The Age of Antichrist Is Here
When I was a kid in the late 1970s, I happened upon a copy of Hal Lindsey’s megaselling The Late Great Planet Earth. It was an Evangelical account of the Last Days, purporting to explain how we were living in the times just before the return of Jesus Christ. All of this hit me like a bomb. I didn’t know Jesus Christ was coming back! Why did no one tell me? (I’ve told you before that we weren’t big churchgoers in my family.) And holy cow, I had no clue that the Soviet Union was mentioned in the Bible, and that the European Common Market was going to produce this guy called the Antichrist, and that there was this thing called the Rapture … et cetera. This was thrilling stuff. It electrified my imagination for a year or two. And then it burned out, and with it went my faith for some time.
As an adult Christian, I would laugh at myself, recalling how seriously twelve-year-old me took Hal Lindsey’s speculations, none of which came true. That End Times narrative is really narcotic, though. As a Catholic, I saw a version of it, usually involving devotion to Marian apparitions. A priest friend who had been converted at Medjugorje, but who early in his priesthood wearied of apparition-chasers, told me how frustrating it was to him to be unable to get his most enthusiastic parishioners to focus on the ordinary part of being Catholics. They wanted the spiritual fireworks. It’s a real temptation.
The thing is, the Christian tradition really does say that before the Second Coming of Christ, there will arise a messianic world leader called by Scripture the “Beast,” who is the “Antichrist.” He will lead a mass persecution of the Church, and will oversee a global dictatorship that controls people’s lives so thoroughly that, according to Revelation 13:
16Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead,17so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.18This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
I hardly need to point out that there is a massive literature of speculation about the identity of the Antichrist, and how it is connected to the number 666. I find the theory of the Orthodox Christian thinker Jonathan Pageau persuasive: that the Antichrist 666 is not necessarily a single man (though it might be), but the number refers to a total godless system. He writes, in part:
So, we have to be very attentive as these patterns play themselves out. As these patterns start to appear to us in the world, we have to not look for the Ozzy Osbourne, dark Satanist who is going to be wearing all black and looking like a ghoul coming out of the Earth. That is not what 666 looks like. 666 looks like a luminous system that seems like it contains everything and can control everything. And that is why it is so seductive. That is why it can delude us if we’re not careful, because to not participate or to not, let’s say, worship this system can exclude you from the discourse. It makes it very easy to compromise in that sense.
Not long ago, I read that the Romans tattooed slaves on their hands or foreheads, so they would never be able to escape. It hit me, then, that the “mark of the Beast” seen by St. John was not necessarily a literal mark on the forehead or hand (though it might be), but that symbolically it meant that you had to be a slave to the system in order to participate economically — that is, to earn a living.
As a Christian, I certainly believe this dark, totalitarian world will one day come into being. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of guessing when that might be, and that’s something I never do. But I gotta say, the shape of the thing really does seem to be coming into being. In 2019, I wrote this piece after two prominent Catholic cardinals warned that the age of Antichrist might be upon us — both of them referencing the confused teaching coming from Pope Francis as a dangerous sign of the times. The intellectual giant René Girard, a Catholic, wrote around the turn of the century that we were in perilous times:
The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition. … We are living through a caricatural “ultra-Christianity” that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by “radicalizing” the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner. … The intellectuals and other cultural elites have promoted Christianity to the role of number one scapegoat.
Girard says we are at the advent of what he calls “the other totalitarianism,” saying that it is
the most cunning and malicious of the two, the one with the greatest future, by all evidence. At present it does not oppose Judeo-Christian aspirations but claims them as its own and questions the concern for victims on the part of Christians (not without a certain semblance of reason at the level of concrete action, given the deficiencies of historical Christianity). The other totalitarianism does not openly oppose Christianity but outflanks it on its left wing.
As I wrote the last time I brought this up, this is the force of what in the Christian tradition is called Antichrist. You don’t have to believe in a literal Antichrist figure to grasp what Girard is saying here. Girard points out that in the symbolic language of the New Testament, Antichrist opposes Christ by imitating him and seeking to be better than him. More:
The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.
Girard wrote that in his 2001 book I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning. He died in 2015, just as the trans craze was getting started. I don’t think he would have been surprised by any of it.
Why do I bring this up today? Because I just read the latest Substack essay, titled “You Are Harvest,” by Paul Kingsnorth, an English writer living in rural Ireland with his wife and kids. I am a subscriber, so I don’t know if it is behind a paywall or not. Click the link to see. Kingsnorth was formally baptized and confirmed as an Orthodox Christian earlier this year, but his thought expressed in the piece is not based on anything Christian. Rather it is based on a lifetime of observing and analyzing the culture. Read in a Christian key, though, what he writes is staggering, and look, if you can’t read this for free, you would do well to buy a subscription to read his entire series about what he calls The Machine. Any time he refers to “the Machine,” I think “Antichrist.” It fits. Here are excerpts:
Many people see few problems with the march of the digital machine through every aspect of our lives. Many people have simply forgotten what it feels like not to be pulled and pushed and tugged and directed every hour of the day by the demands of the glowing screen.
Many people are not paying attention.
A few days after I lost my game of chess, a couple of friends came to visit us from England. We hadn’t seen them for nearly a decade, and they hadn’t travelled anywhere since the pandemic began, so they were blinking excitedly in the sunlight. They had taken the ferry across the Irish Sea, which had necessitated them performing a particular technological ritual, one which went beyond even the longstanding norm of scanning their digitally-enabled passports and sitting on a boat full of CCTV cameras.
This time they had to have their photo taken, and show their digital proof of vaccination. They also, for some reason they didn’t understand, had to recite a string of numbers into a recording device. If I were being paranoid – and these days I usually am – I would guess that this was part of the creation of an embryonic digital voice recognition system, which will be used in future to supplement the eyeball scans, passport chips and smartphone-enabled health certificates which are already forming the basis of our glorious future of freedom and plenty.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, or I wander in the field behind my house, or I walk down the street in our local town and think I can see it all around me: the grid. The veins and sinews of the Machine that surrounds us and pins us and provides for us and defines us now. I imagine a kind of network of shining lines in the air, glowing like a dewed spiderweb in the morning sun. I imagine the cables and the satellite links, the films and the words and the records and the opinions, the nodes and the data centres that track and record the details of my life. I imagine the mesh created by the bank transactions and the shopping trips, the passport applications and the text messages sent. I see this thing, whatever it is, being constructed, or constructing itself around me, I see it rising and tightening its grip, and I see that none of us can stop it from evolving into whatever it is becoming.
I see the Machine, humming gently to itself as it binds us with its offerings, as it dangles its promises before us and slowly, slowly, slowly reels us in. I think of the part of it we interact with daily, the glowing white interface through which we volunteer every detail of our lives in exchange for information or pleasure or stories told by global entertainment corporations who commodify our culture and sell it back to us. I think of the words we use to describe this interface, which we carry with us in our pockets wherever we go, as we are tracked down every street and into every forest that remains: the web; the net.
I think: these are things designed to trap prey.
Here, Kingsnorth comes to the end of a long passage in which he discusses Jacques Ellul and his theories about how our world is being taken over by “technique.” For Ellul, this means establishing by mechanical means a world in which all things are controlled:
But then, if Ellul is right, this is the direction in which the reign of technique will ultimately take us: towards the dictatorship of the Machine. Claiming in 1964 that technique had already ‘rendered traditional democratic doctrines obsolete’, he suggested that the new way of seeing would overcome any democratic objections, and would always tend towards total control. ‘Efficiency is a fact’, he wrote wryly, ‘and justice a slogan.’ Technique, through sheer dominance, would accrue power to itself until there could be no rational argument (the only kind of argument now accepted) against controlling the minutiae of our lives for the greater good:
Finally, technique causes the state to become totalitarian, to absorb the citizens’ lives completely. We have noted that this occurs as a result of the accumulation of techniques in the hands of the state … Even when the state is liberal and democratic, it cannot do otherwise than become totalitarian. It becomes so directly or, as in the United States, through intermediate persons. But, despite differences, all such systems come ultimately to the same result.
By using the word ‘totalitarian’, Ellul was not suggesting that all nations would become dictatorships, let alone adopt an ideological framework like Nazism or Marxism to guide them. In fact, he said, such ideologies interfere with the direction of technique, which seeks efficiency rather than ideology. ‘Totalitarian’, in this context, simply meant that it would be impossible to escape the Machine and its assumptions. Everywhere you looked, there it would be: staring you in the face, directing your actions, digging into every facet of your life, giving you fewer and fewer escape routes each year.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the times we are currently living in would be regarded by many of our ancestors as apocalyptic. The degree of control and monitoring which we endure in ‘developed’ societies, which has been accelerating for decades and which has reached warp speed in the 2020s, is creating a kind of digital holding camp in which we all find ourselves trapped. The rising paranoia that extends now across the political spectrum and across the Western world – the anger and confusion; the sense of promises broken and established systems gumming up – all of this, I think, can be traced to the rise and consolidation of the Machine, this great matrix which strips from us our understanding of what a human life is, and makes us instead lonely cogs in its drive for self-creation.
Read it all, if you can — and if you can’t, then buy a subscription and read all nine of Kingsnorth’s essays about the Machine. Trust me, it’s worth it.
In this latest piece, Kingsnorth suggests that you watch this 10-minute video of Edward Snowden explaining how the Internet works, and why it leads to our slavery:
It is hard to know how to respond to this in one’s life. At the Touchstone conference recently, a woman asked me why, if I recognized all the evils that come to us through smartphones (primarily surveillance), do I continue to have one? It’s a great question, and the only feeble answer I could give her was that I have to have it to do my job. When I told my wife about the woman’s question, and how unhappy I was with my answer, she pointed out that our daughter’s “dumb phone” was going to be obsolete soon, because it would not be able to work on the cell system. They have made it where we all have to have smart phones if we are going to have cellphones at all. Could you do your job without a cellphone? I couldn’t. There’s no way in the world. So, I am lashed to the system, whether I like it or not. And so are you.
When I talk in Live Not By Lies about “soft totalitarianism,” I am not simply speaking of the particular policies the baizuocracy is putting into place. I am talking about the technical capabilities they have built into the system to control us. The other day I watched a video in which one of the leading Catholic integralists said that it was a shame that progressives understood better than us conservatives that the state ought to be in the business of “soulcraft,” and be guiding the people to virtue. I thought: this right-wing Catholic doesn’t object to the controlling state; he just objects to the fact that secular leftists are in command of it. Well, I don’t want to live in a society in the grips of Dostoevsky’s Catholic Grand Inquisitor any more than I want to live in one gripped by Huxley’s secular World Controller. But we have created, and continue to refine, a system that gives that kind of power to people.
China is where this future is being perfected:
Lin Jinyue, lead designer of China’s social credit system, extolls its value and his hope for worldwide adoption:
“If you had the social credit system, there would never have been the Yellow Vests, we would have detected that before they acted.”pic.twitter.com/6JKC8tDVzP
— Michael P Senger (@MichaelPSenger) October 22, 2021
Right now, in the West, this power is coming into the hands of progressives, who will use it to stamp out racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the rest. They will be able to detect the existence of these things before people can act on them. The technology is already there; it just hasn’t been implemented. Yet.
The Age of Antichrist is not about Ozzy Osbourne and pale Goths. It’s about nebbishy Lin Jinyue, the head of Human Resources at major companies, and Silicon Valley. And it is here. They are going to use their power to establish a reign of virtue. There will be no room for non-compliant Christians in it (or non-complying anyone else). We were warned 2,000 years ago. We are warned once again by Paul Kingsnorth, whether he knows it or not.
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White Supremacy Ate Harvard Student’s Homework
When the history of our insane age of cultural breakdown is written, this op-ed in the Harvard Crimson, by a black female student dropping out of the pre-med program, will be a primary document. Kyla G. — who, as a Harvard student, is one of the most privileged people on the planet — explains to the university community how white supremacy drove her out. Excerpts:
While this isn’t just another story about the toxicity of pre-med culture, getting weeded out, or leaving my academic path for some earth-shattering love of another aspiration, it is a story of how white supremacy lives and breathes in each of our bodies, spreading between each of us — body to body — like contagion. It is a story of trying to mitigate chronic pain to create the possibility for genuine healing and recovery. A story of a great act of resistance: a Black woman choosing herself.
I took an inorganic chemistry exam the same day that a grand jury failed to charge two police officers with the murder of Breonna Taylor. That day, my body inhaled molecules of white supremacy as they seeped out of my computer from that proctored Zoom room. They entered my bloodstream and catalyzed a metabolism that would allow for the invasion of my body by a violently infectious life form. A chronic pain, caused by the perpetuation of lethally unjust practices and compounded by the silence and avoidance between myself and my educators when it comes to Black women’s lives, would make its way through and onto neighboring cells within my physical being. The presence of the germ of white supremacy would cause a steric hindrance within me, slowing down and even preventing the reactions of learning and healing that I desperately needed for myself and from others in that moment. The exam began, and I haven’t been able to show up mentally or emotionally in a science class since.
