Language, Memory, & Soft Totalitarianism
The riots give us an excellent opportunity to see how the soft totalitarianism of the progressive left works.
Check out this tweet from an Associated Press reporter. The AP Stylebook is the standard reference book in most US newsrooms.
Feels like a good time to post AP’s guidance on the word looting: pic.twitter.com/hjxQWbSYAx
— Kimberlee Kruesi (@kkruesi) May 31, 2020
In other words, obscrue These Riot Days are accelerating the trends toward soft totalitarianism. The manipulation of language is a standard strategy for controlling the way people think. From my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies, here’s a passage taken from my interview with a Polish historian in Warsaw, Pawel Skibinski:
Skibiński focuses on language as a preserver of cultural memory. We know that communists forbade people to talk about history in unapproved ways. This is a tactic today’s progressives use as well, especially within universities.
What is harder for contemporary people to appreciate is how we are repeating the Marxist habit of falsifying language, hollowing out familiar words and replacing them with a new, highly ideological meaning. Propaganda not only changes the way we think about politics and contemporary life but it also conditions what a culture judges worth remembering.
I mention the way liberals today deploy neutral-sounding, or even positive, words like dialogue and tolerance to disarm and ultimately defeat unaware conservatives. And they imbue other words and phrases—hierarchy, for example, or traditional family—with negative connotations.
Recalling life under communism, the professor continues, “The people who lived only within such a linguistic sphere, who didn’t know any other way to speak, they could really start believing in this way of using of words. If a word carries with it negative baggage, it becomes impossible to have a discussion about the phenomenon.”
Teaching current generations of college students who grew up in the postcommunist era is challenging because they do not have a natural immunity to the ideological abuse of language. “For me, it’s obvious. I remember this false use of language. But for our students, it’s impossible to understand.”
Watch also for how the rioting will be downplayed in favor of the real message, which is that America is a racist country.
The peaceful protest is entirely seperate from the rioting, you see. Though rioting seems to always happen at these protests. For years now. And there was that one where 5 cops were killed. And now cities are on fire. But it’s really peaceful, you understand, for the most part.
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) June 2, 2020
The New Yorker is on the social media scene puffing an SJW grifter who explains why white people getting upset over riots and looting, if they are carried out by black people, is a racist act:
You can spend many years reading many books to try to understand liberal modernity, or you can just watch this 24-second video. pic.twitter.com/KyJLKAuzKM
— Michael Knowles (@michaeljknowles) June 2, 2020
The (white, Democratic) attorney general of Massachusetts said today that the riots are an opportunity for moral growth:
“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Healey said in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “The challenge I pose to all of us this morning is: Will we seize it?
She referenced the protest and riots of the past few days over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. “Yes, America is burning, but that’s how forests grow.”
Watch closely how elites manage the public discourse to gaslight us all into believing that we are not seeing what we’re seeing. Matt Walsh had an amazing series of tweets — gathered in one place here — about how the media covered anti-lockdown protests as selfish, reckless, even racist — but completely flipped the narrative when mass gatherings were in service of a cause the media endorse.
So what we’ve learned is that if you want to protest during a pandemic, do it safely by burning down buildings and beating the hell out of random bystanders. That way you’ll escape criticism from the media.
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) June 1, 2020
Get this: public health experts are now coming out in favor of mass protests, for political reasons. It’s insane! Here I have been pulling my hair out in my red state over conservatives who refused to wear masks, and who treated Covid-19 like it was a political thing, not a public health matter … and now here are left-wing public health experts treating Covid-19 like it’s a political thing!
Dozens of public health and disease experts have signed an open letter in support of the nationwide anti-racism protests.
“White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” they wrote.https://t.co/EewPNgDSu3
— NPR (@NPR) June 2, 2020
I was already suspicious of authority, but after this, I am even more radically skeptical.
(Note well: I acknowledge, and I deplore, that there have been multiple instances of police brutality against media covering protesters — see, for example, this shocking instance from Australian TV. The point of this post is to talk about how the narrative is being constructed, and how the culture’s memory of events of this week will be shaped.)
Here, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has allowed looters to run rampant in Manhattan, answers a Jewish reporter’s very good question:
Hamodia reporter asks why protest is allowed when prayer services aren’t.@NYCMayor@BilldeBlasio: “400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services”
— Matthew Chayes (@chayesmatthew) June 2, 2020
Bill de Blasio on Jewish funeral mourners: The time for warnings has passed, you will be arrested.
de Blasio on Jewish schools: Don’t even think about it.
de Blasio on churches, synagogues, etc.: Sorry, no.
de Blasio on Floyd protesters: All good 👍
— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) June 2, 2020
This is because the real religion of American progressives is anti-racism. You know who said so in 2015? The African-American linguist John McWhorter, who wrote:
An anthropology article from 1956 used to get around more than it does now, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” Because my mother gave it to me to read when I was 13, of course what I remember most from it is that among the Nacirema, women with especially large breasts get paid to travel and display them. Nacirema was “American” spelled backwards—get it?—and the idea was to show how revealing, and even peculiar, our society is if described from a clinical distance.
These days, there is something else about the Nacirema—they have developed a new religion. That religion is antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.
Antiracism as religion has its downsides. It encourages an idea that racism in its various guises must be behind anything bad for black people, which is massively oversimplified in 2015. For example, it is thrilling to see the fierce, relentless patrolling, assisted by social media, that the young black activists covered in a recent New York Times Magazine piece have been doing to call attention to cops’ abuse of black people. That problem is real and must be fixed, as I have written about frequently, often to the irritation of the Right. However, imagine if there were a squadron of young black people just as bright, angry and relentless devoted to smoking out the bad apples in poor black neighborhoods once and for all, in alliance with the police forces often dedicated to exactly that? I fear we’ll never see it—Antiracism creed forces attention to the rogue cops regardless of whether they are the main problem.
The efforts in recent days by corporate and entertainment elites to affirm their Antiracism piety are something to behold. I have been receiving from you readers copies of e-mails that CEOs and university presidents have been sending out in the last day or two. They are, in the Nacireman sense, religious testimonials. You don’t think this stuff is religious? Look and listen:
— maria viti (@selfdeclaredref) June 2, 2020
This too is part of constructing the narrative. You will not be allowed to remember these days in any other way, if the ruling class of our institutions has anything to say about it. In this passage from Live Not By Lies, I explain why cultural memory is important, and why totalitarian regimes attempt to gain a monopoly on cultural memory:
In his 1989 book, How Societies Remember, the late British social anthropologist Paul Connerton explains that there are different kinds of memory. Historical memory is an objective recollection of past events. Social memory is what a people choose to remember—that is, deciding collectively which facts about past events it believes to be important. Cultural memory constitutes the stories, events, people, and other phenomena that a society chooses to remember as the building blocks of its collective identity. A nation’s gods, its heroes, its villains, its landmarks, its art, its music, its holidays—all these things are part of its cultural memory.
Connerton says that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” Memory of the past conditions how they experience the present—that is, how they grasp its meaning, how they are to understand it, and what they are supposed to do in it.
No culture, and no person, can remember everything. A culture’s memory is the result of its collective sifting of facts to produce a story—a story that society tells itself to remember who it is. Without collective memory, you have no culture, and without a culture, you have no identity.
The more totalitarian a regime’s nature, the more it will try to force people to forget their cultural memories. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the role of Winston Smith within the Ministry of Information is to erase all newspaper records of past events to reflect the current political priorities of the Party. This, said the ex-communist Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski, reflects “the great ambition of totalitarianism—the total possession and control of human memory.”
“Let us consider what happens when the ideal has been effectively achieved,” says Kołakowski. “People remember only what they are taught to remember today and the content of their memory changes overnight, if needed.”
You think voting for Donald Trump, or voting Republican, is going to stop this? You’re dreaming. Don’t misread me: it may be important to vote for conservatives over liberals; in fact, in most cases, it certainly is. But this is not something that can be countered through politics. No Republican politician will do anything, or be able to do anything, about corporate leaders subjecting employees to re-education sessions, or universities doubling down on social justice indoctrination. We are going to come out of this long, hot, miserable summer with the progressive ruling class with much more confidence in its own righteousness, and much more willing to clamp down on dissent from its “social justice” gospel.
