The Beginning Of A Great Emergency
I subscribed recently to the New York Review of Books because I got fed up with the urgently parochial liberalism of the New Yorker, but wanted a smart liberal magazine to read. I’m finding it very hard going now. I should have realized that NYRB would be no better. I suppose it’s important to read it, but I swear, it’s like living in a foreign country and listening in on conversations at a cocktail party, appreciating the fact that everybody is super-passionate, but not knowing what they’re talking about.
Seriously, the Trump years broke the brains of the American Left. The country they describe is a foreign place. For example, the novelist Darryl Pinckney offers an essay about the election (all of this is paywalled):
People are desperate to act, even destructively. We are a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown, not civil war. We are only at the beginning of a Great Emergency. Something suicidal and reckless is out there. Everyone gives a shove to a tumbling wall, the Chinese proverb has it. I live with a beautiful optimist, someone who has known war zones, revolution. Do not go to sleep angry; do not wake in the middle of the night suffocating from existential dread. Get up with hope. Let everyone be a risen sun, starting with yourself.
All the paragraphs preceding that in Pinckney’s essay, though, are pretty far from emanations of a hope-filled risen sun. For example:
The hijacking of the Republican Party by the Tea Party may still prove the last stand of white supremacy: such white people no longer represent the majority of white people as the nation and the world around them become ever more nonwhite. But who needs the Federalist Society, strict constitutional constructionists, libertarian contrarians, troops of the duped, or limits on Washington’s ability to support social engineering? To have no agenda is better than any expert’s advice. The only guideline is to undo whatever the previous and uppity White House occupant managed to change.
I think lots of people want to be hope-filled risen suns, or at least think they should aspire to be … but they just can’t do it. I get the divided mind of Darryl Pinckney. He’s coming at it from the Left — and I think he’s crackpotting hard — but I understand it from the Right. No doubt he thinks people like me are just as bonkers.
A reader writes:
It’s fascinating to see the aftermath of all of this. There is a divide growing amongst both conservatives and liberals. Each group has their hardliners now lashing out at those more moderate among their group. I see the same thing happening on your comment sections. Many people on both sides cannot see any gray any longer. Every position is either black or white and anyone who doesn’t agree is a heretic. I think Trump has contributed to this dynamic in some degree because many people wanted someone to fight back against the other side who had been pushing their nonsense on us during the Obama years. I have no doubt that Obama created the desire for a “Trump.”Some libs are making lists or threatening to “not forget” all of those who voted for “hate, etc.” What they don’t realize is many of us who voted for Trump don’t feel like we had a choice. Either give up control to the woke mob or vote for the one person who was available to stand up to them. The danger is that they cannot see how anyone would not agree with their progressivism. In their minds they are simply “right” and anyone who disagrees is, not just wrong, but must be converted or destroyed.It is possible that cooler minds will prevail, but right now voices of hate from the left are being allowed all across the Twitterverse, while those who question anything about the election are being censored or silenced. The goal, from an information point of view, is to suppress all non-approved ideas so to make them seem radical and out of the mainstream, thereby conditioning everyone else to draw that very conclusion.I have heard more and more conservative friends say something like “blood may have to be shed.” These are college educated professionals. I think many of them believe Trump was the last stand for their side politically. Now they think they may have to defend themselves physically. Others have said they are tired of bending to the woke mob and aren’t going to stay silent any longer. I think conservatives now realize that the other side will, in fact, do anything to achieve power. Even if the steal cannot be proven, just about everyone I have spoken with feels like it happened and there probably isn’t anything we can do about it. If Dems are going to be able to control elections then their power will go unchecked. If that comes to pass get ready for the reconditioning camps.
The Rand McNally Road Atlas, that founding document of American optimism, includes who knows how many small towns across the country that exist today in name only. If you’re expecting to find, say, a gas station in any particular town that’s marked as such by a small dot on the thin line of road, you might be disappointed. It might be only a former town. Or—more often—it will have a gas station–convenience store and nothing else, and you’re grateful for even that. Today the emblematic image of the former small town is a pillar that once held an oval-shaped plastic sign for some local business like a muffler shop or a feed store, and the plastic is mostly broken and gone, and just the frame of the sign is still there.
Once-busy downtowns are vacant or occupied by thrift stores and studios that teach martial arts. Sometimes you find a historical society museum that’s open by appointment, and if you call the number on the door a jovial elderly resident will come from a house nearby and tell you about all the businesses that the town used to have, usually including two movie theaters. The town’s school is closed, and the few school-age kids who remain take a long bus ride to a consolidated school elsewhere.
