Honky Cat Biden’s Ugly Truth
Elderly white man Joe Biden appeared on The Breakfast Club, the No. 1 radio talkshow for America’s black community today. Here is how he signed off:
That has not played well:
Oh my god.This is mortifying (on Biden’s behalf for that gratuitous use of “ain’t”) and revolting (on my own behalf) for that condescending racial essentialism. I say this as someone who would vote for my son’s diaper over Trump. https://t.co/nlfDjbgOGx
— Thomas Chatterton Williams 🌍 🎧 (@thomaschattwill) May 22, 2020
Play him off, Keyboard Cat. pic.twitter.com/Hu8Y7GX4zV
— Carey Findley (@careywfindley) May 22, 2020
Obviously nobody thinks that this gaffe will cause black voters to flip to Trump. But it did bring out an interesting comment from Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, stating that blacks can only think one way politically and be authentically black. She later deleted the tweet, but Mollie Hemingway captured it, and made the correct political point:
Pulitzer Prize winner appears to support how whites are allowed more freedom of thought than blacks. If you’re white, you’re allowed to be liberal or conservative. If you’re black, you will be marginalized and demeaned unless you think the way the powers that be say you must. https://t.co/gO6HxNTemb
— Mollie (@MZHemingway) May 22, 2020
So, Biden’s gaffe was meaningful — not that it’s going to move votes to Trump, but because it revealed an ugly truth about how black liberals police opinion among black folks. If you don’t agree with the left, then you’re not only wrong, you’re a race traitor.
If Donald Trump said in a Sean Hannity interview that if you’re white, and can’t figure out why you should vote for him, that you ain’t really white, he would be crucified in the media — and rightly so! When he said last year that Jews who vote Democratic are being disloyal to the tribe, he was justifiably waylaid. But see, we have this double standard. Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times looks like she is affirming this double standard.
Of course she is. This is who the Democrats are. Stacey Abrams herself said so. The failed black Georgia gubernatorial candidate, said in a speech a year ago that identity politics are “who we are” as Democrats, and that the party should openly embrace them to win.Lately Abrams has been in the news, openly campaigning for the No. 2 slot on Biden’s ticket. Maybe you saw the recent worshipful profile of her in the Washington Post Magazine.
If Biden picks Abrams, there won’t be any pretense any more from the Democrats about identity politics. Biden’s gaffe this morning was more than anything a gaffe in the Michael Kinsley sense: when a politician inadvertently discloses the truth.
Here’s one way that whites are privileged: we can be for Republican candidates, and we can be for Democratic candidates, and though we may be harshly criticized by other white people for our politics, nobody will call us race traitors over it. Andrew Sullivan today has a devastating critique of Trump, and though pro-Trumpers will get their backs up over it, nobody is going to tell him that he ain’t white over it. When you think about that, you realize how courageous men like Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell have had to be, all the for the sake of their own political convictions.
Once again, let me say that I don’t think Democrats and liberals have any real idea what demons they are calling up with this stuff. Do they really think America would be a better place if white politicians campaigned for the votes of whites by telling them that their votes are a matter of racial solidarity and loyalty? It never seems to get through the heads of progressives that you cannot sustain one set of standards for white people, and another for non-whites. There are no doubt plenty of white people who vote out of a sense of “this candidate is good for whites,” but we don’t honor that kind of thing. Since the Civil Rights Movement, our official political culture has been one in which we stigmatize appeals to racial solidarity.
Remember this: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”? That’s an ideal worth defending. But do liberals even believe it anymore? They can’t, not if the likely Democratic presidential nominee is telling black people that if they don’t vote for him, they aren’t really black. Look, we have all known that Democrats have worked this double standard to their own advantage for a long time, but as we move into an America in which whites are no longer a majority — as will be the case by 2050 — more whites are going to start voting openly on racial interests, and we’re going to see white politicians campaigning openly on racial identity politics, as the Democrats do today. And on what grounds will liberals condemn them?
I’m not naive about the fact that there has long been a lot of sub rosa white identity stuff going on in Republican circles, just as it has been among racial minorities in Democratic circles. Still, the hypocrisy of the Republicans in these matters is the respect that vice pays to the virtue of the ideal of an America where people are not judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. When that ideal goes away for good — and many of us will live to see it — we are going to be a much worse country.
UPDATE: Here’s Nikole Hannah-Jones’s deleted tweet, in case it doesn’t show up in Mollie’s:
UPDATE.2: Reader William Anderson comments:
I will relate the experience my stepdaughter, who is black, had after she went to the Trump inaugural in 2017. When she came back to her office in Sacramento (she worked for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management), she was physically attacked by black Democrats in her office. We are speaking of the physically striking her and coughing in her face.
My stepdaughter has had two kidney transplants, two open-heart-surgeries, and cancer, and her immune system is compromised in the extreme. We live with the fear that she will contract something and will not be able to fight it off. She is on her 16th year with a transplanted kidney that only was supposed to function for about a decade, so we obviously have to be very careful. You can imagine that we take a lot of precautions in the current COVID-19 pandemic.
By coughing in her face, the Democrats in her office were trying to make her ill, ill enough to have died, so what they did really was felonious assault. However, because California is a one-party state (Democrats), we were unable to get anything done to stop the attacks and the outright physical bullying. She ultimately had a breakdown and had to leave the job and has not been employed since. She had to move out of her condo and now lives with us. (Her mother is African-American and I am white.)
What Joe Biden was doing was openly endorsing such attacks. There can be no other explanation or interpretation for what he said. I have no doubt that he would have approved of the criminal attacks on my stepdaughter and probably would have encouraged more of them.
No, not all Democrats are like this, and most of my Democrat friends were horrified at what happened and told me so. However, black Democrats are different in that they have a hatred for Republicans that few people can understand; the only comparison I can make is how white Democrats in the Deep South before the 1970s hated black people. (I was brought up in the South and could not understand how or why whites hated blacks so much, but the hatred, as seemingly irrational as it was, was quite real and visible.) The hatred that black Democrats have for blacks that are Republican or libertarian is off-the-charts and well out of proportion to any racial prejudice that may exist in the Republican Party. The hatred is there, is white-hot, and very real, and my stepdaughter was on the receiving end of the worst of it. Had she become sick and died, her black Democrat office workers would have cheered.
Her mother and I tried to make it stop, but no one in authority would intervene and we finally had to tell our daughter she just needed to quit before they killed her. You can imagine her mother’s reaction to Joe Biden’s declaration saying that my wife and her brothers and their families are not authentic black people. I don’t think she will be voting for Biden this fall.
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Italy Flat On Her Back
The Wall Street Journal reports that as Italy begins to emerge from lockdown, it faces a steep uphill climb back to normal. The article is paywalled; here are excerpts:
The coronavirus pandemic has precipitated one of the worst economic downturns in generations across the world. But few major economies are likely to fall as far as Italy’s, or take longer to recover.Although Italy’s lockdown officially ended on May 18, many restrictions remain, and the economic impact will be long lasting. The new poor include small-business owners such as shopkeepers, restaurateurs and market vendors, as well a vast number of workers employed in sectors such as tourism and entertainment, which have little prospect of reviving any time soon.The health emergency has left hundreds of thousands of Italians unable to pay for their own food for the first time, the biggest jump in poverty since the aftermath of World War II.
