Rod Dreher

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Shooting Your Own In The Back

David Mills (a former Episcopalian who converted to Catholicism) writes on his Facebook feed:

Matthew J. Peterson writes that if he’s learned anything in life, “it’s this: the reason we can’t have nice things is never the enemy ‘out there.'” He explains this dynamic and concludes: “The enemy ‘out there’ doesn’t stone you. Your own people do. And you might be doing do the same to them.”

He’s right, sadly, alas, sigh. Probably the main reason for this is that you can fight a lot more safely with your friends than with your enemies, mixed with the belief that your cause is too important to let your allies mispromote or misdefend it. The rise to leadership of ambitious and calculating people increases the frequency of stoning.

There’s one twist to the dynamic he describes that I learned in my long years in what I called the “Episcopal resistance.” Your own people aren’t always exactly your own people. You share a big tent or sit under the same big umbrella and the nature of political action makes everyone think they share much more of an identity than they do. The biggest group tries to make its own identity the group’s identity.

The ER tent included several groups. The main division was between what I called the “conservatives” and the “orthodox.” The first liked some of the liberal innovations and were driven mostly by opposition to legitimizing homosexuality. The second held to the Anglican tradition without the innovations, but that group was further divided between the “moderate orthodox” who accepted the new prayer book and the “strict orthodox” who didn’t.

The internal politics turned out to be a cynical business, as you might expect. The conservatives dominated for various reasons, not least the galvanizing effect of the homosexual issue for rallying middle-American Episcopalians and getting them to send checks. And because the most liberal group in such a coalition sets the least common denominator, it also sets the defining issue for all the members.

The conservative leadership did actually care about their orthodox brethren, but they would also sell them down the river if the politics of the moment required it. This happened, for example, because some of the ambitious people I mentioned wanted to rise higher in the church and could do that as conservatives but not as conservatives tied to orthodox.

The conservative leadership were nevertheless quick to appeal to the supposedly shared identity when the orthodox became too insistent on their distinctives. I wrote a monthly “Letter From America” for an English Anglican magazine and once mildly criticized a conservative bishop for trying to compromise with the establishment and getting burned doing it. Conservatives reacted. One declared “We don’t shoot our own wounded!” and basically accused me of being a traitor. I thought, “But he’s not *my* wounded. He’s *your* wounded.” I knew the critic and he was not a friend of the orthodox.

That’s life in a big tent. Your own people aren’t always exactly your own people. Some will claim to be when it helps them and forget the claim when it doesn’t.

Of course this is by no means limited to Episcopalians. It is human nature.

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Celebrating American Diversity

What’s especially great about this example of Americana is that this truck was parked in front of the Whole Foods supermarket in Baton Rouge. This is what a #MAGA version of a crunchy con drives, I reckon.

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Au Revoir, M. Bocuse

“Classic or modern, there is only one cuisine … the good.” — Paul Bocuse, 1926-2018

A great man has passed. The French chef Paul Bocuse died today at 91. From the NYT obit:

Paul Bocuse, the most celebrated French chef of the postwar era and a leading figure in the pathbreaking culinary movement known as nouvelle cuisine, died on Saturday, his family said in a statement. He was 91.

Mr. Bocuse emerged as the first among a brilliant band of chefs who developed a modernized version of classic French cooking in the late 1960s and early ’70s, cheered on by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, the publishers of the influential Gault-Millau Guide. Following the lead of Fernand Point, the spiritual father of nouvelle cuisine and a mentor to many of its pioneers, Mr. Bocuse shaped a style of cooking at the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, his three-star restaurant near Lyon, that stressed fresh ingredients, lighter sauces, unusual flavor combinations and relentless innovation that, in his case, rested on a solid mastery of classic technique.

His signature dishes not only pleased the palate; they also seduced the eye and piqued the imagination. He stuffed sea bass with lobster mousse and encased it in pastry scales and fins. He poached a truffled Bresse chicken inside a pig’s bladder.

His most famous dish was truffle soup V.G.E., a heady mixture of truffles and foie gras in chicken broth, baked in a single-serving bowl covered in puff pastry. First served at a dinner at the Élysée Palace in 1975, the soup was named for the French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who had just awarded Mr. Bocuse the French Legion of Honor.

Mr. Bocuse, a tireless self-promoter, was a constant presence in the news media and on television. “You’ve got to beat the drum in life,” he told People magazine in 1976. “God is already famous, but that doesn’t stop the preacher from ringing the church bells every morning.”

Only a Frenchman could say that. God, I love the French. What magnificent bastards, and guess what? It ain’t bragging if you can do it. In the kitchen, they can do it. More:

Paul Bocuse was born on Feb. 11, 1926, in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, where his forebears had been cooking and serving food for seven generations. At the age of 8, he made his first serious dish, veal kidneys with puréed potatoes, and as a teenager he began an apprenticeship at a local restaurant. The training was interrupted by World War II, however, when he was assigned to a Vichy government youth camp and put to work in its canteen and slaughterhouse. In 1944, he joined the 1st Free French Division and was wounded in combat in Alsace. He received the Croix de Guerre.

After the war, he resumed his apprenticeship at the restaurant, La Mère Brazier in Le Col de la Luère, outside Lyon. Like its twin in Lyon, it was owned by the legendary Eugénie Brazier and had achieved three Michelin stars by serving impeccable renditions of regional classics.

After a brief stint at the three-star Lucas Carton in Paris, where he worked alongside the brothers Pierre and Jean Troisgros, Mr. Bocuse spent eight years under Point at La Pyramide in Vienne, near Lyon. “Back then a lot of restaurants were doing the same kind of old-fashioned Escoffier-style cooking, with lots of sauces hiding the ingredients, and the same dishes night after night,” Mr. Bocuse told The New York Times in 2007. “Point was a perfectionist who gave value and credibility to the finest ingredients.”

In 1956, Mr. Bocuse returned to the family restaurant, the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, which earned its first Michelin star two years later. Despite the paper tablecloths and stainless-steel cutlery, a second star was awarded in 1960.

He never looked back. Read the whole thing.

Anybody who knows anything about French cuisine knows of Paul Bocuse. Me, I fell in love with him a few years back after watching the Lyon episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” show (Season 3, Episode 3). I have watched it numerous times since first being captivated by it in 2014. Here’s a clip:

I strongly encourage you to rent the episode from Amazon or YouTube (click here; if you like to eat, it’s the best $1.99 you’ll spend all year). It’s not only about Bocuse, but about cooking and eating in France’s gastronomic capital, Lyon. The episode is so powerful that I actually diverted a return trip from a conference in Italy in 2015 to go to Lyon with friends to eat. One of those friends was the legendary James C., with whom I ate one of the most memorable meals of my life: quenelles of pike at the Café Comptoir Abel, where Buford took Bourdain to eat exactly that classic Lyonnaise dish. In this piece, Buford describes them, and Abel:

Neither a café nor a comptoir but a bouchon with an excess of atmosphere so precious that even Daniel Boulud has admitted to a scheme to steal it. Abel’s chef, Alain Vigneron, is the only person still standing behind a stove who knows how to make a quenelle as it was done 76 years ago. A quenelle is less a recipe than a clever invention that, in Vigneron’s preparation, renders a bony, virtually inedible Rhone lake fish into a creamy soufflé-like poem irritatingly evocative of sex. In fact, it’s not Vigneron’s preparation; he stole it from the grave of Eugenie Brazier, aka Mère Brazier, France’s first woman to get three Michelin stars. Today you still see (on the wall of restaurants where she never worked, at the tabac, on a bus), not just her picture, but the picture, the now-iconic image that was taken in 1935 by Theo Blanc and Antoine Demilly, the Lyonnais celebrity photo team, that depicts a tough, rotund, no-nonsense woman in a too-tight chef’s garb, stirring a steamy, unexplained pot with demonic intensity. I learned these things working at Abel, trying to master the quenelle. I failed. I can’t do the pointy egg-shape operation with two spoons, although rarely a day passes when I don’t try: with my children’s ice cream, the morning yoghurt, once with my toothpaste.

James C. captured on his camera the moment the first taste of an Abel’s quenelle passed by vulgar lips:

That, my friends, is a look of burgeoning rapture. And that, for me, was Lyon.

I did not go eat chez Bocuse that trip. I lacked the courage, and more importantly, I lacked the money. I really regret it now, but that just gives me a reason to return. One of my 2015 party, the lawyer Sordello, went back to Lyon with his wife to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in 2016. They at chez Bocuse. It was glorious. It’s good to have a lawyer’s income, though. But hey, you only live once, and there is only one Paul Bocuse.


The life and work of Paul Bocuse shows what kind of artistry a man in a kitchen, working with heat, knives, and ingenuity, can produce from the gifts of the earth. That is part of the greatness of man, and in particular part of the greatness of France. In his honor, I offer these lines from W.H. Auden:

A cook a pure artist
Who moves everyman
At a deeper level than
Mozart, for the subject of the verg
To-hunger is never a name…

… Then surely those in whose creed
God is edible may call a fine
Omelette a Christian deed.

… and no wonder chefs mature into
Choleric types, doomed to observe
Beauty peck at a master-dish, their one reward
To behold the mutually hostile
Mouth and eyes of a sinner married
At the first bite by a smile.

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POTUS Fun With Stormy Daniels

Attention Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin: according to POTUS’s porn star ex-lover, this could be your secret weapon against him (Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock)

In the full transcript of her interview with In Touch magazine, porn queen Stormy Daniels talks about how the future President of the United States turned on the charm the first time they were together alone in a hotel room:

We hung out for a while. We talked. He asked me a lot of questions about my business. You know, the business I work in and how it works and how it functions. All like technical questions. He was very curious. Not necessarily about the sex or anything like that, but business questions. He kept showing me he was on the cover of a magazine that had just come out and it was some sort of money magazine, I wish I could remember which one it was. But he had it in the room and he kept showing it to me and I was like, “Dude, I know who you are.” He was trying to sell me, I guess. The first time I met him, the first couple of hours, he was very full of himself, like he was trying to impress me or something. But I do remember he just kept talking about this magazine that he was on the cover of, like, “Look at this magazine, don’t I look great on the cover?”

On a subsequent occasion, she meets the dashing mogul for a private dinner in his bungalow at a Beverly Hills hotel:

The strangest thing about that night — this was the best thing ever. You could see the television from the little dining room table and he was watching Shark Week and he was watching a special about the U.S.S. something and it sank and it was like the worst shark attack in history. He is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks. He was like, “I donate to all these charities and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.” He was like riveted. He was like obsessed. It’s so strange, I know.

And there’s this:

IT: Did he mention [his wife Melania] at all?

Stormy: I mentioned her. I was like, “Yeah, what about your wife?” He goes, “Oh, don’t worry about her.” Quickly, quickly changed the subject.

IT: That’s all he said about her?

Stormy: Yup.

Melania Trump comes up again in the conversation:

IT: You know he’s married, so how did you feel about engaging with someone who is cheating on their wife?

Stormy: At the time, I didn’t think that much about it. But now that I have a baby that’s the same age that his was at the time, I’m like, “Wow, what a d—.”

IT: Do you feel bad? If she ever confronted you, what would you say?

Stormy: Yeah I feel bad. It didn’t occur to me at the time.

I wonder if Pastor Robert Jeffress, who described himself to The Atlantic on 10/28/17 as the president’s “most vocal and visible evangelical spokesman,” would still stand by this remark he made in that same interview:

“I do think President Trump is a positive role model for children.  Specifically, I would be happy for my children (and now, my coming grandchildren) to emulate his work ethic, leadership skills, and patriotism.”

But not his sharkophobia, one surmises.


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Of Sh*tholes And Second Thoughts

A Senegalese man at the market. Might he one day be a good American? (Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock</a)

I have to admit to you that I’m having second thoughts about my reaction to President Trump’s “shithole” comment. The whole thing is more morally challenging than I initially thought. Don’t get me wrong: I think it was crude, obnoxious, and wrong of him to say, and without question politically foolish. He has made it harder to defend sensible immigration restriction policies. I find myself nodding in agreement with the very conservative columnist Matthew Walther here. Walther prefaces these comments below by explaining that he’s not bothered by a lot of what Trump says, and he’s no fan of open borders either:

But I can think of nothing to say about the monstrous, dehumanizing language Trump has reserved for millions of human beings — and his implicit suggestion that they are morally or otherwise inferior to Americans or Norwegians or citizens of various countries in Asia — except that it is vile.

What does it even mean to have contempt for people in the countries Trump was talking about? To refer to El Salvador and Haiti as “shitholes” involves a degree of punching down that does not verge upon but actually evinces sociopathy. Would he have more respect for these nations and their peoples if their GDPs were higher?

Consider the fact that there has not been lasting civil peace in the lifetime of virtually any Salvadoran for nearly as long as the United States has been an independent country, that the unimaginable poverty in which most of her citizens live has been enlivened by nothing but earthquakes, hurricanes, and free trade since the early 1970s. Imagine being a mother in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010, squatting amid the wreckage of your home, watching your baby starve to death, knowing that the only way to improve her situation even marginally would be to sell yourself into sexual slavery for the enjoyment of men in a country with among the world’s highest incidence of HIV.

What would it take for Trump to understand why we allow Salvadoran and Haitian emigrants to enter this country, to think for five seconds and maybe ask a profound question or two before casually suggesting that they are sub-human? My only answer is grace.

On the other hand, I get Andrew Klavan’s point in this City Journal column defending Trump”. Klavan says that political correctness keeps people from saying things that are true, out of fear that they will be called racist, or some other form of bigot. He points out that the police in the English city of Rotherham allowed Pakistani Muslim gangs to rape and otherwise sexually exploit at least 1,400 non-Muslim English girls for years — and hesitated to do anything about it, out of fear of being thought racist. Klavan sees the same malign principle at work in the pile-on of Trump. Excerpt:

Let’s state the obvious. Some countries are shitholes. To claim that this is racist is racist. They are not shitholes because of the color of the populace but because of bad ideas, corrupt governance, false religion, and broken culture. Further, most of the problems in these countries are generated at the top. Plenty of rank-and-file immigrants from such ruined venues ultimately make good Americans—witness those who came from 1840s potato-famine Ireland, a shithole if ever there was one! It takes caution and skill to separate the good from the bad.

For these very reasons, absurd immigration procedures like chain migration, lotteries, and unvetted entries are deeply destructive. They can lead to the sort of poor choices that create a Rotherham. Trump’s suggestions—to vet immigrants for pro-American ideas and skills that will help our country—are smart and reasonable and would clearly make the system better if implemented.

