Catholic traditionalism in general, and the Benedict Option in particular, are simply not adequate for living the life of Faith in today’s world and enabling others to do the same, for it is not the proper response to how things actually are and will be quite soon. To help us see how things really are, or at least, to present a view of our situation for which the Benedict Option may not even be an option, let alone the long-term solution to our problems, I would like to present three philosophers: Taylor, Girard, and Guardini, who look at three aspects of our world: Taylor, the existential, Girard, the political, and Guardini, the spiritual. Taylor will teach us that modernity is inescapable, Girard that our politics is in the final stages of the apocalypse, and Guardini that intimate union with God Himself—with nothing in between—is no longer an option, but an absolute obligation and necessity.
Kozinski points out that philosopher Charles Taylor says that it is futile to try to avoid modernity:
If this is the existential milieu we find ourselves in, and if it is indeed inescapable, then any Benedict Option community must reckon with this, and thus not attempt, whatever else it attempts, to escape this mode of consciousness, for such would be futile. No matter how monastic and centered-on-God our practices and our community is, we simply cannot go back to the naïve theistic consciousness of the medieval man. We are inevitably going to feel the pull of other worldviews and social imaginaries, and we simply have to accept the deep pluralism of our age, even if it is a pluralism that cloaks a homogeneous and stultifying immanentism, materialism, liberalism, and individualism. In other words, what Taylor is telling us is that the Benedict Option is impossible, if what is meant by it is a return to a medieval consciousness and immunization from modernity through small-scale, communal participation in traditional religious, cultural, and familial practices.
Well, once again, I wonder if a critic has read the book. I make it pretty clear that we can’t escape modernity, for reasons Taylor says. I describe our situation “not as a problem to be solved, but a reality to be lived with.” Here (from The Benedict Option) is my description of what Charles Taylor described as the “pillars” of the medieval imagination:
- The world and everything in it is part of a harmonious whole ordered by God and filled with meaning—and all things are signs pointing to God.
- Society is grounded in that higher reality.
- The world is charged with spiritual force.
Contemporary Catholicism and Orthodoxy still hold to these beliefs (I’m not sure to what extent Protestantism does; I’m pretty sure the third is not true of Protestantism, but I could be wrong). But it is undeniably true that all of us today live in the modern age, where none of these things are believed by all. In fact, I doubt your average Christian of any kind affirms all of these pillars, or even knows what they mean. The world has become “disenchanted” in modernity. It’s not that the three pillars are untrue, but that they have ceased to be part of our common experience. Practically speaking, one has to work to keep one’s eyes on the truth of those statements. The way modern life is organized obscures these truths, when it doesn’t deny them outright.
According to Taylor, the key difference between our time and the Middle Ages is that we know that it is possible not to believe in God, in Christianity, or in anything. This was scarcely possible for medievals. This is why Kozinski rightly says the Ben Op can never be a total escape from modernity. We cannot un-know what we know.
Kozinski then turns to the theories of René Girard, especially Girard’s teaching that mankind is hurtling towards an apocalypse. It may not be the Apocalypse (though it might; Girard was a believing Catholic), but it is nevertheless an orgy of violence, coming upon us because in modernity, we have cast off all restraints that would have held us back. Girard’s view is more anthropological than religious, and it is hard to explain simply. In this 2009 essay in First Things, Girard discusses the basics of his theory of apocalypse. He points out that ours is the first civilization in history that has to live with the knowledge that it has the power to destroy itself.
Needless to say, if Girard is correct, while we can protect ourselves from the spiritual contagion of scapegoating by unwavering obedience to and identification with the Divine Scapegoat, the apocalyptic political violence Girard foresees will not be forestalled by Benedict Option communities, and we will not ultimately be protected from it wherever we go.
Well, yes. I don’t present the Benedict Option as some earthly version of the Rapture, whereby the faithful will be spared the violence coming from the breakup of our civilization. I can’t say it often enough: the Ben Op is not escapist. Rather, it is a strategy for enduring hard times — even very hard times — upon us now, and increasing with each passing year of the advance of post-Christianity. The best we can hope for is to ride this out, even if it takes centuries. I certainly don’t want to have to suffer, or to have my children, or their descendants, suffer. But if suffering must come, I want them to meet it bravely, as true Christians. I believe, with Girard, that we must not comfort ourselves with false optimism or escapism, for “to seek to comfort is always to contribute to the worst.” For the Christian, death is not the worst thing. Losing one’s soul is. That is what the Benedict Option seeks to prevent.
Finally, Kozinski turns to Guardini:
Guardini described a world in the 1950s similar to the one Dreher describes now, one of a neo-pagan totalitarianism that is no longer tolerating any threats to its secularist, atheistic, and humanist dogmas, one in which Christians and other theists are called to brook no compromise and live out their Faith all the more integrally and heroically. But Guardini’s prescription for action is something at once more bracing and consoling than Dreher’s. Nothing but the “free union of the human person with the Absolute through unconditional freedom will enable the faithful to stand firm—God—centered—even though placeless and unprotected.” He goes on: “Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love that flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ. . . . Perhaps love will achieve an intimacy and harmony never known to this day.”
In short, Guardini sees no real possibility for “safe” havens of Christian culture, and even if we could create them, they have the real potential of stunting our spiritual growth. God is calling theists to a higher level than mere orthodoxy and orthopraxy, indeed, a heroic and mystical level, of Faith, obedience, and trust—unshakable, naked, intimate, experienced union with God, communicating this supernatural reality wherever we go and to everyone we meet. Like Christ, we will have nowhere to lay our heads.
Kozinski posits this vision — radical mysticism — against the Benedict Option. This is a false juxtaposition, one he could have only made from either not reading the book, or reading it in a facile way — that is, as an escape plan. It’s not that. I agree with Guardini (as interpreted by Kozinski) that we Christian believers are being called by the times to radical trust and obedience, and that this will only be possible in the face of post-Christian modernity by believers who are deeply rooted in prayer, Scripture, and practices — individual, familial, and communal — that sediment the reality of our faith into our bones.
It’s like this. In the medieval age, and for some time beyond it, the social structures in Western culture acted as an external framework bolstering Christian belief. It was easier to believe in Christianity because nearly everything in society made that belief incarnate. It’s not to say, obviously, that life was an Eden. Every age has been a sinful one. The point is, belief was supported by social structures, much as flying buttresses support the high walls of Gothic cathedrals.
Those external structures are gone now. There is nothing to buffer us from unbelief. We have to rely on our internal strength — that is, on our faith as individuals, and in our small communities. If the Christian life is a walk on a footbridge crossing the abyss, our ancestors were able to make that walk steadied by the unshakableness of the bridge, and by strong railings on either side to keep them from falling off. Today, the decayed bridge sways in the winds of a coming storm, and there are no handrails. We have to train to develop the internal strength and sense of balance to keep from falling off. We cannot wish the old bridge back, nor can we avoid the walk. The Benedict Option is about the spiritual training we all need to devote ourselves to for the sake of making that walk — and making it together — in very difficult times.
Put another way, the Benedict Option is about practices that make the metaphysical truths perceived by all Christians in the first millennium of the Church, and just beyond, visible through the fog of modernity. As I write in the book:
“Monastic life is very plain,” [Father Cassian Folsom] continued. “People from the outside perhaps have a romantic vision, perhaps what they see on television, of monks sort of floating around the cloister. There is that, and that’s attractive, but basically, monks get up in the morning, they pray, they do their work, they pray some more. They eat, they pray, they do some more work, they pray some more, and then they go to bed. It’s rather plain, just like most people. The genius of Saint Benedict is to find the presence of God in everyday life.”
People who are anxious, confused, and looking for answers are quick to search for solutions in the pages of books or on the Internet, looking for that “killer app” that will make everything right again. The Rule tells us: No, it’s not like that. You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root. Divine grace is freely given, but God will not force us to receive it. It takes constant effort on our part to get out of God’s way and let His grace heal us and change us. To this end, what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.
A man who wants to get in shape and has read the best bodybuilding books will get nowhere unless he applies that knowledge in eating healthy food and working out daily. That takes sustained willpower. In time, if he’s faithful to the practices necessary to achieve his goal, the man will start to love eating well and exercising so much that he is not pushed toward doing so by willpower but rather drawn to it by love. He will have trained his heart to desire the good.
So too with the spiritual life. Right belief (orthodoxy) is essential, but holding the correct doctrines in your mind does you little good if your heart—the seat of the will—remains unconverted. That requires putting those right beliefs into action through right practice (orthopraxy), which over time achieves the goal Paul set for Timothy when he commanded him to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).
Thought it quotes Scripture in nearly every one of its short chapters, the Rule is not the Gospel. It is a proven strategy for living the Gospel in an intensely Christian way. It is an instruction manual for how to form one’s life around the service of Jesus Christ, within a strong community. It is not a collection of theological maxims but a manual of practices through which believers can structure their lives around prayer, the Word of God, and the ever-deepening awareness that, as the saint says, “the divine presence is everywhere, and that ‘the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and evil in every place’ (Proverbs 15:3).”
The Rule is for monastics, obviously, but its teachings are plain enough to be adapted by lay Christians for their own use. It provides a guide to serious and sustained Christian living in a fashion that reorders us interiorly, bringing together what is scattered within our own hearts and orienting it to prayer. If applied effectively, it disciplines the life we share with others, breaking down barriers that keep the love of God from passing amongus, and makes us more resilient without hardening our hearts.
We are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible. Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing. The Rule, with its vision of an ordered life centered around Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion, can help us achieve that goal.