Italy is ill-prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. The country never fully recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis and the eurozone debt crisis that soon followed in 2010-12. Those events left Italy a poorer country and the government much more indebted today than it was then.“In 2008, Italian families were in a much more solid situation,” says Cristiano Gori, professor of political sociology at Trento University. “This crisis is hitting Italy after 10 years of constant decline.”Since the financial crisis, the number of people living in absolute poverty has continued to increase, doubling to a record high five million in 2018, according to Italy’s statistics agency. That number is expected to rise much more rapidly now, with the Italian trade union UGL estimating it could soar above nine million people over the next few months.The Italian economy is expected to contract by 9.5% this year, according to the European Commission, more than any country in the European Union except for Greece.“We are witnessing a further erosion of the lower middle class,” says Pierluigi Dovis, a representative of the Catholic charity Caritas in northern Italy. “Only some of them will eventually be able to lift themselves up again. Many of them never will.”
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Norma McCorvey Was Truly Pro-Life
Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has long been active in the pro-life movement, e-mailed me about Norma McCorvey. I share this with her permission, though I obscured one name at her request:
I knew her, just a bit. We used to have meetings of pro-life leaders in Washington, and I met her there. So I got to know her a little; she was drawn to me, I think, and always looked at me with a kind of interested curiosity. (There was real intelligence in her eyes, which I think some people didn’t notice.) When we would meet up at a conference or banquet it was easy to hang out together. She seemed to think I had some spiritual wisdom. I bet I have a note from her somewhere.
When Norma first came to one of our meetings she was nervous, but we received her very warmly, of course. That may have taken her by surprise; it seems like pro-choicers expect pro-lifers to despise them, so they’re taken aback when we treat them cordially. (I remember the first time I met [a leading pro-choice figure] –we had agreed to meet for lunch at Kramerbooks. When I found her in the bookstore she was literally shaking. She said it was the first time she had ever met a pro-life person.)
So we embraced Norma, literally and figuratively, and maybe that surprised her. Norma said pro-choice people had treated her very differently. They were glad to recruit her, but they didn’t care for her personally. Her lower-class roots were too obvious. They were glossy, educated upper-class women, and evidently found her embarrassing.
Norma said, and I never forgot it, that the one exception was Gloria Allred. Gloria made time for Norma personally, and helped her in practical ways, talking with her and advising her about more-polished clothing and grooming choices. God bless Gloria for that. But the pro-choice movement in general left her feeling out in the cold. Flip’s [Operation Rescue pastor Flip Benham] kindness to her, normal behavior for any Christian, was dramatically different. He just kept responding in love, no matter what she said to him.
Norma never asked me for money; I never heard her say anything about money. She appeared at our gathering a few times, and never said anything about money.
In fact, that’s the thing that doesn’t fit about this story. When it comes to money, the pro-life movement doesn’t have much. There are a handful of wealthy pro-life people–but there are many more wealthy pro-choice people. Pro-life organizations are consistently poor. I recall seeing a TV show, back in the 90s, that depicted the bad-guy pro-life leader sitting in her spacious paneled office at a beautiful imposing desk. It was hilarious. National Right to Life was the premier pro-life organization, and their office was a set of small rooms–I recall the Washington Post calling it “a warren”–in an old office building. You could probably make an observation about the relative budgets of pro-life and pro-choice organizations just by comparing their DC addresses.
It’s natural that the pro-choice side would have money: it has, not just more wealthy donors, but also a product to sell. Pro-lifers have nothing to sell–on the contrary, money is constantly flowing in the opposite direction, as they give help to pregnant women in need. Among the organizations at that meeting, there was none that could have directed part of their budget to Norma. If all Norma wanted was money, it would have been much more strategic to stay pro-choice.
No one knows the truth except Norma, of course. But my experience of her was that, when we talked privately about her convictions, her conversion to the pro-life position was authentic and deep. And I never heard her say anything about money. In any case, pro-lifers would have been much less able to give her money than pro-choicers could.
UPDATE: Father Frank Pavone, in the comments:
Folks, I was one of Norma’s closest friends for 22 years. Remember that this controversy over her isn’t a matter that’s resolved by anything she said in front of a camera. We led her on a journey of healing, which she voluntarily — in fact desperately — sought and willingly cooperated in, despite the pain and tears she endured by facing up to the wrong she had done. I was by her side during the grief and the joy, the anxiety and the peace, and received her into the Catholic Church. She had a daily passion to spread the prolife message, to counsel women out of abortion (which, interestingly, she even did when she worked in abortion clinics!), and to spread the Faith. In her private hours in the last years of her life, she made rosaries by hand. I helped her communicate with her daughter, find the right assisted living facility, and much more. She told me about the documentary as she was filming for it, for payment by the way, and it wasn’t on her deathbed. I have texts from her about the taping in May 2016 (she died in Feb 2017). The day she died, she repeated something she said often: Promise me you’ll do everything to reverse the Roe decision! The public statement I helped the family craft upon her death reaffirmed her unwavering desire to do exactly that. I conducted her funeral service and preached about how we knew the sincerity and steadfastness of her conversion. See more on our website.
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How Fast The World Ends
New unemployment numbers are out today. After reading them, I told my wife, “If a soothsayer had shown up on New Year’s Eve and said that by summer, 40 million people would be unemployed in this country, we would have thought he was crazy.”
A global economic crash like 2008, sure, that we could understand — but even then, the job losses weren’t this bad, and they happened over 18 monhts. This thing, though? Forty million made jobless in 10 weeks? Seriously, if someone had told you that this was going to happen, and you believed them, what kind of plausible scenario would you have come up with to explain this catastrophe? I don’t know if most of us could have done it.
And yet, here we are.
An aside: it’s a tale that has been told many times: how World War I destroyed European civilization, and ushered in modernity in full force. I don’t know when I last read it told with such insight than by the historian Modris Eksteins in his acclaimed 1986 book The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, which is available on Kindle for just over seven bucks. I downloaded it the other day after reader Rob G. recommended it. It’s very hard to put down. Eksteins begins with the 1913 Paris premiere of the Nijinsky ballet of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a scandalous event at the time. To have been present in the hall that night, he says, was to witness the violent birth of modern art. This essay tells you what happened, and why it happened. Excerpt:
What is certain is that the audience was shocked – and with good reason. Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be. The sounds are often deliberately harsh, right from opening Lithuanian folk melody, which is played by the bassoon in its highest, most uncomfortable range. The music was cacophonously loud, assaulting the ears with thunderous percussion and shrieking brass. Rhythmically it was complex in a completely unprecedented way. In the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’ the music unfolds in two speeds at once, in a ratio of 3:2. And it makes lavish use of dissonance, i.e. combinations of notes which don’t make normal harmonic sense. ‘The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,’ wrote one exasperated critic.
Then there was the dance, choreographed by Nijinsky. According to some observers this was what really caused the scandal at the first night. When the curtain rose the audience saw a row of ‘knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down’ as Stravinsky called them, who seemed to jerk rather than dance. Classical dance aspired upwards, in defiance of gravity, whereas Nijinsky’s dancers seemed pulled down to the earth. Their strange, stamping movements and awkward poses defied every canon of gracefulness.
