Finding a stable counter-narrative in a time of countless, confusing stories

People need an overall explanation of things that offers them certainty and hope of salvation, and if they don’t find it in religion they’ll find it in secular causes.

(Image of man: Warren Wong/Unsplash.com; image of fragmented light: FLY:D/Unsplash.com)

Military historians talk about the “fog of war,” the impossibility of knowing what’s going on during the confusion of battle. The idea can be extended to the struggles of daily life—that’s why we talk about “20-20 hindsight.”

So the world can’t be managed. We do our best, though, and try to find order by simplifying, categorizing, and looking for patterns. When we think we find them we try to point them out to others so we can work together on something helpful.

But persuasion means more simplification. It is also likely to mean, if you want to be really effective, images, catchphrases, and story lines to sum everything up so people will understand and remember the basic thought. But the packaging brings confusion back into the picture. The images and stories harden into myths that hide the realities that were the original concern.

Modern life makes matters worse. It puts the whole world on our smartphones, dissolved into pictures, video clips, and soundbites. They all seem interchangeable, and they’re all on the same small screen, so they seem to merge into one big story.

But what kind of story? As the world becomes more interconnected and technological, and people’s lives get absorbed into virtual reality, truth—correspondence to actual reality—has less and less to do with it. Any story can be supported by stringing together incidents and images that support it. With such an embarrassment of riches, people believe the stories they like and find easy to believe, and that well-placed and well-funded people want to propagate.

These stories are far from random. The Internet seems to put us in the middle of one big situation facing a single set of problems, so it seems we need one big solution. Politicians make promises, government has power that looks limitless, and experts claim they know what must be done. It seems that government—preferably a universal government, or at least a global order in which governments and other actors work together with a single plan—should be able to set everything to rights.

That’s an encouraging story, and officials, experts, the story-tellers in the media, and other well-placed people who stand to gain have every reason to favor it—after all, it means they will control everything. And it seems to provide an authoritative way to solve all problems, with specially qualified people taking care of everything. So people, at the urging of those said to know better, mostly go along with it. Many have doubts, but without institutional support it’s hard to put together and propagate a stable counter-narrative.

Government is therefore expected to look after all things. Those in power believe they are up to the task—they wouldn’t have aspired to their positions if they didn’t overestimate themselves. And they have experts, who are also the sort of people who climb to the top of organizations, to tell them what to do.

Their solutions to problems have some things in common. As people say, if what you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. Governments have money, physical force, regulatory power, the ability to propagandize, and an ideal of rational bureaucratic organization. Whatever the issue, those things are always understood to be what is needed to make things better.

Even so, they rarely work as planned. Our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan provide an example. After 9/11 it made sense to pursue Osama bin Laden. The Afghans were sheltering him, so we invaded Afghanistan. But once we were there we didn’t think it was enough to chase him out of the country and punish the Afghans for protecting him. Instead, we decided that the Afghans had to be integrated into the world order we were trying to create.

They had never been integrated into anybody’s system, so caution would have been prudent. But our predecessors in empire-building didn’t have as much money, as many experts, such immense military power, or such correct political and social views, so their example seemed irrelevant.

We tried, with a combination of force, persuasion, and money, to remodel Afghanistan to fit our vision of the world. To that end, we supported radical social and institutional change not chosen by the Afghans, with the aid of training programs, propaganda, forcible suppression of opposition, and large expenditures. Our efforts included, for example, spending almost $800 million trying to turn the Pashtuns into feminists, not counting efforts that were part of other programs and those carried on by agencies like the UN.

Not surprisingly, none of it worked. Attitudes toward women are still very different from those favored by American NGOs, and attempts to turn the Afghan army into a dedicated professional multi-gendered and multi-ethnic force failed miserably. The government and institutions that we had spent decades, thousands of American lives, and trillions of dollars trying to remake in accordance with current Western ideals turned out to be incapable of inspiring loyalty.

There are of course many other examples, such as the response to the current pandemic. COVID-19 has been confusing since it first appeared. If you look at what’s happened you can find some patterns: for example, it’s seasonal, and affects some parts of the world more and sooner than others. Unfortunately, these patterns don’t tell us what to do about it apart from protecting old people and letting children be children—lessons that were largely ignored.

But people wanted a comprehensive response. So government experts decided to separate everybody from everybody else so they wouldn’t affect each other. The entire society would then become, in line with the modern ideal of comprehensive rational management, a sort of industrial environment in which all events and relationships could be planned and controlled.

The specific measures—masking, lockdowns, social distancing—sounded like they ought to be helpful. But they were adopted on the spur of the moment without much thought or investigation, even though health organizations had been discussing pandemic responses for years and rejected them.