Steric hindrances? Golly. There’s more:
But no more. I have chosen a path to justice and healing that is rooted in self-love and preservation.
For Black women, self-care is an act of liberation. It disrupts systems of power — even at places like Harvard — that hold a stake in patriarchy and institutionalized racism. It is a way for us to free ourselves and dilute our pain from historical patterns of trauma caused by everyday violences. It is a crucial aspect of embracing and valuing our dignity and self-worth because trauma doesn’t have to be our destiny. We deserve to heal, to grow, to change. And sometimes it looks like distancing ourselves from potentially toxic, or infectious, scenarios or spaces to protect our energy and safeguard it for our own well-being.
Well done, Kyla! You couldn’t handle pre-med classes, so you blamed your failure on whiteness, and claimed that your dropping out was a revolutionary act. Read the whole thing.
This kind of weaponized self-pity will take Miss G. far. One expects that she will change her major to something that prepares her to work in the baizuocracy as a DEI commissar, where she can work out her insecurities by terrorizing everyone under her authority, and be well-paid for it.
Seriously, though, what a decadent country we are in when a grown-ass woman behaves this way. If one of my children ever wrote something like this, I would read them the riot act. Remember, Harvard is one of the places where America’s ruling class is trained. At what point will the failure of institutions like Harvard to produce people who are capable of actual work, as opposed to manipulating the emotions of those in institutional power, actually hurt them? When will it hurt the system? I’m serious about the dangers of a lunatic racist like Kyla moving into a position of power within American institutions. True, there is a lot of ruin in a nation, but at some point, the bill for indulging this kind of bigoted garbage that justifies incompetence is going to come due.
(Via Steve Sailer)
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I think you were a little hard on that Harvard student.Let me offer an alternative interpretation.She doesn’t have hope.The old script: go to Harvard, become a doctor, join the elite, change the world. This script has been upended in her mind because at any moment the cops might burst in with a no knock warrant and guns out and none of that education or status will matter.I agree that this is not necessarily a race problem, we have steadily militarized the police since 9-11, and don’t show any sign of taking away practices like no knock warrants.She is in a state of despair. She frames the despair in racial terms and that is the fault of her elite education. However, the despair and hopelessness she expresses would tie in as an example of what you are writing your book about. Her world is flat, a battle between the white team and the black team. There isn’t a transcendent reality available for her to actually find the “healing” she seeks, and maintain the hope of being a doctor and making a difference in the world. So she throws in the towel and blames everyone else. What 19 year old hasn’t done that? Unfortunately, she lacks competent mentors to tell her to keep going.You might think, “You are making her a victim, how woke of you…” She is a victim, a victim of rotten education from top to bottom that offers resentment without hope and torpedoes the careers of the brightest minorities before they even get started. She will be applauded for taking this self-defeating stand. And that, is what they call systemic racism.Maybe it is not too late for her to realize that oppressors can be of any colour.I hope not.
It only took me a moment on Google to find that she graduated from the private, college-prep Ursuline School in New Rochelle, New York. According to an organization that granted her a scholarship, she is is “attending Harvard and was granted admission to nearly every school she applied to Princeton, Columbia, Johns Hopkins among them.”
It’s hard to know what her educational and family background really are, but she’s now at Harvard! Does she have any idea how much privilege she has now acquired? Apparently not, because if she did she’s be using that privilege to help others rather than making it about herself.
Sadly, she’s bound to get the wrong message from the Internet-wide backlash to her article and will probably just dig in on her personal narrative all the more.
Good grief! This girl has more privilege than most people in America by far! No wonder she had to blame white supremacy for her not being able to hack pre-med at Harvard. What else was she going to do, except take personal responsibility?
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Dave Chappelle Meets Soft Totalitarianism
From Daily Variety, comedian Dave Chappelle claims that he is in the process of being cancelled by the trans mafia and its allies:
Chappelle also spoke about his upcoming documentary about his summer 2020 comedy tour, claiming that it has now been excluded from film festivals.
“This film that I made was invited to every film festival in the United States and some of those invitations I accepted. When this controversy came out about ‘The Closer,’ they began disinviting me from these film festivals,” Chappelle claimed. “And now, today, not a film company, not a movie studio, not a film festival, nobody will touch this film. Thank God for Ted Sarandos and Netflix, he’s the only one that didn’t cancel me yet.”
Chappelle is rich. He will survive this — but that is totally beside the point. The lesson here is that commissars throughout the entertainment business are willing to throw even one of the most popular comedians in America under the bus if trans activists demand it. If they can do this to Dave Chappelle, and blackball his documentary, there is not one other comedian in the country who is safe from these Stalinists.
What’s happening to Chappelle here is a great example of how this new form of totalitarianism works. People keep saying, “Where are the gulags? How is this totalitarianism if you don’t have the government enforcing ideology?” The answer is that this is a new kind of totalitarianism. You don’t need the government when all the institutional leadership is operating from the same ideological playbook, and willing to silence those who cross ideological lines.
And this, by the way, is another example of how completely wrong liberals are to say that the only thing that drives movie studios is moneymaking. You think there’s no money to be made off a Dave Chappelle documentary? Seriously? This is about fear of the woke mafia. Dave Chappelle, in his special, said he agrees with the trans-exclusive radical feminists, who say that transwomen aren’t women. That is enough to make Chappelle the subject of a cancellation attempt within the industry.
Who among his many Hollywood friends will speak out for him? Bill Maher will, but who else? Are they cowards? If Chappelle goes down, it will be a stunning revelation of who sits atop the oppression hierarchy. That is, if the country’s most popular black comedian, a man who has taken uncompromising stands on race and justice, suffers a career setback because he got crossways the transgender community, that will tell us that sexual minorities are at the pinnacle of cultural and economic power in this country. And notice how the media manufactured a narrative about the anti-Chappelle protest.
In related news, an Indiana congressman tweeted this the other day about the transgender Adm. Rachel Levine — and now Twitter has suspended his account:
Twitter denies a US Congressman access to its platform because he made a statement that is scientifically, verifiably true: that Rachel Levine is a male. Twitter has the right to do this, because it is a private company. But it is so widely used that people who want to keep their Twitter access will not make the “mistake” that the U.S. Congressman did. Change the language, you have changed people’s perception of reality — and the state doesn’t have to pass a single law or decree to get it done. From Live Not By Lies:
Under the dictatorship of Big Brother, the Party understands that by changing language—Newspeak is the Party’s word for the jargon it imposes on society—it controls the categories in which people think. “Freedom” is slavery, “truth” is falsehood, and so forth. Doublethink—“holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”—is how people learn to submit their minds to the Party’s ideology. If the Party says 2 + 2 = 5, then 2 + 2 = 5. The goal is to convince the person that all truth exists within the mind, and the rightly ordered mind believes whatever the Party says is true.
It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you—something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.
In our time, we do not have an all-powerful state forcing this on us. Under soft totalitarianism, the media, academia, corporate America, and other institutions are practicing Newspeak and compelling the rest of us to engage in doublethink every day. Men have periods. The woman standing in front of you is to be called “he.” Diversity and inclusion means excluding those who object to ideological uniformity. Equity means treating persons unequally, regardless of their skills and achievements, to achieve an ideologically correct result.
To update an Orwell line to our own situation: “The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
The day is coming when nobody will remember what a man and a woman are. The day is also coming where there will be no such thing as comedy, because everybody will be too afraid to laugh.
It keeps rolling on … and nobody stops it. Everybody is sure that sooner or later, the craziness will burn itself out, but it never does, does it? The tyrants who keep doing this to people won’t stop until they are made to pay a price. What price, though? What could practically be done? Ideas?
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The Grand DEI Inquisitor
This is an excerpt from a communication that went out today to faculty of the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota:
This is outrageous. As the professor who sent this to me said, this is:
A clear violation of academic freedom. Imagine you’re untenured and don’t agree with the LGBTQIA+ movement, what do you do? If you don’t write anything, your chair and colleagues will notice. This may cost you tenure. On the other hand, you can write some b.s. made up stuff and violate your conscience. Either way, the university is on a fishing expedition to separate the woke sheep from the Catholic goats. Stunning stuff, really. Other school, of course, will follow, if they haven’t done it already.
This is the woke version of a loyalty oath. It’s a private university, so it can do whatever it likes. But should it do this? Seems to me that a Catholic university ought to pledge allegiance to what Pope St. John Paul II said in Ex corde ecclesiae, his instruction on the nature and duties of Catholic universities. If there are going to be loyalty oaths at Catholic institutions, let them be loyalty to what the Pope said Catholic universities should be like, not what the Woke Magisterium demands.
But why should there be DEI loyalty oaths at all? One presumes that every faculty member would be willing and able to treat each student he or she teaches with fairness. You cannot reasonably expect more. What the University of St. Thomas is doing is passive-aggressive and coercive. I hope that professors there who may be 100 percent in favor of diversity and inclusion initiatives will nevertheless speak out against this appalling coercion.
And I hope all University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) alumni and donors will contact the university and tell it they will be moving their donations to Catholic institutions, or other educational institutions, that don’t bully professors into swearing allegiance to wokeness. Once again, as Ross Douthat said the other day, the United States is full of rich people who could use their money to start new colleges and universities, ones that respected true scholarship and traditional learning, and rejected wokeness. But they don’t. Why not? If you are one of these rich Americans, what’s the answer? Why do you keep giving to Yale, Princeton, Harvard, the University of St. Thomas, and other colleges that are destroying education in America by subordinating it to ideology?
This is not going to go away until we make it go away. This is not going to go away until we value academic freedom enough to risk being hated by ideologues for defending it.
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Of Tick Bites, Myth, And Prophecy
A few years back, I arrived at a conference somewhere — Nashville, I think — and was sitting in the lobby of the conference hotel when I noticed my friend Ross Douthat stroll by. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. He looked unwell. Really unwell. He told me he had Lyme disease. On second thought, I’m not sure if he had identified it as Lyme then. Anyway, he knew he was very sick, and he looked gaunt and haunted. Now, in his powerful, surprisingly poetic new memoir, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, Douthat tells his readers just how sick he was, and how the physical agonies of this mysterious disease were paralleled by the psychological and even spiritual torments it brought about.
You might think this sounds like a difficult and unpleasant read, but let me assure you that it is engrossing. I read it in one sitting. The only other book like it that I can recall is William Styron’s staggering and highly praised memoir of depression, Darkness Visible. It takes a true literary gift to make this kind of narrative appealing. Douthat has it. Does he ever have it.
To be honest, I am one of the key audiences for this book. I struggled for years with chronic Epstein-Barr, which is mononucleosis. It first came on me in 2010, a month or so after learning that my sister had terminal cancer. I thought it was allergies, and so did my doctor. Allergy treatments did no good. After my sister died in 2011 and we moved to my Louisiana hometown, deep family rifts emerged, things that I had not known existed. They went off like bunker-buster bombs within me that spring. The awful bouts of deep fatigue that I had lived with for a period in Philadelphia returned. One day I was mowing the grass, and nearly fainted. My pulse was racing. I entered into a series of medical tests that turned up nothing. One day, my physician decided to try something he had overlooked: a mono spot test. It came back positive.
Nobody had thought about mono because it’s so rare in people my age (I was 45 at the time). Mind you, this thing I deal with was nothing compared to what Douthat had with Lyme. Still, I was sleeping from four to six hours every day, in addition to what I slept at night, and was often too weak and fuzzy-headed to do much of anything but flop around. Somehow I kept doing this job, and wrote three books before I was fully healed. But this suffering was hard on my family too, especially because the doctors could not guarantee that I would ever be well again. (I did get over it once I was able to handle the intense stress caused by these family issues, but even today, if I experience a lot of stress at once, I tip back into mono, though so far, it has usually abated after a few weeks.) I remember from that time the loneliness of it. People were kind, but you could tell that some of them wondered if this was really a thing. I wondered all the time if this was going to be with me the rest of my life — and if so, how was I going to cope psychologically? Is it going to be like this for the rest of my life? I thought. The open-endedness of the condition was its own kind of torture.
These are things that everyone with chronic illness has to deal with. My illness was relatively mild. Douthat’s, though? My God, the agonies he endured! I knew this was going on when it was happening, because he would write from time to time to tell me when he was in a particularly low point, and to ask my prayers. But really, until I read The Deep Places, I had no serious grasp of how much my friend and his family were hurting. If nothing else, reading this book will make you a better friend to those in your life with chronic illness.
Here’s how the book starts:
For a long time I would always wake up early. Some mornings there would be a moment when I was conscious but not yet fully aware of my body, just a mind floating lightly in the dark. But then very quickly I would feel the weight of things, my legs and chest leaden on the mattress, my head heavy on the pillow. And then quickly too, the pain would be with me once again.
