Is America Just Beginning?

Arguing with Bruno Maçaes about virtual reality and decadence.

There were several books that came out just before or after The Decadent Society that I felt were in implicit dialogue with my own arguments. Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build and Matt Yglesias’s One Billion Americans, for instance, were basically both manifestos for how we can rise up out of decadence — through institutional renewal in the case of Levin’s argument, through fecundity and immigration in the Yglesian case. More recently Helen Andrews’ Boomers offered a focused look at the cultural legacy of the Baby Boom generation, which looms large in my own account of cultural repetition and stagnation.

Probably the most unusual and idiosyncratic dialogue partner, though, was History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America, by the Portuguese political theorist Bruno Maçaes. (You can watch or listen to the two of having in a conversation in the AEI video above.) Writing in a Tocquevillian spirit, as a European visitor fascinated by the American experiment, Maçaes offered an account of the United States in the age of Trump that was deeply consonant with my own arguments — emphasizing the rise of virtual reality and the flight to simulation, and its extension into the realm of politics, with Trumpian populism and Resistance posturing and woke progressivism as different flavors of dreampolitik, different Vegas or Disneyland versions of political activism and engagement.

But then he drew very different conclusions, arguing that this “virtualism” is potentially a vital breakthrough, not a sign of senescence or anomie. It’s an extension of the old American idea that “the American dream has no other limits than those of the imagination,” he claimed, but in a new form that finally seals America’s break with Europe, our graduation to becoming a civilization of our own.

The Old World, in Macaes’s perspective, is fully decadent precisely because it doesn’t have this kind of confidence in simulation and imagination, this willingness to literally go to war against reality. America lives more and more in Disneyland, but that’s preferable to living forever “in the sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps where Thomas Mann placed his fable of the European soul.” Americans inhabit a world of reality television scripts and Marvel dramas, but that’s preferable to the Europeans who are living “in the moral ruins of Auschwitz,” unable to move on from their civilization’s twentieth century catastrophes, unable to be “fully free because we fear making the old mistakes.”

History Has Begun is a rich, digressive, aphoristic book; it’s also sometimes frustratingly elliptical in its specific claims. (It is, in other words, European not American.) But you can see part of the Maçaes argument clarified — and, arguably, vindicated — in the divergent European and American responses to the coronavirus.

Both continents have struggled mightily with containment, in ways that reflect the different forms of decadence besetting their public institutions, their shared political sclerosis relative to the nations of the Pacific Rim. But six months ago the conventional wisdom was that Europe’s response was more reality-based and therefore more effective, while the various forms of American fantasy and denial — Trump’s above all, but also the style of progressivism that treated “hate” as a worse danger than the virus — were essentially letting the virus run wild and supplying it with human sacrifices.

Or as Macaes puts it, in the conclusion of his book:

If you opened a newspaper in Spain, France or Italy, everything was about infection curves, vaccines, viral mutations and endless pages of statistics and graphs. In America things took a different turn. Mere weeks into the deadly pandemic, America had already constructed large, archetypal myths by which to make sense of events. On the left, Trump as Aztec priest. On the right … China was being blamed for bringing the virus into the country … Things in America felt like a disaster movie. In Europe they just felt like a disaster.

Today, though, it’s the “disaster movie” spirit that seems to be working out better in reality, since it’s America that developed the vaccines (with, yes, European contributions) and America that’s successfully distributing them, while the reality-based European Union fails and falters. Meanwhile apart from a brief window last summer the European excess death rate has been higher than the American equivalent, our lower case fatality rate implies that America has been more successful at treating its sick, and the American economic situation looks considerably brighter than Europe’s right now.

So American virtualism, Maçaes might reasonably argue, has actually done a better job of mastering the coronavirus challenge than European realism. Yes, the American tendency to make war on reality can look ridiculous and embarrassing, it can produce all kinds of weird partisan myths and extreme behaviors … but it’s also connected to greater optimism and wider imaginative horizons, both of which have contributed to America’s unfinished but faster-than-expected escape from the coronavirus era.

I think this is a plausible interpretation of recent events. But that’s as far as I can go with Maçaes, because merely proving that America is less decadent than Europe doesn’t prove that we’re on the cusp of a general American renaissance. In the particular case of the Covid vaccines, yes, our war on reality cashed out in actual real-world solutions to the pandemic. But I don’t see that achievement necessarily being duplicated in other realms where virtualism holds sway. What I see instead, relative to the American past, is a consistent failure to make the leap back to reality, to apply the fantasy to the world as it exists, in a way that succeeds in leaving an undeniable alteration, a fundamental mark.

Consider the example of American religion, past and present. No faith is more distinctively American than Mormonism, which (from the perspective of non-believers, at least) literally invented a fantasy-novel grade prehistory of the American continent to ground its 19th century theological narrative. But then upon that foundation, Joseph Smith and eventually Brigham Young built an actual new society, a novus ordo seclorum on the shores of the Great Salt Like, a communitarian-socialist religious utopia that worked well enough that it remains one of America’s most non-decadent micro-societies a hundred and fifty years later.

Then contrast that achievement with today’s American religious virtualism, which just feels less ambitious, more content to stick with fantasy and simulation and leave reality alone. Today’s New Age gurus build impressive online brands, but not actual churches on the scale of the Mormons or the Christian Scientists in bygone days. It seems like we’re constantly told that this or that new American movement represents a “new religion” — wokeness, QAnon, wellness culture, partisan politics — but what they actually tend to represent is something thinner, something with religious energy but not the kind of real-world impact that inspires communes or monasteries or mass migrations, architectural marvels or potent works of art. And even the individual dreams and visions of our gurus seem more conformist and less eccentric than their 19th century antecedents: With Joseph Smith or the Shakers, you knew that they had a specific vision that required a fundamental and possibly insane commitment, while Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle and even the great Marianne Williamson all share a fundamental theological vagueness … and I defy watchers of all the various NXIUM documentaries to distinguish Keith Raniere’s patter from a stitched-together anthology of bad self-help.

One could make a similar point about politics. Maçaes may feel that America is less entrapped than his own continent by the memory of Hitler, but on the evidence of the Trump era almost all our political fantasies, when they aren’t derivative of our own 1960s, are still derivative of Europe, 1934-45. Or for that matter sex, where fantasy hasn’t so much reshaped real intercourse as it has displaced it, the libidinal imagination of the Sexual Revolution giving way to the pounding repetitions of so much online porn.

To this argument there are two possible rejoinders. One possibility, which I concede, is that we’re in a transitional period and big changes in reality that are for now anticipated in fantasy will eventually come to fruition in the flesh — as the new religions come of age, or the successor ideology achieves its revolution, or Silicon Valley’s excess capital carries us to Mars, or the age of the throuple finally vanquishes the vestiges of bourgeois conformity. (Personally I hope we get the Mars base rather than universal polyamory, but then I’m a well-known square.)

The other possibility is that with the internet and other technologies of simulation the old distinction between what’s imagined and what’s real no longer holds, and so for a movement or religion or idea to exist mainly in online space makes it, if anything, more real than if it inspired built a bunch of people to take vows of celibacy and build excellent furniture in western Massachusetts.

I think Maçaes inclines to the second view, but I don’t think virtual reality is developed enough yet to vindicate the claim. The internet is perhaps more real than many of us would like to think, but it’s not real enough to actually be a substitutionary reality, an Otherland or Oasis, a Singularity where the real world becomes irrelevant or a permanent holodeck where the line between the simulation and reality collapses. Instead it’s still a zone of scale models and caricatures and mostly two-dimensional spaces (Oculus headsets excepted), a zone whose fantasies still need, by their very nature, to be instantiated in old-fashioned reality to have the fullest life. And that instantiation is still the exception rather than the rule: We may think we’re carving Galateas, but they’re mostly still rooted to the pedestal, and a lot of them look suspiciously like the unfinished horse drawing of Twitter fame …

This is why, to return to yesterday’s subject, the January 6th riot was so shocking, because it was a case where the instantiation of a fantasy actually took place, Galatea coming alive for her shit-stirring online Pygmalions, the world of Q stepping out of the simulation into ours. Trump’s original election had a similar quality — a meme taking flesh and dwelling among us.

But in each case the fantasy did not survive for long in the real world. Trump the alt-right all-conqueror became Trump the weak president and Twitter authoritarian. The Q Shaman became Jacob Chansley, a bald dude who whined about the prison food and wanted us to know that he was “deeply sorry” for trespassing in the Capitol.

Maçaes thinks these moments are just beginnings, and maybe they are. But to borrow from The Decadent Society’s Gramsci epigraph, in a period of interregnum it’s hard to tell birth pangs from morbid symptoms. And I worry that as an outsider he’s observing something that is, indeed, distinctively American, but mistaking its twilight for its dawn.

That said, I’m enough of a U.S.A.! chauvinist to also hope that Maçaes will be vindicated in the long run, that a “new America” is waiting to eventually be born, that we’re decoupling at last from Europe and headed for a different destiny, a rendezvous with Asia and Latin America that’s only just begun.

But I won’t believe this new birth is happening until our dreamers and fantasists begin to build monuments at least as impressive as their 19th century predecessors, who didn’t have the blockchain to inscribe their visions indelibly and permanently, but still managed to leave, say, the entire state of Utah as their legacy instead.