Home/Rod Dreher

Letter To A Young Man In Despair

Prasit Photo/GettyImages

Recently I received a letter from a reader, a young man in his twenties. He asked for advice. I asked him if, after I’ve thought about how to answer him, I could publish his letter and my advice. He said yes.

Here is the letter:

I’ve been a long time reader of your blog now and while I haven’t always agreed with you on everything, you’ve always fascinated me with your insight into current events and predictions for the future based on such insight. As I wrote in the title, I’m currently 25 years old. I’m an engineer new to working life and just society in general. I was raised as a strong Catholic (former weekly mass attendant and volunteer), but I’m very uncertain as to whether I really believe anymore or even if my family believes either. We try not to talk about it or we occasionally say some religious platitudes to each other to reassure everyone around that we are a family with faith, but I’ve come to suspect that it’s all empty deception, to ourselves and everyone around us. Year after year we talk less about our faith or even about God. Every conversation, even occasional comments or prayers, seem forced out of our mouths. I don’t know when it started but we just started going to church less until we no longer bothered. We kept in touch with our church friends and our relationship is still great but it’s awkward, especially since I know some of our family friends have also stopped going.

We looked at all the scandals that happened and to be honest we never talked about it. We just briefly mentioned it and some comments about how the majority of priests are good people (our local priests certainly were and are), and how our faith is not dependent on the church hierarchy, but I think it was the breaking point. While we had been sliding away from Christianity for a long time, that might have been the time from which point we did not take Christianity seriously at all. We never pray anymore, and we try to avoid religious topics completely. I think that the scales just completely fell from our eyes and we could no longer take that leap of faith anymore that’s required to believe. The apologetics and books I read were comforting for a while but they did not help in the long run because I cannot force myself to believe. I am living a lie, and I suspect many people are too, especially considering what we saw at the the Capitol Wednesday. 

I can’t recall what article it was exactly, maybe it was from David French, but it was a piece I read in National Review showing that self-identified evangelicals who don’t go to church often are far more likely to vote for Trump. I’ve also seen multiple studies, including ones you posted, that shows that Republicans are also losing their faith. I think this is part of the phenomenon we saw from the Trump supporters on Wednesday. Many who support Trump self-identify as Christian (and many do not of course), but I can’t help but wonder how many are like me, people living a lie where they pretend to believe just to defend what they see as their way of life, their culture, or just so that they can keep a sense of meaning in their lives. They adore Trump beyond all logical sense, ignore every immoral and non-Christian act he does or everything he says to the same effect, but could it perhaps be because, as you have said, they see him as a bulwark protecting them from what they believe will be the end of the culture and way of life that they lead? Maybe without them realizing it, this need to fight against perceived cultural threats has completely replaced their faith altogether in the same way wokeness or extreme social justice has replaced any faith and/or belief in free society that many on the left used to have. Perhaps the reason they ignore everything non-Christian about Trump is because they do not care about Christianity as anything other than a cultural feature or a way to find meaning. Maybe one day many of them will wake up and realize that they no longer believe either. I don’t think the QShaman does. 

To be honest, I both do and do not want to confront my parents about our possible shared lack of belief. I realize when I look deep into my thoughts that I want God to exist and I want Christianity to be true because it would validate the devoted lives that so many people have lived as Christians throughout the centuries and around the world. It would allow for higher meaning to be found in life instead of just the transient and empty meaning provided by secular creeds. I tried and I have found that I just can’t find meaning in secular philosophies but no matter what I want to believe, I can’t convince myself that Christianity is true anymore. Any testimonies or stories I subconsciously call into question, thinking that there could be all kinds of reasonable and material explanations that don’t depend on the supernatural. So I am left without higher meaning in life, and I suspect that if I really forced my parents to confront their own thoughts, they might also be left without higher meaning. I suspect my sister no longer cares and probably now finds meaning in far-left wokeness instead (looking at her Facebook from the last year was eye-opening). 

Now I am not saying that I am unable to live my life or anything like that, but I do feel a sort of existential despair clawing at me, and there is nothing to fill that void in my heart. I have never been a Trump supporter and to be honest I’m not even much of a conservative, especially not a social conservative, but I believe in free speech (both legal and cultural), freedom of association, compassion, and in being tolerant of differences in opinion with my fellow citizens. I support gay marriage and equality but I am an unbeliever when it comes to the sexuality spectrum (plethora of genders). I am just very afraid right now.