Both the music and the dance of The Rite of Spring seemed to deny the possibility of human feelings, which for most people is what gives art its meaning. As Stravinsky put it, ‘there are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring’.
The Paris premiere was 107 years ago this week. Just over a year later, Europe was at war. Four years after that, the old world was dead, dead, dead.
I am still reading the book, and have just reached the end of the war in the narrative. I expect I’ll have more to say about it when I finish the book, but here, let me simply say that it never fails to shock me how innocent Europeans were of what they were about to do to themselves.
This isn’t in Eksteins’ book, but it is in my upcoming book. It’s a toast that Serge Diaghilev, the impresario behind the Ballets Russe (and the 1913 Rite of Spring ballet), gave at a banquet in the Hotel Metropol in 1905:
We are witnesses of the greatest moment of summing-up in history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away. That is why, with fear or misgiving, I raise my glass to the ruined walls of the beautiful palaces, as well as to the new commandments of a new aesthetic. The only wish that I, an incorrigible sensualist, can express, is that the forthcoming struggle should not damage the amenities of life, and that the death should be as beautiful and as illuminating as the resurrection.
Eksteins writes about how this mentality was everywhere in pre-war Europe — this idea that the old world was past its prime, and that a new world — a world of speed, of sensuality, of passion, of the machine — was going to clear away the rottenness in the system, and replace it with something fresher and more vital. War, especially in Germany, was seen as a source of life and renewal. So too was sexual permissiveness. Eksteins writes that the artists and intellectuals of the era believed that Christian sexual morality was anti-life. Prostitutes, homosexuals, and others that bourgeois society regarded as outlaws became heroes. Eksteins writes:
Despite a fascination among the avant-garde with the lower classes, with social outcasts, prostitutes, criminals, and the insane, the interest usually did not stem from a practical concern with social welfare or with a restructuring of society, but from a desire simply to eliminate restrictions on the human personality. The interest in the lower orders was thus more symbolic than practical. The search was for a “morality without sanctions and obligations.”
The ballet [Rite of Spring] contains and illustrates many of the essential features of the modern revolt: the overt hostility to inherited form; the fascination with primitivism and indeed with anything that contradicts the notion of civilization; the emphasis on vitalism as opposed to rationalism; the perception of existence as continuous flux and a series of relations, not as constants and absolutes; the psychological introspection accompanying the rebellion against social convention.
Germany was the epicenter of the sexual revolt among artistic and intellectual elites:
None of this is meant to suggest that Germans welcomed or were prepared collectively to tolerate homosexuality publicly — they were not — but the relative openness of the movement in Germany does indicate a measure of tolerance not known elsewhere. Moreover, homosexuality and tolerance of it are, as many have suggested, central to the disintegration of constants, to the emancipation of instinct, to the breakdown of “public man,” and indeed to the whole modern aesthetic.
Sexual liberation in fin-de-siècle Germany was not limited to homosexuals. There was a new emphasis in
general on Leibeskultur, or body culture, on an appreciation of the human body devoid of social taboos and restrictions; on the liberation of the body from corsets, belts, and brassieres. The youth movement, which flourished after the turn of the century, reveled in a “return to nature” and celebrated a hardly licentious but certainly freer sexuality, which constituted part of its rebellion against an older generation thought to be caught up in repression and hypocrisy.
In the 1890s Freikörperkultur, or free body culture — a euphemism for nudism — became part of a health-fad movement that promoted macrobiotic diets, home-grown vegetables, and nature cures. In the arts the rebellion against middle-class mores was even more dramatic: from Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, which celebrated the prostitute because she was a rebel, through Strauss’s Salome, who beheaded John the Baptist because he refused to satisfy her lust, to the repressed but obvious sexual undercurrent in Thomas Mann’s early stories, artists used sex to express their disillusionment with contemporary values and priorities and, even more, their belief in a vital and irrepressible energy.
Again: Eksteins writes that prior to the Great War, the fascination with war as a source of renewal was widespread. In the summer of 1914, as Europe lurched toward the abyss, the German public in particular was ecstatic. Finally! They weren’t the only ones, either. Interestingly, Eksteins says it’s not fair to blame the war on German aristocrats. It was above all the middle class that wanted the war, and wanted it to be “total war.”
It is well known that the European powers expected the war to be quick and decisive. It was anything but. The casualties of that war still shock: around 10 million military, and between 8 and 13 million civilians. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1916), over 19,000 British soldiers died. Eksteins said Germany went to war to fight for spiritual and ideological ideals of what it thought the world should be, while Britain fought to defend a legacy, a historical and cultural order. Though Britain and its allies won the war, they really lost. The incomprehensible savagery of the war, especially trench warfare, obliterated the ability of many people to take the prewar order and its values seriously.
I’ll write more about the Eksteins book when I finish it. As I said, I’m only halfway through it. The reason I bring it up in context of the Covid-19 pandemic is that Europeans had no idea what had overtaken them. Their blind optimism — see Diaghilev’s toast — that whatever was coming had to be better than the exhausted forms and beliefs of the old world kept them from seeing their own fragility. Eksteins understands that the Rite of Spring prefigured the annihilation of the Great War by revealing the passions roiling beneath a cultural order that was dying.
Admittedly this analysis can only go so far. The war was an act of the will by states and peoples; the coronavirus pandemic is a natural occurrence. The comparison is only really valid in that both events are extreme catastrophes that will have massive effects for a long time to come. It is unlikely that this pandemic will kill anywhere close to the numbers that died in the Great War, but it doesn’t have to to have a civilization-altering effect. I was talking to my mom on the phone last night, and she expressed her conviction that “this thing” is going to end soon. She has no reason to think so; this is what she is telling herself, because she can’t bear to think that it will go on for much longer. You can imagine what was on my mind listening to this, given my reading of Eksteins.
Forty million suddenly unemployed, with no prospect of them regaining employment soon, and with the likelihood that many more will join the ranks of the unemployed before the virus burns out — no society can go through a trauma like that without grave repercussions. We all hope that scientists can deliver a cure, or protection, as soon as possible, but at this point do we have solid reason to think that this will happen? I don’t see that we do. The Great Powers all figured that their troops would be back home for Christmas 1914. They failed to imagine the civilizational catastrophe that was upon them.
Mind you, I stress that I don’t think that this pandemic is going to be the epochal event that the Great War was. I think it will be more like the Great Depression. But remember, the Depression affected an America that was much more cohesive as a society, and bound, however imperfectly, by a common religion. Today, the radical individualism, including the valorization of outlaw sexual behavior, that was avant-garde in the early years of the 20th century is now mainstream. The rise of totalitarianism was a direct effect of World War I and the destruction of the old order. My sense is that the pandemic and the economic catastrophe it is causing, and will yet cause, will change our world far more than most of us can yet imagine, and in ways in which we can only guess.
Think about it: if 40 million people can lose their jobs in 10 weeks, from a threat that was on almost nobody’s radar four months ago, what’s next?