The first sensation was always something different—a heavy ache in the shoulder I’d been sleeping on, a pan-fry sizzle on my hips, a throbbing at the very front of my skull, an intolerable vibration inside my ankles. Then it spread and varied as I pushed back the blanket and fumbled for my phone, pushing my mind into the glowing screen while my body shuttled through its symptoms.
Sometimes I would lie in a cramped position scrolling Twitter, picking up fragments of news, chasing threads of arguments from overnight, letting the pain work through my limbs and joints, watching the clock slowly creep toward 5 a.m. That was on a good morning. On the bad ones, I would be forced up quickly, staggering to the bathroom, leaving Abby to sleep—I hoped—in a snow fort of blankets on the far side of the bed.
The house was old, so very old, but the bathroom was new—an expanse of tile, a shower like a grotto, a his-and-hers sink with drawers for both of us below a sweep of mirror. The floor was even supposed to be heated in the winter, but the system had been on the fritz since we moved in, and the wall panel flickered in the half light with a gibberish of broken digits.
I moved around the room like an acolyte tending to different altars—now planted on the toilet or hunched over it, now leaning heavily on the glass door of the shower, now standing at the sink staring at my haggard, puffy face. I opened the drawer beneath and fished out a bottle of pills—one bottle among many, filling compartments meant for combs and soap and razors—and swallowed one, two, a handful. After a while they would hit home, and I would shimmy my legs, flail my arms, stretch my face muscles into a Munchian scream. Except when the pain was deep, layers down inside my chest, and there was nothing to do but sit with it on the cold, unheated floor.
The light would come up gradually, the clock on my phone creeping on toward six. Eventually I would leave the bathroom, sometimes wrung out and exhausted enough to fade back into a twenty-minute sleep, but sometimes still aching and burning—in which case I would pad through the master bedroom, past my sleeping wife, out onto the landing that sat at the junction of the house’s long T-shape.
How did he get to this terrible place? Here’s where Douthat’s sickness story takes on the narrative shape of myth. The story begins in Washington, when Ross and his wife decided they had had enough of the city, and wanted to return to their New England roots. Ross had a good job as a New York Times columnist. He wrote books, and gave speeches. His wife Abby was a journalist and a book writer too. They were able to sell their Capitol Hill row house for a huge profit, and lit out for Connecticut. They bought a million-dollar 18th century farmhouse, which he says was a financial reach, as well as a project that would require some fixer-upping. But this would be good for him, he told himself:
And truth be told, I didn’t really think of it as a reach at all, because at that moment in my life I only really believed in upside. My childhood inheritance included reasonably strong Christian beliefs, and my profession required me to comment frequently on religion, which meant that during our years in Washington I wrote my share of words on the problem of evil—the why-does-God-let-bad-things-happen-to-good-people question—usually making the case that much of American Christianity teaches people the wrong answers, encouraging them to believe that actually bad things shouldn’t happen if you’re good, that the American Dream should be yours if you just stay in God’s good graces and follow the paths that He’s marked out, as straight as I-95 running north.
I had a similar critique of the secular meritocracy in which I had been educated: that because it asked its climbers to work so hard and jump so high, it encouraged a false idea that we had somehow earned all our privileges, that our SAT scores and extracurricular accomplishments meant that we genuinely deserved to rule. But despite these critiques, there was still a sense in which I believed in exactly these ideas myself—or at least for myself—as I passed through college into adulthood, achieved the career as a writer that I wanted, won the wife I wanted, the job I wanted, the kids I wanted, and now the house and country life I wanted, too.
“It’s really impressive, Ross,” a business-minded ex-military friend of mine said when we chatted about our big move. “You set this goal for yourself and you guys did it. You just did it.” That was basically how I thought of myself at that point in my life. I was the guy who did things.
Shortly after they bought the house, but before they left Washington, Douthat fell ill, with debilitating symptoms cascading downwards on him, landing him in the ER. He writes that “beneath it was a feeling that was hard to describe except as a sense of invasion, of something under my skin and inside my veins and muscles that wasn’t supposed to be there.” What you realize later is that he is describing a possession. No, I don’t believe that Ross Douthat was demonically possessed, but as I read on, the way this thing — eventually identified by doctors as Lyme disease — behaved and affected him reminded me of a malign spirit having seized the writer’s mind and body.
It takes a long time for doctors to figure out what he has and how to treat him. Douthat’s particular descriptions of the various searing pains he endured are vivid and detailed, so much so that you find yourself wincing. He ties the physical agony tightly to the psychological suffering too, as he struggles to find out just what is wrong with him, to reassure his pregnant wife that he’s going to be okay, and to cope with friends who wonder if maybe he might be losing his mind.
One thing that jumps out about The Deep Places in this Covid era is how frustrating it can be to deal with medical science. All the back-and-forth over ivermectin and other non-traditional treatments? Douthat dealt with that constantly regarding Lyme. Doctors would tell him that it was all in his head, or that this could be handled with a program of this or that antibiotic — and nothing worked. It is profoundly unsettling to realize how blind science can be. We don’t want to think of it that way. We want scientists to have all the answers. But sometimes they don’t, and their own epistemological blind spots keep them from seeing their way to potential answers. In this passage, Douthat speaks of something that has become clearer in the Covid era:
The incentive structures forged by the CDC were a fascinating case study in how bureaucracy shapes science as much as the other way around, how without any conscious decision, let alone conspiracy, scientific research can end up pushed again and again down the same well-worn tracks. The narrow diagnostic criteria became the benchmark that researchers followed whenever they applied for public grants, so that Lyme research increasingly focused only on the most certain diagnoses and left all ambiguous cases and potential false negatives alone. This approach ratified the establishment’s confidence in their own rules of evidence: Studies would claim that upwards of 90 percent of Lyme patients had the telltale rash, for instance . . . but only after making the rash one of the key criteria for admitting patients to the study in the first place.
The admonition to “follow the science” is based on the idea that science is always a reliable path to discovering the truth. And that is broadly true when it comes to matters of biology. What Douthat shows, though, is that many scientists think they are proceeding neutrally towards discovery, when in fact their pathways have been predetermined by bureaucratic priorities or outright prejudice. More:
The deeper I went into the world of the chronically sick, the more people I met, the more testimonials and case histories I read, and the more I familiarized myself with the scientific background of the debate, the more impossible—and infuriating—it seemed that an entire medical establishment could be ignoring, denying, and dismissing the scale of suffering taking place all around them, not in some far-distant or exotic place but in their own hometown, their children’s schools, the street or house next door.
But then again, I could also see how the divide sustained itself, because the deeper I went into the world of chronic sickness, the more I could feel the tug of paranoia, the sense that the world is not as I had imagined and who knows what else might be true. I could feel the experience of illness and bafflement remaking me, and I could see in other people how far this remaking could go—well beyond just taking extra antibiotics and doubting the wisdom of the CDC, into a more comprehensive rejection of any establishment wisdom, any mainstream consensus.
Douthat’s fight against chronic Lyme opened his eyes to a darker reality of life in contemporary America:
The only place to turn for real solidarity was the secret fraternity into which I had been initiated—not just Lyme patients, but the much larger group to whom a confession of chronic illness (and as I said, I confessed my situation to everybody) opened up. In my wanderings for work, in my visits to green rooms and radio studios, in chance encounters and long online conversations, I constantly proved the truth of Scott Alexander’s observation: There was extraordinary suffering everywhere, people dealing with pain of every variety, with conditions diagnosable and not, that had been largely invisible to me until I came into the country, cleared the filter, and experienced that misery myself. I had made the journey in my thirties, earlier in life than many of my fellow countrymen. In general, the conversations I had were with men and women a little older than me, for whom their forties and fifties had become an education in all the things that can go wrong with a human body, all the places pain can enter and make itself at home. For the young, intense physical suffering was a lightning strike; for older people it gradually became the weather.
There was comfort there, of a sort: I was just living under a storm front that had rolled in a little early. But there was also a feeling of betrayal, because so little in my education had prepared me for this part of life—the part that was just endurance, just suffering, with all the normal compensations of embodiment withdrawn, a heavy ashfall blanketing the experience of food and drink and natural beauty. And precious little in the world where I still spent much of my increasingly strange life, the conjoined world of journalism and social media, seemed to offer any acknowledgment that life was actually like this for lots of people—meaning not just for the extraordinarily unlucky, the snake-bit and lightning-struck, but all the people whose online and social selves were just performances, masks over some secret pain.
I was telling someone just the other day that the longer I live, the more I realize the profound truth in that coffee-mug saying: “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.” Re-reading Ross’s book yesterday, I found myself regretting having popped off recently at a nasty person who had insulted me publicly. I know enough about that sad man’s life to recognize that his public viciousness is probably his way of coping with a lot of emotional pain. And I found out just this weekend that there might be serious physical illness present with him. I need to learn not to be so quick to take the bait, and lash out at people.
One of the great strengths of The Deep Places is how Douthat lays bare this archipelago of pain, hidden from ourselves by our isolation from each other, and perhaps by the felt need not to be seen to complain. How very strange that we live in a cultural moment in which certain forms of suffering, or alleged suffering, have been weaponized as a means to social and political power, but other forms of actual, provable suffering — like that Douthat found treading in the deep places — exist only marginally in our consciousness. Why is that, do you think? I had to put the book down for a few minutes and think about all the people I know in my own circles who are dealing with intense, chronic suffering — not just physical, but private pains like failed marriages, lost children, broken friendships, poverty, and more. I’m thinking of a good friend who is outwardly a cheerful, energetic man, but who carries inside him fathomless pain from abandonment. I’m thinking of two other good friends, both same-sex attracted Christians, who are living chastely out of obedience, and carrying the cross of loneliness, yet knowing that many gay folks would despise them for their religious convictions, and many conservative Christians would withdraw from them because of their disordered desires. I could make a list all day. Douthat’s book invites us to think hard about the suffering we share.
I am thinking now of something the future St. John of Kronstadt counseled the future St. Alexei Mechev, a Russian Orthodox priest whose wife had died, leaving him in poverty, with four (I think) children to raise. He was overwhelmed. Father John came to visit him, and told him to join his suffering with the suffering of others, and then he would find it easier to bear. Father Alexei tried it … and became one of the most beloved priests in Moscow. People would line up down the streets for the meek little man to hear their confessions. And he became a saint, as did his son Father Sergei, martyred in the gulag. As Douthat writes about the hidden suffering:
It’s a commonplace observation by now that the internet transforms the experience of human social life into a meeting of facades, a whirl of bright, shiny images of happiness and health that conceal the real, embodied self. But chronic illness dramatically clarifies just how much this world of surfaces and curated selves lies to its inhabitants, to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, the reality that even in modernity the grimmest passages in the book of Ecclesiastes still apply. And it lies to the suffering, day after day, about how alone they really are.
Douthat is a Catholic, and writes about how his faith was a crutch to him in his agonies. He uses the word “crutch” on purpose, quoting Jesse “The Body” Ventura putting down religious believers as weak. Douthat says yes, absolutely, his faith was a crutch. How else was he supposed to keep walking without it? He writes:
But what I learned from my illness is that chronic suffering can make belief in a providential God, if you have such a thing going in, feel essential to your survival, no matter how much you may doubt God’s goodness when the pain is at its worst. To believe that your suffering is for something, that you are being asked to bear up under it, that you are being in some sense supervised and tested and possibly chastised in a way that’s ultimately for your good, if you can only make it through the schooling—all this is tremendously helpful to maintaining simple sanity and basic hope.
The Deep Places is at times a meditation on why Jesus said that “blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.” Here is Ross talking about how he and his wife just did not imagine that this could happen to them. Things like severe chronic illness and financial ruin resulting from it are problems other people have, not successful young professionals like themselves. They were too casual about buying the dream house that turned into a haunted mansion:
But in part it was just our own amazing folly. We had imagined ourselves buying a “forever home” (now a terrifying phrase, evocative of You’ve always been the caretaker, Mr. Torrance), and we had felt fortunately flush with cash, so our negotiations had not included the most rigorous comparisons to nearby homes, or any real attempt to assess whether the eccentricities we loved about the house, its age and rambling property, might be serious impediments to resale. It was enough that the previous owners had dropped the price a lot; surely that showed we were getting a bargain! Honestly, we had felt a little sorry for them—the idiotic pity that spoiled youth feels for age—and imagined that we were somehow doing them a kindness by accepting their final counter instead of trying to squeeze them to take twenty thousand dollars less. (In our defense, or at least mine, the sickness was already at work by the time we reached the last stage of negotiations, and my memory of my thought process is a fog.)
For our folly we were repaid.
