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Against Liberal ‘Performative Wokeness’

A reader sends this story in:

Columbus police found a woman’s body Saturday morning inside a vacant house in the 500 block of South Oakley Avenue on the Hilltop.

Acting on a report of a body in the building, officers went into the house around 11:30 a.m. Police said the woman appeared to be a victim of a homicide. This is the 10th homicide in the city this year.

The reader, who has close personal knowledge of the human wreckage in the lives of those the dead woman left behind — I can’t say more than that, to protect privacy — says that the dead woman had not seen her young child in months, because she was off binging on heroin. Says the reader:

What the people who clutch their pearls at the mention of shithole countries and neighborhoods forget is that our first solidarity is to our families and their safety and well being.  We should all do our duty to resist social breakdown and ameliorate poverty however we can, of course.  But the performative ‘wokeness’ of our contemporary liberals can’t long survive contact with anything resembling the horrifying reality of the downsides of liquid modernity.

Well, according to what I read on the Internet, reader, you are most likely a bad Christian who needs to ask for forgiveness.

In The Benedict Option, I write:

Peer pressure really begins to happen in middle childhood. Psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris, in her classic book The Nurture Assumption , says that kids at that age model their own behavior around their peer group’s. Writes Harris, “The new behaviors become habitual — internalized, if you will — and eventually become part of the public personality. The public personality is the one that a child adopts when he or she is not at home. It is the one that will develop into the adult personality. ”

Harris points to the example of immigrants and their children. Study after study shows that no matter how strong the home culture, first-generation offspring almost always conform to the values of the broader culture. “The old culture is lost in a single generation,” she writes. “Cultures are not passed on from parents to children; the children of immigrant parents adopt the culture of their peers.”  

On the other hand , says Harris, is that in most cases, it’s not too late for kids who have been exposed to bad influences. Researchers find that damage to a child’s moral core can be repaired if he is taken away from a bad peer group. What’s more, determined parents who run a disciplined home, and who immerse their children in a good peer group, can lay a good foundation, no matter how lax they have been until now.

The bad news about the fragility of culture is also good news, according to Harris: “Cultures can be changed, or formed from scratch, in a single generation.”

Poverty does not guarantee drug addiction, and prosperity certainly does not guarantee protection from it. The way I think about this poor-people-and-the-Benedict-Option problem is not “how do we keep the poors out of our neighborhood?” but “how do we build a local culture of shelter from the destruction of the outside culture?” That can take the form of moving away from people who bring a culture of drugs with them, or who sustain the culture of drugs. This is by no means just poor people; poor people came up in the earlier conversation because of other dysfunctional features of life in impoverished local cultures.

The book to read — seriously, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read — is Dreamland, by Sam Quiñones. It’s about America’s opioid epidemic. In 2015, I posted about it on this blog. Here is an excerpt:

The book is full of sad stories, but the saddest is the tale of Russian Pentecostals in Portland, Oregon. Massive number of these persecuted Christians emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US, and settled mostly on the West Coast. They were religious, conservative, and strict churchgoers. But their kids went to school with other Americans, and came to see church life as boring and too restrictive. They tried OxyContin, and moved into heroin. Hundreds of these Russian Pentecostal kids became addicts. Their parents did not know what to do. In one family’s case:

Two decades after Anatoly and Nina left the Soviet Union for the freedoms of America, each of their three oldest children was quietly addicted to black tar heroin from Xalisco, Nayarit. … [T]heir American dreamland contained hazards they hadn’t imagined. Remaining Christian in America, where everything was permitted, was harder than maintaining the faith in the Soviet Union where nothing was allowed. Churches were everywhere. But so were distractions and sin: television, sexualized and permissive pop culture, and wealth.

Think of it: these Pentecostals were better off in the USSR than in America, because American freedom led to extreme decadence.

I had no idea how bad this opiate epidemic was. According to statistics from the State of Ohio, which was especially hard-hit, the number of Ohioans who died from drug overdoses from between 2003 and 2008 was fifty percent higher than all the American soldiers who died in the Iraq War. Three times as many people died of prescription pill overdoses between 1999 and 2008 as died in the eight peak years of the crack cocaine epidemic.

And almost all of those pills were legally prescribed, and legally obtained.

