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Home/Rod Dreher/‘Live Not By Lies’ Conference At Pepperdine

‘Live Not By Lies’ Conference At Pepperdine

Hello from Pepperdine University, where the School of Public Policy is hosting a conference on Live Not By Lies. I’m watching a panel on soft totalitarianism in education. Mari Barke, the president of the Orange County Board of Education, is speaking.

She’s talking about how clearly the educational bureaucracy lies about Critical Race Theory in Schools. She said that it’s encouraging to see voters rising up and throwing out educrats who have allowed wokeness to deform schools.

“You are going to see people running for office who, I believe, really care about the children, running for school boards.” She said that you don’t have to be an expert to do this. “You have to care about not living by lies, but living by truth.”

Then Princeton’s Joshua Katz, a linguist and classicist, spoke. (Read what I wrote over a year ago about his persecution at Princeton.) He said before this crisis, “I was an unmarried agnostic who cared little more about anything but his job. I was a true believer in elite education.”

No more. He said he’s a Christian now who married the love of his life. And he no longer believes in elite education, because of the ideological capture by leftist ideologues. He said that now most linguists in the country won’t talk to him, “and the vast majority of current Princetonians want me fired.” He added that “living by lies has become the elite new normal.”

Katz put a plug in for founding new institutions like the University of Austin, on whose board of advisers he sits. “A few years ago I would have called this a ridiculous idea, but we were in a different place then,” he said.

“We need more than new temples for learning,” he said. He spoke of Vaclav Benda’s “parallel polis,” and the seminars that dissidents like him had in private homes under communism. Katz said he’s been told by students at his wealthy university tell him that their most important educational experiences have not been in classes, but in off-campus seminars, “often at the Witherspoon Institute, which owns a lovely house near campus.”

Katz said that he’s taught a couple of those seminars, and that they are “filled with knowledge, argument, and laughter. There’s nothing clandestine about these seminars, which are advertised, but they are still something of a secret.”

“I promise you this,” he said. “If I leave Princeton, my wife and I will open our home to students” seeking the truth.

Then came Habi Zhang, born in China, who is a public policy doctoral student in Purdue, though she first started studying in America here at Pepperdine. She said her experience in Chinese universities was prison like, with the teaching of all subjects “reduced to naked utility.”

She described contemporary China as having “a culture that has no use for truth, but only money and power.”

When she arrived at Pepperdine, Zhang said, “I felt I had died and gone to heaven.”

But since she arrived in the US, she has been shocked by how Americans are willing to throw away classical liberalism, and replace it with radical ideology. She described Critical Race Theory as fostering “competitive victimhood,” and spoke of how shocking it is to see “the American recreation of the Chinese Cultural revolution on full blast.”

Here is an essay Zhang wrote about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and how its principles are manifesting themselves in the US. Excerpt:

For years, I have seen social justice warriors across American campuses shut down events they dislike, scream at professors who don’t support their views, or physically attack speakers they hate. I worry that the campus violence reveals a larger issue than the crisis of free speech. My concern has less to do with coddled American students’ intolerance for dissent or offense than that they are used as cannon fodder for the purpose of advancing an agenda—or indeed a revolution. As a student of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, I can hardly overlook the stunning similarity of the rhetoric and practice between BLM protestors who raise their fists and Red Guards who hold high the Little Red Book. To purge the upper echelons of power, Mao set a group of screaming, self-righteous Red Guards in clamorous motion. In the name of overthrowing the Four Olds (Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Customs), belligerent Red Guards demanded to assign new names to historical sites, destroyed statues and temples, burned books, and publicly reviled teachers and intellectuals. Once given license to denounce all authority, those young, radical students, some of them no older than fourteen, were emboldened to torture and kill the innocent.

For a decade, the Chinese Cultural Revolution thoroughly wrecked the economy, uprooted traditions, destroyed social trust by turning family members on each other, and worst of all, killed well more than a million people. One can only wonder how far its American replication will go.

Zhang said here at Pepperdine today: “I fled form a hard totalitarianism, Xi Jinping’s China, to land in a relatively soft form of totalitarianism.” She is horrified to find in America that “ideological loyalty a prerequisite for success in institutes of higher learning.”

