Heroes, Villains, And America’s Fate
Over the weekend, I received a detailed letter from a college student who is scared. This student is on the political left, but is feeling beaten down and discouraged by the woke mob at their super-elite school. The student wrote to me because the student believes that what I call “soft totalitarianism” really is coming, and the student wants some advice on how to carry on in this ideologically rigid, miserable, oppressive environment.
I sent the student a digital copy ofLive Not By Lies to help him/her think through their future there. It’s a book specifically for Christians, as you know, but the analysis of woke culture is general, not specifically Christian, and the advice for dealing with it given by the Russian and Central European Christians I interviewed is mostly applicable to all free people, not just religious believers.
I asked the student to consider that they are in a rare position to be living among the class of people who will be ruling this country in the decades to come. The student will have had the experience of observing them up close, and learning how they think. This information may well be very valuable in the future, to help undermine these future tyrants, and to protect liberal values, and dissidents. In fact, Father Tomislav Kolakovic, the hero priest who laid the groundwork for the underground church in Slovakia, knew that Soviet tyranny was coming to that country five years before it actually arrive — this, because he had studied Soviet Russia closely, and understood better than most how the Soviets thought.
I asked the student to send me some remarks when they are finished with the book. I’m very curious to know if the book spoke to someone like them. The student has been sending me some comments as he/she reads, and so far, the book is really resonating.
I bring that story up because of some interesting results from a new Fox News poll. The headlines are mostly about how far Biden is ahead of Trump. But what caught my eye are what the poll found out about one salient aspect of the culture war:
That’s not so bad, huh? But look, as National Journal‘s Josh Kraushaar did, at the demographic breakdown of the data:
Here’s a screenshot of the nitty-gritty:
The coming decades are going to be full of conflict. Don’t you doubt it. What this “heroes or villains?” question is really asking is, “Do you believe in the civic religion of America?” Think of it like this: how could the Catholic Church hold itself together if a significant number of Catholics decided that Jesus Christ, St. Peter, and St. Paul were villains? It couldn’t. A nation is not a religion, but it has to hold its founders in esteem — and this is especially true of America, which was not founded on a tribe, as most other nations were. You don’t have to believe that Washington, Jefferson, and the Founders were without sin — of course they weren’t — but you do have to believe that what they did was good, even heroic. Certainly not villainous. This is what is so poisonous about The New York Times‘s 1619 Project: they are aiming directly at the American founding, trying to delegitimize America as a nation.
To think that Washington et al. are villains is to spite the foundation of the nation. I went to Monticello a few years ago, and visited Jefferson’s library. He was an Enlightenment figure to the marrow, and as such, meaningfully different from me. Every time I visit the home of a someone unfamiliar to me, I look at their bookshelves to get an idea of who they are. Funny, but scanning the titles in Jefferson’s library gave me a stronger sense of who he was as a man than all the classroom instruction I had had. And it made Jefferson more alien to me than I imagined.
Yet it did not diminish my esteem for him, and what he and his brothers accomplished with the Founding. The principles for which Jefferson stood ultimately undermined and overturned the system of slavery that he hypocritically upheld. Alas, I believe that they will also ultimately undermine the religion upon which they depend for depth and force, and therefore undermine themselves. This is the Patrick Deneen thesis, pretty much. The American story will end, as all human stories do, in tragedy. We are all fighting the long defeat.
Still, to see what Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, and that patriot generation saw, and to build what they built — my God, what heroes! I utterly despise this shallow, mendacious, destructive habit of mind we have of demonizing people in the past who don’t live up to our supposedly perfect standards. Even if it is true that the family that owns The New York Times has slaveholding roots, that in no way negates its achievements in journalism, yesterday, today, or tomorrow — though the Sulzberger family should think long and hard about how the insane ideological crusade the paper has embraced is sabotaging the paper’s own authority. This fanatical political religion, the one that says serious flaws in the character of the Founders renders them all villains, is the philosophy of many American elites, and they have been evangelizing among the youth in classrooms and in media for a long time.