We have to get ready for it. We have no time to lose. Live Not By Lies is already on a fast-track publication schedule, but I’m going to ask my publisher if we can fast-track it even more. America is changing fast, right in front of our eyes. Soft totalitarianism is coming fast.
One more thing: A professor pointed out to me today that one theme of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that’s becoming quite relevant today is how the most oppressive regime of control does not apply to the proles, but to members of the Party. The more elite you are, the more coercive the system is. It’s true in hard totalitarianism, and it’s especially true in soft totalitarianism. Said the professor, “If you’re a plumber or a fast-food worker, you aren’t likely to pay any consequences for not playing the PC game, but the higher you are in the elite, the more danger you’re in.”
UPDATE: Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize winner behind The 1619 Project, says that rioting and looting over the George Floyd killing is not really violence, and we must not speak of it that way:
"Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man's neck until all of the life is leached out of his body. Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence. To use the same language to describe those two things is not moral" –@nhannahjones on CBSN pic.twitter.com/GGteXRFwAr
— CBS News (@CBSNews) June 2, 2020
UPDATE.2: Elites are not on the side of law and order when they politically sympathize with violent lawbreakers.
— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) June 2, 2020
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The Day Trump Lost The Presidency
(Let me remind you from the start: because TAC is a not-for-profit entity, nothing I write in this or any post should be taken as telling anybody how to vote in a particular race. What I offer below is analysis.)
I believe that yesterday was the day that Donald Trump lost the presidency.
After days of urban rioting, the likes of which America hasn’t seen in over fifty years, the President of the United States finally deigned to show himself and address the nation. He gave a pro forma address in the White House, then, law enforcement personnel having gassed peaceful protesters to clear the way for the president to walk across the park to St. John’s Church, Trump strolled over, stood in front of the church holding a Bible, for a photo op.
A conservative white Evangelical pastor friend texted me his disgust:
Conservative Evangelical pastor txts: “He’s standing in front of one of the most theologically liberal churches in America holding a Bible that is not his and that he does not read while appropriating the symbols of a religion that he doesn’t observe. Yeah, I’m really impressed.” pic.twitter.com/FjFpZ2avZI
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) June 2, 2020
By bedtime, the White House had put out a short propaganda film:
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) June 2, 2020
This is the act of a weak man who is left with nothing but to stand in front of a church flashing a Bible like a gang sign to get conservative Christians in line. It is pathetic. Today I see that he is going to visit a DC shrine to St. John Paul II — a purely political stunt. As a believing Christian, Trump’s cynicism disgusts me viscerally.
While the White House propagandists were making that video, Tucker Carlson was, well, reading the riot act to Trump on his program. Here is his entire 26-minute monologue. Carlson is disgusted by the leadership class in this country, which includes Trump’s weakness:
Trump’s weakness does not necessarily consist of his not sending in troops to shoot looters. It consists of him having no idea what to do other than create a pathetic propaganda moment that is so transparently cheap that it makes you throw up a little bit in your mouth. Trollope’s lines are a fitting epitaph for the MAGA dream, which died last night in front of St. John’s Church:
But the glory has been the glory of pasteboard, and the wealth has been a wealth of tinsel. The wit has been the wit of hairdressers, and the enterprise has been the enterprise of mountebanks.
To be fair, the crises that have hit the United States in 2020 would have challenged the most able chief executive. Trump’s weaknesses — in particular, his disinterest in mastering details and his habit of confusing bluster for substance — have made a difficult situation much worse. It is undoubtedly the case that the Democrats and the media are a serious threat to the kinds of things conservatives value, and it is certainly true that the press is dishonest. All of these things can be true, and at the same time, Trump’s incompetence and unfitness for the high office he holds made intolerably manifest.
Think of it: the malignity of the Bolsheviks did not make Tsar Nicholas II more competent to address the crises overwhelming Russia. Saying, “Trump is bad, but the Democrats would be worse” may be true, but at some point, that ceases to work as a rationalization for a president who does not know how to do his job.
It is not Trump’s fault that so many American cities are engulfed by riots. The Minneapolis Police Department has been under the control of Democratic mayors for decades. It’s not Donald Trump’s fault that roving gangs looted Manhattan last night — a city controlled by a Democratic mayor and machine, and a state governed by a Democrat. It’s absurd to lay all the blame for this on Trump.
But whoever was in the White House at a time like this would have to lead. One of the reasons Trump can’t lead is that he has been such a poor leader these past three years. He has power, but no authority, and the reason, in part, that he has no authority is that he has wasted it on stupid crap like this (he tweeted it this morning):
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 2, 2020
There will be some Pavlov pooches out there in the MAGAsphere who will respond to this, but Tucker Carlson reads the situation correctly: people will not forgive him for his mishandling of this crisis. To be fair to Trump, it is hard to know what specific things he, Donald Trump, could do to make things better. He has labored so tirelessly to create ill will and to damage people’s confidence in him. Of course he has enemies who don’t play fair. All presidents do. It’s how you handle it that makes the difference. I posted the other day this passage from Bill Buford’s Among The Thugs, his electrifying 1990s book about embedding with English soccer hooligans. He’s talking about the self-pity of one of the mob. I posted it the other day as an example of the egotistical character of the rioters. But it is also characteristic of Donald Trump, unable to grasp the consequences of the way he has behaved as president:
Harry had been drinking since five that morning and had, by his own estimate, five imperial gallons of lager in his stomach, which, every time he turned, rolled of their own accord. Harry had been busy. He had been one of those who had abused the bus driver on the ride into the city, and he had abused the bus driver on the ride to the ground. He had urinated on a café table that had, in his inimitable phrasing, a number of “Eyetie cows” sitting around it, and he had then proceeded to abuse the waiters.
In fact he had spent most of the day abusing waiters— many, many waiters. Who could know how many? They all looked so much alike that they blurred into one indiscriminate shape (round and short). He had abused the Acting British Consul, the police, hotel managers, food vendors of every description, and any onlooker who didn’t speak English—especially anybody who didn’t speak English. All in all, Harry had had a good day out, and then, in the full, bloated arrogance of the moment, he saw the following: thousands of Italian supporters converging on Harry’s bus. They had surrounded it and were pounding on its sides—jeering, ugly, and angry. What right had they to be angry?
Do you see what they’re doing? Harry said to the bloke behind me, full of indignation. And then if there’s trouble, Harry said, they’ll blame the English, won’t they?
I believe there are a significant number of people in this country who are outraged at the rioting, and want civil peace restored. These are natural conservatives; a conservative president ought to be able to speak for them and act on their behalf. And they are listening to and watching this president, and coming to realize that in the clutch, he’s choking. There is nothing to him. Pasteboard and tinsel. A sham. Nobody fears him, and nobody respects him. The country needs General Patton, but we’ve got Captain Kangaroo.
They may be thinking that the best interests of conservatism would be served by going into opposition for four years, and trying to rebuild, instead of spending the next four years having to defend this man, and pretending that this Dumpster fire lights the way to a better future. After four more years of this, they may be reasoning, there may not be much of a Republican Party left.
UPDATE: You know what? If these riots continue, none of what I say here will matter in November. Trump can be as bad as he wants, but if ordinary people see the Democrats and their media lackeys making excuses for the rioters, they’ll vote Trump.
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Artist: ‘I’m Terrified To Speak’
A reader responds to my “road to soft totalitarianism” post from yesterday:
Thought you might find this interesting. Daniel Elder is a well-respected choral composer at least until recently.
Here is what Elder posted to Twitter:
Don’t see much wrong with that. It’s understandable. But then, I’m not in the musician community. The reader is, and continues:
While what he said was in poor taste, the mob has been particularly cruel, especially on FB in choral music forums and by fellow musicians. Even after he explained, it wasn’t good enough.
Daniel Elder is a self described prolific writer of vocal and instrumental music. He is published with @jwpepper and Gia Music (which specializes in the works of the African diaspora).
How privileged Elder is to just be “done” w/ everything going on today.
— blasianFMA 🇵🇭🏳️🌈 (@blasianFMA) June 1, 2020
The reader continues:
He will have significant career ramifications, from loss of sales of music to loss of performances and commissions. His pieces will more than likely be blacklisted by many, if not pulled by his publishers.