She said Americans must realize that totalitarianism not only destroys freedom, but “it also destroys everything in humanity that is noble, decent, and ethical.”

In the discussion, Mari Barke said parents had better start paying much closer attention to what their kids are taught in school. She said that she hears from parents all the time expressing fear that their kids will be indoctrinated in college.

“You know what? Kids are being indoctrinated when they aren’t even thinking about college,” she said. “I’ve seen CRT in preschool. it’s really important that parents keep their eyes focused on what’s going on, and keep truth in front of them.”

Habi Zhang said that when she arrived in Indiana, she was so amazed by large homeschooling Catholic families in Indiana where people don’t give their kids cellphones, and where people’s social lives don’t seem driven by technology. She said, “I see true, fully humans in those lovely souls.” She wrote a “love letter” to those families here. Excerpt:

The Perrin neighborhood offers community members a comprehensible, supportive, and therefore loving world in which religious and cultural traditions are preserved and shared beliefs venerated. As a result, when for the past several years many patriotic Americans were fraught with a vague but genuine and pressing thought of “wanting their country back,” the Perrin folk never felt that they had lost their country because they saw in each other every day what America is and what Americans are. And I see in them the Americans I adore and the America I admire—a land of freedom, the home to a group of patriots and friends who are authentic, confident, spirited, joyful, self-respecting and respectful, devout, faithful, kind, generous, and whole-heartedly welcoming to an alien whose nationality and skin color and exotic accent bear no significance because she has one thing in common with them: She deeply appreciates the traditional American way of life. The Perrin folk have thus shown me in a tangible and personal way why America has for centuries attracted immigrants around the world. It never really is about the so-called American dream, at least not primarily; the charm is the fulfilling and delightful communal life that the diverse and vital American communities have offered humans, all of whom have an enduring and profound need for belonging and attachment.

Habi Zhang

The Perrin neighborhood also provides members a public space where social life, rather than the act of consumption, takes place. Consumption is a lonely and dreary activity, propelled by and prevalent in industrialized mass society. It has shaped much of the daily routine of our modern life. There is a feedback loop between consumerism and loneliness that is incessantly haunting the atomized individuals who keep themselves busy by surfing YouTube or shopping Amazon. For the past ten years, I was horrified to see many of my fellow Chinese transform from peons to dedicated consumers with impressive purchasing power who spend their off-work time in shopping malls, wheeling their toddlers around or strolling through stores with their elders. The shopping mall for Chinese is the only public sphere permitted by the state, except “the common good” is merely the goods that the people consume in common.

Rather than the antsy Chinese consumers who often find themselves lost in a fog of commodity choices or the hip Americans who wake up with a stranger in bed after a glittered Friday night, I see in the Perrin public sphere lively, and again earthy, gatherings where a group of neighbors and friends are comfortable and delighted in their settled forms of social life. Here no one is distracted by the “modern life” that is supposed to be inundated with emails, texts, or phone calls; they are effortlessly fully present and engaging each other with full attention. Hence, the precious moments I experienced in the Schaffer family gathering after the Easter Sunday Mass, George’s First Communion celebration, David’s birthday, or Farther Elliot’s ordination were reassuring because they vindicated my philosophical conviction that our deepest emotional needs can be satisfied only in genuine human companionship.

Zhang went on.

“I don’t understand why Americans are surrendering their individual autonomy to the state. Why they are putting raising their kids into the hand of the government? Maybe some of you can help me understand why so few Americans care about liberty.”

When the question came up about engaging students, Zhang said, “I don’t think you can engage wokesters. They are not interested in engagement. They are interested in dominance, period.”

Finally, all three panelists were asked about hope. Zhang she said she is not optimistic about the future here, but “my Christian faith does not allow me to be hopeless.”

Katz said, “I think people will wake up; I just hope I am alive to see it.”

Mari Barke said the victory in Virginia gives her great hope that it’s just the start of a rebellion.

Please check back — I’m going to be blogging each of the panels.

UPDATE: James Poulos (whose new book is Human Forever: The Digital Politics of Spiritual War) is here at the conference, and says that we really have to understand that it’s not going to be enough for people to all start going to church again.