In Nebraska I walked the main street of a former town district where the street and the curbs and the lines for angle parking were still there, but the rest of the place was just foundations and neatly tended grass. In western Kansas I drove through a boarded-up town with a sign along the highway asking passersby to pray for the town. Every county has a county seat. In those towns you used to be able to depend on finding at least one functioning motel. Nowadays you’d better be ready to drive on, because the one motel may be closed, with its signboard saying something like, “For Sale Make Offer Perfect Business Opportunity for Retired Couple.”
When you do drive on, the road is terrible. It’s been flooded, and the pavement has buckled, and you’re going past still-flooded fields with wheeled irrigation pipes up to their spokes in standing water. Or the road is apparently OK, but after a few miles you realize that it’s crumbling at the seams between the blocks of pavement, and every forty feet you hit a seam that makes a bump, and the road bumps beneath you like that for hours as you cross some out-of-the-way part of the state. The billboards advertise injury lawyers or warn of the dangers of crystal meth, with photos of addicts with purple teeth. The radio is filled with grievance—Rush Limbaugh is the best-known of the right-wing angry guys on the airwaves, but there are also lesser-known regional ones. Confederate flags, no longer flying at state houses and NASCAR races, proliferate along some of the less-traveled roads in the backcountry.
Our system was designed to make it difficult to win a national election by winning only the cities. Rather than complaining about the unfairness of the Electoral College, and how it gives preference to states with few people, the Democrats could acknowledge that it’s here for at least the time being. They could start to pay more attention, FDR-style, to the less populated places. Who knows? Someday that attention might even bring in an extra electoral vote or three. The country once did a better job of looking after rural America. Judging just by what anybody driving around can observe, much of it is hurting right now.
We went through all of this after Trump was elected. None of it mattered to the Left. To read the Times, the Washington Post, and to listen to NPR this year was to be immersed in cultural leftism above all things.
And it didn’t really seem to matter to Trump, who was much better at talking than actually governing. I have a friend whose rural working-class white relatives, all Trump voters, went for Biden this year. Why? Health care. The president and his party didn’t do anything to help them, so they took a chance on the Democrats. The thing is, the party they voted for is also the party that despises them culturally. There is no reason why these people, in order to get the health care help they need, should have to vote for the party of transgender radicalism, anti-Christian spite, and white self-hatred. But that’s where we are. My hope is that the post-Trump GOP will actually try to make a more populist conservatism work in policy terms — including proposing and advocating substantive legislation against wokeness and all its pomps and works.
I can’t be a hope-filled rising sun, in the sense that Pinckney means, because I don’t see much reason to be optimistic. As I keep saying, hope is not the same thing as optimism, not for a Christian, at least. An optimist thinks everything is going to turn out for the best. A hopeful person, though, believes that good will eventually triumph — but that things could get quite bad first, and that one must prepare to endure through that. My book Live Not By Lies is about why optimism in our current situation is a sham, but hope is a requirement. It’s about how to find hope, and endure. It’s about how to be someone like Jodi Shaw — who, for all I know, is not even religious, but she has a stout heart and deep courage of the kind we all need.
Now is not the time for fantasizing about violence on the Right. Now is the time to keep cool heads, and strategize for the long run. Violence plays into the hands of those with the power, those who are looking for any excuse at all to turn the tools of the state, of technology, of institutional and economic power against us. Never forget this passage from Live Not By Lies:
Not every anti-communist dissident was a Christian, and not every Christian living under communist totalitarianism resisted. But here’s an interesting thing: every single Christian I interviewed for this book, in every ex-communist country, conveyed a sense of deep inner peace—a peace that they credit to their faith, which gave them ground on which to stand firm.
They had every right to be permanently angry over what had been done to them, to their families, their churches, and their countries. If they were, it didn’t show. A former prisoner of conscience in Russia told me that Christians need to have “a golden dream—something to live for, a conception of hope. You can’t simply be against everything bad. You have to be for something good. Otherwise, you can get really dark and crazy.”
Let’s not just be against whatever the Left throws at us. Let’s be for something good. We are not them. We are not the people who burn down cities. We cannot allow ourselves to be driven by panic and despair into becoming those people. Darryl Pinckney is right about this much: we really are only at the beginning of a Great Emergency. We need to be like Father Tomislav Kolakovic and his followers. One more passage from Live Not By Lies:
Sometimes, a stranger who sees deeper and farther than the crowd appears to warn of trouble coming. These stories often end with people disbelieving the prophet and suffering for their blindness. Here, though, is a tale about a people who heard the prophet’s warnings, did as he advised, and were ready when the crisis struck.
In 1943, a Jesuit priest and anti-fascist activist named Tomislav Poglajen fled his native Croatia one step ahead of the Gestapo and settled in Czechoslovakia. To conceal himself from the Nazis, he assumed his Slovak mother’s name—Kolaković—and took up a teaching position in Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak region. The priest, thirty-seven years old and with a thick shock of prematurely white hair, had spent some his priestly training studying the Soviet Union. He believed that the defeat of Nazi totalitarianism would occasion a great conflict between Soviet totalitarianism and the liberal democratic West. Though Father Kolaković worried about the threats to Christian life and witness from the rich, materialistic West, he was far more concerned about the dangers of communism, which he correctly saw as an imperialistic ideology.