So, when it comes to the Great Shithole Controversy of 2018, my feeling is: I do not care, not even a little. I’m sorry that it takes someone like Trump to break the spell of silence the Left is forever weaving around us. I wish a man like Ronald Reagan would come along and accomplish the same thing with more wit and grace. But that was another culture. History deals the cards it deals; we just play them. Trump is what we’ve got.

Both Walther’s piece and Klavan’s piece resonate within me, and I can’t reconcile that. Why?

Let’s think about Section 8 housing. If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? Be honest with yourself. Nobody would consider this good news. You wouldn’t consider it good news because you don’t want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighborhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?

No, you don’t. Be honest, you don’t.


A reader sent me this piece today from a conservative website, by Karin McQuillan, a former Peace Corps volunteer who said her time in Senegal (she was there in the early 1970s) taught her that Trump was right to call some places ‘shitholes’. Excerpts:

Three weeks after college, I flew to Senegal, West Africa, to run a community center in a rural town.  Life was placid, with no danger, except to your health.  That danger was considerable, because it was, in the words of the Peace Corps doctor, “a fecalized environment.”

In plain English: s— is everywhere.  People defecate on the open ground, and the feces is blown with the dust – onto you, your clothes, your food, the water.  He warned us the first day of training: do not even touch water.  Human feces carries parasites that bore through your skin and cause organ failure.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that a few decades later, liberals would be pushing the lie that Western civilization is no better than a third-world country.  Or would teach two generations of our kids that loving your own culture and wanting to preserve it are racism.

Last time I was in Paris, I saw a beautiful African woman in a grand boubou have her child defecate on the sidewalk next to Notre Dame Cathedral.  The French police officer, ten steps from her, turned his head not to see.

I have seen.  I am not turning my head and pretending unpleasant things are not true.

The “fecalized environment” is not just about public health, McQuillan writes, but is about culture. More:

We think the Protestant work ethic is universal.  It’s not.  My town was full of young men doing nothing.  They were waiting for a government job.  There was no private enterprise.  Private business was not illegal, just impossible, given the nightmare of a third-world bureaucratic kleptocracy.  It is also incompatible with Senegalese insistence on taking care of relatives.

All the little stores in Senegal were owned by Mauritanians.  If a Senegalese wanted to run a little store, he’d go to another country.  The reason?  Your friends and relatives would ask you for stuff for free, and you would have to say yes.  End of your business.  You are not allowed to be a selfish individual and say no to relatives.  The result: Everyone has nothing.

The more I worked there and visited government officials doing absolutely nothing, the more I realized that no one in Senegal had the idea that a job means work.  A job is something given to you by a relative.  It provides the place where you steal everything to give back to your family.

I couldn’t wait to get home.  So why would I want to bring Africa here?  Non-Westerners do not magically become American by arriving on our shores with a visa.

McQuillan concludes:

We have the right to choose what kind of country to live in. I was happy to donate a year of my life as a young woman to help the poor Senegalese. I am not willing to donate my country.

Read the whole thing.

It is a harsh column. Is McQuillan’s description of Senegalese life true? How generalizable is it to other impoverished countries? What she’s saying is that Senegalese culture is incompatible with Western culture at best, and radically deficient at worst.

I have never been to a country like that. I would like to hear from readers who have, and get their reaction to McQuillan’s column. I realized that my first heated reaction to Trump’s words — which I still consider to be at best crude and undiplomatic — was based on the sense I had that he was dehumanizing the people who live in poor countries. I still believe there is some of that in what Trump said.

I have no trouble saying that not all cultures in the world are equally healthy, equally good. “Different” doesn’t equal “bad,” but some places really are bad because the culture there is bad. Take the people out and put them in a different culture, and you should be able to expect different results over time. But not always.

Again, I would very much like to hear from people who have spent real time in countries like this, and get their opinions, no matter what they are. Whichever side you come down on, spare us the high-pitched moralizing, please. Let’s have a real discussion.

Along these lines, be sure to read this amazing story in the New Yorker about the women in far southern Italy who helped break some strongholds of the Calabrian mafia, called the ‘Ndrangheta. Get this:

The organization’s economic sophistication belied its social coarseness. The ’Ndrangheta hid in shabby hillside villages, dressing like orange farmers and working out of bunkers beneath their homes. Each family was a miniature fiefdom, in which women were little more than vassals of family honor. Fathers married their daughters off as teen-agers to seal clan alliances. Women who did not uphold exacting codes of respect were beaten, often in the street. Wives who were unfaithful, even to the memory of a husband dead for fifteen years, were killed, typically by their closest male relatives, and their bodies were often burned or dissolved in acid to be sure of erasing the family shame.


In her research, Cerreti [the state prosecutor] found evidence to back the team’s intuition about the role of women in the organization. At times, they acted as messengers between fugitives or imprisoned comrades, passing along tiny, folded notes—pizzini—written in a code of glyphs. Some women acted as paymasters and bookkeepers. In rare cases, when a man was jailed or killed, his wife became his de-facto replacement. A few took part in the violence. In surveillance transcripts, Cerreti read about a meeting to discuss the death of a ’Ndranghetista killed in an internecine feud. The men proposed killing every male member of the rival gang. Then a woman from the clan spoke up. “Kill them all,” she said. “Even the women. Even the kids.”

This co-opting of family, in a country where it was close to sacred, demonstrated a kind of genius. The ’Ndrangheta understood that family itself could be a source of corruption. The love of a mother for a son, or of a daughter for a father, could persuade the most law-abiding to abandon their principles. And, since the ’Ndrangheta made itself indistinguishable from Calabria’s traditional, family-centered culture, anyone thinking of leaving had to fear abandoning everything she’d ever known.

The New Yorker piece testifies to the incredible power of culture to corrupt, and to keep things corrupted. But look, Calabrians and their Sicilian neighbors immigrated in large numbers to the US a hundred years ago and more, and though a small number brought the mafia here, the overwhelming number ended up becoming good Americans. How can we say that won’t happen to immigrants from these “shithole” countries?

Finally, I am thinking at the moment about a friend of mine who put as much distance between herself and her criminally dysfunctional clan and their social network as she could. She figured rightly that if she was going to have a chance at a normal life and family, she had to do that. Decades later, her decision proved to be wise. I imagine how she would feel to learn that all the folks from back home were moving into her neighborhood.

But I also wonder how she would feel if the people who live in her neighborhood looked at her and, knowing something about her family and social background, thought she was just like the people she left behind.

I welcome your thoughts. Be careful what you say; I’m not going to post rants from either side of this question.

UPDATE: Folks, I’m serious about strictly moderating the comments. I’m not interested in extended discussions of sewerage, or the guilt we should all feel over US colonialism, or how much you hate Trump or hate Trump’s critics. I’m torn about this issue for the reasons I’ve indicated above, and I genuinely want thoughtful observations and arguments from all sides. Because this issue is so emotional all around, it’s very easy to emote, or to talk around the issues. Please don’t waste your time if you’re not going to attempt a serious on-topic answer.

UPDATE.2: Karin McQuillan e-mails me to say:

Slight, nitpicking correction. You say “her time in Senegal (she was there in the early 1970s) taught her that Trump was right to call some places ‘shitholes’.”

My point wasn’t that Trump was right to call some places shitholes – while I like Trump’s honesty and bluntness, I think he was naïve to trust Democrats to honor the rules of candor in a private meeting. He had not purposefully used that word in a public sphere, and I agree with that judgement.

My point was not about his words – my point was about reality. The media focus with glee on Trump’s words, which can be vilified easily, because they don’t want to focus on his meaning and his policies, which are very sound.

Nor is Trump suggesting we have no immigration from Africa. He was arguing we should not privilege mass migration from backward countries, but should have merit based immigration. Merit based immigration will naturally include many immigrants from Africa.

Have you listened to this video from an extremely impressive, articulate Nigerian immigrant – the first step to change is honesty:

My column got 1200 comments, many from other Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries and vets. Here are some, for your interest:

I think you missed the point of the essay–Senegal, as well as many other countries, have a clan/family-based culture. Totally unlike the West, which stresses individualism, the natural rights of man, and a Judeo-Christian heritage. Clan/family/honor based cultures are totally different and incomprehensible to ours. Such countries typically don’t develop the wealth of their own resources because their frame of reference is the family taking care of its own at the expense of others. They live that way all on their own–no white man did that to them.

Yes, I was a PCV in Paraguay. Very much the same story. Worked 2 years in public health–get kids vaccinated, get people to put in latrines and improve wells. What did I gain? “…the greatest gift of the Peace Corps: I love and treasure America more than ever. I take seriously my responsibility to defend our culture and our country and pass on the American heritage to the next generation.

Exactly what I have seen in Every African Country I have visited. When I read a article like this; I am emboldened that we may start winning this fight. We must speak out and defeat these cultural Marxist with the strongest weapons we possess; Truth, Facts and Personal Observations! 
No one, who has ever traveled to Haiti, Africa, Most Islamic Countries and Latin America can tell me that what Karin McQuillan describes is not Exactly what you will find. The American Marxist know this well! They also know that mass immigration is the key to destroying the American values and ethos they loath!


Wow! Thanks for the vivid descriptions. I have been to The Republic of South Africa, Botzwana, Tanzania and Rwanda and what you describe is true of those countries as well. The exception is the capital of Rwanda in the environs of the government buildings. But once you leave the heart of the city where everything is clean the rest of it looks like the rest of Africa.

My wife, the cultural anthropologist, sat and nodded her head as I read this article to her.
As we have come to know, Democrats are out to destroy our culture and way of life for nothing more than importing voters and staying in power.
Thank God for President Trump

Excellent article! My daughter went to Uganda on a mission trip in 2016. She relayed many of the points the author pointed out upon returning home. The people were friendly and warm she said. However, stealing form one another was common place. A young woman from our church that is a missionary in Uganda, explained to my daughter that the Ugandan people believe that all property is communal. All in all a real life experience for my daughter.

I lived in Africa for two years, primarily in Nigeria where fraud and corruption are Gold Medal-level Olympic sports.

I’m mentally tough, and, having grown up right across the border from Mexico, have seen squalor. I still came home with what can only be described as PTSD.

All human beings are equal in their capacity – to learn, to become civilized, to be good or bad. But what they ultimately become is largely a matter of geography. Where a human is raised determines his character, for the most part. There are Balkanized enclaves in most nations where individuals can be raised as devout Muslims in the midst of a vast population of Christians. But generally speaking, where on the planet one is raised determines his character and moral sense. We used to know stuff like this. We used to know that whereas all Men are created equal, all human cultures are definitely not equal.

Lived in Africa for years, unfortunately this description is completely accurate. These do-nothing parasites are colloquially known as MUTS (men under trees) and they are the majority in many African countries. What the author notes about Western aid inhibiting the development of functioning institutions is also true.

I lived in 2 subsaharan countries. Exactly my experience! Well put Karen! It has nothing to do with inferior people but everything to do with a culture that needs changing.

Thank you for writing this. I lived eight years in Africa, and worked in Senegal and about 25 other countries there. Your piece is very well articulated and the gist of it is right on target.

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Homeschooling & Bullying

David Turpin, at his arraignment this week (Screengrab from courtroom video feel)

Damon Linker is understandably horrified by the Turpin case in Los Angeles — homeschooling parents kept their children in lockdown and under torture — and calls for changes. Excerpt:

Public schools shouldn’t be in the business of using a comprehensive secular ideology to stamp out all vestiges of traditionalist religious belief in their students’ minds. As long as that’s what’s happening in public schools, such believers will have a compelling case in favor of home-schooling.

But that doesn’t mean that such schooling should be completely unregulated. There can and should be greater oversight. As Young suggests, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse and evidence that kids are actually being educated, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the children involved. Sure, the home-school lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of the Turpins to torture their kids undetected.

Damon’s a friend and I’m a big fan of his work, but this is not one of his better columns. “Defending the right of the Turpins to torture their kids undetected”? Really? In all honesty, it’s the kind of column that I write from time to time, frankly, motivated by moral outrage over a particular incident. It’s easy to let one’s heart get out ahead of one’s head. Alan Jacobs took fierce issue with Linker’s column, in a way that highlights how Linker’s take does that. Excerpts:

Spousal abuse is surely a greater blight on our society than child abuse by homeschoolers, so I make this proposal: In households of married people, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse by one spouse of another, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the adults involved. Sure, some pro-marriage lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of men to beat their wives undetected.

Please don’t try to tell me that children can’t choose their parents while marriage is a voluntary arrangement that can be ended by either party. We know from long experience how many people, especially women, remain in profoundly abusive relationships because they fear something worse. As in sexual relations more generally, “consent” is a vexed concept.

Though perhaps you have another objection: my plan is unworkable. There are not, and could never be, enough state government employees to visit every household of married people. If so, you have a point. It is, I admit, far easier to direct the suspicious attentions of state power on tiny minorities of people whom you despise for cultural reasons than to address truly widespread social tragedies.

You see where he’s going with this. Jacobs is pointing out that we would never advance the cause of such a massive intrusion of state power into other areas of domestic life for the sake of protecting individuals within families from bad actors within those families — even if, as in the case of wife-beaters, there are far, far more of them than there are of homeschooling monsters like the Turpins. Saying that we should not do that does not amount to defending the right of wife-beaters to torture their wives undetected.

More Jacobs:

I confess that I speak as an interested party here, because my wife and I taught our son at home — in conjunction with a homeschooling co-op — from seventh grade through high-school graduation. And we did not do it out of conviction that public schools are intrinsically evil. We are products of public schools ourselves, throughout our entire education. We did it because he was relentlessly bullied over the course of an entire year, and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee did a damned thing about it. We did it because I myself had been relentlessly bullied for several years in elementary school — I was two years younger than most of my classmates and a very easy target — and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee had done a damned thing about that either, and after what I had been through I could not stand by and watch my once-happy son descend into sheer and constant misery.

When people who cry out for mass surveillance of homeschooling families articulate some strategy for addressing the far, far larger problem of bullying in schools — I’ll even allow them to ignore spousal abuse — then I’ll believe that they care about the children. Until then, I’ll continue to believe that recommendations like Damon’s exemplify plain, straightforward bigotry against religious conservatives.

That really resonated with me, the bullying part. People choose homeschooling for all kinds of reasons. In my family’s case, we did it not because we wanted to shield our precious babies from the Heathenous Public Schools™, but because we really did (and do) believe that we can do a better job teaching them what we believe they need to know. We have never lived in a state that doesn’t care what you teach kids. Our kids have had to take state assessment tests every year, and they’ve always done very, very well. I think that’s a reasonable expectation from the state, frankly.