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Liberalism & Sacred Order
In a long Twitter thread, Justin Lee — he’s a great follow @justindeanlee — makes a heroic effort to explain to skeptical liberal colleagues at Arc Digital why the critique Patrick Deneen and others make of liberalism should be taken seriously. Here’s the whole thing on Thread Reader. Note well: at the beginning of his commentary, he makes it clear that his focus is metaphysical, not strictly political. By “liberalism,” he doesn’t mean the philosophy of the Democratic Party; he means classical liberalism, the governing philosophy that has ruled the US and Britain since the Enlightenment, and most of the Western world off and on. Free markets, individual liberties, etc.
Lee starts by defining liberty in its positive and negative senses. Negative liberty is freedom from coercion; positive liberty is the freedom to master yourself, and do what you should do. Lee:
Especially in the case of negative liberty, you have to have a state to adjudicate between competing rights — and there’s no coherent way to do that without reference to a set of values outside the system.
Liberalism presents itself as morally neutral, but it’s not, because no political system can be.
There is no escaping metaphysics — that is, an underlying account of the nature of reality. Metaphysics also implies a moral and political anthropology: an account of what a human being is. As Lee indicates, the reason we are having so many problems sorting ourselves out politically is because we, as a late liberal polity, lack a shared metaphysics. The Christian religion used to provide that, but at this point in our history, no longer does, because most people either disbelieve, or their belief is soft and emotional, not strong enough to build a social order on (in other words, Christianity has become subordinated to therapeutic bourgeois individualism). More Lee:
To restate: Lee makes the MacIntyrean point that the attempt to uphold a political order without a shared metaphysics is doomed to fail. He further says that classical liberalism is not possible without Judeo-Christian foundations, because it is from the Bible, and its teaching that man is made in the image of God, that we get the modern idea of human rights. Liberalism’s claim to be neutral is just a pose; it too has a metaphysics, because there is no way to avoid metaphysics.
The ne plus ultra of incoherent late liberalism was this statement by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion of the 1992 Casey decision, reaffirming abortion rights:
“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
The idea that we get to make up our own metaphysics itself implies a metaphysics! Or at the very least it implies an attitude towards metaphysics that is functionally nihilist. The idea that the individual has the right to make it all up is an utterly incoherent basis for a political and social order. You can see in these 28 words the invisible metaphysics of liberalism: it pretends to vindicate a broad idea of individual liberty, but does so in a court decision that judges unborn human beings as outside the realm of personhood. Which, okay, fine — but don’t pretend that you’re neutral here. In fact, this infamous Kennedy line is particularly rich coming from a judge, whose very role is to decide the contours of liberty within a polity.
On the fundamental questions of abortion and gay marriage, the Supreme Court has declared them to be beyond politics. Again, fine, but don’t pretend that this is in any way a neutral decision. Obergefell, like Casey, implies a certain view of what a person is — and in the case of the former, what marriage is. Pro-LGBT liberals think it’s just irrational prejudice when traditional Christians say that gay marriage isn’t really marriage. In fact, though it sounds kind of la-tee-da to put it this way, both sides — pro-SSM and anti-SSM — are operating from incommensurate metaphysics. It’s important to understand that because it shows just how deep the divide goes. Liberals who say it is merely prejudice (or, in the Supreme Court’s judgment, “irrational animus”) are neatly dismissing deep conservative objections based on what marriage is as pure hatred. I bring this up not to start a new argument about gay marriage, but to point out how liberals do this sleight of hand to dismiss conservative claims while reinforcing their own pretense of neutrality.
Most people don’t think metaphysically, of course. That’s not how life works. But we live metaphysically, whether we are aware of it or not. Philip Rieff points out that all civilizations have a “sacred order,” but ours, in the post-Christian era, is the first that has tried to live on a negation of sacred order. It can’t be done — and we are living through the death of a civilization whose traditional sacred order is no longer felt by most of its people. (More on this in a moment.)
The questions before courts now about transgenderism are at bottom metaphysical. What is sex? Is it wholly a social construct, or does it have a strong basis in material reality? I predict the Court will ratify whatever the changing beliefs of the professional class are. This will further damage its authority, because many will see its decisions are arbitrary, as based heavily in an irrational animus towards anything that threatens the educated bourgeoisie.
In any case, I think what Justin Lee is trying to get his liberal friends to grasp is that Team Deneen are writing about something that truly exists. Liberalism is a lot more fragile than many liberals think. Deneen’s basic argument is that liberalism has failed because it has succeeded so well. That is, liberalism has created a world of unprecedented individual liberty, but in so doing, has made society thin, fissiparous, and ultimately ungovernable, because it has left us with no means to adjudicate our disputes. If you want to think more deeply about this, please read this 1989 Atlantic essay by the political theorist Glenn Tinder, titled “Can We Be Good Without God?”
My Benedict Option idea is based on the idea that MacIntyre is right, but that there’s no realistic way to go back to the shared Christian understanding of sacred order. One feature of it that has not been much remarked on by commenters is the claim that even Christians have abandoned the traditional Christian concept of sacred order. I bang on about “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” so much because as Christian Smith has shown, it really is the de facto religion of Americans, including American Christians. American Christianity has failed to Christianize liberalism; liberalism has liberalized Christianity. And by “liberalized Christianity,” I don’t mean only that it has made American Christianity more “liberal” in the sense of “progressive”; I mean that it has rendered Christianity into the religion of liberals (radical individualists) at prayer. You can have a 100 percent Trump voting, God-and-guns congregation that is also 100 percent liberal in the sense I mean. If late liberalism is incoherent, so is Christianity after Christendom.
As a Christian, I am less concerned that the constitutional order continue than I am concerned with the survival of the Church. A superficial reading of The Benedict Option would hold that the greatest threat to Christianity today comes from the state. What I really say in the book is that the greatest threat comes from within: from the unthinking absorption by Christians of classical liberalism and its metaphysics. This absorption has occurred less from a failure of doctrinal instruction and more from a failure of discipleship — that is, instantiating traditional Christian teaching into daily practices.
But I digress. Going back to the Deneen critique, a lot of people faulted him for not having an answer to the problem he diagnosed. That is, because he doesn’t say “this is what should replace liberalism,” then his critique of liberalism must be unsound. This is a failure of logic. If a doctor examined you and said that you have an incurable, fatal disease, what sense would it make to dismiss the diagnosis because the physician does not know how to arrest your condition? That’s what we’re dealing with here. The metaphysics (“sacred order”) of secular liberalism create an unstable and unsustainable political system. There is no apparent way out of this within secular liberalism itself. Something has to give. The fact that for many of us, all the conceivable alternatives to liberalism seem worse than liberalism does not negate the Deneen critique.
In the dawn of the 4th century, Roman paganism was exhausted, but Roman elites could not conceive of anything different than a state founded on the gods that their ancestors had worshipped for many centuries. Within a century, everything had changed. We are in such a time of transition now, I believe. If secular liberals want to understand what’s happening, they need to deal with Deneen (and MacIntyre, et alia), not just dismiss them. If you haven’t read Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, you really should. He’s a good writer. Even Barack Obama recommended this book as an important read to understand our times.
Anyway, if you’re on Twitter, follow @justindeanlee — he’s consistently interesting.
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Norma McCorvey, Victim & Grifter
Norma McCorvey, the woman known as “Jane Roe” in the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion, said she was lying when she switched to support the anti-abortion movement, saying she had been paid to do so.