You are right about soft totalitarianism. It is here and it is terrifying.
As an artist, I’m terrified to speak about anything controversial because of exactly this; that I would be misunderstood or say something stupid in a moment of emotion and be destroyed for it. I keep mostly silent on social media or retweet things. But even posting articles is starting to feel like a landmine.
How are we to move forward when our first instinct is to think the worst of people? Instead of privately correcting someone or pointing out how something might be misconstrued, the best option is to incite the mob to destroy them.
And how in the world do you create art in this environment that is in any way challenging or thought-provoking? Or a critique of the accepted cultural sacred cows? It feels very isolating sometimes and the struggle to create meaningful art riddled with great risk.
Maybe I’m alone in this. I just feel like I’m one misstep away from falling off the cliff.
You can’t create art, or challenge sacred cows, or be creatively free — not in this environment. In the Soviet Bloc, the oppression came from the state. In our soft totalitarianism, it comes from private actors and corporations. Liberals today have the nerve to gripe about Viktor Orban. An artist is more free to speak his or her mind in Budapest than in New York City or Los Angeles.
A society in which you can be utterly ruined by saying a single thing that offends the left-wing mob is a totalitarian society. Hard totalitarianisms have prison camps; soft totalitarianisms have cancel culture. It is going to get much, much worse before it gets better. My forthcoming book Live Not By Liestalks about what to expect, and how Christians (and others) should deal with it. I didn’t expect to be writing so much about the book four months before its publication, but things are accelerating fast.
Not only can you not criticize what the mob favors — even rioting! — but if you are white, then your failure to affirm the mob’s opinion is the equivalent of “violence”. This is totalitarian. In my book, I quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s brave instructions to the Soviet people in 1974, on the eve of his exile. It’s from his essay “Live not by lies!”, in tribute to which I named my book:
So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.
And from that day onward he:
- Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
- Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
- Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
- Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
- Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
- Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
- Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question. Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
- Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed. Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.
No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.
You will have to make this choice too. Those in creative fields are already on the front lines. They’ll be coming for you too, though.
Please, readers, if the stuff I write, and that my TAC colleagues write, is important to you, consider making a tax-deductible contribution. We depend on your generosity. I don’t like asking for money, especially when so many people are hurting. But if you are any kind of conservative, you can see how important dissident voices are, and will be, in the future now being born.
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Humanity’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’
Literature professor Karen Swallow Prior is editor of a new series of classic novels reprinted with questions and commentary to guide Christian reflection and discussion on the material. The first two books in the series are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I re-read Heart of Darkness recently for the first time since high school in the 1980s, and though it was published in 1899, as the European colonial era was heading for crisis, I was deeply struck by how resonant it is with our own time and place. Last week I interviewed Dr. Prior by e-mail about the novel, and why it matters today:
RD: Why did you choose Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as one of the first books released in your new series?
KSP: Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite works to teach, especially in my literature survey courses which have a lot of students who aren’t English majors. Heart of Darkness—although a difficult, dense work—grapples with a lot of history and ideas that I think are of interest to a more general, though thoughtful, audience. Some of these ideas, which I discuss in more detail in the introduction, are colonialism, existentialism, and modernism. They sound heady, but once they are explained, it’s easy and fascinating to see how these ideas are at work not only in the novel but in the world today.
I chose this novel to debut the series along with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility because I like the way the two works balance one another out: a dark, gritty novel along with one centered family and love. They have in common attempts to correct human faults and foibles, one in a manner that disturbs, the other in a way that delights.
The entire series will consist of six volumes. The other titles I will include are Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and a token American novel, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (I do reserve the right to change my mind, though.)
I hadn’t read the novel since high school, and was startled, here in middle-age, to discover how fresh it was, and relevant to our own time. We’ll get into this in a second, but let me ask first: how is it that a novel, especially one from 1899, can tell us more about the age in which we live than the morning paper?
By sheer coincidence, Rod, we are having this conversation in the midst of one of the darkest weeks in our nation, at least in my own memory: a tragic case of police brutality and days of protests, riots, and looting that have followed in the wake of anger and grief. One of the central questions asked by Heart of Darkness is this: “What does it mean to be civilized?” The story works to unravel all our tidy notions of who is civilized and who is not, and what we turn into when we lose our external restraints along with the inner ones. I can’t think of a more helpful way to understand what we are witnessing in the news and on our streets right now than to read a work of literature like Heart of Darkness.
We learn from stories better than from headlines because instead of being about “us,” stories are about “them.” And because they aren’t about us—at least on the surface—they offer the critical distance it sometimes takes to recognize hard truths about ourselves. This is exactly why the Bible’s King David, who couldn’t recognize the sin in his own life, could see the great injustice in the story the prophet Nathan told David about the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb. We are often like King David. We can’t see our own sin as reported in the daily news, but we can see it in stories about other people, especially in other times. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the truth is “too bright” for us. Stories tell the truth “slant,” like an “explanation kind.”
Further, from our finite, subjective perspectives, it’s natural to see things that happened before we were alive to witness them as “ancient history” or as “unprecedented” (ahem). We can read about events from 100 or so years ago and they seem so long ago. Yet, because they actually aren’t that long ago—and because the human condition doesn’t change—they ring familiar, even if that familiarity doesn’t register on a conscious level. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To read a novel about the past is to read today’s headlines.
What does Conrad’s narrative tell us about the myth of progress in the 19th century West?
This is one of the richest aspects of the story Conrad tells. Conrad was writing at the end of the Victorian era, a period nicknamed the “age of progress.” And what human progress seemed possible at that time! The Industrial Revolution changed people’s lives in physical, tangible ways more dramatically than even the digital revolution has changed ours. Social and political progress was similarly revolutionary. Children’s and women’s wellbeing began to be protected by law. Education became available to all. A few more people were allowed to vote. And it seemed the sun would never set, so they said, on the British Empire. But then Conrad came along to remind us that the human condition never changes.
What does it tell us about the myth of progress today?
There are competing ideas about progress. The liberal narrative is that the human condition can improve—if only we have more education, more funding, more tolerance, more whatever. The fundamentalist narrative (which the Bible does not actually support) is that things are always getting worse, and that society is on a continuous decline. Contrary to these two narratives, I think we can look at human history and see how we gain can ground in one area, (women can vote, own land, and go to college!) and decline in another (we kill unborn babies on a grand scale!). The human condition overall is constant. The particulars change, but it seems like for every step forward we take a step back. No matter how advanced our science, technology, and medicine become, the human heart will not progress.
Some of the false hope of progress stems, perhaps, from the metaphor of the machine that has dominated our thinking since the Enlightenment. Machines are great—but human beings are not machines. The technological advances simply do not have parallels in human beings. Our failure to make that distinction has had many implications for how we think about education, especially higher education, and the humanities. Indeed, perhaps the more we think the human condition can progress, the less accomplished we become in the humanities: poetry, painting, music, sculpture, and philosophy.
I have been reading a lot this past year about the cultural conditions in Europe that led to totalitarianism in the 20th century. The route to totalitarianism led through World War I, of course. It’s eerie to see how the art and literature of the prewar era contained so many premonitions of what was coming. Is it possible to see Mr. Kurtz as the Twentieth Century Man? If so, how?
That is a perfect description of Kurtz. Without giving too much away for anyone who has yet to read the book, we can definitely say that Kurtz set up his own sort of primitive totalitarian regime. And he was able to do this because, Conrad shows, what we call “civilization” turns out in the story to be little more than a pair of dress shoes you take off as soon as no one is around to see you. “Civilization” came to replace the goodness that is possible only through a genuine conversion that changes one on the inside and is not merely external conformity. Conrad was able to see where existentialism inevitably leads: only to, in the words of Marlow, the narrator, a “choice of nightmares.” Heart of Darkness is the story of one Twentieth Century Man. What we have now in the next century, is a society of Twenty First Century Men, all lobbing their choices of nightmares at one another in motions that eventually settle into the kind of polarization that characterizes our political, social, and religious life.
Excellent twentieth century dystopian works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World showed us the world we were headed for (and, arguably, may have reached). But Heart of Darkness predicted how we were going to get there.