We have also been flexible about their schooling. Like a lot of homeschooling families, our kids have been part of co-ops with other kids and parents, sharing the teaching and giving the kids social opportunities. For the past several years, our kids have been attending a classical Christian school that is a hybrid model, offering classroom instruction in the mornings, and expecting parents to homeschool in the afternoons. People who think there is a single model of homeschooling, and only one motivation for doing it, are simply wrong. It is also the case that there are bad homeschooling parents, and believe me, homeschooling parents cannot stand them, because in living up to the world’s stereotypes of homeschoolers, they confirm the world’s prejudices.

Anyway, bullying far from the determinative reason my wife and I chose homeschooling, but it was not a minor reason, either. Both of us were bullied in school — and no administrator did a damn thing about it. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, in the incident that started two years of misery before I was finally able to go to another school, some older boys held me down in a hotel room on a school trip, and tried to take my pants down to humiliate me in front of their girlfriends, who were laughing. I was 14, but they were all older and bigger, and there were so many of them. Two adults who were chaperoning the trip were in the room, and literally stepped across me, pinned to the floor, as I begged them for help. They wanted out of the room. As far as I can figure, they didn’t want to be on the outs with the cool kids, who were my bullies — and who eventually let me go without unpantsing me.

That’s where it began. It didn’t end until I got out of  that school. And I was not the only kid who was the recipient of that crowd’s bullying.

Today David Brooks has a column about the power of touch, for both good and for evil (he’s connecting it to the discussions in public about sexual abuse and harassment). He writes:

If the power of loving touch is astounding, the power of invasive touch is horrific. Christie Kim of N.Y.U. surveyed the research literature on victims of child sexual abuse. The victims experience higher levels of anxiety throughout their lifetimes. They report higher levels of depression across the decades and higher levels of self-blame. They are more than twice as likely to experience sexual victimization again.

Over the course of each year, people have many kinds of interactions and experience many kinds of mistreatment. But there is something unique about positive or negative touch. Emotional touch alters the heart and soul in ways that are mostly unconscious. It can take a lifetime of analysis to get even a glimpse of understanding.

I have spent the past 37 years thinking, one way or another, about what happened to me on that hotel room floor in the summer of 1981. It’s not that I obsess over it, but rather that it keeps coming up when I interrogate myself to understand why I feel so strongly about certain things that seem unconnected. To be clear, nobody in that hotel room touched my genitals, but they threatened to, and threatened to do so in a humiliating way. As I’m typing this now, I can feel my temples begin to throb, and a band of tension cross my chest, just remembering what it was like to feel the hands of those older boys pressing down on me, holding me down. And you had better believe I remember what the faces of those two adults who walked across me, with me begging them to help, looked like as they exited the room.

So much of the way I see the world was determined right there in those few minutes in that room, I now understand. My white-hot loathing of bullies, obviously, but also my deep contempt for authority figures who have it within their power to defend the weak, but who do not. There is little question in my mind that if not for summer 1981, I would likely have come through the fire of confronting and writing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal with my Catholicism intact. And I wasn’t even molested, or in any way harmed by a Catholic priest! 

Still, for me, that moment became an emotional archetype, imprinted in my flesh, for the way the world works. The powerful will tend to abuse those without power, and absent the intervention of authority, will get away with it. The corruption of authority — the Law — is the worst thing, because it leaves the weak at the mercy of the wicked and the strong. And look: ordinary people who would never bully anybody else are often willing to ignore the pleas of the weak and suffering, because to hear them and believe them requires those ordinary people to confront the fact that the imaginative structure they use to keep chaos at bay is false.

Just this morning I was drinking tea with a friend who told me that when she was a little girl, she was molested by her widowed grandmother’s boyfriend. She finally found the courage to tell somebody. Her molester went to prison (she wasn’t his only victim, as it turned out, but she was the first one who spoke up). She told me that her grandmother hated her for a long time over it. Granny was willing for her granddaughter to be a sexual sacrifice rather than lose the love of the man she had put at the center of her personal world.

A sexual abuse victim I knew in New York told me that when he went home from parochial  elementary school one day in the 1960s and told his mother that the principal, a monsignor, had raped him, his mother — working-class Queens Irish Catholic — slapped him hard and told him never, ever to speak that way about a priest. That kid became the sex slave of the monsignor — and later in life, a sexually promiscuous alcoholic whose affairs were often with priests. When I knew him, he had found sobriety, but was an emotional mess. Yet I believed him, in large part because he became a source of mine for damaging information about sexual abuse cover-ups in the Archdiocese of New York — information that I was able to substantiate.

Can you imagine? Your grandmother spiting you as a child for speaking out against your molester. Your mother effectively turning you over, as a child, to a molester priest as his catamite. All because those in authority — in this case, in the family — preferred to see children suffer rather than confront ugly truths.

However, the Turpin children were held captive and tortured for years by the only authority figures they knew: their parents. It is easy to understand how people — including adults who were once homeschooled in harshly authoritarian environments — can have the same gut reaction to this that I do, though for other reasons. (N.B., I don’t have any reason at all to think that Damon Linker does.) In my recent Benedict Option book, I featured comments from a young woman who had been homeschooled under conditions she described as cultish, by paranoid Christian parents. She lost her faith, as did her older siblings. I included her words in my book as a warning to those attracted to the Benedict Option not to ignore its potential for darkness.

So, look, I understand why Damon Linker (and others), in their entirely justifiable rage over that, want the state to be more involved in the lives of families like that. It makes intuitive sense, but then you stop and think about what that kind of involvement would mean, and you may reach the same conclusion that Alan Jacobs did. I hope you would, anyway.

But Alan and I know from personal experience that the state cannot be relied on to protect the weak from bullying and abuse, and going to public school or some other form of conventional schooling is by no means a preventative against harmful abuse. It is one thing to abuse children behind the walls of a home. Child abuse that may not be sexual, but that changes lives forever, can and does happen in the hallways, locker rooms, bathrooms, and classrooms of schools — and indeed, right under the noses of authority figures who prefer to look the other way, and to lie to themselves about the kind of men and women they are.

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Shocker: Francis Blasts Abuse Victims

So much for Cool Pope Francis, Francis the Nice Guy Pontiff:

Pope Francis has accused abuse victims in Chile of slandering a bishop who they say protected a pedophile priest, upending his efforts to rehabilitate the Catholic Church’s reputation while visiting South America.

Francis told reporters Thursday there was not a shred of evidence against Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who victims of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious priest, have accused of being complicit in his crimes.

“The day someone brings me proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk,” Francis said before celebrating Mass outside the northern Chilean city of Iquique. “But there is not one single piece of evidence. It is all slander. Is that clear?”

The pope’s comments set off a storm in Chile, raising questions about his commitment to repairing the damage from sexual abuse scandals and improving the decline in the church’s image and following in the traditionally devout country.

“Pope Francis’ attack on the Karadima victims is a stunning setback,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of, a group that monitors abuse cases. “He has just turned back the clock to the darkest days of this crisis. Who knows how many victims now will decide to stay hidden, for fear they will not be believed?”

Father Karadima was convicted by the Vatican in 2011 of abusing teenage boys beginning in the 1980s, and he was ordered to lead a “life of prayer and penitence.” That year, a judge found the allegations “truthful and reliable” but dismissed a criminal case because the statute of limitations had expired.

Bishop Barros, to be clear, has not been accused of sexual misbehavior. He is accused of participating in a cover-up. In 2015, at the mass to ordain him as a bishop, hundreds of local Catholics gathered outside and inside the cathedral to object (video here).

The Jesuit magazine America says:

There have been denunciations against Bishop Barros for a cover-up, with some claiming that he was present when some of the abuse happened. But he flatly denies the charges, and the church inquiry that was carried out concluded that, while there are many allegations, there are no hard facts that could stand up in a court to substantiate such charges.

The Associated Press reported a few days ago:

Chile’s Catholic Church was thrown into crisis in 2010 when former parishioners publicly accused Karadima of sexually abusing them when they were minors, starting in the 1980s — accusations they had made years earlier to Chilean church leaders but that were ignored. The scandal grew as Chilean prosecutors and Vatican investigators took testimony from the victims, who accused Barros and other Karadima proteges of having witnessed the abuse and doing nothing about it.

In his Jan. 31, 2015, letter, written in response to Chilean church leaders’ complaints about the Barros appointment, Francis revealed for the first time that he knew that the issue was controversial and that his ambassador in Chile had tried to find a way to contain the damage well before the case made headlines.

“Thank you for having openly demonstrated the concern that you have about the appointment of Monsignor Juan Barros,” Francis wrote in the letter, addressed to the executive committee of the Chilean bishops’ conference. “I understand what you’re telling me and I’m aware that the situation of the church in Chile is difficult due to the trials you’ve had to undergo.”

Francis was once recorded telling pilgrims that the Catholics of Osorno are “dumb,” and suffer because the allowed themselves to be manipulated by false accusations:

Papal biographer and ardent Francis supporter Austen Ivereigh just spent time interviewing Bishop Barros and Bishop Horacio Valenzuela, another Karadima protegé. Excerpt:

Barros and Valenzuela also point to the oddity that, despite dozens of men being involved in the comings and goings at the time in El Bosque – it was a cauldron of vocations, which generated 40 priests and 5 bishops – it is only those who later became bishops that the victims have accused of covering up.

Yet because the abuse by Karadima is not in doubt, the assumption of national and international media is that the victims must be also telling the truth about Barros and two other bishops, including Valenzuela. In fact, it is hard to find anyone in Santiago – in the Church or outside it – who is prepared to believe Barros’s innocence. [Emphasis mine — RD]

So great was the pressure generated by the accusations that when the Congregation of Bishops decided, in late 2014, to appoint Barros – who had been for the previous decade bishop to the armed forces – Chile’s leading bishops, including Ezzati, strenuously opposed the move, arguing to Francis that it would be a disaster for the Church.

But Francis, convinced of Barros’s innocence – the pope described to Barros the accusations as self-evidently inconsistent – pressed ahead with the appointment which Barros prepared for in January-February 2015 with a 30-day Jesuit retreat in Spain, meeting afterwards with Francis in Rome.

Against a background of fury at the decision, Barros offered at that meeting to the pope to stand down, but Francis insisted he proceed. Barros told me that throughout he has sought to be docile to the pope’s will, trusting that Francis was the best judge.

Many of Chile’s leading bishops – including not just Ezzati, but the president of the bishops’ conference – were conspicuously absent from Barros’s chaotic installation in Osorno on March 21, 2015, when angry, at times violent, protesters drowned out the Mass. (While he had expected demonstrators, Barros said nothing prepared him for the violence and hatred on show that day).

Francis’s dogged determination to support Barros against this tide from both Church and society must be counted as one of the boldest – or, perhaps, most foolhardy – decisions of his pontificate. There was a price to pay on his own anti-abuse commission, whose two survivor members, Peter Saunders and Marie Collins, objected strongly that the voices of Karadima’s victims were being “ignored.”

Incredible. More from the NYT:

Francis began his visit to Chile on Tuesday morning by publicly apologizing for the sexual abuse involving the clergy, saying he felt “pained and ashamed” over the “irreparable damage” done to their victims. But he refused to meet with victims of Father Karadima.

What a fraud. Words, empty words. Does the pope not remember the cruelty of John Paul II’s arrogant refusal to believe the accusers of Marcial Maciel? Even if it’s true that no solid evidence exists that Bishop Barros was part of a cover-up, the Catholic Church hierarchy has very little credibility to call Catholic priests and laymen upset over this “dumb.” This is not only shockingly cruel, it is foolish and self-destructive for the Pope.

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The Story Of God

Apse mosaic in the 6th century Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. Notice the beardless Christ in the center (Samot/Shutterstock)

Via The Browser, here is a link to Tyler Cowen’s hourlong conversation with Ross Douthat. You can listen to it, or read the transcript. It’s really diverse and rewarding. Tyler Cowen is a fabulous interlocutor. Here’s a passage that really resonated with me:

COWEN: Let me ask you my number-one question about you, and maybe it’s too big a question for you to answer, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks.

The apparent — I wouldn’t say lack of interest in theology, but you don’t write about theology much in its theological aspects. Maybe a part of the sociological narrative. But what strikes me rereading everything you’ve written as a whole is how interested you are —

DOUTHAT: [laughs] God help you, man.

COWEN: — in aesthetics, in narrative, film, television, and novels — that this is elevated.

So if you read St. Augustine, as you know, in the Confessions, he’s very skeptical about theater. It’s potentially a form of idolatry; it distracts people from God. And theology is weaker in your approach and narrative and aesthetics are stronger. And this strikes me ultimately as a kind of theological decision. So in the Catholicism of you, what’s the theological basis of narrative and aesthetic themselves being elevated over theology? That’s what’s been bugging me.


COWEN: And maybe if you could address that, I would be happy.

DOUTHAT: I’ll venture a theory, again, about something that I haven’t thought about before you raised it 30 seconds ago. So please take this with a grain of salt.

I think that you could make the argument that narrativity is the way in which God has revealed himself in the world from a Christian perspective, from a Judeo-Christian perspective. You know the Old and New Testaments contain a lot of theologizing, but they are, above all, narratives. They are stories of a chosen people. They are travails and betrayals and wars, and miseries, and judgments, and all the rest. And then there’s a story in the New Testament that is, as the cliché goes, the greatest story ever told. And I mean I think you’re right about me — when I read the New Testament, I want to read the gospels much more than I want to read St. Paul. And I find the gospels much more interesting than St. Paul, and that’s obviously not true of everybody, or we wouldn’t have been having wars about what Paul meant in Christianity [laughs] for the last 2,000 years.

But I think to the extent that I would defend my own instincts and my own approach — sometimes I say this to my children when I’m clumsily trying to indoctrinate them in my faith; I say “you are living inside a story, and God is the storyteller.” And again, this is not a thought original to me at all, but God is the storyteller and you are an actor within that story. And the difference is that in this story, God, Christians would say, God himself enters the story: he becomes a character in the play, which is a very difficult thing for a playwright to normally do.

But that story, the fact that God is a storyteller, tells us something reasonable about how best to approach him and that it is not just OK, but completely plausible to approach him through narrative, through poetry, through art, through stories, and so on. And there is a sense — I think this idea I’m stealing from Alan Jacobs, who wrote a biography of C. S. Lewis — but I think there’s a real sense in which — and maybe this speaks to the failure of Western theology over the last 50 years — but Christians in the West, in the United States — well-educated, would-be intellectual Christians — tend to be heavily influenced by storytellers, heavily influenced by Lewis, heavily influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien, heavily influenced even by Dorothy Sayers and her detective stories, heavily influenced by Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.