Read Kozinski’s entire essay. There’s a lot of good stuff to contemplate there. He is right that all Christians have to become mystics in post-Christian modernity, in the sense that we will only be able to endure this trial if we are people of prayer, people who have formed their imaginations with a strong sense of the unseen order all around us. Nothing else will do. The Benedict Option is a strategy, based on ancient Christian monastic practice, for helping ordinary believers in the world do just that: by structuring our entire lives around deeper communion with God.
If Prof. Kozinski (or anybody else) has a better strategy, I’d love to hear it, because I have children, and therefore skin in this game. I’m not kidding.
UPDATE: Please be patient with my posting and comment-approving today. I am suffering from a relapse of chronic mononucleosis, and having to sleep at inopportune moments. A lot. Plus, brain fog. More than the usual. Thanks.
On Tuesday, Steve Bannon called Robert Kuttner, the editor of The American Prospect, a liberal policy magazine. He never asked for the conversation to be off the record — which seems to have been a catastrophic mistake for Bannon, one that someone with his media experience should not have made. The article (“Steve Bannon, Unrepentant”) has been taken down, or at least the link is invalid. But a reader grabbed the cached version and sent it to me as a PDF. [UPDATE: The link is back.]
It’s stunning. It is impossible to believe that Bannon wanted this to be on the record, unless he’s playing twelve-dimensional chess. Excerpts:
Contrary to Trump’s threat of fire and fury, Bannon said: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” Bannon went on to describe his battle inside the administration to take a harder line on China trade, and not to fall into a trap of wishful thinking in which complaints against China’s trade practices now had to take a backseat to the hope that China, as honest broker, would help restrain Kim.
“To me,” Bannon said, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”
So, right there he undercuts his boss on North Korea.
Bannon explained that his strategy is to battle the trade doves inside the administration while building an outside coalition of trade hawks that includes left as well as right. Hence the phone call to me.
There are a couple of things that are startling about this premise. First, to the extent that most of the opponents of Bannon’s China trade strategy are other Trump administration officials, it’s not clear how reaching out to the left helps him. If anything, it gives his adversaries ammunition to characterize Bannon as unreliable or disloyal.
More puzzling is the fact that Bannon would phone a writer and editor of a progressive publication (the cover lines on whose first two issues after Trump’s election were “Resisting Trump” and “Containing Trump”) and assume that a possible convergence of views on China trade might somehow paper over the political and moral chasm on white nationalism.
The question of whether the phone call was on or off the record never came up. This is also puzzling, since Steve Bannon is not exactly Bambi when it comes to dealing with the press. He’s probably the most media-savvy person in America.
And get this:
I asked Bannon about the connection between his program of economic nationalism and the ugly white nationalism epitomized by the racist violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s reluctance to condemn it. Bannon, after all, was the architect of the strategy of using Breitbart to heat up white nationalism and then rely on the radical right as Trump’s base.
He dismissed the far right as irrelevant and sidestepped his own role in cultivating it: “Ethno-nationalism — it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”
“These guys are a collection of clowns,” he added.
From his lips to Trump’s ear.
“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Steve Bannon, on the alt-right: “These guys are a collection of clowns.”
Either Bannon is a genius, or he’s reckless and crazy. Or maybe he’s both, but his recklessness outran his genius this one time. I can’t see how he survives having talked so loosely to a journalist — a liberal journalist at that — about administration infighting and the White House’s approach to North Korea and China. We’ll see, I guess. Just another day at the Dumpster fire.
UPDATE: Now Bannon is saying he didn’t think he was giving an interview. A guy phones an editor at a left-wing magazine that has been harsh on Trump and then dishes on his colleagues, and undermines the president’s foreign policy stance? A guy who is suspected of being a big leaker? Gen. Kelly ain’t gonna like this.
It may be a small thing to you, but this is a big deal, for reasons I will explain. Reader A.B. comments:
The last two quotes you included from Lilla’s upcoming book describe exactly what I experienced at an annual conference of case managers in the I/DD [Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities] field in Oregon in June of this year. The main event of this conference was a 3-hour session titled “Unpacking Held Identities: Understanding Privilege, Diversity, & Equity”. The speaker, a professor from a very liberal university in Oregon who was representing his consulting firm which specializes in “Diversity/Equity and Inclusion”, provided the audience with a glossary of terms which he proceeded to define.
While the list is long, I don’t know how to edit it down without diminishing the overwhelming effect the list had on me in its entirety:
Ableism, Ageism, Bigotry, Counter Narrative, Discrimination, Dominant Discourse/Dominant Culture, Equality, Equity, Gender Identity (including a definition of Cisgender), Homophobia, Insiderism, Kindness (added because, as the speaker noted ironically, kindness is often lacking in our world), LGBTQ, Lookism, Micro-aggression, Misogyny, Prejudice, Privilege, Racism, and finally: Sexual Orientation.
Naturally, he pointed out that this is not a full list (!). His primary points were these:
(1) white cisgendered males (of which I am a member), being the group in power, both perpetrate and perpetuate each of the –isms, phobias, etc. on this list;
(2) members of the victimized groups do not perpetrate or perpetuate any of these –isms, etc. due to the fact that they do not have structural power in the United States; and
(3) to help fight this injustice, members of these victimized groups (along with woke members of the dominant group providing they understand it is a big no-no to actually speak for any of the members of the victimized groups) need to use “tweezers” to politely pluck away at these (as Lilla calls them) “immodest locutions” uttered by these racist, discriminatory, prejudiced, cisgendered white males that those in the audience undoubtedly encounter in their day-to-day interactions with them.
As this was a conference for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I approached him after one of the breakout sessions and asked him to explain how he believes to achieve unity and equality inside of this philosophy when, for example, some pro-choice members of these victimized groups he is supposedly championing perpetuate ableism when screening for conditions such as Down’s syndrome. I cited a BBC article (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37500189 – “A world without Down’s syndrome?”) that stated that 90% of women in the UK with a positive Down’s diagnosis have abortions.
Instead of entering into dialogue as I had admittedly naively hoped, he rather interrupted (or rather “tweezed”) me at multiple points to correct the immodest locutions I was using (one of my sins was using the terms pro-choice and pro-life which implied that he is anti-life, and he also tweezed me to be careful citing statistics) and stated he was always for a woman’s right to choose. He completely ignored my point.
Lilla is exactly right when he says that a foundation based on personal identity “sets up a wall against questions” and that “the more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.”
The reader is talking about Mark Lilla’s new book The Once And Future Liberal, which condemns identity politics from an old-fashioned liberal point of view. In the book, Lilla likens left-wing identity politics to a dogmatic pseudo-religion. It’s self-appointed clerical class lays down taboos, separates the blessed from the damned, and sets the terms by which the damned might be redeemed. And there can be no reasoning about it, because to apply reason to the workings of this religion is to question its gods.
The evangelist (so to speak) who taught the session at A.B.’s workshop is no outlier. This kind of thing is common at universities, and within corporate culture. It teaches the Chosen that they are free from sin because, in the metaphysics of the diversity religion, they have no power. It tells people outside of the camp of the Chosen that they are bad by virtue of their race, sex, sexual desire, gender identity, physical ability, and, at times, religion. They were born into this state of defilement, and can never fully cleanse themselves of it. The only way they can redeem themselves is by agreeing to accept dhimmitude — second-class status — as their just desserts.
The clerical class keeps close watch over the words the dhimmis speak, and if they question the religion in any way, or violate any of its taboos, they will be punished severely. The clerisy polices doctrinal purity by declaring any dissent to be a manifestation of bigotry, which is to say, evil. The clerisy teaches the Chosen that they do not have to monitor their own consciences, because they cannot sin. Rather, their job is to scan relentlessly the lives of the others, the Deplorables, and root out sin when they find it by reporting them to the religious authorities.
These “diversity” programs, such as the one A.B. had to endure, amount to catechesis in the righteousness of dhimmitude. Is there any wonder that people disadvantaged by this religion are sick and tired of it? Having taught the masses to think of themselves in terms of identity categories, the clerisy is shocked to find that the unclean, the Deplorables, are doing just that, but rejecting the idea that their identity defiles them. In fact, they are coming to see that this religious system, which refuses to admit to any rational criticism, is in fact a structure designed to dispossess them. What started as an effort to teach people in the majority demographic categories to empathize with minorities, and to treat them more fairly, has devolved into a re-education program telling majorities that justice requires them to despise themselves, because they can never really overcome the original sin of being white, male, heterosexual, and politically or religiously conservative.
Meanwhile, those in the category of the Chosen — racial minorities, women (but only some women; e.g., pro-life feminists need not apply), LGBT, et alia — have had the ability to empathize with the Deplorables educated out of them. They have been taught that their identity makes them good, and the identity of the Deplorables makes them bad. Therefore, when the Deplorables question that dogma, the Chosen receive that as denying their personhood.
What’s more, the clerisy lives in such a bubble of self-reinforcing homogeneity that they can no more grasp the discontent and discord they are sowing than a courtier around a Renaissance pope could have grasped what the Church’s corruption was bringing about in the hinterlands of German-speaking Europe.
It is not easy to live in a pluralistic democracy. Left-wing identitarians and those who empower them — I’m especially looking at you, university administrators and corporate managers — are making it much harder. A workplace where people have to be on edge for fear that they will be reported to Human Resources for microaggressing someone by engaging in “lookism” is a place that, sooner or later, is going to blow.
And so is a society whose imagination has been formed by this malevolent catechism.
Finally, I think Brendan O’Neill of Spiked Online has it exactly right:
UPDATE: Here’s a new policy I have. If you read a post of mine, and you restate it in a comment in some absurdly distorted way, I’m not going to bother to answer you. I’m just not going to post it. If you are genuinely confused about something, I’m happy to clarify, if I have the time to do so when I approve that batch of comments. But if you’re just asking a “When did you stop beating your wife?” kind of question, too bad, you’ve wasted your time. Ain’t gonna post it.
