Revolution: the idea of a written constitution as fundamental law. Written constitutions would capture and guide liberty-promoting subsidiary principles, such as the separation of powers, bicameralism, federalism, judicial review, bills of rights, and various limitations on executive, legislative, and judicial power. These were the principal means by which individual rights and the rule of law would be protected and promoted. By explicitly and exactly defining both the power that may be exercised by government and the rights of individuals, written constitutions would create protected spheres of human action that were knowable and predictable.

The founders’ vision of government was the original version of what is sometimes called the “night-watchman” state—a government strictly limited to a few necessary functions, supported by low taxes, a frugal budget, and minimal levels of regulation. Ideally, government’s role was to protect individuals in their rights by serving as a neutral umpire, sorting out and judging conflicting rights claims. Even Alexander Hamilton, the founding generation’s greatest advocate of energetic government, saw the purpose and power of the national government as strictly limited to a few functions: “the common defence of the members—the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks—the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the states—the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries.” 

Jefferson offered the classic statement of the limited purpose of government in his First Inaugural Address: “Still one thing more, fellow citizens—a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.” The classical liberals of the early republic supported a form of government that would ensure their liberty and property by prohibiting murder, assault, theft, and other crimes of coercion and fraud. James Madison summed up the entire revolutionary generation’s definition of a “just government” as one that “impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.”

This was the great paradox of American society: it united radical individualism with tight bonds of civil association.

Jefferson was particularly sensitive to the tendency of government officials to intervene in both the spiritual and material lives of their fellow citizens. This is why, on the one hand, he claimed that the “opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction,” and, on the other, that the acquisition, production, ownership, and trade of men’s property is not the proper purview of government. Jefferson therefore supported both the separation of church and state as well as the separation of economy and state. He did not think that government should be in the business of religion, nor did he think it should be in the business of business. He strongly inclined toward supporting a policy of religious and economic laissez-faire.

Jeffersonian Republicans envisioned a government that would function without a standing army, that would eliminate debt and dramatically reduce federal taxes and tariffs, that would shun public works projects and internal improvements, and that would reduce controls and regulations on the economy. The founders’ emerging view of the purpose and role of government was most clearly described by William Leggett, one of the great antebellum, Locofoco individualists. “Governments,” Leggett announced, “possess no delegated right to tamper with individual industry in a single hair’s-breadth beyond what is essential to protect the rights of person and property.”

Like Leggett, most Americans of his time distrusted political power, believing that a good society was defined by the paucity of its laws. Accordingly, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was little government in America relative to the major countries of Europe. In fact, government at all levels before the Civil War was Lilliputian compared to what followed in the postbellum period. Political power—what little of it there was—was concentrated in the states and localities.

In 1839, John L. O’Sullivan, editor of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, memorably captured the postrevolutionary view of government:

The best government is that which governs least. No human depositories can, with safety, be trusted with the power of legislation upon the general interests of society, so as to operate directly . . . on the industry and property of the community Legislation has been the fruitful parent of nine-tenths of all evil, moral and physical, by which mankind . . . since the creation of the world has been self-degraded, fettered and oppressed.

The only proper purpose of legislation, according to O’Sullivan, was to protect individual rights. In domestic affairs, the action of legislatures

should be confined to the administration of justice, for the protection of the natural equal rights of the citizen, and the preservation of social order. In all other respects, the voluntary principle, the principle of freedom . . . affords the true golden rule. The natural laws which will establish themselves and find their own level are the best laws. This is the fundamental principle of the philosophy of democracy, to furnish a system of administration of justice, and then leave all the business and interests of society to themselves, to free competition and association—in a word, to the voluntary principle.

Government in America before the Civil War had limited power: Its primary responsibilities were to protect the nation fromforeign invasion, to preserve the peace, and to adjudicate disputes among citizens. Much beyond that, it dared not go. William Leggett summed up the prevailing political worldview with the following maxim, which he recommended “be placed in large letters over the speaker’s chair in all legislative bodies”: “do not govern too much.”

Indeed, too much government was not a feature of life in the early republic. As William Sampson, a recent émigré from Ireland, observed, “the government here makes no sensation; it is round about you like the air, and you cannot even feel it.” Americans, said Leggett, were an independent lot who wanted little to “no government to regulate their private concerns; to prescribe the course and mete out the profits of industry.” They wanted “no fireside legislators; no executive interference in their workshops and fields.” In America, wrote the 19th-century individualist Josiah Warren, “Everyone must feel that he is the supreme arbiter of his own [destiny], that no power on earth shall rise over him, that he is and always shall be sovereign of himself and all relating to his individuality.” America’s new-model man mostly just wanted to be left alone.

Over the course of a century, the American idea of freedom and the experience of life on the frontier worked together to create and define the uniquely American spirit—a spirit defined by honesty, adventure, energy, daring, industry, hope, idealism, enterprise, and benevolence.

Wherever there was a frontier in the early republic, government was especially thin, light, and weak. American pioneers, having broken free from the mother country, began a process of declaring independence from their own national and then their state governments, and, finally, from each other as they migrated in ever-increasing numbers to the western frontier, which continued to move toward the setting sun until the close of the 19th century. What was happening politically in late 18th- and early 19th-century America was unlike anything else seen anywhere in the world.

In the end, the new world order created by America’s Founding Fathers asked only three things of its citizens: first, that they not violate each other’s rights; second, that they live self-starting, self-reliant, self-governing lives by practicing certain uniquely American virtues and character traits (e.g., independence, initiative, industriousness, frugality, enterprise, creativity, adventurousness, courage, and optimism); and third, that they deal with each other by means of persuasion and voluntary trade. In return, the free society made certain promises to those who lived by the American creed: it promised to protect all citizens’ freedom and rights from domestic and foreign criminals; it promised to govern by the rule of law; and it promised a sphere of unfettered opportunity that made possible their pursuit of material and spiritual values undreamed of in other societies.

The changes wrought by the Revolution were truly momentous. The individual-rights revolution of 1776 launched the greatest moral, social, and political transformation not just in American history but also in world history. A new civilization—a republican civilization—was born, free from the dead weight of the past, free from the encrusted hierarchies of old-regime Europe, free from artificial privilege and haughty arrogance, free from ostentation, decadence, and corruption, free from vicious, medieval laws, free from overweening state power, and free from the cynicism of low expectations.

The society Tocqueville discovered in America did not experience a brutal revolutionary upheaval after 1776. There were no guillotines or revolutionary calendars that began with Year One. Instead, the moral, social, political, and economic revolution that followed the end of the War of Independence and the Treaty of Paris was unlike anything ever seen before. The revolution in thinking, principles, and sentiments that preceded 1776 resulted in a gradual, evolutionary, but thorough transformation in American life that blended the Revolution’s libertarian philosophy and the circumstances of life on an ever-expanding frontier.

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The American Mind in Practice

The American Revolution began as a revolution in ideas, but its ultimate success required that theory be translated into practice. Ultimately, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, the “American mind turns away from general ideas; it does not direct itself toward theoretical discoveries.” The whole purpose of the Declaration’s ideas was to liberate men to act.

The way of life associated with the American spirit of liberty was thus born of a fortuitous meeting between the ideas of men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the actions of men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. As the ideas of the Revolution spread westward through the Cumberland Gap, they were lived day by day on the frontier. Over the course of a century, the American idea of freedom and the experience of life on the frontier worked together to create and define the uniquely American spirit—a spirit defined by honesty, adventure, energy, daring, industry, hope, idealism, enterprise, and benevolence. American-style frontier republicanism was unlike anything ever seen anywhere in the world.

In Tocqueville’s America, “hardy adventurers”—avatars of Crèvecoeur’s new man—left the shelter of their “fathers’ roofs” and plunged “into the solitudes of America,” where they sought a “new native country.” They marched westward toward the“boundaries of society and wilderness.” Late 18th- and 19th-century American pilgrims chased a frontier that followed the direction of the setting sun. Living alone and far from the comforts of civilization, the “pioneer hastily fells some trees and raises a cabin under the leaves.” While all “is primitive and savage around him,” he brings with him the ideas that freed him to leave in the first place: he “plunges into the wilderness of the New World with his Bible, a hatchet, and newspapers.” 

Through this process, according to Tocqueville, the Americans are habituated “little by little to govern themselves.” Frontier life was partly defined by the absence of government (including legislatures, courts, police, and armies), all of which eventually followed. Until the end of the 19th century, a decent, law-abiding frontier American could pass through life and hardly see or feel a trace of government beyond the post office and the marshal. For the most part, the state left men and women alone. Despite the poverty and barbarism of his condition, America’s new man knows “what his rights are and what means he will use to exercise them.”

America once was and one hopes still can be a nation for the ambitious, hard-working, creative, productive, adventurous, and entrepreneurial. That is the meaning of Americanism and the spirit of American liberty.

In the half-century following the Revolution, these pioneering adventurers—many of whom, at least in the first wave, were veterans of the War of Independence—created a society the likes of which had never been seen before. The Americans destroyed the remnants of the ancien régime, with its artificial hierarchies and unchosen duties, regulations, and social stasis; in its place they created a dynamic society defined by equal rights, freedom, the pursuit of happiness, competition, and social mobility. They built both that society and its governments on the premise that individuals are self-owning, self-making, and self-governing.