And I think that’s a very powerful and resonant and interesting way of thinking about our lives, but thinking about the Christian view of history that we’re living inside a very, very interesting story that people will be talking about in heaven for a long time.

Here’s the whole thing.

That resonated with me because the book I’ve been thinking about writing has to do in part with narrative theology. I’m still trying to concentrate my inchoate thoughts into a thesis, but it has to do with something I read in doing my Benedict Option research that has stuck with me. It’s Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark that

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb.

Why is that? After all, beauty and goodness aren’t arguments, strictly speaking. I think the future Benedict XVI meant that beauty and goodness are gateways to truth — and in fact, the relationship among these three concepts may well resemble the relationship within the Holy Trinity.

That sounds dry, but there’s more to the idea I have. I don’t want to give too much away here. I can say that when I read Douthat’s claim that “it is not just OK, but completely plausible to approach [God] through narrative, through poetry, through art, through stories, and so on,” I think not only is it completely plausible, but at some very real level necessary — especially in our increasingly abstracted, technopolistic world.

All of this I hope to explain in the book. But first, I have to finish the proposal.

If you have any good books to recommend to help me think through this, please list them in the comments thread.

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The Donatist Option

In the new issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit priest named Andreas Gonçalves Lind publishes a lengthy critique of The Benedict Option. At this point, I don’t respond to most critiques of the Benedict Option, but this one is a big deal. The venerable Jesuit magazine, based in Rome carries a lot of weight in the Catholic elite world, especially under this Jesuit pope. Its editorial director, Father Antonio Spadaro, is a close collaborator of Pope Francis, and last year condemned the Benedict Option in a speech at Notre Dame. Though the review today is negative, I am grateful that my thesis is being considered seriously at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

Here is a link to the Italian version that appeared today.  I was given an English language draft provided to journalists. I will be quoting from it below. If you want to read the entire thing, but can’t read Italian, cut and paste it into Google Translate.

The gist of Fr. Lind’s complaint is that the Ben Op advocates for a latter-day Donatism, the fourth-century heresy that proclaimed strict moral rigorism, and denied the validity of sacraments administered by priests who had not adequately withstood Roman persecution. The Donatists denied that even a repentant priest was able to administer valid sacraments. The Church ruled that repentance was sufficient, and besides, the validity of sacraments did not depend on the spiritual condition of a particular priest.

Fr. Lind’s abstract of his essay is as follows:

The recent publication of a book titled The Benedict Option in the United States has sparked off much debate. The book refers to St. Benedict of Nursia and intends to illustrate a strategy for Christians in a “post-Christian” age. This article aims to contribute to this debate and, in particular, points out that this “option” brings the risk of an exclusive focus on moral rigidity, doctrinal purity and the reestablishment of a parallel society rather than on the construction of unity and communion within the Church and with all people of goodwill.

Here’s the favorable part of Fr. Lind’s essay:

Dreher has the merit of looking at questions of Christian life within the challenge of growing secularization. His attempt to create a non-individualistic, communitarian Christian life in the present world is also laudable. As is praiseworthy the desire to give Christian witness. Dreher’s “option” is a kind of re-adaptation of Benedict’s rule and charism for our times.


Even though the Benedict option might be acceptable within contemporary American society, it does seem to be founded on an oversimplified and questionable narrative of the Benedictine charism. According to Dreher, “Benedict Option politics begins with recognition that Western society is post-Christian.” He grounds this option in our contemporary context, not only by interpreting contemporary Western societies as the beginning of a “post-Christian Dark era,” but also by asserting St. Benedict’s rule as a response to paganism.

Well, not quite. The Roman Empire had been officially Christian for nearly two centuries when it collapsed in the West. The barbarians who overthrew the imperial government were Christians too, of a sort (Arians, therefore heretics — but not pagans). Benedict’s was a response not to paganism, but to the chaos that resulted from the fall of Roman order. And as I point out in the book, St. Benedict did not set out to “make Rome great again” or anything like it. He only wanted to live in resilient, vowed Christian community as an alternative to the vice and chaos outside. From The Benedict Option:

It all grew from the mustard seed of faith planted by a faithful young Italian who wanted nothing more than to seek and to serve God in a community of faith constructed to withstand the chaos and decadence all around them. Benedict’s example gives us hope today, because it reveals what a small cohort of believers who respond creatively to the challenges of their own time and place can accomplish by channeling the grace that flows through them from their radical openness to God, and embodying that grace in a distinct way of life.

I’ll add this part from the book, from a conversation it records with Father Cassian, at that time the prior of the Norcia monastery:

Though the monks here have rejected the world, “there’s not just a no; there’s a yes too,” Father Cassian says. “It’s both that we reject what is not life-giving, and that we build something new. And we spend a lot of time in the rebuilding, and people see that too, which is why people flock to the monastery. We have so much involvement with guests and pilgrims that it’s exhausting. But that is what we do. We are rebuilding. That’s the yes that people have to hear about.”

Rebuilding what? I asked.

“To use Pope Benedict’s phrase, which he repeated many times, the Western world today lives as though God does not exist,” he says. “I think that’s true. Fragmentation, fear, disorientation, drifting—those are widely diffused characteristics of our society.”

Yes, I thought, this is exactly right. When we lost our Christian religion in modernity, we lost the thing that bound ourselves together and to our neighbors and anchored us in both the eternal and the temporal orders. We are adrift in liquid modernity, with no direction home.

The point of the book is to acknowledge our own condition of radical fragmentation and rootlessness — which Pope Benedict XVI spoke of many times — and to investigate the Benedictine charism and tradition to see what we lay Christians in the 21st century seeking to overcome that condition can learn from it. Lo, guess who else believes that we are in a very, very bad state in this regard. Reports Austen Ivereigh on the Pope’s address last night in Chile:

As I’ve often pointed out, Francis is, if not gloomy, certainly apocalyptic about these times. He believes contemporary society increasingly faces a life-or-death choice.

He sees the technology-driven forces of globalized postmodernity dissolving the bonds of belonging, sweeping away institutions and turning us into consuming individuals obsessed with gratification and increasingly divorced from cultural and religious roots.

In such a society, as he put it in Santiago, “points of reference that people use to build themselves individually and socially are disappearing,” such that “the new meeting place today is the “cloud, characterized by instability since everything evaporates and thus loses consistency.”

Back to Fr. Lind’s paper. He writes:

If contemporary Christians can learn from and adapt the Benedictine rule to present times, it might also be said that emphasizing the reality of persecution could be a risk for Christians; a risk that may be accompanied by the feeling that our “small” group is the real Church and better than the others. To be concise: It is the risk of arrogance linked to an ecclesial sin against unity and communion.

Well, sure, you might say that, and that is certainly something to be watched out for. But the gist of The Benedict Option book is not so much persecution (though that is certainly cited as something to come), but the grinding-down of religious vitality and belief by everyday life in liquid modernity. I wonder if this Catholic family is really all that worried about the potential danger Fr. Lind cites.

Here is the core of Fr. Lind’s objection:

Dreher, obviously without falling into heresy, seems to echo Donatus: “If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop ‘being normal.’ We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor.”

Wanting to be linked to the early Church of persecuted martyrs, Donatists did not accept a different way to live and practice the faith. Even in a new historical context, wherein persecution could be over, they felt their persecution was a confirmation that they were the good and true Christians.

In so doing, those schismatic Christians constituted a small party of the “pure ones.” By opposing integer to profanus as the main difference between belonging or not to the Church, Donatists tended to admit only irreproachable members.

Here’s the problem — and it’s a problem that has recurred in the rhetoric of this pope. Are there rigid, bitter, extreme Catholics? Absolutely. But Francis and his supporters have a terrible and profoundly unjust habit of denouncing as “rigid” priests and laymen who simply believe the Catholic faith, and want to live it out as it is authoritatively proclaimed — and, in some cases, in its older liturgical forms.

It has been said that Francis’s experience in Argentina with hardcore conservative priests made him reflexively hostile towards anything that resembles tradition. Maybe so. I don’t know. But let me quote my post from last year referring to Fr. Spadaro’s criticism of the Benedict Option:

4. In the United States, Catholicism is declining faster than any other church. “And perhaps more troubling for the church, for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church.”

5. In terms of catechesis and Catholic identity, the US Catholic Church is facing a catastrophe. Here are excerpts from Commonweal story about sociologist Christian Smith’s book concerning Catholic youth:

Here’s the bad news for Commonweal readers, and we may as well get right to it: Just over half the young people raised by parents who describe themselves as “liberal” Catholics stop going to Mass entirely once they become “emerging adults”—a new demographic category that means either prolonged adolescence or delayed adulthood, defined here in Young Catholic America as ages eighteen to twenty-three.

But now, let’s put that sad trend in perspective: The picture isn’t all that much better for the children of “traditional” Catholics. Although only a quarter of those young adults say they’ve stopped going to Mass entirely, only 17 percent say they’re going every week, and in general, their allegiance to church membership and participation seems nearly as faded as the kids of so-called feckless liberals.

The fact is: In this discouraging book, the future looks bad for just about every flavor of Catholic. For those who remember Commonweal’s series on “Raising Catholic Kids” last November, the worry expressed by those dedicated, well-meaning parents seems here to be fully justified. You may hear about pockets of enthusiastically “orthodox” young adults out there somewhere, but as my old mentor in the market-research business used to say, the plural of the word “anecdote” is not “data.” Smith (a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame) and his co-authors have the data, and it tells us that the majority of Catholic “emergers” are, by our historical standards, not what we are used to thinking of as practicing Catholics at all.

That “Raising Catholic Kids” series had this excruciatingly sad account from Sidney Callahan. Excerpt:

In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.

Got that? She is the only member of her family still in the Church. 

Christian Smith’s broader work on the religious beliefs and identities of younger Americans — not only Catholics — reveals trends that ought to be extremely worrying to any serious Christian, not least the Roman pontiff. Check out this 2009 interview Smith gave to Christianity TodayExcerpt:

… the center of gravity among emerging adults is definitely MTD. Most emerging adults view religion as training in becoming a good person. And they think they are basically good people. To not be a good person, you have to be a horrible person. Therefore, everything’s fine.

I have done a lot of traveling in the US and abroad doing Benedict Option research and speaking. I repeatedly hear the same message, no matter where I am: young adults today who still identify as Christian know little to nothing about the Christian faith, either in terms of content or in terms of how to practice it in daily life. To the extent they have any faith at all, it usually turns out to be entirely emotional. I often return to a discussion I observed among older (conservative) Catholics and younger (conservative) Catholic academics. The older ones were still operating under the impression that the young ones had basic Catholic formation, however lacking. The younger profs told them that this is completely unrealistic, that the undergraduates they were seeing on their campus in most cases knew nothing.

So: when I hear professional church bureaucrats like Father Spadaro telling the world to relax, everything is just fine, that the concerns of Christians like me “bear no relation to reality,” it makes me furious. It’s an attempt to anesthetize the faithful. It’s a self-serving lie, and it’s a lie that is going to cost a lot of people their souls.

Yet Fr. Lind is worried about the “rigid” Catholics who want to practice orthodox Catholicism, and raise their children to be believing, faithful Catholics. What a time we live in!

Fr. Lind cites St. Augustine against the Donatists:

While the Benedict option of Dreher wants to build communities wherein discipline is “tightened” in order to secure a supposed true and healthier Christianity, Augustine’s writings that address Donatism also underline other aspects like patience with respect to sinners and the value of preserving communion.

Augustine notices the arrogance of those who want to separate good people from bad people, the “just” from the “unjust,” before the opportune time. In this context, he asks for “humility,” “patience” and “tolerance.” Humility appears as a fundamental Christian virtue, without which unity and communion are not possible within the Mystical Body of Christ. The bishop of Hippo relies to a greater extent on Cyprian’s authority and he shows how this martyr tried to accept different opinions in order to maintain the Church’s unity.[1

The Benedict option does not automatically imply the arrogance that Augustine perceived in Donatist attitudes. However, its appeal for a “tightened Church discipline” resounds with Donatist moral rigidity. Moreover, the will to build small communities with “strong Christians” could erase the importance of Christian virtues like humility, patience and tolerance – emphasized in Augustine’s writings – calling into question the communion among believers and the formation of peaceful relationships in the world.

This is an elementary mistake by Fr. Lind. He is confusing the Donatist belief that the Church should be strictly a fellowship of the pure with the bog-standard basic Catholic Christian belief that we should seek to be holy. All sinners are welcome in the Church, because the Church has within it no one who is without sin. The Christian life is a pilgrimage toward growing in Christlikeness. We all stumble, but that’s what confession and forgiveness are for. One gets the impression that Christians like Fr. Lind don’t care about holiness. Surely that is not true, but I genuinely struggle to comprehend what they think the Church, and life with Christ, is for.

I’m thinking at the moment about a Catholic friend who is in what you might call a lay Ben Op school and faith life community. He said that some of the parish priests in his diocese look down on them, even though its members are all faithful attendees at mass. My friend told me that when his priest challenged him about it, he responded that the group felt compelled to gather so they and their children can learn and practice the fullness of the faith, which they were not getting in their parishes and diocesan schools.

That priest felt that the community’s existence was a judgment on him and the Catholic bureaucracy’s way of running itself (managing the decline, pretty much). And you know what: that priest was right! But the parents of that community are responsible for passing the faith on to their children, not for that priest’s feelings.

More Fr. Lind:

Another characteristic of Donatist attitudes mentioned by Yves Congar concerns hostility toward secular institutions. Donatists tended to refuse to collaborate with the authorities of the Empire who, for them, represented pagan powers. In their theological point of view, the purity of Christian practice implied the refusal to participate, collaborate or be engaged with pagans in their non-Christian institutions.

In this sense, Donatists were actually a “parallel polis.” On the contrary, Catholics like Augustine remained linked to some imperial institutions and were forced to consider Donatists as schismatic Christians.

This emphasis on purity, as a precaution regarding non-contamination with whatever is outside the Christian milieu, is related to the interpretation Donatists gave to the theological concept of “Catholicism.” According to them, “catholic” was supposed to mean sacramental perfection and fullness. In this sense, Donatists considered that real Catholicism was restricted to their local and small church, in Northern Africa.

Following the theology of Optatus, Augustine proposed another interpretation of “Catholicism,” emphasizing universality as unity of the entire Church as Christ’s Mystical Body. Augustine insisted that local Churches spread all over the world should be in communion in order to accomplish the biblical prophecies regarding the efficacy of announcing Christ’s resurrection.

