Rod Dreher

E-mail Rod

How Trump Is Like David Duke

A Louisiana reader who is old enough to remember David Duke’s political career in our state writes:

So: Trump is like David Duke.

Legal disclaimer: not saying Trump’s a racist, or anything of the sort.

Disclaimer #2: remember that despite being a known former grand wizard, when Duke was in mainstream politics, he had disavowed his Klan past. He was parroting standard Republican positions like lower taxes, fewer regulations, tougher on crime. (I had a black friend who was planning to vote for him. We got into an argument at a football game about it.)

All of the mainstream pundits and many voters thought Duke would screw up and flame out, that he would start dropping N-bombs in debates or lose his temper or get caught burning a cross. What they did not understand is that Duke was smarter than everyone in the race, except maybe for Edwin Edwards, and smarter than the reporters. He was a political genius, albeit an evil one. So Duke handed the other candidates their asses in debates, talking and thinking circles around them. Every answer came back to a talking point. He went on Crossfire and made Michael Kinsley into an absolute tongue-tied caricature of a frustrated liberal losing an argument. Everyone underestimated Duke’s intelligence and his ability to stay on message, and enough voters were willing to convince themselves that Duke really had changed his ways. Of course, he had not, and he quickly went back to the white supremacy gig after he lost the bid for the governor’s office – and his newfound fame increased his earning power.

Trump is the same type of phenomenon. He’s not a moron, but the media thinks he is. So they keep waiting for him to say something stupid, and he either doesn’t, or he does and plants his flag in it. He’s a quick thinker with enough charisma to seduce a smallish percentage of people, but in a race with 10+ candidates, that’s enough. That’s how Duke made the gubernatorial runoff, remember – he got around 30% of the votes in a primary with about 10 candidates.

And if/when Trump loses, he shamelessly cashes in on his fame even more so than he already has.

So says a Bayou State sage. I pass it on to you for consideration.

For the record, Duke praised Trump the other day as the best Republican going, but said in the end, Trump is just too dadgum Zionist for decent people such as himself to support.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . Post a comment

‘Resident Aliens’ & the Benedict Option

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas (Jim Forest/Flickr)
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas (Jim Forest/Flickr)

One of the most helpful books I’ve read recently in thinking about the Benedict Option is Resident Aliens, a 1980s bestseller by the Protestant theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. In fact, the book I’m writing on the Benedict Option will basically be an elaboration on the key themes of Resident Aliens, which is a short, punchy book. They are, on my reading:

1. That the end of Christendom is not so much a crisis for the church as an opportunity for greater fidelity. The church must cease being chaplains to the Enlightenment liberal status quo.

2. That we Christians are “resident aliens” within the larger unbelieving culture, and must never forget that, just as the Hebrews in Babylonian exile did not forget Jerusalem (i.e., who they were, and who they were not).

3. That the church today, both on the cultural left and the cultural right, has forgotten its story – especially the radicalism of the Christian story — and must re-learn it.

4. “The church is the colony that gives us resident aliens the interpretive skills whereby we know honestly how to name what is happening and what to do about it.”

5. Real Christianity is so demanding we cannot live it alone. “The church not only gives us the support we need in being moral, it also teaches us what being moral is.”

6. The colony (that is, the church) exists primarily to form disciples – that is, to make people who are Christ-like. We must ask ourselves what kind of community would it take to form people who live like Christ?

7. One of the main tasks of pastors and the laity is to ensure “the survival of a colony within an alien society.” If we lose the colony, we lose our way on the journey.

8. The church must prize discipline and asceticism over comfort and self-indulgence. This is a revolutionary stance.

9. We turn inward not for the sake of defensiveness, but for the sake of protecting what we need to go on the offense. The church can never be “out of the world,” but the greater danger is that the world is too much in the church. “We had lost the theological resources to resist, lost the resources even to see that there was something worth resisting.”

10. “The church must not withdraw to its own little enclave, we are told. It must be involved in society, in helping to make American society a better place in which to live, working to change the structures of injustice.

“We believe that such talk fails to appreciate how difficult it is to define justice, how the political structures themselves limit our definitions of what is just, and how odd it is to be Christian. The story which comprises the American capitalistic, constitutional democracy and the story which elicits the church are in greater conflict than these Christian transformers of culture know.
“In our asserting the integrity of the church to be en guarde with respect to American society, some would charge us with retribalizing Christianity, calling the church back to a sectarian posture is has long since left behind in America. exchange for being allowed to be free to be the church in America. We counter that the tribalizing of Christianity is done by those who identify Christianity with the liberal, Enlightenment notion of individual rights given by the modern nation state. Tribalization comes about when people take their loyalty to the United States, or the Roman Empire, or Cuba, or South Africa more seriously than they take their loyalty to the church. Tribalism is the pinch of incense before the altar of Caesar.
“We praise any pastor, in Philadelphia or Ephesus, who cares for the colony enough to give his or her people the armament they need to resist tribalization by pagan societies, which live as if God were dead.”

If you want to read the whole thing, buy the book. You won’t regret it. It was written by two Mainline Protestants for Mainline Protestants, especially pastors, but its core lessons are useful for all Christians.

I’m going to talk a bit about Resident Aliens at the retreat I’m attending tonight and tomorrow morning. I’m thinking now about a practical but utterly life-changing way the vision of church, and church leadership, that Hauerwas and Willimon lay out worked for me. This is a story that is familiar to most of you readers, but it is worth telling, and adding to, because it vindicates what the two authors say – and, in turn, the Benedict Option concept. I apologize for repeating myself, but having just lived through the result of believing and acting as if Jesus were real and the Gospels demands were true, not just true-ish, I feel compelled to say it again, if only to make sure I’ve understood it myself.

As you might expect, four days after burying my father, I’m still struggling to get used to a world without him in it. And I’m still wrestling with the meaning of the priceless gift I was given by spending his last eight days serving him and loving him. I say “wrestling” not that it’s much of a struggle, but that it was a story I will be thinking about and, I hope, allowing to change me for the rest of my life.