If you are not at work and can stand foul, racist language, you should take a look at this VICE News report from Charlottesville last weekend. Looking and and listening to the neo-Nazis and right-wing radicals at the march is not the same as reading about them. Evil has a face, and a voice, and it is chilling. It will give you an idea of why so many people were flabbergasted that Trump could not condemn these people without equivocation.
But Trump’s errors, however egregious, should not let us excuse or diminish the real threat to our politics from the violent left-wing agitators of antifa (anti-fascists). You may be tempted to sympathize with them because they punch neo-Nazis, but Peter Beinart’s report on them in The Atlantic ought to put an end to that. Excerpts:
Since 1907, Portland, Oregon, has hosted an annual Rose Festival. Since 2007, the festival had included a parade down 82nd Avenue. Since 2013, the Republican Party of Multnomah County, which includes Portland, had taken part. This April, all of that changed.
In the days leading up to the planned parade, a group called the Direct Action Alliance declared, “Fascists plan to march through the streets,” and warned, “Nazis will not march through Portland unopposed.” The alliance said it didn’t object to the Multnomah GOP itself, but to “fascists” who planned to infiltrate its ranks. Yet it also denounced marchers with “Trump flags” and “red maga hats” who could “normalize support for an orange man who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate, racism and prejudice.” A second group, Oregon Students Empowered, created a Facebook page called “Shut down fascism! No nazis in Portland!”
Next, the parade’s organizers received an anonymous email warning that if “Trump supporters” and others who promote “hateful rhetoric” marched, “we will have two hundred or more people rush into the parade … and drag and push those people out.” When Portland police said they lacked the resources to provide adequate security, the organizers canceled the parade. It was a sign of things to come.
For progressives, Donald Trump is not just another Republican president. Seventy-six percent of Democrats, according to a Suffolk poll from last September, consider him a racist. Last March, according to a YouGov survey, 71 percent of Democrats agreed that his campaign contained “fascist undertones.” All of which raises a question that is likely to bedevil progressives for years to come: If you believe the president of the United States is leading a racist, fascist movement that threatens the rights, if not the lives, of vulnerable minorities, how far are you willing to go to stop it?
For a while, antifa has remained on the fringes of the Left, smashing up storefronts to protest globalism, and things like that. But:
Trump has changed that. For antifa, the result has been explosive growth. According to NYC Antifa, the group’s Twitter following nearly quadrupled in the first three weeks of January alone. (By summer, it exceeded 15,000.) Trump’s rise has also bred a new sympathy for antifa among some on the mainstream left. “Suddenly,” noted the antifa-aligned journal It’s Going Down, “anarchists and antifa, who have been demonized and sidelined by the wider Left have been hearing from liberals and Leftists, ‘you’ve been right all along.’ ” An article in The Nation argued that “to call Trumpism fascist” is to realize that it is “not well combated or contained by standard liberal appeals to reason.” The radical left, it said, offers “practical and serious responses in this political moment.”
The legitimization by mainstream people of violent political action is a Rubicon. Mark my words, it will be followed by the same thing on the Right. More:
The violence is not directed only at avowed racists like [Richard] Spencer: In June of last year, demonstrators—at least some of whom were associated with antifa—punched and threw eggs at people exiting a Trump rally in San Jose, California. An article in It’s Going Down celebrated the “righteous beatings.”
And, as Beinart notes, these violent attacks on people on the Right, making no distinction between true fascists like Richard Spencer and ordinary Republicans, is being cheered by some on the mainstream Left. Thus, antifa — which reserves to itself the right to determine who is allowed to speak publicly — is growing. Beinart:
Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.
Read the whole thing. Beinart is absolutely correct. I was talking via text this morning to a conservative Christian I know, who was telling me, with deep concern, how so many conservatives in his broad professional and personal circles, want to hear anything that counters the narrative that says the Left must be resisted by any means necessary. They are the mirror of people on the Left who believe that extremism in the defense of America from Trump is no vice.
Where are the restraining forces against radicalization on both the Left and the Right?
America’s stability is increasingly an undercurrent in political discourse. Earlier this year, I began a conversation with Keith Mines about America’s turmoil. Mines has spent his career—in the U.S. Army Special Forces, the United Nations, and now the State Department—navigating civil wars in other countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. He returned to Washington after sixteen years to find conditions that he had seen nurture conflict abroad now visible at home. It haunts him. In March, Mines was one of several national-security experts whom Foreign Policy asked to evaluate the risks of a second civil war—with percentages. Mines concluded that the United States faces a sixty-per-cent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years. Other experts’ predictions ranged from five per cent to ninety-five per cent. The sobering consensus was thirty-five per cent. And that was five months before Charlottesville.
“We keep saying, ‘It can’t happen here,’ but then, holy smokes, it can,” Mines told me after we talked, on Sunday, about Charlottesville. The pattern of civil strife has evolved worldwide over the past sixty years. Today, few civil wars involve pitched battles from trenches along neat geographic front lines. Many are low-intensity conflicts with episodic violence in constantly moving locales. Mines’s definition of a civil war is large-scale violence that includes a rejection of traditional political authority and requires the National Guard to deal with it. On Saturday, McAuliffe put the National Guard on alert and declared a state of emergency.
Based on his experience in civil wars on three continents, Mines cited five conditions that support his prediction: entrenched national polarization, with no obvious meeting place for resolution; increasingly divisive press coverage and information flows; weakened institutions, notably Congress and the judiciary; a sellout or abandonment of responsibility by political leadership; and the legitimization of violence as the “in” way to either conduct discourse or solve disputes.
Seems to me that the only one of these conditions not in place is the final one. Charlottesville may have changed that. People of goodwill on both sides have to hold the line against the legitimization of political violence. Empathy — the ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone unlike yourself — is a fundamental quality of liberal democracy. Losing the capacity for empathy is a precursor of political violence.
This, by the way, is why I am so alarmed by Texas A&M Prof. Tommy Curry’s radical racialist rhetoric, and how he is given a pass by academia. Quotes from a Curry paper:
African people in the United States must start to speak of and act on political alternatives that are not rooted in the eventuation of white sympathy for the “human condition” of Blacks … In an attempt to move Black political theory in this direction, this essay explores the use of violence as a solution to the permanent institutionalization and white cultural reiﬁcation of anti-Black racism. In African American political thought, integration and the hopes of non-violent progress has become the unquestioned foundation of Black political and legal theory. This author believes that the dogmatic allegiance to non-violence is a price that African descended people in America can no longer afford to pay. Historically, the use of violence has been a serious option in the liberation of African people from the cultural tyranny of whiteness, and should again be investigated as a plausible and in some sense necessary political option.
Curry talks about racial violence — about blacks attacking whites — as cleansing, as “anger realized as liberation.” Now, since I wrote about him earlier this year, there has been media coverage — some of it national — about Dr. Curry and his views. I have yet to see a media report that discusses the inflammatory things Dr. Curry has actually written. It’s as if the media do not want to see it, or do not want to talk about it for fear of giving fuel to the fire of white racists. The coverage has generally portrayed Dr. Curry as the innocent victim of a right-wing blogger who stirred up the crazies. Never mind that I quoted at length Dr. Curry’s own words. This kind of thing is why so many people on the Right simply do not trust the media.
But the media should talk about it. All of it. The media should talk about every instance of people on the Left and the Right, especially authority figures (pastors, politicians, academics, and so on) legitimizing violence as a way to solve political disputes. And the rest of us should fight hard to make it taboo, to establish it as a line we as a society will not cross. We have to stop with whataboutism, the habit of responding to revolting things your own side does with “but the other side does it too!” Donald Trump is an accelerant to both the radical Left and the radical Right.
Ross Douthat says don’t panic, that we are nowhere near as violent and fraught as we were in 1968. He’s right about that. But if we are going to keep ourselves from going there, it is time for people in authority — whatever authority they have — to speak out forcefully and repeatedly. Not just people on the Right, but people on the Left. If we are going to stop this spiral into political violence, we have to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter who’s worse, antifa or the neo-Nazis. Both are capable of doing severe damage to our democracy, because they both hate the political order, and they both love violence.
UPDATE: If you are preparing yourself to write a comment saying that I’m calling Social Justice Warriors the equivalent of neo-Nazis, a) you’re wrong, and b) I’m not going to publish it. This post is to say that we have to stigmatize and refuse all political violence.
Donald Trump’s victory last November was a shattering event for American liberalism. Surveying the destruction, the liberal Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla wrote that “one of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” When his essay arguing for that claim appeared in The New York Times, it caused controversy on the left, because it dared to question one of American liberalism’s most dogmatically held beliefs.
Lilla has turned that op-ed piece into a short book called The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, which appears in bookstores today. It’s a thin but punchy book by a self-described “frustrated liberal” for liberals. Lilla is tired of losing elections, and tired of watching his own side sabotage itself. In an e-mail exchange, Lilla answered a few questions I put to him about the book:
RD: You fault liberals for throwing themselves “into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.” Critics might argue that the period of US history that you praise — the “Roosevelt Dispensation” — was a time when blacks, women, gays and other minorities were oppressed. The contention is that the binding you seek to restore was only achieved by suppressing difference in unjust and intolerable ways. How do you respond?