Before I re-read your edition of HOD, I watched “Apocalypse Now” for the first time since the 1980s. As moviegoers know, it is Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the Conrad novel, set in Vietnam, late in the American war there. The sense of the exhaustion of Western civilization (as represented by the US military) was really intense. It is impossible to miss parallels in our own country today, in 2020. What aspects of contemporary American life do you see illuminated by Heart of Darkness?
The world Conrad depicts is divided into binary categories: civilized and uncivilized, light and dark, White and Black, Europe and the rest of the world. Conrad’s narrative shows how these categories are utterly inadequate. Such systemization is in some ways the essence of modernity, and it brought the world many gifts. But while some of our binary categories reflect the created order, others actually contradict it. Kurtz, by putting all his ideological and moral eggs into one categorical basket, so to speak, becomes the thing he started out standing against. One hundred years later, we are still attempting to understand ourselves and solve our problems using exhausted categories. The political polarization we live in today, while exacerbated by various factors, is ultimately merely an exaggeration of our binary political system. The two parties have utterly collapsed into each other—bringing so many other categories into that destructive force.
The novel clearly shows the failure of the European colonial project, the mission civilisitrice. But Conrad does this without valorizing the African natives either. It seems to me that Conrad can’t be slotted easily into an anti-colonial left-wing critique. How is the novel read by liberals and progressives today?
The work’s ability to defy the categories we operate by today is the very thing that makes it complicated and intriguing—and that requires the reader to do hard thinking beyond any given categories and critiques. Heart of Darkness is by no means an anti-colonial, left-wing critique of the West. In fact, as I discuss in my introduction to the text, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe considers it to be a racist text. And it is in many ways. But Heart of Darkness is likewise as powerful a critique of White Supremacy as one might find in its age, and perhaps ours. For Conrad, the race binary is another of those exhausted constructs.
What did Conrad mean by having his narrator, Marlowe, say that “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”?
It’s not the term that was used at the time Conrad was writing, and it’s not one that many people are comfortable of using in broad application, but he is really talking about what I mentioned above, White Supremacy, which, first, assumes that all European ways of knowing, learning, governing, and “progressing” are superior—and then uncritically asserts that assumption on the rest of the world. Such an assumption is a form of pride in the end, the kind of pride that can lead to one trying to become like God—or become a god. Let the reader (who has already read Heart of Darkness—or Milton, or the Bible) understand.
Finally, you have produced this critical edition of Heart of Darkness as a Christian scholar, for Christian readers. What do you hope Christians take from this book?
I hope they can see the way some aspects of modernity—from Victorianism to existentialism to modernism–are woven into the fabric of the modern American church (particularly, evangelicalism, which is my own tradition). Heart of Darkness can help us to distinguish, as Samuel Johnson put it, “that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established.” I think we need that kind of distinction right now, more than ever—this week, this election, this century.
But, beyond all this, my real goal for this book and the series it’s part of is to entice and equip people, Christians especially, to read good literature! Christians are a people of the Word. Christians, of all people, are the ones who should recognize the power and beauty of created things because we know its ultimate source. Great literature is challenging to read, to be sure. In a world filled with tantalizing amusements that require nothing from us in return, we all need some encouragement to think a little harder and dig a little deeper in order to gain the rich rewards and rich pleasures that come when we experience—and even more when we learn to enjoy—good art.
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The iPad Thieves
On James Lileks’s blog, I found this short video of a Minneapolis small businessman, a Muslim immigrant, watching helplessly as black rioters loot his store. If you watch, be prepared for some bad language:
Ah: the owner shows up. He appears Indian or Pakistani. He implores them to get out, please, at the pace of their own choosing. One man falls out of the window, carrying bags of merchandise.
The owner helps him up.
“Ipads!” says the narrator. “Insurance! Insurance! Ipads!”
The owner hears this and addresses the narrator: he doesn’t have insurance.
“Oh shit oh shit,” says the narrator. “He’s Muslim.”
This suddenly makes all this a bad to do, maaaaybe?
“Why aren’t we stealing from the white people,”’ someone says. A few people hand their phones back. They apologize.
“And his wife is pregnant. And his wife is pregnant.” It’s almost like there’s something close to remorse. But: “Reality in real life,” the narrator says.
That poor man. There he is, losing everything. He is humiliated by the mob, in front of his wife. Can you not feel for him? Every one of those SOBs who stole from that man are my enemy. Any political leader who does not take a hard and uncompromising line against the thugs that stole from that man are my enemy.
One of my favorite movies is the 1948 Italian film Bicycle Thieves. It could hardly have a simpler plot: a poor man who is desperate for a job to support his wife and young children. He finally lands one, but has to have a bicycle. His wife pawns her prized bedsheets — one of the only things of value this impoverished family has — to get her husband’s bicycle out of pawn. On the first day of work, a thief steals his bike. Most of the film follows the poor man’s search through Rome for his bicycle. He takes with him his little boy Bruno. What we, the viewer, see is a man fighting hard for his dignity, and seeing the theft strip him of that, in front of his son. It is excruciating.
That’s what I thought about when I watched that small shopowner, an immigrant, having to stand by and watch while the mob stole everything he had, as his wife watched her husband unable to protect the family’s business. The humiliation of it all.
The hatred that these mobs, and the people who apologize for them, are generating will be red-hot. Read the Lileks blog post for more. Major corporations are falling all over themselves to signal their virtue. “Black Lives Matter” has become the “Workers Of The World Unite” sign of Havel’s greengrocer myth: the sign shop owners put in their windows (so to speak) to avoid trouble.
Look at this from the digital front page of the Washington Post right now:
The New York Times digital front page is about the same as of this writing: nothing sympathetic to the innocent victims of these rampages — people like that immigrant business owner. The Post did publish a column yesterday by a Minneapolis Muslim woman whose family restaurant was burned down by the rioters. “Let it burn” she wrote; it’s the family’s sacrifice for justice. Masochists like this can find sympathetic ears in our national media.
Can people speaking out, without qualification or apology, for the mob’s victims? Do they count? Who tells their stories? Who cries out in rage for what they have had taken from them?
UPDATE: This is Manhattan tonight:
No cops anywhere. People are speeding down the street in SUVs. Total lawlessness https://t.co/CSmV9NZvgy
— Rachel Olding (@rachelolding) June 2, 2020
Uncontrollable amounts of looting going on now at 14th St and fifth Ave. Stores being empties by hundreds of people. pic.twitter.com/0bvAu95Mj9
— Rachel Olding (@rachelolding) June 2, 2020
Kids are splitting off into smaller groups in every direction around Midtown and looting en masse – some are getting in and out of cars to keep loading them up. I've seen two people who were filming the looting have their phones grabbed and smashed.
— Rachel Olding (@rachelolding) June 2, 2020
When I moved to New York City in 1998, it was so, so common to hear people say that Rudy Giuliani, who had been elected in 1994, had made such a difference in the life of the city. “You can’t imagine what it was like before,” they would say. That was a long time ago. Now, it’s back to the 1980s.
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Riots & The Invisible American
This letter came in the other day from a reader in San Antonio. I publish it with his permission. I know his real name, but am withholding it. He embedded photos from his local newspaper, the San Antonio Express News, which I can’t reproduce here without violating copyright. Here’s what the man wrote:
I’ve been a daily reader of your blog for at least a couple of years. With the exception of feeling about Trump, I agree with you on the majority of things you write.
I am a native Texan. I was born in San Antonio in 1956 and have lived in this once beautiful and peaceful city for the past 45 years. In all those years I have never … ever … seen the kinds of things that took place in our downtown last night.
I’m angry. I’m outraged. I’m pissed.
Early this morning, I went out to get our Sunday edition of Newspeak. [the San Antonio Express News]. I immediately opened it up to the front page to see what had transpired downtown the night before. The headline made it sound as if it was a relatively benign and peaceful protest with only a few minor incidents.
The other article on the page was basically a hagiography singing the praises of our Pajama Boy mayor – Ron Nirenberg … a Democrat.
I then went online to get more info and found the following photos from yesterday afternoon and last night. The online edition of Newspeak was more informative than the print edition, and the photos told the real story. I wonder how many voters, especially older ones, who rely on that deceptive print edition each week.
It apparently started off relatively peaceful …..
[photograph of peaceful protest]
But it devolved into this ….