Once men came to believe that they owned and controlled their own lives, free from the burden of overbearing government power, they began to pursue their own self-interested values and to explore new ways of conducting their lives. Freedom became the rallying cry for those seeking to challenge all forms of authority and to tear down traditional social, political, and economic barriers. In this new world, society preceded government, and the individual preceded society.

The new man who developed along with this new kind of political society was one of entrepreneurial energy and creativity. Nothing contributed more to this explosion of social vitality than the twin principles of freedom and rights. These conjoined ideas represented the most radical and most potent philosophical force let loose by the Revolution.

Within a couple of decades following the Declaration of Independence, the United States became—at least in the northern states—the freest nation in world history (at the same time, paradoxically, that the existence of slavery made it one of the least free). The Revolution brought new producers and consumers into the emerging market economy. It aroused and liberated previously dormant acquisitive impulses, and it freed the “natural aristocracy” promoted by Thomas Jefferson to build a new kind of hustling and bustling society.

It was a society of individuals constantly on the move. The people of the early republic were restless, rootless, and sometimes homeless. It was not uncommon for individuals and families to move—almost always westward—every few years. Nor was it uncommon for them to change jobs and professions. When Tocqueville toured the country, he encountered Americans “who [had] been successively attorneys, farmers, traders, evangelical ministers, doctors.” In Tocqueville’s America,

a man carefully builds a dwelling in which to pass his declining years, and he sells it while the roof is being laid; he plants a garden and he rents it out just as he was going to taste its fruits; he clears a field and he leaves to others the care of harvesting its crops. He embraces a profession and quits it. He settles in a place from which he departs soon after so as to take his changing desires elsewhere.

Should his private affairs give him some respite, he immediately plunges into the whirlwind of politics. And when toward the end of a year filled with work some leisure still remains to him, he carries his restive curiosity here and there within the vast limits of the United States. He will thus go five hundred leagues in a few days in order to better distract himself from his happiness.

In 1817, George Flower, an Englishman recently arrived on the Illinois prairie, was not convinced that the American people always lived up to the moral principles of the Declaration, but he was certain that the open space of the frontier environment aided in spreading freedom: “The practical liberty of America is found in its great space and small population. Good land, dog-cheap everywhere, and for nothing, if you will go for it, gives as much elbow-room to every man as he chooses to take,” Flower wrote. He continued: “Poor laborers, from every country in Europe, hear of this cheap land, are attracted to it, perhaps without any political opinions. They come, they toil, they prosper. This is the real liberty of America.” The distinctively American ethos associated with frontier life held that individuals are morally sovereign and that they therefore must be self-starting, self-governing, and self-reliant in order to succeed in life. They just needed, as Flower noted, a little elbow room.

Life on the frontier unleashed in America’s new man a primordial energy that would conquer a broad and wild continent and build a new kind of meritocratic society, defined by the natural aristocracy of ability, inventiveness, daring, and hard work. The new frontier ethos broke down Old World social barriers and hierarchies, replacing them with a social order that judged men not by their circumstances at birth but by what they made of their lives. The American frontier was the refuge where ambitious men and women could escape their past and the burden of living for others—the guilt, the pressure, and sometimes the compulsion to live one’s life for family, tribe, church, king, or state. It was the place where men and sometimes even women could reinvent themselves. Only in America could a man who came from nothing prove his ability and worth and become a man of accomplishment and wealth. Only in America could there be such a creature as the “self-made man.”

The ideal of the self-made man was a reality for many 19th-century Americans. Ironically, the best exposition of the self-made man as ideal and fact is found in the speech of a runaway slave, Frederick Douglass. In an 1859 lecture titled “Self-Made Men,” the former slave defined in unmistakable terms the story and the qualities of the quintessential American:

Self-made men . . . are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results. In fact they are the men who are not brought up but who are obliged to come up, not only without the voluntary assistance or friendly co-operation of society, but often in open and derisive defiance of all the efforts of society and the tendency of circumstances to repress, retard and keep them down. They are the men who, in a world of schools, academies, colleges and other institutions of learning, are often compelled by unfriendly circumstances to acquire their education elsewhere and, amidst unfavorable conditions, to hew out for themselves a way to success, and thus to become the architects of their own good fortunes. They are in a peculiar sense, indebted to themselves for themselves.

Douglass observed America’s self-made men all around him, and of course, he was the living embodiment of the ideal. Notably, he did not think that the success of the self-made man was due to accident or good luck. Instead, success in life could be explained, he insisted, “by one word and that word work! work!! work!!! Work!!!!”

A few Europeans who came to America were nonplussed by what they saw. In 1787, Charles Nisbet, a Scottish academic recently arrived in Pennsylvania, described the American Revolution as having “commenced on just and solid grounds.” It was “carried on,” he continued, “by honest, enlightened, noble-minded patriots” who were “prompted by a sincere love of rational liberty.” Still, this Old World professor did not quite fully understand or appreciate the new world created by the Revolution, which was made up of “discordant atoms, jumbled together by chance, and tossed by inconstancy in an immense vacuum.” Less than impressed, Nisbet complained that America lacked “a principle of attraction and cohesion.” He was mistaken.

This new American creed of “rational liberty” did not mean that its practitioners lived alienated and crabbed lives in atomistic isolation from one another. It did not mean that Americans were indifferent or unneighborly to each other, that they did not help each other during times of crisis or distress. Quite the opposite. These rugged American individualists joined together in bonds of civic friendship as they experienced and lived through seemingly never-ending disasters like floods, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, native attacks, and diseases such as smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, yellow fever, and influenza. The moral and political philosophy by which they lived their lives was no antisocial creed that confined men to their own spiritual cages. Together, as friends and neighbors, the westward-moving Americans built—literally—cabins, houses, barns, roads, canals, libraries, schools, colleges, villages, towns, and cities. Freedom produced unparalleled social cooperation.

From the Revolution to the Civil War, American society developed its own principles of attraction and cohesion that naturally melded its individual atoms into a common culture. The country was unified through a commercial system of natural liberty and a harmony of economic interests. Instead of anarchy, the natural system of liberty encouraged and generated new associations and bonds of civil cooperation.

Tocqueville observed that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.” Ordinary Americans voluntarily united with each other to form all kinds of benevolent associations in order to improve their material and spiritual lives. According to Tocqueville, the Americans not only have “commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; American use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.”

This, then, was the great paradox of American society: it united radical individualism with tight bonds of civil association. The former was responsible for the latter. It was e pluribus unum.

What made this revolutionary society unique was that the force and authority of government and the ties of land and blood were not what held it together, as was true of most countries of the Old World. The American people were united instead by self-interest, rights, freedom, money, benevolence, voluntary associations, and—most importantly—by a common moral ideal that was expressed so eloquently in the ringing phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ”

The American experiment in self-government truly was a novus ordo seclorum.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

An Afterthought

Tragically, though, the revolutionary society founded in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence and refounded in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation is now fraying. Americans are divided like never before. 

America is more fractured today than at any time since the Civil War. The American people are so polarized in 2019 that we might now speak of the “Disunited States of America” or the “United States of Hate”! 

Americans are irredeemably divided over Donald Trump, impeachment, capitalism, socialism, democracy, pronouns, abortion, marriage, immigration, climate change, reparations, Brett Kavanaugh, the Covington kids, free speech, drag queen reading hour, political correctness, and many other topics.

All of our cultural institutions—the schools, Boy Scouts, the NFL, the Oscars, soap operas, late-night television, Broadway, stand-up comedy—have become politicized and weaponized. We can’t even come together over the flag and national anthem.

From Charlottesville to Berkeley, street riots in the last two years have turned into violent pitched battles between armed gangs of masked street thugs representing the so-called alt-Left and the alt-Right. Ideologically motivated mass shootings are taking place in our schools, synagogues, churches, malls, and nightclubs. Some of our democratically elected politicians are calling for violence and some are the targets of harassment and violence. We are on the verge of lawlessness.

To make matters worse, few Americans believe that our political institutions are working. Just about half the nation thinks that the election of Donald Trump was illegitimate and the other half thinks the Democratic Party is engaged in a silent coup to overturn a democratic election of 2016.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that liberal and conservative Americans hate each other. There are now two Americas and the division is not between “haves” and “have nots” or between whites and blacks. The coastal, blue state, Ivy-educated ruling class has contempt for flyover, red state, trailer park deplorables and vice versa.

And where is all this leading us? This much is certain: to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a nation that hates itself cannot stand.

The time has come for Americans to rediscover the philosophy of Americanism, a philosophy which says that, despite our differences of race, ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or place of origin, all men and women are equally free, morally sovereign, and self-governing. This is the philosophy that inspired hundreds of millions of people from around the world to immigrate to America.

America once was and one hopes still can be a nation for the ambitious, hard-working, creative, productive, adventurous, and entrepreneurial. That is the meaning of Americanism and the spirit of American liberty.