In their book, Hauerwas and Willimon talk about how no church can be the church if its pastors and its congregation are unwilling to speak hard truths to each other and to themselves. To think of the pastorate as primarily a “helping profession,” and church as chiefly a therapeutic community, in the sense of guiding us to feel better about ourselves, as opposed to giving us what we need to be healed, is a betrayal of the Gospel and the church’s mission. If we believe that Christianity is true, the authors say, then we have to accept that there’s some very weird things we are obliged to believe and to do, no matter how hard.

Among them is the requirement to prioritize love over justice. This is what it means to refuse “an eye for an eye,” but to return hatred or rejection with love. As readers of my Dante book know, this was a tremendous obstacle for me to overcome in my own journey toward healing and wholeness, vis-à-vis my relationship with my family, and in particular with my father. My preoccupation with justice is at times one of my best qualities, and at times one of my worst. One of the most important moments of conversion in the book is when my priest, Father Matthew, told me in confession that for Christians, love is more important than justice, and that as a Christian, I am required to live as if that were so.

In other words: Get over yourself. You have to love, even if you don’t receive it in return, because that’s what God does for you. 

It’s not what I wanted to hear at that moment, angry as I was over some way my dad had wronged me that week. It made me frustrated, in fact. I wanted solace. I wanted my priest to feel as sorry for me as I was feeling for myself. But Father Matthew was uncompromising. Because I knew he was telling me a hard truth, I left the confessional determined to work at it even more. After all, God had already given me so much, had already purified my heart through a mystical experience in which I felt what I took to be an angel place a stone in my heart onto which the words GOD LOVES ME were carved. How weird is that? But it happened, and I knew it happened — these things tend to happen to people within the world of faith — and I had been enjoying the fruits of that gift of grace.

The Christian life is never about arriving, but about a journey toward holiness, a pilgrimage that will not end in this life. Father Matthew was telling me that I could not rest in what I had already gained. (Dante the pilgrim learns this too, near the summit of Mount Purgatory, when he is tempted by a witch in a vision.) Because I had a pastor willing to tell me a hard Gospel truth, and hold me accountable to living it out, I was, in time, able to yield enough of my own hard heart to God, who used the opening to pour into me the grace to place love over justice, at least in a tiny way.

In the end, the asceticism that began in that moment in the confessional, when my priest spoke the truth to me in love, enabled me to begin the hardest part of my journey – a journey that ended with that holy time with Daddy, when remembrance of all past hurts and injustices were burned away by love and mercy, and all I wanted to do – not felt obligated to do, but wanted to do – was to comfort him and love him. Let me be clear: I could not have done this on my own. I was powerless before the pain in my heart, my pride, and my frustration with his inability to change. God gave me the grace of a deeper conversion, and through his minister, my priest, God spoke words of discipline to me.

For the rest of my life, I will think back on the last week of my dad’s life, and the gift of serving him – a gift that was balm for my heart. My priest’s hard words were like a plow breaking through unyielding ground and making it ready to receive seeds of love – seeds that bore spectacular fruit at the bedside of a dying old man. My priest told me to do it not because it was easy, but because it was true.

This is the kind of church we need. I think Hauerwas and Willimon would agree with that. It’s a church where you get the medicine you need to be healed, not just to anesthetize the pain. At the end of his sermon this past Sunday, Father Matthew encouraged the congregation to “stay in the barque of the Church. The waters may get rough, but she knows the way through the storm.”

She does — if she has not forgotten her own story, and the radical demands that story, and the God-Man at the heart of that story, makes on those who choose to enter into it. The journey never ends. The conversion never stops. The church always needs reform. We are in such a time, though, that we North Americans have to ask ourselves if the church has what it takes to endure, to save ourselves from being assimilated out of existence by capitalism, liberalism, nationalism, individualism, consumerism, and all the -isms that are the mortal danger of our faith. Near the beginning of Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon write, of 20th century Christianity:

We had lost the theological resources to resist, lost the resources even to see that there was something worth resisting.

That is us, isn’t it?

Posted in . Tagged , , , , , . 10 comments

Kim Davis to SCOTUS: ‘Drop Dead’

The Supreme Court. Orhan Cam /

Kim Davis, the elected Kentucky county clerk, is still refusing to grant gays marriage licenses, despite being ordered to by the US Supreme Court. She says she’s acting under “God’s authority,” and has forbidden anyone in her office from issuing marriage licenses.

Ryan T. Anderson says she’s wrong, and that there’s a middle ground in which religious liberty and marriage rights can be accommodated:

Kim Davis, the clerk for Rowan County, has a sincere religious belief that marriage is the union of husband and wife, and says she cannot in good faith issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. As a result she stopped issuing marriage licenses to all couples (both same-sex and opposite-sex) after the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling in June.

In this way she thought she would avoid the charge of discrimination.

As I explain in my new book, “Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom,” there are ways in which public policy can create a win-win situation: where all eligible couples can receive a license and where as many employees as possible can be accommodated.

North Carolina provides a great example. The state legislature earlier this year passed a law that protects magistrates who object to performing solemnizing ceremonies for same-sex marriages and clerks who object to issuing same-sex marriage licenses. It also makes clear that no one can be denied a marriage license, but magistrates or clerks could recuse themselves from the process behind the scenes should they have sincere objections to same-sex marriage.

Again, it’s a win-win for everyone. No one loses anything.