Were they ever! Fortunately, they had resources. But this too brought with it painful knowledge:
All this was possible only because of privilege, of course. We were borrowing from my father on top of our own professional-class earnings, and I was fortunate enough to have the kind of job that I could do without having to rise early and commute to an office, and indeed without seeing anyone at all on the days when I was incapable of normal human contact. Had I been a lawyer or a doctor, or for that matter just a different kind of journalist—a real reporter rather than a pontificator—I would have lost my job and we would have simply gone under in the first year of my collapse.
This relative good fortune was hard to appreciate in the utter depths, when I would have traded any amount of money for even a pittance of improvement, but it became more meaningful as I made my glacial sort of progress. And with a sense of my own relative luck came the further realization of just how much doom this kind of disease could deliver. If I was so badly off, with the cushion of savings to pay for treatment, the ability to earn money from home, and the perfect skill set to sift the internet for help, how many people were simply lost from the beginning—consigned to unemployment and isolation, with both treatment and knowledge held cruelly beyond their reach? There was no way to know for sure, but I could guess roughly in my head: If 400,000 cases of Lyme a year yielded 50,000 chronic cases, and if even only a few thousand of those were as bad as mine, then, over the accumulated years, tens of thousands of people had to be facing impossible challenges without the moneyed, highly educated advantages that helped us, barely, to survive.
Here, I think, is the core of the book. It’s from a conversation Douthat had with one of his doctors:
“So I have to ask,” he said as I processed all this, “how would you feel if you had to live the rest of your life this way? Could you do it?” I shook my head. I was proving, day by day, that the answer was yes. But I still could not bring myself to entertain the question.
ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
This is where Douthat’s struggle with chronic illness becomes a metaphor for life in this vale of tears. What if it won’t ever get better than it is now? Could you live with it? You think you can’t … but what if you can? Is that good news, or bad news?
This is life! The deepest weakness of our civilization today is that we are so afraid of suffering that we are creating all kinds of barriers and hedges against it, even if it means giving up our freedom. We are all waiting for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, to create a system where we can feel free from suffering, no matter what it costs. Still, there is no escaping suffering, not for those who want to live in truth (and even those who are willing to live a lie to hide from the unbearable truth; none of us get out of her alive).
Chapter Seven of this book is going to be one of the most talked about, because it’s where the cautious, cerebral New York Times columnist lets his freak flag fly. Here’s how it starts:
There is a version of this book that doesn’t include this chapter, and for a certain kind of reader it might be the better book to read. I want this account to be helpful to the cause of chronic Lyme patients, and to anyone working on the frontiers of medicine or suffering from chronic illness. I hope to convince the skeptical reader that the case for the persistence of Lyme disease is powerful, and that the regimens prescribed by Lyme specialists represent a reasonable and empirical response to an extremely knotty problem. I don’t want readers to come away from my account thinking that chronic disease of any kind is just a mystery, a mind-body phenomenon beyond scientific ken. Which means that I want to present myself as a fundamentally reliable narrator, open-minded but not naïve, vulnerable but not an outright wreck, aware of my own limitations and the possible doubts about my story, but neither paranoid nor mad. But I also want to tell a true story, and that means going a little further into the medical borderlands, deeper into the stranger aspects of my own bodily experience. So that’s what this chapter is for, separated from the main narrative so that it can be read independently—though it will bleed into the final chapters, and its revelations are part of what I’ve brought with me back up out of the dark. Still, readers who find these parts of the story hard to credit can know that I sympathize with their reaction, and I hope they find the rest persuasive even so.
It’s the woo-woo chapter, the one in which, out of desperation, he gives himself over to scientifically suspect methods of healing. And — lo and behold! — they work. The first person he sees is a practitioner of kinesiology. Though some of her chattiness (about chemtrails) was off-putting, Douthat found that the woman’s willingness to entertain the idea that he wasn’t crazy to be uplifting. This is not how he would have regarded it prior to his years of struggling with conventional medicine:
My new self, though, regarded her radical openness rather differently—as a feature of the kind of mind that was sometimes more likely than the rest of us to grope its way to veiled or disreputable truths. Give that feature too much freedom, too much rein, and you would end up with a purely conspiratorial worldview, impervious to contrary facts, ready to throw out vaccination or refuse chemotherapy. But exclude such openness entirely and you end up with, well, the mindset that I had encountered across my months of frustration, where the absence of an exact test result matching a set of bureaucratic criteria meant that doctor after doctor would spread their hands, hint that you were crazy, and basically abandon you to pain.
So I didn’t become a chemtrails believer in her care, or imagine that her worldview could simply substitute for official medical knowledge. But without some element of her open-to-all-theories attitude, the progress of science becomes the recitation of consensus. And for someone like me, for whom that recitation had been a closed door in my face, her existence was a gift.
Douthat goes on to talk about how he bought a Rife machine, a device that focuses electromagnetic fields at certain frequencies on the body. It sounds absolutely crazy, but there is some evidence that high frequency waves can work against certain maladies. As a Harvard-educated, Times-writing member of the American elite, Douthat was afraid to open the door to nuttery. He writes about reading the instruction manual to the device:
The preamble felt a bit like being recruited into Scientology, handed an E-Meter, and told that maybe enlightenment awaited but that L. Ron Hubbard Inc. offered no guarantee that it would actually be achieved. The list, though, was something much weirder. Did all the endless numbers, the complex frequency combinations, the treatments for obscure diseases represent the fruits of a multigenerational labor, some kind of secret investigation conducted by the sick and suffering over not just years but decades? It felt like something out of a paranoid fiction, a slice of invented Americana by way of Paul Auster or Thomas Pynchon.
Was it just a hoax? Were the Rife peddlers sitting down at their computers with a random number generator and a copy of the Index of Diseases and Injuries, playing mix and match, relying on the placebo effect to hoodwink the rubes, and secure in the knowledge that nobody was ever actually going to fire up the Rife machine to treat, say, Eustachian tube inflammation (channel number 263, recommended frequencies: 1550, 880, 37233, 803, 3614, and half a dozen more)? That was disturbing and depressing, but maybe not as unsettling as the possibility that a real collection of people with Eustachian tube inflammation had compiled these frequencies from their own private experiments, establishing a layer of secret knowledge beneath the shell of quackery.
But desperation pushed him to try anything. In this powerful passage, he recounts strange signs he encountered in this journey, and meaningful dreams, a seeming chance encounter in an airport, a shocking answer to prayer in a church, and so forth. It took his being utterly smashed by this disease to break down his New Englander’s defenses against the weird:
What else was down there with me, besides the apparently vast community of Rifers, the Magnetizer with her muscle testing and her chemtrail theories? The weird shit was how I described it to myself—the deer on my mother’s lawn and the hellmouth beneath its hooves, the dreams with their vampires and armed librarians, the bugs crawling out of the walls of our country house, the sand dollar gleaming ivory beneath my spasm-ridden feet. Was God there? He was supposed to be way up above, enthroned on high, not mucking around in the underground with broken things underfoot and strange machinery half-visible. But maybe His emissaries were down there. Maybe prayers were more effective once you were down there. Maybe it was easier for the signal to reach . . . somebody when you weren’t inside the comfortable HGTV living room anymore.
There’s one more part of the book that profoundly speaks to our current moment. It’s the chapter in which Douthat discusses the possibility that Lyme disease was created in the Plum Island lab, a government research facility off the Connecticut coast, where they study animal diseases. Look how close it is to Old Lyme, for which the disease is named because of its outbreak there:
The Plum Island director in the 1950s was a German scientist brought over from the ruins of the Third Reich, whose speciality was tick-borne diseases. Douthat says that there is solid evidence that US Government scientists researched tick-borne diseases there as a biological weapon. More:
So, as strange as it seems, a scenario where some American enemy—Korean or Cuban, Russian or Red Chinese— could be dosed en masse with something like my own tick-borne infection was not only pondered but actively pursued by the United States government in the early Cold War years. (Though one assumes the frigid Russian winter would be as hard on ticks as it was on Napoleon and Hitler.) And despite finding the idea absurd at first, I have come around to the strategic plausibility of this approach: A nation full of people in the shape that I was in during my first year of illness would, indeed, be a nation ripe for conquest, confused and despairing and ready to succumb.
Does this sound crazy to you? Well, in recent days we have learned that the US Government, through the National Institutes of Health led by the Evangelical Christian Francis Collins and his deputy Anthony Fauci, actually did fund gain-of-function research on bat viruses at the Wuhan lab. That is, the US taxpayer helped pay Chinese scientists to figure out if bat coronaviruses could be engineered to be more deadly in humans — and the NIH people lied about it!
Follow the science. Trust the medical authorities. The NIH gain-of-function story takes on a certain dimension in light of the story Ross Douthat tells. He writes angrily:
You couldn’t trust the CDC to roll out a reliable coronavirus test: They botched it, and a lab in Washington State had to fill the breach. You couldn’t trust the FDA to be creative in the face of thousands of Americans dying every day: Operation Warp Speed delivered vaccines astonishingly quickly, but the FDA stuck with a cautious approval process, even for vaccines that were already approved in Europe and South Korea. You couldn’t trust the WHO to even acknowledge that the virus was primarily airborne, until months and months after everyone who followed the data took for granted that it was. And from the beginning of the pandemic to its still-unfinished end, there were weirdos on the internet who were more reliable guides to what was happening, what was possible, and what should actually be done than Anthony Fauci or any official information source.
If you take all these COVID-era tendencies and imagine them applied to a debate over a more shadowy disease, one that incapacitates but rarely kills, whose spread has happened slowly, without blaring headlines and immense political pressure to do something in response—well, then you’ve imagined the flawed medical system, the institutional science, that has helped the Lyme epidemic keep burning to this day.
In the book’s closing paragraphs, Douthat expressly likens what happened to him to demonic possession. To be perfectly clear, he’s only analogizing it. He says that this experience taught him the folly of regarding the body as like a machine that can be tinkered with to be repaired. Instead, it is more like an ecosystem, one that can be taken over by forms of life that cannot be eradicated. This passage is chilling:
The feeling of possession by another life form, by spirochetes or parasites or viruses, isn’t the same as the supernatural possession that was so much more feared in the past. A bacterium won’t speak with your voice in ancient languages or induce you to levitate above a baffled priest. But neither are the two entirely distinct. An invading illness doesn’t have the malign intelligence ascribed to devils, but it can use you for its evolutionary purposes all the same. My own mind felt constantly besieged during the worst of my sickness, and there were fleeting moments when it seemed as though the invasion had literally displaced my normal consciousness, installing something despairing or rageful in its place. And other sufferers I’ve met, for whom brain fog and other mental symptoms were much worse, report a different kind of displacement amid a Lyme infection, where the mind or self is shoved aside and a kind of nothing takes its place, something without memory or purpose, like the literal expression of a mindless bacterium, not possession but dispossession, with a nullity where the self should rightfully be.
The first time I read The Deep Places, in manuscript form, I thought Ross had written an exemplary memoir of the experience of chronic illness, something I could relate to. On second read, I understand that he has done far more than that. The Deep Places is a book about what it means to live in America today, one where people are unbuffered by religious conviction in the face of uncontrollable nature, where we think our money and our technology is going to protect us from sinking to the depths of misery and despair. He writes near the conclusion:
I am writing this story in part for those chronically suffering, more numerous than the healthy ever realize—to give them hope that their condition can be changed even if it can’t be eliminated, that they might be able to save their own lives even if they feel abandoned by their doctors, that they might, like me, be able to get, not fully well yet, but better, genuinely better.
He’s talking about those suffering from chronic disease, but he’s really talking to all of us. We all suffer from the chronic disease called death. Read The Deep Places in this key, and you will understand that it applies to you, even if you are healthy and wealthy and wise. Ross Douthat meant to write a book about persevering through chronic illness, but what he has done, whether he knows it or not, is write as a pilgrim who has returned from a far place, speaking to a nation that has forgotten the meaning of suffering — which is to say, to a people who try hard not to think about how precarious we all are, and how we are only one tick bite away from catastrophe.
The Divine Comedy opens with the pilgrim Dante lost in a dark wood, unable to find his way out. Heaven sends the poet of antiquity Virgil to lead him to safety. Virgil tells Dante:
‘Therefore, for your sake, I think it wise
you follow me: I will be your guide,
leading you, from here, through an eternal place
‘where you shall hear despairing cries
and see those ancient souls in pain
as they bewail their second death…
Only by going through the deep places, to the very depth of all being, where Satan dwells in a lake of ice, can the pilgrim Dante ascend toward paradise. This is what Dante’s Inferno is all about. The second volume is Dante’s Purgatorio, where those souls who have been spared damnation, but who aren’t yet pure enough to bear the weight of God’s glory in Heaven, learn how to share their suffering on the journey Home. Non-Catholics need not take Purgatorio literally. It is an allegory of what life is like for Christians in this life, struggling out of the deeps to the heights of fellowship with the All-Holy. One of the great themes of Dante’s Purgatorio is the reconciliation of the suffering with their own pain as a form of purification, and the re-establishment of compassion and community.