In a new documentary, made before her death in 2017 and due to be broadcast on Friday, McCorvey makes what she calls a “deathbed confession.”
“I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say,” she says on camera. “I did it well too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.”
“If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that’s no skin off my ass. That’s why they call it choice,” she added.
“AKA Jane Roe,” will be broadcast on the FX cable channel on Friday but was made available to television journalists in advance.
Is it true? Unless there are people from the pro-life side who did this, and who can confirm it, I guess we will never know for sure. The Reuters story (linked above) quotes an Evangelical pastor saying that the pro-life movement exploited McCorvey. He does not say that it was a conscious conspiracy, though — at least the Reuters story does not indicate that. Having not seen the FX program, I can easily imagine that professional pro-life activists saw McCorvey as a “get,” and treated her instrumentally. It was clear in the interviews she did after she came out as “Roe” that she had been beat up pretty badly by life, and might not be the most stable person. Her Wikipedia entry talks about how she was raised by a mother who was a violent alcoholic. Hers was a hard life.
Note well, though, that the pro-choice side will now instrumentalize her posthumously, not blaming her for pimping out her credibility to damage the pro-choice cause. She will be presented as a total innocent who was iniquitously exploited by pro-lifers.
Still, it would not surprise me to learn that some pro-life leaders treated her poorly. This is how political activists can be. They learn to see the world entirely through the lens of their cause, and whether they mean to or not, come to judge people by how useful they are to the cause.
I remember being a reporter on Capitol Hill during some hearings in the early 1990s on partial-birth abortion. One pro-life activist with whom I was personally familiar knew that I was a pro-life Catholic, and sympathetic to the cause. In the House hearing room, before testimony started, she ran up to me with a plastic model of an unborn baby, put it in my face, and shoved a small pair of medical scissors into the back of its neck. She was demonstrating what partial-birth abortion does. I told her to get out of my face. She seemed shocked by that. It wasn’t that I disagreed with her position — I did not, and she knew that I did not. It was that she was so worked up by the horror of partial-birth abortion that she had lost perspective on how to behave there in the committee room. The righteousness of the cause overwhelmed her.
I’ve seen this kind of thing in all kinds of activists, left and right, over the years. Again, it is possible that some pro-life leaders coldly chose to exploit McCorvey. Again, I think it more likely that it was unconscious. That doesn’t make it right, but I think this kind of thing is common in the world of political activism. I do know, though, of one pretty hardcore pro-life activist, a Christian who had no scruples about deceiving pregnant women about his crisis pregnancy centers. Other CPC workers distanced themselves from him, because they knew he was dishonest, and they were afraid that he would hurt the reputations of all CPCs. This guy believed that the cause justified anything. Eventually he got in trouble over his deceit.
I wonder, though — and maybe the FX show gets into this — what McCorvey expected from the pro-life movement, and what she had a right to expect. Did she want all her bills paid? Did she want a permanent job? What? Was McCorvey ever a real pro-lifer? Her Wikipedia entry reveals that she has a history of lying about things related to abortion. Did McCorvey change her mind about abortion near the end of her life, and decided to distance herself from her pro-life activism by inventing an allegation against her former allies?
McCorvey was an unreliable narrator — but the pro-life movement ought to have known this when it embraced her. Her life and testimony were an unstable foundation on which to base activism. Pro-choicers eager to embrace her posthumously, on the basis of her “deathbed confession,” should be wary. They won’t be, because the narrative that McCorvey provided the filmmakers fits what the media want to believe about abortion and the pro-life movement.
Still, there probably are some important lessons for pro-lifers to learn from the sad, confused life of Norma McCorvey. I had forgottten, until I read it on the Wikipedia page, that Operation Rescue leader Flip Benham had McCorvey’s backyard 1994 baptism filmed for a TV show. That right there shows bad faith: something as intimate as a baptism ought not to be fodder for activism.
McCorvey later returned to the Catholicism of her childhood, and was confirmed as a Catholic by Father Frank Pavone, the pro-life activist priest. Pavone, who has himself arguably gone too far in his own pro-life activism, spoke to Catholic journalist J.D. Flynn about the new McCorvey claims. Excerpts:
As to charges that McCorvey was used by the pro-life movement, Pavone said that from his perspective, “I’ve never subscribed to the idea that the pro-life movement used her.”
The priest conceded, however, that “one would have to say that, as in any movement, when there’s a convert, you’ve got to be careful not to put them into the lights and the cameras before they’ve had the healing that they need.”
McCorvey was often thrust into situations for which she wasn’t ready, he said, as she also had been during her alliance with abortion advocates, and that caused her considerable hardship.
Pavone says that McCorvey had trouble paying the bills over the years. He adds:
Pavone said that in his view, McCorvey struggled in her final years, especially after a move from Dallas to Katy, Texas.
“In that final year, she was outside of the support network that a lot of her friends were providing in Dallas,” he said.
You could say: outside of that support network, Norma lost perspective, and became embittered at her pro-life allies.
You could also say: outside of that support network, Norma finally saw the truth, and admitted it.
Only Norma McCorvey knew the real truth. Or did she?
Just this morning I was talking with a friend about someone we know who had a traumatic childhood, and whose accounts — even contemporary stories — about others are unreliable, because this person, X., has a habit of rewriting the past in ways X. requires to feel okay in the world. Like McCorvey, X. was raised by a violent alcoholic parent. I was telling my friend that if X. were hooked up to a lie detector and told a story that was provably false, X. would probably pass with flying colors because in my experience, truth, to this tormented soul, is whatever helps X. sleep at night.
Was it like that with Norma McCorvey? I bet it was. Childhood trauma is a hell of a thing. I don’t say that to take moral agency away from McCorvey, or to run interference for pro-life activists who may have taken advantage of her. I do think, though, that the story of her life is not redemptive, any way you look at it. She presented herself as a pro-life advocate from 1994 until her 2017 death. If she lied to the world about her true abortion beliefs for nearly a quarter-century, and only told the truth when she knew nobody could hold her accountable for it (that is, for a film she knew she would never live to see released), then that is disgraceful.
I’ll leave you with this. Washington Post writer Monica Hesse says that the messiness of McCorvey’s life doesn’t suit either the pro-life or pro-choice narrative. Excerpt:
The activists on both sides who knew her found her charming and found her maddening. She rewrote stories into fantasies. She could be mercenary, and always needed money. Maybe the best word for her was “survivor,” multiple people decided independently. After a rough life, she’d now do whatever it took to survive. At one point in the FX documentary, she chuckles that she’s always “looking out for Norma’s salvation and Norma’s [butt].” At times, she seemed to be exactly what their movements needed. At times, she seemed hellbent on complicating an issue that they found to be absolutely simple and clear.
This made her the perfect Jane Roe, the perfect figurehead of the abortion issue, because it wasn’t simple for a lot of people. Antiabortion activists with accidental pregnancies suddenly find themselves calling Planned Parenthood, convinced that their situations are exceptional. Pro-choice women who terminate pregnancies can move through unexpected grief. At various points in her life, Norma McCorvey represented the issue in all of its complexities and untidiness.
This also made McCorvey a difficult Jane Roe, because movements want their heroes to be pure.
Sounds like she was both a victim and a grifter. Both can be true at the same time.