I agree with Anderson, a fellow marriage traditionalist. Whether Kim Davis likes it or not, same-sex marriage is the law of the land. Religious liberty is hugely important, but it’s not a trump card. She should appoint someone in her office who has no sincere religious objection to providing same-sex couples with marriage licenses to handle that task. If she cannot in good conscience do this, she should resign. We religious and social conservatives hate it when the left demands that people like us must “bake the cake,” so to speak, or lose everything. I don’t see the value in Davis’s maximalist position, especially after SCOTUS has ruled. In the future, there will surely be hills worth dying on, so to speak, as Christians. This is not one of them.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , . 107 comments

Dear Evangelicals: It’s Not So Bad

Rabbi Yitzschok Adlerstein has some friendly advice for Evangelicals (and all small-o orthodox Christians, seems like) as they (we) get used to being a minority within American culture. Excerpts:

Relax, friends. It is not the end of the world for any of us, and not even the end of America as we knew it. The Jewish experience of almost two millennia demonstrates that a religious group cannot only survive as a minority, but even thrive.

Here’s how.

Those in the cultural majority often take too much for granted. You don’t have to explain much to others; often, you don’t have to explain much to yourselves. That changes when you are conscious of holding unpopular positions. You think them through more carefully, and compare and contrast with what others are thinking. You sharpen your rhetorical skills. As a dividend, this improves your ability to reach people outside your immediate group.

As a minority, you pay more attention to the influence of the surrounding culture. You learn that a certain amount of isolation is healthy. Not too much, but not too little. You gradually understand that, much as we don’t like to hear it, you can’t have it all. To be dedicated to G-d means giving up on some options and replacing them with ones that ultimately are much more meaningful. You learn that the best way to inoculate your children against some of the unhealthy influences of the surrounding culture is to turn the home into something between a fortress and a temple.

The rabbi goes on to say that casting aside tradition in an effort to be more “relevant” to the culture will not work, as we see with the withering of the more liberal Jewish branches, and of modernist forms of Christianity. I would add that Catholics and Orthodox Christians, though being older forms of Christianity, are equally at risk and at fault when they either rush to downplay theological distinctives and assimilate, or reduce the faith to little more than communal gatherings. The story of a lot of people I know who quit going to church is not that they ceased to believe in God, but that they quit seeing what getting dressed up on Sunday morning and going out to hear a bland pep talk had to do with Him.

Read the whole thing. I’m posting this early on Tuesday morning because I’m headed out for an overnight retreat with some Evangelical friends who are interested in talking about the Benedict Option. I wish my pal Jake Meador was going to be there; he’s been writing some of the most interesting material about the Benedict Option from a Protestant point of view. For example, this recent essay. Excerpts:

One of the problems in talking about withdrawal or creating separate Christian communities with evangelical Protestants is that many of us have experienced such communities and found them to be relentlessly toxic and dysfunctional. Having grown up in a separatistic fundamentalist church the reality of this concern is not lost on me.

That said, there is an essential piece to this conversation that I think separates old-school American fundamentalist separatism from the emerging idea of a strategic withdrawal as articulated by folks like Rod Dreher. As Russell Moore has noted in several places, most notably in his new book Onward (which I am currently reading and hope to discuss at more length here in the future) one of the main shifts we’re seeing in younger Protestants is toward a greater suspicion of the general American intellectual project.

Where the old fundamentalist retreats were often intended as something harkening back to a lost golden age (and thus always had a weird sort of nationalistic hue to them), the Protestant BenOp can be a withdrawal toward a different kind of future that looks less like standard intellectually vapid American fundamentalism and more like a deeper Protestantism grounded in the historical riches of the faith and marked by the sort of values and orientations that have far too often been unwelcome in the United States historically. I am thinking especially of the “sticker” values that have generally taken a backseat to evangelicalism’s love for all things “boomer.” Whether we can get there when the dominant form of evangelicalism continues to be non-denominational and credobaptistic is an open question, but the possibility for a Protestant BenOp that leads to a richer, historically grounded Protestantism is certainly there.

Thus this separatism need not look like the separatism that has often typified dissident brands of American Protestantism. Indeed, if our current withdrawal ends up looking like the schismatic fundamentalism of past generations we will have failed. Rather, the necessary withdrawal that evangelicals ought to make needs to be defined in specific terms (I’d start with withdrawing from the public schools) and designed to obtain specific goods, namely a more robustly Christian identity that maintains a healthy suspicion of American civil religion and all forms of nationalism.

That being said, a further point should be made to avoid some of the worst anabaptist excesses that can easily creep in with this kind of Hauerwasian language. The point of this move is not simply to establish some sort of pure Christian counter culture or to embrace a kind of permanent exiled minority status. The church is not somehow made more pure simply by virtue of being a cultural minority. We should not aspire to a permanent fringe status in the culture. This brings us to one of the chief difficulties with the BenOp which is its emphasis on withdrawal. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I think this emphasis is probably mistaken, even if I understand why the specific language has been used so far. But whenever I hear someone get specific about what this withdrawal means in anything resembling a useful way, I come away thinking “well, we should’ve been doing that already.”

It might be helpful, then, (and it would certainly be Protestant) to frame this movement less in terms of withdrawal and more in terms of reform. We must begin with reforming the church to address many of our persistent issues, particularly those concerning family life, education, place, and home economy. But the purpose of that reforming is to equip us to carry out the mission given to us by Christ in the Gospel. Put another way, we’re reacquainting ourselves with normal Christian orthodoxy so that we can then reacquaint our neighbors with normal Christian orthodoxy.

You’ll really want to read the whole thing here.

Similarly, from a Catholic point of view, Timothy P. O’Malley argues that Catholics should engage in a strategic retreat to fortify themselves for outward engagement. Excerpt:

Hence, a retreat of Catholics away from public institutions and the cultural norms that such institutions presume is not a choice between withdrawal or engagement. Rather, it should always be a retreat into Catholic particularity so that the Church might be better prepared to offer the fruits of her life for the world.