[multiple photos of rioting]
By now you know the routine … rioting, fighting, police, tear gas, rubber bullets, broken windows, pillaged businesses … Repeat.
Luckily our governor sent State Troopers to help keep some semblance of order. I have no proof but, to me, that only tells me that our mayor and city council probably knew for a fact that this kind of thing was going to happen and had asked our governor for reinforcements in advance. Afterwards, our Pajama Boy mayor had to declare a state of emergency, issue a curfew and prevent anyone from going into the downtown area today.
Our mayor, and all 10 of our city council members are ostensibly “non-partisan” but they talk and act like any other liberal Democrat. Six are women, seven are Hispanic, one is black all are PC spouting liberals.
First they spent $500,000 to tear down the Civil War memorial that was in Travis Park and put the pieces in the basement of our sports arena.
Then they went after the Alamo and the Alamo Cenotaph. -They want to close off streets and turn the area into a kind of “living museum” that tells a more “inclusive” story of what happened there.
Then forbade Chick-fil-a to open a concession at our airport and they painted a Rainbow Crosswalk on a major street.
They’ve messed up Main Plaza in front of the courthouse by doing it on the cheap.
They passed a resolution that declared saying “China virus” is racist.
They mock and try to silence conservatives who disagree with them at city council meetings. My councilman, Manny Peleaz comes off as an arrogant SOB who thinks he knows better. They are changing this city beyond recognition.
As I said, San Antonio used to be a very peaceful, friendly, easy- going city. It seemed like we all got along without any major problems, no big police scandals, no school shootings or anything of that nature.
Now I understand what the Democrats mean when they say “Diversity is our Strength”. They’re not talking about our strength as one nation united. They’re talking about their strength as a political machine.
The Democrats have been stoking anger and racial resentment for political purposes for at least the past five years, probably longer, and things are finally coming to a boil and we see the results.
I’m a mild-mannered, middle-class, 63 year-old, gay, white male and I have been with my partner for 41 years. I have always obeyed the law and played by the rules. I put myself thru college in my 30s by working part-time, and with the help of Pell Grants and Work/Study jobs. I never had to take out student loans and I graduated debt free. I used to be a Democrat, but around 2015 it seems the Democrats started saying and doing crazy things … you know what I’m talking about. I voted for Trump. After Hillary lost, the Democrats doubled down on the crazy. I no longer recognize them or my liberal friends. Their ideology is foreign and they scare me and I have developed a severe case of cognitive dissonance.
My home is in a modest, but nice, neighborhood surrounded by a sea of very upscale mansions. We have an upscale HEB grocery store just up the street. A couple of years ago the store hired an armed security guard, who keeps a German Shepherd by his side. His patrol car is parked by the curb, with the engine and A/C constantly running, in case he needs to put the dog in the car.
Until very recently, I never had any desire to have a gun, but now, I wish I had bought one …. before it really is TOO LATE.
I have been scanning nearly all the major US news sources for their news and op-ed coverage of the riots. You know who you don’t hear from? People like this reader. They are invisible to our national media. I wonder how many of them there are. I have heard anecdotally from a handful of others who are saying nothing on Facebook and other social media now, because they are afraid of being denounced as racist, or worse, by their own friends and neighbors, who are taking loud, angry stands.
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The Road To Soft Totalitarianism
It’s frustrating, having just finished writing a book, Live Not By Lies, but having to wait till late September for it to be published. So much of its content is highly relevant to the grave social crisis the US is experiencing today. Here’s how the book starts:
“There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and with it Soviet totalitarianism. Gone was the communist police state that had enslaved Russia and half of Europe. The Cold War that had dominated the second half of the twentieth century came to a close. Democracy and capitalism bloomed in the formerly captive nations. The age of totalitarianism passed into oblivion, never again to menace humanity.
Or so the story goes. I, along with most Americans, believed that the menace of totalitarianism had passed. Then, in the spring of 2015, I received a phone call from an anxious stranger.
The caller was an eminent American physician. He told me that his elderly mother, a Czechoslovak immigrant to the US, had spent six years of her youth as a political prisoner in her homeland. She had been part of the Catholic anti-communist resistance. Now in her nineties and living with her son and his family, the old woman had recently told her American son that events in the United States today reminded her of when communism first came to Czechoslovakia.
What prompted her concern? News reports about the social-media mob frenzy against a small-town Indiana pizzeria whose Evangelical Christian owners told a reporter they would not cater a same-sex wedding. So overwhelming were the threats against their lives and property, including a user on the Twitter social media platform who tweeted a call for people to burn down the pizzeria, that the restaurant owners closed their doors for a time.
Meanwhile, liberal elites, especially in the media, normally so watchful against the danger of mobs threatening the lives and livelihoods of minorities, were untroubled by the assault on the pizzeria, which occurred in the context of the broader debate about the clash between gay rights and religious liberty.
The US-born doctor said he had heard his immigrant parents warn him about the dangers of totalitarianism all his life. He hadn’t worried—after all, this is America, the land of liberty, of individual rights, one nation under God and the rule of law. America was born out of a quest for religious liberty, and had always been proud of the First Amendment to the US Constitution that guaranteed it. But now there was something about what was happening in Indiana that made him think: What if they were right?
It’s easy to laugh this kind of thing off. Many of us with aging parents are accustomed to having to talk them down from the ledge, so to speak, after a cable news program stoked their fear and anxiety about the world outside their front door. I assumed that this was probably the case with the elderly Czech woman.
But there was something about the tension in the doctor’s voice, and the fact that he felt compelled to reach out to a journalist he didn’t even know, telling me that it would be too dangerous for me to use his name if I wrote about him, that rattled me. His question became my question: What if the old Czech woman sees something the rest of us do not? What if we really are witnessing a turn toward totalitarianism in the Western liberal democracies, and can’t see it because it takes a form different from the old kind?
During the next few years, I spoke with many men and women who had once lived under communism. I asked them what they thought of the old woman’s declaration. Did they also think that life in America is drifting toward some sort of totalitarianism?
They all said yes—often emphatically. They were usually surprised by my question because they consider Americans to be hopelessly naive on the subject. In talking at length to some of the emigrants who found refuge in America, I discovered that they are genuinely angry that their fellow Americans don’t recognize what is happening.
In the book itself, I make a case for what soft totalitarianism is, and how I believe it will manifest itself here. I won’t go into that here — believe me, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it when the book is out — but I will say simply that by “totalitarianism,” I mean an all-encompassing ideology that seeks to control not just the actions, but the thoughts of those under its power. By “soft,” I mean to distinguish it from the “hard” totalitarianism of the Soviet-style dictatorships. This is going to be something much more akin to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It will be like James Poulos’s concept of the “Pink Police State” — hardline managerial progressivism that permits personal liberties, but restricts political ones. And it will be administered not wholly by the state, but by corporations and other institutions run by managerial elites, enabled by the vast network of surveillance technology that is already in place, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, smartphones, and smart devices.
The subtitle of my book is “A Manual For Christian Dissidents,” because I wrote it as a traditional Christian, for traditional Christians, who are going to be one (but only one!) of the targets of this regime. I wrote it to awaken us so that we may prepare for it, while we have time. In January, while I was still working on the first draft of the manuscript, I wondered how I was going to be able to persuade readers to open the book and give my thesis a fair hearing. Might it sound too extreme?
Then Covid-19 happened, and it became much easier to imagine a scenario in which the state would have to manage the masses for the sake of keeping pandemic from overwhelming us. And now comes the riots.
Let me tell you how I think this is going to go down.
Let’s start with this tweet from yesterday. I apologize for the profanity for ye who are bothered by such, but the tweet is important:
God this is such bullshit
Idiot libs who think they can ride this tiger aren’t paying attention
This isn’t 2015; it’s not chubby Yale sophomores yelling at professors over Halloween costumes, this is the real deal, loss of social control in multiple major cities simultaneously.
— Spotted Toad (@toad_spotted) May 31, 2020
I believe there is a straight line between Yale in 2015 — Prof. Nicholas Christakis being yelled at when he was trying to reason with students — and today. In the 2015 case, the students screamed bloody murder at him, and demanded to be yielded to. Christakis wanted to reason with them, but they didn’t care about that. The Yale administration sold out Nicholas and Erika Christakis, and gave the emotive students a big win. What happened at Yale didn’t cause this today, but it revealed the repulsive weakness of liberal institutions. They will not defend themselves when they are attacked from the left. And so it is today.
