There have been a few, gratifying moments during my long career as a writer when people have told me their lives were changed for the better by something I wrote. Yet every writer, particularly those dealing with controversial subjects, has to confront the possibility that his or her words will have, or will seem to have had, baleful influences as well. The Catcher in the Rye is a book still assigned to millions of junior high school students, yet also a work that, when processed by the deranged mind of John Hinckley, seems to have become an inspiration for his attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.
This feature of the writer's life became personal for me last week, when a colleague entered my office with the news that the so-called manifesto written by the now world-famous Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, contains quotes from my writing on global demographics. Indeed, subsequent investigation revealed that Breivik reprinted in full a cover story I wrote for Foreign Policy in 2006, called "The Return of Patriarchy." He also wrote of having reviewed a book I published in 2004 called The Empty Cradle, and cited some statistics from it. I have accordingly spent the last three days reading through Breivik's 1,518-page manuscript, as well as much of the commentary it has inspired around the world, in an attempt to glean whatever lessons can be learned.
Breivik's worldview, if we can call it that, is not easily characterized. Some have branded him a "Christian terrorist." He does write that he hopes the "Church gains more or less [a] monopoly on religion in Europe," but also that "it is essential that science takes an undisputed precedence over biblical teachings." In keeping with this latter view, he lauds the work of Princeton University molecular biologist Lee M. Silver, who is an advocate of stem cell research and human cloning. So Breivik can't easily be described as a religious fundamentalist.
Breivik also wants a big cut in aid to developing countries in the hopes that this will reduce world population by 4.5 billion -- an exercise in population control I don't think the pope, much less Scandinavia's Lutheran Church, would favor. Without pause, he voices admiration for the United States' Tea Party, while calling for more regulation of capitalism and a "Scandinavian light model" of redistribution, including "giving women more incentives to have children in the form of various welfare incentives."
One could call him a fascist, and he does subscribe to Arian racial theory. But Breivik also makes fulsome denunciations of Hitler and belittles today's neo-Nazis as fools. He is certainly hostile to Islam and quotes many right-wing authors and bloggers who obsess about the coming of "Eurabia." But his rants against feminism, Marxism, and Western sexual mores are little different from those made by Osama bin Laden. He doesn't call for Western women to be put behind the veil. But he estimates that 50 percent have slept with more than 20 men and are thus "sluts," thinks society should "discourage" all women from having full-time careers, and blames "current destructive matriarchal policies" for most of what he sees as wrong with Europe.
Tellingly, the targets of his murderous rage were not Muslims, but mostly young, white, progressive Norwegians whom he regarded as tyrants of "political correctness." Indeed, Breivik doesn't anywhere have much good to say about white people in today's Europe, except that he finds attractive those who have "Nordic" features, such as "blond hair, blue eyes, high forehead, [and] sturdy cheekbones." He says he's proud to have descended from Vikings, but apparently only because it has brought him what he regards as his good looks. Breivik even criticizes European imperialism, which is something I thought the Vikings used to excel at back in the day.
How Breivik stitched together this crazy quilt of ideas and attitudes is hard enough to fathom. Certainly logic will be of little help. Schizophrenics have a reputation for being able to reason brilliantly from false premises; Breivik barely reasons at all, but for the most part just clips and pastes the work of others. How his mind then stumbled to the conclusion that mass murder would somehow bring utopia is still more difficult to answer -- as much as we need answers to his nihilism.
We could try a psychological approach, noting, for example, that Breivik's parents underwent a bitter divorce and custody battle when he was a child and that he is long estranged from his father. We could dwell on his deep resentment of his stepfather -- described in the manifesto as "a very primitive sexual beast" who infected his mother with venereal disease. Similarly, we could muse on why Breivik felt compelled to write that his half sister had "more than 40 sexual partners [including] more than 15 Chippendales' strippers who are known to be bearers of various diseases." Bring in Dr. Freud if you like.
Or we could take a more socioeconomic tack. We could focus on his complaints about the difficulty of finding secure employment in a world he sees as controlled by global capitalists; about being robbed by "Jihadi youths" in Oslo; about being corrupted by a world of "hip-hop" music and violent video games; about what he sees as the double standard of "multiculturists" who condemn European men as sexists while embracing the import of sharia. Or we could linger over his tirades on those who condemn any expression of ethnic pride by white people while celebrating and defending ethnic chauvinism in others. These are all factors Breivik chews over at length in attempting to explain the origins of his worldview.
Yet, of course, they do not explain his crime. Many people are the products of unhappy, broken homes and harbor deep cultural, racial, and sexual resentments, yet do not turn into mass murderers. So what lessons can we take from Anders Behring Breivik?
