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The Angst of the Millennial Traditionalist

I never participated in the Reagan Revolution. I was still just an infant when the Gipper entered the Oval Office. Nevertheless, I can still remember a time when religious traditionalists looked to the future with hope. I remember the sunny optimism of “Moral Majoritarians,” who seemed certain that the evils of the Sexual Revolution would in time become widely apparent. I recall hearing how “the hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.”

At some point, things changed. Was it under the Obama Administration, when the marriage traditionalists were routed in appallingly undemocratic fashion? Did it happen when the pundits and commentators started adding scare quotes to the phrase “religious freedom”? Or was it the rise of woke activism that persuaded traditionalists that the future might not be theirs after all?

The Millennial generation has its own sub-culture of traditionalists, but they are quite different from the fresh-faced Reaganites. They don’t have that heady confidence or that same trust that the American political system is going to work for them. Today’s young traditionalists are warier and grimmer. What kind of impact might they have on the future? Three recent books, all from Millennial traditionalists, may shed light on the question.

The Worst Generation

Helen Andrews’ Boomers is an excellent tutorial for readers looking to understand Millennial-traditionalist anxiety. This collection of essay-length biographies is modeled on Lytton Strachey’s classic polemic, Eminent Victorians. Published in 1918, Strachey’s book was a scathing send-up of the entire Victorian generation. Andrews channels her dyspeptic forerunner remarkably well, producing a book that is witty, informative, and a veritable ice bath of Millennial despair. She is a talented essayist, who sweetens her bitter medicine with humor and sparkling prose. Even so, her outlook is unrelentingly bleak.

Born in the wake of World War II, the Boomers left an outsized footprint on American history. The United States was riding high on its momentous victory, so the children of the 50s and 60s inherited peace, prosperity, and global influence. Also, there were a lot of them. Their votes captured the attention of politicians, while their dollars captured markets. Andrews feels that these blessings were thoroughly squandered. Each of her seven biographies represents a critique of the Boomers’ failed efforts, seen through the lens of a particular (misguided) person.

Steve Jobs was a visionary who created a society of alienated technology addicts. Aaron Sorkin was a gifted storyteller who transformed our political world into a stage for lowbrow infotainment. Camille Paglia was brilliant and fearless, but she sacrificed her talents on the altar of a degraded pop culture. Al Sharpton and Sonia Sotomayor both built careers for themselves as professional tantrum-throwers, exploiting the American passion for propelling the disadvantaged to prosperity and status.

Obviously, Boomers is somewhat abusive. We would expect nothing less from a book about “the men and women who promised freedom and delivered disaster.” There is an odd tension in this book, however, that may reveal something interesting about Millennial-traditionalist angst more broadly. Andrews took an anti-Victorian critic as her model, which is appropriate insofar as many parallels can be drawn between Boomers and Victorians. Both were disproportionately large and influential generations. Both blended enormous ambition with a spate of high-minded ideological commitments.

Strachey, an anti-war activist, blames the Victorians for making a monster of the British Empire. Writing in the lead-up to World War I, he saw choppy waters ahead for Britain, and as Andrews herself observes, he “attacked his targets with an oedipal fury, perhaps because these four figures, though long dead, felt oppressively present to him as the architects of the world he inhabited.”

Following his example, Andrews likewise decries the meddling arrogance of her forefathers. Here though, she encounters an awkward point. She seems to be very much an admirer of the Victorian generation. She defends British imperialism and praises the public moralizing that Strachey found so obnoxious. This backs her into some strange dialectical positions. She wants to needle the Boomers by drawing (presumptively unwelcome) comparisons to stodgy Victorians. But she also wants them to see that they are entirely unworthy to stand on the same stage. The message gets a bit muddied. How should a privileged generation steward its inheritance?

Perhaps we should not ask its immediate progeny. They rarely have a balanced perspective on the matter, as Strachey himself illustrates quite well. Riding in the immediate wake of Her Majesty’s stately ship, the unkept promises rankled, and we should acknowledge that he was quite correct to see tremendous hardships in Britain’s immediate future. From our vantage point though, the Victorians’ achievements seem to hold up rather well. They understood the vital importance of institution-building, both at home and abroad. They protected the cultural guardrails for the benefit of the poor and vulnerable. They produced some truly extraordinary men and women, whose works are still studied and admired today. Mistakes were certainly made, but in retrospect it seems obtuse to curse the Victorians, who were almost uniquely successful in securing their nation’s longer-term political stability. Would that France, Germany, Russia, Spain, or Italy had been equally blessed.