Here, by the way, is the trailer for the FX documentary:
UPDATE: Good comment from reader Hosanna:
I found this Vanity Fair article from 2013 about McCorvey helpful for having a greater context about her life and person: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/politics/2013/02/norma-mccorvey-roe-v-wade-abortion
This article confirms that McCorvey did receive money for her activism – and, indeed, that one constant theme of her life is that she was always fixated on making money from her centrality in Roe v. Wade. (“She just fishes for money,” the pro-life pastor Benham is quoted as saying.) This was true both in her pro-choice activism days and her pro-life activism days. Given her continual struggles with poverty, I’m not sure she ever saw a path to survival for herself that didn’t involve exploiting Roe v. Wade in one way or another. Note that the Vanity Fair author mentions that he tried to schedule an interview with McCorvey, but that she refused to speak without a $1000 interview fee. McCorvey was almost certainly paid for her participation in this new documentary; was she just saying what she thought the documentary filmmaker wanted to hear, as she said what pro-choice and pro-life activists wanted to hear?
Ultimately, despite the framing the reporting about this documentary is leaning into, I don’t think the story is that cynical pro-life activists knowingly bribed McCorvey to lie. Rather, it’s that McCorvey was a messy woman who sought to make a living from her accidental centrality to a major societal controversy, and pro-choice and pro-life activists alike tried to overlook her messiness in using her as a symbol for the righteousness of their cause. My takeaway is to be wary of using personal stories as arguments – they’re very powerful on an emotional level, but the messiness of reality tends to get sanded off in service of the grand narrative we want to tell. As a servant of the God of truth, a God who thankfully shows grace even to messy people, I want to be faithful to truth – not what I wish the truth was, but truth as it actually is. Only by facing the truth about my own continual mess can I be receptive to God’s grace, and so I must face the truth about other people’s messes in order to be a true minister of God’s grace to them.
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Ronan Farrow Discredited
Well, well, well, the Golden Boy flew too close to the sun. Earlier this week, Ben Smith at The New York Times published a long piece questioning in detail the reporting Ronan Farrow has done on the #MeToo story. Smith’s basic allegation, which he strongly supports, is that Farrow allowed his crusading agenda to trample over basic journalistic ethics, leading him to report things that either weren’t true, or that he did not establish as true — but which boosted his narrative.
Well, one of Farrow’s victims, former Today Show host Matt Lauer, finishes the wounded Farrow off with a devastating critique of Farrow’s reporting that brought him (Lauer) down. Lauer, who admits to having had an extramarital affair with an NBC employee, said that the subsequent allegations (by that employee, Brooke Nevils) of rape against him — allegations accepted and repeated without challenge in Farrow’s book — were false, and provably false, though Farrow didn’t want to hear that. The column is a devastating series of excerpts like this:
Ronan suggests that Brooke Nevils’ accusations against me are valid, because he writes:
Nevils told ‘like a million people’ about Lauer. She told her inner circle of friends. She told colleagues and superiors at NBC. She was never inconsistent and she made the seriousness of what happened clear.
Does Ronan offer any proof of this claim? Does he say he confirmed this story with any of the friends or colleagues she claims to have told about the “seriousness” of what she now alleges happened in Sochi? Does he include a single comment or quote from a corroborating source for these claims?
No, he does not.
When [Brooke] moved to a new job within the company, working as a producer for Peacock Productions, she reported it to one of her new bosses there. She felt they should know, in case it became public and she became a liability.
Does he write that he tried to track down that superior at Peacock Productions? (Which, it should be noted, is completely separate from the Today show.) Did he include a quote or a comment from that superior?
Did he find out if that superior had, in fact, been told about the “seriousness” of what Brooke now claims?
No, he did not. How do I know that? Because I did.
It took me 15 minutes to find out who that “new boss” was. I then contacted Sharon Scott, who ran Peacock Productions at the time Brooke was hired there. Sharon, concerned that she might not have been made aware of a serious situation involving a member of her staff, contacted Brooke’s direct superior. They spoke at length.
That new boss told Sharon Scott that, one night, Brooke simply started talking about having an affair with me. She said, most importantly, that Brooke never said a single word about this being anything but a consensual affair. She said Brooke, in no way, conveyed “the seriousness” of what she now claims. There was never a mention of assault or rape. She says she considered Brooke a friend and Brooke told the story the way someone would gossip with a friend. She told Sharon Scott that there was nothing in what Brooke told her that made her feel it was necessary to contact anyone in management about any concerns.
This superior also stated that Ronan Farrow never reached out to her to confirm the story that referenced her in the book.
Read the whole thing. It is long, and it is full of things like that: instances in which Lauer did what Farrow should have done, which is track down people who could confirm or deny his narrative. Farrow’s fact checker for his book Catch And Kill said that he checked all the claims in the book. It couldn’t possibly be true. I dunno, but it seems like Lauer has quite a lawsuit against Hachette, the publisher of Farrow’s book.
Remember when Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s memoir at the last minute after its existence ticked off Ronan Farrow? The book found another home. I bought it and read it simply out of a principle of solidarity with a canceled author. The memoir was uneven, but I tell you, thinking back now, in light of the Ben Smith and Matt Lauer pieces, to Allen’s detailed story about the abuse allegations, and how it contradicts the Farrow family narrative — in particular, the narrative Ronan has offered — makes me think that nothing this kid Farrow says should be believed. He’s clearly quite a journalistic talent, but he has destroyed his own credibility by his crusading, and by being helped along by journalists and publishers older than him, who ought to have forced him to do his job. Instead, they found a narrative they liked too, and went with it.
In an effort to promote one of his Catch and Kill podcasts several months ago, Ronan tweeted the following:
“None of my reporting would be possible without fact-checking”
After investigating Ronan’s journalistic efforts myself and reading the recent reporting on him in The New York Times I think that statement falls quite flat.
The examples of shoddy journalism I’ve explored here are the tip of the iceberg. They are only some, of the many instances I could have cited from the two chapters of this book about me. Maybe others will now begin to ask more questions about the 57 chapters of this book I haven’t touched on here.
Will anyone hold Ronan Farrow thoroughly accountable? I doubt it.
Probably not. Farrow’s narrative is too important to too many elites. But who knows? Maybe there will be some justice. There is already some justice in knowing that going forward, anything that appears under Ronan Farrow’s byline will be disbelieved. This is not like making an honest mistake from sloppy reporting. As Lauer and Smith detail, Farrow did this over and over and over, and all his “errors” were the result of his confirmation bias. As a journalist, this is an occupational hazard. That’s why professional standards exist. The questions that need asking now have to do with why so many older, more experienced journalists and publishers who were responsible for giving Farrow an audience failed. I believed everything I read from Farrow in The New Yorker, because the New Yorker is a gold standard in journalism.
Ben Smith, in his takedown published in the Times, writes:
Mr. Farrow, 32, is not a fabulist. His reporting can be misleading but he does not make things up. His work, though, reveals the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump: That if reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices, the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives.