ML: The conclusion simply doesn’t follow from the premise. The premise is correct: during this period blacks, women, gays, and other minorities were oppressed, and still are, though less so than in the past. But it does not follow that the oppression was achieved causally by suppressing difference. On the country: by setting moral standards of equality and solidarity liberals had weapons for criticizing such oppression and pushing this country to live up to its promise. We have learned from historian Ira Katznelson’s work about the subtle and not so subtle ways in which Dixiecrats succeeded in keeping African Americans from benefiting equally from the New Deal and even the Great Society. But now that we understand that, we can work to make sure it doesn’t happen again and that our programs cover all citizens simply by virtue of their citizenship. We want to abolish the racist difference.
In other words, to understand what ails this country you need to pay attention to difference. In order to fix what ails us you need to hold onto the universal democratic ideal. We and keep fighting until we can make it a reality.
It is very hard to make identitarians see this. They seem to prefer making a point to making a change. But politics is not a speech act and it does not take place in a seminar room. It is not about getting recognition for certain groups who have problems, it is about acquiring power to help them. Now, recognition is important in democratic societies and it is acquired through formal and informal education: what happens in the classroom, what we see on our television and movie screens, what we read. (Sesame Street played a huge role in making this a more tolerant country.) Social movements are important too, since they can change hearts and minds. But acquiring power in a democratic system means winning elections, and winning elections (especially given American federalism) means having to persuade a lot of people from different backgrounds in every corner of the country that they share something and can work together to build something.
One of your most important insights is that liberal politics, by becoming driven by identity, have largely ceased to be truly political, and have instead become effectively religious (“evangelical” is the word you use). Can you explain?
We are an evangelical people. How we ever got a reputation for practicality and common sense is a mystery historians will one day have to unravel. Facing up to problems, gauging their significance, gathering evidence, consulting with others, and testing out new approaches is not our thing. We much prefer to ignore problems until they become crises, undergo an inner conversion, write a gospel, preach it at the top of our lungs, cultivate disciples, demand repentance, predict the apocalypse, beat our plowshares into swords, and expect paradise as a reward. And we wonder why our system is dysfunctional…
Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people – African Americans, women – seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. It was about enfranchisement, a practical political goal reached by persuading others of the rightness of your cause. But by the 1980s this approach had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow self-definition. The new identity politics is expressive rather than persuasive. Even the slogans changed, from We shall overcome – a call to action – to I’m here, I’m queer – a call to nothing in particular. Identitarians became self-righteous, hypersensitive, denunciatory, and obsessed with trivial issues that have made them a national laughing stock (drawing up long lists of gender pronouns, condemning spaghetti and meatballs as cultural appropriation,…). This was politically disastrous and just played into the hands of Fox News.
What the new identitarians demand is more than mere recognition, though. They demand that you see this country exactly as they do, reach the same moral judgments about it, and confess your sins (which is what the word “privilege” is a secular euphemism for). The most recent books by Ta-Nahesi Coates and Michal Eric Dyson are quite explicit about this need for repentance. The subtitle of Dyson’s is A Sermon to White America. And the use of the term woke is a dead giveaway that we are in the mental universe of American evangelicalism not American politics.
There is a barbed, pithy phrase toward the end of your book: “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” You make it clear that you don’t deny the existence of racism and police brutality, but you do fault BLM’s political tactics. Would you elaborate?
There is no denying that by publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans the BLM movement mobilized people and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But then the movement went on to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and its racial history, and all its law enforcement institutions, and to use Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence (most spectacularly in a public confrontation with Hillary Clinton, of all people). Which, again, only played into the hands of the Republican right.
As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same. Those who play one race card should be prepared to be trumped by another, as we saw subtly and not so subtly in the 2016 presidential election.
But there’s another reason why this hectoring is politically counter-productive. It is hard to get people willing to confront an injustice if they do not identify in some way with those who suffer it. I am not a black male motorist and can never fully understand what it is like to be one. All the more reason, then, that I need some way to identify with him if I am going to be affected by his experience. The more the differences between us are emphasized, the less likely I will be to feel outrage at his mistreatment.
There is a reason why the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement did not talk about identity the way black activists do today, and it was not cowardice or a failure to be woke. The movement shamed America into action by consciously appealing to what we share, so that it became harder for white Americans to keep two sets of books, psychologically speaking: one for “Americans” and one for “Negroes.” That those leaders did not achieve complete success does not mean that they failed, nor does it prove that a different approach is now necessary. There is no other approach likely to succeed. Certainly not one that demands that white Americans confess their personal sins and agree in every case on what constitutes discrimination or racism today. In democratic politics it is suicidal to set the bar for agreement higher than necessary for winning adherents and elections.
Chris Arnade, I believe it was, once wrote that college has replaced the church in catechizing America. You contend that “liberalism’s prospects depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.” What do you mean?
Up until the Sixties, those active in liberal and progressive politics were drawn largely from the working class or farm communities, and were formed in local political clubs or on union-dominated shop floors. Today they are formed almost exclusively in our colleges and universities, as are members of the mainly liberal professions of law, journalism, and education. This was an important political change, reflecting a deep social one, as the knowledge economy came to dominate manufacturing and farming after the sixties. Now most liberals learn about politics on campuses that are largely detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country – and in particular from the sorts of people who once were the foundation of the Democratic Party. They have become petri dishes for the cultivation of cultural snobbery. This is not likely to change by itself. Which means that those of us concerned about the future of American liberalism need to understand and do something about what has happened there.
And what has happened is the institutionalization of an ideology that fetishizes our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption, and casts a shadow of suspicion over any invocation of a universal democratic we. It celebrates movement politics and disprizes political parties, which are machines for reaching consensus through compromise – and actually wielding power for those you care about. Republicans understand this, which is why for two generations they have dominated our political life by building from the bottom up.
“Democrats have daddy issues” you write. I’d like you to explain that briefly, but also talk about why you use pointed phrasing like that throughout your polemic. I think it’s funny, and makes The Once And Future Liberal more readable. But contemporary liberalism is not known for its absence of sanctimony when its own sacred cows are being gored.
I was referring to Democrats’ single minded focus on the presidency. Rather than face up to the need to get out into the heartland of the country and start winning congressional, state, and local races – which would mean engaging people unlike themselves and with some views they don’t share – they have convinced themselves that if they just win the presidency by getting a big turnout of their constituencies on the two coasts they can achieve their goals. They forget that Clinton and Obama were stymied at almost every turn by a recalcitrant Congress and Supreme Court, and that many of their policies were undone at the state level. They get Daddy elected and then complain and accuse him of betrayal if he can’t just make things happen magically. It’s childish.
As for my writing, maybe Buffon was right that le style c’est l’homme même [style is the man — RD]. I find that striking, pithy statements often force me to think than do elaborate arguments. And I like to provoke. I can’t bear American sanctimony, self-righteousness, and moral bullying. We are a fanatical people.
As a conservative reading The Once And Future Liberal, I kept thinking how valuable this book is for my side. You astutely point out that before he beat Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump trounced the GOP establishment. Republicans may hold the high ground in Washington today, but I see no evidence that the GOP is ready for the new “dispensation,” as you call the time we have entered. It’s all warmed-over, think-tank Reaganism. What lessons can conservatives learn from your book?
I hope not too many, and not until we get our house in order! But of course if Palin-Trumpism – we shouldn’t forget her role as Jane the Baptist – has taught us anything, it is that the country has a large stake in having two responsible parties that care about truth and evidence, accept the norms of democratic comportment, and devote themselves to ennobling the demos rather than catering to its worse qualities. Democrats won’t be able to achieve anything lasting if they don’t have responsible partners on the other side. So I don’t mind lending a hand.
I guess that if I were a reformist Republican the lessons I would draw from The Once and Future Liberal would be two. The first is to abandon dogmatic, anti-government libertarianism and learn to start speaking about the common good again. This is a country, a republic, not a campsite or a parking lot where we each stay in our assigned spots and share no common life or purpose. We not only have rights in relation to government and our fellow citizens, we have reciprocal duties toward them. The effectiveness, not the size, of government is what matters. We have a democratic one, fortunately. It is not an alien spaceship sucking out our brains and corrupting the young. Learn to use it, not demonize it.
The second would be to become reality based again. Reaganism may have been good for its time but it cannot address the problems that the country – and Republican voters – face today. What is happening to the American family? How are workers affected by our new capitalism? What kinds of services (i.e., maternity leave, worker retraining) and regulations (i.e., anti-trust) would actually help the economy perform better and benefit us all? What kind of educational system will make our workers more highly skilled and competitive (wrong answer: home schooling)? If you don’t believe me, simply read Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s classic The Grand New Party, which laid this all out brilliantly and persuasively a decade ago. It’s been sitting on shelves gathering dust all this time while the party has skidded down ring after ring of the Inferno. (A conservative publisher should bring out an updated version…) Or take a look at the reformicon public policy journal National Affairs.
Oh, and a bonus bit of advice: get off the tit of Fox News. Now. It rots the brain, makes you crazy, ruins your judgment, and turns the demos into a mob, not a people. Find a more centrist Republican billionaire to set up a good, reality based conservative network. And relegate that tree-necked palooka Sean Hannity to a job he’s suited for, like coaching junior high wrestling…
As you know, there is a lot of pessimistic talk now about the future of liberal democracy. There’s a striking line in your book: “What’s extraordinary — and appalling — about the past four decades of our history is that politics have been dominated by two ideologies that encourage and even celebrate the unmaking of citizens.” You’re talking about the individualism that has become central to our politics, both on the left and the right. I would say that our political consciousness has been and is being powerfully formed by individualism and consumerism — tectonic forces that work powerfully against any attempt to build solidarity. Another tectonic force is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “emotivism” — the idea that feelings are a reliable guide to truth. Could it be the case that identity politics are the only kind of politics of solidarity possible in a culture formed by these pre-political forces?