Weekend Long Read

A Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic

We know what porn does to the brain, because the medical science is solid. Because social science is much softer, we can’t know for certain what causal impacts porn has on society, if any. But once we realize that we have to be much more humble in this area, we can still make prudential judgments.

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. I think many readers of this article will respond with outrage, and many will see it says things they already knew to be true—and I think these two groups will largely overlap. The most powerful obstacle to confronting a destructive addiction is denial, and collectively we are in denial about pornography.

Since it seems somehow relevant, let me state at the outset that I am French. Every fiber of my Latin, Catholic body recoils at puritanism of any sort, especially the bizarre, Anglo-Puritan kind so prevalent in America. I believe eroticism is one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind, prudishness a bizarre aberration, and not so long ago, hyperbolic warnings about the perils of pornography, whether from my Evangelical Christian or progressive feminist friends, had me rolling my eyes. 

Not anymore. I have become deadly serious. A few years ago, a friend—unsurprisingly, a female friend—mentioned that there was strong medical evidence for the proposition that online pornography is a lot more dangerous than most people suspect. Since I was skeptical, I looked into it. I became intrigued and kept following the evolving science, as well as online testimonies, off and on. It didn’t take me long to understand that my friend is right. In fact, the more I delved into the subject, the more alarmed I became.

The central contention of this article is that, however we might feel morally about pornography in general, a number of features about pornography as it has actually existed for the past decade or so, with the emergence of “Tube” sites that provide endless, instant, high-definition video in 2006, and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets since 2007, is fundamentally different from anything we’ve previously experienced. 

A scientific consensus is emerging that today’s porn is truly a public health menace: its new incarnation combines with some evolutionarily-designed features of our brain to make it uniquely addictive, on par with any drug you might name—and uniquely destructive. The evidence is in: porn is as addictive as smoking, or more, except that what smoking does to your lungs, porn does to your brain. 

The damage is real, and it’s profound. The scientific evidence has mounted: certain evolutionarily-designed features of our neurobiology not only mean that today’s porn is profoundly addictive, but that this addiction—which, at this point, must include the majority of all males—has been rewiring our brains in ways that have had a profoundly damaging impact on our sexuality, our relationships, and our mental health. 

Furthermore, I believe that it is also having a far-reaching impact on our social fabric as a whole—while it is impossible to demonstrate any cause-and-effect relationship scientifically beyond a reasonable doubt when it comes to broad social trends, I believe the evidence is still compelling or, at least, highly suggestive.

Indeed, it is so compelling that I now believe that online porn addiction is the number one public health challenge facing the West today.

If the evidence is so strong and the damage so deep and pervasive, why is nobody talking about this? Well—why did it take so long for society to admit, and respond to, the evidence on the harms of smoking? In part because, even when emerging scientific evidence is quite solid, in the best of worlds there is always a lag between specialists making a discovery and academic gatekeepers embracing it, thereby granting it the social stamp of authority of scientific consensus. In part it is because, for many of us, our background assumption is that “porn” means something similar to Playboy and lingerie catalogues. In part, it is because of widespread (and, in my view, mistaken) assumptions about what important values like free speech, gender equality, and sexual health entail. In part it is because deep-monied interests have a stake in the status quo. And in very large parts, it is because most of us are now addicts—and like good addicts, we are in denial. 

Porn Is the New Smoking

I’ve been a smoker since my early 20s. I have said things like, “I can quit any time,” “I just do it because I enjoy it,” “My grandmother smoked for decades and she’s perfectly healthy,” while feeling secret shame for not being able to climb a flight of stairs without losing my breath. No form of delusion is more powerful than self-delusion. 

Anti-porn advocates like the phrase “porn is the new smoking.” Call today the beginnings of the “Mad Men” stage of the process, then: the time when most people still see smoking as harmless, but the scientific evidence is starting to pile up, and the drip-drip-drip of new data is just starting to be heard beyond specialist circles of academia and the few kooks who had a hunch all along that this was nastier than it looked. We can hope, some time not too long from now, we will look at today’s jokes about PornHub with the same mix of bafflement and shame we feel when we see 1950s ads with slogans like “More Doctors Smoke Camel Than Any Other Cigarette.”

So, what is this new scientific data?

The first step is to look at the evidence on the effect of porn on the chemistry of the brain. It is an understatement to say that mammals, particularly males, are wired by evolution to seek out sexual stimulation. When we get it, a deep part of our brain called the reward center, which we share with most mammals and whose job it is to make us feel good when we do things we are evolutionarily designed to seek, releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. 

Dopamine is sometimes called “the pleasure hormone,” but this is an oversimplification; it would be more accurate to call it “the desire hormone” or “the craving hormone”. Crucially, the release of dopamine starts not with the reward itself, but with the anticipation of reward. The reward center’s job is to make us crave those things which we are evolutionarily designed to crave—starting with sex and food.

It’s not exactly a scoop that humans are wired to seek out sexual stimulation, is it? No, but today’s internet porn plays differently with our reward system. The design of mammals’ reward system causes something scientists call the Coolidge Effect. 

It is named after an old joke: President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady are separately visiting a farm. Mrs. Coolidge visits the chicken yard and sees the rooster mating a lot. She asks how often that happens, and is told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge responds, “Tell that to the president when he comes by.” Upon being told, the president asks, “Same hen every time?” “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

Hence, the Coolidge Effect. If you place a male rat in a box with several female rats in heat, the rat will immediately begin to mate with all the female rats, until it is utterly exhausted. The female rats, still wanting sexual congress, will nudge and lick the drained animal, but at some point he will simply stop responding—until you put a new female in the box, at which point the male will suddenly awaken and proceed to mate with the new female. 

Most of us are now addicts—and like good addicts, we are in denial. 

It’s a good (albeit corny) joke. But the Coolidge Effect is also one of the most robust findings in science. It has been replicated in all mammals, and most other animals (some species of cricket don’t have it). The evolutionary imperative is to spread genes as widely as possible, which makes the Coolidge Effect a very suitable adaptation. Neurochemically, this means that our brain produces more dopamine with novel partners. And—this is the crucial bit—on Tube sites, each new porn scene our brain interprets as a new partner. In a study, the same porn film was shown repeatedly to a group of men, and they found that arousal declined with each new viewing—until a new film was shown, at which point arousal shot right back up to the same level as when the men were shown the film the first time. 

This is one of the critical ways in which today’s porn is fundamentally different from yesterday’s: unlike Playboy, online porn provides literally infinite novelty with no effort. With Tube sites and a broadband connection, you can have a new clip—what your brain interprets as a new partner—literally every minute, every second. And with laptops, smartphones and tablets, they can be accessed everywhere, 24/7, immediately.

This can be likened to what Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen called a superstimulus: something artificial that provides a stimulus that our brains are evolutionarily wired to seek, but at a level way beyond what we are evolutionarily prepared to cope with, wreaking havoc on our brains. Tinbergen found that female birds could spend their lives struggling to sit on giant fake, brightly-colored eggs while leaving their own, paler eggs to die. An increasing number of scientists believe the obesity epidemic is the result of a superstimulus: products like refined sugar are textbook examples of an artificial version of something we’re designed to seek, in a concentrated form that doesn’t exist in nature and that our bodies aren’t prepared for. 

Evolution could not prepare our brains for the neurochemical rush of an always-on kaleidoscope of sexual novelty. This makes online porn uniquely addictive—just like a drug. Some scientists believe that the reason why chemical drugs can be so addictive is that they trigger our neurochemical reward mechanisms linked to sex; heroin addicts often claim that shooting up “feels like an orgasm.” A 2010 study on rats found that methamphetamine use activated the same reward systems and the same circuitry as sex.

(Along with dolphins and some higher primates, rats are the only mammals who mate for pleasure as well as reproduction; and humans’ sex reward systems are neurologically basically the same as rats’, since they are one of the least evolved parts of our brains. These factors make the little critters excellent test subjects for experiments on the neurochemistry of human sexuality. Yes, when it comes to sex, us men are basically rats. The more you know . . . )

What’s more, no one is born with a reward circuitry wired in their brain for alcohol, or cocaine—but everyone is born with a hardwired reward system for sexual stimulation. Addiction research has shown that not all people have a predisposition to addiction to chemical substances—only if you have a genetic predisposition can your brain’s reward system be tricked into mistaking a particular chemical for sex. This is why some people become alcoholics even after being exposed to moderate amounts of alcohol, while others (like me) can drink heavily without developing an addiction, or why some people can have just one cigarette at a party and then not worry about it while others (like me) must have their nicotine fix every day. By contrast, all of us have a predisposition to addiction to sexual stimulus. 

Another well-established evolutionary mechanism is something called the bingeing effect. We evolved under conditions of resource scarcity, which meant it was evolutionarily advantageous to have a reward system programmed to give us a very strong drive to binge whenever we hit a motherlode of something. But putting mammals wired for the bingeing effect in an environment of abundance can wreak havoc on their brains. (The bingeing effect has also been linked to obesity.)