Perhaps now is the right time for the Church to once again retreat into Catholic particularity for the sake of deeper engagement in the world. In the context of Catholic education, it has become the case that many institutions once established to pass on a Catholic worldview have bought in wholesale to secular paradigms that deconstruct the Catholic genius. Theological education, rather than an encounter with the discipline of faith seeking understanding, becomes a thin introduction to generic spiritual principles. Many Catholic schools, once established to educate the least among us, are now recognized as premier places to climb the social ladder toward success. Mission statements, except for an occasional reference to God or the Church, are seemingly taken verbatim from secular peers. Catholic identity, in the end, is not a free-floating term, reducible to a series of universal principles. Rather, it is the result of immersing oneself into a series of narratives and practices found within the Church that constitute a way of life. To maintain these narratives and practices will necessarily involve, at times, a retreat away from those other narratives and practices that compete with the Catholic worldview.

Yet, this retreat into particularity can never become sectarian. The ecclesial vision of the Second Vatican Council is not a Church radically against the world, attempting to construct an alternative community apart from the human family. Rather, the Church must retreat into particularity precisely because it is only in the particularity of our vision of human life taken up into Christ that we have anything to offer the world to begin with. The Catholic school is a witness to the world that the disciplines of mathematics, science and engineering are not the only authentic ways of knowing something (but they are authentic ways of knowing!). The Catholic school proposes that the purpose of education is not some vision of worldly success but first and foremost the awakening of the human being to wonder and gratitude. That theological education is not a pleasant diversion from real forms of education but is instead integral to what it means to have knowledge of the world in light of the triune God’s involvement in human history. That faculty, staff and students in such a school find their deepest identity in the Eucharistic gathering, where we receive and are invited to become the self-sacrificial love of Christ for the world.

It is often only in the context of such a retreat into particularity that we can return to those core principles of the Gospel, which might support us in our missionary engagement to the world. The purpose of this retreat is not about creating a community that will be able to survive the onslaught of secularity, waiting the very moment in which the world desires to turn to us as savior of culture. Rather, the Church in a particular place turns inward for the sake of contemplating the riches that she seeks to pass on. A retreat, in this sense, is always preparation for authentic engagement in public life.

And so, blogging will be light today as I retreat briefly into private life to spend time with new Evangelical friends, and talk about how the Benedict Option can prepare us and our children to be more faithful servants of the world by being servants of Christ first.

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , , , , . 15 comments

Van Morrison is 70 Today

Today Van Morrison turns 70.

He was 23 years old when he recorded the album Astral Weeks.

He was 25 when he recorded the album Moondance.

I will say no more. Happy birthday, good sir, and thank you for the music. Above, Glen Hansard covering “Astral Weeks” in Paris, 2011

Posted in . Tagged , , , , . 21 comments

Yes to Denali, No to McKinley

President Obama did the right thing by restoring Denali, the Native name of Alaska’s Mount McKinley. For one thing, everybody in Alaska calls it by its original Native name. First time I went to Alaska, I was surprised to discover this. And really, who can blame them?

For another, Alaskans have long wanted restoration of the name Denali, which was cast aside by the federal government in 1917 to honor the 25th president, but an obstreperous Ohio Congressman (who retired in 2009) blocked it. For still another … President McKinley? Really? He never went to Alaska, or had anything to do with Alaska.

So, good on Obama for giving Alaskans their mountain name back. Still, I have to wonder how this would have gone down had the mountain been named after a president or historical figure fondly remembered by many people. What if it had been Mount Lincoln, say? I would still support the name change, but let’s just say Alaskans are fortunate that their mountain was renamed after a figure nobody but Ohioans cares about anymore. I mean, if the thing had been named Mount Caitlyn, there would have been rioting in the streets…

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . 81 comments

Hospice & the High Cost of Dying

My father's hospice nurse holding his hand

Five years ago, the surgeon Atul Gawande wrote a powerful piece in The New Yorker, talking about how much money we spend to save the lives of people who are not likely to survive. He begins with the story of Sara, a young wife and mother diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. Chemotherapy gave her a little bit of time, but it finally quit working:

This is the moment in Sara’s story that poses a fundamental question for everyone living in the era of modern medicine: What do we want Sara and her doctors to do now? Or, to put it another way, if you were the one who had metastatic cancer—or, for that matter, a similarly advanced case of emphysema or congestive heart failure—what would you want your doctors to do?

The issue has become pressing, in recent years, for reasons of expense. The soaring cost of health care is the greatest threat to the country’s long-term solvency, and the terminally ill account for a lot of it. Twenty-five per cent of all Medicare spending is for the five per cent of patients who are in their final year of life, and most of that money goes for care in their last couple of months which is of little apparent benefit.

Spending on a disease like cancer tends to follow a particular pattern. There are high initial costs as the cancer is treated, and then, if all goes well, these costs taper off. Medical spending for a breast-cancer survivor, for instance, averaged an estimated fifty-four thousand dollars in 2003, the vast majority of it for the initial diagnostic testing, surgery, and, where necessary, radiation and chemotherapy. For a patient with a fatal version of the disease, though, the cost curve is U-shaped, rising again toward the end—to an average of sixty-three thousand dollars during the last six months of life with an incurable breast cancer. Our medical system is excellent at trying to stave off death with eight-thousand-dollar-a-month chemotherapy, three-thousand-dollar-a-day intensive care, five-thousand-dollar-an-hour surgery. But, ultimately, death comes, and no one is good at knowing when to stop.

The subject seems to reach national awareness mainly as a question of who should “win” when the expensive decisions are made: the insurers and the taxpayers footing the bill or the patient battling for his or her life. Budget hawks urge us to face the fact that we can’t afford everything. Demagogues shout about rationing and death panels. Market purists blame the existence of insurance: if patients and families paid the bills themselves, those expensive therapies would all come down in price. But they’re debating the wrong question. The failure of our system of medical care for people facing the end of their life runs much deeper. To see this, you have to get close enough to grapple with the way decisions about care are actually made.

Gawande goes on rounds with Sara Creed, a hospice nurse. He concedes that he previously misunderstood hospice:

Outside, I confessed that I was confused by what Creed was doing. A lot of it seemed to be about extending Cox’s life. Wasn’t the goal of hospice to let nature take its course?