 After seeing the disgraceful storming of the Capitol I am very afraid for the future of the country and for my own future and that of my family. There are tens of millions of Americans who believe in crazy and dangerous conspiracy theories like how the election was stolen, QAnon, etc. These people will not be convinced to see reality after what happened and what is likely to happen going forward. They could very well resort to violence again. Then there’s the left who are going to take power and who will feel very emboldened (reasonably so) to take away many of the civil liberties we currently enjoy. Corporations, especially Big Tech, will gladly help them and even one up them by silencing any dissidents of anything that happens from here on out. People who I disagree with for having supported this nonsensical protest, and who have reasonably denounced the violence, are being denounced as Nazis and racists by their own friends and families when they are neither (seriously, most Trump supporters are not). I could never support someone like Trump and I have always vehemently disagreed with those who do, but with the exception of those who commit and advocate violence, I do not want my fellow Americans being treated as Nazis and having their lives destroyed for having different political opinions. People can change for the better, but our culture of canceling and witch hunts is unrelenting and unforgiving. I also vehemently disagreed with the violent riots associated with the BLM protests while recognizing that most protesters were nonviolent (as was the case on Wednesday going by the numbers).

I do not want to live in a country full of hatred. My fellow Americans hate each other and wish violence on one another, but I want no part of it. Many of my right wing co-workers are still convinced Trump won (with the accompanying conspiracy theories), and some of my left wing coworkers even wished that all the protesters and rioters had been killed. One co-worker said that those ‘animals’ should have been slaughtered and then another ‘joked’ that he would have paid to see that. Too many people agreed and laughed. Or there were others that were caught in a mindless rage and just regurgitated how much they hated the right and all of its supporters. It terrifies me that most people in my age group are like the latter and that a significant minority still supports Trump and are full of the same hatred for the left. I can’t relate to any of them. I may not count as a Christian or even as much of a conservative, but this country feels so utterly alien to me. I have always been a fan of American history and a patriot while recognizing our countries shortcomings and progress, but I just can’t see myself living here happily anymore. I don’t want to get married here (if I can even find a wife), I don’t want to raise children in this environment, and I don’t want to be a professional in corporate America. I can’t see the American Dream anymore.

Asian culture may be seen as generally reserved and the corporate environment as strict, but it’s becoming a very attractive long term option for me. Maybe I won’t find meaning, a sense of belonging with fellow citizens, a fulfilling career, or anything like that but I can’t help but be tempted by an escape to Japan or Korea. It might be running away, but is there a free country left fo fight for anymore? Is there worthwhile meaning left in this country, whether cultural, religious, or otherwise. 

And here is my response. I shared the letter last week with subscribers to my Substack newsletter, asking for their advice for me, regarding what to say to him. I am grateful to them for their help:

Thank you for your letter. As painful as it was for me to read, I know it must have been infinitely more painful to write.

You are not wrong to see so much emptiness, vanity, and rage in American society. You mention both the Left and the Right. What we are all seeing is the death throes of a culture that has forgotten God. The people who have given their minds over to ideology are people who are afraid, who are desperate for meaning, and who are fanatically trying to fill the God-shaped hole in their souls. That many of these people are professing Christians greatly confuses matters.

I’m not going to talk to you about politics. You know where I stand politically, but I think that the crisis you’re talking about is not ultimately political. Whether someone espouses left-wing or right-wing ideology as their creed, it’s all pseudo-religion. However, I can’t pretend that religion is something that exists completely free of political passions. In his journals, Father Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest of the Russian diaspora, wrote about his friendship with Solzhenitsyn after the heroic dissident’s expulsion from the Soviet Union. Nobody can doubt Solzhenitsyn’s greatness, and certainly Father Schmemann did not. But he did express private concern over how the fate of Russia dominated Solzhenitsyn’s mind, and perhaps distorted his religious vision. I bring that up here only to say that even the best of us are subject to the gravity of political passion. Solzhenitsyn was both deeply religious and deeply patriotic, but the two great commitments of his life sometimes conflicted within him.