If our reward system interprets each new porn clip as the same thing as a new sexual partner, this means an unprecedented sort of stimulus for our brain. Not comparable to Playboy, or even ’90s-era dial-up downloads. Even decadent Roman emperors, Turkish sultans, and 1970s rock stars never had 24/7, one-click-away-access to infinitely many, infinitely novel sexual partners.

The combination of a pre-existing natural circuit for neurochemical reward linked to sexual stimulus and the possibility of immediate, infinite novelty—which, again, was not a feature of porn until 2006—means that a user can now keep his dopamine levels much higher, and for much longer periods of time, than we can possibly hope our brains to handle without real and lasting damage. 

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Theory vs. Practice in Today’s Porn

So, that’s the theory. What about the practice? The evidence has been gradually piling up; at this point, we can say that the scientific evidence that online porn works on our brains just like cocaine or alcohol or tobacco, while recent, is very strong. 

A consensus has been slow to emerge in part because of a broader issue: addiction researchers traditionally have been reluctant to use “addiction” as a label for behaviors that don’t involve chemical substances, understandably so since our therapeutic culture tends to put many things under the label “addiction.” We all collectively rolled our eyes when prominent men felled by #MeToo piously blamed “sex addiction” and announced their intention to go to rehab, and we were right to.

But our cultural need to put all sorts of dysfunctional behavior under the addiction label (“shopping addiction”!) is not the same thing as the science of addiction, and advances in brain imaging techniques have tilted the scales in favor of the view that addiction is a brain disease, not a chemical disease.

A landmark 2016 paper  by Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in the New England Journal of Medicine, went over new neuroscience and brain imaging data and concluded that it supports the “brain disease model of addiction.” The scientific definition of addiction is shifting to one that looks at specific things happening inside the brain causing people to exhibit certain patterns of behavior, as opposed to whether a patient is hooked on a particular chemical compound.  

As we consume more and more porn, our brain is rewired so that what triggers the reward system that is supposed to be linked to sex is no longer linked to sex but to porn.

Online porn fits this model. Slowly, the evidence has been piling up, and it looks, by now, overwhelming: porn does do the same things to our brains as addictive substances.

A 2011 study on the self-reported experiences of 89 males found “parallels between cognitive and brain mechanisms potentially contributing to the maintenance of excessive cybersex and those described for individuals with substance dependence.” A 2014 Cambridge University study watched people’s brains through an MRI machine; Valerie Voon, the study’s lead author, summarized the findings thus: “There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviour and healthy volunteers.”

Another Cambridge University study the same year, this time comparing porn addicts’ responses to psychological tests to the responses of normal subjects, found that “sexually explicit videos were associated with greater activity in a neural network similar to that observed in drug-cue-reactivity studies.” Almost all of the neuroscience studies on this topic find the same result: online porn use does the same things to our brains as drug addiction. 

But don’t take my word for it. Scientists have done many reviews of the literature. Only one review that I am aware of, from 2014, disputes the idea of online porn addiction; it’s the only review that doesn’t look at brain and brain-scan studies, and combines studies from before the Tube era and after. Meanwhile, a thorough 2015 review of the neuroscience literature on internet porn found that “neuroscientific research supports the assumption that underlying neural processes (of online porn addiction) are similar to substance addiction” and that “Internet pornography addiction fits into the addiction framework and shares similar basic mechanisms with substance addiction.” Another 2015 review found that “Neuroimaging studies support the assumption of meaningful commonalities between cybersex addiction and other behavioral addictions as well as substance dependency.” A 2018 review found the same thing: 

Recent neurobiological studies have revealed that compulsive sexual behaviors are associated with altered processing of sexual material and differences in brain structure and function. . . . existing data suggest neurobiological abnormalities share communalities with other additions such as substance use and gambling disorders.

In January 2019, a team of researchers published a paper straightforwardly titled “Online Porn Addiction: What We Know and What We Don’t—A Systematic Review” which concluded, “as far as we know, a number of recent studies support (problematic use of online pornography) as an addiction.” It’s hard to call this anything but overwhelming evidence.

The studies have been done in numerous countries, and using various methods, from neuro-imaging to surveys to experiments and, to varying degrees, they all say the same thing. 

All right, you might respond, online porn addiction may be a real thing, but does that mean we need to freak out? After all, smoking and heroin will kill you, serious cannabis addiction will melt your brain, alcohol addiction will wreak havoc in your life—compared to that, how bad can porn addiction be?

The answer, it turns out, is: pretty bad.

Let’s start with what we all know about addiction: you need more and more of your drug to get less and less of a kick; this is the cycle which makes addiction so destructive. The reason for this is that addiction simply rewires the circuitry of our brain. 

When the reward center of our brain is activated, it releases chemicals that make us feel good. Mainly dopamine, as we’ve seen, and also a protein called DeltaFosB. Its function is to strengthen the neural pathways that dopamine travels, deepening the neural connection between the buzz we get and whatever we’re doing or experiencing when we get it. DeltaFosB is important for learning new skills: if you keep practicing that golf swing until you get it right, you feel a burst of joy—that’s dopamine—, while the accompanying release of DeltaFosB helps your brain remember how to do it again. It’s a very clever system.

But DeltaFosB is also responsible for making addiction possible. Addictive drugs activate the same nerve cells activated during sexual arousal, which is why we derive pleasure from them. But we become addicted to them when DeltaFosB, essentially, has reprogrammed our brain’s reward system, originally written to make us seek out sex (and food), to make it seek out that chemical instead. This is why addiction is so powerful: the addict’s urge is really our most powerful evolutionary urge, hijacked. And since online pornography is a sexual stimulus to begin with, we are all predisposed, and it takes much less rewiring for consumption to cause addiction.

As we’ll see, this neurobiological feature of our brains has far-reaching implications for the effect porn addiction has on us: on our sexuality, on our relationships, and even on society at large.

Porn Kills the Urge for Real Sex

Porn is a sexual stimulus, but it is not sex. Notoriously, heroin addicts eventually lose interest in sex: this is because their brains are rewired so that their sex reward system is reprogrammed to seek out heroin rather than sex. In the same way, as we consume more and more porn, which we must since it is addictive and we need more to get the same kick, our brain is rewired so that what triggers the reward system that is supposed to be linked to sex is no longer linked to sex—to a human in the flesh, to touching, to kissing, to caressing—but to porn.  

Which is why we are witnessing a phenomenon which, as best as anyone can tell, is totally unprecedented in all of human history: an epidemic of chronic erectile dysfunction (ED) among men under 40. The evidence is earth-shattering: since the Kinsey report in the 1940s, studies have found roughly the same, stable rates of chronic ED: less than 1 percent among men younger than 30, less than 3 percent in men aged 30-45. 

As of this writing, at least ten studies published since 2010 report a tremendous rise in ED. Rates of ED among men under 40 ranged from 14 percent to 37 percent, and rates of low libido from 16 percent to 37 percent. No variable related to youthful ED has meaningfully changed since then, except for one: the advent of on-demand video porn in 2006. It’s worth repeating: we went from less than 1 percent of erectile dysfunction in young men to 14 to 37 percent, an increase of several orders of magnitude. 

Online forums are full of anguished reports from young men about ED. An agonizing story is eerily common: a young man has his first sexual experience; his girlfriend is willing, he loves her or at least is attracted to her, but finds himself simply unable to sustain an erection (though he is perfectly able to maintain one when he watches porn). Many more report a milder version of the same problem: during sex with their girlfriend, they must visualize pornographic movies in their heads to sustain their erection. They are not fantasizing about something they like more: they want to be present, want to be aroused by a real woman’s scent and touch. They understand perfectly well how absurd it is to be more attracted by the substitute than by the real thing, and it distresses them. Some must put hardcore pornography on in the background in order to be able to have sex with their girlfriends (and, incredibly, the girlfriends agree to this). 

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Fred Wilson, an internet venture capitalist and thought leader, commenting on digital natives’ uncanny ease with new technology, once quipped that there are only two kinds of people: those who first got access to the internet after they lost their virginity, and those who got it before. My family got the internet in the late ’90s when I was a preteen, and so I belong to the latter category, and yet I feel like Grandpa Simpson when I read those testimonies and compare them to my early sexual experiences (which were, I assure you, quite unremarkable). Then again, back in my day, cars got 40 rods to the hogshead, and online pornography meant an endless maze of text link directories and broken search engines with dead links, slow-to-load images, short video clips you had to download, frustrating paywalls guarding the “good stuff”—not Tube sites with infinite, immediate, streaming, high-definition video, 24/7, in your pocket, for free, driven by powerful algorithms designed by data scientists to maximize user engagement. 

Imagine that we discovered that some bacteria were causing ED to jump from 1 percent to 14 to 37 percent—there would be a national panic, cable news networks would go wall-to-wall, Congress would be holding hearings every day, state and federal prosecutors would be on a hunt for perpetrators to make the Mueller and Starr investigations look like an Amazon customer satisfaction survey. Collectively, we would take very seriously the alarming possibility that anything that could cause something like this was bound to have other, likely profound, effects on human health and social life. 