In The Deep Places, Ross Douthat takes us with him through his own Inferno, and disembarks with us at the foot of the holy mountain of Purgatorio. I cannot wait to read what he writes next. With this book, he has elevated himself from a mere observer on politics, religion, and culture, into something more extraordinary, and more needed in this time: a prophet. Yes, he’s my friend, but it’s still true. Order the book, read it (or listen to the author read it in the audiobook, and see for yourself.
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Inflating Grades For Social Justice
At a party over the weekend I was introduced to a college professor, and fell into conversation with him about teaching and Covid. Then I asked about how wokeness affects his teaching. I had no idea of the man’s politics, but I would bet the farm that he is a liberal, given that his academic field skews heavily to the left.
He told me that there is a lot of stress on professors at his university regarding grading students of color. He said everyone is afraid of being accused of racism if a black student doesn’t like his grade. The anxiety around this is deep, he said.
I tweeted out something about it, and received this e-mail today from a reader who asks to be anonymous. I slightly changed a couple of things to make it harder to identify her husband:
My husband teaches philosophy at an American university, and while he likes the work, he misses our original home, ([European country]). We moved to the United States [deleted] years ago.My husband and I both never saw ourselves as “left” or “right” until his university experience started. The level of political correctness here is just out of control: special rules for “trans students,” an expectation that someone’s deviant sexual practices be not only tolerated, but CELEBRATED. And as far as fairness goes, forget about it. Last semester, my husband gave one of his black students a B on a writing assignment. The student reported him to the Dean, claiming racism, saying that she was an A student and didn’t deserve a B. She didn’t even specify why her paper was so good! She just essentially said everyone else gave her A’s. The Dean called my husband in, and essentially bullied him into changing the grade, reminding him of the students’ “legacy of being oppressed.”I’m sorry, but this is all too much. My husband felt humiliated. He’s wondering if he should look for another job. We feel trapped. Please feel free to publish, as we both get tired of people claiming to you that this kind of political correctness is “fake.”
UPDATE: A reader e-mails:
I read your post and call for others to report their experience in college grading. If you quote me, please do not use my name. I could be identified as “a professor in one of the natural sciences at a large public university in the west with a liberal reputation.” The student body is mostly white, with a growing contingent of Hispanics, a good many Asians, and a relatively small number of blacks.
In my department, we offer an “intro” course that is a “gateway” — some would say “weedout” — course mainly for students hoping to go on in some kind of health or biological sciences pathway. I’m one of the senior professors who steps up to teach this course — few people do it for pure pleasure — and I teach hundreds of these students at least one term per year. While grade inflation is always a concern, our median grade is generally C+/B- which is not so high given that the majority of the students need a C or better to continue in their program. We give plenty of D’s and F’s. It is not a fun course for most students, though some find it very interesting.
As for feeling pressure to give unmerited good grades to black or other minority students — I just have never experienced this. I certainly don’t give minority students any special breaks — though I’m always looking for a good reason to give any student a break if they manage to redeem themselves on the final exam.
I certainly try to encourage all students to do the things that will help them succeed, including coming to “office hours” for help, advice, inspiration, whatever.
I do kind of keep track of how various groups perform. I’ve found that the minority students who follow my advice generally do better than the class average. I’ve had classes where the black students did a little better than average, and classes where they did worse. I guarantee, if the black students always did what I recommend, they would come out ahead. The same goes for the other students. Hard work, interest, and discipline matter!
If my department head or dean ever pressured me to use different grading standards for the black students or any other group, I would refuse.
So, my experience is not like that of your correspondent. I hope this may be a helpful perspective.
Another professor writes:
One of your lefty profs here.
I teach at [deleted]. We serve 30,000 undergraduates (and I am writing on my institutional account so you can trust what follows). Most of our undergrads are first-generation college students (as am I). We have the highest percentage of minority students of any non-HBCU campus in [my state’s public university] system. I am also a rigorous grader.
I have been accused of racism after giving students the marks they earned, but over 30 years plus of working here, my Chairs and Deans have always had my back. Always. I am grateful for that. I should also add that I have won multiple teaching awards despite being well known as a tough grader.
My biggest concern about grades is the dismal performance of men in our classes (without regard for race and/or ethnicity). While young women of all backgrounds do well in our classes, the performance and engagement of males is abysmal. They have totally checked out and I have no idea how to reach and motivate them.
For every 25 women we induct into our discipline’s Honor Society, there my be one or no males in the cohort.
For all the obvious reasons, this troubles me greatly.
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Remembering Hungary 1956
To mark the anniversary of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, I’m publishing in this space an essay from Stephen Sholl, an American academic living in Budapest, and a friend I made this summer:
Today will mark the 65-year anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For many Americans, this anniversary will go unnoticed, yet the lessons that this episode holds are important ones for Americans to understand.
The Hungarian Revolution was the most serious challenge to Soviet Rule in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. In late October 1956, demonstrations, often beginning at universities, erupted throughout Hungary. Within a week, these demonstrations had evolved into an outright popular revolt, with the revolutionaries demanding major reforms and calling for the Soviet Army to leave Hungary.
Initially it appeared to be successful, with previous Prime Minister and reformer Imre Nagy being reinstated and the Russians withdrawing from Budapest. Once Nagy, however, declared his intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets quickly returned and crushed the Revolution in Budapest and in Hungary’s other major cities after intense street fighting. By November 10, the Soviets had decisively squashed the Revolution. More than 2,000 Hungarians died in the fighting, and hundreds of thousands fled to the West in the aftermath.
The lesson for Americans, lies not with the defeat of the Hungarian freedom fighters — though their bravery and courage in the face of insurmountable odds is a trait worth emulating — but rather the path that led Hungary to 1956.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Hungary, while war-ravaged, was not decisively on the path to dictatorship. The Soviets appeared to follow through on their promise to establish democracies in their occupied areas, and introduced parliamentary democracy into Hungary. While the Soviet Army intimidated opposing parties and falsified ballots, other parties were allowed to compete, and their votes were recognized. In Hungary’s first election in 1945, the Communists were defeated by an overwhelming number of votes, only earning around 17 percent.
The Independent Smallholders Party, which represented the center-right, secured an outright majority, and was even allowed to form a government. The Communist Party asked only to be allowed into the governing coalition, and was granted the Ministry of the Interior. Unfortunately for the young Hungarian Republic, the ruling party accepted the coalition. Granting the Communists control over the Interior ministry meant they controlled the country’s police.
Using the martial power of police authority, Communists began a systematic takeover of Hungarian institutions — this, despite the fact that a formally “non-Communist” government was in power. The police intimidated political opponents and local leaders into joining the Communist Party; those who refused were labeled ‘fascists’ and forced out of the public sphere. In institutions such as courtrooms, schools, universities, churches, and unions, those expelled would be replaced by loyal Communists, slowly turning these bodies into extensions of the Communist Party. This institutional dominance, by a people and ideology that were not held by the vast majority of Hungarians, eroded any notion of real democracy in Hungary (at the time, the CIA estimated only 10 percent of Hungarians were Communist).
By 1949, the institutional control of Hungary by the Communists was complete, and the Hungarian Republic was formally replaced by the Hungarian People’s Republic. Led by the self-proclaimed “Best Pupil of Stalin” Mátyás Rákosi, the new regime began to remake Hungary in the image of Marx and Lenin. By merely gaining control of the important organs of state and society, the Communists were able to attack and infiltrate every part of society.
Education became a centerpiece of the regime’s grand design to remake Hungary. Since most schools in Hungary were church-run, one of the Communist regime’s first acts was to nationalize the school system. With this acquired monopoly over Hungary’s educational institutions, the state enforced a propagandistic curriculum aimed at building an ideal “Communist Man” out of every one of its students. Universities, likewise, were turned into ideological weapons of the regime. Unlike primary and secondary schools, however, the regime did not desire everyone to attend. They introduced quota and acceptance standards based on social class, and denied entry to the ‘privileged’ children of middle and upper-class families in favor of working and lower-class ones.
Taking education away from the churches did not go far enough when it came to the institution of religion. As an atheistic regime, the Hungarian People’s Republic had no tolerance for the strongly entrenched Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran churches of Hungary, and began a widespread campaign to destroy them.
They established a specific government ministry for the churches and used it to censor, infiltrate, and monitor each religion. Most notably, the highest-ranking Catholic in Hungary, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, was arrested, tortured, and brought to trial for “treason” against the state. While he was spared the death penalty, lesser-known churchmen were not so lucky, and many members of the clergy were murdered throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. All these efforts were an attempt to completely erase religion from the public sphere as well as the minds of Hungarians.
Finally, the social and economic structure of Hungary was attacked, dissolved, and recreated during this period. Historically, Hungary was a heavily agricultural society based strongly in traditional social structures left over from feudalism. It had an extensive and powerful aristocracy, but also a sizable “middle class” of landowners. These social institutions, which governed the lives and society of Hungarians ,were anathema to the Communists, who immediately set out to rectify both. Under the guise of rebuilding Hungary after the destruction of the Second World War, the Communists began restructuring the Hungarian economy. Through land nationalization and redistribution, the authorities destroyed many of the traditional great estates of the Hungarian gentry and redistributed them. Massive industrialization occurred as well, with peasants and farm dwellers forced into the cities, completely remaking the demographic landscape of Hungary in only a few short years.
Thus, the period preceding the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 represents a rapid and radical transformation of Hungary from a nominal parliamentary republic into a Communist dictatorship. This was accomplished not through an outright coup, but a rapid infection and cooption of the governmental institutions by an ideological force. By 1956, the Hungarians were under a regime that hated them, their nation, their religion, and their traditions. They were ruled by an ideology supported by none of them, yet they were forced to bend the knee to its tenets and beliefs.
It was this devolution into a repressive and alien regime that drove the Hungarians into the streets, demanding change, and a return to national sovereignty over their social, economic, and political institutions. They were tired and disgusted by the people who unjustly ruled them and clearly held them and their society in much derision.
While the Hungarians were lamentably crushed in the first weeks of November, they were crushed not because of the weakness of their struggle for freedom, but by the weakness of the ideology that ruled them. The Soviets and their Hungarian puppet-government knew that Communism could not exist if people were allowed to choose their own destiny. The 1956 Revolution had to die lest the entire system fail.
As we remember the heroism of the Hungarian revolutionaries and honor their great sacrifice for their nation and liberty, we should first be thankful to live in a country wherein we still hold on to the freedoms passed down from our forefathers. As Americans, we must recognize that ceding control of our institutions to a monolithic ideology is a grave threat to our republic and our freedoms. We must jealously protect and revive our social and governmental institutions, for if we do not fight for our institutions, we might find ourselves fighting in the streets.
Stephen Sholl is a Visiting Fellow with the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. Previously, he was a Junior Fellow with Hungary’s Committee of National Remembrance, an independent research institution which studies the legacy of Communism in Hungary.
Note from Rod: This paragraph of Stephen’s essay jumped out at me:
Using the martial power of police authority, Communists began a systematic takeover of Hungarian institutions — this, despite the fact that a formally “non-Communist” government was in power. The police intimidated political opponents and local leaders into joining the Communist Party; those who refused were labeled ‘fascists’ and forced out of the public sphere. In institutions such as courtrooms, schools, universities, churches, and unions, those expelled would be replaced by loyal Communists, slowly turning these bodies into extensions of the Communist Party. This institutional dominance, by a people and ideology that were not held by the vast majority of Hungarians, eroded any notion of real democracy in Hungary (at the time, the CIA estimated only 10 percent of Hungarians were Communist).
Do you see why people who came to America to escape Soviet communism are freaked out by what they see happening in American universities and institutions, with the advance of wokeism? In much of academia today, as we see, if you dissent from the ideology of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, you can be driven to the margins, or not hired (because you have to sign de facto loyalty oaths to this ideology as a condition of teaching). This is happening right now, within our liberal democracy. In Hungary, this march through the institutions was a precursor to the advent of Communist tyranny. The soft totalitarianism didn’t stay soft for long. There is a lesson in that, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to magnify the voices of the people who lived through this once, and don’t want to see it happen to America.
When I was in Hungary in 2019 researching Live Not By Lies, I had the very great privilege of interviewing one of the great heroes of 1956, Maria Wittner. Here she is in 1956:
From a Wittner passage in Live Not By Lies:
Defending the right to speak and write freely, even when it costs you something, is the duty of every free person. So says Mária Wittner, a hero of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation. A communist court sentenced Wittner, then only twenty, to death, though this was later commuted to life imprisonment.
“Once I said to one of the guards in prison, ‘You are lying.’ For that alone, I was taken to trial again,” remembers the feisty Wittner. “The state prosecutor said to me, ‘Wittner, why did you accuse the guard of being a liar? Why didn’t you just say, ‘You’re not telling the truth’? I said, ‘It matters that we speak plainly.’”
