First, the big news from Louisiana tonight: the LSU Tigers had their heads handed to them by Ole Miss. It’s the Tigers’ third SEC loss, and their third loss in a row. The last time that happened, Bill Clinton was in the White House. The Tigers’ astonishing collapse has people talking about Coach Les Miles losing his job after this season. Gloom, despair, and agony on us!
In other news, Democrat John Bel Edwards soundly beat Republican David Vitter to win the governor’s race. Edwards is a Democratic state legislator; Vitter, a Republican, is a sitting U.S. Senator. Louisiana is a very Republican state. If you had said even a few months ago that this is how the governor’s race was going to turn out, nobody would have believed you.
Vitter had a commanding lead in fundraising, and was the heavy favorite going into the campaign season. He was assumed to have put down with his 2010 re-election any political problems with his character (the prostitution scandal). Yes, outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal is hugely unpopular in the state, but Vitter and Jindal have long been enemies, allegedly because of Jindal’s refusal to stand up for Vitter when news broke of his involvement with hookers. It didn’t seem that Jindal would be a drag on Vitter; on the other hand, President Obama’s deep unpopularity in the state was expected to hurt Edwards.
Things didn’t turn out that way.
The runoff turned into a referendum on Vitter’s character, which turned out to be a big issue after all. Had either of the two other Republicans in the October open primary — Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle — made it into tonight’s runoff, Louisiana would likely have elected another Republican governor tonight. Vitter demolished Dardenne and Angelle with punishing, ugly ads in the first go-round; their combined vote was greater than Vitter’s, but the system rewards the top two vote-getters. Nevertheless, Vitter caused so much bitterness in his GOP rivals that Dardenne endorsed Edwards, and Angelle endorsed no one (read: refused to endorse Vitter). This was a clear sign that there would be a strong anti-Vitter vote among Republicans in the runoff.
Plus, my guess is that after eight years of Jindal, and with the state in such bad fiscal shape, people were open to change — even if that meant voting Democratic. It so happened that John Bel Edwards is probably the only Democrat who could have won a statewide race in Louisiana. He has a solid reputation; a friend of mine here in West Feliciana told me that our state representative, a Republican, called Edwards “the most honorable man in the legislature.”
But he also hit very hard, and arguably below the belt, shortly into the runoff period, with an attack ad so devastating that Vitter never recovered from it:
The surprising thing about this ad was that yep, Edwards went there — and didn’t sit around waiting for Vitter to release his own hounds first.
And there’s this (from the WaPo):
From the start of his run, Edwards knew any chance of victory hinged on distinguishing himself from the prevailing image of Democrats among voters. In meetings with small groups in rural parishes, he touted his opposition to abortion and strong support for gun ownership. He had fellow members of West Point class speak about his character and values.
“We knew he had the best story to tell of anyone in the race,” said Eric LaFleur, a Democratic state senator from Ville Platte and an early Edwards supporter. “The only question was, would anyone be able to hear it or would it get drowned out?”
Karen Carter Petersen, chairman of the state Democratic Party, called Edwards an “amazing candidate” who connected with voters through his personal integrity. “He’s lived his values,” Petersen said, adding that the party’s decision to coalesce around Edwards as a candidate in March helped clear the way for his strong run. “We’ve worked to rebuild and rebrand the party from the bottom up,” she said, “and focus on those policies where we can all agree.”
In many ways, Edwards is a throwback to a previous generation of Southern Democrats, many of whom served in the military and touted traditional values. Through the efforts of the Democratic Leadership Council, many of them — including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Chuck Robb and Sam Nunn — went on to national success.
He’s the kind of Democrat many conservatives feel comfortable voting for. On my way to cast my vote this afternoon, I ran into a very, very conservative friend — a rural, older white man — and expected him to tell me that I needed to vote Vitter. Instead, he said he was going to vote Edwards. For him, it was all about Vitter’s character. He said something Trumpy about how all politicians are no damn good, but he couldn’t stand looking at that Vitter, who struck him as shifty and untrustworthy. It mattered a lot to this voter that Edwards had served with distinction in the military, and that Edwards was pro-gun. I bet my friend can’t remember the last Democrat he voted for. It was only a single conversation, but that kind of sentiment coming from that particular man told me that Edwards was going to win this thing.
Now, are there any broader lessons for national Democrats to learn from this surprise victory? I wish there were, but I’m doubtful on that front.
For one, the stars aligned just right for the Democratic candidate this year. You couldn’t have had a better one for a conservative Southern state than Edwards. And he was blessed to have as his opponent a deeply compromised Republican. True, Louisianians are accustomed to voting for politicians with moral baggage, but unlike the other Edwards (Edwin W., no relation to the incoming governor), Vitter is not a charismatic man. He easily run re-election in 2010 because his Democratic opponent wasn’t very attractive either. Edwards was a different kind of Democrat — and Jindal’s popularity hadn’t nosedived, leaving people ready for a change. An added factor helping Edwards: the state legislature is in Republican hands, which will restrain his freedom of action. This is another thing that made it safer for Republicans to vote for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Anyway, I hope that Edwards’ victory tonight gives national Democrats something to think about, but at this point, it looks more like a fluke than the start of a new trend. Remember, if either of the other two Republicans in the primary election had been on the ballot in tonight’s runoff, the GOP would probably still have held the governor’s office here. But who knows what’s coming from Edwards? A friend with lots of experience with Louisiana politics told me this week that Edwards is a pragmatist who knows how to get things done, and how to work with people, while Vitter is an arrogant man who makes enemies easily. “What they say about him being ‘Jindal on steroids’ is true,” said my friend. If Edwards can get the legislature behind him and pull the state out of its dismal fiscal situation, he could have a real future beyond Louisiana.
By the way, Vitter announced tonight that he was not going to run for re-election after his Senate term expires next year. I don’t think there’s another Democrat at the state level who could make a credible run at that office. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has been leading a campaign to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle in his city as part of a de-Confederatization campaign, would get pummeled statewide. Chances are next year’s Senate race will follow the pattern of the governor’s race: a lone Democrat will make it to the runoff, followed by the top Republican vote-getter (my guess is it will be either Dardenne or Angelle), who will then go on to beat the Democrat handily.
Then again, until a few weeks ago, nobody in their right mind thought we’d have another Governor Edwards of Louisiana. Or that the LSU Tigers would fall to pieces so dramatically.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll reveals a powerful feeling running deep in the culture of America at the moment, one it pejoratively describes as “nativism.” More on this judgment later, but first, the details:
Simply put, Trump’s candidacy taps into a deep, visceral fear among many that America’s best days are behind it. That the land of freedom, baseball and apple pie is no longer recognizable ; and that ‘the other’—sometimes the immigrant, sometimes the Non-American , and almost always the nonwhite—is to blame for these circumstances. This pure unabashed nativism is Trump’s brand of populism and is fit for purpose in 2015. It both gives him electoral strength and popular appeal.
To understand this, we conducted a recent poll on nativist sentiments and the 2016 election. The results are striking.