Last year, an article in The Atlantic went viral after it decried a “sex recession” among young people. Young people are simply having less and less sex. The author, Kate Julian, noted that the phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States but is prevalent across the West—Sweden’s health minister called its declining sex rates (even Sweden is having less sex!) “a political problem,” in part because it risks negatively impacting the country’s fertility. 

Julian also noted that Japan has been a precursor, entering its sex recession earlier—and that it is also “among the world’s top producers and consumers of porn, and the originator of whole new porn genres” and “a global leader in the design of high-end sex dolls.” To her credit, she seriously looked into porn as a probable cause for the sex recession, although none of the voluminous subsequent commentary on the piece I can recall reading discussed this potential cause. 

Now, a conservative like myself might think that young people having less sex might not be such a bad thing! And it is true that over the same period, pathologies such as teen pregnancies and teen STDs have declined. Except that whatever the causes, I think we can safely rule out a religious revival or a sudden upsurge of traditional values. Whatever we might believe men should do about their sexual urges, if young healthy men aren’t having sexual urges at all in massive, unprecedented numbers, that is surely a sign of something wrong with their health.

Warping the Brain

Perhaps young people aren’t having sex because the men can’t get it up. Or perhaps it’s because women don’t want to have sex with those men who can do it, but whose brains have been warped by porn.

Because porn does warp the brain. The basic mechanism of porn addiction, you’ll recall, is that when we watch porn, we get a jolt of dopamine, and when we do, we get a follow-up dose of DeltaFosB that rewires our brain to link sexual desire with porn—but not just to any porn. To the porn we watch. 

Remember the Coolidge Effect: the thing that causes a veritable flood of dopamine and makes online porn a “superstimulus” that breaks our brains, unlike Uncle Ted’s Playboy collection, is novelty. 

Like all addictions, online porn has diminishing returns. We need more. We need new. And the easiest way to get it—especially on Tube sites, which, like YouTube and Netflix, “helpfully” provide suggestions all around the video you’re watching, generated by algorithms programmed to keep viewers glued and coming back—is new genres. Just a click away. And there’s infinitely many. 

Virtually all pornography, very much including the “vanilla stuff,” has grown more extreme, more violent, and specifically more misogynistic and degrading towards women.

In 2014, researchers at the Max Planck Institute used fMRI to look at the brains of porn users. They found that more porn use correlated with less grey matter in the reward system, and less reward circuit activation while viewing sexual photos—in other words, porn users were desensitized. “We therefore assume that subjects with high pornography consumption require ever stronger stimuli to reach the same reward level,” the authors wrote.

Another study, this time from Cambridge University in 2015, also used fMRI, this time to compare the brains of sex addicts and healthy patients. As the accompanying press release put it, the researchers found that “when the sex addicts viewed the same sexual image repeatedly, compared to the healthy volunteers they experienced a greater decrease of activity in the region of the brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, known to be involved in anticipating rewards and responding to new events. This is consistent with ‘habituation’, where the addict finds the same stimulus less and less rewarding.” 

But it’s not just sex addicts who show this behavior. When the healthy patients repeatedly were shown the same porn video, they got less and less aroused; but, “when they then view a new video, the level of interest and arousal goes back to the original level.” In other words, it doesn’t take much for the addiction mechanism to kick in, since we’re already genetically predisposed to seek out sexual stimulus.

The bottom line is the syndrome doesn’t just make us crave more, it makes us crave novelty. And what kind of novelty, specifically? Empirically, it’s not just any kind of novel. In practice, what most triggers the Coolidge Effect is what produces surprise, or shock. In other words, like water flowing downhill, we are drawn to porn that is increasingly taboo—specifically, more violent and degrading. 

The Disturbing Shock Drive of Porn

Recently, comedian Ryan Creamer became a viral online sensation after it surfaced that he had created a channel on PornHub, the world’s biggest “YouTube for porn” site, where he posted, as Buzzfeed aptly described it, “hilariously wholesome and uplifting videos.” Creamer’s G-rated videos invert online porn clichés, featuring him in his best impression of Ned Flanders, with titles like “I Hug You and Say I Had a Really Good Time Tonight” and “POV FOREHEAD KISS COMPILATION” (“POV” stands for “point of view,” or videos filmed from a character’s first-person perspective; compilations are a rising online porn genre, another data point to show widespread habituation: even a new video doesn’t have enough novelty, we need quick-cut montages). 

None of the commentary pointed out the obvious implication: his stunt captured people’s imagination precisely because almost all of PornHub—what its sophisticated algorithms know its viewers want—is not just pornographic in some abstract sense, but nasty, shocking, and degrading. 

One of Creamer’s videos is titled “I, Your Step Brother, Decline Your Advances but Am Flattered Nonetheless”; last year, Esquire reported) that “incest is the fastest growing trend in porn.” (Tube sites ban videos that explicitly refer to incest, but it is still full of videos featuring “stepdads” and “stepmoms” and “half-brothers” that everyone understands to mean “dads,” “moms,” and “brothers.”) 

Another rising popular genre has been so-called “interracial” porn, which nearly always means a specific type of interracial congress: black men and white women. The genre is inevitably based on the worst racial stereotypes and imagery. And interracial porn not only has been getting more popular, and more degrading to women, but more racist. As conservative writers who opposed Trump in 2016 found out from their Twitter mentions, a newly popular genre is “cuckolding,” which involves a white man watching his wife or girlfriend have sex with a black man (or several). When mainstream media outlets notice the phenomenon, it is taken as evidence of white Americans’ deep racism. No doubt buried racial attitudes must play a role, but consider the trendline; if hidden racism is the main cause, why should racist porn suddenly explode in popularity while most surveys say racial attitudes are either holding steady or slowly improving? If you keep in mind the sudden popularity of incest porn, the hypothesis that it is widespread desensitization due to addiction which is causing the rise becomes much more plausible. 

It’s worth pausing to note the denial-driven disconnect between what we talk about and what we all know to be happening. Earlier this year, the country went into a moral panic when it was discovered the governor of Virginia had once worn blackface as part of a costume as a medical student; meanwhile, there is a massively popular and fast-growing genre of entertainment that makes minstrel shows look like a racial sensitivity seminar, and almost nobody talks about it. 

Shock is what best triggers the Coolidge Effect, and taboo-breaking is shocking, by definition; it is a Pavlovian response to shock and surprise from our rat-like reward system. If we had a deep societal taboo against humping tables, table-humping porn suddenly would be exploding in popularity. Instead, we have deep societal taboos against incest, racism . . . and violence against women.

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Intensifying the High

Kink dot com is one of the top brands in porn. The studio’s specialty is extreme fetishes related to BDSM. Its trajectory is telling. The site was founded all the way back in the dark ages of the internet, in 1997. Sado-masochism as a sexual fetish is as old as man, of course—the 2nd-century Roman poet Juvenal mocks it in his Satires, for example. But, as best as we can tell, like most fetishes it has only ever appealed to a small minority throughout human history. And indeed, Kink spent the better part of its first decade in existence humming along out of view, a little-known small business serving its niche. 

Then, some time in the mid-to-late 2000s, the site exploded in popularity, to the point of becoming as close to a cultural phenomenon as a porn site can be. You can trace its sudden growth in popularity—and mainstream appeal. In 2007, the New York Times Magazine profiled the company. In 2009, it received its first mainstream adult industry award. In 2013, the Hollywood actor James Franco produced a documentary about the company.

That same year, the writer Emily Witt wrote a long, meditative first-person essay for the intellectual progressive magazine n+1 on modern sexuality. For her report, among other things, she attended a shoot for “Public Disgrace,” one of Kink’s “channels” that features, as its tagline says, “women bound, stripped, and punished in public.” The filmings happen in public places like bars or shops that the company rents out for the occasion, and strangers off the street are invited to perform sexual acts on the “bound, stripped” actress. 

Kink has expanded and expanded to match its sudden success, going from a handful of channels to, as of this writing, 78, and spawning an array of copycats (many even more extreme, naturally). While the company’s PR materials boast of a feminist, egalitarian, empowering view of sexuality, almost all of its actual content features men degrading women rather than the other way around.

Kink’s rise from niche to marquee just happens to coincide with the arrival of Tube sites in 2006, which are uniquely effective at triggering the Coolidge Effect and turning porn addicts into novelty-seeking machines. It’s important to note that, while an attraction to what you might call “light kink”—fluffy pink handcuffs, a rhinestone-bedazzled blindfold, that sort of thing—has been hovering around in our popular culture for decades, and therefore some version of this has been part of pornography for ages, Kink is the real article. It’s not just acting. Women are caned and whipped until they are bruised and red. Not only are the sex acts themselves extreme (you name it, it’s there), but scenes are scripted around the psychological and symbolic, not just physical, degradation of the woman. Fifty Shades of Grey is to Kink as a Hitchcock movie is to a snuff film. 

When the films have a storyline, it can usually be summed up with one word: rape. Or two words: brutal rape. It’s one thing to be aroused by a sadomasochistic scene where the sub (as the term of art goes) is shown visibly enjoying the treatment; it’s quite another to be aroused by watching a woman scream in agony and despair as she is held down and violently raped. 