All in all, Augustine’s argument tried to show that Donatists, even if they were more virtuous than all other faithful Christians, could never have the exclusivity of the true Church. Augustine wants to show that, in his context, isolation from other Christians and from society in general was not a good sign.

Although Dreher does not want the isolation of Christian communities, his Benedict option requires “separation” from secular political powers and institutions, up to the point of developing our lives as far as possible within Christian institutions in which Christian entrepreneurs hire workers predominantly from their own churches. Furthermore, the emphasis on the negative aspects of technology and the internet is intelligible in accordance with the warning not to be contaminated by pagan culture. In so doing, this option could “close off” Christian communities.

This is a flagrant misrepresentation of my work. The idea of the “parallel polis” is introduced like this in The Benedict Option:

[Czech dissident Vaclav] Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis” — a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order. Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “ Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”

At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.

Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word — along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.”

Fr. Lind would have his readers believe that I’m telling Catholics and other Christians to withdraw from the world to avoid contamination. In fact, in context of the book’s narrative, the “parallel polis” would come about chiefly when Christians are not permitted to be Christian in the public square. In the book, I talk about Christians patronizing Christian businesses as a way to protect those business owners when their livelihoods are threatened by law or custom.

Maybe this doesn’t make sense to Father Lind, who teaches at the Jesuit University of Namur, in Belgium (where, by the way, the Catholic faith is flat on its back, with barely a pulse). I don’t know what the situation is like with regard to Church and State in Belgium. Here in the US, though, we are well into a time when Christian colleges and institutions will face severe penalties if they don’t compromise their teachings and internal practices to conform to LGBT dogma and gender ideology. We are seeing some Christian businesses destroyed. As I write in The Benedict Option, and as Fr. Lind ignores in his review essay:

Public school teachers, college professors, doctors, and lawyers will all face tremendous pressure to capitulate to this ideology as a condition of employment. So will psychologists, social workers, and all in the helping professions; and of course, florists, photographers, backers, and all businesses that are subject to public accommodation laws.

As I make clear in the book, this is not a matter of idle speculation. I interviewed a number of law professors and professionals within these fields. They see what’s coming, even if Father Lind does not.

There’s a lot more to his piece, but I’ll close with this:

In doing so, the Benedict option bears the weight of a pessimistic outlook regarding contemporary societies. Although religious liberty should be affirmed to let Christians practice their faith, Dreher does not seem to want to show the importance of true dialogue, springing from that human dignity in which all liberties are grounded. Even if the internet could be “the most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology” that a Christian must avoid and limit, especially regarding children, Dreher’s option does not propose a way to live in and evangelize this new “place.”

Well, he’s got that right: I do have a pessimistic outlook regarding contemporary societies. How could any small-o orthodox Christian who pays attention not be pessimistic? Heck, even Pope Francis is, in the word of his biographer, “apocalyptic”! Of course Dreher wants to talk to others — The Benedict Option explicitly calls for open collaboration among Christians and others (I mention Jews in particular) who share our countercultural stance towards the world, if not our theological convictions — but I have no interest in the failed assimilationist ideas of the modern Jesuits. Those might have seemed reasonable in 1968, but we know what the fruits of that approach have been: collapse.

I have confidence that Catholics who want their faith to survive this particular apocalypse, and live on in their children, and their children’s children, will join me and other Christians of goodwill in trying to forge a new path, out of the ruins of contemporary Christianity. It will come as a shock to many, but there are pre-1965 traditions within the Catholic Church that actually have something to say to Catholics today — and to all Christians. That’s the main message of The Benedict Option. My own approach is no doubt flawed, and I welcome correction. But I prefer to try something serious to resist over pious strategies of capitulation.

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Trump Administration Protects Religious Liberty

This is great news:

The Trump administration announced on Thursday that it was taking new steps to protect doctors, nurses and other health workers who have religious or moral objections to performing abortions or sex-change operations, or providing other medical services.

The move, one day before the annual March for Life in Washington, was a priority for anti-abortion groups.

Administration officials urged people to report discrimination to a new unit of the federal government: the conscience and religious freedom division of the office for civil rights at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Roger Severino, the director of the civil rights office, promised that he and his staff would thoroughly investigate every complaint.

For too long, Mr. Severino said, the federal government has ignored such complaints or treated them with “outright hostility.”

Y’all know what I think about Trump, but I want to praise him to the skies for this move — a move that no previous Republican president has ever done. Credit where credit is due.

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‘We Cannot Save Them’

Here is a startling letter from a reader. I have slightly edited it to protect her privacy, and the privacy of others. I know her name, and the names of the two colleges she mentions below:

I’m a long-time reader of your blog and have commented on many of your entries, but any time you post something about college or university life in our current culture I sit up and take notice. It’s very relevant to my life, at the moment, and I can’t quite believe what I’m watching unfold. Truth be told, sometimes I have a “pinch me” feeling after hearing of a particular offense that has occurred at the universities that my kids attend. But let me back up just a hair.

I’m a mom of three homeschooled children. My older two daughters are living at home and attending local universities, and our youngest son is still homeschooling and taking classes at the community college to fulfill some high school requirements. Because of this arrangement we have a close-up view of life on campus in our Age of Discontent.

My eldest began her college experience at a respected Catholic university and transferred to a much less expensive public university, after she discovered that life on the Catholic campus was about little more than casual hook-ups, drinking and the disease suffered by seemingly all post-millenials: Social Awkwardness By Cellphone Disorder. We were all shocked by her experiences at that school and steered her sister away from it and to another, smaller, Catholic college where we hoped for a different experience.

Nope! Not happening. And not only is there not a single shred of Catholicity at either of these colleges, in spite of one having actual men in robes teaching classes and the other having a majority board membership of religious sisters running the place, there seems to be in place an actual desire to see the institutions collapse in a burning heap of ruin. At least this is the conclusion that I’ve come to after listening to the wails of despair coming from my growing-up children.

We’ve listened to the stories of Catholic institutional representatives snorting and saying, “this is not a Catholic college”, without irony, have discovered a member of the Catholic university’s Political Science department in the newspaper [I verified this; that woman is a hardcore radical who hates the Catholic Church. — RD], as she marches in the Trans Rainbow Unicorn Pride Parade in town with her lesbian partner and their children — defying anyone to question her motives for taking that position at a school run by nun. We have seen the history professor with his same sex partner out and about and so on and so on ad infinitum.

I’m writing today to tell you of an event that occurred during my middle daughter’s first day of class because, well, I have to tell someone sympathetic to the plight of civility and the rules of engagement, and I think you might understand our family’s depth of despair over the direction that Catholic education has taken, even if you won’t be shocked. Although we were shocked by this particularly egregious example of straying far from the boundaries of what might be considered normal behavior on the part of a college professor.

Our daughter signed up for a Native American religions class in order to fill a diversity requirement and out of sincere interest in the subject. [I verified that this college teaches that particular class — RD] She was actually excited about it. On the first day of class, her professor, a PhD in the discipline and a Native American himself, began the class in what she felt was a near fit of rage by lecturing and yelling about cultural appropriation and the use of language to demean and colonize the indigenous populations of this continent. She said he was one of those “seething” people; you could feel him always trying to rein in his rage.

Okay, fine. I accept that there is more than enough reason for Native American rage and that a person, “representing their people” might feel obligated to express that rage to a classroom full of non-Indian people. I get it. I’m old enough to have gone to Free Leonard Peltier rallies and I grew up with and knew and dated Native people. I understand the issues and the rage well. What happened next, however, was beyond anything that I’ve ever encountered or even heard of from other parents or students. He then went on to talk about different Native American people who were famous in the white world. The most prominent being Pocahontas. He told the class that she was “nothing but a slut” and that she “was the shame of the people” and that her name meant “one who wants di*k”.

Yes. He said that in his class. My daughter said he got exactly what he wanted which was a room full of shocked, silent kids who had no idea how to respond to such madness at an institution of higher learning.

When this event became known at our family dinner last night I had that open-mouthed “what did you just say?!” thing going on and the next thing I said was, “What on earth are we all going to do?!” And I later thought…Ah. The Benedict Option, of course.

This is just another example of the withering away of Christian institutions and their slide into the smoking pit. We cannot save them. For real. It is time to let it burn and while it’s burning, hunker down and save what we can for when the smoke clears. Copy the stories onto fresh parchment with new ink and read them around the home fires while the world enters into this phase of, whatever it is.

People accuse you of the whole “running to the hills” thing and tell you that Christians must engage! We must be in the world! We must challenge the status quo and be the light! Well, I’m here to tell you that we are vastly outnumbered and engaging might just, actually, be the final nail in the coffin. I vote for a strategic retreat to bolster resources and be ready for the future when we might have an opportunity to come back out. But that time is definitely not now.

After I wrote to the reader asking for — and getting — the names of these colleges so I could do some verification work, the reader sent this follow-up, which I’ve also slightly edited to protect privacy:

We have friends here, a family of incredibly faithful Catholics. Members of our parish. Active in ministries. Kids in church every Sunday. The oldest went to [prestigious Catholic university] and has completely lost her faith. The second went to [local Catholic college] and is fallen away and living with a drug dealer. The middle child is a drug addict living on the streets. The youngest is still at home but the entire family has stopped going to church and has decided, based on the youngest child’s direction, that atheism is the rule of the day.

I’m not kidding, this is all TRUE. And they began homeschooling their middle and youngest children years and years ago. so that was no protection. I mean, my Lord!! The father is from a large Catholic family and has a brother who is a priest! It’s not uncommon that this is what happens to Catholic families today.

If our children stay faithful once they are adults I will be shocked. And why?! Not because we haven’t tried. We’re active in church. Faithful attendees. The children have participated in liturgy, service and religious ed. I teach them more re here at home. We have media limits. No cable. No violent video games. Limited social media and no cell phones before 16. Grace before dinner. Observe the liturgical year celebrations. Fast during Lent. Discuss everything, address all questions, admit to our sins and un-knowing, ad nauseam. To the point of mental exhaustion because, as you know, three teenagers in the house is quite a trip.

And yet! The world just pulls them in! It’s inexorable and my husband and I feel completely helpless in the face of it. But we still try and I guess that’s something. Isn’t it?

I just keep hoping and praying that some of this is becoming part of the fabric of their being and that later, after they all get through the horrible twenties, they will find their way back. But to what is the big question now, isn’t it?

This is the real world. Not all dioceses, or parts of the country, are that bad (move to Lafayette, La., for example, or Lincoln, Neb., and you’ll see a world of difference), but many are. Where this reader lives is a spiritual desert. And the churchocrats who run the institutions in such dying places are the first ones to denounce the Benedict Option, and to leave faithful parents and children like this reader out on the curb, denounced as “rigid” and whatnot.

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‘We’re Not Going To Be That Country’

Indonesian Protestants watch as the local government bulldozes their church in 2013 (Screenshot)

Judge Patti Saris is a wise and compassionate woman:

A federal judge on Wednesday likened a group of Indonesian Christians facing possible deportation by the Trump administration to Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazis.

Judge Patti B. Saris compared the plight of the Indonesians, who are in the country illegally, to Jews fleeing the Third Reich in a boat — an apparent reference to the infamous case of the St. Louis, an ocean liner that left Germany with 937 passengers, most of them Jews, and was turned away by the US government in 1939. Hundreds of the Jews were later killed during the Holocaust.

The Indonesians argue they will be tortured or killed because of their religion if forced to return to their Muslim-majority homeland. The Trump administration insists they have not proven they would be harmed if they returned to Indonesia.

“We’re not going to be that country,” Saris said Wednesday at a hearing in US District Court in Boston. “We don’t want to put them on the ship unless someone” can review their contention that deportation back to Indonesia is “a really bad situation for them.”

Many Christians in Indonesia face persecution in the Muslim majority nation. And yet, the world’s largest and most powerful Christian nation, founded in part by Christian dissidents seeking a place to worship without fear of persecution, is sending them back to face their tormentors — this, even though they have been living in the US for years, and have caused no problems.

Why are we doing this? The Boston Globe reports:

The Trump administration contends that the group members should be deported immediately because they have final removal orders. The administration also contends the Indonesians have not shown they would face harm if deported.

“Even if they are removed, petitioners’ generalized evidence of Indonesia’s conditions do not prove that persecution or torture is immediate or likely for each petitioner,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in December. “Their assertion that ‘all face a significant risk of persecution and torture if removed to Indonesia’ is unsupported by facts that relate to any specific petitioner.”

These people have nothing to go back to. But that’s where our President is sending them.

Here’s a video about the destruction of a Protestant church in 2013, on orders of the local Indonesian government, spurred on by Islamic hardliners:

Is sending your fellow believers back to that what you voted for, Christian Trump backer? Did you vote for two Michigan children to watch their father, who was brought to the US as a child 30 years ago by an illegal immigrant, be deported?

I agree that we should tighten our immigration policy as a general rule. But if that means sending Christians back into societies where they are persecuted, and if that means breaking a family up to punish a gardener who was brought to this country as a kid, and who has lived here for 30 years — no, I can’t see how this is remotely consonant with the Gospel.

We can’t be that country, and we can’t be that church.

These stories share the headlines with the quite plausible claim that Donald Trump, the new Constantine, had an extramarital affair with a porn star in 2006 and paid her to keep quiet during the campaign. We’ll be hearing a lot more about that today, when In Touch magazine runs its 5,500 word interview with the porn star. This presidency is putting stink on the churches that will not come off. Jonah Goldberg asks:

But while voters are perfectly free to make their own decisions about what factors they want to take into account in their estimation of politicians, I am at a loss as to how various social- and religious-conservative leaders can, with clear conscience, or even a straight face, shrug off this kind of thing, never mind defend it. If you’ve dedicated your professional or pastoral life to upholding and enforcing public standards of decency, there is no principled argument for giving Trump a pass. There are any number of transactional, prudential, “pragmatic,” or instrumental arguments for doing so. But when liberals — and many other Republicans — were embroiled in sex scandals, those leaders were at the forefront of repudiating such defenses as moral relativism. At the very least, Jerry Falwell & Co. should be condemning Trump’s behavior.

Morality is supposed to be way, way upstream of politics. If your position is that your team doesn’t have to do right because the other team does wrong, you don’t really believe in doing right for its own sake.

Preach. Seriously, my fellow believers, do you not think we are going to be judged by God for this? Do you not think we are going to be judged by the world? By no means do all Christians support this garbage, but many do — and the price we will all pay when the political backlash comes will be devastating.