Strong nativist tendencies in America . More than half (58%) of Americans don’t identify with what America has become. Almost as many (53%) feel like a “stranger in their own country”. This sense of loss is particularly pronounced when we look at party identification: while 45% of Democrats don’t identify with what America has become, a whopping 72% of Republicans don’t. Trump’s populism speaks to this real and emotional sense of economic and cultural displacement.
A significant plurality of the electorate holds nativist attitudes. To get at this, we combine three attitudinal statements in a summated index[i]: “I don’t identify with what America has become,” “I feel like a stranger in my own country,” and “America is [NOT] a place I can feel comfortable as myself”. What do we find? Specifically, 18% agree with all three of these statements and 28% agree with two out of the three. Taken together, 46% of the American public holds some degree of nativist sentiment—not a majority but a significant plurality (see below).
Nativism is (much) stronger in the Republican Party. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Trump has found a willing audience among Republicans. Indeed, fully 64% of Republicans are moderately or strongly nativist, including over a quarter (26%) who agree with all three of the nativist statements (compared to only 31% moderately or strongly nativist among Democrats). Such trends clearly show Trump’s appeal among the Republican base.
So what are the implications? What does this all mean?
In our opinion, Trump’s rise in the polls can only be understood in context of the profound economic and cultural change in America. And his strength, like that of the tea party, is emblematic of deeper felt concerns within the Republican party. On the one hand, many people are scared about their economic future and that of their children as the rate of economic displacement increases with the globalization of cheap labor and technological innovation. The America Dream for many is a distant, foreign concept (See here or here). On the other hand, many people no longer recognize the America of their grandparents—an increasingly nonwhite and correspondingly more liberal country (see here or here). This is scary for many Americans. These concomitant trends are driving an increased sense of economic and cultural displacement among a large chunk of voters—making them prime hunting ground for populists of Trump’s ilk (like Carson).
Read the whole thing — it’s important.
Now, before I discuss the details, I want to register an objection to the use of the word “nativism” here. It is always a negative word in American political use. The word is defined as:
1. the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.
2. a return to or emphasis on traditional or local customs, in opposition to outside influences.
What I object to is not the fact that the word denotes a real cultural and political phenomenon, but rather the presumption that it is always a negative thing. The way we use the word in common political discourse assumes the goodness of liberal, cosmopolitan ideal of progress. Whatever is foreign to our established ways is good; whatever defends tradition is bad. The point I wish to make here is not that tradition and the status quo is always good — it is not always good — but that so-called “nativism” is invariably seen by cultural liberals (whose number includes many pro-business Republicans) as a negative phenomenon.
Well, as a Christian with fairly cosmopolitan tastes who strongly opposes Trump and what he stands for, I deeply do not believe that what goes by the label “nativism” is always a bad thing (versus being sometimes or often a bad thing; it all depends on the context). And I would invite cultural liberals (again, including many Republicans) to consider how construing the beliefs of those cultural conservatives (whose number includes huge numbers of Democrats, according to the poll) as “nativist” prevents them — liberals, I mean — from considering the possible validity of their position.
Can anybody really doubt that America has changed greatly and with astonishing rapidity over the last decade or two? It’s not just cultural, but economic. The globalist ideology of our elites, both Republican and Democratic, has made huge numbers of Americans more vulnerable economically. The America that gave people a sense that education, hard work, and perseverance would in most cases open a pathway to middle-class stability is going away; this is not an illusion. I have three kids who will enter the workforce over the next 15 years, and I have little confidence that there will be a secure path for them to building stable careers and families.
On the immigration front, I don’t feel this anxiety, because I don’t live in a part of the country that has been overwhelmed by immigrants. But this is not the experience of tens of millions of American natives, and it is arrogant to tell them that their concern, and even their anger, over what they are losing and have lost is nothing but bigotry. What bothers me about the immigration situation is a sense that the US cannot control its borders, and more, that elites in both parties and their money men (in the GOP, the business lobby) don’t think this is an important issue.
From the religious and cultural conservative viewpoint, the displacement and alienation is radical. You’d have to be a fool not to see it and take it seriously, even if you approve of the changes. We all know how swift and overwhelming the changes on LGBT issues has been. A friend of mine who is a strong secular liberal, and who welcomes these changes, told me that she has never lived through any change so total and swift — not even the Civil Rights movement, in which her family was active. It’s obviously true, and again, you would have to be a fool to imagine that millions of Americans would find themselves wondering what happened to their country.
The President of the United States recently came out in support of legislation that would effectively put Christian churches that hold to a belief about homosexuality that was commonly held the day before yesterday as on a moral level with racists. The US Supreme Court found in the Constitution a right to same-sex marriage. The federal government is going after public schools that do not allow teenage boys who think they are girls to use the girls’ locker room without restriction. Increasingly, there is no tolerance, only bitter condemnation, in the public square for anyone who refuses to accept the complete LGBT line — which is always shifting, and always to the left.
Caitlyn Jenner is a condensed symbol for what America has become: an all-American Olympic champion who, late in his life, decided that he is really a woman, and is celebrated by our news and entertainment media as a reborn American hero for our time. What do I mean by “condensed symbol”? Please read this past post by the commenter Raskolnik, who explains the term and how it applies here. Excerpt:
So: the thing to understand here is that the vast majority of Christians are not “freaked out about homosexuality above and beyond” every other sin, sexual or otherwise. I understand that from your perspective it may appear to be so, but please understand that this is simply a false impression driven by the media and various political interests. Most of the Christians I know, for example (myself included), are far more concerned about the extreme prevalence of pornography than they are about homosexuality. However, pornographers and pornography consumers are not a politically powerful lobby, and as yet there is no one who identifies as “pornosexual,” thus there is no narrative of the oppression of the poor pornosexuals to tap into Selma envy.
Back in the 60’s, the sociologist Mary Douglas came up with the idea of a “condensed symbol.” The idea is that certain practices or ideas can become a kind of shorthand for a whole worldview. She used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.
I bring up the notion of “condensed symbol” because I think that’s the best way to understand what’s going in (what you perceive to be) the “freakout” about homosexuality. The freakout isn’t about homosexuality per se, it’s about the secular world shoving its idea of sexual morality down the throats of orthodox Christians. If you haven’t read Rod’s piece Sex After Christianity, you really should, and if you haven’t, I think you should be able to connect the dots between the Christian cosmology of sex and the Christian opposition to same-sex marriage as a “condensed symbol” of Christian resistance to secularism writ large.
Because the fact of the matter is that, for a variety of reasons, some easily understandable from a non-religious perspective, some of them perhaps less so, participating in a same-sex marriage has become the 21st century equivalent of making offerings to Sol Invictus. A Roman might just have easily asked, “What’s the big problem? Why not just make the offerings? Don’t they want to be a part of Roman society?” A more intelligent Roman might even have asked, “They don’t even believe in the divinity of the Emperor anyway. Why can’t they just burn the incense, which they literally believe has no effect on anything whatsoever?” Hopefully you can see the connection here; Christian opposition to the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, like Christian opposition to same-sex marriage, is about a whole lot more than burning some incense or baking a cake.