One series of Kink videos is based on the following concept: the pornstar is alone in a room with several men; the director explains to her (and we watch) that if she can leave the room, she gets cash; for each article of clothing she still has on at the end of the scene, she gets cash; for each sex act that one of the men gets to perform on her, he gets cash and she loses money. One has to grant them a devilish kind of cleverness: it lets them enact an actual violent rape with legal impunity. The woman really resists; the men really force themselves brutally on her. Of course, she “consented” to the whole thing, which, somehow, makes it legal. 

Kink is a revealing example because of its particular focus on degradation, and its sudden, inexplicable, overnight jump from a little-known niche site to one of the most popular media brands of any kind on the planet, right after Tube sites appeared. But the key phenomenon is that virtually all pornography, very much including the “vanilla stuff,” has grown more extreme, and specifically more violent, and specifically more misogynistic and degrading towards women. Oh, nonviolent pornography still exists, if you can find it. What used to be mainstream is now niche, and vice versa. 

I want to carefully unpack this so that what I’m saying isn’t misunderstood. For whatever reasons, male fantasies around female reluctance, around power, coercion, and domination, are as old as life itself (as indeed are female fantasies on these themes). Genres of pornography, and sexual fantasy more broadly, that happen in the grey areas, even dark grey areas, of female consent to sex, have always been around and have always been popular. It’s therefore tempting to look at something like Kink, and the general rise in degrading porn, as simply just another manifestation of that age-old proclivity, and not some new thing. But this is just not true. 

Once you are addicted to online porn, the thing that provides the biggest dopamine jolt is whatever is most shocking.

Historically, sexual fantasies that involved some measure of coercion may have aroused many men, but those same men were disgusted by violent rape and brutal degradation. The point is not to “defend” the former or to deny that they represent something dark and condemnable in the human soul—of course they do. The point is simply to say that something has changed, seriously, dramatically, and seemingly overnight. 

We are told that people’s sexual proclivities are hard-wired from birth or perhaps from early childhood experiences, but science says they can and do change. In a famous experiment, researchers sprayed female rats—yes, rats again—with the odor of a dead rat body, which rats instinctively flee from, and introduced virgin male rats. The male rats mated with the females nonetheless—so far, so mammalian. But, crucially, when those same male rats were later placed in a cage with various toys, they preferred to play with the ones that smelled like death. The sexual stimulus had rewired their reward system. In a scientific survey of online porn users in Belgium, 49 percent “mentioned at least sometimes searching for sexual content or being involved in [online sexual activities] that were not previously interesting to them or that they considered disgusting.”

Once you are addicted to online porn, the thing that provides the biggest dopamine jolt is whatever is most shocking. And the reward cycle means you need a bigger dopamine boost every time—something newer, more shocking. And each time, DeltaFosB rewires your brain, creating and strengthening the Pavlovian mechanism by which you do become attracted to those shocking images, and in the process overwriting the neural pathways which link normal sex—you know, nonviolent, non-incestuous—to the reward center. 

Crucially, this overturns the prevailing narrative on porn’s impact on our sexuality. This says that the only problem with deviant porn is viewers thinking “it’s normal,” and therefore, as long as they are educated that it is not, they can safely enjoy their fantasy without harming themselves or their partners. It would be better if it were so, but the evidence shows that this is dead wrong. Alcoholics don’t drink themselves to an early grave because they somehow haven’t been made aware of enough facts about the dangers of drinking—indeed, they know all too well, and the shame this causes is a classic trigger for more bingeing. 

Porn works at the same fundamental level, the level of our primal, rat-like, reward center, the part of our brain honed by millions of years of evolution to be the wellspring of our most powerful urges. Porn doesn’t change what we think, at least not directly, it changes what we crave.

Changing What We Crave

In 2007, two researchers tried to do an experiment, initially unrelated to porn, studying sexual arousal in men in general. They tried to induce the subjects’ arousal in a lab setting by showing them video porn, but ran into a (to them) shocking problem: half of the men, who were aged 29 on average, couldn’t get aroused. The horrified researchers eventually identified the problem: they were showing them old-fashioned porn—the researchers presumably were older and less internet-savvy than their subjects.

“Conversations with the subjects reinforced our idea that in some of them a high exposure to erotica seemed to have resulted in a lower responsivity to ‘vanilla sex’ erotica and an increased need for novelty and variation, in some cases combined with a need for very specific types of stimuli in order to get aroused,” they wrote

Incredibly, porn can even affect our sexual orientation. A 2016 study found that “many men viewed sexually explicit material (SEM) content inconsistent with their stated sexual identity. It was not uncommon for heterosexual-identified men to report viewing SEM containing male same-sex behavior (20.7 percent) and for gay-identified men to report viewing heterosexual behavior in SEM (55.0 percent).” Meanwhile, in its “2018 Year in Review,” PornHub disclosed that “interest in ‘trans’ (aka transgender) porn saw significant gains in 2018, in particular with a 167 percent increase in searches by men and more than 200 percent with visitors over the age of 45 (becoming the fifth most searched terms by those aged 45 to 64).” 

When this phenomenon is discussed at all, the prevailing narrative is that these men are repressed and discover their “true” sexual orientation through porn—except that the men report that the attraction goes away when they quit online porn. 

This is astonishing. The point is not to try to start a moral panic about the internet turning men gay—the point is that it’s not turning them gay. 

But perhaps it’s turning at least some men into something else. Andrea Long Chu is the name of an American transgender writer, who writes with admirable honesty about her gender transition and experience. For example, Chu braved criticism from trans activists by writing in a New York Times essay about the links between her gender transition and chronic depression, and denying that her transition operation will make her happy. In a paper at an academic conference at Columbia, Chu asked: “Did sissy porn make me trans?” Sissy porn is a genre—again, once extremely obscure and inexplicably, suddenly growing into the mainstream—where men dressed like women perform sex acts with men in stereotypically submissive, female roles. Sissy porn is closely related to the genre known as “forced feminization,” which is pretty much just what it sounds like. In a recent book, Chu essentially answers her own question: “Yes.” 

It’s unclear—unknowable, perhaps—to what extent Chu’s experience matches up with the increasing rate of sexual transitions, but even if her example is purely anecdotal, it should serve to underscore the point: porn rewires our brain at a fundamental level and changes what we crave. And that should alarm us regardless of what we believe about transgender issues.

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Porn Also Affects Relationships 

Let’s pause and review: we’ve established that today’s porn is neurochemically addictive like a hard drug, and that this addiction is having a widespread and alarming impact on sexuality, from never-before-seen rates of erectile dysfunction to the growing popularity of extreme fetishes to (potentially) the “sex recession.” That’s surely bad. 

But, to play devil’s advocate, is it really that bad? 

Alcoholism or heroin addiction, say, will not just wreck someone’s sexuality—which they will—but their entire lives and those of people around them. Directly and indirectly, they are responsible for countless deaths every year. It sounds like we should be concerned about porn, sure, but should we really hit the panic button? 

Well, one preliminary answer is that porn addiction affects our lives beyond just sexuality—which makes intuitive sense since, after all, sex touches all areas of our lives.

First, porn affects addicts’ views of women. The idea that porn is “just a fantasy”—that watching degrading porn doesn’t make one more likely to develop misogynistic or sexual pathological tendencies any more than watching a Jason Bourne movie means you’re likely to start punching and shooting people—may or may not have been true in the Playboy era, but it’s definitely not true now. 

A 2015 literature review looked at 22 studies from seven different countries and found a link between consumption of online pornography and sexual aggression.

An academic review of no less than 135 peer-reviewed studies found “consistent evidence” linking online porn addiction to, among other things, “greater support for sexist beliefs,” “adversarial sexist beliefs,” a “greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women,” as well as “a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.” 

To repeat: a diminished view of women’s . . . morality, and humanity. What have we done?

Given all of that, from endemic ED to increased sexual fetishism and even misogyny, it should come as no surprise that porn addiction is having a negative impact on relationships. 

A 2017 meta-analysis of 50 studies, collectively including more than 50,000 participants from 10 countries, found a link between pornography consumption and “lower interpersonal satisfaction outcomes,” whether in cross-sectional surveys, longitudinal surveys, or laboratory experiments. 

Another study of nationally representative data found that porn use was a strong predictor of “significantly lower levels of marital quality”—the second strongest predictor of all the variables in the survey. This effect showed after the authors controlled for confounding variables like dissatisfaction with sex life and marital decision-making: this suggests that porn use correlates with marital unhappiness not because spouses who become unhappy turn to porn, but rather that porn is the cause of the unhappiness. 

Yet another study, using representative data from the General Social Survey, polling thousands of American couples every year from 2006 to 2014, found that “beginning pornography use between survey waves nearly doubled one’s likelihood of being divorced by the next survey period.” Most terrifying, the study found the group whose probability of divorce increased the most was couples who initially reported being “very happy” in their marriage and began using porn afterward. 

