The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis
There are few surprises in The Midnight Kingdom, Jared Yates Sexton’s history of power corrupting absolutely, but there aren’t meant to be. This eloquent and thoroughly researched work is not so much about what happened over the last 2,000 years of western civilization as it is about what it suggests. This is a narrative intended to provoke even more than to educate.
That’s not to say there’s information lacking. The Midnight Kingdom could easily be the primary text for a history of western civilization course, except that it isn’t as forgiving or understanding about the part religion and specifically Christianity has played. In fact, recognizing religious paranoia as the engine that drives capitalism and its melliferous effects is a significant part of Sexton’s challenge to his readers.
Sexton connects Christianity’s ascent and its codependent relationship with state power so deftly they become indistinguishable, or rather we come to understand how they melded. The lengths to which the monied would go to sustain power and the hypocritical depths religious authorities plumbed to support them created an imperceptible feedback loop of suppression nearly impossible to break.
With the fall of Rome, Christians learned their first hard lesson: If the kings you prop up fail, your power may be called into question. After going from a persecuted Roman minority to the official religion of the realm, a pattern emerged that persists through today.
“When relegated to the minority within a society, Christians could rely on their martyrdom as proof of conviction and apocalypticism as a means of undermining the majority. When aligned with the state, Christians could look to their leaders as divine agents, backed by the will of God and nearly as infallible, incontestable, and holy as Christ himself.”
The cycle of religious influence abused to its limits emerges as an early theme and, in the book as in real life, settles into the background, a low, maddening hum over which the rest of the story plays out. It helps Sexton support his case that, far from a spiritual predilection, Christianity writ large is a nation to which the preponderance westerners pledge their genuine fealty.
Christianity needs no single leader and no discernible single creed. It’s the only appellation from which reason is forbidden, and, because religion deals in martyrdom, it’s a win-win for would-be tyrants. A successful power grab is sanctioned by God, a thwarted one is the work of the devil.
By seeping into the culture, religious paranoia became a disposition that had nothing to do with a particular spiritual belief, or at least wasn’t dependent on it.
Sexton references Plato’s allegory of the cave throughout, as much because the insight is that old as because it is as relevant today as ever. For Sexton, the prevailing lesson is that humans will trade anything, including reality, for predictability and safety. It’s a base emotion many of us would like to believe we’re above (and hopefully we are), but as an explainer, it rarely fails.
He discusses the understandable paranoia that created underground intellectual societies during the Enlightenment as fear of the Church’s latest power grab and heretic persecution remained fresh in the intelligentsia’s minds.
“With a lack of education and the continued troubling existence of superstitious, thought the great masses were yet incapable of recognizing, or unwilling to recognize, the shadows on the wall . . . Dragging them from the darkness of ignorance was dangerous work.”
And they were right. Time and again, people left behind tradition and religion (insofar as they’re different) as new ideas emerged in the arts and sciences. The conservative forces of stasis met intellectual liberalism with greater and more violent reactions.
No history of the west would be complete without a look at Nazism, but Sexton doesn’t trouble himself too deeply with Hitler, pointing out that while it’s easy to lay blame, it’s more difficult to accept complex reasons with wider implications.
Instead, he ties the rise of fascism to the rise of mass media and this very human desire for stasis. Particularly, of soldiers returning home from the Great War who understood the value and safety of rigid stratification and compartmentalization for the good of the group.
“The fascist movement developed as soldiers returning from the war front gazed upon their homelands through new eyes and desired the discipline and order of the military structure to be imposed on the state.”
The final, post-war divide pits atheistic communism with capitalist Christianity. The entire American political culture became laser focused on stamping out communism, liberalism, and atheism as a matter of cultural preservation. This false dichotomy (actively and intentionally supported by the American law enforcement apparatus) blended Christianity and capitalism so seamlessly again as to make them indistinguishable. The idea that God made his faithful wealthy is much older even than capitalism, but the notion of religious faith in capitalism is a 21st century innovation.
The tech revolution may have turned the relationship on its head as people skeptical that God had the solution to all their problems embraced the tech future. Heaven might be fictional, but the metaverse is real.
As he closes his argument Sexton does his best to sound a hopeful note, opening the door to the possibility that self-preservation may finally be more on the side of change than of stability, that liberal thought might resist conservative back peddling in a way it hasn’t in the past. It seems, in the end, faith might be all there is.
The Midnight Kingdom is a gripping read that flirts with but never gives in to cynicism. Solid writing that dives into generous detail without ever over-explaining bolsters Sexton’s well-researched appeal.