Here is a professor commenting on the prominent white-lady Egyptologist who tweeted out instructions for how to topple the Washington monument, because it’s an obelisk dedicated (she says) to white supremacy:
A society with elites this irresponsible, secure, and stupid is a society ripe for destruction. https://t.co/f4mgSYTtQu
— Darel E. Paul (@darelmass) June 1, 2020
Yes, that’s precisely correct.
At some point, the riots will end, or be ended. Maybe our weak, paper-tiger president will be thrown out of office in November over it, or maybe not. But this is how the Establishment — corporations, media, academia, and others — will act.
For background, read this great First Things profile of the late Sam Francis, by Matthew Rose. Francis . The late Francis was a far-right newspaper columnist who was a racist and an anti-Christian. In fact, before he died, he wrote that Christianity was the enemy of white racial consciousness. He might have been a bad man, but that doesn’t mean he was unintelligent, and without insight. One of the things you learn when you read work by writers on the far left and the far right is that even though they are very wrong about big things, they often have insights that elude people who are closer to the respectable center.
This was the case with Francis. Matthew Rose is a Catholic, and understands exactly where and how Francis, the anti-Christian racist, went wrong, and says so. But he knows why Francis is important — how Francis saw things that normie conservatives could not.
That said, take a look at this 2004 Francis column about “anarcho-tyranny”. He wrote:
“Society cannot exist,” wrote the great eighteenth century conservative Edmund Burke, “unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without.”
Restraints come from within when a population shares cultural and moral values; when they don’t, external force has to provide the restraints.
Unwilling to control immigration and the cultural disintegration it causes, the authorities instead control the law-abiding.
This is precisely the bizarre system of misrule I have elsewhere described as “anarcho-tyranny”—we refuse to control real criminals (that’s the anarchy) so we control the innocent (that’s the tyranny).
Francis was focusing on immigration in this column. I don’t think immigration applies at all to the current situation. What is going to happen to us now is that to buy social peace, the Establishment elites, who have been saturated in Social Justice Warrior ideology, are going to impose a woke tyranny on everybody else. You might have thought that the economic collapse from the Covid pandemic would have forced universities to dismantle their diversity bureaucracies. Nope. Now maintaining and expanding them are going to be the price of peace. Expanding these things through corporations, media, and other institutions is going to be the new line.
What we will not be able to talk about is how a liberal democratic order requires a people capable of governing themselves. What we will not be able to talk about is how well our entire culture, especially since the 1960s, has catechized the American people in the lie that you can only become your real Self if you cast off restraints — and that any unhappiness you suffer is because somebody, somewhere, is not letting you do that. What we will not be able to talk about is the role ordered family life and developing bourgeois habits plays in academic and professional success.
All this, especially the last one, would lead to unwelcome conclusions (such as: it is very hard for a young person of any race, raised in a chaotic family structure, to develop the habits and skills that would take her out of poverty.) Instead, we will play the game. And everybody will have to lie about what they see with their own eyes, and what they know to be true. And real problems will be ignored.
For example, a just civil and economic order is one that fairly rewards people who work hard, treat others fairly, manage their resources well, and live by self-discipline (and, it must be said, one in which the police do not abuse their powers.) In all too many cases, the power-holders in our society have created an economy where those who were willing to live by that creed have not been rewarded for it. This is unjust, and demands reform. But the only kind of reform that our liberal and progressive elites are interested in is the sort that make it more difficult for the hardest-working, most self-disciplined Americans — those of Asian descent — to advance on the basis of their own accomplishments. The only kind of reform they are interested in is the kind that increases their own power as bureaucratic functionaries who allocate rewards to groups favored by the system (as well as to members of unfavored groups who have learned how to play the game).
Here, from Matthew Rose’s deeply considered profile of Sam Francis, is a description of the people Francis called “Middle-American Radicals” (MARs):
MARs feel they are members of an exploited class—excluded from real political representation, harmed by conventional tax and trade policies, victimized by crime and social deviance, and denigrated by popular culture and elite institutions. Their sense of grievance points both upward and downward. They believe they are neglected, even preyed upon, by a leadership class that favors simultaneously the rich and the poor over the middle class. “If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective,” Francis wrote, “it is reflected in a statement . . . The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.” Francis seized on the idea that a major American demographic, so decisive to Republican success, was motivated not chiefly by an ideology, but by a feeling of being “disinherited” by its own nation. This corroborated his argument that a structural collusion existed between the powerful and the poor, who form a coalition against middle-class values and interests.
What is going to happen now will only deepen their radicalization. The managerial elites will identify all those who don’t go along with their reform program as the Enemy: racist, sexist, anti-gay, religious bigots. Black and Latino Christians are going to suffer too, as Christians. Look at Lee Jussim’s list of “dangerous ideas” — things that academics have said or written that caused them to suffer serious professional punishment. This is going to be even more severe going forward, and will manifest more powerfully in corporations and other institutions. All those social media posts we’ve been seeing since the weekend, in which people signal their loyalty to new ethic of antiracist public virtue? This is the ideology of those aspiring to be in the professional classes. Pledging fealty to it will be the cost of admission. This is something that has been going around a lot in the past few days:
Read that closely. Note that ordinary conservative views are construed as “white supremacy” — an evil that cannot be reasoned with, only destroyed. I write this in Live Not By Lies:
The contemporary cult of social justice identifies members of certain social groups as victimizers, as scapegoats, and calls for their suppression as a matter of righteousness. In this way, the so-called social justice warriors, (aka SJWs) , who started out as liberals animated by an urgent compassion, end by abandoning authentic liberalism and embracing an aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism, as the Soviet style of communism was first called.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the cultural critic René Girard prophetically warned: “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.”
This is what the survivors of communism are saying to us: liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized is fast turning into a monstrous ideology that, if it is not stopped, will transform liberal democracy into a softer, therapeutic form of totalitarianism.
Events of the past week have put us on a rocket sled for this.
A couple of years ago, a reader drew my attention to the things a black radical philosophy professor at Texas A&M was saying to justify violence, especially against whites. I wrote several posts on it; here is one. I strongly encourage you to read it. I quote Curry claiming that America is undertaking the “systemic genocidal elimination of our people” — a hysterical, unjustified claim that has no basis in fact, and is only designed to terrify and incite black readers to racial violence. More Curry:
Fanon tells us that there are no innocents in the colonial situation. “Colonialism is not a type of individual relation but the conquest of a national territory and the oppression of a people: that is all.” The colonial context justifies itself to whites in the persecution and criminalization of Blacks, and in this way it knows that it is legitimate and permanent. Every white that participates in the colonial context, as if the tyranny against Blacks is the norm, and acceptable, in so far as it requires no individual action or culpability, is guilty of colonization, and as such is neither innocent nor absolved for being the particular manifestation of the colonial matrix. The possession of a white racial identity is a very real danger for African people insofar as that identity is embraced as the badge of white superiority. In this sense, every white is a concrete threat to the life of an African descended person, either as their executioner or the enforcer of white supremacy. Insofar as “whiteness” is the expectation of privilege, whiteness is also the expectation of those who cannot enjoy those privileges and the maintenance of their deprivation. Violence against whites is a revolt against both the colonial structures of the American context, as well as the rebellion against the individual whites who choose to claim the legacy of that oppression in a white racial identity.
Understand what he’s saying here: that there is no such thing as an innocent white person, and that violence against white people as white people is justified self-defense.
This is stone-cold evil. If Curry had been talking about Jews instead of “whites,” it would be instantly clear what he was calling for. It is very close to the ideological basis for the Red Terror, the mass killings undertaken by the Bolsheviks in 1918. In Live Not By Lies, I talk about this kind of thing:
That is a soft form of totalitarianism. Here is the same logic laid down hard: in 1918, Lenin unleashed the Red Terror, a campaign of annihilation against those who resisted Bolshevik power. Martin Latsis, head of the secret police in Ukraine, instructed his agents as follows:
Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.