This is true, and important. Note well that LGBT folks are also and at the same time a condensed symbol of cultural progressivism. In that “Sex After Christianity” essay, I cited a 1993 cover story in the left-wing magazine The Nation to this effect. The Nation’s essayist wrote.
All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.
That was a prophetic essay. As we now know, its author was correct. The point to take from this clip is that the change was real, and that LGBTs are, on both sides, a “condensed symbol” of that cultural revolution. If cultural and moral conservatives “don’t identify with what America has become” and feel like “strangers in their own country,” it’s not because they are imagining things; it’s because they are simply paying attention to what has happened, and is happening before their eyes.
A traditionalist Catholic blog draws on anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Natural Symbols, which I’m reading now, to offer a helpful way of framing this situation:
Douglas believes that a society’s structure is reflected in its understandings of the cosmos and the human body. The cosmos and the body are always symbols of society. She credits Durkheim with this idea, but she seems to have the opposite preferences as Durkheim. Douglas classifies societies according to two variables: “group” and “grid”. “Group” means the strength of group bonds, how much loyalty and sacrifice they command. “Grid” means the importance of role differences, things like gender roles, age roles, and status. This point, that social strength is two-dimensional, has certainly helped to clarify my thinking on these matters. A people can have strong group and weak grid, and vice versa. Based on these variables, there are four possibilities:
1) Weak group, weak grid—the state of pygmies, university students, and the urban proletariat. Since bonds are weak, people feel that their lives are controlled by impersonal (natural or bureaucratic) forces. The world seems an amoral arena controlled by chance, and there is little interest in ritual or religion. The case of such a people being embedded in a more structured society is considered below.
2) Strong group, weak grid. Here “us” vs. “them” is the category that eclipses all others. Such peoples tend to have dualistic cosmologies (i.e. to see the cosmos as a battleground between a good and an evil power), and fear of contamination is the most potent bodily symbol. People are particularly interested in rituals that ward off the influence of witches.
3) Weak group, strong grid—the world of individualist capitalism. Here status (often represented by wealth) is king. The universe is seen as generally amoral, but it rewards hard work and cleverness. Ritual magic is used primarily to get ahead. The losers in this system tend to sink into a weak group, weak grid existence.
4) Strong group, strong grid—the world of Catholic Europe. Since people’s lives are controlled primarily by personal forces (i.e. authorities), the world is seen to be infused with morality—a good God or gods reward good, while demons and witches (if they exist) punish evil. The body (representing society) is regarded positively as a mediator of spiritual values, so religion is strongly sacramental or “magical”. Dogmas like the Incarnation and Transubstantiation also affirm the body’s role as mediator of God, and therefore symbolize society’s benevolent mediating role.
A particularly interesting case is what happens to the mass of losers in a weak group, strong grid society who fall into an undifferentiated (weak grid) existence. These tend to be subject to millenarian fantasies. The body (larger society) is contrasted with the spirit (the un-integrated minority), with the former despised and the latter extolled. Douglas suggests that the best thing to do for these unfortunate souls would be to organize them so that they can have the spiritual benefits of a strong grid and so they can take effective collective action. Instead, she points out that their leaders prefer to engage in mass marches and protests, to despise forms and hierarchies, and to harbor ridiculous fantasies of creating a utopia just by overthrowing the existing order. What is going on here is that the alienated members of society are trapped in the bodily symbols of their alienation. Rather than reintegrating “body” and “spirit”, they imagine that the latter can overthrow the former.
I contend that we are rapidly moving from a “weak group, strong grid” society to a “weak group, weak grid” one — and that the forces of liberalism (capitalism, individualism, sexual autonomy, etc.) are accelerating the disintegration of both group and grid. Liberalism cannot defend itself and its institutions against strong attack either from the outside — radical Islam — or from the inside, in the form of the racial essentialists’ assault on universities, the breakdown of the family, the ongoing collapse of religion, and so on. This is not a state of matters that can last forever. Something’s got to give.
I think Trumpism is more or less the response of those who live in a “weak group, strong grid” society, and I think it is a mistake (to say nothing of the fact that the “strong grid” is, in my view, in the process of breaking down). I do not worry about Donald Trump taking power. I worry about the intelligent and capable demagogue who speaks to the fears and concerns — both legitimate and illegitimate — of those who now look to Trump. That man is on the horizon, though he is not inevitable. Increasingly, however, the forces of liberalism — by which I mean not “the Democratic Party and its fellow travelers,” but the American establishment — are ineffective at stopping him. Most of them see the cultivation of habits and policies that undermine the possibility of a liberal society as victories for freedom and justice, and unsurprisingly, few if any of them have any plausible solution to offer. I consider the Christian religious leadership to be among those who are failing. They do not grasp the radicalism of the present moment, and so are content to occupy themselves with fighting the wars they know how to fight, whether on the religious left or the religious right, and not the war that is actually in front of us.
So: so-called nativists are not wrong to feel like aliens in their own country. Where they may be wrong is in their solution to the problem. Trump and what he stands for is a dangerous dead end. Thing is, Hillary Clinton only makes matters worse, and whoever the GOP nominee is will, at best, slow the trajectory. We are caught up by forces much, much deeper than the ability of any politician to control or direct.
Where is the Benedict Option in all this? From a Douglasian point of view, the Benedict Option is an attempt to instantiate a “strong group, strong grid” way of life among small-o orthodox Christians, in a time of widespread cultural dissolution. The first and primary goal is to give Christians what they (we) need to worship and serve God faithfully in emerging circumstances, according to the great tradition. The second goal is to provide sources of resistance and re-spiritualization, both for the sake of reintegrating body and spirit (in Douglas’s sense), and to provide a cohesive group capable of taking collective action to defend itself and its members.
The leadership we need will not likely come from establishment leaders, religious, political, or otherwise. We are going to have to do this ourselves, aligned with whichever men and women of good faith and humanity emerge from among us, and within those decaying and enfeebled institutions. If we really are living in Weimar America, then the Benedict Option is a plan to help Christians keep our heads and our hearts amid contending extremisms and the trials that may yet come as our civilization endures this transition from Christianity to whatever is coming next.
UPDATE: I would like to add, for the sake of clarification, that I conceive the Benedict Option as, in part, an antidote to a politics of scapegoating and violence. If it succumbs to that, then it will have failed to be truly Christian, and will deserve to fail entirely.
UPDATE.2: A (female) reader e-mails:
Although I’m not a Republican, I agree with all 3 of the statements in the survey. And to make matters worse, I’m a Roman Catholic. Not only did They take my country, They took my church. And nobody I know seems to care or even have noticed. It’s like a train is barreling down the tracks, brilliant white light, horn blasting. The engineers are an Islamist, a feminist, and an oligarch. I leave the track and everyone I know continues to sit on it, concentrating on football (I’m in Ohio) and the Kardashians and credit reports and TV shows and what’s on sale where, and it’s not possible to yell “Look! A train!” because they have blindfolded themselves and stuffed their ears with cotton, and even if I could get their attention it would do no good because they have all firmly tied themselves to the track, and as the train bears down they all wave little flags that say “America!” and “Transgender!” and “At least I know I’m free!”