The rebound effect of porn addiction on girlfriends and wives is very real. Popular culture is adamant that a liberated, open-minded woman must be relaxed about her partner’s use of porn. On “Friends,” that Rosetta’s Stone of American culture, Chandler’s chronic masturbation during his relationship with Monica was a recurring gag, and each time the show’s writers made the point of showing us Monica approved. In fact, despite the brainwashing, surveys say that large numbers of women disagree with their men using pornography while in a committed relationship. Finding out that your partner uses porn is often experienced, if not as a form of betrayal, then at least as a form of rejection—probably made worse by the fact that she “knows” she “can’t” object, and also by the fact that (unlike in the “Friends” era) she also knows that porn almost certainly means violent, degrading, misogynistic stuff (or worse). 

The most obvious negative impact is on body image and self-esteem. A majority of women in one study described the discovery that their man uses porn as “traumatic“; they not only felt less desirable, they reported feelings of lower self-worth. Some women can experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2016 survey of men aged 18 to 29 found

the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image. Further, higher pornography use was negatively associated with enjoying sexually intimate behaviors with a partner.

We can’t prove a direct causal link between porn addiction and the “sex recession,” but come on: even putting aside skyrocketing ED, given what porn addiction does to male sexuality, from the female perspective, sex with a male porn addict sounds like an experiment you don’t want to repeat—and at this point, it’s a fair bet that most young men are porn addicts.

Given all this, while we don’t have enough research yet to make a scientifically-conclusive judgment, I highly suspect a link between male (especially teen) porn use and the widely-reported and sudden increase in depression and other neuropathologies among young women. Writing as a former teenage male, I will posit that even in the best of times most teenage males are not the best kinds of human beings, especially for teenage girls; I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to be a teenage girl when close to 100 percent (as we might safely assume) of the potential relationship pool is porn-addicted.

Not that pornography only affects sexual and romantic relationships. Porn causes loneliness. In part, this is because it is true of all addiction, which typically causes powerful feelings of shame that make us want to avoid or even push away other people. And addiction causes us to engage in antisocial behavior: though I wasn’t able to find a study, there are many online testimonies of people losing their job because they couldn’t stop themselves visiting porn sites at work. 

According to a study by Ana Bridges, a University of Arkansas psychologist who focuses on porn’s impact on relationships, online porn users report “increased secrecy, less intimacy and also more depression.”

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Porn Addiction Causes Brain Damage

Once we understand today’s porn, it makes intuitive sense that it would negatively affect relationships, given its impact on sexuality, views of women, and the impact of any addiction on social life and well-being generally. But what about its effects on the rest of human life? Again, porn is the new smoking—and what smoking does to your lungs, porn does to your brain. How could that not affect everything we do?

How does that work? Remember, compulsive porn use causes the release of the substance DeltaFosB, whose job is to rewire our brains. This is how over time, addiction doesn’t just make someone crave more and more of something, but also insidiously turns him into a different person. 

Perhaps the most striking and far-reaching discovery in neuroscience over the past 20 years has been the idea of neuroplasticity. Scientists used to think of the brain as a kind of machine, like an extremely intricate clock or circuit board, whose structure is basically settled once and for all, at birth or at some time in early childhood. 

It turns out that our brain is much more complex and organic. It is constantly changing, constantly rewiring itself, constantly transforming. The various functions of our brains are performed by neural pathways, and the analogy is that they are like muscles. Aristotle was right—you are what you repeatedly do. That is largely good news, but there is one downside: neuroplasticity is a competitive process. When you “work out” one part of your brain intensely, it will essentially steal resources from nearby areas of the brain to “pump itself up” if these are left dormant.

It’s easy enough to see how that works out when someone suffers from addiction. Every time you light up, or shoot up, or watch porn, that is like an intense “workout” for one set of neural “muscles”—which drains resources away from the rest of the brain. 

Specifically, the release of DeltaFosB that comes with porn use weakens our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is everything the rat brain is not; it is because humans have a big prefrontal cortex that we have civilization. This is the thinking part of the brain, which calculates risk, controls impulses, allows us to project ourselves into the future and therefore plan, and handles abstract and rational thinking. In terms of Plato’s famous chariot allegory, which describes reason as a charioteer whose job is to lead the two unruly horses, Thymoides, our temperament, and Epithymetikon, our base instincts, the prefrontal cortex is the charioteer. 

Neuroimaging studies have shown that addicts develop “hypofrontality,” the technical term for an impaired prefrontal cortex. People with hypofrontality exhibit lower amounts of gray matter, abnormal white matter, and a reduced ability to process glucose (which is the brain’s fuel) in the prefrontal cortex. 

Given what we know porn does to the brain, and given that we know that the younger the brain the more plastic it is, it is a near certainty that whatever porn addiction does to adults, it’s going to do to minors—except much worse.

Hypofrontality manifests in a decline in what psychologists call executive function. As the name executive function suggests, this is a pretty important feature of our minds. Executive function includes our decision-making faculties, our ability to control impulses, to evaluate risk, reward, and danger. Yes, just that. Scientists don’t fully understand how addiction causes hypofrontality, but it makes intuitive sense that the two should be linked. Addiction is such a bane because even as our urges for the next hit get stronger, our capacity to control urges weakens. The horses get carried away even as the charioteer’s arms go weak. 

I have found close to 150 brain studies that find evidence of hypofrontality in internet addicts—which, it’s safe to assume, is nearly synonymous with internet porn addicts, at least for males—and more than a dozen that have found signs of hypofrontality in sex addicts or porn users. 

That’s right: porn addiction literally atrophies the most important part of our brain.

A 2016 study split current porn users into two groups: one group who abstained from their favorite food for three weeks, and one group who abstained from porn for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, porn users were less able to delay gratification. Because this is a study with a randomly-assigned control group, it’s solid evidence for a causal link (rather than just a correlation) between porn use and lower self-control. 

Here are some other cognitive problems that scientific studies have linked to porn use: decreased academic performance, decreased working memory performance, decreased decision-making ability, higher impulsivity and lower emotion regulation, higher risk aversion, lower altruism, higher rates of neurosis. These are all symptoms related to hypofrontality. 

Other studies have found links between porn and high stress, social anxiety, romantic attachment anxiety and avoidance, narcissism, depression, anxiety, aggressiveness, and poor self-esteem. These aren’t direct symptoms of hypofrontality, but it’s easy to see how someone with impaired executive function would be at greater risk of developing any number of those pathologies. The studies generally find that the more porn use, the greater these problems. 

So neuroplasticity means that porn addiction, by strengthening certain neural pathways in the brain, weakens others, especially those related to executive function. 

But there’s another alarming implication for what neuroplasticity means for porn addiction: while we now know that, at any age, the brain is much more plastic than we previously thought, there is still no doubt that, all else being equal, the younger we are the more plastic our brains. You can learn, say, a foreign language or a musical instrument at any age, but there is a level of skill that you will only ever achieve if you start young. Our brains are always plastic, but they are still much more plastic when we are young. Furthermore, when certain pathways are solidified at a young age, they tend to stay that way, because while it is still possible to change them later on in life, it is much harder. 

The Impact of Porn on the Child Brain

This brings us to another enormous taboo related to porn: say whatever you will about adults consuming it, in theory we all agree that children shouldn’t be exposed to it—yet in reality, we all know just as well that they are. In prodigious amounts. Just as we know that the porn sites do absolutely nothing to prevent kids from consuming it. 

The statistics are terrifying. According to a 2013 Spanish study, “63 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls were exposed to online pornography during adolescence,” including “bondage, child pornography, and rape.” According to the British Journal of School Nursing, “children under 10 now account for 22 percent of online porn consumption under 18.”

A 2019 literature review found the following negative effects, drawing from more than 20 studies: “regressive attitudes towards women,” “sexual aggression,” “social maladjustment,” “sexual preoccupation,” and “compulsivity.” One study found “an increase in incidents of peer sex abuse among children and that the perpetrator commonly had been exposed to pornography in many of these incidents.” The review also found that “studies of girls’ exposure to pornography as children suggest that it has an impact on their constructs of self.” Among other negative effects, studies of teens more specifically found a “relationship between pornography exposure and . . . social isolation, misconduct, depression, suicidal ideation, and academic disengagement.” 

Furthermore, “children of both sexes who are exposed to pornography are more likely to believe that the acts they see, such as anal sex and group sex, are typical among their peers.”

It’s harder to show a direct causal link scientifically, but it still stands to reason that there should be a link between the porn explosion and the widely documented explosion in mental health problems among teenagers.

While the causes of what’s been called a mental health crisis among teenagers are hotly disputed, the actual facts are not: according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an official government survey which looks at a very broad cross-section of Americans—over 600,000— “from 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent. Depression surged 69 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017. Twice as many 22- to 23-year-olds attempted suicide in 2017 compared with 2008, and 55 percent more had suicidal thoughts,” writes San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge. 

So the teenage mental health crisis began around 2009, right after smartphones and Tube sites changed the nature of porn. Again, not scientific proof of a causal link, but certainly suggestive.