“That’s not the goal,” Creed said. The difference between standard medical care and hospice is not the difference between treating and doing nothing, she explained. The difference was in your priorities. In ordinary medicine, the goal is to extend life. We’ll sacrifice the quality of your existence now—by performing surgery, providing chemotherapy, putting you in intensive care—for the chance of gaining time later. Hospice deploys nurses, doctors, and social workers to help people with a fatal illness have the fullest possible lives right now. That means focussing on objectives like freedom from pain and discomfort, or maintaining mental awareness for as long as possible, or getting out with family once in a while. Hospice and palliative-care specialists aren’t much concerned about whether that makes people’s lives longer or shorter.

Like many people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But studies suggest otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure. They found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months. The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer. When Cox was transferred to hospice care, her doctors thought that she wouldn’t live much longer than a few weeks. With the supportive hospice therapy she received, she had already lived for a year.


The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when he couldn’t, someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.

More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, “You let me know when you want to stop.”

Read the whole thing. I read it when it came out, and read it a second time after my sister died. She had not entered a hospice program. My father, who died last week from old age, spent the last two months of his life in a home hospice program. I understand it much better now.

I understand it enough to know that if I am ever in a terminal condition, I absolutely want home hospice care. My dad did not have a particular disease, but he had reached the point with various medical maladies, all related to aging, where there was nothing more medicine could do for him. The thing he did not want at all was to die in a hospital with tubes connected to him. And he was sick of going to the damn doctor all the time. When his general practitioner told him that he simply was not going to get any better, that the only thing medicine could effectively do for him now was to help him manage decline, he chose home hospice care.

It was one of the best decisions of his life. There was no need that hospice didn’t take care of. All his medicines were paid for. All the equipment he needed to make his life easier — a hospital bed, a wheelchair, everything — was provided, and quickly. He had nurses coming to bathe him and change his sheets, and a separate nurse overseeing his total care. They trained three of us who were caring for him in the home on how we were to participate in taking care of Daddy. It was not easy for us, but it allowed us to give my father what he wanted: to spend his last days in the comfort of his home, surrounded by friends and family. And it gave that same gift to us.

Even though my dad’s Medicare paid for his hospice treatment, and that treatment was thorough, I have no doubt that ultimately it cost the taxpayer far less money than it would have done had we continued taking him to see specialists. He would have certainly died in a hospital, because in the last week of his life, we would have been incapable of taking care of him at home without assistance (which mostly amounted to the hospice nurse making available Ativan and morphine, and teaching us when and how to administer it to him). In a hospital, he would only have gotten those meds when the nurses or doctors made their rounds. In home hospice care, either my dad’s friend John Bickham or I were there around the clock, monitoring him and giving him the drugs he needed to give him as much comfort as possible as he slowly died.

The thing you get from Gawande’s article, though, is that both the culture of US medicine and American culture in general is not prepared to talk about the plain fact of mortality. We have forgotten how to die. In my dad’s case, during that last week there were times when he slept, and times when he woke, that I prayed prescribed Orthodox prayers for the sick and the dying, as well as Psalms and other prayers. Daddy liked that, a lot. And I liked the fact that I didn’t have to come up with prayers of my own every time (though I did some of that too); there was a ritual I was able to use, a ritual that the Church developed over time, a ritual that described the condition of the sick and dying, put it into theological context, and consecrated it to God’s mercy.

Hospice made my father, his family, and his medical providers partners in helping him die a natural death, as opposed to living an unnatural life at the end. It would not have been possible had my dad not chosen it. Like Atul Gawande, I thought hospice was all about moving a dying patient to a room at a house of death somewhere in the last days of their life, and giving them morphine to make them comfortable until they pass. Maybe that was once true, but it is not true any longer. Because of hospice, my father lived as fully as he could, even though he was dying.

From the green-eyeshade perspective, studies have shown that hospice care can provide a significant savings in Medicare costs. But a more recent study has shown that hospice care for nursing home residents has actually made Medicare costs go up. This, it appears, is because many nursing home residents suffer from dementia, which greatly prolongs their time in hospice care. So hospice itself is not a cure-all for health care budgeting problems. But for patients like my father, and for families like ours, it was a blessing.

We should all be talking about hospice care more. But to do that, we as Americans will have to learn how to talk about mortality more realistically. And to do that, we will have to learn how to talk about limits.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . 38 comments

Trump, the American Pim Fortuyn

The late Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn (Roel Wijnants/Flickr)
The late Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn (Roel Wijnants/Flickr)

I will defer to my readers who know more about the Dutch political scene than I do — and I don’t know much — but the more I think about Trump, the more he reminds me of the maverick Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn.

Remember him? He was the colorful, openly gay sociology professor who came to national prominence in Holland mostly by speaking plainly about the country’s immigration problem. The Dutch had (and maybe still do) a serious problem with Muslim immigration, chiefly because immigrants arrived unsuited to Dutch life, and unwilling to assimilate. Violent crime rates, heavily associated with Muslim immigrants, were soaring in Muslim-dominated areas of Dutch cities, and the Dutch establishment — politically correct to the marrow — could not bring itself to speak of it, much less deal with it.

Fortuyn did. He was brash, and knew how to work the media. He spoke to the legitimate fears and concerns of the Dutch people about the unassimilated Muslims among them, and he framed the problem as the failure of multiculturalism. As I wrote in a 2002 National Review article about the Fortuyn phenomenon:

What increasingly bothers the Dutch are freeloaders. Though the unemployment rate is just over 2 percent, 18 percent of the Dutch labor force is on the dole to some degree, with 11 percent receiving occupational-disability benefits under the widely abused system. Immigrants, who have a high unemployment rate, are another irritant. Eight percent of Holland’s 16 million people are of foreign descent, with more than half of them Muslims, mostly from Turkey and Morocco. Holland’s four largest cities–Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht–are home to the majority of immigrants. Almost half the population of Rotterdam, where Fortuyn launched his political career, is of foreign descent. This has had unfortunate consequences. Earlier this month, the trade association representing Holland’s supermarkets announced that it would be shutting down stores in the immigrant-heavy inner cities unless the government got serious about policing the areas.

