Home/Rod Dreher/The Savagery Of The Tribe

The Savagery Of The Tribe

W.H. Auden (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The story of the pastor in the Uber was so important for me to hear, especially because I’ve been thinking all week about a couple of heavy things about the storm gathering around us.

I am on my way to Rome, where I will be speaking at next week’s National Conservatism conference. The topic will be the theme of my forthcoming book: the coming totalitarianism, and the lessons that we must learn today from the experiences of those who resisted Soviet bloc communism. Here at the end of an extraordinary week on that front, I am especially eager to meet people at this conference – especially the British writer Douglas Murray, whose work has been so enlightening (I quote from his most recent book,The Madness of Crowds in the manuscript of my own book.)

Why do I say this was an extraordinary week? Well, let’s go to Murray, who asks, “Will no one resist the new totalitarianism?” He writes about the fate of Alastair Stewart, a veteran, and much beloved, English broadcaster who was sacked this week after four decades of service. Stewart’s firing offense was quoting Shakespeare at a hostile Twitter follower, who took it as racist. The tweeted-at is a black Briton, who interpreted this passage from the Bard, cited by Stewart, as a racial attack:

Actually that is not the specific tweet Stewart sent to the black man, Martin Shapland. It is one he sent to a white man months ago, an environmentalist with whom he was arguing.

In his column today, Andrew Sullivan gives context and explains the meaning of the Shakespeare lines:

In the aftermath of the fuss, Stewart has been widely hailed by all his colleagues as a model figure, an adored gentleman-mentor to many nonwhite journalists. News anchors broke into tears announcing his sudden banishment from the TV. And Shapland? His Twitter feed gives you a sense of where he’s coming from. See if you can spot a theme here: “Fucking white privilege.” “Typical white guy”; “Very white. Very male. Very pale. Very rich?” “Is this contributor white?” “The White People are at it again.” And what’s interesting to me is that Shapland feels utterly secure that, as a black man, he is entitled to use broad, generalizing insults of another race, and indeed should be celebrated for doing so. (The other time Stewart quoted this Shakespeare passage was with a tweeter who was white.)

The great truth about today’s version of anti-racism is that it’s racist. Marinate people in race consciousness; teach them to see racism everywhere; reward them for calling out, Stasi-like, their fellow citizens for thought-crimes; punish the “racist” pour decourager les autres; and repeat the ideological cleansing process. (The same is true of left feminism: tweets announcing hatred of all men are actually celebrated, or dismissed as irony.) Set up a system which rewards this kind of group hatred, and human nature will do the rest.


And maybe it’s a good moment to see where we are. A man quotes Shakespeare comparing “man, proud man” with “an angry ape.” Any literate person can see that Shakespeare is not talking about race at all; he’s talking (rather presciently) about human beings’ deeper, more primal natures that can obscure our rational thought. But Shapland instantly thought he was being attacked for being black. The distortion and poisoning of the mind here is quite something to behold. And mourn.

In his piece, Douglas Murray reflects on Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of why more people in the Soviet Union didn’t speak out when the terror began. Solzhenitsyn said that the people who stood by and watched, and even some of the people who did the arresting, thought that the evil would never come for them — or if it did, their friends would stand up for them, the law would eventually vindicate them, they might survive it, and rebuild their lives. This was a fatal mistake. Here’s Murray:

In the same way, when a nationally famous figure is accused of the great crime of the age, they rarely believe that the people for whom they have worked for for decades — the people they gave up their weekends for, their spare evenings, the times they could have been with their family for — would drop them in a matter of hours for a crime which cannot be explained and whose nature is wholly subjective. For that would mean everybody in the world would be able to take out anybody else, if they had sufficient desire to do so. And surely that world would be unworkable.

Well it would be, and it is. But it is possible not only because the victims do not quell and shake and scream enough but because we – the public – allow them to disappear one by one. We do not slash the virtual tires of those who take them away. We do not pick up whatever cudgels we have to hand to beat back their accusers. We just sit, as the anonymous lists and the unprovable complaints pile up and up, simply hoping all the time that the dishonest players and anonymous accusers will never come for us.

But they will.

They came this week for Jeanine Cummins, a novelist who thought her own personal leftist views, and her desire to write a socially conscious novel that would help Americans be more caring about the plight of immigrants from Latin America — would win her acclaim. Robby Soave details the hysterical witch-burning that the publishing world went through this week. It ended with Cummins’s publisher canceling her book tour because of violent threats. Soave:

That said, it’s certainly the case that American Dirt has received tons of negative coverage—not from the sort of Trump-supporting anti-immigrant people who might be expected to object to the story’s ideology, but from liberals who think Cummins is engaged in cultural appropriation. Cummins is white—though she has claimed a Puerto Rican grandmother—and stands accused of writing about peoples and cultures to which she does not belong.