He points out that the government’s vaccine policies are promulgated by agencies that are not democratically accountable.

“What is the actual government at this point? Where does actual sovereignty reside?” he said. “Is it something fundamentally hostile to the American way of life?”

He said why it is acceptable to go out and protest for social justice, but not acceptable to receive communion, or play the clarinet (which California Gov. Gavin Newsom banned on Thanksgiving last year)? He believes there is something more important going on here. Poulos speculates, “It is about changing our form of government without our consent.”

Julia R. Norgaard, a Catholic and the discussion’s moderator, wants to know why so many clergy are afraid of the state, and accepted the state’s designation that churches are non-essential institutions. She said, “For Californians, you know that marijuana shops were deemed essential, but churches were not.”

Poulos later said that he believes that Covid gave certain elites an opportunity to remake America. We are watching the emergence of a social credit system that begins with people having to sign off on woke ideology before being allowed to participate in institutional life. He believes that Covid proved that Americans would accept baseless commands.

Talking about the government being a proponent of soft totalitarianism, Lance Christensen, a Mormon, recalled the Prop 8 fight in the first decade of the 20th century was a perfect example of this in action. Despite Prop 8 forbidding same-sex marriage passing muster with the voters, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom didn’t care, and instituted it anyway.

Christensen worked in California state politics for years, and said that here, they have only two parties: one of cats and one of kneecappers. “The cats don’t like to be told what to do, so the kneecappers always win,” he said. The Right has to figure out what it’s for, and willing to do to defend its values. Norgaard, the moderator, asked Christensen if he worried in light of the new line from rising conservative politicians like J.D. Vance (that the government should be more active to promote conservative views), Christensen said the answer depends on whether liberal democracy is over, or can be saved. He’s not sure, but he said that the only way we are ever going to be able to push back effectively against the institutional power of wokeness is by rooting ourselves firmly in faith.

(I hope to talk to him more about that point after the panel. I would agree with him in two senses: 1) that we have to have a positive vision of the Good for which to fight, and 2) that our faith has to give us the strength to withstand suffering and defeat without collapsing.)

Julia Norgaard asked about the role failure to have faith in institutions plays in bringing about soft totalitarianism.

“I wish I had faith in my government. I wish I had faith in the churches. I wish I had faith in the families; families have been hollowed out,” said Lance Christensen. He went on to say that, “Coming out to forums like this is fun, but the real things that matter is the activism that happens in our neighborhoods and homes.”

Poulos said that what’s wrong with the institutions is that they are not going to survive in a world in which everyone has a smartphone and plugging it into our brains all the time. “We have to accept the fact that we are cyborgs now,” he said.

He added that it is not clear that most people want to live in a world free from digital devices. Poulos: “The thought that institutions built to rule the world, in a liberal international sense, is able to extend control over those devices is being proven out not to be true. Liberal democracy [in not] proving itself capable of controlling these technologies.”

He said the only way liberalism can survive is if it gives up on globalist internationalism. Cultures all around the world are going to have to figure out a way to regain some sense of national control of the Internet. And most important, we are going to need “a spiritual and cultural renaissance.”

(Poulos really has the crowd on his side. I’m eager to read his new book.)

William Voegeli, senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, points out that wokeness is not popular among the masses, even non-white people. “As California has gotten less white, affirmative action has gotten less popular,” he said. This suggests that even as the “successor ideology” has captured the elites, whenever it is put to a vote, the people reject it.

UPDATE.2: In the third and final panel of the day, panelists are talking about soft totalitarianism and the church. We have Elizabeth Corey from Baylor, the Solzhenitsyn scholar Dan Mahoney of Assumption College , and John Wood Jr., of Braver Angels, an organization that tries to bring left and right together for dialogue.

Before they started talking about church life, the panelists gave short reflections about what they’ve seen so far. Corey says that there are professors like her at Baylor who aren’t on board with the woke program, and they are organized resisters. She says that the most elite institutions may be lost, but there is good work to be done at less elite colleges. Corey says she has a network of sympathetic faculty all over the country, and they trade strategy notes all the time. This is hopeful.

Dan Mahoney said that he believes things are much worse than Elizabeth Corey does, saying that he has seen the same kind of mendacity at smaller colleges.