Note well that an individual’s words and deeds had nothing to do with determining one’s guilt or innocence. One was presumed guilty based entirely on one’s class and social status. A revolution that began as an attempt to right historical injustices quickly became an exterminationist exercise of raw power. Communists justified the imprisonment, ruin, and even the execution of people who stood in the way of Progress as necessary to achieve historical justice over alleged exploiters of privilege.
You might think: yeah, this is bad, but this guy is an obscure intellectual, so what’s the big deal? Once again, a quote fromLive Not By Lies:
In our populist era, politicians and talk-radio polemicists can rile up a crowd by denouncing elites. Nevertheless, in most societies, intellectual and cultural elites determine its long-term direction. “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter. Though a revolutionary idea might emerge from the masses, says Hunter, “it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” working through their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions.”
This is why it is critically important to keep an eye on intellectual discourse. Those who don’t, leave the gates unguarded. As the Polish dissident and émigré Czesław Miłosz put it, “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”
The fact that Tommy Curry’s kind of violent, morally insane racist ranting is normative within academia tells you something about what the elite networks are prepared to believe, and enforce. The other day on CNN, Van Jones, a black commenter who is often one of the network’s most insightful analysts, said that the white people have “a virus in their brains” that allows them to turn racist in a heartbeat. He further said: “White people are always innocent — and their innocence constitutes their crime. It is too late to be innocent.”
Thus does a version of Tommy Curry’s madness make it out of the philosophy department to cable news.
Here’s what makes what’s coming worse for white Christians. There is no way — no way — that any faithful Christian can tolerate racial bigotry and still call himself faithful to Jesus Christ. Racism is a sin, straight up. You may not hate your brother because of the color of his skin, period. It is a compliment to Christianity that the white supremacist Sam Francis identified the Christian faith as an obstacle to the white racial consciousness that he wanted to see.
We are now in post-Christian America. The Millennials are the first generation in American history in which a minority identify as Christian. Only nine percent claim a non-Christian faith. Forty percent say they are unaffiliated with any faith. What, exactly, will keep them tied to the mast and unable to respond to the siren song of white nationalism — especially when they look around them and see that liberals have established a new order based on heightened racial consciousness for non-whites? The white working class is also dropping out of church.
White Christians — except for the progressive ones, who already accept the respectable, illiberal racism popular on the Left — are going to be in the agonizing position of having to stand both against the racialist progressive Establishment, and against the angry white racialists whose radicalism will have been raised or intensified by the emergence and consolidation of the new progressive order. Living in truth will be very, very difficult — and will require sacrifices that we can only begin to imagine.
One last word, and a quote from Live Not By Lies:
At dinner in a Russian Orthodox family’s apartment in the Moscow suburbs, I was shaken by our table talk of Soviet oppression through which the father and mother of the household had lived. “I don’t understand how anybody could have believed what the Bolsheviks promised,” I said glibly.
“You don’t understand it?” said the father at the head of the table. “Let me explain it to you.” He then launched into a three hundred-year historical review that ended with the 1917 Revolution. It was a pitiless tale of rich and powerful elites, including church bureaucrats, treating peasants little better than animals.
“The Bolsheviks were evil,” the father said. “But you can see where they came from.”
I was chastened by this. The more I dug into Russian history, the better I understood where the radicalism came from. Ordinary Russian people had been kept down for so long that they were willing to believe that anything would be better than what they had. So, Russia had a revolution, and it got incomparably worse. As Solzhenitsyn wrote (and I quote in the book):
If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.
It could always be worse! We will never, ever live in utopia, where there is no racism, no bigotry, no suffering. Anybody who tells you that is lying to you, and creating false hope that is bound to be disappointed. And yet, the pain that calls out for relief is real. Watch this:
Two Black men aged 45 and 31 lament over how nothing has changed and then urge a 16-year-old to “come up with a better a way cause we ain’t doing it.”
The 16-year-old responds “yes sir.”
Generations of pain. I’m in tears. pic.twitter.com/27HVP2Y4Xt
— Fatima Syed (@fatimabsyed) May 31, 2020
It’ll shake you up. It should shake you up. The rawness of those men’s pain. It’s the kind of thing that will cause a man to believe in anything that promises him relief — even if it’s a poisonous lie. But then, we have become a country in which many people, regardless of their race, are willing to believe lies if the lies feel right to them, and suit their ideological preferences. Hannah Arendt said this kind of thing is a prelude to totalitarianism.
Read this poem by W.H. Auden — September 1, 1939 — about the start of the Second World War. It feels very contemporary. Here’s how it starts:
This decade that has just begun will be even lower, and more dishonest than the one that preceded it. And it will be a decade of soft totalitarianism. The Establishment will consolidate its control by implementing something like the Chinese social credit system, in which technology will be used to surveil the private lives — the thoughts, the words, the deeds — of the masses, who will be punished or rewarded by algorithms. Imagine the ideology represented by that pyramid applied via an algorithm to all your social media posts, online commentaries, and suchlike — and you being flagged in databases as Deplorable. The Chinese call this process “harmonization.” The American corporate and institutional elites are about to start harmonizing all of us dissidents. Donald Trump is too crude and foolish to know how to use political power to fight this. Besides, he has no moral authority — none — to stand against it.
This beautiful, deeply human moment offers a way out. Not white supremacy, not black supremacy; not Tommy Curry, and not Sam Francis; not revolution, but compassion (suffering with) and humanity:
This is how we transcend. pic.twitter.com/I3MXERUsL6
— Chloé S. Valdary 📚 (@cvaldary) June 1, 2020
Can we do this? I hope we can.
But if not? Then prepare yourselves. This is the reality of what anarcho-tyranny is going to bring about, and very soon. Managerial liberalism will harden into soft totalitarianism. I wish Live Not By Lies was coming out this week. September 29, the publication date, is ages away — but you can pre-order it here. Sadly, the need for the wisdom offered by these people who lived through hard totalitarianism is going to be much more evident by the autumn.
UPDATE: This is one way it works:
This is how authoritarian regimes create citizen policing units. By finding the swallower of slogans and the sniffers out of the unorthodoxy. It could be a colleague, a friend, a parent, or a sibling.
— Jeremy Willis (@JeremyPhilosoph) June 1, 2020
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Rioters Burning St. John’s Church
My God. This is the historic Episcopal church across Lafayette Park from the White House. Every US president since James Madison has worshipped there. The mob is burning it down.
How much more of this are we supposed to take? They’re now destroying our history, our heritage. And the authorities are showing themselves powerless to stop it.
UPDATE: Thank God firefighters extinguished the blaze. Meanwhile, across the street:
The guardhouse at the White House has been set on fire. The police rushes forward and gassed the crowd. pic.twitter.com/Hi9XcSbpiJ
— Eric Angelo (@MrEricAngelo) June 1, 2020
Don’t worry, I hear that the president is about to reveal some important news on the Joe Scarborough case.
The nation’s capital is legitimately on fire in every direction. This is unreal. pic.twitter.com/hXNJ0LticL
— Samantha-Jo Roth (@SamanthaJoRoth) June 1, 2020
My TAC colleague writes:
the nihilism of the “riots are good for Trump” crowd is, first — incorrect — but second, why would you want a chief executive of the most powerful empire in history who can’t quell a riot in front of his house?
— curtmills (@CurtMills) June 1, 2020
PSA For ANYONE who might be interested in how to pull down an obelisk* safely from an Egyptologist who never ever in a million years thought this advice might come in handy
*might be masquerading as a racist monument I dunno
— Sarah Parcak (@indyfromspace) June 1, 2020
The elites in this country are such bloody idiots.
UPDATE.4: People are pointing out that the Egyptologist was not talking about tearing down the Washington monument, but a similar obelisk erected as a tribute to the Confederacy. That’s a significant difference. Still, the mob has no right to decide on its own which statues are going to remain. If you believe a society built on raw force is going to be just, you are a fool.
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A Failure Of Leadership
We are seeing our cities on fire in the worst civil unrest since the late 1960s, and here is what the President of the United States has had to say to the nation today:
That fool also tweeted out a QAnon conspiracy buff’s message today, but took it down. While the nation’s cities are burning, the President of the United States sat in the White House tweeting conspiracy theories.
And you know, we should probably count our blessings. If he went on TV to address the nation, Trump would probably make things worse. There he sits in the White House, impotent, an angry old man who doesn’t know what to do, and who, being utterly despised by half the country — but not feared! — cannot possibly gain control of the situation.
