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‘You Cannot Imagine The Worst’

'Thanks to Beloved Stalin for Our Happy Childhood!', poster, 1950. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

I had an e-mail exchange with a source for my upcoming book, who has become a friend. He is a scientist who was born and raised in a Soviet-bloc country, and immigrated to the US in his twenties. He wrote to tell me that he thinks I am entirely too optimistic when I say that I don’t anticipate harsh persecution of Christians and other dissenters. I reprint these excerpts of his words here with his permission:

I think that you, and most of Americans, deeply misunderstand human nature; what it really is capable of. That’s what I loved about Americans. Unbounded and unfounded optimism, always willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. No longer. I see pent-up hatred all around me. People are looking for an outlet to vent it. Both sides. Myself included.

A Hidden Life — a movie I am certainly not going to see: Your description has already traumatized me beyond tolerable levels. From what you have described though, the ’judge’s glance at his own hands” was probably the strongest scene. It is a universal indictment. There will be a lot of glancing in the not too distant future. Think about it.

In the scene, the prisoner Franz Jägerstätter, his arms shackled, sits before a Nazi judge. He tells the judge that he is truly free. The judge sends him away, just before presiding over his sentence of death. After the prisoner walks away, the judge sits with his unbound hands on his lap, in the same position as Jägerstätter’s, and contemplates the invisible manacles.

My correspondent continues:

So what does it have to do with the Australia fires, you ask?

Contrary to the popular belief that a fraction of a degree temperature increase set the place ablaze, there is another explanation. For millennia the Aborigines have been practicing ritual bush burning. A while ago the practice was banned because of ecology concerns, environmental protection; to save some odd shrew from being upset. Dead wood accumulated. The whole place burned to the ground. (you can google for it)

We did the same thing to the culture. We banned ritual control burns. We allowed dead wood to accumulate. A single spark and the whole place will be ablaze. We will burn.

This is as rational an argument as I am capable of right now.

He concludes:

I think that you cannot imagine the worst because it looks so normal outside. One can be hauled to the gallows even when it’s sunny and warm. It’s hard to explain but when I look out and it’s all beautiful I always think about what it is trying to hide, what’s in store. As my long-ago girlfriend once pointed out, I am heavily damaged. I know.

UPDATE: The “controlled burn” comment was clear to me, but not to everyone, it seems from the comment. I take him to mean that we have not dealt with problems that ought to have been dealt with, and because of that, they have accumulated so massively as to be a fire hazard. “Controlled burns” are a way of managing forests to prevent total conflagrations. The analogy is that if we had faced conflicts and problems that would have been painful, but manageable, we would not have gotten ourselves into a position where it feels like the whole thing is going to go up in a raging firestorm.

Christopher Caldwell talks about an aspect of this in his new book. He says that the left that runs institutions has become so punitive of people for holding the “wrong” opinions, or saying the “wrong” things, that people have learned to keep their opinions to themselves out of self-protection. Consequently, it has become hard for the people who govern us to know what the governed really think. And so with the news media, et al. Few people will say what truly concerns them, or what they think about it, when they know that speaking their minds might cost them their jobs, or draw a progressive hate mob to ruin their lives.

Commenter Chris in Appalachia gets it:

Commenters here don’t understand the analogy to controlled burns, which are at times part of a healthy managed forest. Anyway, what I take it to mean is that, especially from 1965 to 2015, we used to be able to debate and discuss different controversial ideas and positions. This also served the purpose of a safety valve allowing pent-up emotions and options, and even hysteria, to be vented. But now SWJs, Marxists activists, Western governments, and globalists corporations attempt to immediately shut down all dissent from their agenda with a figurative sledgehammer. So there is a simmering, angry group of people all around who can’t vent or slow burn. Well, there are a few outlets left, such as this one.

UPDATE.2: Reader Nate J., with this excellent comment:

I like this analogy of a tsunami and would like to take it a step further: what struck me about that devastation was that if you were on the ocean at the time, you were perfectly safe. Close to the epicenter of the earthquake was furthest from harm.

If you were on a fishing boat at the time, the ocean would have swelled up, then gone back down. All this would be imperceptible to you. Meanwhile, on land, the shore was being completely washed away as the water crashed into beaches and roads and buildings and rooted trees and swept them all to sea. All the violence and destruction of that collision between sea and land–unstoppable force meets immovable object–occurred everywhere except upon the sea that caused it.

I think there’s a metaphor for our society in there. The average person (the undecided voter, the left-of-right-of-left-of-center type, the mushy middle bourgeoisie, etc) riding upon the wave of progressivism isn’t at all aware of what forces the activist left is summoning forth. Most cannot perceive the destructive forces lurking beneath until we all finally see the collision between that force and the existing structures.

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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