That’s because young immigrant men from these neighborhoods are disproportionately represented in Dutch crime statistics. According to criminologist Chris Rutenfrans, a study in 2000 found that 33 percent of all criminal suspects are foreign-born, as are 55 percent of prison inmates. An astonishing 63 percent of those convicted of homicide are immigrants–Moroccans, Antilleans, and sub-Saharan Africans are the chief culprits. “The reason always given to explain these statistics is that they live in deprived circumstances,” says Rutenfrans. “But other minorities are similarly deprived, and they aren’t criminals.”

Some Muslims bring with them a culture of religious extremism, encouraged in part by religious schools–at least one-third of which are funded by the Saudis, according to a government report. The report also revealed that 20 percent of Holland’s Islamic schools receive funding from the radical Islamic organization Al-Waqf al-Islami, or have radical Muslims on their boards. The government warned that the country’s Islamic schools showed very little commitment to preparing their students for integration into Dutch society. More troubling, the government intelligence service warned as long as a decade ago that the Netherlands was becoming a center of Islamic terrorist recruitment and operations. Since September 11, terrorism experts have warned that violent Islamic extremists are conducting operations in Holland, in part because the country’s deeply ingrained taboo against intolerance gives them relative freedom from scrutiny.

The Dutch establishment — political, business, academic, media — is small and insular, and fairly uniform in its opinions. And the one thing they all agreed on was that Pim Fortuyn was a monster. The media labeled him a “far right” politician, which was transparently not true. He was no Le Pen, no Haider, not even a Filip de Winter. He was, as I said, socially liberal (and personally a libertine) and pro-market — basically a conventional center-right European politician. His outspoken opposition to immigration and multiculturalism — even though he did so not from an old, authoritarian, Christian point of view, but from that of someone who wanted Holland to remain morally liberal — is what earned him the hatred of the establishment, and the support of large numbers of Dutch voters. He was on track to be elected prime minister, but a left-wing radical assassinated him during the 2002 campaign.

From what I can tell, the main differences between Trump and Fortuyn are three: 1) Trump is an angry blowhard, while the intellectual Fortuyn was a smooth and genial; 2) immigration and multiculturalism were (and may still be) much more serious problems for the Netherlands than they are for the United States; and 3) Fortuyn, though not a professional politician, had been involved in local politics in Rotterdam.

Their main similarity, though, is that they speak to and for a great number of people who are simply fed up with the establishment, and see them as unresponsive to their needs. The more the elites attacked Fortuyn, the more it helped him, precisely because his existence was a rebuke to the allegedly decadent status quo they embodied.

UPDATE: Don’t miss this excellent Michael Brendan Dougherty column in which he says that Trump may not make it, but what Trump stands for is a potential realignment not only of American politics, but global politics. Excerpts:

Because most media members are on the center-left and attached to cosmopolitan interests, they view anxiety about immigration as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. That considerably oversimplifies the matter.

Yes, exactly as the media did with Fortuyn, who was no radical rightist but attacked high immigration and multiculturalism as threats to secular values and the welfare state. More MBD:

If the old ideologies no longer make sense, it’s not a surprise that a GOP elite dominated by cosmopolitan, pro-immigration Wall Streeters is getting winded in its attempt to chase after the Republican base, which wants government hands off their Medicare and a few 30-foot walls along the Mexican border. Trump may turn out to be a blip in this election cycle. But some days Trumpism looks like the future. Instead of parties divided by questions of political economy — crudely speaking, socialism or capitalism — we may be having debates between the globalized economy and actual communities: market or nation. The character of cities and places will be put against the demands of an invisible hand. Parties committed to diversity and breaking up the traditional cultures of their nations will find themselves allied with big business and the engines of the global market. Parties committed to preserving the national character may find themselves defending the 20th century’s legacy of national welfare states.

In other words, get ready for a hyper-capitalist left and an anti-capitalist right.

In his way, Fortuyn got there first. He was not anti-capitalist, but he attacked multiculturalism and immigration for the sake of preserving what is distinct about his country and its institutions — including the welfare state. The establishment didn’t know what to do with him because he was basically a libertine, secular statist whose signature issue was speaking against religious and social conservatives imported from alien cultures.

When I think of Trump’s appeal, I think about the conversations we used to have at the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News years ago. All of us involved in the discussion had good private health insurance, so none of us had to use the city’s public hospitals, which were jammed by immigrants, many of them in the country illegally, demanding health care. If we were poor or working-class citizens — white, black, or brown — who depended on the public hospitals (or for that matter, the public schools in small towns or non-white suburbs), the immigration problem would probably have looked a lot different. But we weren’t, so immigration more often than not appeared as a matter of socially tolerant liberalism and pro-business conservatism. People of all races who weren’t well-off enough to have good private health care, to put their kids in private schools, or to move to suburbs with good public schools — who spoke for them? Who speaks for them?

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , , . 73 comments

Trump’s Creative Destruction

One of the unsought pleasures of being caught up for nearly two weeks in the drama of my father’s dying has been that I have been able to be either fairly clueless about events in the outside world, or excused from having to write about them. Sadly for us all, I missed the Dreherbait of Caitlyn’s Dating Crisis (men or women?), and missed having to come up with an opinion on the way the media covered Vester Flanagan’s racist murders, and the recent spate of cop-killing apparently motivated by racial hatred.

The last real-world news event that I paid serious attention to before Dad’s sickbed became the center of my world was Donald Trump’s campaign speech in Mobile. The libertarian Jeffrey Tucker was present at a July speech Trump gave, and wrote that the man talked like a fascist — a word he meant not as a slur, but as a description of the historical phenomenon:

Whereas the left has long attacked bourgeois institutions like family, church, and property, fascism has made its peace with all three. It (very wisely) seeks political strategies that call on the organic matter of the social structure and inspire masses of people to rally around the nation as a personified ideal in history, under the leadership of a great and highly accomplished man.