One pain specialist tells Quinones:

Cahana believe that what insurance companies reimbursed for distilled many unfortunate values of the country. “We overtest, perform surgery, stick needles; these people are worse off,” he said. “If we work on their nutrition, diet, sleep habits, smoke habits, helping [them] find work — then they improve. You have to be accountable. If you give a treatment that kills people or makes people worse, you gotta stop. You can’t continue making money on stuff that doesn’t work.” Cahana saw “stuff” as the problem. Our reverence for technology blinded us to more holistic solutions. “We got to the moon, invented the Internet. We can do anything. It’s inconceivable to think there are problems that don’t have a technological solution. To go from ‘I can to anything’ to ‘I deserve everything’ is very quick.

“All of a  sudden, we can’t go to college without Adderall; you can’t do athletics without testosterone; you can’t have intimacy without Viagra. We’re all the time focused on the stuff and not on the people. …”

In the end, Quinones believes that the loss of community, purpose, social responsibility, and a sense of moral reality have all contributed to this problem. One doctor tells him that morphine is a great metaphor for the way we Americans approach life today:

“The bad effects of morphine act to minimize the use of the drug, which is a good thing. There are people born without pain receptors. [Living without pain] is a horrible thing. They die young because pain is the greatest signaling mechanism we have.”

Lord have mercy. Think of the truth in that. We have worked so hard as a culture to minimize pain, and to train ourselves to think of comfort and pleasure as our birthright, that we have left ourselves and our children vulnerable to this addiction. This false religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is part of the package.

When Russell Moore talks about how it’s as easy to go to hell out of Mayberry as out of Sodom, this is the kind of thing he’s talking about, in part. I talked to a local physician friend of mine, asking him if we had this problem around here. Heroin, not so much, he said, but he said I would be startled by the number of people — respectable people, even older people — who are dealing with a pill addiction — and from pills that no doctor in town prescribed. Addicts find a way, even here in Mayberry.

As far as I can remember, Pope Francis doesn’t once mention drug addiction in Laudato Si, but the forces he talks about in that encyclical all manifest in the story Quinones tells in Dreamland.  Everybody should read this book. Everybody. The writer friend who turned me on to it said:

It’s hard to imagine a better metaphor ​for the destructive power of an culture that has lost its spiritual moorings. When people talk about the BenOp some are terrified of repeating the mistake of the fundamentalist withdrawal. I understand why. I also understand that what Lenin, Stalin, et. al. could not do the Russian Pentecostals in 74 years, American libertine culture came close to pulling off in a few decades, if that long.

Who needs secret policemen when you have the unfiltered Internet? I don’t what the balance is or should be. I know that the Russian Pentecostals are not the only Christian families whose kids were swept up in the epidemic.

Quinones’ book barely if ever mentions religion, but my friend said that reading Dreamland and contemplating the deeper spiritual message in its pages has led him to this conclusion: the question is no longer ‘Do we need the Benedict Option?’ but rather, ‘What form will the Benedict Option take?’

If you think keeping poor people out of your neighborhood will keep the drug culture away, read Dreamland.

But: if you believe that there is nothing you can do to lessen the chances your kids will fall victim to it, read Dreamland. Culture matters. Peer groups matter. To hell with performative wokeness. Even if people think you’re a bad Christian, an elitist, or whatever they call you, you’ve got to do what you have to do to protect and strengthen your kids. And then do whatever you can to help other parents, especially those with fewer resources than you have, protect and strengthen their own children, and shelter them from the storm.

We hear from time to time on this blog from a reader who is living through the nightmare of her 18-year-old daughter transitioning into maleness. When I first met this reader a few years back, she was worried that this would happen, because transgenderism was a fad in her daughter’s high school. There was a lot of peer pressure to announce that one is transgender. She told me that parents of kids who were transitioning became fierce advocates of transgenderism, and stigmatized parents who questioned it, or in any way resisted it. The school administration was very much on the side of the radicals. The reader told me at the time that she didn’t know if her own daughter would be able to resist.

In the end, her daughter succumbed, and has been taking testosterone injections. Would this have happened if the reader had been able to get her daughter out of that peer group? It’s impossible to say. But based on what she told me before her daughter showed any interest in transitioning, I’d say the peer group, and the culture of that high school, played a paramount role in determining the daughter’s fate.

These weren’t poor people, by the way. These were prosperous suburban people. Again: you don’t have to have a housing project in your neighborhood to lose your children to this destructive, insane culture.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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