It’s not surprising they don’t seem to have worked, especially when made compulsory: it turns out that the world can’t really be made into a controlled industrial environment. But that was what our rulers had to offer, and nobody in authority wants to admit he doesn’t know what to do in the midst of crisis. So they have continued to insist on the strategy even when it is obvious its benefits are elusive and side-effects severe. Their other solution, apart from quasi-vaccines that had notable benefits for some people but also side-effects, and whose effectiveness predictably declined, was to find someone to hate and blame—specifically, those who lacked faith in official policy.

What conclusion should we draw from all this?

People need an overall explanation of things that offers them certainty and hope of salvation, and if they don’t find it in religion they’ll find it in secular causes. As the history of the 20th century shows, that tendency can lead to catastrophe. One of the greatest social contributions transcendent faith can offer, even if we ignore intrinsic validity, is that it gives a perspective from which we can consider worldly affairs from the standpoint of ultimate concerns and good practical sense rather than fake secular religion.

The Church provides a reality principle that dissolves today’s myths just as it dissolved the myths of classical antiquity. But the conduct of Church authorities during the pandemic—for example, acceptance of denial of the sacraments to the faithful and even the dying when safety measures were available—confirms that many in the modern Church have lost that independent perspective. Their idea of human well-being seems very much that of the modern welfare state. But if so, why bother with them or the Church for which they claim to speak? A great many people have quietly given the obvious answer to that question.


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About James Kalb 122 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

24 Comments

  1. The Catholic Church has never been synonymous with the Pope and Her bishops. Our Catholic Church is led by Christ as Her Head and Tradition, Scripture, and Her Teaching as it’s foundation. In the history of the Church, we’ve had unholy Popes, multiple Popes at the same time, bishops who led the faithful astray with Arian heresy and even Popes who worshipped Pachamama idols. And, despite wayward leadership, the Church remained – with Christ as Her Head and Truth as Her guide.

    • I do not know a single Pope who worshipped the Pachamama which is an Andean Goddess having the head of a woman on a mountain. This is completely different from the Amazonian woman and child icon. I have said this here many times before.
      You may try your darndest to separate our Lord’s Church from his Vicar – the rock – but only like-minded people will agree with you – not the millions of faithful Catholics around the world.

      • Methinkest that thou strainest too much at gnats by forever repeating thyself. Pachamama seems a generic term, and is the term used even by Pope Francis when he apologized for the baptism of the icons in the Tiber: “According to the transcript provided by the Vatican, the pope referred to the statues as ‘Pachamama,’ the name traditionally given to an Andean fertility goddess, which can be roughly translated as ‘Mother Earth.’”
        https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/42636/pope-francis-apologizes-that-amazon-synod-pachamama-was-thrown-into-tiber-river

        As for real inculturation, and therefore the purification of possibly edifying pre-Christian images, some critics maintained that the synod would have been a good time already to reject the reported practice of burying—in the Amazon region—unwanted children.

      • Mal. Pachamama Bolivia is quite similar to the Amazonian mother with child, commonly known in both areas as mother earth.
        It does appear that Pope Francis went at length to salvage the idol when thrown in the Tiber, notifying Rome police who retrieved it. Francis was noted as reverently clutching it when handed to him, and he replaced it in the Catholic church Santa Maria Traspontina as an object of reverence.

        • So, these icons life and not associated with the Andean goddess as some, including Peter, would like to present them.
          Pope Francis made it abundantly clear that these icons were not worshipped.
          As Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican’s communications office, said: “fundamentally, it represents life. And enough. I believe to try and see pagan symbols or to see… evil, it is not,” he said, adding that “it represents life through a woman.” https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/10/25/pope-francis-apologizes-that-amazon-synod-pachamama-was-thrown-into-tiber-river/

          • Malwar(e) Alert!
            The discerning reader might examine whether there is any connection between what I actually wrote and Mal’s follow-up caricature. Or maybe not. Whatever…

            I did not reject the infallibility Paolo Ruffini of the Vatican janitorial (?) communications office, nor did I accept it. Even I made reference to the “possibly edifying pre-Christian images.” Whatever.
            I did not imply that Pachamama is a close cousin of Gaia, nor did I not imply it. Whatever.
            Nor did I say that the icon is worshiped in the Amazon, although treating St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome as a pantheon, with a Pachamama niche, seems a question for self-examination, or maybe not. Whatever.

