It's Not Just the Taliban: We in the West Are Embracing Medievalism, Too | Opinion

Many of us have spent the last week glued to our televisions watching the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. A marauding and medieval religious cult, the Taliban are famous for banning education for women, forcing young girls into marriage and vicious corporal punishment or worse for those who fail to adhere to the strictures of their religious fanaticism.

But while we in the West look at the Taliban with horror, a similar kind of fanaticism is taking hold here at home. And while we don't use whips and American-appropriated weapons to enforce our new Medievalism, the social costs of allowing it to metastasize are enormous.

For years progressives, neo-conservatives, libertarians and business "visionaries" embraced the notion of inexorable progress leading humanity to more enlightened times. Optimistic notions about an "arc of history" bending toward greater prosperity and social justice were embraced by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. But these days, the arc of progress seems to have done an about face and become something of a circle, bending all the way back to autocracy and intolerance, while the optimism of the Bush or Obama years appears more naïve in retrospect with every passing day.

The Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan is just one illustration of a seventh-century ideology overcoming the power of the neo-liberal world. Autocracies have arisen in countries which once seemed candidates for liberal democracy from Russia and Turkey to Iran. Arguably the most powerful person in the world is now China's all-but Emperor, Xi Jinping, who has presided over the mass detention and forced sterilization of a Muslim minority, the silencing of Hong Kong's free press and the arrest and prosecution of protestors and dissidents.

But the West, too, has fallen prey to encroaching illiberalism. America's intellectual, political, and corporate establishment may not share the ideology of ill-educated Central Asian religious fanatics, but they echo the Taliban by embracing an increasingly medieval dogmatism and—crucial—an ideology that similarly scorns reason and debate. As historian J. B. Bury put it in 1913, the Middle Ages were a time when "a large field was covered by beliefs which authority claimed to impose as true, and reason was warned off the ground."

climate activists
Climate activists from the Extinction Rebellion group hold a banner during the group's 'Impossible Rebellion' series of actions around Oxford Circus in central London on August 25, 2021. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Where does our own medieval lurch come from? Developments akin to what followed the fall of classical civilization: growing concentrations of political and economic power, a shrinking middle class, increasing intellectual dogmatism and a global pattern of pessimism about humanity's prospects. We are also living through a relentless effort to supplant any remaining reverence for the ideals that historically have held our civilization together, and this, too, parallels the experience of the Middle Ages, a period in which, as Belgian historian Henri Pirenne noted, "the very mind of man was going through degeneration."

Specifically, the West—like Afghanistan—is falling prey to a new form of clericalism. In Middle Ages, the clerical class—what the French called the First Estate— enforced the orthodoxy of the day from the Pope and the Bishops. Today, this discipline is undertaken by university faculties, media outlets, and, most egregiously, social media oligarchs. Once celebrated as forums for debate and open inquiry, our universities function today largely as defenders of orthodoxy.

In this, they are like their medieval and Communist counterparts. In medieval universities, dissenters, like Jews and Muslims, were rare, and barely tolerated. Similar conformity haunts our elite schools, where according to one study the proportion of liberals to conservatives ran as high as 70 to one, and at elite liberal arts schools like Wellesley, Swarthmore, and Williams, the proportion reached 120 to one.

But the similarities don't end there. In addition to living with droughts, famines, ever-colder weather and political unrest, the masses and even the elites in the Middle Ages lived in terror of eternal damnation. More or less everyone believed that the Final Judgement, brought on by human sin, was not only real but imminent; the period saw a surge of millennialist movements that took it upon themselves to enforce this orthodoxy against dissenters and religious minorities like Jews.

It's hard not to see that fear mirrored in today's liberal hysterias, whether over racism, climate change or pestilence. Hysteria has become "the business model of the neoliberal age" as one writer aptly put it. In this environment, even supposed devotees of "science" often adopt attitudes which resemble Inquisitors more than empiricists, marginalizing dissenters and even threatening them with jail, dispossession, humiliation, or just public obliteration.

The green movement offers the best analog to the new Medievalism. Like medieval Catholicism, green orthodoxy foresees impending doom caused by human activity, blaming any severe weather entirely on Gaia rather than Jehovah. Like the Medieval Church, the green movement is lavishly funded by the wealthy, who, like medieval aristocrats, urge austerity and humbleness on the masses but themselves live large and use private jets. Buying modern indulgences through carbon credits and other virtue-signaling devices allows them to save the planet in style.

Like medieval prophecies of imminent apocalypse, which were either exaggerated or just plain wrong, much of the climate change prognostications have not, so far, proven enormously accurate. Yet reasoned discourse is not what drives the groups that organized around Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Thunberg is a reprisal of the youthful fanaticism of medieval sanctus puer—the "holy children"—who rampaged through Europe in the 13th century, or Mao's Red Guards, unleashed during the Chinese Communists' Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Their followers, too, were motivated by religious fanaticism.

In this constricted intellectual environment, even the best credentialed academic climate experts such as Roger Pielke, Judith Curry and Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore are demonized and marginalized for deviating from what Curry has described as an overly "monolithic" approach to climate change.

You know you're dealing with encroaching Medievalism when a subject brooks no dissent. A similar rush for conformity can be seen in discussions over other central issues, like the pandemic, or "systemic racism." Operating under the auspices of this new Medievalism, social media firms have felt free to censor and demonetize dissenters on these subject, for example about the Wuhan Lab Leak Theory. A recent conference of leading virologists—not nutcase Covid deniers or scammers—was censored on YouTube for spreading what designated opinionators deemed inappropriate and misleading information. Similarly, those who dare oppose the fashionable and socially destructive theories about "systemic racism" face censorship and even removal from their jobs.

There is still a big difference between the Taliban and the green movement; the digital gulag is not like the early model, and it's better to be ignored or censored than beaten or beheaded. There is an important and unmistakable line separating state-sponsored religious violence like the Taliban's from socially enforced forms of censure. And yet, one need not minimize that difference to sound the alarm. "Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things," as historian Joseph Tainter pointed out. Our own Medievalists, from the far Left to the Trump-addled conspiracists on the Right—represent a profound threat to western civilization's spirit of inquiry and openness that is so critical to historic growth. The fact that intolerance for unfashionable views is much greater among young people is a frightening sign.

The price for resurgent intolerance and enforced conformity will likely be growing intellectual, demographic, and economic stagnation, emblems of Medievalism that lasted in some places for almost a millennia. Today's feudalists have as little use for liberal values as did their archaic doppelgangers.

Sadly, the shapers of the 21st Century may prove more Medieval than modern. The famous arc is bending but towards autocracy and unreason. It's time to push back.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.