The Christmas season is a time to be captivated—by decorative beauty in our homes and communities, sentiments of goodwill for our neighbor, and, of course, the story of God entering the world to save it, “when half-spent was the night,” as the old carol goes. Yet it’s also a season in which many feel held captive, perhaps by soulless consumerism or feelings of loneliness and loss. And in an America where our words and actions suffer from an unprecedented degree of monitoring via our smartphones, social media, or online activity, we can feel that sense of captivity—and a pressure to conform—all the more acutely.
Take, for example, the growing use of “phobia” allegations leveled against Americans. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has advanced Rep. Ilhan Omar’s legislation to create a special envoy to “monitor and combat acts of Islamophobia and Islamophobic incitement.” Comedian Dave Chappelle has been accused of “homophobia” and “transphobia” over his standup specials, while the Human Rights Commission warns of heightened violent homophobic activity across the country. The pandemic, in turn, has stoked “Asian phobia,” and the FBI warns that hate crimes against Asians reportedly rose 70 percent in 2020.
Whether or not such trends are manifestations of actual irrational fears and anxiety disorders (as the medical community defines phobias), the charge of Islamophobia, homophobia, or xenophobia often has an explicitly political hue. Conservatives are accused of suffering from these psychological maladies, which places them squarely on the defensive against charges of bigotry and hate. Turning on the phobia sirens also rallies the liberal base around concerns that these threatening disorders are on the rise. R.R. Reno calls this “bigot-baiting,” inciting anxiety about discrimination and exclusion to maintain loyalty.
Either way, the response is the same: targeted actions to defame or silence those who are phobic, while increasing government action to curb the many phobias that threaten our democratic society. The phobic are labeled unfit for public service, professional success, or participation in the public square (on clinical grounds, of course). Government agencies and programs are directed to monitor their own employees—and the wider citizenry—for phobic behavior. It is an approach in keeping with our therapeutic and technocratic age.
It is also, of course, a good way to silence dissent and promote preferred narratives, as evidenced by how effectively our elite institutions—media, corporations, the entertainment industry—use allegations of phobia and bigotry to compel people into certain accepted behaviors. For fear of such labels, Americans’ words and actions are progressively constrained, as they try to avoid the ire of woke activists, social media trolls, or H.R. departments. And as the activist language of anti-racism and anti-heteronormativity is standardized across public and private life, we find even our minds have in a sense become policed by identitarian dogma.
Polish author and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, who survived the Nazi the occupation of Poland and served as a diplomat for the communist Polish government before seeking exile in the West, understood this phenomenon well. As he explains in The Captive Mind, the post-war Stalinist government, like the woke left, also portrayed its detractors as suffering from a psychological disorder. For the dissident, says Miłosz, “Stalinism attacks him from within, saying his opposition is caused by his ‘class consciousness,’ just as psychoanalysts accuse their foes of wanting to preserve their complexes.
Thus, for fear of being maligned as an enemy of progress, the citizen speaks and acts to please his ideological masters. “Before it leaves the lips, every word must be evaluated as to its consequences.” This extends to one’s writing: “I get halfway through a phrase, and already I submit it to Marxist criticism. I imagine what X or Y will say about it, and I change the ending.” Even for those who attempt to retain a modicum of artistic independence, sacrifices must be made. “I must pay for the right to practice my profession with a certain number of articles and odes in the way of tribute,” states Miłosz.
The New Criterion’s Kyle Smith calls this the “woke tax,” and it has overcome all of American life. Our media are overflowing with analysis of current events according to racial, sexual, and gender ideology, from identifying the effect of systemic racism on birding and crosswords, to considerations of how the pandemic helped people accept their inner transgender status. A friend of mine is writing a western with a prominent gender dysphoric character—not because he feels particularly passionate about transgender rights, but because he hopes doing so will be a gateway into finding an interested publisher for his manuscript. Writers and artists have become, in Miłosz’s words, “respectable prostitutes” to the latest ideological craze.
Yet coercive ideology has a tendency to collapse into boring predictability, as people are motivated less by an authentic love of truth, goodness, and beauty, but fear and a cynical desire for profit and survival. “The Party constantly stresses its desire for good literature; at the same time, it creates such a tense atmosphere of propaganda that writers feel compelled to resort to the most primitive and oversimplified literary techniques,” Miłosz observes. “One more astute ideological equation, several more pages of doctrinal prose! Why write when everyone knew in advance exactly what was to be said?” We see this at work today in the demand that journalism, literature, academia, and film all focus on race, sex, or gender to remain relevant.
The descent into formulaic platitudes about fighting patriarchies, cisgender normativity, and systemic racism stifles our creativity because it is at its core anti-human. Miłosz notes: “The growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my whole nature.” The longer and deeper man travels into impoverished ideologies, the less connected he is from real human experience. “In his desire to win approbation he had simplified his picture to conform to the wishes of the Party,” argues Miłosz. “One compromise leads to a second and a third until at least, though everything one says may be perfectly logical, it no longer has anything in common with the flesh and blood of living people.”
An especially concerning effect of anti-human ideologies is their tendency to engender antipathy towards their detractors. “The entire country was gripped by a single emotion: hatred.” Perhaps this is so not only because coercive ideologues cannot brook dissent, but because a voice inside is shouting to its adherents that they are literally killing themselves. And the best way to silence that voice is to silence anything that provokes it to speak. “If Hell should guarantee its lodgers magnificent quarters, beautiful clothes, the tastiest food, and all possible amusements, but condemn them to breathe in this aura forever, that would be punishment enough,” laments Miłosz. It is a narrowing of the human imagination and the human telos, obsessed with the self.
“What the devil does a man need?” asks Miłosz. The answer is a mind not made captive by false and suffocating activist ideologies, but captivated by truths and beauties that take him outside himself. Human beings need to believe they are not helpless actors in systems and machines, but individuals with inherent agency and worth, and who are by their nature oriented towards something transcendent and wonderful, who are given daily opportunities to choose good or evil that have eternal consequences. Miłosz understands this: “Christianity is based on a concept of individual merit and guilt; the New Faith, on historical merit and guilt.”
Christmas is an appropriate time to consider this deeply human need to be captivated, and to consider whether secular, activist ideologies are up for the task. Even for the unbeliever, the Incarnation is a mysterious doctrine that provokes contemplation, if not captivation. There is simply no end to plumbing the depths of the meaning and texture of God becoming man. We can certainly try: infinity becomes finite; the immaterial God takes on a material face; universal truth is localized in a single person and voice. All of them are wonderful and worthy of reflection; nevertheless all of them fail to encapsulate the mysterious totality of the Immanuel, God with us. There is a reason that so much beautiful art and literature—Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, Handel’s Messiah, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—are inspired by its provocative proposal.
Miłosz warns that totalitarian ideologies inculcate a weakening of the imagination and human experience, while forcing man into performances he knows to be false. It is defined by coercion and fear—as we see in King Herod’s terribly violent response to the news of a savior born in Bethlehem. Yet even in that harrowing story we perceive glimmers of courage, hope, and wonder: travelers from distant lands seeking to pay homage to a newborn baby while avoiding a tyrant king; angels declaring to shepherds that their savior and king has arrived in a stable; a Jewish husband and wife trusting in a divine plan that forced an uncomfortable trip in the ninth month of pregnancy. It is not only captivating, but inspires love and faith in the contemplative. Can our activist ideologies—and their warnings of threatening phobias—do the same?
Casey Chalk writes about religion and culture issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for the New Oxford Review. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press).