By the time Father Kolaković reached Bratislava, it was clear that Czechoslovakia would eventually be liberated by the Red Army. In fact, in 1944, the Czech government in exile made a formal agreement with Stalin, guaranteeing that after driving the Nazis out, the Soviets would give the nation its freedom.
Because he knows how the Soviets thought, Father Kolaković knew this was a lie. He warned Slovak Catholics that when the war ended, Czechoslovakia would fall to the rule of a Soviet puppet government. He dedicated himself to preparing them for persecution.
Father Kolaković knew that the clericalism and passivity of traditional Slovak Catholicism would be no match for communism. For one thing, he correctly foresaw that the communists would try to control the church by subduing the clergy. For another, he understood that the spiritual trials awaiting believers under communism would put them to an extreme test. The charismatic pastor preached that only a total life commitment to Christ would enable them to withstand the coming trial.
“Give yourself totally to Christ, throw all your worries and desires on him, for he has a wide back, and you will witness miracles,” the priest said, in the recollection of one disciple.
Giving oneself totally to Christ was not an abstraction or a pious thought. It needed to be concrete, and it needed to be communal. The total destruction of the First World War opened the eyes of younger Catholics to the need for a new evangelization. A Belgian priest named Joseph Cardijn, whose father had been killed in a mining accident, started a lay movement to do this among the working class. These were the Young Christian Workers, called “Jocists” after the initials of their name in French. Inspired by the Jocist example, Father Kolaković adapted it to the needs of the Catholic Church in German-occupied Slovakia. He established cells of faithful young Catholics who came together for prayer, study, and fellowship.
The refugee priest taught the young Slovak believers that every person must be accountable to God for his actions. Freedom is responsibility, he stressed; it is a means to live within the truth. The motto of the Jocists became the motto for what Father Kolaković called his “Family”: “See. Judge. Act.” See meant to be awake to realities around you. Judge was a command to discern soberly the meaning of those realities in light of what you know to be true, especially from the teachings of the Christian faith. After you reach a conclusion, then you are to act to resist evil.
Václav Vaško, a Kolaković follower, recalled late in his life that Father Kolaković’s ministry excited so many young Catholics because it energized the laity and gave them a sense of leadership responsibility.
“It is remarkable how Kolaković almost instantly succeeded in creating a community of trust and mutual friendship from a diverse grouping of people (priests, religious and lay people of different ages, education, or spiritual maturity),” Vaško wrote.
The Family groups came together at first for Bible study and prayer, but soon began listening to Father Kolaković lecture on philosophy, sociology, and intellectual topics. Father Kolaković also trained his young followers in how to work secretly, and to withstand the interrogation that he said would surely come.
The Family expanded its small groups quickly across the nation. “By the end of the school year 1944,” Vaško said, “it would have been difficult to find a faculty or secondary school in Bratislava or larger cities where our circles did not operate.”
In 1946, Czech authorities deported the activist priest. Two years later, communists seized total power, just as Father Kolaković had predicted. Within several years, almost all of the Family had been imprisoned and the Czechoslovak institutional church brutalized into submission. But when the Family members emerged from prison in the 1960s, they began to do as their spiritual father had taught them. Father Kolaković’s top two lieutenants— physician Silvester Krčméry and priest Vladimír Jukl—quietly set up Christian circles around the country and began to build the underground church.
The underground church, led by the visionary cleric’s spiritual children and grandchildren, became the principle means of anti-communist dissent for the next forty years. It was they who organized a mass 1988 public demonstration in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, demanding religious liberty. The Candle Demonstration was the first major protest against the state. It kicked off the Velvet Revolution, which brought down the communist regime a year later. Though Slovak Christians were among the most persecuted in the Soviet Bloc, the Catholic Church there thrived in resistance because one man saw what was coming and prepared his people.
This is how you do it. This is how you build a resistance that deserves to triumph — and that ultimately will.
By the way, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to Daily Dreher, my new Substack newsletter, which is not about politics or the culture war, but more of a diary of other aspects of life, and other ideas. Read it and sign up to get it every day (for free!) here.
UPDATE: KSP is 100 percent correct. Someone who says these things has no business in public office. We can’t turn away from it, or pretend it doesn’t exist:
This is one of the things an Arkansas police chief posted on Parler:
“Death to all Marxist Democrats. Take no prisoners leave no survivors!!”
Such people are all around us. We cannot be in denial. We have to try to reach them—and hold them accountable. https://t.co/rn0sYtXFl0
— Karen Swallow Prior (Notorious KSP) (@KSPrior) November 9, 2020