UPDATE: Jonah R. makes a reasonable rebuttal:

From the Boston Globe article:

The case involves about 50 Indonesian Christians who have been living on the Seacoast of New Hampshire and the South Shore of Massachusetts, some for decades, despite not having the proper documentation. Ranging in age from about 40 to 60, most are parents of US citizens and have worked in a variety of fields. One is an administrative assistant. Another fixes trucks.

Most came in the late 1990s and early 2000s during a period of anti-Christian violence in Indonesia. Many overstayed their visas and failed to seek asylum on time.

Of course I don’t want these people to get sent back to a hostile society that will persecute them. But they’re adults who have settled into American life, gotten jobs, and started families. So why didn’t they get their immigration status straightened out sometime in the past twenty years?

There’s an explanation in the story, provided without a source: “But since 2010, US immigration authorities allowed the otherwise law-abiding Indonesians to live and work here, provided they checked in regularly.” How on earth did they or their immigration attorneys (which I sure hope they had) think that would be a sufficient permanent solution to their residency status? Why are they only using the right to an asylum hearing as a legal strategy now? Asian and Australian immigrant friends of mine who arrived at the same time got their green cards years ago. Did these Indonesian Christians even apply?

Again, I am not anti-immigration, but if we’re going to base our immigration policies purely on pathos, then let’s stop pretending we even have laws.

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The Selfishness Of The Self

How far can we go without stepping over the line? (mantinov/Shutterstock)

Erin Manning left a great comment on the selfishness of the Self:

Anybody who has read any of the writings of the late 19th and early 20th century has seen a frequent expression of this one idea: the old order, whatever it was, was about to change, was indeed already passing away, and whatever would replace it would be something very different from what had gone before. Though you can find this expressed as early as the middle of the 19th century, I think that these ideas really got going after the First World War. Suddenly the old justifications for sending huge numbers of young men to fight and die didn’t seem all that compelling, especially to those who had to go and fight. What–fight and die, endure misery whether you lived or not, lose the best and brightest of a whole generation, for kings and political orders, for tribes and nations, for faith or family? What did it gain anybody, in the end? Another world war would raise those same questions, and leave people grappling with the same aftershocks, especially given the already-spreading rupture of the family through divorce, a thing considered shameful half a century before, but now apparently commonplace. Men who went to fight came home to find their wives had moved on to other men, and many women received divorce papers soon after their husbands returned home; it was a different age.

The age of the atomized individual, in fact, had begun to rise (as Carle Zimmerman said in “Family and Civilization”). In one way of looking at it, you can say that the trajectory of deterioration from the first deliberate detachment of the Self from home, family, tribe, nation, religion, community, and so on to the motto today of “I am my own,” which implies that the Self itself is a Thing which one owns like property and can make use of in pretty much the same way, was already set out in those early days of at least the early 20th century, if not before. When a man’s principle source of identity is located not in the Self but in something or many things outside of it (e.g., I am a Catholic, I am an American, I am a proud citizen of Nowhereville, U.S.A., home of the ABC Widget Corporation, I am a member of the Smith family–no, not the Yorkshire Smiths, but the Shropshire Smiths, etc.) there is a stability there that can endure, but when a man’s primary way of identifying himself is as a Self first and all those other things only superficially and tangentially, his identity takes on a different quality, as something malleable, shifting, ephemeral, and prone to radical restructuring.

This does not mean that one’s sense of self is unimportant or meaningless; it just means that the elevation of that sense of self above all else tends to invert those structures which help us find a place in the world that is bigger than we alone are–that, in a way of speaking, can help us to put ourselves at the service of others in that solidarity and brotherhood which is so necessary to human thriving.

To put it more simply, if a woman decides that her freedom to explore who she is as a person is so important that it means that she must leave her husband and children behind, she is abandoning that very kind of community in which the Self is protected and given the chance to grow. Plenty of people have decided their families of origin simply don’t measure up, and have cultivated a weary cosmopolitan attitude about the idea of any duty toward one’s aging parents–but one’s parents are aging, nonetheless, and the kind of Self who will do nothing to ease their final years is not a particularly good one in most cases. There are plenty of illustrations of the point we could examine.

Having said all that, and it’s too much already, I think it’s only fair to recognize that the atomized individual arose for what were likely just reasons. The young people of a century ago looked around them and saw hypocrisy, greed, a lust for power, a desire to control within all of those institutions which are supposed to allow for the nourishing and thriving of the individuals within. It is not too much of a stretch, for instance, to say that the Second Vatican Council had the problems of a sort of Pelagianism to deal with, in which the members of the faith community often seemed to think they were saved because they were members of the faith community and (after all, Father) they Did All the Things. God wasn’t going to condemn anybody who prayed the rosary and made the first Fridays, was He? That would be unfair. The danger of too much suppression of the individual, at least in a faith setting, is that the individual forgets he’s actually supposed to be cultivating a relationship with Jesus Christ–personally, that is, not relying on the priest’s prayers at the altar to do the trick on his behalf.

And that’s just one example: if the institution of marriage threw open the doors to divorce, let’s say, for how long before that did the individuals who came together to form a union remain really separated from each other instead? Or if a political party crumbled under the weight of a lifeless conservatism or an even more placid liberalism, was it the fault of the young voter who demanded to know what the party would do for him, or the fault of the party for forgetting that their job is to serve the people, not grow into a Leviathan for the sake of job security? There are lots of ways to illustrate the problems that fed the rise of the atomized individual.

And now, today, “I am my own,” meaning not only that the Self is all-important, but that the Self can be used for whatever purpose its owner chooses. Want to be a man today and a woman tomorrow? Want to live with a girl for five years and give her two children and then disappear with no obligations whatsoever? Want to change jobs every three months, or cut off your family for the crime of being the kind of Selves your Self doesn’t like much, or reinvent your racial identity à la Rachel Dolezal, or lie, cheat and steal your way to political power? It doesn’t matter-why should it?–so long as the Self remains appeased and temporarily content.

But–and here is the problem–no society can endure for long as a mere collection of disassociated individuals who owe loyalty to the Self but no one else. The fact that we are not completely dissolved as a nation yet has more to do with the lingering echoes of the old loyalties to place and people and tribe and nation and religion and community, etc., than to some power of the Self to balance the paradox between doing what is in its own best interest and pleasing others. To put it lightly, so long as there is only one real Cosimanian Orthodox, the vestiges of the not-Cosimanian will keep things going; but when everybody is a Cosimanian, how is anything supposed to get done, if it involves inconvenience, cost (financial or otherwise) or any suggestion of the sacrifice, however temporary, of one’s own self-interest?

It is at this point that people generally point out that one doesn’t have to be a member of a family or tribe or faith or community to want the roads to get fixed (for instance), and that the Self will put up with taxes to get the work done, etc. That is true for now, but I think there is a danger of forgetting that even delayed gratification, putting up with the temporary loss of money or the temporary inconvenience of the bad road, is a life skill that has to be learned, and it is usually taught by those old forms of family and community. We don’t yet really know what it is like to have, in place of a community, a loose assortment of uncollected individuals who owe no loyalty to anyone but themselves, but I suspect that day will arrive.

I think most of us are free riders on the labors and sacrifices of others — those who live today, and our ancestors — who order(ed) their lives by something greater than themselves.

Just this afternoon, I got word that a volunteer firefighter in West Feliciana Parish was killed today while working an automobile accident there. The roads were icy, and it appears that another vehicle trying to stop for the crash plowed into him. Officials haven’t released the man’s name, but everybody in town knows who it is, and my mother tells me folks are devastated. All the local volunteer firefighters know it could have been them.

In the 1980s, my late father was a founder of the VFD out in Starhill, the rural community where I grew up. A number of those local men got firefighting training, and devoted themselves to protecting their neighbors. Nobody got paid. They did it because they believed it was the right thing to do, and because they knew that by protecting their neighbors, their neighbors were protecting them.

That’s a small instance, but an important one. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam became almost a household name with his “bowling alone” work documenting the steep decline in community involvement and “social capital.” I’m old enough to remember when almost everybody’s dad was involved in some kind of service work in the community. It’s not like that anymore. I’m as guilty about this as anybody else.

Patrick Deneen’s new book argues that liberalism itself, in both its liberal-liberal and conservative-liberal versions, has brought us to this place. The book is not going to comfort either Democrats or Republicans, because what Deneen is doing is questioning the system itself. His basic thesis is that liberalism has done a great job over the past 200 years of liberating the individual, but that it has eaten up all the seed corn (the virtues and customs needed to run a self-governing liberal polity), such that it is on very shaky legs. The reason is that so very much in our culture trains us to think that the desiring, choosing Self is the center of the universe.

As Erin Manning points out, liberalism didn’t come from nowhere. It really did make life better for countless people. In my own life, it was because of liberalism, and liberal values, that I was able to leave my own small town, and follow my vocation to journalism, and realize other dreams. But my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming runs up hard against the limits of that kind of individual liberty, by exploring the richness, the meaning, and the social capital my sister had by staying behind in our town and devoting herself to the community.

I returned, and ran up hard against some of the rigid family reasons I left in the first place. Life is hard. There are no utopias. Solving the problems created by advanced liberalism aren’t a matter of going back in time, if that were possible. The truth is, we are going to have to learn to live by limits, but nobody can agree on what those limits are, and who should be the ones to decide. This is why we can’t come up now with a plausible alternative to liberalism.

But we’re going to have to, or it will be thrust upon us. Watch. Meanwhile, say a prayer for the family left behind by that volunteer firefighter who died this morning because he got up and went out on an icy road to help people, not because he got anything out of it, but because that’s the kind of man he was.

UPDATE: Officials finally released the name of the firefighter: Russell Achord. They also clarified an earlier report that mistakenly said he was a volunteer firefighter. In fact, he was apparently a salaried firefighter. Still, most of the parish’s firefighting squad are volunteers. It could have been any one of them, including my brother-in-law.

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Why That Book Review Failed

If you thought the hathotic interview BBC4 journalist Cathy Newman conducted with Jordan B. Peterson was delightful train-wreck television, take a look at the review Jennifer Szalai published in The New York Times, of Patrick Deneen’s new book Why Liberalism Failed. The book reduced her to the same kind of ideologically-driven sputtering to which Dr. Peterson drove his interlocutor. For example:

Deneen says that the only proper response to liberalism is “to transform the household into a small economy.” Home may be where the heart is, but it can also be the site for homegrown prejudice, petty grievances and a vicious cruelty. Deneen is so determined to depict liberalism as a wholly bankrupt ideology that he gives exceedingly short shrift to what might have made it appealing — and therefore powerful — in the first place. With all its abiding flaws, liberalism offered a way out for those who didn’t conform to the demands of the clan.

Besides, nobody is truly stopping Deneen from doing what he prescribes: finding a community of like-minded folk, taking to the land, growing his own food, pulling his children out of public school. His problem is that he apparently wants everyone to do these things — which suggests he may have more in common with his caricature of a bullying liberal than he cares to admit.

What does “nobody is truly stopping Deneen” have to do with what Deneen wrote? It’s an emotional outburst from somebody who is really ticked off by Deneen’s book, and is going to throw everything she has at him to see what sticks. And yes, liberalism did and does offer a way out to those who didn’t conform to the demands of the clan — I’m a beneficiary of liberalism in that regard — but so what? Deneen argues in his book from the very beginning that liberalism has now failed, paradoxically, because it succeeded so very well in liberating the choosing individual from all unchosen obligations.

Szalai seems so panicked to defend liberalism — which Deneen, in her telling, not so much critiques as defiles — that she doesn’t give any indication that she sees any problem with what liberalism has become. For her — judging by this review — it’s mostly about protecting abortion rights and women in the workplace. She begins the review by puzzling over why a conservative like me and a socialist like Cornel West can both praise the Deneen book. Hey! Jennifer Szalai! Wake up and look at the world outside your University-of-Toronto-London-School-of-Economics-Manhattan-media bubble!

Anyway, she does touch on a single reasonable concern raised by some readers of Deneen’s book: what does he suggest replace liberalism? I’ve said before, and I strongly believe, that you can’t judge the validity of Deneen’s diagnosis by his failure to offer a clear, detailed solution. This is especially true given that the world liberalism has produced is one of radical pluralism.

For example, you can say, as a Catholic integralist would, that many of the problems in the Western world today come from a loss of shared cultural meaning and authority, without believing that Catholic integralism is either possible or desirable in 2018. In 1848, Karl Marx was right in some important ways about the social effects of industrial capitalism, but his proposed solutions were, as we know, catastrophic. As for postliberalism, it’s hard to know how we are going to restore the conditions necessary for healthy social solidarity. This is a problem that serious political thinkers of the Left and the Right are going to have to work on — and do so while subjecting their own prejudices to rethinking. You cannot have a market as free as ours, and a social order as permissive as ours, and still have a society that is stable and healthy over the long term. That said, it is difficult to know what would be acceptable to most people in our deracinated, secularized, pluralistic liberal democracy.

Fred Bauer’s take in National Review is much more insightful. Right here in these first two paragraphs, before you have any clue as to what Bauer thinks about the book’s claims, you learn more about the Deneen book than you do in the entire NYT review:

Why Liberalism Failed.

Deneen offers liberalism as the last survivor of the three major modern ideologies, the other two being fascism and communism. He argues that the quest for autonomy (to be independent and self-directing) is one of the driving forces of liberalism, which has come to define liberty as “the condition in which one can act freely in the sphere unconstrained by positive law.” This is in contrast to the classical view of liberty as self-rule and, thus, as “the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desire.” To Deneen, modern liberalism defines freedom as the absence of restraint, and takes attaining such a state as its primary purpose. The Right and Left — “conservatives” and “progressives” — might differ on what restraints should be dissolved, but both, he claims, make the liberal promise of autonomy a central goal.

Bauer doesn’t really write a review of the book, but works with its material to suggest a potential way out of the very real dilemmas of liberalism elucidated by Deneen. It’s a way of keeping the structure of liberalism while reforming it from within. Bauer calls it “The Tocqueville Option”. Excerpt:

The Tocqueville Option would nurture the institutional and procedural inheritances of liberalism in the service of other ends. For instance, traditionalist Catholics, the Hasidim, and the Amish might oppose the enterprise of radical autonomy from their own distinct perspectives, but they also all benefit from a political order that stresses pluralism and religious tolerance. Especially as secularists grow ever more intolerant, the faithful have an incentive to champion this nation’s abiding commitment to tolerance. One doesn’t have to subscribe to liberal modernity’s “joyless quest for joy” (to use Strauss’s phrase) in order to support free markets, democratic elections, and political freedoms. Unlike certain variants of postliberalism, the Tocqueville Option acknowledges that many elements of the liberal order are worth preserving, even if some of the premises of liberalism warrant correction.