It’s an interesting argument that, if I’m not mistaken, Ross Douthat has made in other terms. I can see that they might be gestures toward solidarity but real solidarity comes when you identity more fully with the group and make a commitment to it, parking your individuality for the moment. Identitarian liberals have a hard time doing that.
Take the acronym LGBTQ as an example. It’s been fascinating to see how this list of letters has grown as each subgroup calls for recognition, rather than people in the groups finally settling on a single word as a moniker – say “gay,” or “queer,” or whatever. I don’t see how ID politics makes solidarity possible. Instead it just feeds what I call in the book the Facebook model of identity, one in which I like groups temporarily identify with, and unlike them when I no longer do, or get bored, or just want to move on.
Here’s a last question — and forgive me, but it’s a long one. I’ve been reading the French novelist Michel Houellebecq lately, and have been struck by how darkly prophetic he is. Houellebecq is not a religious believer, but his novels explore the arid landscape of the post-Christian, materialist West (or at least France). Following Comte, Houellebecq thinks it’s impossible to bind a society together without religion of some kind. In this sense, identity politics may have to do with the demise of Christianity and its replacement by a de facto materialism built around worship of the Self and its desires. (I should say here that I agree with the sociologist of religion Christian Smith, who writes that American Christianity has been hollowed out and replaced by an ersatz, self-centered pseudo-religion he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.) Louis Betty, an American scholar of French literature, from his study of the religious dimension of Houellebecq’s work. Betty observes that as religion (Christianity, specifically) loses its centrality to a society’s life, and becomes rather just another part of the whole, it dissolves. “This is simply not enough for modern people; the symbols therein are too weak, too uncoupled from ordinary existence to give serious motivation. Religion must set a disciplinary canopy over the head of humankind, must order its acts and its moral commitments, must furnish ultimate explanations capable of determining the remainder of social life; otherwise, religion loses itself in the morass of competing perspectives (scientific, commonsense, political, etc.) This is precisely what has happened in the West… .” I agree that the West has torn down the “disciplinary canopy” of the Christian religion. My question to you, assuming that you broadly agree with this judgment, is this: What comes next? What “strong god” will re-bind us? Offer a best-case scenario, and a worst-case one.
Now we’re getting to my last book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. This is a subject I’ve thought a good deal about, and not only in relation to Houellebecq, who figures in Shipwrecked, so forgive me if I digress.
I don’t agree with your judgment, and here’s why: I have no faith in grand, apocalyptic historical narratives, any more than I have faith in optimistic progressive ones. The worry about the social consequences of abandoning religion are quite old. Just look at ancient Roman polemics against Christianity, which (besides being brilliantly funny sometime) revolved around the social effects of Jesus’s message, not its truth or falseness. Reform movements within Christianity itself have often rung the alarm about cultural decline, for reasons opposite of the Romans’: the Romans found Christianity unmanly and anti-civic, Christian reformers have found every new orthodoxy (most of which began in reform movements) a threat to the simple Christian life and the family.
But something in these polemics changed after the French Revolution, when the focus shifted from the goodness of the Christian life to how the course of history was destroying it. After the Revolution thinkers felt compelled not only to come to a judgment about “modernity” as a set of values but as a historical bloc, a geschichtliche Poltergeist [historical poltergeist — RD]. The anti-moderns started telling a story modelled on the Christian one – Abraham /Kairos / Jesus, lost soul / Kairos / saved soul – but with an apocalyptic conclusion: Christian paradise / Jacobin Kairos / modern inferno. All the variety and complications of the Christian era got airbrushed out, as did the variety and complications of the post-Christian one.
This kind of thinking drew thinkers into a kind of intellectual game, call it “pin the tail on the Kairos.” Crime in the streets? Blame Rousseau. Children speaking back to parents? Blame Voltaire. Kids on the internet? Blame the Encyclopédie. (See my chapter on Brad Gregory in Shipwrecked.)
It’s an intellectual trap. Yes, certain things precede others things; changes have consequences; etc. But history is not a thing, it is a story we tell ourselves as we try to make sense of past and present experience. It does not come divided into pre-cut eras; an “era” is just the space between two marks on a ticker tape that we ourselves draw in order to make sense of our experience. They are useful only so long as they explain things. An era does not have inner “spirit,” such that, if we understand it, we can both explain what has happened in it and, for the present age, predict what will come next. That’s magical thinking.
And it leads to questions like yours: what comes next? If period A was happy because of X, and period B is unhappy because it destroyed X, in period C won’t we have to either restore X or find a substitute for it? This was Comte’s idea and Houllebecq plays with it in his novels. (He never does more than play, which saves his writing.) But what if the picture is all wrong? What if, say, human nature is pretty much the same and that in different historical and social conditions certain qualities get exaggerated, and others wither. Once, say, in our society we were less tolerant but more charitable; today, the reverse. That’s not surprising, and thinking in this way forces you pay attention to both the benefits and costs of change. Yes, sometimes there are costs without benefits, but usually not in human affairs.
That’s not so say we aren’t obliged to choose how to live; we are, because we can. We don’t have to wait for a new apocalypse to overcome the effects of the last one. Certain anti-modern arguments take the form, “things just can’t go on like this.” But, as a sage once put it, if things “can’t go on” they won’t. And modern society does go on. Anti-modern critics need to recognize that: yes we can live in a world without religion structuring our relations, without a “sacred canopy,” etc. The only relevant question is whether it is a good way to live or not.
An example: I read Allan Bloom’s The Closing Of The American Mind while living in Rome, just after it came out. I started it on a lovely Sunday afternoon after I had just taken a walk in the park, where I saw kids dressed in punk and goth outfits (the Eighties!) strolling with their grandmothers who were dressed in widow’s black. It was not the old Catholic Italy, but it was still Italy. People were eating the same food, hanging out with large networks of friends, showing up late for everything. And the ship sailed on. So after my walk and a nice lunch on a sunny piazza I pick up Bloom and learn that the apocalypse has already happened, that we are surely doomed, that modernity destroys all virtue, that Woodstock was no different from Nuremberg, and other such nonsense. It was a liberating moment for me intellectually, and inoculated me forever against prophets of doom drunk on historical fables.
That does not mean the present is acceptable because it is where history has landed us. That, too, is a historicist trap. We still have to choose how to live. What I appreciate about The Benedict Option, stripped of historiological hocus-pocus, is that it makes an ultimate value judgment about certain ways of living, and urges people to withdraw and take control of their lives as best they can. We are always in a historical situation, but we can always choose how to live in the face of it, individually and collectively. Not everything is possible, but certainly everything is not so determined that Nur ein Gott kann uns retten [“Only a god can save us” — philosopher Martin Heidegger’s judgment on our time]. To choose is to live seriously, and I respect people who do that consciously and with full awareness of the consequences.
My prescription for anti-moderns is to up your dose of Sartre and stop taking those Hegel-Comte-MacIntyre pills. They don’t agree with you.
What should we learn about identity politics from the terrible events in Charlottesville?
First, obviously, is how inflammatory identity can be. I’m struck by the psychological parallels between the Charlottesville killer and the marginal types who are drawn to political Islamism in Europe. These kids tend to be loners, often from broken homes, who find in identitarianism what they think is an explanation of all their resentments, and a program for striking back. It gives them a purpose and a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. And once they are sucked in, the logic of the ideology drives them relentlessly toward violence. The content of the ideology matters, in both cases. Political Islamism is about Islam (a perversion of it) and the racist alt-right is about the right (a perversion of American conservatism). We need to recognize both facts.
Second, for my side, the lesson should be that left identitarianism is a dead end. It does not unify anybody and it only plays into the hands of the alt-right by inflaming passions. We need to recognize that.
Third, for the conservative movement, the lesson is that you own this. Yes, you are horrified by what happened and you condemn it in no uncertain terms. But you have failed to police your side, you have sanctioned indifference to truth, fallen silent in the face of demagogues (Beck, Palin, Hannity, Trump), tolerated a horrifying internet subculture, demonized your opponents, and inflamed hysteria. By not attacking white nationalism you have abetted it. Just as moderate imams in Europe preferred not to see what was happening in their mosques, so you have been in denial about the environment you created. It is time to pluck the identity beam out of your own eye before complaining any more about left identity politics.
Mark Lilla’s new book The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics is out today from Harper.
A reader sent me the following piece he wrote in response to the men’s group at his church reading The Benedict Option together. I thought it was quite good, and asked him for permission to republish it here. It has been edited slightly for privacy reasons. I hope you find it helpful. This is exactly the kind of thinking and conversation I was hoping the book would spark in congregations.
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.” — C.S. Lewis
I just finished reading The Benedict Option last week. The controversy surrounding this book is both puzzling and predictable. It is puzzling because Dreher is reiterating in layman’s terms what Jesus, the apostles and Christian thinkers have said for centuries: that the church must remain the church and should beware of the wiles of the world, whatever the cost. The book’s controversy is predictable however because the course of action Dreher suggests to “remain the church” is so contrary to mainstream American culture, and even mainstream church culture, that any of us living in this mainstream are bound to feel the BenOp sting somewhere in its pages.
It’s easy enough to say that the church must remain the church, and as long as say, [our church] continues to conduct worship services on Sunday mornings we may safely assume that we are “remaining” just fine. But when the suggested means to remain the church look quite different from how we actually do church, the implication can be unflattering, either for our church or for the suggested means. I felt the sting of Dreher’s words often, namely in my often thoughtless and increasing dependence on technology and the internet for so many of life’s necessities and, perhaps more troubling, the complicated dance I enact to sidestep revealing my Christian beliefs in the secular (and sometimes Christian) circles I inhabit. But despite the sting, I felt that I was reading a book I would have liked to have written myself. And, though not able to reach any final conclusions, I nonetheless found Dreher’s illustrations of Christian life painfully pertinent to our culture, and the consequent implications on how we do church in [our town] to be unflattering.