The Boomers’ legacy may not be quite so magnificent, but history can be the judge. Like the Victorians, the Boomers were tasked with charting a course forward for their nation in a rather tumultuous hour. It is quite extraordinary that Andrews has written an entire book on the Boomer generation while saying almost nothing about the Vietnam War, and only a very little about Cold War. Does it mean nothing that America is still here, while the Soviet Union is not? Like Strachey on the eve of the Great War, Andrews seems world-weary and short on answers, often justifying her harsh criticisms of the Boomers simply by dismissing their concerns as non-problems. Feminism was unnecessary because most women prefer to be housewives. The Civil Rights Movement was gratuitous because old-fashioned machine politics was fully up to the task of ameliorating racial injustice. Do we actually need a foreign policy? If so, can’t we just embrace open imperialism?

There can be value in the scathing, hyperbolic broadside. Sometimes, however, it says more about the author than the subject. That may be the case here. It seems entirely possible that Andrews’ (and my) great-grandchildren will view the Boomers’ achievements more charitably than she does, setting them in the context of a broader historical arc whose dimensions may become clearer over time. But even if the Boomers were not responsible for “the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant reformation,” the fact still remains that it feels that way to Andrews. That speaks to a deeper, unhappy truth. She can’t see a path forward. In her mind, the situation seems fairly hopeless.

Will the Tradition Be Unbroken?

Sohrab Ahmari still has hope. His tone is quite different from Andrews’ in his latest book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering The Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. Where she is sharp and polemical, he is gentle and sympathetic. She seems tired and world-weary, but he is filled with the energy and enthusiasm of a new convert to the Catholic faith. She tells us why everything is broken, while he tells us what is not.

The unbroken thing is tradition, broadly understood. Ahmari frames the book as a kind of tutorial for his young son, addressing twelve timeless questions in a series of reflective essays. Like Andrews, he builds his analysis around biographies, with each chapter featuring a philosopher, sage, or saintly figure who helps to answer the question. C. S. Lewis shows us why it is necessary to live for something larger than ourselves. Confucius teaches about filial piety. Victor and Edith Turner help to illuminate the importance of ceremony and ritual.

This model is not unvarying. Sometimes we are given a glimpse of a wider dialectic, such as the debate between William Gladstone and St. John Henry Newman over the nature of conscience. In other cases, Ahmari himself pulls thinkers from different periods of history, imaginatively placing them in conversation with one another. His chapter on sex, for instance, draws connections between St Augustine and feminist thinker Andrea Dworkin, with interesting results. This approach may seem a bit ad hoc, but there are benefits to romping about in this manner, like a Catholic-intellectual Dr. Who. It enables Ahmari to reflect on the reasons why his questions are so timeless. Also, the breadth of the book helps underscore the point that men and women across history have faced anxieties and challenges similar to our own. This can potentially be a great source of comfort in troubled times. The thread of tradition often seems strained, but there is a reason it remains unbroken.

Contemporary culture is so terrible, in fact, that The Unbroken Thread is in one sense a book-length tutorial in escaping it.

Ahmari is a journalist by training, and here I must confess that I tend to cringe instinctively when opening a work of intellectual history authored by a member of his profession. The best intellectual history rises out of deep knowledge and extended reflection. Journalists are conditioned to produce hot takes on 12 hours’ notice. Very few people are able to step gracefully from the world of Breaking News, into millennia-long time arcs.

The Unbroken Thread is recognizably the work of a journalist, but I still found it enjoyable and uplifting. Ahmari’s discussion of the faith and reason is quite good. His final chapter on Seneca and death would make excellent reading for the Feast of All Souls. On a philosophical level, some chapters were stronger than others, but the real value of Ahmari’s work lies less in philosophical rigor, and more in its broader ethos. We should want to be “in conversation” with wise men and women from across the ages. Precisely because Ahmari is a journalist and not a scholar, his forays into history feel like something the reader could emulate. This is not a feeling one has after reading the work of Etienne Gilson, or R.W. Southern.

Like Andrews, however, Ahmari struggles to see a path forward through a modern landscape that to him seems desiccated, disenchanted, and desacralized. He is disillusioned with liberalism, but can suggest no plausible alternatives. In the prosperity of modern markets, he can only see temptation and greed. Contemporary culture is so terrible, in fact, that The Unbroken Thread is in one sense a book-length tutorial in escaping it. In his introduction, Ahmari details a dystopian vision he’s had of his son embracing a future as an urbane, hedonistic technocrat, professionally successful but without meaningful commitments or attachments. His ode to tradition is offered as a kind of talisman to ward off this grim future. It’s sweet. As a mother of five, though, I kind of want to sit him down and break the bad news. This isn’t the only chilling vision he’ll ever have of his son’s future. There are a thousand ways to go wrong in this world, and especially if Ahmari and his wife have more children, they’ll be losing sleep over most of them.

We do need to teach our children the value of ancient wisdom. Parents cannot afford, however, to focus all our energies on avoiding particular evils. Our kids need to build and grow things, however stony the modern soil. To help them do that, we may need to come down from Ahmari’s ten thousand foot view, taking a closer look at particular traditions and ways of life. What aspects of them are worth preserving? What obstacles deter us from doing that? How can we apply ancient wisdom to our radically changed modern landscape?

