Lord of the World

President Obama is traveling to Europe this week and will need all the wisdom he can get. It’s too bad someone did not slip him a long time ago a copy of James Schall’s Another Sort of Learning, or one of the books Schall recommends, Robert Hugh Benson’s novel, Lord of the World. Obama would do especially well to read through that story during his trip.

Benson’s book, written in 1906, is a tale of what was then the future. It is startlingly prescient, envisioning air travel, weapons of such power that they can destroy cities, urban mass transit, high-speed communications – all features of contemporary life that were science fiction in the first years of the last century. Benson also envisions suicide bombers, though his terrorists are not Islamists but rather misguided Catholics whom the Vatican tries to stop.

Benson’s imagined world has three blocs: America, Europe, and the East. The book’s opening finds Europe’s leaders nearly in despair about a threat of attack from the East, which they seem incapable of deterring or repelling. Domestically, Benson’s Europe has moved deep into socialism in search of the perfect city of man, though its final consummation – complete harmony and the end of material need – is yet to be realized.

In philosophy and theology, as in geopolitics, Benson projects three contending blocs. In the West, there are only Catholics and Humanitarians, who have largely, but not entirely, segregated themselves from one another. The East still has its diverse religions, but Sufi Islam is ascendant.

Into this confusion steps a hitherto obscure American senator, about whose beliefs and views little is known. He is a masterful communicator, quickly rises to influence, and negotiates a peace deal with the East, ostensibly averting disaster. His charisma and presence are so great that he is suddenly taken in Europe as the Messiah. He becomes leader of Europe, and Humanitarianism becomes the official state religion (complete with its own new rubrics and rituals, celebrated by the swelling ranks of apostate Catholic priests). To those who know that Benson was himself a priest and a convert to Catholicism, it will come as no surprise that the man installed by Europe’s democratic institutions as its savior and master will prove to be the anti-Messiah.

Even for the apocalyptically minded, President Obama has made enough missteps for us to conclude that, despite some apparent similarities to Benson’s character, he is probably not the Antichrist. The Antichrist, unless he were cleverly cultivating an appearance of just enough ineptitude to be plausibly human, would have handled the AIG bonus scandal more smoothly (though the return of the bonuses by some executives does sound like conversion at some level). He would not have insulted the disabled on a popular national television show. Which brings us us back to Europe.

In Brussels last weekend, senior European officials were unaware of, or forgiving of, Obama’s remark about the Special Olympics. The episode got very little attention in the European media. Coming a few days before a European trip, such a gaffe by former President Bush would have been replayed endlessly by European television and newspapers. But European elites tend to share Obama’s view that not all examples of human life deserve protection, while some even merit mockery.

The Europe that President Obama will soon visit was anticipated in Benson’s fiction. European leaders are a confused lot, active in meetings and speeches, but passive and ineffective in action. Many wish the threat of Islamist terror could just go away. They are divided on responding to the financial crisis and cannot come to terms with their strategic vulnerability stemming from energy dependence on an authoritarian Russia that is again asserting its sphere of influence. Some are obsessed with Israel’s tactics towards Hamas and Hezbollah. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel face uncertain political prospects and act cautiously or not at all. French President Nicholas Sarkozy worries openly after three million union-led Frenchmen went on strike – and into the streets – earlier this month. Prime ministers in Hungary and the Czech Republic (which currently holds the EU presidency and President Obama will visit) both fell in the last two weeks.

Most of all, it is a Europe whose elites fancy the European Union to be the most righteously humanist place on the planet. Many consider its lack of belief in anything transcendent to be confirmation that it is close to the perfect city of man. They welcome disastrous birth rates as evidence of enlightenment. Others, including notable intellectuals, know the superficiality of this view. But the Europe that holds most to the self-image of progressive nirvana will offer Obama the warmest embrace, and many in Obama’s camp feel more affinity with them than with red states in America. President Obama himself seems eager for us to emulate Europe.

But Obama also has big problems on every side. He wants to ask some difficult things of Europe, which is not looking forward to being asked. He wants more help in the difficult fight in Afghanistan. He wants united and effective action in the financial crisis in ways that may imperil some leaders’ short-term political interests. He will get something, but getting anything much beyond token agreements and bouquets of flowers will test his powers of persuasion. If he succeeds, we should all go back and study Benson’s prophetic book.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.