“The asymmetry of Cummins’s identity (she’s white and not an immigrant) and story (a Mexican woman’s flight to the United States with her son) has led to charges of racial and cultural appropriation and publishing-industry whitewashing,” notes The Atlantic‘s Randy Boyagoda. “Making matters worse, the novel is a commercial success: It won a seven-figure advance and was optioned for a film adaptation amid broader industry buzz, and it’s an Oprah Book Club selection….This is fundamentally a fight about an industry; it’s about how book publishers do business, and with whom.”

While there are certainly inequities in the world of publishing, it seems unfair to fault the book itself for this. More persuasive are criticisms of Cummins’ writing quality, though this line of attack blurs with the others.

The aesthetic quality of Cummins’s novel is beside the point. This is a case of weaponized resentment making a Girardian scapegoat of a writer. Think about what happened: a novelist had her book tour canceled out of fear for her safety, because left-wingers savaged her for writing a book intended to be sympathetic to Latino immigrants.

A novelist cannot go into a bookstore in America because of a reasonable fear of violence. This is where we are in America today.

Earlier in the week, I praised liberal journalist George Packer’s speech about the danger to writers from the current politicized atmosphere, but I faulted him for not naming the guilty: leftists. Packer did the same thing last fall, in a much-discussed account of how wokeness has eviscerated his kid’s New York public school — but he restrained himself from seriously calling out the villains. Why not? Is he afraid? Or is he unable to recognize that his own side is the most guilty in these matters? Does he think that his own liberalism, his talent, his friends, and his good intentions, are going to save him when the progressive mob comes for him?

Maybe he does. But look at Jeanine Cummins, and look at Alastair Stewart. The only fact that matters in the mob action to professionally destroy them destruction is that they are white, and their accusers are people of color.

As we know, the operating principle of our society is V.I. Lenin’s “who, whom” – that is, the meaning of any political act (and all acts are political acts) depends on who benefits, and who suffers. If the correct people (revolutionary classes) benefit, and the oppressor classes suffer, then the act is good; if not, not.

What an incredible thing. This is really happening, and it’s not coming from Trump World, as bad as it can be, but from the intellectuals, and those who hold a near-monopoly on cultural power.

In his Friday column, Andrew Sullivan talks about liberal Ezra Klein’s new book about political polarization, and the new one by Christopher Caldwell about the roots of the current crisis of polarization. He has positive and negative things to say about both, but concludes on a very pessimistic — and entirely warranted — note. Excerpts:

But how do we get out of this trap? That’s where the depression sinks in. Neither Caldwell nor Klein see a way back to a common weal and a common good. Ezra offers some technical corrections — ending the Electoral College, the filibuster, and winner-takes-all voting. And they might help, although their potential unintended consequences should be carefully considered. Then he recommends meditation to control our own primal instincts — a role that Christianity traditionally held. (I don’t disagree with Ezra on the benefits of meditation, but it’s hardly a game-changer in America in 2020.) Caldwell proposes something far more drastic: a repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yes, you read that right. The proposal’s perversity matches its impossibility — and it’s buried in one sentence on the penultimate page of the book.

Of course that is not going to happen, whether it should or should not. And note here that Caldwell’s point is not that civil rights are a bad thing, or that segregation did not need to be smashed. That is not not not his point. His point is that the way the US attacked segregation set us on this path of balkanization and tribalism, and there seems to be no way out. Sullivan writes.

I have a smidgen more optimism. I see in the long-delayed backlash to the social-justice movement an inkling of a new respect for individual and creative freedom and for the old idea of toleration rather than conformity. I see in the economic and educational success of women since the 1970s a possible cease-fire in the culture wars over sex. I see most homosexuals content to live out our lives without engaging in an eternal Kulturkampf against the cis and the straight. Race? Alas, I see no way forward but a revival of Christianity, of its view of human beings as “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This means such a transcendent view of human equality that it does not require equality of outcomes to see equal dignity and worth.

Yes, I’m hoping for a miracle. But at this point, what else have we got?

This passage brought to mind W.H. Auden’s shocking experience in a Manhattan theater in the 1930s. From The New Criterion‘s essay about Auden’s faith:

In 1939, Auden attended a screening of a film documenting the Nazi’s conquest of Poland at which he observed that “quite ordinary, supposedly harmless Germans in the audience were shouting ‘Kill the Poles.’” “I wondered then why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value. The answer brought me back to the church.”

Only Christianity, Auden believed, had the power to resist this tribal savagery. It was true then, it is true now. As we will learn. I have spent the past year talking to men and women, Christians, whose faith carried them through totalitarian times. We need to hear their stories. With each passing day, I realize that even more.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles