Hope in the Ruins

Satirists have a serious problem. Theirs is a trade that runs on absurdity, and that commodity has increasingly been monopolized by our civic leaders. Presidential candidates piously intone that men can get pregnant; cabinet secretaries rally against racist infrastructure; and, for United States Senators, no accusation is too ridiculous to level against a Supreme Court nominee. Could George Orwell have topped Merriam-Webster, in real time, changing the definition of the term “sexual preference” during Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings? No, too heavy-handed for fiction. The Babylon Bee has dedicated a page to headlines it first published as satire, only to have them transpire as real events. The time lag between lampoon and public policy is closing.

It takes more than a little courage, therefore, to write satire these days, but I am glad that Lee Oser has done so. Reading his smart, fast-paced novel Old Enemies made me laugh out loud instead of shaking my head in disbelief, which gives it an edge over the real (or is it fake?) news.

The story centers on middle-aged language wiz Moses Shea. A Harvard grad and journalist, Shea has been blackballed by the editor-in-chief of the Times’ Times after discovering that not all the paper’s news was fit to print. He begins the novel reporting for Consumer Electronics Show Daily News, when, by improbable coincidence—in a taqueria—he bumps into Nick Carty, an old college classmate and billionaire, who, among other exploits, married and abandoned Moses’s college girlfriend. 

Nick is in a giving mood, however, and offers Moses a job. The offer is odd, to say the least, but Moses—a nearsighted, double-chinned, balding white guy—is not exactly a hot commodity, and the financial remuneration is an offer he can’t refuse. Nick, at the helm of Carthage Corporation, is developing a supercomputer named Hannibal bent on financial conquest through the manipulation of social media. Before Hannibal can set out on its campaign of subjugation, however, its algorithms need some human input. For that Nick has recruited a select group of millennials from America’s elite institutions with predictably glittering resumés. He wants Moses, with his linguistic genius, to mentor the young people as they compete to come up with advertising slogans for an eclectic array of consumer products. Or so the story goes.

Nick has gathered the group on the campus of what was once a Catholic college, St. Malachy’s, which he acquired after the student body rioted in a pique of social justice and burnt down half the dorms. It’s a setting that combines tweedy New England idyll with smoldering dystopia. Among the novel’s most delightful minor characters is St. Malachy’s gloriously named President Eudora White-White, who arrives on the scene of the riot just in time to denounce as fascists a group of alumni gathering to save the college chapel, telling them to “check their privilege.” (She then solicits donations.) 

The plot thickens, of course, like a knot of frayed electrical cords, giving off sparks as it does. Unsurprisingly, old Nick has ulterior motives. Opponents of patriarchy set out to destroy Moses. Twitter gets involved, as do Russian spies. Clownfish are assassinated in their aquariums. Emails are sent to reassure that Carthage stands by its diverse and inclusive values. Every once in a while, there’s an alleviating squirt of scatological humor.

Wokeism itself is a kind of crude algorithm, reducing people to demographic categories that make their character and humanity irrelevant.

One reason to write satire is to discredit those who wield power unjustly by pointing out their absurdities. The genre, then, presupposes hope, hope in the power of human reason to recognize and correct the contradictions with which we bind ourselves. In this line, Oser offers a number of insights into the pathologies of America’s (and the West’s) current cultural moment. He detests the hypocrisy of the privileged who wield accusations of racism and patriarchy to beat up on the unenlightened—and protect their own wealth and power. “These young idealists are the savviest consumers I’ve ever met,” Nick observes of his select squad of millennials. Moses, though the nerdy literary type, feels kinship with the novel’s working-class stiffs, the chauffeurs and cops, whose parents couldn’t afford Mandarin tutors or, even, prep school. “Where was my tribe?” Moses wonders, surrounded by Nick’s beautiful and brightest. “Where were the frogs? The plain Janes and the Helens of Troy, New York?”

More than just pointing out the Emperor of Wokedom’s state of dress, Oser’s novel invites reflection on Woke Imperialism’s deeper causes. Old Enemies is not a political novel. Oser rightly sees culture as more fundamental than politics; the novel’s action unfolds where corporate power, big tech, academia, and mass media intersect to shape who we are as individuals and as a people. The novel begins with Moses covering the rollout of a number of consumer electronics products—the Chinese-manufactured “People’s Phone” in competition with the Sapiens Corporation—involving advanced artificial intelligence. As gadgets become more human, Oser seems to intuit, the effect on us homo sapiens is progressively dehumanizing. He is on to something. I know several children who’ve become addicted to screens before they hit puberty; the effects on their family, school, and social life are as devastating as those of any other addiction. Wokeism itself is a kind of crude algorithm, reducing people to demographic categories that make their character and humanity irrelevant.

At the same time, the novel unfolds in the aftermath of the collapse of those forces that used to form individuals and culture—literature, shared history, family, and religion. The charred ruins of St. Malachy’s College include Dante, Aquinas, and Newman Halls. The son of a theologian, Moses is unpretentiously religious. His Catholicism becomes more explicit as the book progresses—as, indeed, religion must do if it is to survive in a time of social entropy. I am often irritated by implausible portrayals of religion in contemporary culture—the way a surgeon might feel watching a medical drama based on half an hour’s research on WebMD—but I found Moses’s faith believable and Oser’s fluency in Catholicism refreshing.

In fact, religion is the key to Moses’ character and to the novel. To be sure, this is no mawkish devotional book. Oser’s satirical pen jabs just about everyone—including, even, book reviewers—and I loved the periodic appearance of “Amor Christi Books,” a Catholic publisher specializing in sanitized versions of the Classics. Their motto: “Our books have been through Purgatory so you don’t have to.” The Catholic hierarchy comes in for a critique that’s a bit less tongue-in-cheek for behaving like any old bureaucracy in the face of a cultural moment that demands much more. Oser is not the first to note that our religious institutions sometimes seem relieved to cede cultural ground to the likes of Carthage Corporation. 

The novel’s conclusion, nonetheless, gives hope a bridgehead. Oser sprinkles the book’s climax with more than a few surreal elements—abandoning strict realism to have fun—so one has to wonder, is that hope plausible? The corrosive cultural forces he identifies with stinging clarity have so thoroughly penetrated our institutions as to erode the values on which any recovery of common ground would have to be based—truth, objectivity, civility, fairness. The forces forming future generations—from the mass media to the higher-ed-industrial complex—are the most far gone.

One source of hope in Old Enemies is its suggestion of a broader context for our current cultural battles. Beneath Moses’s skirmishes with the likes of Eudora White-White are more ancient battles: Carthage versus Rome, the pagan deities Nick uses as emblems of his corporate empire versus, well, the God of Moses. (Sometimes Oser’s gag is how obvious the stakes are.) At a number of points, Moses makes reference to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Oser knows that at the heart of the Exercises is the “Meditation on the Two Standards.” In that exercise, the person doing the meditation is asked to consider where he stands in the great cosmic battle between good and evil. And one comes to understand that the war has been going on for a very long time.

If today’s cultural vandals judge the West (or America or Christianity) corrupt from the beginning and are determined to burn to the ground, then those who see Western cultures as bearers of hope must be prepared to rebuild from the ground up.

The cosmic nature of the fight, in other words, points paradoxically to the struggle in every soul. That’s a battle we can’t run away from and one always worth fighting—one also where grace can achieve surprising victories. In the novel, Moses shows real affection for the young overachievers he’s assigned to mentor, as different as their lives are from his own. Each relationship is worthwhile. Christianity’s promise has never been a social program, but the promise of a new birth. To be sure, Christianity does not neglect the social sphere; a reborn people will bring about a new heaven and a new earth, it claims, perhaps in fits and starts, though the timeframe for that event has always been a little murky. Old Enemies’s archetypal perspective reminds us that what first seems a catastrophic loss may be, in the grander scheme, only a temporary setback. After all, both Carthage and Rome have fallen before. 

Oser’s ending hints at the kind of small-scale, ground-up approach to cultural renewal suggested, perhaps, by an optimistic reading of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. The monasteries of the centuries after Rome’s fall did, after all, build walls to protect their communities and preserve their identity, but they did not brick up their doorways. From those nuclei of faith and culture, the original Benedictines sent out the missionaries—Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface, and countless others—who created Europe and the West. I suspect Oser knows this history. He also knows that the hope it offers cannot be had on the cheap. If today’s cultural vandals judge the West (or America or Christianity) corrupt from the beginning—from 1619 or A.D. 33—and are determined to burn to the ground, then those who see Western cultures as bearers of hope must be prepared to build—or rebuild—from the ground up. On a practical level, this means the self-conscious, in-depth formation of human beings in the faith and virtues of our tradition, one relationship at a time.

To what must be considered the novel’s fundamentally religious and Christian reason for hope, we might add a humanistic one. Jostling the mighty in their arrogance is only one reason to write satire. The other is to make us laugh. In itself, Old Enemies may not greatly weaken the woke plutocracy’s grip on America’s institutions, but it made me laugh. And as long as we’re laughing, we’re still human. For us sapiens, that’s no small victory.