Yes. You don’t have to think that Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer (two of Farrow’s victims) are choirboys to believe that they deserved fairness. And let me point out here that for you readers who yelled at me for not reporting years earlier that I knew Cardinal McCarrick was an abuse: this is why I didn’t report it! I was certain that it was true, but I could not verify it by normal journalistic standards. Therefore, it would have been irresponsible to publish. McCarrick was and is a great villain, and I knew this about him in 2002. I wanted worse than anything to take him down. But professional journalism standards exist for a good reason — as Ronan Farrow’s disgrace reminds us.
UPDATE:The leftist journalist Glenn Greenwald weighs in on Ronangate. Excerpt:
Ever since Donald Trump was elected, and one could argue even in the months leading up to his election, journalistic standards have been consciously jettisoned when it comes to reporting on public figures who, in Smith’s words, are “most disliked by the loudest voices,” particularly when such reporting “swim[s] ably along with the tides of social media.” Put another way: As long the targets of one’s conspiracy theories and attacks are regarded as villains by the guardians of mainstream liberal social media circles, journalists reap endless career rewards for publishing unvetted and unproven — even false — attacks on such people, while never suffering any negative consequences when their stories are exposed as shabby frauds.
He’s talking about Russiagate.
(Readers, I’m being inundated with comments — a good thing! But I have very little time to interact with you all as I usually do. Thanks for your understanding. A note to new readers: you will not be published if your comment is an ad hominem attack on me or others who post here.)
UPDATE.2:Michael Luo, a New Yorker editor, rebuts in detail Ben Smith’s claims — and says that the magazine provided this to him in writing, but it didn’t make it into his story.
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Bo-Bolsheviks & Soft Totalitarianism
Here’s a fantastic piece by Nathan Pinkoski, on the particular qualities of contemporary American socialism. He writes that contemporary US socialists abandon the old socialist goal of replacing capitalism:
Self-styled American socialists leave this behind. They define socialism not by government control of the economy or by state ownership of the means of production, but rather in terms of an open-ended commitment to equality.
This means playing up issues of race and identity — which makes “socialism” much less hostile to the bourgeois class. Whence the bobos, or “bourgeois bohemians.” But the bobos are becoming more radicalized:
The new activity, making support for individual autonomy and self-creation the decisive issue, has the bobos denounce the bourgeois for their attitudes that are hostile to individual autonomy and self-creation, the practices that hold minorities back and get in the way of equality. Let us call these the practices of acknowledged dependency, whose paramount examples are found in familial and religious life.
The new socialists end up attacking the working class for its “problematic” views on race and identity. But notice, it’s not minority members of the working classes. Pinkoski says, “The new villain is not the bourgeois, but the white heterosexual American Christian male.”
Pinkoski says the socialist goal now is not to build up the working class. That’s over.
In its place are the new battlegrounds that Jean-Pierre Le Goff spotted: history, environmentalism, children’s literature, formal education of children, and human sexuality, where victory means extirpating the conscious and unconscious prejudices that belong to the villain’s culture. The goal is to negate the entirety of the existing culture.
To achieve that goal the bobos become “bo-Bolsheviks.”
Yes they do. Pinkoski says:
The disputes between socialists and progressives mask their fundamental, shared worldview: the bourgeois worldview of freedom as individual self-creation. American socialists may be anti-liberal on economics. But they are ultra-liberal about everything else.
See, this is a significant part of my claim, advanced in my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies, that we are moving into a condition of soft totalitarianism. The bo-Bolsheviks don’t really care about the state monopolizing the means of production on behalf of the working class. They care about authority (the state, corporations, universities, etc.) monopolizing the culture on behalf of those they regard as oppressed minorities. This is why, to use a Pinkoski example, nobody will bat an eye if you advocate for a flat tax, but if you dispute gender ideology, your career may be in jeopardy. The totalitarian core of these bo-Bolshevik attitudes doesn’t register with the middle-class people; they simply think that they are advancing the cause of justice.
The villain for these people may well be white heterosexual Christian males — and if you know and love any white heterosexual Christian males, you should care about this — but it won’t stop there. As the Columbia sociologist Musa al-Gharbi writes, blacks and Latinos are more socially conservative than the woke white people who assume the mantle of arguing for black and Latino interests.
What happens when the bo-Bolsheviks in power come for black and Latino church people? When the online discourse of socially conservative blacks, Latinos, and other minorities is monitored for wrongthink, and punished? Pinkoski is right: the goal of these bo-Bolsheviks is to “negate the entirety of the existing culture.” To do that will require totalitarian methods. It will not require gulags. It will only require gaining control of the cultural means of production (e.g., schools, media) and the administrative state. China’s social credit system offers a soft totalitarian model for them to follow — this, in part because the technological surveillance infrastructure is already largely in place. Some Americans are getting wound up about the possibility of government tracking them as an anti-Covid-19 strategy. People, wake up: most everything you do during the day, including everywhere you go, is already tracked via your smartphone. If you don’t believe me, when you get home, ask Alexa.
I’ll be glad when my book is out this fall, and we can talk about this in greater detail. If you’re interested in the topic, pre-order it for September 29 delivery.
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On Feb. 23, I logged onto Zoom to observe the first public service of what is essentially a QAnon church operating out of the Omega Kingdom Ministry (OKM). I’ve spent 12 weeks attending this two-hour Sunday morning service.
What I’ve witnessed is an existing model of neo-charismatic home churches — the neo-charismatic movement is an offshoot of evangelical Protestant Christianity and is made up of thousands of independent organizations — where QAnon conspiracy theories are reinterpreted through the Bible. In turn, QAnon conspiracy theories serve as a lens to interpret the Bible itself.
OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube.
The resource page of the HCW website only links to QAnon propaganda — including the documentary Fall Cabal by Dutch conspiracy theorist Janet Ossebaard, which is used to formally indoctrinate e-congregants into QAnon. This 10-part YouTube series was the core material for the weekly Bible study during QAnon church sessions I observed.
The Sunday service is led by Russ Wagner, leader of the Indiana-based OKM, and Kevin Bushey, a retired colonel running for election to the Maine House of Representatives.
What is clear is that Wagner and Bushey are leveraging religious beliefs and their “authority” as a pastor and ex-military officer to indoctrinate attendees into the QAnon church. Their objective is to train congregants to form their own home congregations in the future and grow the movement.
Argentino points out that the number of participants in this church is relatively small (300 or so). Still, the point from his research is to document the birth of a new religion in real time.
This puts me in mind of what I now regard as one of the past decade’s most important essays about contemporary religion: a long 2016 piece by the Evangelical theologian Alastair Roberts about the Internet and the breakdown of authority in the church. Excerpts:
People’s hunger for truth is easily mistaken for a pure rational desire for accuracy and certitude. Yet our hunger for truth is, at a deeper level, our desperate need for something or, more typically, someone to trust. Where radical distrust in the ordinary organs of knowledge and thought in society prevails, most don’t cut themselves off from everyone else in unrelenting suspicion. Rather, in such situations we typically see a dangerous expansion of credulity, of unattached trust, just waiting for something to latch onto, for someone or something—anything!—to believe in. Alongside this expansion of credulity, we also see a shrinking of the circle of trust. Hence, wild and fanciful conspiracy theories gain traction, and new dissident and tribal communities form around them.
The Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.
Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.