I take two, the first of which is not original. As many have said before, we live in an age in which technology isolates individuals within bubbles of virtual reality while simultaneously empowering them to wreak havoc. This is true in ways big and small. It's hard to imagine, for example, that Breivik would ever have completed his 700,000-word manuscript without recourse to the World Wide Web or that its contents would be the same if he had had to work in a library. It is a Google manifesto, comprising a mash-up of information -- some true and some false, some from learned sources and much from crackpots -- that Breivik would had to have at least reflected upon more deeply had he been compelled to retype all that material.
If, like Karl Marx, Breivik had spent countless hours in the reading room of the British Museum, he probably would have still produced gibberish, but he also might have learned some intellectual discipline, or just given up on his pretensions of being an intellectual. At least he would have gotten out of the house. As it was, his immersion in the Internet not only enabled his vainglory, but also taught him how to make fertilizer bombs while at the same time isolating him from once close friends who might have helped him with his mental illness. Breivik seems to glimpse this truth when he advises his imaginary fellow travelers: "Being a bitter old goat behind a computer will only drive you to depression, and defeat."
The other lesson I take from Breivik is also a theme of much of my writing on global demographics. Societies that are, or that perceive themselves to be, in demographic decline are potentially dangerous, as fear of being outbred and overrun by "others" awakens reactionary sentiment. In the United States during the early decades of the last century, fears of "race suicide," voiced by figures ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Margaret Sanger, led to the horrors of the eugenics movement, to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and to the closing of America's immigration gate until the 1960s. Today, I see a similar dynamic unfolding in the United States and to a much greater extent in Europe and Russia, as low birth rates combine with high rates of immigration to produce a stew of racial fear and resentment that brings with it a resurgence of nationalism, fundamentalism, and a deep backlash against multicultural and progressive values.
The large differential in birth rates that has emerged in much of the world between religious conservatives -- whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim -- and their more secular counterparts abets the process. For whatever reasons, adherents to fundamentalism continue to have comparatively large families, while childlessness and single-child families are becoming the norm among those who do not feel themselves commanded by God "to go forth and multiply." Thus, the title of my cover story for Foreign Policy, which argues that "A Return of Patriarchy" becomes well-nigh inevitable if progressive elements in society do not have enough children to replace themselves.
Different audiences, I've found, take such a message differently. The New Statesman, a very left-leaning British publication, has published my work on this subject because its editors see it as reinforcing a long-standing agenda among European socialists, which is to involve the state more in the provision of child care and in otherwise smoothing tensions between work and family life. "Feminism is the new natalism" goes the slogan for this point of view, and there is some merit to it. In Europe at least, countries like Sweden and Norway that have embraced this agenda have higher birth rates than more culturally conservative countries, such as Spain. They also, however, have much higher rates of out-of-wedlock births and divorce, and the financing of their generous welfare states continues to be imperiled by a dwindling ratio of workers to dependent elders.
Meanwhile, religious conservatives also tend to find validation for their agendas in the demographic trends I discuss, though not always when they fully think them through. For example, I was once asked to speak on population matters at the headquarters of Focus on the Family, one of the United States' most powerful Christian ministries. The message that the future appears to belong to fundamentalism, given current demographic trends, went over quite well, until there came a moment when everyone in the room seemed at once to realize that my reasons for saying so were rooted in the gospel of Darwinism, with which fundamentalism is at war. I have some ideas for how to turn around falling birth rates, mostly involving steps that might help to restore the economic basis of the family and allow parents to retain more of the capital they create through their investments in children. Yet I have no sure solutions. The phenomenon of people having too few children to avoid rapid population aging and eventual population decline has by now spread far beyond Europe, affecting countries rich and poor and under all forms of government, from Asia to Latin America.
Muslim countries, as I wish Breivik had taken time to absorb, are not immune to this phenomenon. As I've written many times, birth rates in Iran have come down so steeply that the Islamic Republic is aging far faster than any country in "old Europe." Meanwhile, birth rates in Tunisia and Lebanon are also below replacement levels, and many other Muslim countries, from Turkey to Morocco, are just on the cusp. For better or for worse, subreplacement fertility is now a condition of modernity, not just of the Western civilization that Breivik proclaims to love even as he slaughters its children.
The vast demographic transformation overtaking the human race forces issues as contentious as they come: the role of women, religion, race and ethnicity, sex, marriage, birth control, the welfare state, and, before we are done, quite likely much harsher debates over who has a "duty to die" in an aging society. We still do face a population explosion, but mostly of old people, opening the way for generational conflict as well. Added to the mix are modern-day Malthusians who want to drive down human population to arrest global warming or just for the sake of "the planet." This century is likely to be dominated by eugenic thinking, and all the more so as different populations face the specter of demographic decline and environmental threat. Let us all try to keep our heads, maybe invest more in children, and remember our common humanity.