            I merely documented that the Holy Father himself uses the term Pachamama, rather than not.
            And I proposed that infant burial adds a complication to “life through a women.” What a lost opportunity for cross-cultural “communication”—-low-tech Amazon infanticide compared to high-tech Western infanticide! Or, maybe not. Whatever.
            The Pachamama thingy might be best clarified within the larger pattern of such ambiguity, or maybe not, whatever.

  2. This is nothing new. Its modern and most virulent phase began a little over two hundred years ago with the rise of the “New Things” (rerum novarum) — socialism, modernism, and the New Age, although not then known by those labels — in the wake of, and in response to the sweeping changes wrought by the Financial Revolution of the seventeenth century, and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century.

    To address the increasing alienation from society and economic life, and after the presumed failure of the French Revolution, many people turned to a revival of some old ideas. These became known as “The New Christianity,” “The Democratic Religion,” “Neo-Catholicism,” and a host of other labels, and are today known as socialism, modernism, and the New Age. Pope Gregory XVI referred to them as “novelties” and “new things,” the latter term being used again by Pope Leo XIII half a century later.

    While the programs were many — Alexis de Tocqueville said he observed thousands of different types of socialism/modernism being promoted in the streets of Paris during the 1848 revolution — the substance was the same for all. Old political, domestic and religious institutions were to be reformed or abolished altogether, and sovereignty of the collective was to replace that of the human person. In general, the more extreme forms, such as the system of Robert Owen, and Marx and Engels’s “scientific socialism” (communism), called for the abolition of private property, the elimination of marriage and family, and the destruction of organized religion. Paradoxically, this would establish and maintain “the Kingdom of God on Earth” as the new non-spiritual temporal paradise. The traditional transcendent God of Christianity was to be replaced with an immanent God of socialism/modernism as society evolved into its perfect state and realized its inherent divinity — what Fulton Sheen called a divinized society, while Joseph Schumpeter observed that religion would become “the group’s worship of itself.”

    In 1891 Leo XIII issued a new type of social encyclical (the first social encyclical was Mirari Vos in 1832) that instead of simply condemning the New Things, proposed a specific alternative to socialism and modernism (two sides of the same coin, according to G.K. Chesterton): widespread capital ownership. Unfortunately, he failed to propose a feasible method of finance, and Rerum Novarum was reinterpreted as a new socialist manifesto.

    With his election in 1922, Pope Pius XI signaled his intention to oppose the socialist/modernist “Kingdom of God on Earth” with “the Reign of Christ the King.” To bring this about, he presented a breakthrough in moral philosophy in Quadragesiomo Anno in 1931 and Divini Redemptoris in 1937. This introduced the “act of social justice,” by means of which the individual rights and virtues disparaged by the socialists and the modernists could be made functional again. Ordinary people were to be empowered through widespread capital ownership to effect changes directly in the institutions of the social order and secure their lives and liberty . . . but again failed to present a feasible method of finance.

    It was not until the work of Louis O. Kelso and Mortimer J. Adler, published in 1958 (The Capitalist Manifesto) and 1961 (The New Capitalists) that a feasible method of finance was presented. This was applied with great success in the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) adopted into law in 1974, but has yet to be applied throughout the economy through something like the proposed Economic Democracy Act. This is described on the website of the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice, http://www.cesj.org, and in the upcoming “The Greater Reset” to be released by TAN Books March 15, 2022:

    https://www.amazon.com/Greater-Reset-Reclaiming-Personal-Sovereignty/dp/1505122597/ref=sr_1_1?Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.x=45&Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.y=8&qid=1640624611&refinements=p_28%3AThe+Greater+Reset&s=books&sr=1-1&unfiltered=1

  3. Thank you Mr. Kalb for persevering in the Truth, despite the prevailing abandonment of Truth by “managing executives” and drones of government and Church bureaucracies (the ultimate Church bureaucracy being the polluted and perverse Secretariat of State of Vatican City), who all appear to serve at the pleasure of the world-wide “settlement” for the Zeitgeist.

    Jesus said that he came that we might know the Truth, and that the Truth would set us free.

    I am sticking with what Jesus said, and trying to persevere with all who are doing the same.

  4. The kind of incendiary language to support your world view is exactly why I don’t trust any media, even one that calls itself Catholic. A great example of this is saying the US spent “almost $800 million trying to turn the Pashtuns into feminists” is a dramatic slanting of the truth. Saying that we were trying to build a culture, with broad Afghan national support, to advance the rights of women and girls beyond those of livestock would be more accurate. There are other militant inaccuracies in this opinion piece. You have the truth. Promote that; pronounce that. This stirring up the masses is such a waste of time.

  5. The thing about the conservative (not conservat-ism) is that it’s grounded in knowable reality, and is not to be reduced to a modernday counter-ideology or counter-narrative to Kalb’s ungrounded liberalism (global-ism, nation-building and now techy COVID-ism).