Trump believes himself to be that man. He sounds fresh, exciting, even thrilling, like a man with a plan and a complete disregard for the existing establishment and all its weakness and corruption.

This is how strongmen take over countries. They say some true things, boldly, and conjure up visions of national greatness under their leadership. They’ve got the flags, the music, the hype, the hysteria, the resources, and they work to extract that thing in many people that seeks heroes and momentous struggles in which they can prove their greatness.

He wrote that in July, and I only discovered it last night when my son Matthew sent it to me. But that account accurately describes the speech I heard on TV in Mobile. It was so transparently empty and manipulative that I laughed several times at the shamelessness of it all. Yet, that reaction is what Trump and his partisans expect from people like me. Trump has been a vulgar joke for so long that many of us keep expecting the crowd to wise up to his shtick. But they don’t, and his popularity stays constant. Personally, the most remarkable thing to me is how about 20 percent of Evangelicals embrace Trump. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes that for all his vices (from an Evangelical point of view), at least he’s not paying them lip service, pretending to be something he’s not:

Everything that might register as an obvious lack of affinity with evangelical values—his inability to name a favorite Bible verse, his open Christmas-and-Easter attendance patterns, his ranking of the Bible as only a smidgen better than his own book—might be coming off as a sight better than the same old GOP pitch. Before joining his campaign, Trump’s national co-chairman Sam Clovis wrote in an emailthat “’[Trump] left [him] with questions about [Trump’s] moral center and his foundational beliefs,” adding that Trump’s “comments reveal no foundation in Christ, which is a big deal.’” And it might be, but Trump is brazenly straightforward about the whole affair, routinely supplying very little religious window dressing for what is primarily a revanchist campaign against the un-American, the un-patriotic, and the effeminate.

Meanwhile, Trump’s competitors for evangelical attention have compromised their credibility with Christian voters. In September of last year, Ted Cruz inexplicably took pot shots at Middle Eastern Christians gathered to protest violence against their countrymen because, in Cruz’s view, they were not sufficiently supportive of Israel. Mike Huckabee has busied himself making off-color remarks about the Holocaust and ingratiating himself in the most public way possible with the Duggar family, now marred by a child sex abuse cover-up scandal along with confessions of infidelity. Trump, for all his filthy dealings, has at least never painted his deeds with a veneer of Christian righteousness.

Well, that’s a theory. I doubt very much that Cruz’s ugly stunt at the gathering of Middle East Christians will hurt him one bit with most Evangelical voters. It’s probably more accurate to say that Evangelical voters are just as thoughtless as the rest of us when it comes to their politics. That is to say, their religious convictions are no vaccination against the bacillus of Trumpism. Catholic voters’ political preferences are distributed no differently from those of the general population’s. Evangelical preferences are distributed (at least at this point) than the general Republican electorate’s.

The Schadenfreude I’m taking out of the Trump phenomenon is how much grief the Donald is giving to the Republican Party. Ross Douthat took up this theme in his column over the weekend. 

So far he’s running against the Republican establishment in a more profound way than the Tea Party, challenging not just deviations from official conservative principle but the entire post-Reagan conservative matrix. He can wax right wing on immigration one moment and promise to tax hedge fund managers the next. He’ll attack political correctness and then pledge to protect entitlements. He can sound like Pat Buchanan on trade and Bernie Sanders on health care. He regularly attacks the entire Iraq misadventure, in its Bush-era and Obama-era manifestations alike, in a way that neither mainstream Republicans nor Hillary Clinton can plausibly manage.

And he’s coming at all these issues, crucially, from a vantage point of privilege — which his critics keep highlighting as though it discredits him, when in reality it lends his populism a deeper credibility.

The idea is that Trump, as a member of the One Percent, knows how the dirty deals are done, and doesn’t mind telling you so. Plus, he will not be played by the system, but will get in there and fight for you. More Douthat:

In a healthy two-party system, the G.O.P. would treat Trump’s strange success as evidence that the party’s basic orientation may need to change substantially, so that it looks less like a tool of moneyed interests and more like a vehicle for middle American discontent.

In an unhealthy system, the kind I suspect we inhabit, the Republicans will find a way to crush Trump without adapting to his message. In which case the pressure the Donald has tapped will continue to build — and when it bursts, the G.O.P. as we know it may go with it.

Read the whole thing. 

If you want to know what Trump’s positions are on the issues, you won’t find them on his website; the “Positions” category is taken up by one issue only: immigration.  And to be honest with you, there’s a lot there to like. But when you hear Trump on the stump talking about this stuff, it can be unnerving, the way he whips up spite. Plus, it’s all wrapped up in classic fascist rhetoric of the Great Man Who Will Restore National Greatness. Trump doesn’t even have a platform, only a personality.

As Ross says in his column, Trump is not going to be the GOP nominee, but how he loses the nomination matters. Is there any one of the Trump competitors who can credibly and sustainably stand up to the GOP’s donor class? This weekend saw Scott Walker pathetically trying to ape Trump by calling for the consideration of a wall between the US and Canada. Not only is that a spectacularly dumb idea, it just goes to show how these regular Republicans don’t know their own minds, and seem to believe that the same old three-verse anthem of Free Market/Strong Defense/Family Values can be made to sound fresh again in a post-Wall Street Meltdown, post-Iraq, gay-marriage world.

For all that’s wrong with him, and for as crude as he is, Trump is tapping into something real and legitimate. I don’t want him to be the Republican nominee, and I certainly don’t want him to be president. But the creative destruction he is wreaking on the Republican Party and its elites is no bad thing.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 74 comments

He Flew Away

Summer 2013, Cocodrie, La.