It’s horrible. And I can talk to no one about it except some guy on a blog.
I’ve said in this space a number of times that I think Europe is berserk for taking in so many refugees from the Middle East, and for two reasons: 1) they can’t do adequate screening to keep out jihadists, and more importantly, 2) there is no reason to think that they will be able to assimilate such a large number of Middle Eastern Muslims in such a short time; they are therefore creating conditions for homegrown terrorism in the future.
Despite Donald Trump’s berserk and malicious rhetoric, the U.S. is in a much different place. Do I think we have a right and a responsibility to question refugees from Syria who come here? Yes, I do. But we need to be reasonable about the answers. The Southern Baptist pastor Alan Cross, who works with refugees, explains why. He’s responding to the governor of his home state, Alabama. Excerpt:
First of all, the refugees that come to the United States through the Refugee Resettlement Program for are fleeing truly horrible conditions around the world. They have already been vetted by multiple U.S. agencies in refugee camps overseas in a variety of ways before they ever enter the United States. No visitor to the United States is more scrutinized than a refugee from a conflict zone. This process can take anywhere from over 6 months to a couple of years. If a terrorist wanted to enter the United States, going through the refugee resettlement process is absolutely the hardest way to do it. If we cannot trust the process by which the United States Government vets refugees fleeing violence and persecution, then we cannot trust any form of our border security or immigration or visa processes. Governor Bentley might as well say that he will not allow any foreign students, workers, or tourists to come in to Alabama from anywhere. Apparently, a good number of the Paris attackers were French and Belgian nationals. Will Governor Bentley next ban Muslim French nationals or Muslims coming from Belgium? Where does it end?
The US has had a much, much better record of assimilating Muslim immigrants than Europe has. We can afford to be far more generous in accepting refugees, without compromising our national security. We are only taking in 10,000 more than we normally do. More Cross:
The greatest danger to the people of Alabama is not a potential terrorist attack. The greatest danger, at this point, is the subverting of our faith in Christ and love for others to a mad rush of fear and blaming of victims who are actually running away from the same evil that we seek to protect ourselves from. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, not send him away with a door shut in his face. Right now, the Syrian refugees fleeing violence are our neighbors. The better way of Jesus calls us to open our arms to those who are legitimately in need while also driving a spike through the wheel of injustice and violence that would seek to do more harm to the innocent. Governor Bentley misses that point and lumps the innocent victims running away from violence and death in with their oppressors who are chasing them. Alabama should be better than this. We have thousands and thousands of churches and millions of self-professed Christians. Shutting the door to all Syrian refugees fleeing violence is not a Christian act. I pray that Governor Bentley relents and points to the better way of Jesus as he has tried to do on other issues.
Yes, Border Patrol agents just captured eight Syrians trying to cross the border into the US from Mexico. Good! We ought to be capturing illegal immigrants. But what do they have to do with the legal ones coming in through the refugee program?
Verify, but trust!
On ABC’s hit show Scandal last night, the main character, the US president’s wife, had an abortion while a gospel version of “Silent Night” played. According to Breitbart, Planned Parenthood released a statement after the program praising the episode.
It’s not enough to present a pro-abortion episode of a prime time television show. They have to choreograph it to “Silent Night,” a hymn celebrating the birth of the Christ child.
There’s no other word for this: diabolical. If this is what America stands for, no wonder other people hate us so much.
Writing in the New Statesman, Helen Lewis says we in the West are missing the real picture of ISIS if we only focus on head-chopping videos. She quotes Prof. Shahira Fahmy, who researches ISIS, saying that the violent videos we in the West consider to be characteristic of the terror organization are only a tiny fraction of their propaganda:
Research by the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, supports this view. A recent report found that the propaganda Isis distributes in the Middle East often shows the group “administering its civilian population, cleaning the streets, fitting electricity pylons, fixing sewage systems, purifying water, collecting blood donations, providing health care and education”.
In other words, the same kind of thing your local council probably pushes through your letter box on a leaflet – and with the same aim: reassuring people that they are living under a plausible, functional authority. Don’t worry, Isis will unclog your drains. Isis will collect your rubbish.
Like the concept of jihadi sub-editors, this all seems very incongruous to us in the West. Our media depictions of terrorists almost always depict them as inhuman monsters, as nihilists, as members of a death cult; not the kind of people who would be interested in civil infrastructure. But part of the modernity of Isis is its high level of media literacy. Terror is only part of the movement’s communications strategy: it knows it must offer hope, too. Fahmy points to images showing serenity and repentance – “suggesting that any individual will always be embraced by the organisation and forgiven for past affiliations upon joining the ‘caliphate’” – alongside others promoting the idea of victimisation by the West, such as graphic photographs of children killed by drone strikes. Like British newspapers, the group also seized on the image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy on the beach – as an illustration of the dangers of emigrating.
Fahmy notes that very little utopian Isis propaganda is seen in the West. Might we understand the group better if it was? The past few days have been filled with questions over Western media bias – for instance, the relative lack of attention given to bombings in Beirut – predicated on an acknowledgement of how much the media shape and reinforce public opinion.
Meaning, belonging, and purpose — I write a lot about these things in my book. That was the appeal of Islam for me, and it was the appeal of Revolutionary Islam for the few years I flirted with it. Secular modernity has done very poorly for some — misfits and castoffs and otherwise marginalized people for whom there is no room in a society that won’t tolerate alternative forms of meaning to modernity’s search for comfort, security, and pleasure. Or for whom there is no space in or with the moralizing cohorts of the progressive left, which demands inclusion in a world I’m honestly not sure is worth being included in and which simply doesn’t include us in their idea of inclusion anyway. (Yes, I am still something of a frustrated revolutionary. I really do wish I had a revolution I could fight and die for, worth fighting and dying for…)
So, I get the appeal of [ISIS], and were I younger, I think it’s something I could join. I would have found beheadings distasteful, but honestly, it’s about building a better world. So I could have lived with them and justified them. After all, no sacrifice is too small for a better tomorrow — George W. Bush set fire to all of Iraq with the promise of a better tomorrow — so Americans aren’t all that different. Save that our means are mechanical, bureaucratic, and impersonal. We don’t get our hands so terribly bloody when we kill.
Featherstone says there is a word for ISIS’s outreach to the disaffected: “ministry”. Read the whole thing.
