Home/Rod Dreher/The Herd Of Sacred Cows

The Herd Of Sacred Cows

Michael Brendan Dougherty, bang on:

Imagine if Saturday’s three London Bridge killers had been British Nationalist party thugs, ramming their car through a Pakistani neighborhood. Would a single decent person have heard the news and immediately said, “Well, this number of dead people is statistically insignificant compared to those that die in car accidents. These punks can’t threaten our society!” Would anyone have asked, “Why are we talking about the killer’s politics? There are thousands of gun murders in America every year and those killers don’t have their politics talked about.” Would they have felt like singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” the next morning to conjure up a vision of a day when people of all political creeds can get along?

We all know the answer.

And yet, even before the victims on London Bridge had stopped bleeding, this was the reaction among society’s best, brightest and most morally self-assured members on social media. The pattern is by now familiar. Even as an Islamic terrorist killer’s proclamations about Allah’s will are still ringing in victims’ ears, these individuals are already declaring that the true danger from the attack is an Islamophobic backlash, and that you’re more likely to die by drowning in your own swimming pool than from a terrorist attack. Do they know how callous that sounds? Do they not realize that sensible human beings react differently to a car accident than to a murder plot? Or that states and car manufacturers are constantly working to decrease the lethality of driving, while terrorists are constantly trying to improve the lethality of their enterprise?


The reason the subject changes so quickly from the people dying in the street to the potential victims of backlash is obvious. Islamist terror is politically inconvenient for advocates of mass migration from the Islamic world. To talk about it honestly might lead people to notice that the Czech Republic, which doesn’t have mass migration from the Islamic world, also doesn’t have Islamist terror attacks. And because of that, Czechs also typically don’t engage in these self-criticism sessions over Islamophobia.

Read the whole thing. MBD says there’s an even deeper reason why managerial elites who run the West don’t speak the bleeding obvious when it comes to Islamic terrorism in the West. But you’ll need to read his column to find out what that is.

MBD’s piece got me to thinking about things we don’t talk about. Take the violence (mostly rhetorical) and intimidation at Washington’s Evergreen State College. If a group of alt-right frat boys took up bats and started patrolling a campus to intimidate ideological dissenters, as is happening with left-wing militants at Evergreen, it would be treated as a national crisis by the media. Mostly, though, there has been silence. More generally, the spate of militant left-wing campus illiberalism has been downplayed, in my view, by the mainstream media. If it’s noticed at all, it is generally taken as a one-off event, and in no way indicative of left-wing thought and practice.

That’s fair, to a point. Evergreen State is a famously left-wing college, so it’s probably accurate to say that there’s not a conservative among its 4,000 or so students. If the Seattle Times is right and only about 200 of the students are behaving militantly, it is likely the case that the overwhelming majority of students are both a) left-wing, and b) staying out of the protests. But their silence and submission to the intolerant militants is itself important, because it shows that there is no will among the more mainstream left to resist the extremes. Lenin understood how important a committed vanguard was to making revolution.

If the institutions of managerial liberalism — especially the mainstream media — cannot bring themselves to fight left-wing illiberalism, they will lose to it. The interesting question is why they won’t resist it — indeed, why they won’t talk about it as a crisis of liberalism. We have heard more than once from conservatives on faculties that they don’t worry about the older liberals among their colleagues. They may be on the left, but they’re on the old-fashioned left, the left that valued freedom of expression. The younger colleagues, those are the hard-core ideologues.

I think there are at least two reasons why the media won’t confront this crisis with the kind of intensity and thoroughness it would if it were coming from the political and cultural right.

For one, there is a natural sympathy with the left-wing protesters, one captured by the Old Left slogan that “Communism is just liberalism in a hurry.” This was what the Old Left said to tranquilize mainstream liberals who would have otherwise objected to them. Yes, the Social Justice Warriors may be too forceful, in the view of managerial liberals in the media, but really, don’t we agree that they want justice and a better world? Should we really be so hard on them?

The second reason is the more important one. Social Justice Warrior militancy is the inevitable fulfillment of left-wing identity politics ideology. This is what “diversity” and “multiculturalism” leads to: aggrieved, group-based militancy. Diversity (as they define it) has become the secular religion of managerial liberals throughout American society. If what SJWs are doing on campuses across the nation is not an aberration but the logical result of diversity ideology, then liberals have a big, big problem. So, like Islam and immigration, they don’t talk about it.