Tilling the Soil

These are exactly the questions that Grace Olmstead is asking in her new book, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind. It’s a book about tradition, the costs of mobility, and the importance of place. It’s also a book about farming. Olmstead’s book stands as a solid example of the soul-searching young traditionalists will need, if we hope to build a brighter future for our children.

Olmstead and I have much in common. For one thing, we both worked for The Federalist in its early years. Also, we are both descended from Idaho farmers. Like Olmstead, I still have significant ties to Idaho, including some more-distant kin who still till the soil. Unlike her, though, I have almost no childhood memories of farm life. She grew up watching tractors and shucking corn with her siblings during harvest season. She was devastated when the family land was sold. My grandparents sold their farm when my mother was in her teens, and their kids went on to prosper as businessmen, engineers, and college professors. I enjoyed every page of her tribute to Idaho farm life, but I don’t personally feel her pain. Maybe I’m the broken one, though. Perhaps my relative indifference is just a sign of what happens when traditions are lost.

Olmstead wants a permanent class of “stickers,” who pass their farms and ranches across generations, maintaining the soil and the traditions that grew from it. It is a beautiful dream. Is it possible in America today?

Olmstead herself struggles mightily with this over the course of the book. She desperately wants farming communities to survive and thrive, but she also sees how heavily the deck is stacked against them. For a range of reasons, small farms today find it punishingly difficult to compete with huge, commercial farms and dairies. Agricultural technicians are increasingly taking charge of our food production, while the farming communities get steadily smaller and grayer. Rural areas now suffer from “brain drain,” as the best students head off to become businessmen, engineers, or college professors. Farm communities decline, and agricultural life becomes still more difficult, and less attractive to the young.

Olmstead sees all of this, and she knows that she herself is part of the problem. As a young woman, she left her native Idaho to become a Beltway journalist. In a sense, perhaps, Uprooted is part of her effort to make amends. She tells her family’s story with pious gratitude, and glowingly profiles a few brave souls who have taken the plunge into farming, despite the isolation, hard work, and financial risks. She reminds us that there are benefits to having thoughtful, attentive humans working the soil, instead of lightly-monitored machines. We hear about the risks of soil erosion and farm monocultures. Most of all though, Olmstead explains the thing closest to her heart: why farm communities have rich, wholesome, traditions that are worth preserving. The book may lead us to reflect on what a momentous thing it is to have transitioned, in just a century or so, from an agricultural society to one in which farmers and ranchers make up less than 2% of the population.

Olmstead cannot quite bring herself to ask what will happen if (as seems increasingly likely) small farms simply disappear, or get converted into hobby farms for those who love rural living enough to farm on an amateur basis. It is telling that Olmstead has almost nothing to say about homesteaders, backyard gardeners, and other non-professionals who grow things for pleasure and personal use. Presumably, she does not object, but this isn’t really what she wants. She wants a permanent class of “stickers,” who pass their farms and ranches across generations, maintaining the soil and the traditions that grew from it. It is a beautiful dream. Is it possible in America today? At the conclusion of the book, this question still hangs in the air. As a genuine lover of farm life, Olmstead has insight into what they need and have to offer, but she cannot pretend to have a magic-bullet solution for saving agricultural communities from the relentless pressure of market forces.

Grim Young Things

Despite their differences, these writers have much in common. All three clearly feel deep anxiety about meaning gaps, fraying communities, and eroding traditions. All wrestle with the legacy of a complex past. Andrews mainly seeks to sever herself from the immediate past, while Ahmari tries to draw needed influences forward into the present. Olmstead is the most conflicted of the three, trying to balance her respect for the past with realistic strategizing about the future. Only Andrews seems embittered, but none of them have the confidence of young Reaganites. The Millennials are grim young things, peering into the future with trepidation and no small measure of regret.

Older traditionalists might find some silver linings in this litany of Millennial gloom, but there is also ample cause for alarm. For conservatives, the transmission of tradition is all-important, and many are deeply concerned that the Millennial generation is uniformly impious, unpatriotic, and historically ignorant. These books stand as counter-evidence. Many Millennials are anti-traditional, but conservative Millennials have their own sub-culture and their own following. All three of these books were released by major presses, within the past few months. Birth rates may be falling, but conservative cradle-rockers still exist, and they are still eager to teach their children (and the world) about the wisdom of past ages. Even so, they are struggling to discern a way forward. It is unclear to them whether (and how) their descendants can thrive in the world that is unfolding before their eyes.

It has ever been difficult to carry the torch of tradition. Some ages are more trying than others. The Millennials are still young, and the challenges they face are particularly daunting. Let us hope that these authors’ next books show the same thoughtfulness, paired with more robust recommendations for the future.