For her insolence, Wittner was sent back to prison with extra punishments. She had to sleep on a wooden bed with no mattress and was given reduced rations. By the time her sentence was commuted and she was released, Wittner weighed scarcely one hundred pounds. Nevertheless, she insists that a broken body is a price worth paying for a strong and undefiled spirit.
“We live in a world of lies, whether we want it or not. That’s just the case. But you shouldn’t accommodate to it,” she tells me as I sit at her table in suburban Budapest. “You will be surrounded by lies—you don’t have a choice. Don’t assimilate to it. It’s an individual decision for each person. If you want to live in fear, or if you want to live in the freedom of the soul. If your soul is free, then your thoughts are free, and then your words are going to be free.”
Under hard totalitarianism, dissenters like Wittner paid a hard price for their freedom, but the terms of the bargain were clear. Under soft totalitarianism, it is more difficult to see the costs of compromising your conscience, but as Mária Wittner insists, you can’t escape the decisions. You have to live in a world of lies, but it’s your choice as to whether that world lives in you.
Mária Wittner, now in her eighties, is regarded by her countrymen as a national hero for fighting the Soviets when they invaded Hungary in 1956. She was only a teenager then. The communist regime arrested her shortly after she turned twenty, and a year later, sentenced her to death. Her sentence was later reduced because of her youth. But she endured terrible grief and pain in her eight months on death row.
“There was an execution either every day or every other day, by hanging,” she tells me. “The people who were being brought to the execution, each one said their name aloud and left some sort of message in their final words. Some sang the national anthem, others praised their country, there were people saying, “Avenge me!”
There were days when several people were hanged, even seven a day. Wittner’s friend Catherine was also sentenced to death. They spent Catherine’s last night together in the cell, and said their final goodbyes after sunrise.
The guards took her. The last sight I saw of her was that she straightened herself up and went with her back ramrod straight. The door closed, and then I was left alone. I started to bang on the door, shouting, “Bring her back!” even though I knew perfectly well that it wouldn’t matter. Then I fainted. When I came to my senses, I swore to myself that I will never be silent about what I have seen, if I have the opportunity to bear witness.
This, she believes, is why her life was spared: so that she could to tell the world what the communists did to people like her.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, as such,” she says. “What is fear? Someone who is afraid is going to be made to do the most evil things. If someone is not afraid to say no, if your soul is free, there is nothing they can do to you.”
The old woman looks at me across her kitchen table with piercing eyes. “In the end, those who are afraid always end up worse than the courageous.”
Here is the great lady today (well, two years ago, in her house, after I interviewed her):
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was not just a geopolitical event. It was a human tragedy. Maria Wittner is the face of that tragedy, but also the face of the inevitable triumph over the Big Lie that was and remains Communism.
Here, in Budapest today, is an image today of the political leader who is the West’s most effective and tireless fighter against soft totalitarianism:
There will be more to follow, in France, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. The people of the West are waking up. We may not prevail in the short term, but we are going to fight. As we fight politically, let us not neglect to build, and build up, the communities and the virtues and, above all, the faith, to endure what may be a long defeat. This war is going to go on for a long time, and it is not primarily political. At the Tyniec Abbey near Krakow a couple of years ago, Father Wlodzimierz Zatorski, a well-known and respected Benedictine monk, confirmed for me the things I had been hearing from serious and faithful young Catholics in Warsaw and Krakow: that the Catholic faith was in collapse among the younger generations, and with it, the hopes of successful political Catholicism. (And if political Catholicism can’t prevail today in Poland, there is no country on earth where it can!) As I have written here before, Father Zatorski said the only way forward, in his view, was the Benedict Option: small, tight, resilient Catholic communities capable of resisting persecution, and ultimately re-evangelizing the country. Father Zatorski told me that he intended to launch a Benedict Option foundation, and build a community like this. The dear old priest did launch the foundation, but last year, died of Covid. The further we get into the West’s civilizational crisis, the more I am certain that our future, if we are to have one, lies in the experiences of the peoples of Central Europe. We need Viktor Orbans, and we need Father Wlodzimierz Zatorskis. The Orbans can protect the ability of the Zatorskis to do the work of spiritual and cultural rebuilding, and the Zatorskis, like his fellow Benedictines of the early medieval period, can lay the spiritual and cultural foundation for the rebirth of a political and social order based on the Good.
But let’s not forget the words of Viktor Orban, which I read in an interview that I can’t find now, but which I’ve never forgotten. He was talking about the limits of politics. He said that as a politician, he can give people things — meaning he can control, to some extent, the material order — but he cannot give people meaning. This is what religion does. In my view, people looking to politics as a source of ultimate meaning are either going to be disappointed, or turn into tyrants.
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Putin Gets It. Why Don’t We?
The reason I wrote Live Not By Lies is because people who lived under Soviet communism were telling me that what’s happening in the US right now, with the acceleration of cancel culture, militant wokeness, and the rest, remind them of what life was like under Communism. They’re angry that Americans won’t believe them. Hence the book. Well, I did not expect to have Russian President Vladimir Putin confirm the thesis of Live Not By Lies, but he just did — and if anybody should know about Soviet totalitarianism, it’s a former KGB colonel. Excerpts from the Daily Wire piece about Putin’s speech:
Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed during a speech on Thursday the far-left woke ideology that he said is causing societal ills throughout the Western world, saying that it is no different than what happened in Russia during the 1917 revolution.
Putin made the remarks during a plenary session of the 18th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi where the topic was “Global Shake-up in the 21st Century.” Putin’s remarks were translated by an interpreter and that video was uploaded to the Russian government’s website.
“We see with bemusement the paralysis unfolding in countries that have grown accustomed to viewing themselves as the flagships of progress,” Putin said during an event where he spoke for a few hours. “Of course, it’s none of our business or what is happening, the social and cultural shocks that are happening in some countries in the Western countries, some believe that aggressive blotting out of whole pages of your own history, the affirmative action in the interest of minorities, and the requirement to renounce the traditional interpretation of such basic values as mother, father, family, and the distinction between sexes are a milestone … a renewal of society.”
Putin said that Western nations had a right to do whatever they wanted to do but that “the overwhelming majority of Russian society” rejected these new ways of thinking.
“The preparedness of the so called social progress believe that the bringing a new conscience, a new consciousness to humanity, something that is more correct,” Putin said. “But there is one thing I would like to say: The recipes they come up with are nothing new. Paradoxical as it may seem, but this is something we saw in Russia. It happened in our country before after the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks followed the dogmas of Marx and Engels. And they also declared that they would go into change the traditional lifestyle, the political, the economic lifestyle, as well as the very notion of morality, the basic principles for a healthy society. They were trying to destroy age and century long values, revisiting the relationship between the people, they were encouraging informing on one’s own beloved, and families. It was hailed as the march of progress. And it was very popular across the world and it was supported by many, as we see, it is happening right now.”
“Incidentally, the Bolsheviks were absolutely intolerant of other opinions, different from their own,” Putin continued. “I think this should remind you of something that is happening. And we see what is happening in the Western countries, it is with puzzlement that we see the practices Russia used to have and that we left behind in distant path, the fight for equality and against discrimination turns into an aggressive dogmatism on the brink of absurdity, when great authors of the past such as Shakespeare are no longer taught in schools and universities because they announced as backward classics that did not understand the importance of gender or race.”
“In Hollywood there are leaflets reminding what you should do in the cinema, in the films, how many personalities and actors you’ve got, what kind of color, what sex, and sometimes it’s even even tighter and stricter than what the Department of Propaganda of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee did,” he said. “And the fight against racism, which is a lofty goal, turns into a new culture, cancel culture, and into reverse discrimination, racism on the obverse. And it brings people apart, whereas the true fighters for civic rights, they were trying to eliminate those differences. I asked my colleagues to find this quote from Martin Luther King, and he said, ‘I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ That is a true value.”
“You know, the Bolsheviks were speaking about nationalizing not just the property, but also women,” Putin continued. “The proponents of new approaches go so far as they want to eliminate the whole notions of men and women, and those who dare say that men and women exist and this is a biological fact, they are all but banished. Parent number one, parent number two, or the parent that has given birth, or instead of breast milk, you say human milk. And you say all of that, so the people who are not sure of their sexual agenda are not unhappy.”
See, this is the thing. Putin, Orban, and all the illiberal leaders that our baizuocracy loves to hate are all completely clear and completely correct on the society-destroying nature of wokeness and postliberal leftism. It should not be that way, but it is. Meanwhile, our Democratic political class, and the baizuocrats throughout the American elite (e.g., those who run corporations, universities, the media, law, medicine, sports, the military), are actively destroying this country and its founding values with their ideology. The Republicans, for the most part, aren’t doing a damn thing (though good for Sen. Tom Cotton for just introducing a bill to prohibit schools from participating in the gender transitions of children behind the backs of parents; more, please). Trump talked a reasonably good game, had some minor successes, but had too little follow-through. It is time to get serious, to quit playing around, before it’s too late.
There are a lot of Americans who will look to Putin and Orban and point to corruption they’ve allowed under their governments, and use that as a reason to dismiss everything they say about wokeness. This is a foolish error. You don’t have to endorse corruption in order to recognize that on these cultural matters, they are correct. Besides, as a young woman I shared a taxi with across town in Budapest told me, she recognized that the Fidesz Party governance had tolerated far too much corruption, but she was going to vote for them anyway in next year’s election. Why? She said that she doesn’t want her young children to grow up in a country that has destroyed the idea of man and woman, and of family. There are some forms of corruption, she explained, that are harder to recover from.
As I see it, this is the main lesson American conservatives can learn from Viktor Orban and his government. They grasp that this is a civilizational struggle, and that they are not just dealing with opponents, but with very powerful people who push an agenda that is tearing our societies apart. And they are willing to use the power of the state to stop it. You don’t have to commit to a grand integralist theoretical scheme to do as they are doing. You have to use the laws that are already there — but you also have to not give a damn what the media and the baizuocracy say. If the GOP comes to power again, please, let’s stop this pantomiming.
I was talking yesterday to a conservative Catholic friend who is very smart about all this. He says that all talk of integralism is a complete non-starter in the US, and a distraction from what might actually work in the real world to save the country from its internal enemies. My friend pointed out that democracy has not prevented the Left from mainstreaming all kinds of crazy concepts in a lightning-fast way, and using the actual institutions of liberal democracy to bring about illiberal Leftism.
The problem, he said, is that we on the Right have been too stupid to understand that control over institutions matters. Yale Law School is incomparably more powerful than 15 million Southern Baptists. That being the case, why do we allow these people who actually hate us and want to see us crushed hold so much power? We allow these institutions, run by and filled with people who hate us, to credential the ruling class, and yet we sit by hoping that one day, they will wake up and realize that our arguments are better, and change? Not going to happen. Why do we give Big Tech, which also despises us and our values, control so much of the public square? Why do we all keep voting Republican, even though the party outsources its policymaking to libertarians and neocons who have no real problem with the baizuocracy, as long as they can maintain their position within it?
J.D. Vance gets it (“We are actively subsidizing the people who are destroying this country”) even if the rest of the GOP does not (and even if his main primary opponent is the kind of hopped-up GOP guy who only wants to tweet and meme rather than offer serious ways to dismantle the baizuocracy). We tried the Trump thing. There were some successes, but it didn’t work. Trump left office with the White House and both houses of Congress in Democratic hands, and with the woke more entrenched in power than ever. Time for something new. When even America’s No. 2 rival in the world, Vladimir Putin, can see what’s happening, what on earth is wrong with us?
If you haven’t read Live Not By Lies, let me ask you to do so, please. It’s exactly what Putin is talking about here. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Vladimir Putin, but when the man is right, he’s right.
Ask yourself: is there a single American conservative politician with the guts to give a speech like Putin did? If not, why not? You see the crisis.
It is interesting to consider that Live Not By Lies has sold over 140,000 copies in the one year since its release, yet as far as I know, except for the week it appeared on the Times bestseller list, the first time it was mentioned in the mainstream media at all was in the story about Hungary in this weekend’s Times magazine. I’m not complaining because I’m losing money — I’m making good money on this book, with sales like that. I’m saying that it means something when a book like this, one that gives voice to immigrants to America who escaped Communism, and who say that they’re watching the same thing happen here with wokeness, is widely ignored in the mainstream media, despite being a bestseller. The media don’t want people to read this, because if the book is telling the truth, and if these immigrants from the USSR and the Warsaw Pact are accurate in their insights, then Live Not By Lies stands to awaken the somnolent public about the true nature of this crisis. If people wake up, then they might just fight back hard against wokeism. That is something the media does not want, for obvious reasons.