The power of traditional gatekeepers was largely established by public, civil, and religious institutions. These institutions typically had established standards to which their gatekeepers were held and processes by which they were selected. The trust in the gatekeepers arose in large measure from a trust in the institutional means by which they were selected, tested, and held accountable. These institutions—universities, political parties, churches, newspapers, publishing houses, etc., etc.—themselves provided the ‘gates’ to public discourse and participation. The keepers of the gates—selection committees, publishers, editors, pastors, theologians, etc., etc.—were produced by and defended their institutions. They were subject to training and a standard of excellence.
There are neither gates nor gatekeepers in the same way online. Instead of a well-ordered and bounded public square, a realm of discourse is thrown open for all and sundry. Much of the Internet functions as a radically egalitarian society, where no clear differentiation is made between people who are qualified to speak and those who are not. Everyone can now be a self-appointed opinionated expert, courtesy of Google and Wikipedia. It is also so much easier now to form movements and discourses that are independent of the institutions and agencies that could once maintain the standards of the public conversation and vet its participants.
In the rampant populism of the Internet, the notion that everyone has the right to their own opinion can go to seed. An egalitarianism and democracy of opinions neglects the reality that most people’s opinions on most subjects are unformed, untested, and quite worthless. The differences between mere opinionators and people with the authority and responsibility of office, extensive experience, or advanced research become blurred.
Roberts talks about the factors that have damaged trust in traditional institutional sources of authority. And then he gets to Evangelical churches. More:
Church leaders are increasingly facing a situation where members of their congregations have an ever-growing and diversifying interface with a dizzying array of different figures. Congregants are following people on Twitter and Facebook, reading various blogs, listening to podcasts, watching Christian videos on Youtube, participating in online forums and communities, reading a far wider range of books than they probably would have done in the past, watching Christian TV shows, listening to Christian radio stations, etc., etc., all within the comfort of their own houses. The sheer range of sources that the members of a congregation will be exposed to nowadays is entirely unprecedented. Although some may expect pastors to keep on top of all of this, I really don’t see how they realistically can.
The result has often been a situation—similar to that faced by vaccination programmes—in which pastors and church leaders urgently have to protect the spiritual health of their congregations against false teachings that untrained people have adopted through their independent ‘research’. In such a situation, few things are more important than a strong bond of trust between lay people and those in authority over them, who are responsible for their well-being.
However, that bond of trust has come under extreme and sustained assault in the last couple of decades. With the revelation of scandals of spiritual and sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups and gross mishandling, pastors and church leaders are subject to much more suspicion. Pastors, prominent Christian leaders, and teachers may commonly presume that authority is something that comes with the job position. However, this election is just going to provide further evidence of how profoundly mistaken this assumption actually is. Especially among the up-and-coming generations, the older generation of prominent evangelical leaders has less and less influence. Their widespread support of Trump will just be the final nail in the coffin of their credibility for a large number of younger people. ‘Authority’ counts for little where trust no longer exists. Not only will this mean that their future statements won’t carry weight: they will be actively distrusted. Once again, there is a dangerous situation of unattached trust, ripe for the establishment of counter-communities.
Many people now privilege online bloggers, speakers, and writers over the pastors that have been given particular responsibility for the well-being of their souls. The result is growing competition among Christian gatekeepers, which increasingly positions the individual Christian, less as one fed by particular appointed and spiritually mature local fathers and mothers in the faith, and more as an independent religious consumer, free to pick and choose the voices that they find most agreeable. Sheep with a multitude of competing shepherds aren’t much better off than sheep with no shepherds whatsoever.
Roberts talks about how with the collapse of traditional authority within Evangelicalism, the vacuum has been filled by online “influencers” and others. “To understand the future of evangelicalism, there are few things more important than attending to currently shifting networks of trust,” Roberts says. He claims that Evangelicalism 25 years from now is going to look very different than it does today, in large part because the leaders of contemporary Evangelicalism have little trust among young Evangelical adults. Roberts puts the blame on leaders for squandering their authority, but I think that, in light of his analysis in this piece (read it all — it’s good, and it’s important), even the best, most morally sound Evangelical leaders would struggle in the face of the scattering power of the Internet and contemporary culture.
It’s interesting to think about Roberts’s points applied to the cultures of American Catholicism and American Orthodoxy. Though I am, of course, Orthodox, I know far less about the culture of American Orthodoxy than I do about Catholicism. This is because I have deliberately stayed out of online Orthodoxy; sometimes an Orthodox friend will write to say, “Oh man, did you see what they’re saying about you on [Orthodox online forum]?” I tell them no, I don’t read them, and I don’t read them on purpose. Plus, Orthodoxy in America is so small that it’s hard to get a good sampling of how American Orthodox think.
Orthodoxy is hierarchical and traditional, and I can only guess about the extent to which American Orthodox submit to the teaching authority of the bishops and the institutional Church, and the extent to which they believe that they are their own magisterium. I would be surprised, though, if my fellow US Orthodox had avoided the general dissipation of authority within our culture. But I really don’t know. Orthodox bishops are like I imagine Catholic bishops and the Pope were before John Paul II: as pillars that hold up the institution, but who aren’t heard from much. You can be confident that they’re not going to do anything crazy, theologically, so you don’t really have to pay attention to them. One of the most striking things about going from Catholicism to Orthodoxy is the massive difference between how religiously engaged intellectuals talk about the hierarchy. It almost never happens in Orthodoxy. One reason for that, I think, is that the tradition is regarded as so stable that the bishop is not going to mess with it, and doesn’t see innovating or otherwise messing with it as his role. This is good.
In Catholicism — the American version — it has long been noted that there are broadly three churches: progressives, conservatives, and (by far the biggest), the great non-ideological middle. In terms of shifting authority, it has been fascinating to observe how under Pope Francis, conservative Catholics who were staunch institutionalists under JP2 and BXVI are now more or less dissidents, whereas progressives who lauded freedom of conscience and so forth under the previous popes are now … staunch institutionalists! Of course conservatives would say that they are loyal to the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church, and that that loyalty compels them to criticize Pope Francis when he departs from those teachings. I get that, and I think that if they are correct in their judgment of the Pope’s orthodoxy, then they are right to speak out. The loyalty of a Catholic is to the magisterial truth, not to the person of the Pope.
But consider how bizarre it is that any Catholic can question the orthodoxy of the Pope! Or, to put it another way, consider how bizarre it is that a pope could give faithful Catholics reason to doubt his orthodoxy, ever. This is the risk Francis has been running by frequently pushing the boundaries in his papacy. It has been disorienting for theologically conservative Catholics, who are accustomed to no daylight between the Pope and the Magisterium. On top of that there is the sex abuse scandal, in which the US Catholic episcopate savaged its own authority.
I don’t know how things roll with progressive Catholics, who have not been taking traditional authority within their church seriously for a long time. But for conservatives, I surmise that many of them rally around particular figures and websites. Through his popular YouTube ministry, Taylor Marshall, for example, probably exercises more de facto authority in the lives of Catholics who follow him than does their bishop.
Note well, readers: I don’t want to start an argument about whether this or that influencer is on the side of the angels or the demons. The point is that cultural and technological trends are widely dispersing authority within churches and church communities. The Covid-19 experience will advance this trend. The syncretistic QAnon church is a radical outlier, but it’s probably not as far from the experience of most of us as we would like to think.