In 2005, the esteemed political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published Who Are We?, a prescient discussion of identity and nationhood. In it, he forecast a possibility for the US:
Huntington died in 2008, and did not, therefore, live long enough to see even the Creed (his term for traditional American civic nationalism) being dismantled by America’s elites. If Huntington — the foremost political scientist of his era — believed that the Creed alone was not enough to hold a disparate nation together, what hope can there be for a nation in which roughly one out of three citizens believe the Founders were, on the whole, evil men?
Keep in mind that today, the “villains” segment of the population is relatively small, but unless you believe that somehow the “villains” young adults will be educated or persuaded away from their views, and that children now in school, and incoming in the next few decades, will be taught something different about the Founders — the future looks dark. It will be a future of culture war over the legitimacy of our national institutions, and the nation itself.
Going back to the campus experiences of “Alex” — my fake name for the student above — as well as The New York Times, I can foresee that it will be a war at which the people who have been privileged enough to inhabit the elite institutions of American life are the ones who are at the vanguard of destroying their legitimacy. I would like to see polling data focusing on the views, re: the Founding and the “Creed,” held by college students and recent graduates of the most elite educational institutions in America. I would like to see those compared to college students from non-elite state universities, as well as of peers who did not go to college.
I have written in this space before about a friend of mine, a foreigner, who did graduate studies at an elite US university. He said that the thing that stayed with him most about that experience is observing how emotionally and psychologically fragile the American students were, but at the same time utterly confident in their right to rule. It shook him up. I believe that the coming generations of American elites not only will consider themselves to be at war, in some real sense, with the “unenlightened” Americans — the Bitter Clingers — but will also use the mechanisms of the surveillance state (of which Woke Capitalism will be a de facto part) to maintain control.
In my forthcoming book, I wrote about a conversation I had with a college graduate (non-elite school, as it happens) in her mid-twenties, who told me that communism is a beautiful idea. I asked her what she thought about gulags. She had no idea what I was talking about. None at all! She was born shortly after the Cold War ended, and apparently nobody had bothered to teach her what communism was, and is. This young woman did not strike me as a woke militant, but rather someone just drifting through life, like so many others. Contrast that with Laura Nicolae, the daughter of Romanian immigrants who escaped communism, who wrote this 2017 column in the Harvard Crimson. Excerpt:
Roughly 100 million people died at the hands of the ideology my parents escaped. They cannot tell their story. We owe it to them to recognize that this ideology is not a fad, and their deaths are not a joke.
Last month marked 100 years since the Bolshevik Revolution, though college culture would give you precisely the opposite impression. Depictions of communism on campus paint the ideology as revolutionary or idealistic, overlooking its authoritarian violence. Instead of deepening our understanding of the world, the college experience teaches us to reduce one of the most destructive ideologies in human history to a one-dimensional, sanitized narrative.
Walk around campus, and you’re likely to spot Ché Guevara on a few shirts and button pins. A sophomore jokes that he’s declared a secondary in “communist ideology and implementation.” The new Leftist Club on campus seeks “a modern perspective” on Marx and Lenin to “alleviate the stigma around the concept of Leftism.” An author laments in these pages that it’s too difficult to meet communists here. For many students, casually endorsing communism is a cool, edgy way to gripe about the world.
After spending four years on a campus saturated with Marxist memes and jokes about communist revolutions, my classmates will graduate with the impression that communism represents a light-hearted critique of the status quo, rather than an empirically violent philosophy that destroyed millions of lives.
I wonder how many of those Harvard grads believe that the American Founders can better be described as “villains” than “heroes.”
If we have learned anything from this terrible year, it’s that things we thought were permanent and stable are not. Soft totalitarianism is coming. It is time to prepare for the struggle ahead. Live Not By Lies details and encourages one kind of preparation. There are, and will be, others. The thing to do is to stop assuming that everything is going to work itself out for the better. We can hope that things will, but optimism is not a plan.