    And, the thing about the Faith (more than “conservative” or even a “religion”) is that it especially does not fit on the presumed single plane of ideological narratives, as a “counter-narrative.”

    With John Paul II, we learn that even the Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is not an ideology either, but rather the “negation of ideology,” that is, an ever-new affirmation, rooted as it is in theology and specifically “moral theology” (Centesimus Annus, n. 55; originally in Rerum Novarum, n. 143).

    Steadfastness (not, as some would have it: rigidity or bigotry) in the self-disclosing (!) Truth-in-Person (and the Mystical Body and articulating Magisterium) is more than even “transcendence” (as a mere idea?). So, overall concurrence here with Kalb’s insightful direction, but a pause on the article’s title.

  6. “With such an embarrassment of riches, people believe the stories they like and find easy to believe, and that well-placed and well-funded people want to propagate” (Kalb). As with selective memory we have evolved further away from our humanness with selective reality. Agreed with Kalb that there is confusion, to this writer actual chaos, as in complete digression from order. Even the semblance of order for public safety is disappearing with permissive violence judiciary, reps, often purchased by George Soros blessed by Gates, the Party in charge, the irresponsible permitors.
    Fog analogy may also be understood as myriad options [a Catholic Church becoming inexorably a choice of merciful options rather than a determined Way] leading the weak to escape from chaos into the world of the virtual. Renegades, muggers, anarchists, a formidable array of politicians, intent on cancelling history remain engaged in a transformed reality, worship the new age golden calf of Liberty.
    “The Church provides a reality principle that dissolves today’s myths” (Kalb). Of course it does, though Kalb sadly admits our failure to profess it with our lives during crisis. Zeitgeist the collective mind of the day, rational secularism that has all the answers is found wanting. Events blood spent secularist enlightenment Afghanistan a perfect circle.
    Man’s last hope as the new barbarians, Vandals in Nike footwear, storm at the gates is led like submissive cattle, herded on an endless journey of religious psychobabble waiting for enlightenment from on high. As if Jesus Christ never visited us. Those of us still holding on to that reality know what our mission is. It’s not complaint.

  7. “The Church provides a reality principle that dissolves today’s myths just as it dissolved the myths of classical antiquity.”

    Per the concept of “semine Verbi,” it might be more accurate to conceive of myths – ancient and modern – as “absorbed” in subordination to Christian realism, and thereby redeemed rather than dissolved.

    J.R.R. Tolkien’s richly Christian allegories as written in the likeness of ancient mythical epics reflected his view of old pagan myths as fragmentary foreshadows of the one “true myth” of universal salvation by God Incarnate. C.S. Lewis followed suite by “smuggling theology” into science fiction as a genre of modern mythology.

  8. Long ago, before war and revolution, I spent two years teaching high School mathematics in rural Afghanistan. My language of daily use, in class and out, was Dari. Based on that, I would say that your description of the condition of Afghan women as like that of livestock is a gross slander. I also had an opportunity at that time to observe Western NGOs. It was clear to me that they didn’t know what what they were doing.

    Everything I’ve read about our efforts in Afghanistan tells me that things haven’t improved. So I have no idea why it made sense for us to try to “build a culture” there. We have enough problems with our own, and don’t need to go thousands of miles away to try to reform things we don’t understand and never will understand.

    • Without endorsing all things Islamic, we might note one Muslim criticism of the West is that Western inroads tend to unravel traditional networks of support for women in Muslim cultures. Yes, under Islam there is much that is degrading of women–everything from enabling female genital mutilation, polygamy, ease of divorce, and uneven inheritance policies, etc.

      Historically, still, and however insufficient, there are the lost communal and clan networks, it is said…If so, an illuminating sociological comparison would show how Western rationalism and individualism has broken down support groups in both the West in the world of Islam, without replacing them with anything else (except, for example, the largess and dependency culture of Uncle Sam!).
      This brings us to the non-ideological nature of the Catholic Social Teaching (CST) which is centered on the “transcendent dignity of the human person” and the inviolable nature of families (the DNA for CST’s larger solidarity and subsidiarity, both).

      Should we now quibble, perhaps, with the subtle or unintended wording of the pope’s prayer intention for this month? That it urges respect for those persecuted for their religion and whose “rights originate from being brothers and sisters in the human family?” Say what? Too much cross-cultural and levelized fraternity (?), (a) as compared to our endowed and personal “image and likeness of God” as the deeper origin of personal rights (and responsibilities), and (b) as compared to real families, first as a fact rather than as a collective and substitute (?) metaphor?