I’m now reading a good short novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, called The Penitent. Set in 1969, it’s a long monologue by Joseph Shapiro, a Holocaust survivor and immigrant to New York, about how and why he burned out on his life of debauched secular success, moved to Jerusalem, and embraced ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Shapiro is a fanatic, no question, but there is enough truth in what he says to understand why a morally sensitive, questing person would find relief and salvation in extreme religion. Take this passage, in which the narrator talks about how, in a moment of extreme personal crisis, he wandered into an impoverished shul on the Lower East Side, and was asked to join a minyan:
I prayed and saw to my amazement that this was far from comedy and sham. I thanked the Creator for directing me to this room among true Jews, who still sought a minyan while the outside world swarmed with hate and evil theories. Here, old age was no disgrace Here, no one boasted of his sexual prowess or his ability to hold liquor. Here, the elderly were treated with respect and pious humility. No one here dyed his hair, claimed to be “eighty years young,” or used the other banalities heard among the worldly aged.
Up to that day I had been a reader of books, magazines, and newspapers. I had often felt that what I was reading was a deadly poison. All it evoked within me was bitterness, fear, and a feeling of helplessness. Everything that I read followed the same theme — the world was and will always be ruled by might and falsehood, and there was nothing to be done about it. Modern literature used different words to say the same thing: “We live in a slaughterhouse and a house of shame. That’s how it was and that’s how it’s going to be forever.” Suddenly I heard myself reciting words filled with holy optimism. Instead of starting the day with tales of theft and murder, lust and rape, obscenity ad revenge, I had started the day with words about justice, sanctity, a God who had granted men understanding and who will revive the dead and reward the just. I had discovered that I didn’t have to start the day by swallowing venom.
Singer makes you feel in your bones the appeal of this kind of piety to a certain personality type. All the things that most people in secular Western society, rich in material goods and liberties, accept as good things are precisely the things that Joseph Shapiro wants to get away from. Eventually his quest for purity, and his disgust with the grossness and vanity of the world, becomes so overwhelming that he removes himself to the Meah Sharim quarter of Jerusalem, with the ultra-Orthodox live. He was a broken man, and expected them to reject him because he lacked their piety, and didn’t look like them. He got the opposite: love and acceptance. And so he became one of them.
Understand, I’m not saying that Hasidic Judaism is equivalent to the barbaric form of Islam practiced by ISIS. It isn’t. I’m simply pointing out that radical religion speaks to a hunger, a need, an idealism that’s already there — and that can be a sign of what is most decent in us.
“I was accepted as the class of 2014,” Nissy Aya, CC ’16, said. “I will not receive a degree until 2016, if that is any marker of how hard it has been for me to get through this institution.”
Aya was a panelist at an open discussion on Wednesday evening where students and faculty called for more inclusive curricula and greater centralization of resources for marginalized communities at Columbia—particularly for students of color.
Why has it been so hard for Nissy Aya to get her degree on time? She was forced to read books by white people:
Aya said that the the Core Curriculum further silences students of color by requiring students to read texts that ignore the existence of marginalized people and their histories.
“It’s traumatizing to sit in Core classes,” Aya said. “We are looking at history through the lens of these powerful, white men. I have no power or agency as a black woman, so where do I fit in?”
Aya mentioned that even in her most recent Art Humanities class, the word “primitive” was used five times to describe Congolese art—a label she did not speak up against because she was tired of already having worked that day to address so many other instances of racism and discrimination, she said.
Hey Nissy Aya, maybe the problem is you — and maybe some grown-up at the university needs to tell you that. As the Daily Caller points out, Columbia has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the country. Maybe Nissy Aya didn’t study hard enough. I graduated on time by the skin of my teeth because I was lazy, and didn’t study hard enough in one class I found difficult and boring. If the university has a stellar four-year graduation rate, that suggests that the problem is more likely to lie with Nissy Aya than with the university. Can we even say that these days?
If a white kid were studying jazz at Juilliard, would he get away with blaming identity trauma for failing his classes, saying that he had to listen to too many black jazz composers? Could a black student studying classical music at the same institution get away with claiming trauma because all the composers were Dead White European Males? Come on.
The college professor who tipped me off to this Columbia story said:
Our patrimony is under assault. At some point someone just has to tell these kids the truth: some civilizations are better than others. But that has nothing to do with you. You are not inexorably linked to your ancestors. You can appropriate all the good insights anywhere you find them. To deny yourself goodness, truth, and beauty wherever it is, you wind up diminishing your own dignity, treating yourself as if you were no more than your color or your genes.
The African-American linguist John McWhorter talked about the “self-sabotage” of students like this Columbia student in his 2001 book Losing the Race. Ward Connerly summed up the argument in his review of the book:
As John McWhorter explains in his new book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, posturing like that has come to largely define what it means to be black in America.
McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Berkeley, traces this posturing to three cultural diseases: victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism. He demonstrates that these strains infect the entire spectrum of “black” culture. From the black student pursuing “doctorial” studies to a black-student recruiter from Berkeley worried that black students who get into Berkeley without preferences “aren’t concerned with nurturing an African-American presence,” McWhorter introduces us to characters we recognize and shows how their words and actions reveal their belief in these cultural diseases.
Reader Richao put together a great Storify page collecting the successive tweets of an Islamic libertarian, explaining how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves dictate our path through life. It ends like this:
That’s the point. If you start with a purpose it becomes your identity. If you start with an identity, it’ll become your purpose. @HasHafidh
— Iyad El-Baghdadi (@iyad_elbaghdadi) May 20, 2015
Here’s a great article by the Catholic writer David Mills, on why church reform programs of the left and the right fall short. He begins with a story about how he stopped off to go to mass at a modernist church building that had been renovated inside to make it a bit more traditional, but found it to be off-putting. Yet Mills realized that had he, more of a traditionalist, had been given carte blanche to remake that church architecturally, there’s nothing he would have done that hadn’t already been done. And there is a lesson in that, he says:
The Church is like this. The form we’ve inherited determines what we can do to renew it.
Reformers think: Just do this, just do that, stop this, start that, that’ll change the Church. Make catechetics more doctrinal, or make it more personal; make the worship more formal, or make it more informal; return to the Latin Mass or make the ordinary form even more populist; learn from the Evangelicals or be as different as possible from the Evangelicals; ordain married men, celebrate celibacy, ordain women, discipline people who want women ordained, urge people to pray for vocations, put more money into parochial schools, close churches and open new ones in better places, increase the hours for confession, have rallies in the cathedral.
Good ideas, some of them, but they won’t change the Church much.
Why not? Because, he says, most Catholics, whatever they may profess, don’t really believe in the supernatural realities of the faith:
I’m constantly amazed and humbled at the number of people who have an unpolluted faith in the supernatural and easy intercourse with Our Lady and the saints. Yet many, even among those active in the Church, have secular-leaning and naturalism-assuming minds. I know this for myself. Even after years of formation I keep finding how my mind goes one way when the naturally Catholic mind would go another. The world is too much with us.
This loss makes renewal harder. It does, I think, reduce the attraction of the Mass and the reasons to go when you don’t want to. It must make confession feel less like a mercy and more like a transaction. It reduces our circles of accountability because we don’t feel intimate with the angels and the saints. It keeps us from identifying more closely with Our Lord and His Blessed Mother because we don’t practice the devotions that help us do so. It changes how deep the priest can go in his homily. These all have knock-on effects.