What a rotten time. In 1968, when Nixon ran on restoring law and order, there was at least good reason to believe that he was competent enough to address those challenges. Not Trump. A conservative can rightly conclude that Biden and the Democratic Party would do no good (think of Mayor Pajama Boy in Minneapolis, surrendering the Third Precinct), but whataboutism is cold comfort. The fact is, we have a massive national crisis underway, a crisis on top of two other crises — pandemic and economic collapse — and we are led by a buffoon who does nothing but sit on his backside and tweet. It’s infuriating!
But with the powerful exception of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lane Bottoms — you have to watch her short address here — there have been few examples of strong leadership. The national media are perseverating on a narrative broadly sympathetic to the rioters. Today the Washington Post published a column by a woke masochist whose family-owned Indian restaurant in Minneapolis was burned to the ground by rioters, who says “let it burn” because racism. I guarantee you that 99 percent of all people, of all races, whose small businesses have been looted or burned by rioters do not feel this way. Democracy dies in darkness, you know; maybe the fires from torched businesses will shed the light we need.
On Friday, May 29, Minnesota governor Tim Walz explained his reluctance to mobilize the National Guard as an unwillingness to seem “oppressive.” Naturally, he apologized for his white privilege—“I will not patronize you as a white man without living [your] lived experiences”—and explained the feral violence as an understandable response to racial injustice: “The ashes are symbolic of decades and generations of pain, of anguish, unheard.” Few arrests were made after five days of rampant crime.
The media, visibly exhilarated by this latest explosion of black rage, had its own explanation for the chaos: people were outraged that the officer who had kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for a sickening eight-plus minutes had not yet been arrested and charged. But when that arrest came, along with murder and manslaughter charges after a lightning-fast investigation by the district attorney, the anarchy continued—not just in Minneapolis but across the country, intensified by Antifa radicals.
Political leaders elsewhere have been just as reluctant to use the necessary force to quell the violence. New York mayor Bill de Blasio called on police to use a “light touch” in response. New York governor Andrew Cuomo coolly predicted on Sunday, May 31, during his now absurdly irrelevant daily coronavirus press conference, that the violence would continue. “The explosion we saw last night we’ll probably see again tonight,” he said—obviously confident in his own physical safety, if not the safety of the rest of the state’s residents.
Fittingly, the ideological handmaiden of this violence—academia—has already sprung into action. The chancellors and presidents of Harvard, the University of Arizona, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale, among others, released statements over the weekend assuring their black students of their schools’ commitment to racial equity, in light of the George Floyd death—an event wholly unrelated to the academic. No college leader denounced the violence.
UCLA’s chancellor Gene Block, as well as the school’s $400,000 a year Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and a parade of deans, announced that the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the school’s legions of Equity Advisors would be coming up with new programs for “virtual reflection spaces” in which to “humbly acknowledge the pain.” The school’s Resources for Racial Trauma would be beefed up. The academic diversity bureaucracy has now been given a whole new excuse for existence and can be assured that it will escape the cost-cutting chopping block, even as universities beg the federal government for more coronavirus bailout money.
I expect corporate, academic, and media leadership to be as weak and unprincipled as Evergreen State’s George Bridges, who let himself be stomped to a puddle by woke mobs. But we have a Republican president in the White House who is as useless in this crisis as teats on a boar. It is not the case that the fecklessness of liberal leaders, both political and institutional, somehow improves Trump. It doesn’t. Ann Coulter, who in 2016 wrote a book called In Trump We Trust, has had it:
If you are a conservative, where do you see hope right now? Serious question. I’m not talking about hope in the broad, reason-to-live sense; I’m talking about where you find hope that our leadership class, political and otherwise, are capable of dealing with this crisis.
But Trump didn’t want the gift [of presidential authority]. It’s not just that our president was too ineffective to consolidate power, that any potential authoritarianism was undermined by his administration’s incompetence. Incompetent he surely is, but in areas that involve his self-preservation (like the firing of inconvenient inspectors general) he still finds a way to wield his powers even when norms stand in his way.
But once you leave the sphere of petty corruption for the sphere of policymaking, Trump clearly lacks both the facility and the interest level required to find opportunity in crisis. In this case, confronted with the same basic facts as Orban, he showed no sense of the pandemic as anything save an inconvenience to be ignored, a problem to be wished away, an impediment to his lifestyle of golf and tweets and occasional stream-of-consciousness stemwinders. And when reality made ignoring it impossible, his only genuinely political impulse — the only impulse that related to real power and its uses — was to push the crucial forms of responsibility down a level, to the nation’s governors, and wash his presidential hands.
In this the coronavirus has clarified, once and for all, the distinctiveness of Trump’s demagogy. Great men and bad men alike seek attention as a means of getting power, but our president is interested in power only as a means of getting attention. Which is why, tellingly, his most important virus-related power grab to date has been the airtime grab of his daily news conferences — a temporary coup against the cable television schedule, a ruthless imposition (at least until the reviews turned bad) of presidential reality TV.
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Police Behaving Badly
I’ve been posting all weekend images of rioters and looters. Here’s a piece that collects video from all over the country of police brutalizing protesters. Excerpt:
Here is just a short list of scenes from the past few days:
A New York City police officer tore a protective mask off of a young black man and assaulted him with pepper spray while the victim peacefully stood with his hands up
New York City police officers, in two separate vehicles, rammed a crowd in a street. Separately, an officer in a moving police vehicle slammed someone with a car door and drove away
Security forces in Minneapolis marched down a quiet residential street and shot paint canisters at residents who were watching from their private porch
Police in Louisville raided a public square, confiscating and destroying water and milk, which is used to counter irritants like pepper spray
Atlanta police stopped two black people, inexplicably shooting them with tasers and tearing them out of their car
A New York City officer used two hands to throw a woman to the ground, reportedly calling her a “stupid fucking bitch”
San Antonio Police used tear gas against people. So did Dallas police. So did Los Angeles police. So did DC police. The list goes on.
Many people reported being shot by rubber bullets. MSNBC host Ali Velshi says he was shot after state police fired unprovoked into a peaceful rally. A freelance photographer in Minneapolis says she went permanently blind in her left eye after being shot by police.
Police have brutalized lawmakers participating in demonstrations, including New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie.
In the original piece, there are lots of links and embeds, which don’t transfer over here. Follow the link and read them, and see them. This is an important part of the story. Either we live under the rule of law — all of us — or we don’t. Brutal police officers undermine the rule of law. There’s a reason why a cop who abuses his power is especially bad. It’s the same reason why, when a priest is found to have molested a child, we don’t say, “Good news! Nearly all priests would never molest a child.” It may be true, but we must never cease to be shocked when someone in whom we invest so much social authority (and, in the policeman’s case, actual power) misuses that authority and power to harm others.
UPDATE: Reader Dukeboy1, a retired police officer, comments:
This ain’t beanbag, folks. You sit comfortable behind your keyboards and phone screens and harumph and stroke your chins over the violence. You apply sober, white, middle and upper- class values along with a expectation of reasonable, logical behavior to people who are none of those things.
You don’t believe that it’s really that bad. And because you’re weak, mentally and physically. You know that you don’t have it in you to face violence and in your weakness you fear all who can. And so you feel justified passing judgement against people who are capable of doing something you hope you never face.
Antifa is in Lexington, KY tonight. The entire department was called in to be there. The festivities were supposed to kick off at eight. Roll call was at five.
Last night was just supposed to be local yokels and malcontents. Everything was mostly okay until after 11 PM. Then they decided to try to take over police headquarters. That was a fun 30 minutes until order was restored.
Sometime in the night a load of bricks mysteriously turned up on the sidewalk down the street from headquarters. They were removed, but the theory is that was the obvious cache and another one or two are yet to be found. This has been the pattern in other cities.
In Louisville, Antifa soaked toilet paper rolls in gasoline and secreted nails inside the roll. When lit and thrown towards the police lines, the hope is that nails will injure officers trying to stomp the rolls out. They’re expecting that tonight.
This is real. It’s not theoretical. And it’s not a game. We’re four nights into this and it’s not going to let up until there are consequences.
I’m happy to be out and I’m encouraging everybody I know who has their time in to follow me.