Read the entire column. I don’t see how this is workable, though I wish it were, because I don’t look forward to living in whatever illiberal order is likely to follow liberalism. It’s not workable because in my view, we have lost the moral and religious commitments that undergird a real-world liberalism (as distinct from theoretical liberalism). But that’s another story.

You should buy Deneen’s book, even if you’re on the Left. The things he discusses in the book are real and serious problems — and neither Republicans nor Democrats know what to do about them. But they’re going to define our politics for the foreseeable future. You may believe that Deneen’s take misses the mark in important ways, but sooner or later, we’re all going to have to deal with the problems he highlights. People who believe that what we have now is going to last without a major breakdown are whistling past the graveyard.

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Jordan Peterson-izing The Ben Op

Jordan B. Peterson (screengrab via BBC4)

I was in the “look inside” mode of Amazon’s page for Jordan Peterson’s upcoming book 12 Rules Of Life: An Antidote To Chaos (to be published next week), and found this passage from his first chapter. The chapter is about hierarchy and assertiveness, and how these are hard-wired into us biologically. In the chapter, Peterson advises his readers to stand tall and be confident, because that will improve your chances of succeeding in your tasks. Excerpt:

Note that line: “To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protect the world from the flood…”

This gives me an idea why The Benedict Option might have had trouble with some Christians who would ordinarily be sympathetic to it: they perceive it not as a spur to meet the immense challenge of our times constructively — building arks — but rather perceive it as a defeatist project. If you read the book, you’ll see that I’m urging fellow believers to be what Pope Benedict XVI called “creative minorities,” and build “arks” within which the faith can endure through the long Dark Age upon us.

But if you never pick up the book because you think it’s a defeatist tract, then you won’t know that. And I have to own up to some responsibility here. I have worked so hard to wake up small-o orthodox Christians to the very real catastrophe posed by liquid modernity that I have probably oversold the “brace for it” aspect of the Benedict Option, and undersold the “let’s rally to meet the challenge of our time” aspect.

To use Peterson’s terms, the “order” that we Christians have been living with, and have depended on to understand our world, is dying, and is quickly going to be dead. To the extent Christians today identify with this order and its values, Christianity will cease to exist. I explain why in the book. We who wish to hold on to the faith have to withstand the uncertainty, and establish a better, more meaningful and more productive order. This is what the Benedict Option calls for!

It does not speak of an order for everyone — a universal plan to replace an unsustainable liberalism. At this stage, it only talks about an order for Christians (an internal order, a church order, a local community order). In his forthcoming book, Peterson has a chapter whose title urges readers to get their own house in order before they start telling others what to do. From  a Ben Op perspective, I endorse the sentiment as applied to conservative Christians like me. The Benedict Option is primarily inwardly focused because we Christians live in so much internal disorder. That has to change before we can be for the world who Our Lord calls us to be.

Here are some screengrabs from that particular chapter of Peterson’s book, via Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature:


Peterson goes on to say:

Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?

You can easily imagine the kinds of questions the Benedict Option would pose to Christians, along the lines of that “Consider your circumstances” paragraph above. And more: if we can’t even keep our own hearts, our families, and our churches stable, ordered, and faithful; and if we can’t even pass on the faith to our children, what makes us Christians think that our ideas for how the state ought to be run are the thing we should focus our passion on?

If you know anything about Peterson, you know that he strongly believes that identity politics are poison. What he’s trying to do here is to empower his readers. That’s exactly my intention with The Benedict Option. We can’t begin to do better for ourselves until and unless we take honest, unsparing stock of where we are, and how we got there.

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Jordan Peterson, Hero

This 30-minute interview from Britain’s Channel 4 with clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson is INCREDIBLE. If you’re at work, make a note to yourself to watch it when you get home. The interviewer, Cathy Newman, makes a fool of herself. She doesn’t listen to what Peterson says, and keeps badly restating his arguments as, “So, you’re saying that …” — and then completely mischaracterizing him. It is astonishing to watch — and he keeps his cool the entire time!

The interview ought to be shown in journalism classes as an example of what happens when a journalist believes that ideological ardor substitutes for reason, and that contempt for her interview subject should rightly override professionalism.

More than that, what Peterson has to see is very, very sensible. If you’ve never heard of him before, and this interview is the first exposure you’ve had to him, you’re bound to want to know more — and maybe even pre-order his book, 12 Rules For Life. I’ve been a fan of his from afar, but now I’ve got to buy that book when it comes out later this month.

If you don’t have time for the entire interview, at least watch from 22:00 on. At one point, he leaves his interviewer literally speechless, when he puts a very simple point to her about why free speech is necessary for her to do her job. Well done. Brilliantly done.

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The Sh*thole Next Door

This American boy lives in what a lot of American people would cruelly call a s-hole (Alexandra Stevenson/Flickr)

One of my friends posted this on his Facebook feed:

It’s shameful to deride immigrants by saying they come from “shithole countries.” I would not be surprised if President Trump said that. I am also not surprised by the outcry against it. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard that.

A couple of months ago, one of my professors referred to a nearby town as a “shithole” because of its significance to the Confederacy and because, somehow, that 152-year-old historical fact necessarily reflects on the character of its current citizens. One of last year’s top podcasts was “S-Town,” which earned its title from the word the main character used to describe his hometown in Alabama.

I don’t know if it’s shameful for Trump to use the phrase only because he is the president or if it’s okay for my professor to use the phrase only because he was presumably referring to Trump voters, but I do know this: it reveals a lot more about us—and the human condition—than I think we’d like to admit.

I think we all hold a little fear or hate in our hearts for “the other.” For some, like Trump and many of his constituents, “the other” may be a person of a different color and a different faith from a different country. For others, like probably many of us, “the other” may be a classmate we gossip about, a family member we can’t stand, or a next-door neighbor we don’t care to meet. My own hypocrisy reminds me of the haunting words of one of Dostoyevsky’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov: “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.”

Jesus once said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Personally, I think that means we need to welcome the good people of Haiti and nations in Africa who are seeking a better life. But I also think it means we need to start thinking better of the people in southern Virginia and Alabama, or next-door, too.

UPDATE: I read the “welcome the good people of” as “treat the ones who are here with respect,” not “let’s open the doors wide.” I don’t agree with open-door immigration. I posted this item not because of that aspect, but because of the writer’s admonition to stop thinking of people in our own country as lesser because they live in places we would dismiss as “shitholes”.

UPDATE.2: My readers write:

Braden Wilson
10:09 PM (11 hours ago)

to rod.dreher, me

I love you, but please do not go Full Cuckstian on us and start virtue signaling like a pozzed faggot demanding that 3rd world DACA vermin aren’t deported.

Do you really want these right-wing college girls ( ) to have have bigger testicles than you?

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French Anti-Semitism

Does this Jewish Parisian have a future in France? Do his children? (Cdrin/Shutterstock)

Alexander Aciman [sorry, readers, I originally, and mistakenly, said “Andre,” his father] asks in the NYT, “Can a Jew love France?” Excerpt:

French-speaking Jews may have celebrated this year when Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République En Marche!, defeated the frighteningly far-right and anti-Semitic National Front, but this supposedly new France has done nothing to curb its Jewish problem. Every year in France Jewish storefronts are vandalized, including arson in kosher supermarkets this past week.

The general feeling of unrest is not unlike the one felt over 100 years ago during the Dreyfus Affair, when it became clear to many that Jewish life in France was ultimately unsustainable. For many, the situation has started feeling untenable again today. Anti-Semitism, as it turns out, is a flat circle.

And yet, despite all the betrayal and heartbreak, I cannot bring myself to renounce France, as if after more than a century of love for this country, the love itself has become part of my genome.

The man wrote an entire op-ed about anti-Semitism driving Jews out of France without mentioning the words “Islam” or “Muslims.” You read that piece, and you get the idea that this is all about the revival of right-wing Catholic Jew hatred, à la the Dreyfus era.

Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about anti-Semitism and France in The Atlantic in 2015. Excerpts:

The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the son of Holocaust survivors, is an accomplished, even gifted, pessimist. To his disciples, he is a Jewish Zola, accusing France’s bien-pensant intellectual class of complicity in its own suicide. To his foes, he is a reactionary whose nostalgia for a fairy-tale French past is induced by an irrational fear of Muslims. Finkielkraut’s cast of mind is generally dark, but when we met in Paris in early January, two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, he was positively grim.

“My French identity is reinforced by the very large number of people who openly declare, often now with violence, their hostility to French values and culture,” he said. “I live in a strange place. There is so much guilt and so much worry.” We were seated at a table in his apartment, near the Luxembourg Gardens. I had come to discuss with him the precarious future of French Jewry, but, as the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers seemed to be reaching its conclusion, we had become fixated on the television.

Finkielkraut sees himself as an alienated man of the left. He says he loathes both radical Islamism and its most ferocious French critic, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme right-wing—and once openly anti-Semitic—National Front party. But he has lately come to find radical Islamism to be a more immediate, even existential, threat to France than the National Front. “I don’t trust Le Pen. I think there is real violence in her,” he told me. “But she is so successful because there actually is a problem of Islam in France, and until now she has been the only one to dare say it.”

Suddenly, there was news: a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, in eastern Paris, had come under attack. “Of course,” Finkielkraut said. “The Jews.” Even before anti-Semitic riots broke out in France last summer, Finkielkraut had become preoccupied with the well-being of France’s Jews.

We knew nothing about this new attack—except that we already knew everything. “People don’t defend the Jews as we expected to be defended,” he said. “It would be easier for the left to defend the Jews if the attackers were white and rightists.”

I asked him a very old Jewish question: Do you have a bag packed?

“We should not leave,” he said, “but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice.”

European anti-Semitism is an old, foul story, one deeply tied into Christian Jew hatred. But notice this:

But what makes this new era of anti-Semitic violence in Europe different from previous ones is that traditional Western patterns of anti-Semitic thought have now merged with a potent strain of Muslim Judeophobia. Violence against Jews in Western Europe today, according to those who track it, appears to come mainly from Muslims, who in France, the epicenter of Europe’s Jewish crisis, outnumber Jews 10 to 1. [Emphasis mine — RD]

That the chief propagators of contemporary European anti-Semitism may be found in the Continent’s large and disenfranchised Muslim immigrant communities—communities that are themselves harassed and assaulted by hooligans associated with Europe’s surging right—is flummoxing to, among others, Europe’s elites.

Read the whole thing. 

Of course the fact that most anti-Semitic violence in France comes from Muslims may allow many right-of-center French to ignore the presence of anti-Semitism on the Right. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s impossible to talk meaningfully about the resurgence of Jew hatred in Europe without talking about the Islamic presence there. This is such an obvious fact that you wonder how hard André Alexander Aciman had to squint to avoid seeing it.

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Racial Protest And ‘Collective Narcissism’

But does black protest? Shelby Steele says its day has passed (Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

The black scholar Shelby Steele dropped a bomb on the pages of the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Whether you agree with him or not, it took a lot of courage to write the piece, which is, unfortunately, behind a paywall. I’ll quote from it for you, though, and summarize.

In it, Steele reflects that black protest has lost its power to change minds in our culture. Steele says the self-defeating nature of the NFL kneeling protests — they have not only failed to change minds, but have ended up hurting the league. He says that unlike Martin Luther King and the civil rights protesters, these wealthy players took no serious risks. Nevertheless, because black protest has in the recent past been so incredibly effective, it makes sense that they would follow this model:

It is not surprising, then, that these black football players would don the mantle of protest. The surprise was that it didn’t work. They had misread the historical moment. They were not speaking truth to power. Rather, they were figures of pathos, mindlessly loyal to a black identity that had run its course.

What they missed is a simple truth that is both obvious and unutterable: The oppression of black people is over with. This is politically incorrect news, but it is true nonetheless. We blacks are, today, a free people. It is as if freedom sneaked up and caught us by surprise.

Of course this doe not mean there is no racism left in American life. Racism is endemic to the human condition, just as stupidity is. We will always have to be on guard against it. But now it is recognized as a scourge, as the crowning immorality of our age and our history.

Protest always tries to make a point. But what happens when that point has already been made — when, in this case, racism has become anathema and freedom has expanded?

Steele goes on to say that black Americans, victims of four centuries of grinding oppression, weren’t ready for freedom.

[F]reedom put blacks at the risk of being judged inferior, the very libel that had always been used against us.

To hear, for example, that more than 4,000 people were shot in Chicago in 2016 embarrasses us because this level of largely black-on-black crime cannot be blamed simply on white racism.

Steele makes the interesting and important point that freedom “is a condition, not an agent of change.” It doesn’t mean things get better for you automatically. It only means that one has the liberty to change one’s life. And with freedom comes responsibility.

That’s why, in the face of freedom’s unsparing judgmentalism, we reflexively claim that freedom is a lie. We conjure elaborate narratives that give white racism new life in the present: “systemic” and “structural” racism, racist “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” and so on. All these narratives insist that blacks are still victims of racism, and that freedom’s accountability is an injustice.

We end up giving victimization the charisma of black authenticity. Suffering, poverty and underdevelopment are the things that make you “truly black.” Success and achievement throw your authenticity into question.

The NFL protests were not really about injustice. Instead such protests are usually genuflections to today’s victim-focused black identity. Protest is the action arm of this identity. it is not seeking a new and better world; it merely wants documentation that the old racist world still exists. It wants an excuse.

He goes on to say:

Watching the antics of Black Lives Matter is like watching people literally aspiring to black victimization, longing for it as for a consummation.

Steele finishes by saying that the failure of the kneeling NFL protests has likely burst the bubble of black protest, revealing that the “victim-focused approach to racial inequality” no longer works.

I wish I could tell you to read the whole thing, but as I said, it’s behind a paywall. Still, it’s a very powerful essay.

I think Steele is probably right about the impotence of black protest in American life. If the point of it is to change white minds, then I have to ask: which whites, other than liberal whites who already agree with them, are they effectively challenging? I mean, whose minds are being changed (other than Max Boot’s)?

Let me localize this. In my city, 2017 was the most deadly ever recorded in terms of homicides. Baton Rouge had a proportionally higher number of murders than Chicago did last year. The local newspaper created a map of where each one occurred. The story, curiously, does not report the race of the victims, but the murders are heavily concentrated in the poor black part of the city. The story does quote a criminologist theorizing that many of the murders were part of the drug trade.