Was it Hitchens who said that if you want to know what a society’s sacred cows are, ask what it is you are not allowed to say in public? A sacred cow is a taboo thought necessary to observe for the sake of keeping society together and stable. Every society — including smaller societies, like churches, families, schools, and so forth — needs them. But at some point, they end up as the Emperor’s New Clothes: official lies that most people don’t believe, and that prevent people from seeing and dealing with truth. In that case, the fervor for protecting the sacred cow can end up destroying the thing the taboo was meant to protect.

I have said in the past that I am extremely uncomfortable with scientific information we’re learning about genetics, because I do not trust humans, given our nature, to deal with this knowledge. I don’t think we should know it, in most cases — but the truth can only be suppressed for so long. I wrote about this kind of thing in a 2012 post about forbidden knowledge.  We’re all hypocrites on this subject: quick to blame others for their cowardice in wishing to suppress certain facts, but also quick to defend our own willingness to do the same thing. Some knowledge deserves to be forbidden. But where do we draw those lines? And who draws them?

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I got into a conversation with a Cajun woman working behind the counter at a grocery store in town. We were talking about the finicky eating habits of our kids, and somehow that led to schooling. She told me that she took the job at the supermarket so she could afford Catholic elementary school for her daughter.

The woman said her daughter was the only white kid in her first grade class at a public school, and as such, suffered a lot of bullying, much of it racial. She also said she was shocked at how foul-mouthed her first-grader became, just from the crude language she was picking up from her classmates. The mother said she couldn’t stand subjecting her daughter to that, so to Catholic school it was.

This is how schooling in East Baton Rouge Parish has become de facto re-segregated, one family at a time. I don’t blame this mom one bit for doing what she did for her child. This is something that white people talk about a fair amount in the area where I live, but never publicly — that is, never in settings where they think they’re likely to be called racist for noticing. Every now and then, though, it does spill into public discussion, like at this story about meetings the Louisiana state education commissioner held around the state. Excerpts:

After 12 hours of public hearings in six cities this week, the top issue is student behavior, state Superintendent of Education John White said Friday.

White made the comment during a two-hour hearing at McKinley Middle Magnet School on how the state should change its public school policies to comply with a new federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

The issue of student behavior, including classroom violence, came up several times in a gathering of more than 100 parents and school officials, including several local superintendents and two members of the state’s top school board — Jada Lewis and Kathy Edmonston.

White said student violence is not on the rise either in Louisiana or nationally, though it is the topic he hears raised the most.

He said disruptive students are often those that need to be in classrooms the most, and that sending them home “is not helpful to them or society.”

Well. A few years ago, a teacher friend of mine ended up with a shattered hand because of an altercation with a juvenile delinquent in his public school classroom. But let’s be tender towards these poor dears.


Gretchen Lampe, an official of the Louisiana Association of Educators for East Baton Rouge Parish, said she thinks institutional racism is part of the problem.

“We’ve got a problem and nobody wants to talk about it,” Lampe told the group during one of the periods of public comment.

Lampe, who is white, said white teachers are routinely sent into classrooms where they “don’t know how to have conversations and understand other cultures.”

So it’s the fault of white teachers that the black kids under the authority in classrooms misbehave and act violently? Right. Anyway, whether or not you agree with Lampe’s diagnosis, she’s right that people don’t want to talk about it. We maintain social peace, if not harmony, by avoiding discussion of the problems, except among those who already agree with us.

Something else the Cajun woman said to me that night in the grocery store brought up another local sacred cow. She told me that her older son is in Catholic school too, and that on his account, there’s a lot of classroom disruption there as well. But it’s not as bad as in public school, so they’ve decided to live with it. I reflected on how friends of mine who have come through the local Catholic school system, or who have kids in it, complain privately about its mediocrity, but wouldn’t do that in public. Sacred cow.

I suppose the Catholic school system could solve its problems, given its autonomy, if the bishop and the bureaucracy wanted to, and if they got enough buy-in from parents. But it’s hard to see what good can come from a frank public debate over race and the public schools. It’s all tied into Louisiana’s racist history, the collapse of the black family, and all kinds of third-rail issues tied to race. So the problem goes unaddressed, and we all muddle along, trying to keep the peace. When there doesn’t seem to be a solution possible, maybe maintaining the taboo on talking about the problem is the best thing to do. It’s dishonest, but the price of honesty in this case might be too high.