What strikes me most about many reactions to The Benedict Option is the persistent supposition that its main thrust is the separation, retreat, and cloistering of the church. It seems that even those who I assume are careful readers of this book, like James K.A. Smith, nonetheless fall into the same misconception: that the book is about withdrawal from society. Similar accusations (though of much more gravity) were leveled at the early church by Roman authorities for their antisocial behavior—that they wouldn’t take part in civic celebrations and feasts in which pagan deities were honored. And if we as Christians seem maladjusted or separatist because we’d rather not embrace certain practices of a transient, materialistic, sexually immoral and individualistic culture, then I’d say there’s something wrong with the culture and not the church.
However, I found the book refreshing because of its positive message: a call to the church to come together. In addition to a lot of railing and complaining about modern society (a practice I am quite fond of) Dreher gives many helpful and time tested examples of how to live differently. In every example given, whether in actual monasteries or in intentional communities, Dreher highlights the increasing need for Christians to resist the isolating individualism of our culture and to live our Christian lives more intimately with God and our brothers and sisters. I believe that if we who are squeamish about accusations of church isolationism were to even temporarily embrace some of the concepts in the Benedict Option we would find ourselves living much more socially and with time, much better equipped to share our faith with those both inside and outside the circle of our brethren. We must also ask ourselves if our fear of church isolationism is really driven by a concern for our non-believing neighbors and non-church communities, or by our own fear of intimacy with our Christian neighbors and church community. So to extend Lewis’ analogy above, Dreher is certainly calling for an about-turn in relation to our intrenchment in secular culture, which has led many to view the Benedict Option as negative and backward, but the book’s thesis is both positive and progressive regarding the church; that we must fulfill God’s purpose by strengthening our ties to one another and to God.
I’m not sure if Dreher’s talk of small-o orthodoxy and traditional Christianity betrays a weak ecclesiology, or if so, that a stronger ecclesiological explanation of these terms would have changed his book very much. He acknowledges the inexactitude of these terms and defines them a little better here. But I found Dreher’s ecclesiastical ideas springing fresh from a view of the universe with the church at the center. He reminds us in The Benedict Option’s last chapter of Ezekiel’s vision of a stream of water flowing out from the Temple altar, spreading into a river, and that this vision “was fulfilled on Pentecost, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the gathered disciples, inaugurating a new era with the birth of the church. Through the church—the restored Temple—would flow the living waters of salvific grace.” This church-centric view is one of the most radical claims of scripture and one of the most subversive to non-Christian cultures. Peterson’s translation of Ephesians 1:22-23 puts it nicely: “[Jesus] is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world: the world is peripheral to the church.”
This sharp divide between the church and the world is often portrayed as the “separation of church and state” which today usually means that the church can have its private opinions (just like the KKK or AntiFa can have their opinions) but ultimately the State decides on public policy and matters of real import. But this (mis)understanding of the separation of church and state does not represent the Biblical distinction between the church and the world. The Biblical view of the world—not the creation or the material world, but what Paul calls the rulers, authorities, and powers of darkness—is antithetical to the church, or as [our pastor] preached from James’ epistle this morning, “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” And the church, namely us, is at the center of God’s plan for the renewal of the world and ultimately the universe. The Benedict Option seems to grasp this almost obscenely grandiose calling for the church and says, “so let’s start living like it!” But, that’s not entirely right, what it actually says is, “Christians have lived like it for centuries, so let’s learn from them!” Meanwhile, we at [our church] are asking, “Aren’t we living like it?”
In his acknowledgements, Dreher praises the work of Ken Myers, who through interviews with Christian thinkers (including James K.A. Smith and Dreher himself) has sought to illuminate the problems of modern secular culture for decades. It was interesting to me to hear Benedict’s name come up a few times in Myers’ most recent Mars Hill Audio Journal, quite apart from Dreher’s work. One interviewee, Philip Turner, an Episcopal priest and former dean of Yale’s divinity school was asked if there was anyone from the patristic era whose vision of the church might speak to our post-modern predicament. He answered: “My great example of someone who anticipated in a remarkable way many of the things we now need to learn is Saint Benedict. He knew that to be formed in Christ you had to live in a community over time in which you subject yourself to various practices… I think that he understood what I understand to be the major function of the Church; to become a community in which Christ is taking form.” Both Turner and Dreher look to Saint Benedict for guidance in our current church predicament, and they commend not primarily Benedict’s retreat from the surrounding culture, but his robust vision of Christian fellowship and community.
In this interview, Turner had some cogent insights into the decline of the modern American church. Turner was a missionary in Africa between the years of 1961 and 1971. To say that our culture underwent dramatic changes in this decade is an understatement (e.g. Vietnam, sexual revolution, civil rights activism, etc.) When Turner left America, the church still functioned as a “chaplain” to a culture that regarded itself as Christian. He said that one could travel from church to school to the town square without ever leaving a largely uniform culture. This was a culture where prayers were said in public schools and Biblical principles could be invoked in public discourse without controversy. Turner struggled in Africa to form a church community in a culture that was largely hostile to Christianity. Meanwhile he watched the American church from afar and saw that it too was clashing with an increasingly hostile culture, and consequently becoming more culturally marginalized. The American church’s reaction to this marginalization however troubled Turner. He observes:
“I came to believe that the churches in the United States were addressing their changed circumstances in exactly the wrong way. They were expending enormous energies to maintain their social position, and in so doing they failed to realize the extent to which their previous attachment to social positions and cultural relevance had actually compromised their integrity. I came to believe that the most immediate calling of the churches is to form a culture in which Christ is taking form rather than to transform a culture.”
I hope that it is clear from this passage that Turner is not lamenting the good old days when Americans could pray in school. But rather, in those tumultuous years he began to understand that the American church had largely failed in developing a strong enough individual culture to withstand increasing public hostility. I imagine Turner thinking to himself at that time, “If that’s how the American church reacts to hostility in America, they’d never stand a chance here in Africa.” Again, given what the Bible says about the church, its marginalization within any secular culture is hardly an obstacle to God’s purposes. Consequently, when churches begin to obsess about public opinion it reveals weakness of character and misunderstanding of its identity.
How this applies historically to our church is probably better suited to some of our church historians and elder(ly) members. Our church being founded in [the 1940s] was certainly begun in a time of relative Christian American cultural uniformity. And it weathered the cultural changes of the ‘60s and ‘70s without too much consequence. We have seen many changes in our denomination and watched both liberal and conservative Christians duke it out for continued cultural market share in their parishes, the [national meetings of our denomination] and in our country. Meanwhile our church in [this town] has for the most part quietly gone about its business, striving to live peacefully and to proclaim the Gospel. We have sought to stay true to Scripture and not to fall into the traps of legalism or heathenism. We can deduce that as a congregation, we never formed inordinate attachment to social positions or cultural relevance (we never had much anyway) and thus feel no need to retain these things as public life becomes more secularized. To return to Lewis’ analogy, is seems that our church is on the right track and need only press on toward the goal. But it warrants asking (as we often do), what is our goal? And furthermore, what about this business of “forming a culture in which Christ is taking form?”
While it’s safe to say that we have a “church culture” at [our church]; i.e. we are not demonstrative in worship, informal but not “loose” in temperament, generous with food and money, preferring dry humor over boisterous humor, loving, humble, friendly but not smothering, slow to change, quick to eat, etc., one would still not claim that our church is the source of our daily lived culture. I’d dare to say that our church plays a more supplemental role in most of our lives. And, I’d say that most of us live more or less good, chaste, wholesome lives. Nonetheless, church is a part of our lives and not the center. This doesn’t even mean that we don’t regard church and God as the center of our lives. It just means that [our church] is not the most practical, formative, ubiquitous and influential source of our day to day experience. Should it be? If so, how?
It seems to me that we at [this church] inherited a liturgical rhythm—a way of doing church—that is distinctly American and characteristic of the age in which our church was founded; those “happy golden” years when America was largely considered a Christian nation. This liturgical rhythm is not very demanding as most of us meet only once a week, and it functions very similarly to other social clubs which need not be Christian, who also have their roots in the era described above. This is perhaps justified if the surrounding culture is generally Christian and harmonizes with that worldview and sense of destiny. But Dreher’s book (and common sense) makes the case that this is not the world we live in, not even in [our town]. It’s clear to me that our church culture is dictated more by popular American culture than by anything else, mainly because of the church’s marginal, supplemental character. This doesn’t mean that we are all superficial, materialistic, self-centered people. It just means that we view ourselves as the ones who choose how and to what degree we outsource all the elements of our lives—our health, vocation, education, entertainment, prophetic knowledge (news media), family life, and religion. Our church culture, both explicitly and implicitly, caters to and upholds this worldview.
As I’ve been thinking about the differences between the Benedict Option communities and my own lifestyle, I’ve been asking myself, “maybe we’ve just never known what real Christian community is?” But, I realized that many of us have had little tastes of living in Christian community, particularly if we’ve been to Christ-centered camps or been on similar retreats or mission trips. Many of us know what a transformative experience it is to wake early in the morning and have strictly imposed devotion times, followed by working or playing side by side with others, living if only temporarily under the care and authority of strong leaders, observing specific rules, sharing meals with brothers and sisters, learning about the Bible, developing relationships and capping off the day with worship and fellowship. Then you wake the next day and do it again! Even in that short time you sense that you are becoming a different person, and it’s likely you actually are. This is a great example of living sacramentally in an almost liturgical daily rhythm. Is this possible in our normal, daily lives?