Wake up. The media and the baizuocracy are gaslighting us all. The immigrants who came to this country seeking freedom from Communist totalitarianism are desperately trying to warn their fellow Americans — but few of us want to listen. Now even a former KGB colonel says it’s true. At some point, Americans will either wake up and fight back, or we are going to find ourselves living under a social credit system, and crushed by the baizuocracy.
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Friends And Ex-Friends
I just saw this on Twitter:
How you know if someone’s your friend:
You can tell them bad news, and they’ll listen. They won’t tell you why you’re stupid.
This is the weirder thing: You can tell them good news, and they’ll help you celebrate.
That’s a good way of deciding who you should have around you. pic.twitter.com/IRWViB1RAL
— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) October 21, 2021
He’s right about that. I found out today from an old friend that on the Facebook group of my high school graduating class, someone who had been one of my best friends there was denouncing me as a “fascist” and “contemptible” because of that NYT story quoting me about Hungary, and criticizing wokeness. This was surprising. I knew this old friend was a man of the Left, but I never thought he was the kind of person who would place politics above friendship. But I was wrong.
This is a guy who has suffered in his life. His academic career suffered a major setback, from which it has not recovered, and never will. His marriage ended. Horrible stuff. Though he lives far away, I tried to support him through this, as friends do. I don’t care what your politics are — I will never abandon a friend. But many people don’t live by that standard.
A few months ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper in support of US Sen. Bill Cassidy’s vote to impeach Trump after the January 6 event. I know Cassidy somewhat, and believe him to be a man of principle. I hoped that as a nationally known conservative writer who lives here in Louisiana, I should stand up for him publicly while he is being dogpiled by other conservatives. The morning the letter appeared, I received a text from a friend of over 40 years, ending our friendship. She is on the far left politically, but again, so what? She’s been a good friend. Now, though, she was ending the friendship. I asked her if she was aware that I was writing in support of Trump’s second impeachment. Yes, she said, but I said in the letter that Trump had done some good things in his term — and that was unforgivable.
Forty years of friendship gone, because I do not hate Trump with perfect purity. I don’t even hate Trump, or any politician. What a loser I must be.
“It’s everywhere,” a conservative academic friend of mine told me today, as we were talking about people ending friendships over politics. He told me some stories. It’s not just left-wing people doing it to right-wing people. Purity policing is happening all the time in certain right-wing circles. Aside from the moral scumminess off people writing off their friends over politics, I have to wonder why, on the Right at least, intelligent conservatives think that we can afford to do that as a tactical matter. We control no institutions, and among us Christian conservatives, at least, we are shrinking in numbers and influence. This is not going to get better anytime soon, barring conversion. But please, let’s go ahead and patrol our own to wipe out any dissent.
Back in 2002, when I was working at National Review, one of my colleagues petitioned Rich Lowry not to publish as a cover story my essay about crunchy cons. Why did this man not want that piece to run? According to an NR friend who was party to these discussions, because it would give liberals the idea that conservatives were not united. To his great credit, Rich published the piece, but that taught me something about some people in political journalism and academia. They are not in it to explore ideas, to discuss them, to compare them and work through them. For them, it’s all about power.
Nevertheless, I have observed that of late people on the Left are far more willing to end friendships over politics than people on the Right. To be clear, I would end a friendship over politics only if the political friend was obnoxious and wouldn’t shut up about politics — but then, that wouldn’t be ending a friendship over politics per se, but over someone becoming a fanatic, and disrespecting me. I would end a friendship with someone who behaved the same way over religion. A friend of mine told me in a phone conversation this week, “We used to go over to visit [a married couple] all the time, but we got sick of it because all they could do was complain about the people they hated. Every conversation always came back to whoever they were made at.”
One of the loveliest men I know is a friend who is very liberal, but who understands that politics are only part of life. I no longer live in his town, but when I did, we loved getting together to talk about our kids, travel, books, music, whatever. We never discussed politics, because why do that? We didn’t see eye to eye on either politics or religion, but we shared so much in common, and that’s what we leaned in to. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Weren’t most people like this, until social media came into existence, and wokeness showed up?
Today the liberal NYT columnist Tom Edsall writes about academic studies showing that conservatives are happier than liberals. Here is a long excerpt; I apologize for the length, but it’s hard to quote it in shorter bits:
Two similarly titled papers with markedly disparate conclusions illustrate the range of disagreement on this subject. “Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?” by Jaime Napier of N.Y.U. in Abu Dhabi and John Jost of N.YU., and “Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals, but Why?” by Barry R. Schlenker and John Chambers, both of the University of Florida, and Bonnie Le of the University of Rochester.
Using nationally representative samples from the United States and nine other countries, Napier and Jost note that they consistently found conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers).
This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style. We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals.
Napier and Jost contend that their determinations are “consistent with system justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function.”
One of Napier and Jost’s studies “suggests that conservatism provides an emotional buffer against the negative hedonic impact of inequality in society.”
In addition, they argue that rising levels of inequality have “exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer.”
A very different view of conservatives and the political right emerges in Schlenker, Chambers and Le’s paper:
Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades.
In contrast to Napier and Jost’s “view that conservatives are generally fearful, low in self-esteem, and rationalize away social inequality,” Schlenker, Chambers and Le argue:
Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general and in specific domains (e.g., marriage, job, residence), report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems, and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity.
Liberals, Schlenker and his co-authors agree,
have become less happy over the last several decades, but this decline is associated with increasingly secular attitudes and actions (e.g., less religiosity, less likelihood of being married, and perhaps lessened belief in personal agency).
They go on:
Conservatives generally score higher on internal control as well as the Protestant Work Ethic, which emphasizes the inherent meaningfulness and value of work and the strong linkage between one’s efforts and outcomes, and is positively associated with achievement. Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to see outcomes as due to factors beyond one’s personal control, including luck and properties of the social system.
These differences have consequences:
Perceptions of internal control, self-efficacy, and the engagement in meaningful work are strongly related to life satisfaction. These differences in personal agency could, in and of themselves, explain much of the happiness gap.
So too, in their view, does the liberal inclination to view morality in relative, as opposed to absolutist, terms, have consequences:
A relativist moral code more readily permits people to excuse or justify failures to do the ‘‘right’’ thing. When moral codes lack clarity and promote flexibility, people may come to feel a sense of normlessness — a lack of purpose in life — and alienation. Further, if people believe there are acceptable excuses and justifications for morally questionable acts, they are more likely to engage in those acts, which in turn can create problems and unhappiness.
Perhaps most significant, Schlenker, Chambers and Le found that while both liberals and conservatives place a high value on fairness, they have diverging definitions of the concept:
Liberals define fairness more in terms of equality (equal outcomes regardless of contributions) and turn to government as the vehicle for enforcing social justice and helping those in need. Conservatives define fairness more in terms of equity (outcomes should be proportional to contributions), rely on free markets to distribute outcomes, and prefer individuals and private organizations, not government, to contribute to the care and protection of those in need.
Frankl contended that meaning in life comes through work, love and suffering, and that all these involve the subordination of self:
Man is originally characterized by his “search for meaning” rather than his “search for himself.” The more he forgets himself — giving himself to a cause or another person — the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself the more he really becomes himself.
The implication favors liberals.
Wait … what?! The implication does not favor liberals. The implication favors people who are not egotistical, who find their meaning in dedicating themselves to something greater than themselves. You can find them on both sides.
I admit to being skeptical of any attempt to quantify happiness, which is a subjective judgment. Nevertheless, if it is true that conservatives are happier on balance than liberals, I think it has to do with two basic things.
First, conservatives tend to accept that the world will never be perfect, and find it easier to live with imperfections. Napier and Jost say that “the rationalization of inequality” is why conservatives are happier than liberals. They make it sound like conservatives don’t care about inequality, and that’s why they are happier. Could it be, though, that conservatives understand that it is impossible to create a world of total equality, and that it is folly even to try? Improve things where you can, but don’t ever think that perfection is achievable, because it’s simply not. That’s not how the world works. We have ample evidence from the socialist and communist experiments of the 20th century what happens when you try to create a world of total economic equality. It makes everybody poor, and even then hierarchies and classes emerge, because that is human nature.
Second, conservatives tend to care less about political crusading. I’m not talking about your Uncle Kenny who watches Fox all the time and won’t shut up about the libs. I don’t know any ordinary conservatives who would cut off a friend over their liberal politics. Yet in my own life, I’ve just told you about two of my oldest friends who have done that to me just this year. I hear anecdotally from conservatives all the time who report the same thing. I’m sure that it happens sometimes the other way — in Nashville three years ago, a campus pastor told me a student in his congregation had been cut off by her parents because she opposed Trump — but I far, far more often hear about it happening from left to right.
My mom and dad did not share my politics. We were all conservatives, but they thought of me as some kind of liberal, even before Trump came around. This was because their idea of “conservative” was set by whatever Fox News was saying. I remember once criticizing then-President George W. Bush in their presence, and my mother called me a liberal — and meant it.
That’s beside the point. The point was that we realized that our relationship was more important than politics, so we decided at some point just not to talk about politics. This was easy to do. It’s very easy to do, in fact! But I have found over the years that some of my lefty friends cannot help themselves. They have to get on their political high horses, and find ways to bring every conversation around to politics, if only to let me know that they know I’m a right-wing louse, and that I shouldn’t think I was fooling anybody. I have eased myself away from those people — not because of their politics, but because they couldn’t allow our friendship to exist outside of politics.
Here’s a counter example. In my hometown, when I moved back in 2011, I met the man who had served as Episcopal priest for years there. He is a Latino immigrant. At some point I learned that he had been in a poker group with one particular man in town — a man who had since passed away. This old man was known for his far-right views, especially on race. I asked the Latino priest how on earth he managed that relationship. He said that the old man was all right once you got to know him. And I thought: Wisdom, let us attend! These two men — the Latino immigrant pastor and the white far-right retiree — were very far from sharing the same views on politics or anything else. But they shared the same town, and found a way to get along, somehow. I gained a lot of respect for that priest that day. I never knew the old white man, but I would not be surprised if the mercy of friendship that the Latino priest extended to him in their poker games changed his heart before he died. We can only hope.
“The personal is political” — now there’s a totalitarian statement! — was a leftist rallying cry in the 1960s and 1970s. These days, it seems that many leftists really do believe it, even still. Maybe it’s just my circles, but I don’t know any conservatives who believe that. They tend to regard politics as only part of life. For some (many?) liberals, politics are at the center of life. Back when I lived in NYC, there was a conservative Baptist reader of National Review who wanted to convert me out of my Catholicism. It didn’t work (it took the Catholic bishops to do that), but I agreed once to meet him for coffee. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t for our entire meeting to be about converting me to his point of view. I mean, I figured it would come up, but I quickly realized that the only reason he wanted to meet me at all was to tell me how wrong I was, and to convince me to agree with him. I cut him off after that, because I realized that he didn’t actually care about me as a person; he only cared about me as a potential convert.
Similarly with these leftist ex-friends, it is a hidden blessing that they are throwing me aside. I had been under the impression that we were friends for the reasons most people are friends. I did not know that their friendship was conditional on me not being conservative, or at least not being a self-hating conservative. My life is better with those sad, miserable people out of it, but still, what a shame.
My conservative academic friend told me today that a while back, he and his wife had been invited to dinner with a friend they hadn’t seen in a while. The friend told them that he didn’t want to see them if they had voted for Donald Trump. In fact they had not voted for Trump, but the very fact that this impurity would have made their company unbearable for their friend, even though there was no reason for politics to come up at the dinner, struck my pal as incredible — and insane.
If you would not be friends with me because of how I voted, then I don’t want to be friends with you in the first place. To me, one of the least interesting things about you are your political ideas. I want to know: Are you kind? Are you funny? Are you interested in the world outside your head? Do you respect others?Are you loyal? Everything else follows from that.
Another classmate — a fellow conservative — texted to say how obnoxious and disgusting she found those comments on Facebook. She told me she wishes now that she had stood up for me, but she normally hates to get involved in drama. I wish too that she had stood up for me, but I understand why she didn’t. People like the sad, failed academic who started the trashfest are toxic. Normal people don’t want to get involved with them. Most people aren’t politicized freaks like that. The problem, though, is that when we don’t stand up to that sort of person, they end up dominating whatever sphere they are in, because nobody wants to confront them. This, I think, is why the woke often end up winning. People find it easier to brush off their pain-in-the-ass hysteria than to confront it.
This makes sense to a point — but then you end up in a situation that a friend of mine is facing in her family. According to her, her grandmother has always been the kind of crybully who makes demands, utters harsh statements, tells white lies, etc., and when anybody in her family would push back, Granny would throw a fit, and accuse them of disrespecting her, and so forth. Over the years, they all got used to giving her her way, because the stakes were usually small. Well, a situation recently came up in the family where Granny’s lies have plunged the whole family into a serious crisis. Hearing all this made me wonder if things might have turned out differently if the family had not tolerated Granny’s meanness and nonsense all along.