This was the calculation Catholic bishops and others made regarding the sexual abuse scandal among Catholic priests — and it was a terrible, terrible mistake. I see today a story about how a California civil jury has awarded damages to Carra Crouch, a granddaughter of the late Pentecostal televangelist Jan Crouch, for something the elder Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcast Network, did to cover up the younger woman’s rape. Excerpt:

According to a lawsuit filed in 2012, Carra Crouch was 13 when a 30-year-old Trinity employee forced himself on her in an Atlanta hotel, where she had accompanied her grandmother to attend a Praise-A-Thon fundraiser. When Carra told “Momma Jan” what happened, the ordained minister did not report the case to police—going against her obligation as a mandatory reporter under California law—and also blamed the teen for being alone with the man.

In the lawsuit, Carra Crouch said her grandmother got angry and asked her, “Why would you have that man in your room? Why would you let this happen?”

“The jury ultimately determined that Jan’s response—by blaming and castigating Carra, by saying words beyond all realm of decency—constituted outrageous conduct,” David Keesling, Carra Crouch’s attorney, told the Los Angeles Times.

Blaming the victim, the messenger of bad news, to protect the institution is a common response.

Abortion rights advocates are doing this regarding the Planned Parenthood undercover videos: trying to destroy David Daleiden, the filmmaker, to distract from and negate the horrible truths his videos tell about Planned Parenthood. I wrote about this in 2015, quoting a Ross Douthat column in which he discusses the undercover abortion films, and how the media have trouble reporting on them straightforwardly:

Because dwelling on that content gets you uncomfortably close to Selzer’s tipping point — that moment when you start pondering the possibility that an institution at the heart of respectable liberal society is dedicated to a practice that deserves to be called barbarism.

As Douthat went on to say, this is a human universal. He’s done it. So have I. The evasion goes something like this:

1. [Our side] is accused of doing/supporting/enabling this horrible thing.

2. We are not the kind of people who would do/support/enable that sort of thing.

3. Therefore we are not guilty.

Or it goes like this:

1. Our side is accused, etc.

2. But the people making the accusation are bad.

3. If they are right, bad people win.

4. Therefore, they are wrong.

Or like this:

1. Our side is accused, etc.

2. If the accusers are right, then we will have to stop doing what we’re doing.

3. The cost of that would be too high.

4. Therefore, the accusers are wrong.

Some version of this is how I behaved in the march-up to the Iraq War. This is how I dismissed the warnings of dissidents from that war. But I couldn’t see it at the time. I bet right now, I’m doing the same thing about something else, but I can’t see it. You too.

In 1974, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published this short manifesto in which he urged fellow dissidents to “live not by lies,” no matter what it costs them (and it will cost them). We always like to think that if we were made to suffer like Solzhenitsyn and other anti-communist dissidents had to suffer, that we would make the brave choices that they did. We are almost certainly lying to ourselves. Every one of us lives by lies now. Maybe not big lies, but there are still truths we do not speak because we judge them to be imprudent. Maybe we’re right to do so. Not every true thing ought to be spoken. Still, to examine one’s own conscience, looking for the lies that we live by, and to repent of them, is one of the hardest things to do.

One more anecdote about this. If you read my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, you will have seen how my niece Hannah, Ruthie’s daughter, blurted out a terrible truth about the society of our family — a truth that shattered my illusions. She immediately regretted saying it, but it could not be unsaid. That truth, knowledge of which the family had worked for years to keep from me, forced a series of confrontations within myself, and between my parents and me. These were extremely painful, but they were necessary — and in time, healing came, at least to me. I think all the time about the terrible cost of the lie that preserved the illusion of family harmony, and how much better things would likely have been for all of us if we had dealt with the truth earlier.

If anything, that sad legacy has made me even more determined to search out the lies by which I live, and to deal with them as honestly as I can. This is a life’s work, and most of us aren’t willing or able to undertake it. I hate confrontation, and cannot easily judge when I am not speaking out on an issue because of prudence, or because of cowardice. As a Christian, I believe that in the afterlife, we will have a moment in which we will be given a glimpse of the reality of our own sin, and how it disfigured us. If we could see it right now, in all its ugliness, most of us would not survive the shock. I am sure that is true for me, with my own lies and tendency to believe comforting lies hiding behind a herd of sacred cows that I scarcely perceive.

This is true for you too.

Let’s have a thread about sacred cows. Don’t point out the sacred cows of others; that’s boring. Point out your own — ones you’ve had in the past, but managed to kill, and ones you think you might have now. Have you suffered from someone else’s sacred cows? If you are a regular commenter who wants to be anonymous for this thread, that’s fine.

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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