However, on the final night of camp comes the inevitable “mountaintop experience” sermon that goes something like, “this week has been an incredible week for us and that’s great, but you can’t expect life to be a continual mountaintop experience. What matters is how you live in the valleys, when you return home to your families and schools, take what you’ve learned here and make a difference in the lives of your siblings, your parents, your classmates.” This message is also implied or flatly stated in our church too. In other words, all the external supports of this mountaintop experience will be dismantled on returning home, but take the internal reality of it into your secularly ordered life and “make a difference.” Now, sometimes this is exactly what we are called to do as Christians. We have to faithfully maintain the inner reality of our relationship with God when everything in our circumstances try to pull us away. But is that what Christian community is about?
Again, is it possible to live in a daily rhythm of fellowship, study, discipline, work, submission and worship, not just individually, but with other Christians who are doing the same thing and (here’s the clincher,) can we do this in a way that is more potent and comprehensive than our participation in the surrounding culture, so that we can say with utmost confidence that “we are no friends of the world?”
Back to the Lewis quote—I do believe that we at [our church] are at an impasse. I don’t know if it’s because we have taken a wrong turning, or because God has lead us here for some other purpose. And, I acknowledge our increasing wealth and membership and [our pastor’s] leadership as a blessing from God. But I don’t foresee our church maintaining its saltiness as long as we attempt to function for all practical purposes as one cog in the wheel of our outsourced American lives.
Things I’m pretty sure of in the wake of Donald Trump’s catastrophic press conference today:
1. The President of the United States cannot control himself. I know, this isn’t really news, but good grief, it is hard to imagine a president who does more damage to himself by not being able to handle his own temper. Even if he 100 percent believed the things he said today, he ought to have enough sense than to say them publicly. If I worked for this administration, I would send my resume out tonight — if not out of a sense of self-respect, then out of a sense of self-preservation. Trump’s temperament is going to bring his presidency crashing down. It has already started.
2. Trump is openly trying to legitimize people who should never be legitimized. Look at this exchange from today’s press conference:
REPORTER: The neo-Nazis started this thing. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest —
TRUMP: Excuse me. They didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis. And you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.
You had people in that group — excuse me, excuse me — I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
Now, let me be clear: there really are very fine people who are opposed to taking down Confederate statues. I know some of them. Their kind would not have gone anywhere near that far-right event in Charlottesville. Who was there? According to Wikipedia:
Among the far-right groups engaged in organizing the march were the clubs of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, the neo-Confederate League of the South, the National Policy Institute [Richard Spencer’s think tank], and the National Socialist Movement. Other groups involved in the rally were the Ku Klux Klan, the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, the 3 Percenters, the Traditionalist Workers Party, Identity Evropa, the Oath Keepers, Vanguard America, the American Guard, the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, the New York Light Foot Militia, the Virginia Minutemen Militia, the Nationalist Front, the Rise Above Movement, True Cascadia, and Anti-Communist Action. Prominent far-right figures in attendance included Richard B. Spencer, Baked Alaska, Augustus Invictus [an occultist, by the way — RD], David Duke, Nathan Damigo, Matthew Heimbach, Faith Goldy, Mike Enoch, League of the South founder Michael Hill, AltRight.com editor Daniel Friberg, former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson, Daily Stormer writers Johnny Monoxide, self-described “white activist” and organizer Jason Kessler, and radio host Christopher Cantwell.
Who among this crew is a “very fine” person? The rally was called “Unite The Right,” so named by organizers because they wanted to bring together all the far-right groups. If you went down to that protest this weekend and marched alongside neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, you deserve to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
This should not be difficult for the President of the United States to do. But it is, because that’s the kind of man he is.
If you doubt the effect of Trump’s words today, look at this:
— David Duke (@DrDavidDuke) August 15, 2017
3. Trump was right about the role of the antifa provocateurs, and he was right about this:
TRUMP: George Washington as a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him. Good.
Are we going to take down the statue? Cause he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue?
It is perfectly legitimate to raise the question of where this ends. Once the anti-Confederate crusaders remove all those statues, they’re going to turn on the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. Why wouldn’t they? And on what principle will they be stopped?
At Pepperdine University, a Christopher Columbus statue was taken down after a protest. There are statues of Columbus all over the country, including one in Central Park. If an angry mob surrounds that one and starts pulling it down, how will police react? A statue of Teddy Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City drew an angry crowd demanding its removal (and for Columbus Day to be renamed) last October. If TR doesn’t belong on the Upper West Side, how does he belong on Mount Rushmore?
Up in Boston, a writer hints that the city should remove local statues of historian Samuel Eliot Morison (who “used language in his writings on slavery that chafed readers”), Henry Cabot Lodge (“a staunch believer in American imperialism”), and even, I kid you not, Abraham Lincoln. (Thomas Ball, who sculpted the latter, wouldn’t let a black man into the house to pose for the statue, which depicts a freed slave kneeling at the president’s feet.) This argument isn’t on the fringe: It was contained in a column written by Pulitzer-shortlisted critic Ty Burr and published in one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country, the Boston Globe. My longtime colleague at the New York Post, film critic Lou Lumenick, carried the logic of Confederate-flag removal through to Confederate-film removal and called for Gone with the Wind to be placed in a museum.
Listen to the way the Left talks about the statues: “The truth is that the desperation to preserve this particular ‘heritage’ and ‘past’ is a facade for something more malignant,” wrote Christine Emba in the Washington Post. “It’s privileged status, not history, that’s being protected.” If this is a war on symbols of “privileged status,” it can never end.
Again: Trump’s point is perfectly legitimate, and an important one. But the aftermath of Charlottesville is not the time or the context in which to discuss it. It is also perfectly legitimate to discuss the role of violent antifa provocateurs — but not when you are the President of the United States, and you are under fire for being unable to straightforwardly condemn neo-Nazis and Klansmen.
4. Things will only get worse from here. The Left is emboldened now, and fired up. Trump is an accelerant. They will get nastier and more confrontational. People on the Right — ordinary people, not far-right activists or people who identify with the far right in any way — will become angrier and more afraid of what the Left in power means for them. And they will be wise to, because old-fashioned liberals are declining in power. (An important sign: watch the reaction to Mark Lilla’s book The Once And Future Liberal, which exhorts the left to abandon identity politics so they can start winning elections.) The radicalized Left will overreach, and we will see even angrier, more conservative Republicans elected to Congress.
5. The Left — including in the media — will now despise all Trump voters equally, without qualification. The liberal journalist Chris Arnade has been doing incredible work actually traveling the country and visiting Trump voters among the down and out. He’s made the point over and over again that a lot of people voted for Trump not because they’re bigots, but because they are in desperate straits, and have concluded that they have been forgotten by elites. Today Arnade tweets:
Before you say, “but his base”, sure unrepentant racist vote for Trump, but large majority of Trump voters are not unrepentant racist.
— Chris Arnade (@Chris_arnade) August 15, 2017
This, I fear, is going to be the media line going forward:
Hillbilly elegies have now officially reached their expiration date.
— Frank Rich (@frankrichny) August 13, 2017
Never mind that Richard Spencer was born and raised in privilege in Dallas, and has a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. Anyway, it’s Deplorable Time again, I’m pretty sure. And this is only going to make our political problems worse.
6. Trump has definitively made his brand pure poison. Anybody who stands by him going forward is going to suffer for it. Look at this:
Reflect on this. Reflect on who has asserted moral authority and who has obfuscated. Shameful. https://t.co/oYNtvCD4Pi
— Michael Wear (@MichaelRWear) August 15, 2017
There are going to be some prominent people who will not recover from their embrace of Donald Trump.
7. The nation is at an extraordinarily weak moment. Nearly two out of three Americans disapprove of the president. That’s bad news for any president, but in Trump’s case, it’s worse, because he’s so polarizing. If this country were to face a serious crisis — a war, in the worst case — do you really see the nation uniting around Donald Trump? If I were an enemy of America, I would see this as an opportunity.
UPDATE: Here is a link to a 22-minute VICE report on the weekend’s events in Charlottesville. Warning: it is not safe for work, because of language. But you need to see it if you have time. These far-right provocateurs are demonic. At the end, Christopher Cantwell, one of the leaders (and a heavily armed dude from New Hampshire) tells the reporter that the killing of the female protester by the fascist kid driving a car was justified — and that by the time they’re done, there will be a lot more dead. Watch it. It’s chilling.
Did you know that Dr. Seuss’s books are secretly racist? Prof. Philip Nel has been reading between the lines, and brings the news to woke parents. Excerpts:
Fattal: You argue that there is an imperative to keep reading these problematic children’s books. What would you say to those who ask why we wouldn’t just stop reading them?
There is actually a very strong case for not reading them. Racist books inflict real damage on children of all races. So there’s a very strong argument to be made for that, and I don’t want to diminish that at all. The reason that I am not making that argument is that I don’t think that ignoring the symptom cures the disease. People need to learn that this is one place that racism comes from. They need to learn it in context. You definitely shouldn’t only teach racist children’s books. There’s a wealth of really thoughtful, historically oriented and carefully written books that can help us think about colonialism or racism or sexism more thoughtfully, and you would only want to teach these books in that context.
I think that to erase the crime does not erase its effects. It’s still there and we still have to deal with it, and in some ways, the unvarnished awfulness of it, as painful as it is to look at, can be a way to do that, and can be a way to help make it visible elsewhere. If you don’t know the history of minstrelsy, then you don’t notice it in Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny or the Cat in the Hat. It’s knowing the history that helps you say, “this pop culture that I enjoy is way more racialized than I was aware of, and that’s troubling.”