The regular commenter on this blog who comments under the name Pete From Baltimore said today on a thread that he didn’t understand what people like me expect people like him to do to resist wokeness. He said that he, like most people, is fully occupied with making a living, and the ordinary things of life. Should he really give himself over to joining a fight against this abstract threat? He’s got a point. I don’t know if he considers himself a conservative politically, but his orientation to the world is … normal.
However, the reason the woke have gone so far is that they are willing to trouble themselves to get active in public life, to push their agenda. I’ve told in this space before the story about how some conservative Christians in California some years back trying to rally support to protect Christian colleges from proposed legislation that could end up forcing those institutions to violate their religious conscience on LGBT matters, or shut down. A friend who was involved in that effort told me that when his group went to visit leaders of big white Evangelical churches in conservative Orange County, nobody would take a stand — even though the leadership agreed with the cause. They were afraid of being called bigots. They just did not want to get involved. They wanted somebody else to do it for them. My friend told me the only reason they were able to turn back this threat was because black Pentecostal pastors in Los Angeles took their side, as did Catholic Archbishop Jose Gomez of L.A.
My point is simply this: ordinary people had better change their minds about getting involved in the fight against wokeness. They might not be interested in wokeness, but wokeness is interested in them. We don’t have to become as obsessed with politics as they are, but if we avoid taking stands because we don’t want to dirty our hands grappling with these dirtbags, they are going to keep winning, and spreading their misery to all our lives.
I’m thinking now of my ex-friend who vomited up such vicious bile about me, and the other ex-friends who cheered him on. What happened to them? Who, or what, poisoned their souls? Can they be saved? Maybe, but it’s going to have to be somebody else who saves them from their contempt and misery. I couldn’t possibly care at this point. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.
UPDATE: Pete From Baltimore comments:
This is anectdotal on mypart.But over the years , ive noticed something. I work as a construction laborer.But my neighborhood has been gentrifed over the past 20 years.And i noticed two things
One is that when i hear politics discussed on construction sites, or among blue collar Am,ericans in social settings, its usually in general terms of how they think particular issues should be solved. Since i live in Baltimore, many of my co-workers[Black,White and Latino] constantly discuss issues like Crime,Drugs and Poverty and abandoned houses [The last being a big issue in Baltimore]
But they almost always discuss these issues in non-partisan terms. I rarely hear terms like “Democrat” ,”liberal”,”conservative”, or “Republican” , used, They simply talk about how they think that the problems should be solved.And many times, their answers dont fit neatly into any ideological box
Whereas when my more upper middle class and college educated neighbors talk about politics, its always in very partisan terms.
The second thing that ive noticed, is that many of these upper middle class neighbors of mine have become very angry and partisan over the past 10 years. And especially since Trump was elected in 2016
I just got back from a 2 week bike trip in rural Central Pennsylvannia [Im tryinng to move there permantly ] And yes, i did see “Dont Blame Me,I Voted For Trump” signs in front of a few houses.But i went two whole weeks without once hearing anyone discusss politics.And sincei was staying in motels, i ate 3 meals a day at local diners and bars. Yet i did not hear one person mention politcs.
My point is that in my opinion, many urban , upper middle class liberals[and probably more than a few conservatives in suburbs] have become very obsessed with Political Tribal Wars.And its unhealthy. in my opinion
One thing that is often ignored about gentrified urban areas like mine, is how almost all of the gentrifiers are between 22-35 years old.and many are single.And very few have children.
When i was eating at the rural diners, i heard waitresses and customers talk about their children and their families a lot.Whereas in bars in SE Baltimore, i hear patrons either complaining about Trump.Or they are talking about some house party or restuarant they were at the other day
I think that is the answer to Mr Dreher’s question as to why “Normies” have not had an “Uprising”. Because they are normal people, thats why.And normal people go to their childrens ball games.They dont get angry enough about a comedian to protest him
In many urban gentrified areas, you have thousands of young peoplle who have lived inthe neighborhoods for less than 2 years.They dont have family ties in the neighborhood.And very few friends.So i think that they often embrace political tribalism as a substitute for not having children or a sense of community in their neighborhood. I could be wrong.But im guessing that liberals who do live in real communities, and who have children, are often less radical than they young gentrifiers of our urban areas
It should be noted that many journalist are young gentrifiers nowdays.Which explains a lot, in my opinion
I dont think the answer to our current problems is for “Normies” to get radical.Quite the opposite. And i think its better for everyone, if “Normies” go to thier childrens ball games, instead of having an “Uprising”. By all means, parents can, and should, attend PTA meetings.And everyone should vote.But an “Uprising”? No thanks.We had one in 1776.And it was a great uprising.So good that we dont need another
UPDATE.2: From Edward Hamilton:
The last few years have featured the growth of a category of bright-line tribal issues that friendships simply can’t survive: police violence, COVID, elections/J6, transgenderism, Kavanaugh/MeToo, and ultimately Trump himself and the discourse that surrounds him. People who have the wrong ideas on these issues get a “much worse than wrong” pejorative applied to them, like “racist” or “conspiracy theorist” or “anti-democratic”.
Most of my acquaintances (minus a few academics at work) are Trump voters. I live in Trumpworld. If you got me alone and asked me honest questions about various Trumpish beliefs, I’d only agree with them provisionally and carefully, and strongly emphasize my doubts and reservations about the kind of solutions they propose to current political challenges. I do see those people being exploited in some obvious ways, including by Trump himself.
But I have a much stronger and more visceral reaction to anyone who wants to apply the super-pejoratives to them. That’s what’s strained my family relationships the most. I’ve had substantial disagreements with my parents and siblings for two decades or more, but the conversations in 2017 suddenly started turning toward requests that I acknowledge that many of the people in “my world” were animated by underlying racism, just as conversations in 2021 have revolved around requests that I distance myself from them as being “paranoid” and indulging in conspiracies and misinformation.
I don’t mind having relationships with family and old friends who believe different things than I do, and have done so my entire life. But I find it very uncomfortable to have to keep denouncing the people at my church (say), in order to prove I’m “one of the good ones” who isn’t like them. My differences with them are real and worthy of discussion, but they are superficial compared to the discomfort I feel with anyone who would ask me to throw them under the bus as a precondition for maintaining my reputation for virtue or intelligence.
UPDATE.3: Jonah R.:
The tragic (and pathetic) thing about situations like this is that politics is ephemeral. Imagine, years later, having destroyed a friendship over Howard Dean, or Sarah Palin? Imagine being angry with someone for not having the same reaction you did to the funeral of Paul Wellstone. (Remember him?) Imagine thinking, “It’s been 30 years, but I’ll never get over the way that person mocked Dick Gephardt.” These ephemeral political nobodies pass along the fringes the world and we wrongly perceive that they’re passing close to us, right through our lives, and then they’re gone, and if you spare them a second thought you’re a damned fool, because they never spared you a single thought in the first place.
I’m roughly the same age as Rod and his scornful ex-friends. If they haven’t figured out by now that politics is ephemeral, and the older you get the more friends you need and the harder they are to find, and the more important it becomes to keep ties with the people who remembered you when, who remember where you all came from, then I don’t even know what to say, except that those ex-friends deserve pity, and need to re-think their lives. And that maybe they’re taking out their anger over their own failings on their successful former friend.
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URGE-ing Woke Totalitarianism In Science
The rot goes much deeper than has been reported. My question is whether the National Science Foundation helped coordinate the organized movement against Dorian Abbot. Not through conspiracy, but as the unavoidable consequence of ideologically-driven bad decisions. I’ll explain.
The Williams chair you profiled, who was among the vocal anti-Abbot leaders online, is also part of the leadership of an organization called URGE, which materialized in 2020. https://urgeoscience.org/about/
The purpose of this organization is to “develop policies and programs” to “unlearn racism” in geoscience departments nationwide. This is effected through “pods”, which are groups of activists organized within individual departments. In the past 18 months, these “pods” have appeared in geoscience departments across the country, where they apply pressure from within. There are a lot of them:
The pods have a curriculum, which you can read on the website. The quote from Dr. Cohen gives a sense of the overall ethos, and the treatment of Dorian Abbot gives a sense of the preferred policies. This Medium post describes current activities such as hosting segregated “BIPOC-only sessions”: https://urgeoscience.medium.com/the-future-of-unlearning-racism-in-geoscience-d961d9249f70
But here’s the crux of it. While it’s perfectly fine for individuals to organize as they see fit, and propose new policies however misguided they may be, this is a coordinated ideological push. And it is is federally funded by the National Science Foundation! At the bottom of their page you can read that “URGE is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant EAR#1714909 and by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.”
The public description for EAR#1714909 is available at the NSF website. It is an award to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:
Absent from this public-facing description is anything about ‘unlearning racism’ or hosting segregated meetings. I cannot explain this discrepancy (and this is perhaps something a reporter could look into). But by appearances, NSF is funding a network of ideological activism under the guise of science. Activism that targets people like Dorian Abbot.
More recently, NSF has funded URGE explicitly:
The money involved is small, but you’ll find it difficult to find any NSF-funded programs that address issues of representation from a perspective of individual dignity instead of group identity.
More broadly, there is an even bigger question of the degree to which NSF has been ideologically compromised. Every NSF grant proposal is evaluated by two merit review criteria: “intellectual merit” (the potential to advance knowledge) and “broader impacts” (the benefit to society). While NSF will deny it, it is now widely understood if only implicitly that the Broader Impacts section of every proposal must be something “woke” to be maximally competitive. Some of these projects are excellent, but many are ideological. At some point Congress will need to decide if this is what they intended. A specific policy could be aimed at addressing this.
NSF was founded in 1950 “To promote the progress of science, to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, and to secure the national defense.” Is that what it’s doing now?
This is a critically important question, especially as we have just learned that the Chinese hypersonic missiles just tested have qualities that seem to defy physics. Seems to me pretty urgently important for national security reasons that Congress deal harshly and urgently with these totalitarians on science faculties and in universities, and remove them and their racist de facto loyalty oaths from having any influence at all over how we do science in this country.
Come on, Congressional Republicans (and anti-woke Democrats), this is serious. It could hardly be more serious.
UPDATE: A reader who asked me to withhold her name writes:
I’m an early-career professor at a research university that skews far left even for academia, in the sciences. I completely agree with your recent posts that academia is headed quickly in a very woke direction, but I don’t think things are quite as dire yet as you make them sound.There are definitely a multitude of things that make it difficult to be a faithful Christian in academia (and woke ideology showing up in other ways is a huge part of that). I’m also worried that if we use too much outrage now on things that are marginally outrageous, everyone will tune us out when things get worse.1. Yes, more and more universities are requiring applicants to faculty positions to write statements on their efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In my field, basically only the California system required a DEI statement 5 years ago, and a significant majority require it now.I’m not all that surprised that the California system would use a DEI screening before faculty see the applications, but I strongly suspect that hasn’t spread much farther yet (though I’d be interested to hear if I’m wrong about that). In my department and many others, the DEI statement is something that’s there mostly because the university told us to require it.From what I’ve seen from being on several faculty search committees, some people on the search committee will glance at the DEI statement, but it’s far down the priority list. So far, ~3/4 of the statements are a page of meaningless fluff that may spout a few buzzwords but don’t actually tell us anything about the candidate’s ideology or plans. I’m sure there are an increasing number of departments with vocally woke faculty who will try to veto anyone who doesn’t fully embrace woke ideology in their statement, but it’s also at this point not that hard to write a DEI statement that’s entirely acceptable to many departments that basically sidesteps the issue of woke ideology.2. Yes, NSF requires “broader impacts” in all proposals and evaluates that as a part of funding, and has for quite a while. A large portion of the “broader impacts” criterion is that the research has the potential to benefit society by learning the fundamental science that’s needed for new technology, medicine, national defense, etc.From what I’ve seen in both recently receiving an NSF grant and serving on a review panel, it’s more or less expected that faculty will include something that can check the box of “cares about giving people from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to succeed in science”, but it doesn’t have to fit within a woke DEI framework. I’ve seen that box checked by working with students from poor rural backgrounds, interactions with K-12 students or teachers, etc. with little or no reference to race or gender, without any negative effects on funding.3. For NSF grants like the one that originally supported the URGE project, it’s very standard for the public description to describe the science that ~80-100% of the actual grant money is going toward and not say much about the non-research broader impacts activities. I’m not at all surprised that it’s absent from the public description of the grant – my recent grant has one sentence in the public description saying that I’m participating in a couple outreach-type activities.I’m disappointed but not at all surprised that NSF did extend continuing funding directly to the URGE project. I noticed that the second grant directly funding URGE is coming from funding that’s earmarked for “education and human resources”, so it’s coming from a different pot of money than what’s used to fund actual research. Of course, that raises the question of how that money got split up into those pots in the first place, but that’s a question that goes much higher up the chain.