My father had a Kawasaki Mule, an ATV he used often to ride around on his place. One of his friends had a great idea: to drive my dad’s ashes from his house up the country lane to the cemetery, aboard the Mule. My mother thought that a fitting send-off. So yesterday evening, just before six, escorted by the West Feliciana photo-8Sheriff, my son Lucas piloted to the Starhill Cemetery gates the Mule his Pawpaw taught him how to drive. Sitting next to him was Mam, his grandmother, who held the box with Paw’s ashes in her lap (a box that a woodworking neighbor made for my dad). In the back of the Mule sat all four of Paw’s granddaughters. As they topped the hill by the cemetery, they were singing “I’ll Fly Away.” I found out later they had sung it all the way from the house.

My older son Matthew and I met them at the gate. I received the box of ashes, Matt took Mam’s arm, and all of us processed solemnly to the grave. The photo above is a detail of a shot someone took from the distance. That’s Lucas in the white shirt, tall Matt with his grandmother on his arm, and me in the front.

We took our seats under the canopy, and the service began. My father was a Freemason, and had requested that his brother Masons send him off with the Masonic funeral ritual. After that, the Methodist pastor offered some beautiful words. I then stood and recited Psalm 23, which I guess is kind of a cliche, but it brought so much comfort to Daddy in his final week that I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. That’s the great thing about Scripture and poetry: they know better than you do what to say. There are times when originality is the enemy of profundity.

Earlier in the afternoon, my mom had asked her cousin Ken Fletcher (you’ll remember him from How Dante Can Save Your Life) to play guitar and sing “I’ll Fly Away” at the funeral’s conclusion — this, because it is the song we sang the moment Paw passed. He agreed, then invited Lucas to accompany him on rhythm guitar. I don’t know how that little man, who loved Paw fiercely, found the strength to say yes, much less to do it, but Lucas joined his cousin Ken at graveside, and played his Paw into paradise. I photographed this, but I have a rule against showing my children’s faces on this blog, so you won’t see the image. Still, I look at the best shot I have, and I see the resolution on my boy’s face, and I realize just how much he grew up this past week.

We issued an open invitation to mourners to help fill in Paw’s grave if they so desired. It was not a big grave, as it only had to hold a small box of ashes. All the grandkids helped, as well as a number of people who were dear to Daddy, and even a couple of friends of mine, who came out of respect for Julie and me. Here’s Lucas in his turn:


After the grave was filled, many of the mourners met us all at my mom’s house for food, drink, and fellowship. Let me tell you, the women of the St. Francisville United Methodist Church know how to take care of folks. Hillocks of fried chicken, people! The sheriff’s department and the fire department also contributed, as did a long list of family, friends, and neighbors. It was quite an event. I didn’t see any tears, or hear a single lamentation. People loved my father deeply, and the sense I got from them most prominently was gratitude. I was able to meet Leonard Pousson, an old Coast Guard buddy of Daddy’s, who had driven in from Lake Charles for the funeral. From my childhood I had heard Daddy’s adventurous Coast Guard stories of “Pousson,” whose name had a certain magical quality in my imagination. And there he was, standing in front of me, telling me how much his friendship back in the day with my dad had meant to him.

Eventually there had to be music. Denise, the hospice nurse, brought her mandolin. Ken played guitar, and so did Lucas. Mike Leming’s brother Danny, also a guitarist, took a turn. Here’s a not-so-great shot I took of my mom and the three Leming sisters dancing to “Brown-Eyed Girl,” brown-eyed Ruthie’s favorite song:


At long last it was time to go home so Mam could get some sleep. This morning, when she woke up, Mam found folks in her house cleaning everything up and getting the place back to normal. “Can you believe how blessed I am?” she told me later. Yes, actually, I can, because that’s how it is here.

This evening Julie, the kids and I went to vespers, same as usual. We are now in the Feast of the Dormition, celebrating the dying, or “falling asleep,” of the Virgin Mary. During the service, I began thinking about what it means to experience natural death. Holding my father’s hand and looking into his face as he passed from this life into the next was the first time I had ever seen anyone die. To think that even the woman who bore God Himself in the flesh had to suffer this fate is perhaps painful to contemplate, but I found myself tonight grateful that all three of my children had been in the room to watch it happen to their grandfather. Julie and I didn’t compel them to be there; though we believe that kids should not be completely shielded from things like this, we also tried to be sensitive to our kids’ needs, and to make sure that they didn’t feel obligated to endure more than they could handle. Yet at that crucial moment, they chose to stand with others in the family, and Daddy’s friends, and to bear witness. It was surely difficult for them to watch his final agonies, but I think they managed to do it because they do not have the fear of death that I did as a child. My guess is that because we talk about death and resurrection so much in Orthodoxy, and because we have a theology of relics (as well as actual relics, including bone shards of saints, in our church), it seems more natural to them than it does to many modern Americans.

I was around Nora’s age when my grandmother died suddenly, and alone, of a heart attack. Her death was the first great trauma of my life, and I did not handle it well. Neither my sister nor I went to the funeral; our parents didn’t permit it. I don’t know why. We never talked about it. I’m sure they decided that it would be too hard on us kids. Surely theirs was a decision taken out of mercy, but it’s not one either my wife or me have ever considered doing for our kids. As horrible as death is, it is also part of life, and there are things that we all do, as members of a family, and members of a community, to mourn together. Tonight in vespers, Lucas sidled up next to me and leaned in, as he does when he feels strong emotions in church. Julie was chanting the service, and when she sang something about Christ conquering death, I whispered into Lucas’s ear, “Because Jesus did what he did, death does not get the last word. That’s why we will see Pawpaw again.” He looked up at me, flashed me a smile, and nodded.

After vespers, we drove by to check on Mam. We ate fried chicken, and heard about her day. She could not stop talking about how kind everyone has been to her. Outside the kitchen window, in the falling darkness, a herd of deer grazed, like the do every evening. For years, she and Daddy would sit out there most evenings and watch them. The deer are still there. There is comfort for her in that.

Summer 2013, Cocodrie, La.

Summer 2013, Cocodrie, La.

Posted in , , , . Tagged , , , . 25 comments
← Older posts