I bring this up because a lot of white people in this city read stories like that, and do not think, “It’s racism’s fault.” When the Alton Sterling shooting happened in that part of town in 2016, sparking protests, a lot of white folks in the city, whatever they thought of the Sterling shooting per se, wondered aloud (I know this; I heard them) why that particular killing was the one that spurred public protest from the black community, and not the scores of other killings that tore up the social fabric of black Baton Rouge. A white friend who works for the city in a poor black neighborhood told me that he has seen police brutality (including black cops mistreating black suspects), but that it is impossible to separate out police brutality from the endemic culture of violence there, which comes out of multigenerational poverty, drugs, boys raised without fathers, and other factors. He wasn’t making excuses for the cops — in our conversation, he condemned the brutal ones — only saying that the situation is very complex and tangled.

Still, I know that the response of more than a few white Baton Rougeans to the Sterling protests were along the lines of, “Y’all are straining at gnats but swallowing camels.” Meaning that you are focusing on one real but relatively small problem — police brutality — while ignoring much larger ones bedeviling local black society.

I bring all that up as an illustration of Steele’s thesis. If the point of these protests is to garner sympathy from whites and lead to real action to change things for blacks, they’re mostly pointless — and not, I believe, because all whites are cold racists who don’t care about what happens to blacks.

Steele’s piece brought to mind this one, sent in by a reader, about the political volatility of collective narcissism.  The author is Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, a social scientist. Here is the core of her thesis:

Research from my PrejudiceLab at Goldsmiths, University of London shows that people who score high on the collective narcissism scale are particularly sensitive to even the smallest offences to their group’s image. As opposed to individuals with narcissistic personality, who maintain inflated views of themselves, collective narcissists exaggerate offences to their group’s image, and respond to them aggressively. Collective narcissists believe that their group’s importance and worth are not sufficiently recognised by others. They feel that their group merits special treatment, and insist that it gets the recognition and respect it deserves. In other words, collective narcissism amounts to a belief in the exaggerated greatness of one’s group, and demands external validation.

Collective narcissists are not simply content to be members of a valuable group. They don’t devote their energy to contributing to the group’s betterment and value. Rather, they engage in monitoring whether everybody around, particularly other groups, recognise and acknowledge the great value and special worth of their group. To be sure, collective narcissists demand privileged treatment, not equal rights. And the need for continuous external validation of the group’s inflated image (a negative attribute) is what differentiates collective narcissists from those who simply hold positive feelings about their group.


In Turkey, collective narcissists enjoyed Europe’s economic crisis because they felt offended by their country being denied membership of the EU. In Portugal, collective narcissists rejoiced in the German economic crisis because they felt their country was slighted by Germany’s position in the EU. Stretching the definition of intergroup offence even further, collective narcissists in Poland targeted the makers of the Polish film Aftermath (2012) for telling the story of the Jedwabne massacre of 1941 in which villagers set fire to their Jewish neighbours, and then blamed the Nazis. Even a petty transgression such as the film’s lead actor joking about the country’s populist government (whom Polish collective narcissists support) was met with threats of physical punishment and online abuse.

When their own group is involved, collective narcissists have no sense of humour. They are disproportionately punitive in responding to what they perceive as an insult to their group, even when the insult is debatable, not perceived by others, or not intended by the other group. Unlike individual narcissists, collective narcissists cannot dissociate themselves from an unpopular or criticised group. Once their self-worth is invested in the greatness of their group, collective narcissists are motivated by enhancing their group rather than themselves.


My team researched collective narcissism as a characteristic that pertains to an individual. We believe that there will always be a proportion of people in any given population who meet the criteria. But collective narcissism can also seize an entire group, resulting in seemingly sudden and unprovoked outbursts of intergroup rage or prejudiced reactions towards minority groups. We believe that collective narcissism is most dangerous as a group syndrome – when the belief that the righteous group is not given its due acknowledgement becomes shared by the majority of group members and becomes a dominant narrative about the group’s past and present.

She goes on to say that her research team found that collective narcissism goes a long way to explain Donald Trump’s election.

The problem with this should be obvious: Just because a group — whites, blacks, Muslims, Poles, etc. — feels unfairly treated doesn’t mean they haven’t been. It’s easy to psychologize away valid grievances of People Not Like You. The author says her findings show that collective narcissism drove the Brexit vote too. Well, maybe the Trump voters, like the Brexit voters, feel that the overclass — including academics — have been ruling very much against their interests, and felt that voting for Trump/Brexit was the only way to strike back?

And, it’s only fair to ask the same about black protesters and their critics. What if “collective narcissism” is only a way to dismiss a group’s grievances by psychologizing them away? What if the “collective narcissism” of elites leads them to reach conclusions about the political behavior of outgroups?

That’s a possibility. Certainly there’s no question in my mind that collective narcissism drives most and probably all of the on-campus militant snowflakery. The examples the sociologist cited of outbursts in Turkey, Portugal, and other places might well be instances of collective narcissism. Remember when Muslim mobs torched Danish diplomatic sites in the Middle East to protest the Muhammad cartoon? Collective narcissism.

Let me ask, though: is it possible that both collective narcissism AND legitimate grievance is present in many of these cases?

Take a look at this excerpt from a 2016 interview J.D. Vance did with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross:

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is J.D. Vance, author of the new book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis.” He writes about the social isolation, poverty, drug use, as well as religious and political changes in his family and in Greater Appalachia.

You describe yourself as conservative, and you’ve written for The National Review, a conservative magazine. You’ve become kind of famous for an article or two in which you try to explain why, you know, a lot of poor people would be voting for Trump. And in your writing and in your discussions, you’ve called Trump’s promises the needle in America’s collective vein. You’ve described Trump as the new pain reliever, trying to make comparisons between, you know, narcotisizing (ph) pain and what Trump is trying to do in explaining things away, easy solutions. Do you know a lot of people who are going to be voting for Trump or – yeah.

VANCE: I do. A lot of people in my family are going to be voting for Trump, a lot of my neighbors and friends from back home. So it’s definitely a phenomenon I, I think, recognize and frankly saw coming pretty early. You know, it’s interesting that I don’t think the Trump phenomenon is exclusively about the white poor.

I think that it’s more about the white working-class folks who aren’t necessarily economically destitute but in some ways feel very culturally isolated and very pessimistic about the future. That’s one of the biggest predictors of whether someone will support Donald Trump – it may be the biggest predictor – is the belief that America is headed in the wrong direction, the belief that your kids are not going to have a better life than you did.

And that cynicism really breeds frustration at political elites, but, frankly, that frustration needs to find a better outlet than Donald Trump. And that’s why I’ve made some of the analogies that I have because I don’t think that he’s going to make the problem better. I think, like you said, he is in some ways a pain reliever. He’s someone who makes people feel a little bit better about their problems. But whether he’s elected president or not, those problems are still going to be there, and we’ve got to recognize that.

GROSS: So when you’re having a discussion about the presidential race with someone in your family, someone who’s going to be voting for Trump, what is that conversation like?

VANCE: It typically starts with me making a point that I just made, which is, look, maybe Trump is recognizing some legitimate problems. He’s talking about the opioid epidemic in a way that nobody else is. But he’s not going to fix the problem. You know, better trade deals is not going to make all of these problems just go away.

And typically my family actually recognizes that. That’s what I find so interesting. They don’t think that this guy is going to solve all their problems. They just think he’s at least trying and he’s saying things, primarily to the elites, that they wish they could say themselves. So it’s really interesting. There’s a recognition that Trump isn’t going to solve a lot of these problems, but he’s, at the end of the day, the only person really trying to tap into this frustration.

And it’s, you know, I – so my dad is a Trump supporter, and I love my dad, and I always say, Dad, you know, Trump is not going to actually make any of these problems better. And he says, well, that’s probably true, but at least he’s talking about them and nobody else is and at least he’s not Mitt Romney. At least he’s not George W. Bush. He’s at least trying to talk about these problems.

And I think it’s amazing how low the bar has been set by the political conversation we’ve had for the past 20 or 30 years that this guy, who many people don’t think is going to solve the problems, is still getting a lot of support from people who are blue-collar white folks.

Now, you tell me: is it the case that white poor and working-class people voted for Donald Trump because

a) they were trying to send a collective message to elites who have ignored their problems; or

b) they were trying to offload onto elites their own failure to be responsible for their own lives; or

c) both?

Explain your answer. Understand that whatever your answer is probably applies to the social psychology of black protests too. Though voting for a presidential candidate is a much different form of protest than kneeling at a pro football game, in these instances they will have the same real-world effect on the problems at hand: none. 

It is interesting to consider how Trump and the black football players feed off each other, and collective racial resentments — or, if you prefer, collective racial narcissisms. This, when the reaction from the other side appears wildly disproportionate to the offense.

But I’ve gone on too long.

What do you think?


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Why Don’t People Want To Know?

I want to put this Alan Jacobs comment in a separate place from my thread about Christian higher education — the one I started earlier Monday, “The Big Freeze” — even though it rightly goes as an update. That post has been there since this morning, and I’m afraid if I updated it, most people wouldn’t read what Alan has to say about the same topic.

He has very strong words for Christians. Note well that Alan is a professor at Baylor University, an Anglican Evangelical, and not any kind of conventional conservative. He’s simply telling the truth here. Alan says the real crisis is going to come when Christian colleges and universities knuckle under to the left’s view of sexual desire and gender identity, or lose their accreditation. Excerpt:

The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought”. But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world. And this the secular left cannot and will not tolerate, if it can help it, because it rightly understands that Christianity stands opposed to the secular left’s own gospel, which, popular opinion notwithstanding, is not essentially about sex but rather may be summed up as: “I am my own.”

All this to say that while I agree with Trueman that Christian institutions need to plan for a dark financial future, I also believe that the Christian community as a whole needs to plan for a future in which most or all of its educational institutions have been forced either to close or to accommodate themselves to Gnostic disembodiment. What does Christian formation — paideia and catechesis — look like in a world in which many of the institutions that have long supported that formation have been shut down or substantively eviscerated? In relation to these issues, that is the question that Christian need to be asking. Because, I am convinced, that moment is coming: maybe not in the next decade, maybe not even in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetimes of many reading this blog post.

Read the whole thing.  “I am my own” — yes, that’s it. That’s at the core of this whole thing. Sex and sexuality is the most contentious way it manifests itself today, but that’s the core of it. A Christianity that surrenders to this is not going to be long for this world, nor deserves to be, because it will have betrayed a core truth of Biblical anthropology.

What’s important for conservative Christians to grasp here is that it’s not really about sexuality. You surrender on this, and there will be something else, because the orthodox Christian faith stands in defiant contradiction to this false gospel that proclaims the Unholy Trinity: Me, Myself, and I. The Christianities — some of them right-of-center — that accept that have already surrendered, even if they are, for today, on the orthodox side of the sex and sexuality question. They can’t hold out because they have accepted the logic of postreligious modernity — a logic as old as humanity itself: “We shall be as gods.”

In the past couple of days, I’ve heard from two young pastors — one Protestant, the other Catholic — who report that their congregations don’t recognize what’s happening in our culture, and don’t want to see it. They are content to believe that things will always be this way. One of the men serves a somewhat liberal congregation, and the other a conservative one — but the response is the same. I’ve met both pastors before, and these are solid guys. And I’ve heard this over and over from other pastors, all over the country: people don’t want to know. 

Note well: this is not saying that people are wrong for disagreeing with my diagnosis in The Benedict Option.  It’s saying that they are wrong for not giving it, or diagnoses like it (like Alan Jacobs’s), serious consideration.

I know, this is human nature. People in all times and places want to believe everything is basically going to be okay if we just sit here and keep on doing what we’re doing. I know I do. As alarmed as I am about cultural degeneration, just ask me if, at age 50, I am eating more sensibly and, more importantly, exercising. Nope, not happening. It’s not that I don’t believe that these things are necessary, or that somehow I’m so special that I’m immune to heart disease and other things that tend to afflict people as they age. It’s that I can’t bring myself to make an urgent connection between what I believe to be true and the way I live.

Why? Because it’s too hard. I will not deny that I should eat differently and exercise, because if I don’t do these things I am more likely to get very sick, and possibly even die. Does the smoker really believe that he’s not more likely to get lung cancer if he keeps smoking? Of course not. He knows the truth. He just likes what he’s doing, doesn’t want to change (because change is hard), and hopes that maybe he’ll be the lucky one.

I’m the same way about diet and exercise.

But the body is far less important than the soul. And for Christians, that’s what we’re talking about here.

If we lose orthodox Christian colleges and universities, we’ll survive. They aren’t the same thing as the church. But they are institutions of formation, and it will become just a bit harder to nurture the next generation in the faith. And the same cultural changes that took away those institutions will make it harder for people who believe in what those institutions believed, and upheld in policy, will find themselves pushed a bit further out of the public square, and into the closet.

And then the next thing will come. Then the thing after that. There will be no peace.

It seems to me that this is a thing worth taking seriously. A friend of mine is an intelligent man, and knew well about diet and exercise advice, but didn’t take it seriously. Then he nearly died from a heart attack. But he did not die. When he got out of the hospital, he changed his life.

What is it going to take for us conservative Christians to realize that we can’t keep living like this? Is it going to take watching our college and universities either capitulate or be forced to close? Because Alan Jacobs is right: it is coming.

What will we do then? How will we explain to ourselves why we wasted this time in which we could have been making alternative plans, and getting ready for the time of trial ahead?

I am aware of at least one group of Christian academics that is doing exactly this. They’re working quietly now — they are very wise to do this! — but they’re working. One day, I hope they give me permission to write about them.

I’ll close on this, bringing up again something I have mentioned here before. When I was in France last fall giving talks about The Benedict Option, I noticed two kinds of French Christians. The older ones behaved as if Christians still had a role to play in mainstream French society, in influencing the Establishment. This affected the way they spoke about the faith. The younger ones — Millennials — that I met seemed completely unhindered by the belief that mainstream French society cared what Christians had to say about anything. As such, they seemed unusually joyful and confident in their faith, as if they were liberated from the restraint of having to be “respectable”. They just wanted to be faithful. Not powerful, not influential, but faithful.

Some of them are very much engaged in the public square, making arguments for the faith, and working in other ways. There is something special, though, about them not caring about playing the establishment game. It gives their words and actions power. They are not trimming their sails.

If one day France ever returns to faith, it will be because of men and women like that. I want to be like them. But none of us are going to be like them as long as we prefer not to see what’s happening right in front of our faces.

Readers, I’d like to ask you to try to keep your comments on the general topic of why people don’t want to know bad things.

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