It certainly reduces the power of any new program to renew the Church. Programs are only as effective as the people in them allow.
Read the whole thing. I think there’s powerful truth here, and not just for Catholics.
One of the things I love most about Orthodox Christianity is the very high regard for supernaturalism it has, especially in its prayer and liturgical life. You go to liturgy at an Orthodox Church, and you know you are in another world. The mode of prayer, the icons, the incense, the candles — it all is designed to remind us that when we are in the liturgy, we are in reality in the presence of the Divine. And yet it is sadly not uncommon to hear converts talk about how they went into this or that Orthodox parish in the past, and had the feeling that they had intruded on a meeting of an ethnic club. I too have been to certain Orthodox liturgies — only a couple, thankfully — in which what was happening in the church that morning felt like an elaborate stage show. It’s hard to explain why it is, but you can feel it when that happens. I think it has to do with a certain receptivity in the congregation. As we know from human nature, it is all too easy to harden our hearts to holiness among us.
I believe that at this stage in the West, the only forms of religion that are going to survive are those that are frankly supernatural in their orientation. Dessicated naturalism has exhausted itself. Pentecostal Christianity has no appeal to me, personally, but I can certainly see why people are drawn to it, and don’t blame them when all they get from their churches is the dry bread of rationalism and do-goodery.
This came in yesterday’s mailbag from someone at Harvard Law School. I looked up the correspondent, and verified that he/she is an HLS student. I publish it with permission, only redacting one identifying detail:
Last night, someone placed black tape across all the portraits of the African-American faculty at Harvard Law School. The entire campus has been preoccupied today with discussions about racism at HLS and in light of what has been going on throughout the country.
You may have heard about that already, but the reason I wanted to write you is because I think I learned something very important about the Benedict Option today. I have been reading your blog for some time, but even after four years as an undergraduate at [deleted], I don’t think I really reckoned with what cultural conservatives are up against. In the back of my mind, I think I always dismissed the SJWs I encountered in college because they were just “kids” and likely to grow out of it. It’s a lot harder to dissociate that way when you’re in law school, especially this law school, and you realize that people here are not going to fade away like some bozo from your sophomore philosophy seminar. These people are the future of the legal profession. They are law firm partners, judges, politicians, even future senators and presidents. And most of them have accepted the SJW ideology without reservation. Even the ones headed straight for corporate law (and let’s face it, that’s most people, even if they don’t know it yet) agree with most of the underlying assumptions of the SJWs.
What happened at my school last night was shameful. But cultural conservatives need to understand what kinds of lessons my colleagues are drawing from this event: they believe that they need to radically transform the premises and aims of legal education. [Emphasis mine — RD] I believe that critical race and gender theory are now ascendant in law, as they have been in the humanities for decades. Dissenters will be driven out of law schools (the good ones, anyway), and implicitly, out of the legal profession. That will leave conservatives increasingly defenseless against the pink police state and its Vichyite collaborators in corporate America.
We must prepare. We must build our own institutions. I did not really understand how essential the Benedict Option is until now. Thank you for doing what you do.
The images are very offensive, for sure, but I don’t for one second believe that this was a true hate crime. I would bet my next paycheck that it was a hoax carried about by SJW provocateurs within the school who have been mounting a campaign against Harvard Law. Again, I could be wrong about that, but activists are wasting no time in using this event — whether it was real or staged by them — to advance their radical agenda. And they are succeeding, hence the title of this post.
The portraits of black professors, the ones that bring me and so many other black students feelings of pride and promise, were defaced. Their faces were covered with a single piece of black tape, crossing them out of Harvard Law School’s legacy of legal scholarship. Their faces were slashed through, X-ing them out, marking them as maybe unwanted or maybe unworthy or maybe simply too antithetical to the legacy of white supremacy on which Harvard Law School has been built. Harvard Law School was, after all, founded with the money from the sale of over 100 Antiguan enslaved people (because they were not slaves but people who were brutally and inhumanely enslaved) by the Royall family. To this day, the Royall family crest is the seal for Harvard Law School, and their legacy of white supremacy drips from every corner of the campus, like the blood of the 77 enslaved people murdered after a slave revolt on the Royall plantation. The defacing of the portraits of black professors this morning is a further reminder that white supremacy built this place, is the foundation of this place, and that we never have and still do not belong here.
This morning at Harvard Law School we woke up to a hate crime. And what we do next will shake white supremacy at Harvard Law School to its core.
Given how many fake hate crime reports get made — in particular on college campuses — one would hope that Harvard Law students would await the results of the Harvard Police investigation before they, in Michele Hall’s words, “tear down these hallways of white supremacy.” If it really was done by an anti-black racist, then that person must be punished severely. But even if the worst is true in this case, is that incident worth trying to destroy the school, and the community of the law school? A single jackass stunt does not prove that Harvard Law School is a Ku Klux Klub. Institutions are not invulnerable; you can spend years building a house, but destroy it in a day. No institution is perfect, but unless they are wicked, we must reform them with love, not tear them down with hatred.
The black activist law school group Royall Must Fall, which is campaigning to get the Royall family crest removed from the law school seal, issues the following statement on its Facebook page:
STATEMENT FROM ROYALL MUST FALL
Early this morning, the faculty, staff, and students of Harvard Law School woke up to the defacement of the portraits of all current and former black professors on the walls of Wasserstein Hall.
As far as we know, the defacement of these portraits is still being investigated by the Harvard University Police.
Earlier last night, student activists created an educational art exhibit where they placed tape on the crests of Harvard Law School in Wasserstein Hall and posted facts about Isaac Royall, Jr. Black gaffer tape was used so that it would not leave any residue. Some of this tape was later taken off the activist art exhibit and used to cross out the faces of black professors.
As Royall Must Fall, we are saddened and disgusted by this violent act against black professors. This overt act of racial hatred is a manifestation of the systemic racism that pervades our daily lives at Harvard Law School and throughout the country.
Today, nearly a thousand students, staff, and professors gathered to discuss systemic racism and the experiences of people of color at Harvard Law School. As a community, we must do better. We must take immediate action to confront systemic racism in our school and society.
“An educational art exhibit”? Bull. They defaced the Law School seal. Just hours after activists used tape to cover up that seal on that hallway (see photo here), someone used the same tape to deface the black law professors’ portraits, according to Royall Must Fall, the activist group that first defaced the campus seal. If you are a campus black activist, the trashing of the professors’ portraits is about the best thing you could hope for to electrify the institution in this nationwide climate of hysteria, and in turn to push your agenda. The utility of this “hate crime” to the activists’ cause should cause those involved to pause and await the outcome of the Harvard University Police’s investigation. The hysterical rhetoric coming from activists like Michele Hall is a sign that they have no intention of using reason and prudence.
In any case, contrary to the activists, it was not a “violent act”; if genuine, it was an act of insulting, provocative speech. And speech is not violence, lawyers-in-training! But I see what you’re doing here. Even if the defacing of the portraits really was a hateful act by a racist — something that is, I repeat, a possibility — you all, as well as your sympathizers on campus, are going to use it for all its worth to, as my HLS correspondent says, “radically transform the premises and aims of legal education.”