      The implicit ideology-thing is a very invasive solvent. This reader would be less squinty-eyed about the wording (scripted by someone) if the recent Synodality documents also had not omitted the traditional “family” from among its solicited litany of social groupings to benefit from synodal “listening.”

      • Peter Beaulieu – a few observations from my time in Afghanistan:

        There weren’t many polygamous marriages where I was, and a lot of them had to do with special situations (your brother dies so you’ve got a second wife all of a sudden). And there were few or no divorces. There really can’t be: at the crudest level, bride price might be 5 years salary for a schoolteacher, and the woman’s family isn’t going to be pleased if you toss her aside, so basically you make a go of what you’ve got.

        It was hard for a man to observe family relations directly, but you could pick up this and that. Girls went around freely in public until they were 12 or so, and fathers seemed no less attached to them than to boys. There was one teacher—a very intelligent man who had studied in America and spoke excellent English—who notoriously beat his wife, and people looked down on that. There was another who was reputedly a great lover, and the women would giggle and tell stories behind the scenes.

        Mostly the bits and pieces I heard about sounded like normal domestic life—A’s wife had worry B about the children, C’s wife wanted some sort of fancy cloth so he picked it up for her, etc. The most respected of the teachers, who everyone called “Father,” had a much younger wife people called “Mother” who went around without a veil and did what she wanted. She was a very spirited woman, and nobody messed with her.

        The women didn’t have much public presence where I was, but that didn’t mean what people here would expect. There’s less public life in Muslim countries. The classic Middle Eastern city was a bazaar and some palaces, mosques, and barracks in the public sphere, and also walled quarters where people lived among their own and ran their own affairs.

        The family was generally a unit of production as well as consumption, so the idea of “career” was mostly irrelevant. That’s still true, by the way. Career depends on large formal organizations, and such things don’t work well in the radically divided societies you find in the Middle East and Central Asia. People are mostly farmers, artisans, or shopkeepers, and the ideal is having enough to live on so you can sit at home drinking tea.

        So the basic idea has always been that everything’s behind walls, with extended families living together in compounds, and outsiders only admitted to the relatively small public areas. Behind the scenes, which is where everything took place, the women were much freer and certainly part of what was going on. There was also lots of to and fro through back doors into other compounds. The images of imprisonment you get in the West aren’t at all accurate.

        A problem with the whole picture is that the way of life doesn’t transplant to all settings. It doesn’t work at all in a bureaucratic and industrial society in which people live in small apartments in large buildings and make their livings as operatives and functionaries in big organizations. So traditional Muslims in the West have problems and modernization runs into problems in Muslim countries. I have no doubt that one result is increased conflict and violence.

        • The key word in my comment was “enabling”. (Polygamy, for example, is illegal in Tunisia and Turkey.) Like you, the chairman of my dissertation committee was also at work in pre-revolutionary Afghanistan (late 1960s) as an anthropologist working to reform the educational system.

          He informed me (in late 1973) that after the coup he could never go back “because they would kill me.” He was probably well-known to the deposed royalty, and it’s possible he was even with one of those NGOs which, some say, “didn’t know what they were doing.” Or, maybe not.

          I appreciate completely your insight that we “don’t understand” things Islamic, non-modern, communal and tribal. But, that non-modernist and more robust elements in the West–less secularized–might come to understand with depth…I think this is possible.

          But, initially, this assumes at least the capacity for imagination, yet the Liberal Arts are being rinsed from higher education core requirements in favor of professorial niche interests and ideologies (e.g., all flavors of intersectionality) together with STEM—the industrial-educational complex.

          A fascinating and dangerous juncture in world history, our present moment of incoherence.

  9. What I and I suspect many others know of the condition of women (as if it could ever be uniform) in Afghanistan is from the news media, movies, TV, etc. Therefore, extremely unreliable. But seeing first hand what our society with feminism has done in the last several decades, it’s hard to imagine Afghan women would be better off if their society mimicked ours.

  10. St. Augustine identified the eternal truth: The City of God vs. The City of Man.

    The true Catholic Church is the promoter of The City of God. If the Church as it was before the end of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII was “transported” to today and “transformed” into the holiness of the early Church, the true narrative would be clear to everyone.

    • The true Catholic Church is the Church of today just as it was yesterday and will be forever. It is not what people want it to be; it is what it is.

      • I agree with your statement, but I doubt that your understanding is correct.

        I would like this comment posted, so I won’t go into great detail. It should be sufficient to say that there are heretics today in the “Catholic” Church. It is impossible for any person to be a formal heretic and a Catholic.

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