The bottom line is this: given what we know porn does to the brain, and given that we know that the younger the brain the more plastic it is, it is a near certainty that whatever porn addiction does to adults, it’s going to do to minors—except much worse. This is something we must conclude simply from knowing about the basic facts of human neurobiology, even without taking into account any negative psychological effects of exposure of children to hardcore pornography. 

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Might Porn Cause Societal Collapse?

I have tried to be as careful as possible and only to lay out carefully-drawn scientific arguments. We can, and should, debate morality, but we should be clear about facts. And in a world where a million articles claim everything and its opposite on the basis of some “study,” I wanted to be as precise as possible about what we can know scientifically about porn, with a high degree of certainty, versus things we can strongly suspect, albeit not prove. 

We know what porn does to the brain, because the medical science is solid. Because social science is much softer, we can’t know for certain what causal impacts porn has on society, if any. But once we realize that we have to be much more humble in this area, we can still make prudential judgments.

Remember the sex recession? It seems that Japan is a precursor in all kinds of recession: just as it went first into the zero interest rate economic environment that the rest of the rich world has been experiencing since 2008, and which looks more like a new permanent state with each passing day, Japan also entered its sex recession a decade before us. Japan also got broadband internet earlier than the rest of the world. Could it be that Japan is an example of what’s likely to happen to us if we don’t do something about porn addiction? 

Since Japan got broadband internet, the younger generations have gone through significant social changes. “In 2005, a third of Japanese single people ages 18 to 34 were virgins; by 2015, 43 percent of people in this age group were, and the share who said they did not intend to get married had risen, too. (Not that marriage was any guarantee of sexual frequency: A related survey found that 47 percent of married people hadn’t had sex in at least a month.),” The Atlantic’s Kate Julian wrote in her article on the sex recession. 

In Japan, this new generation of sexless men—and the Japanese sex recession is caused by men’s lack of interest, to the vocal dismay of young Japanese women, if media reports are to be trusted—are known as soushoku danshi, literally “grass-eating men”—in a word, herbivores. The epithet was originally coined by a frustrated female columnist but, incredibly, the herbivores aren’t offended and most of them are happy to identify as such. 

Given Japan’s population decline, the herbivores, who have become a massive subculture, are a subject of national debate in Japan, Slate’s Alexandra Harney reports. And what seems to define the herbivores is not just that they have no interest in sex, it’s that they don’t seem to be interested in much of anything at all. 

They tend to live with their parents. After all, it’s hard to find a place to live when you don’t have a steady job, which herbivores say they don’t look for, because they’re not interested in a professional career. Not that they’re opting out of productive society to focus on, say, art, or activism, or some other form of creativity or counter-culture. Apparently, one of the few hobbies that seem to be popular among herbivores is . . . going on walks. To be fair, walking is an important part of digestion for ruminants. 

What herbivores do seem to be interested in is spending the vast majority of their time alone, on the internet. Herbivores who have a social life keep it restricted to a small circle of friends. While the Japanese used to be notorious for their national obsession with tourism, they don’t like to travel abroad. They have created a new market for yaoi, a Japanese genre of bodice ripper-style romance portraying homoerotic relationships between men; while yaoi’s audience has traditionally been female, the male herbivores like yaoi

Countless explanations are proffered for the herbivore phenomenon, from cultural to economic, and it makes intuitive sense that some of those factors would be at play. Nevertheless, I find it striking that everything we know about the herbivores matches with what we know about online porn addiction, in particular reduced libido and overuse of the internet. We also know that Japan has growing markets for sex toys for men, but not for women, as well as for extreme and homoerotic pornography, which is consistent with a population that’s been desensitized to normal sex stimulus by online porn addiction. 

Beyond sexuality, the herbivores seem strikingly like a generation of men suffering from hypofrontality, the neurological disease caused by porn addiction. It seems that their key problem is an inability to commit, whether to a career or a woman. Commitment requires abilities enabled by the prefrontal cortex, like self-mastery, correctly weighing risk and reward, and projecting oneself into the future. Becoming financially independent, visiting a foreign country, moving out of your parents’ apartment, going to parties, meeting new people, asking a girl out—what all these things have in common is that while young men generally want to do them, they can also be intimidating; and it is the executive function of the brain located in the prefrontal cortex that makes it possible to get over the hump of initial reluctance that comes from the lower parts of the brain. 

With Japan on the road to self-extinction in part as a result of its males’ lack of interest in sex or marriage, it’s hard not to think of Nietzsche’s parable of the Last Man, his nightmare scenario for the fate that would await Western civilization after the Death of God if it did not embrace the way of the Übermensch: the last man lives a life of comfort, has all his appetites satisfied, embraces conformity and rejects conflict, and seeks nothing more, incapable as he is of imagination, or initiative, or creativity, or originality, or risk-taking. The Last Man, in short, is man returned to something like an animal state, though not that of a carnivore. Nietzsche compares him to an insect, but herbivore fits quite well. In Nietzsche’s terrifying phrase, the Last Man believes he has discovered happiness. 

Again, it’s impossible to prove scientifically that the herbivore phenomenon is caused by widespread porn addiction. But one thing is certainly very suggestive: there’s no explanation for why, if the herbivore trend is caused by some broader cultural or socioeconomic trends, it should be such an overwhelmingly male phenomenon. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Is Japan a harbinger of the future? Are we on the road to becoming a herbivore civilization? Or, to take another analogy, becoming like the helpless people on the spaceship in “WALL-E,” except we never got around to actually creating the AI and robots that enabled their pointless, ghastly lives of fake pleasure?

Perhaps it sounds hyperbolic. But what we do know is that large numbers of our civilization are hooked on a drug that has profound effects on the brain, which we mostly don’t understand, except that everything we understand is negative and alarming. And we are just ten years into the process. If we don’t act, pretty soon the next generation will be a generation that largely got hooked on this brain-eating drug as children, whose brains are uniquely vulnerable. It seems perfectly reasonable and consistent with the evidence as we have it to be deeply alarmed. Indeed, what seems supremely irrational is our bizarre complacency about something which, at some level, we all know to be happening.

A Massive Experiment On Our Brains

Another way to approach the question of how to respond is to note that we—the entire advanced world, and soon the whole world, as the prices of smartphones and broadband in developing countries keep dropping—are running a massive, unprecedented experiment on our own brains. Scientists do understand a few things about the brain, but only a few. The human brain is by far the most complex thing in the known Universe, and we are subjecting half of the human population at best, to an unprecedented kind of drug. 

As I write this, the FDA is reportedly considering a complete ban on e-cigarettes. Imagine if, say, a popular health supplement was shown to, oh, increase the rate of ED among young men by some percentage, let alone several orders of magnitude, or be as addictive as cocaine in large segments of the population. Surely some spotlight-hogging prosecutor would have the company’s owners doing a nationally-televised perp walk before you could say “Four Loko”—unless, of course, he was himself getting high on the stuff and was too ashamed to take a public stand.

An analogy might be in order here: climate change. There are some things we know scientifically to be true: we know that greenhouse gases lead to higher temperatures all else equal; we know that humans are emitting more and more greenhouse gases; we know that temperatures are increasing; we know that greenhouse gases are increasing to unprecedented levels. 

We don’t know, scientifically, precisely, what that means for the future. Earth is much too complex an organism for us to be able to predict with high confidence what climate change will mean, specifically—indeed, the best justification for alarm is precisely the fact that we are in uncharted territory when it comes to levels of greenhouse gases and temperatures. This is why the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which represents the scientific consensus on climate change, provides not predictions of the future impact of climate change, but probability distributions (read them if you don’t believe me). 

On the basis of the current state of science, we have a preponderance of evidence leading to a rationally justified belief that never-before-seen levels of greenhouse gases and temperature increases create an unacceptable level of risk of negative outcomes, including catastrophic outcomes, so that some kind of collective action (putting aside angry debates on what kind of action) is justified to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The Earth is much too complex for us to understand it completely, and this is actually the best argument for why it’s reckless to pump it full of chemicals at unprecedented levels. After all, we don’t have an Earth 2. (And yes, paradoxically given conservatives’ reluctance to embrace ambitious action on climate change, this is an inherently conservative argument.)

You can see where I’m going: however precious Earth is, so are our brains; however complex Earth is, so much so are our brains, which are the most complex artifacts in the known universe. I don’t see why the same logic doesn’t apply. 

The stakes are comparably high, the logic for action is the same, and yet these respective causes get wildly divergent levels of public attention and political capital. 

It took a long time between the moment when the evidence for smoking’s link to lung cancer and a whole host of negative health outcomes became incontrovertible. And it took a long time between that moment and when we as a society accepted that evidence and decided to act. This was in part due to legitimate scientific questions early on, in part due to the influence of greedy, monied interests, and in part because of misguided pseudo-libertarian rhetoric. But also in part because so many people were reluctant to admit that their beloved, pleasurable habit, was in reality a destructive addiction—and they were all the more reluctant to admit it because they knew, deep down, that it was the truth. 

I still smoke. But, at least, I have stopped lying to myself about why I do it. It’s time we as a society stopped lying to ourselves about what has become the biggest threat to public health.