This is why the truth or falsity of the hate crime allegation here doesn’t matter, in the end. What is truth? Truth, to you, is what advances the revolution, what gives you more power. To paraphrase an effective strategist of radical social change, there are no morals in campus politics, there is only expedience. A scoundrel may be of use to you just because he is a scoundrel.
Wake up, folks, and understand what’s happening here, before our eyes. These Harvard students are the people who will rule over us one day, in our courts and in our corporations. Every single one of the current members of the US Supreme Court went to an Ivy League law school (four Harvards, three Yales, and one Columbia). Bill Clinton graduated from Yale Law School, while Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law (the two Bushes also have Ivy League records, though not in law school). Remember what “Prof. Kingsfield,” a deeply closeted Christian who teaches in this elite law school culture, told me earlier this year about the cultural homogeneity and arrogance within his law school tribe:
“The sad thing,” he said, “is that the old ways of aspiring to truth, seeing all knowledge as part of learning about the nature of reality, they don’t hold. It’s all about power. They’ve got cultural power, and think they should use it for good, but their idea of good is not anchored in anything. They’ve got a lot of power in courts and in politics and in education. Their job is to challenge people to think critically, but thinking critically means thinking like them. They really do think that they know so much more than anybody did before, and there is no point in listening to anybody else, because they have all the answers, and believe that they are good.”
Kingsfield ended our interview this way:
“Your blog is important for us who feel alone where we are, because it let’s us know that there are others who feel this way,” Kingsfield said. “My wife says you should stop blogging and write your Benedict Option book right now. There is such a need for it. My hope for this book is that it will help Christians like us meet and build more of the networks that are going to carry us through.”
Prof. Kingsfield said it. The anonymous Harvard Law School student had his/her eyes opened yesterday by watching how the SJW lemmings at the most elite of American law schools reacted to this provocation. It is coming. Late last night, a law professor friend at a different school said he recently gave a lecture to a large church crowd about what’s happening on campus today. He wrote that after his talk, “Everyone wanted to know what to do while they feel helpless as their civilization vanishes before their eyes.”
I’m working on it. My agent is now showing the Benedict Option book proposal around. You keep working on it too, and stay in touch, because I might need to talk to you for this project. We are going to need to do exactly what Prof. Kingsfield and this HLS student say: form networks, build institutions, and prepare.
A reader I know personally left this comment on the Good Colleges open thread. I know where he was educated, and can verify what he says. Emphases below are mine:
My undergraduate degrees are from an institution that could hold its own among any in the nation in terms of its student body’s liberal bona fides–it is a group of true-believing SJWs. A great deal of what is now making headlines was nascent, if not flourishing, on campus when I was there. My education in the liberal arts, Deo gratias, had a very very minimal amount of the elements described in the discussion of the medieval English lit prof, though I suspect my fellow students would have welcomed more gladly.
All of this is to make two points that I think are essential in discussing higher education:
1) All it takes is one good professor (all the better if you have a great professor) to inoculate students against the excesses discussed in this post. One professor. That’s it.
Obviously, it would be ideal to have many (or, dare we dream, an entire department) that is not SJW indoctrination. For my part, I could easily name 3 professors who definitely went against the SJW grain (on a very liberal campus, mind you), and their ability to push students of all worldviews to think critically and carefully was extraordinary. I think this is an important point because it shows you cannot judge an entire university tout court. I suspect even Mizzou and Yale have profs who are teaching kids the invaluable skills of critical thinking and reflection–they just go unsung because they’re busy doing their actual damn jobs. Now, this does not mean I would want to send my child to Mizzou or Yale, but we must remember that, even in the worst of circumstances, a mustard seed can still become the greatest of trees. This SJW ideology is an intellectual bubble that is as impermanent as an economic bubble: at some point, it will burst. It’s not if, but when. And one professor (or even one homework reading) can be enough to pop it if the student’s mind and soul are well-disposed to receive it.
2) I am highly grateful for my time in a SJW environment. I grew up in a relatively conservative subset of a very liberal city, and to have my beliefs challenged so forcefully made me, in my mind, far more solid in both intellect and faith than friends who went to more conservative colleges. I have seen the moderate Left, the far Left, the far far left, and the Left who think President Obama is a neocon, and I daresay I know as well as anyone what is coming in the next generation. We have to be ready, and my friends who went to have dwelt in more intellectually conservative or moderate environs have absolutely no appreciation of it. None. When there are students (far-left) actually arguing the moral permissibility of sexual relations between adults and pre-pubescent children, you know you have long since hit the diabolical. And I am very grateful I know it’s there.
I certainly am not advocating anyone with teenage children to just throw their kids in the SJW deep end and hope they swim. But at some point they are going to have to face this world on their own and make their own choices. Delaying that for some of them for a four-year period may very well be best for their souls–I presume that is a decision based made by the kids themselves in conjunction with their parents. But there are benefits to seeing such things firsthand. Ultimately, I suspect that many of the people who lead the pushback against this intellectual bubble will be disenchanted graduates of these SJW colleges. The Baylors of the world will have their part, but they are not in the trenches.
And, to repeat my earlier point, all it takes is one good prof in the midst of such foolishness to inoculate one against it forever.
Thank you, reader. That is very helpful — so much so I decided to give it its own post.
Three cheers for Brown University professor Glenn Loury, who is black and politically liberal, and who stands up to the black militants trying to intimidate his college’s administrators. From his Facebook post:
Finally, over the course of 10 years of teaching at Brown, I have influenced many graduate students of all colors and from every continent on the planet (excepting Antarctica!) I have found the university to be an extremely warm, welcoming, supportive and open environment to undertake my work. I know well the people who run this institution, and the notion that they are racially insensitive is a shameful slander with no basis in fact. My colleagues, in the economics department and elsewhere at Brown, have shown themselves to be open-minded, decent and on the whole politically progressive scholars. The administration has lavished resources on me, and has enthusiastically supported any number of initiatives that contribute to promoting a just and decent society, both within the United States and throughout the world.
The notion that Brown needs a revolutionary reshaping in order to become hospitable to “students of color”, that idea that “anti-black pedagogy” at Brown needs to be countered with some mandatory indoctrination of faculty, the proposal that external student committees should review purportedly “racist” departmental appointment processes, the initiative of creating “specialty positions” in academic departments to ensure their openness to hiring “faculty of color” — these are all mischievous intrusions on the academic prerogatives of a distinguished faculty which no self-respecting scholar of any color should welcome. They are a step onto a slippery slope that slides down into intellectual mediocrity, and I will have nothing to do with them.
Is that clear and explicit enough…?
Now he’s going to be denounced as an Uncle Tom, you watch.