Fattal: You talk about the need for a parent or teacher to facilitate discussions on the racist elements of children’s books with students who may be too young to do this kind of critical reading on their own. What might that conversation look like?
Nel: It will obviously depend on the individual child, the age of the child, et cetera, but the best way is to ask questions. When you notice something in a book, ask questions about it. Would you be happy working in a factory and being imprisoned there? What do you make of presenting the Oompa Loompas as happy? What are some of the assumptions of this work? Why is it presenting this character in this way? Why are all the characters in this book white? What do you make of that? You want children to think about power in the text, whose interests are represented in the text, who is not being heard in the text. And you can focus those on the specific work.
I think with children you have to have a conversation—you have to ask them critical questions, and you have to invite them to ask critical questions about the book that they are reading. It’s a conversation that’s going to be uncomfortable, a conversation in which you may have to admit you don’t know all the answers. It’s not an easy conversation to have, by any means. One of the things that I do when I teach [college students] in class is I acknowledge my own uncomfortableness. Because sometimes students don’t want to talk about this. And so I acknowledge why they’re uncomfortable and that I’m uncomfortable, too, and that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. I think that’s the kind of tone to set when you have these conversations: that this is going to be uncomfortable.
Read the whole thing. “Mom, would you mind reading our bedtime story tonight? It’s no fun when Dad does it.”
So, readers, let’s have some fun here. What are some questions you could ask your child at bedtime to get them good and woke on familiar children’s stories? Not just Dr. Seuss books, but other classics. Is there a feminist reading of Ramona the Pest? Does Goodnight Moon tell us anything about intersectionality? Come on, let’s hear it.
Reader Jones (who is ethnically East Asian) comments:
Something is bothering me.
The stuff people on the left have been saying has me disturbed. Not for any dramatic reason. I just don’t understand where they’re coming from. To me they almost seem mentally ill. For the most part, I suppose, it’s the inability to take any sort of enlargened perspective — the commitment to play your part in fighting it out, without any regard whatsoever for the greater good.
The thing is: all the people doing this stuff are white. OK, not every last one of them, but huge numbers of them.
This bothers me because I don’t understand how either side can see this as essentially a race issue. Shouldn’t all the people of the same race be on one side, then? I mean, this is only really a problem for the alt-right types — if you’re working on behalf of the white race, why are virtually all of your enemies also . . . white?
But never mind. I still concede that the intensity of rhetoric from progressives seems nutty. And I can’t figure out where they get it from.
But I’ve had an idea. Why am I, a non-white person, having to show up and tell tons of white people to stop castigating people just for being white? Part of it is that I am more keenly concerned about the underlying stupidity of this as political strategy, because it’s actually going to affect me.
But that goes to the deeper question, why for them it’s just a matter of saying the right things and making some perfunctory gestures.
They need some answer to the question: why me? Why, in a profoundly unequal society, have I been elevated above all these other people? Our moral psychology doesn’t let us just enjoy this kind of situation. And, increasingly, meritocracy doesn’t nearly suffice to justify the disparities.
They need an absolution of guilt. They need there to be a moral code, so they can perform the appropriate rites and make themselves pure. Without it, there’s no metric at all that allows them to say — even to themselves — whether they’re good people. And there’s a lot of evidence against it. Like those homeless people you keep passing on the street.
The shrill protestations of commitment to the code just speak to how steep the dropoff is. Because behind it, in our society, there is nothing but a moral vacuum.
My point is, this is about ways to distinguish white people from white people. Ways that they can say they are superior to those people they left behind in their hometowns, that they really deserve a better fate than those people. And it’s not inherently sinister — it starts, for most, with the earnest desire to actually do something morally valuable with the privileged position you’ve acquired.
Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s increasingly been cut loose from any sensible moral outlook.
Yesterday, a mob in Durham, NC, tore down a Confederate statue that had been in place since 1924. David A. Graham was there. Excerpts from his Atlantic piece:
Around 7 p.m. Monday, a group of protestors, inspired by the violent riots over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, decided that if Durham County was in no hurry to take down the rebel soldier, they’d do so themselves. As Durham County commissioners met inside the building, which now houses county offices, a group of protestors wrapped a yellow rope around the statue and pulled. In what might seem a blunt metaphor for the fate of Confederate symbols in progressive Southern cities like Durham, the statue tumbled down with barely any effort, crumpling at the feet of its imposing granite pedestal. (Although the icon was allegedly made of bronze, one doubts.)
By the time I arrived, less than an hour after the statue had fallen, the street was blocked off by sheriff’s deputies’ cars. The protesters had marched a few blocks down Main Street, toward where the Durham Police Department is building a controversial new headquarters. A mix of young and old, black and white, graying hippies and black-clad anarchists, yelled “Fuck Trump” and held signs saying, “Black Lives Matter” and “The Whole Damn System Is Guilty as Hell.” “Street medics” stood to the side, ready if anyone was hurt. One man toted a guitar, seemingly more as prop than instrument.
And it’s hard to imagine that Durham will prove unique in this matter. Video of the statue coming down zoomed around the web, where it will inspire protesters elsewhere. There are plenty of potential targets. Just down the road from Durham is Chapel Hill, a quaint, liberal college town like Charlottesville. On the campus of the University of North Carolina stands a monument to alumni who fought and died for the Confederacy. “Silent Sam” has stood for more than 100 years, but he’s increasingly controversial, and has been repeatedly vandalized recently. If Silent Sam continues to stand watch over campus, will Carolina students and Chapel Hillians wait patiently for his removal through legal processes, or will they, too, turn to extralegal means?
Police did nothing, arrested no one. What an appalling scene — even if you think that Confederate statues should come down. Why was it appalling? Because this is how the rule of law ends: in the violent frenzy of mob action.
This is the ultimate end of identity politics of all kinds. You cannot reason with it. It grounds Truth in identity — in race, in ethnicity, in religion, in sex, and so forth. Its lethal alchemy turns people into arguments, or rather, assertions masquerading as arguments. You cannot argue with an identity politics zealot, because to deny their assertion is to deny their personhood. In turn, you aren’t simply wrong when you disagree with those zealots; you are a threat to their existence. Having depersonalized you, they owe you no respect. The higher cause of asserting and affirming their identity excuses everything.
Again: this is how the rule of law ends, and law is replaced by will to power. An angry mob, no matter what it stands for, is always the enemy of the truth.
That Durham mob (and what it represents) is a far, far greater threat to this country today than Confederate monuments, and what they represent. Where were the police yesterday? Why did they let this happen?
This is a very big deal. You want to see far-right white mobs descending upon civil rights monuments, desecrating them and even tearing them down? That mob in Durham has just laid the groundwork for it. And when the white nationalist mob comes in with clubs swinging, to what is this left-wing mob going to appeal for protection, having defied the same law that protects them and public monuments in their zeal to destroy what offends them? Here’s the video:
UPDATE: You can see in the comments here the toxic effect of identity politics. There are people saying that the racial evil the statue represents is so intolerable that people who tore it down are justified in so doing. What will these people say when a right-wing mob tears down a statue of Dr. King? What would these people say if a mob of pro-life zealots tore down an abortion clinic, in which pro-lifers believe something akin to murder takes place every day? The rule of law is a precious thing.
UPDATE.2: Reader Steve S. writes:
Over the last week and having read Rod’s many posts on recent events, I’ve had many incomplete thoughts and posts of my own swirling in my head. Zapollo’s comments have resonated with me. I feel I have to chime in now because, like Rod, I am somewhat flabbergasted at the many commenters here who seem to support this vandalism.
To keep myself honest, I imagined if I saw a Margaret Sanger statue in front of a Planned Parenthood getting torn down by a mob of anti-abortion Christians (my tribe). I’d like to think that I would be as disgusted by that extra-legal exercise of raw power, even when it was done by “my side” against someone revered by my ideological “enemies”. When I joined the Army, I took an oath to swear to defend the Constitution, and I’d like to believe that I still would defend the right of my fellow citizens to their freedom of speech. I can’t believe so many of my fellow Americans are ready to toss that aside and celebrate violence and vandalism against people with whom they disagree. It’s the naked worship of power, and it is nowhere in the Constitution that I swore an oath to defend when I wore the uniform.
As an aside, when I was in east Baghdad, I saw firsthand a society where there was no rule of law. Shia militias ruled by force and intimidation. They were effectively the government, and they didn’t think twice about eliminating people, including other Shias, who they thought stood in the way of their political goals. I know because they murdered some of the local (Shia) Iraqis who translated for us, men whom I considered friends. Americans who have never been anywhere near this sort of thing lose all credibility with me when they celebrate, excuse, or wink at political violence. They have ZERO clue what they are promoting.
(By the way, to commenters who are defending the people in NC by saying that there was no violence against people, give me a break. Imagine if there had been Sons/Daughters of the Confederacy there to try to stop the vandalism. Do you think reasoned debate would have ensued? Like Rod and others on the thread have said, violence against things is the precursor to violence against people. If you deny this, you’re being deliberately obtuse.)
Now to avoid falling into my own version of self-righteousness, I want to share a quote that (I believe by Divine Providence) I stumbled on today. It was from Thomas Merton:
“Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”
This was exactly what I needed to hear today and going forward because I have been feeling that self-righteous wrath building up inside me. The Gospel reading on Sunday was about St. Peter beginning to drown in the storm because he feared and didn’t trust Christ. More and more in light of recent events, I feel like Peter in that story. For my fellow Christians who read this blog, I would invite you to pray for me and for all of us that we can keep our eyes on Christ even as we keep an eye on the devil within our hearts.