Turning to the church topic, moderator Pete Peterson, who runs the public policy school at Pepperdine, said he doesn’t think that the American church thinks and talks enough about what happened to Christians and others under Soviet totalitarianism. Mahoney said that it really is true that Americans just don’t know about the gulag — and that leaves us vulnerable. Mahoney said, “We don’t face gulags, but we face an immanent totalitarian logic that could destroy the foundations of our democracy.”

Corey said that she has read and thought about wokeness a lot. At the same time, she thinks we should recognize that wokeness is not the same everywhere, and not at the same strength everywhere. She said that she personally knows the resistance now forming within higher ed circles.

“It is our obligation as Christians to engage with the other side,” she said, with a nod to John Wood. “We do that by engaging the Christian virtues of charity and humility. If we don’t do that, in my view, we are not leading an authentic Christian life.”

Peterson asked John Wood, Jr. to consider that we are in a different situation than we as a country were in Dr. Martin Luther King’s era. Back then, for all our divisions, we shared a sense of cultural unity that simply doesn’t exist today. Wood replied by saying that we have to keep pushing with love to find empathy with each other.

Recalling Habi Zhang’s question that she doesn’t understand why Americans are willing to hand power over to the state, Wood said that there are plenty of examples — especially from the African-American experience — in which the state had to intervene to stop great injustice. Wood went on to talk about how important it is to refuse the temptation not to talk to each other.

“We can’t win without using the power of love and goodwill to lead a transformation in the soul of America,” he said.

Corey, Wood, and Mahoney

Mahoney responded by saying that most of what Wood said is true, but that we have to understand that there really are some people that we can’t talk to. If someone demands that you accept their premises before they will speak to you, then there’s no point. He went on to quote a French priest who was a world authority on Marxist ideology, but who warned anti-communists to be very careful about dialoguing with Communists, for fear that Christians would be disarmed by the Marxist mode of discourse. If I understand the professor correctly, he was saying that if Marxist interlocutors see dialogue as nothing more than an opportunity to conquer an enemy, then the entire exercise is corrupted by bad faith.

Peterson asks the panel to talk about the courage that will be required of Christians who don’t have any chance to dialogue with people who run institutions crushing them, and never have the chance to appeal to them to stop.

“I think the elemental question you’re asking is how you love people who are oppressing you,” Wood said.

Peterson said, “I want to press the point a little further. We are not at a place of equal power. They do have the power to oppress.”

Wood said Dr. King had to deal with this all the time. “The Gospel set a very high standard. … Jesus, in the midst of being crucified, said, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.'”

Wood said that we have to realize that one thing we all share in common is that we all suffer from a history of pain and brokenness, simply by virtue of being human — and that we all share sin.

Mahoney, again, stood on the idea that we can’t forget that there are people who hold to an ideology that keeps us from holding a real dialogue. Still, we can’t forget that they might believe a terrible ideology, but they remain human, which is to say that they are made in the image of God. Keeping that clear is a real spiritual challenge.

Mahoney said there are two errors to be avoided: 1) the radical subjectivization of truth (“my truth”), and 2) the view of the Catholic integralists who believe that we should create a state that produces “a despotic application of the truth”. Our problem today is irrational relativism tied to toxic moralism.

Corey, on what professors should do: “It is our responsibility as academics to say, “That’s not right, and here’s why. I’m going to lay it out and do it civilly, and, I hope, fairly. People don’t have to listen — that’s beyond my control — but we have to say what we believe to be true.”

She went on to say that if we really are committed to truth, we have to be prepared to suffer for it. If we believe Christianity is true, then we must expect that this could happen.

Wood said: “Dr. King said love and power have to go together. Love without power is weak and anemic, and power without love is authoritarian and brutal.”

John Wood is really impressive. Corey and Mahoney are old friends of mine, but I didn’t know of Wood before. But I’m going to be following him now. It strikes me, listening to him that all anti-woke activists should study Dr. King and the civil rights movement, and embrace their tactics. That line of King’s he brought up defines my concern about the way some of us resist wokeness: it is without love, and in fact sees those who love and respect others as weak.

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.

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