It’s fascinating and unspeakably sad to watch this kind of thing happen in South Africa. Take a look at this incredible story from The Guardian, about how the “bornfrees,” black South Africans born after apartheid, are turning on their parents’ generation. Protests there began with a black university student, Chumani Maxwele, who had been raised in a black settlement, in great poverty, and, with the loosening of laws and social restrictions after apartheid’s fall, was able to move more freely in South Africa — including going to Africa’s best university on scholarship. He was better able to appreciate how apartheid crippled his prospects:
The apartheid past, Maxwele realised, was still shaping his life. The realisation made him feel more and more angry, because it had not been what he had been taught growing up. His generation had been told they were the “born frees”: an exceptional generation in South African history, the first one raised with almost no direct memory of apartheid’s terrors. “They’re like nothing that’s ever been!” bleated a promo segment for Bornfrees, a reality TV show that began airing in South Africa in 2004. In school and at home, their elders often reminded them how different life was for them and how much they had to be grateful for.
On the morning of 9 March, Maxwele travelled by minibus taxi out to Khayelitsha, picked up one of the buckets of sh*t that sat reeking on the kerbside, and brought it back to the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), where, in 2011, he had gained a scholarship to study political science. He took it to a bronze statue of the 19th-century British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes that held pride of place on campus, just downhill from the convocation hall. Rhodes had been one of the main architects of South Africa’s segregation. “Where are ourheroes and ancestors?” Maxwele shouted to a gathering, curious crowd.
Then he opened the bucket and hurled its contents into Rhodes’s face.
Thus began a long protest by the university’s black students demanding that the University of Cape Town removed that statue, of 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes. The protest, as the Guardian piece explains, became part of a much wider movement in the country among the bornfrees. The Guardian distinguishes these new protests from a previous one, from miners demanding better working conditions:
For the miners on strike in Marikana were mostly middle-aged. They had a right to expect something better from the second, liberated half of their lives. The “born frees” were not supposed to feel that degree of historical pain. As well as protesting the legacy of history, the young South Africans were trying on a historical identity, inhabiting the anger their parents had expressed decades earlier. My older friends found it eerie to watch.
And some of the most prominent people expressing that anger are children who really weren’t supposed to feel it. Many of the most active youth protesters hail from South Africa’s new black middle class and black elite. The young man who was handcuffed and arrested in front of Parliament was Kgotsi Chikane, the son of the Reverend Frank Chikane, the former chief of staff to the country’s second black president, Thabo Mbeki.
More and more, the anger of the young has pointed towards their parents and their black elders. Over the course of the year, the young South Africans moved from throwing stones at statues of dead white men to throwing them at live black ones – President Zuma and South Africa’s education minister Blade Nzimande, who rose to fame as an anti-apartheid activist. At the protest in front of Zuma’s office, young people raised hand-lettered signs that mocked Zuma as well as placards connecting their demonstration with the struggles of South Africa’s past. The story of why these generations are now at odds has deep implications for how a freed people, generation by generation, continues to relate to its history – implications that are relevant everywhere else in the world where the children of the oppressed are coming of age in what are supposed to be better circumstances.
Three days after Maxwele’s poo protest, Chikane found himself leading a huge demonstration against the Rhodes statue. Beforehand, he chained his wrists together, his hands pressed awkwardly into a gesture of supplication. Paradoxically, assuming this pose of entrapment felt like the true liberation. It freed him to inhabit physically the sense of oppression he had only been feeling emotionally. “People started taking pictures,” he recalled. “And then I realised … black students weren’t taking pictures. The white students were taking pictures,” as white people have stared at the entrapped black body for centuries.
It was a common feature of the stories I heard from black student protesters: there had been a series of small experiences that made them aware they were not tabulae rasae, but black people enmeshed in a long history of black deprivation.
Turns out that a surprising number of South African whites are sympathetic to the student protests — but not older blacks:
Chikane said the apparent unwillingness of black leaders to support the students’ awakening baffled him – and greatly amplified his anger. In mid-April, some 50 students broke into a UCT council meeting that Price had called to discuss the prospect of removing the Rhodes statue. The students climbed through a window that had been left open and surrounded the conference table, singing struggle songs.
Most of the members of the largely white council just sat there. But the head of the council, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, a former anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, stood up and flapped his hands, gesturing for the students to leave. They climbed up on the table and moved towards him. “Who made you the policeman of black rage? As a black man?” one student spat, his eyes filling with tears. “You are disgusting! You are disgusting! Don’t you have your own children?”
After the incident, Chikane wrote a pleading letter to Ndugane, begging him to publicly express that he understood and supported the students’ anger. The young man compared the “obvious, obscene and repugnant acts of racism” in the past to the kind black students currently experienced at UCT. “Ours is worse,” he wrote. “Ours is subliminal. It is the form of racism that makes you ignorant about your subjugation.”
What an astonishing statement. This young black man is going to Africa’s most elite university because of the sacrifices that Archbishop Ndungane, who served prison time with Nelson Mandela, made. And yet, he contends that the racism he experiences is worse than what Mandela and Ndungane suffered!
Where does this come from? An answer:
Jonathan Jansen, the first black vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, described to me the fear that the protests had engendered among older black South Africans – a fear that their hard-won progress over a bitter past was sliding backwards, or that it had never really succeeded to begin with. The student movements, Jansen told me, looked to him like a dangerous return to the very same racial discourses his generation had battled to defeat. “People were dead set against the apartheid narrative of race essentialism,” he said. “We fought very, very hard not to have the state name us [black]. But that is exactly what [the students] are trying to reinforce.”
Sounds a lot like the demand for race essentialism by black protesters on US university campuses, doesn’t it?
The protests succeeded in convincing the university to remove the Rhodes statue. Now, there’s nothing there but a plinth. But it has not satisfied the students. Maxwele predicts, “This place will blow up again.”
Read the whole thing; it’s worth it.
I find that image of the empty plinth still tormenting those students to be haunting. It’s like a phantom limb. It reveals that their minds are still conquered by Rhodes and what he represents. What’s going on here?
This is, as the Guardian piece notes, about identity. The lines between good and evil were clear during apartheid. Black South Africans found identity in their suffering, and in maintaining their dignity under the cruelty and injustices of apartheid. But when apartheid ended, and a black majority government came to power, the lines became blurred. The Guardian writes about how Mandela and his generation offered forgiveness as a strategic move; they knew that they had to reconcile with whites or white capital would flee, and the country would be impoverished. Forgiveness of this sort required a deliberate historic forgetting, which was deemed necessary by black leaders to make the transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy.
There is no way to undo in a single generation the legacy of white supremacy. It is not within the realm of possibility. This is something that has to be accepted, and worked through. Progress takes time, and sacrifice. Look at the people raised under Soviet-style communism. You cannot have an entire culture, an entire people, deformed like that, and expect them to bounce back instantly. Healing that deep wound will require time.
It seems to me somehow psychologically important for the bornfrees to deny that there has been any progress made on the racial front. It’s why I found Ta-Nehisi Coates’s (National Book Award-winning) volume so frustrating: he denies that there has been real progress in race relations in this country, and closes the door to the possibility of progress and reconciliation, and justice. It demands what it denies is possible.