My point is that Christian faith will not offer you an escape from politics, though it should give you a perspective from which to judge political claims. As desperate and faithless as you sound in your letter, I think you are in a much better place than the confident zealots in your life. You may not see the truth clearly yet, but you have fewer illusions to trick your inner eye.

Your letter sent me to an essay by the biographer Joseph Pearce that appears in a recently published collection titled Solzhenitsyn And American Culture (Notre Dame Press). In it, Pearce writes about an interview he did with Solzhenitsyn in Moscow, in 1998. Pearce, who had written a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, writes:

[beginning of quote]

Encouraged by Solzhenitsyn’s ready acceptance of the affinity between his own creative vision and that of Tolkien, I ventured to read him two quotes from Tolkien which appeared to encapsulate the spirit of his own work:

The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or what is called “Self-realization” (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering.

“Absolutely … absolutely,” Solzhenitsyn whispered.

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on the complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

“Is that Tolkien?” Solzhenitsyn asked, eyes widening in surprise. “Yes, again correct.”

[end of quote]

The point here is that both Christian writers believed that suffering, even death, was necessary to life. That hard times make strong souls. This is why I insist on saying that I am not optimistic today, but I am hopeful — hopeful, because I know that the Lord can bring good out of this pain, if we unite ourselves to Him, and allow ourselves to be sharpened spiritually by contact with suffering.

Your own spiritual suffering now, struggling with faith, is not in vain. Reading your letter, I thought that no ordinary middle-class Christianity, either progressive or conservative, will rescue you. No kidding, this is a blessing. It might feel like defeat now, but you at least have the good fortune not to be subject to falling into the delusion of Christified bourgeois comfort. It is not lost on me that I write this to you from the comfort of my couch, my feet warmed by a hobbity fire. These modest comforts could all be taken from me at a stroke, and then what would I be left with? If my faith in Christ depends on comfort, it is not going to endure.

Over the past year, I have found myself struggling a great deal with a sense of loss and disorder, because things in my personal life have not gone as I wanted them to. I don’t want bad things — I want good things! But for reasons beyond my control, I can’t have them. Deep inside me, I have been praying that God would give me those things, and I have not been able to feel right about anything absent these things. It is one thing to lecture others about how they should accept suffering, but it’s quite another to be you, tossing and turning in bed after midnight, your mind racing, praying to a God you aren’t sure is even listening, asking him to take this Cross from you.

Nobody escapes it. Nobody. It is better to be freed of the illusion that there can be any such thing as Christianity without tears. Only in the past few days, thanks to a letter from a reader of my Substack, did things that God has been trying to tell me, in answer to my prayers, suddenly click. I don’t know if God will remove my crosses, but I know that whether He does or doesn’t, He remains God, and He is calling me to Himself. My error was wanting Christ plus the good things that I crave, but for some reason aren’t given to me. As my confessor told me, God is not letting me have these things for the sake of my salvation. I don’t understand this, but I believe it, and am going to act on that belief. This has been a purification for me, one that has come with real tears.

Those tears, for you, are tears of unbelief. You say that you can’t believe, but if your mind was truly settled on it, you wouldn’t have written to me. I am not going to tell you that you can think your way into faith. Maybe some can, but I don’t really believe it. What I would ask you to consider is that men far greater than you and I — men like Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn — believed in God, and committed their lives to Jesus Christ. That does not prove that God is real and Christ is the messiah, but it ought to turn your mind to the possibility that these things are true. When I was not much younger than you are now, and was just as uncertain about God’s existence, I was struck by how many of the writers and thinkers I most admired in history were serous Christians. Was Kierkegaard a fool? Was Dostoevsky? Was I so certain that I, an undergraduate living in late 20th century America, knew better than they did?

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, God sends the shade of the poet Virgil to rescue the pilgrim Dante, lost in a dark wood. Come with me if you want to live, says Virgil. Dante isn’t sure that he wants to do this, or if the offer is real, but in the end, he goes, because he trusts Virgil. It turns out that Virgil could see things that Dante, in his brokenness, could not. The pilgrim Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is a journey of recovering sight. You too are lost in a dark wood. There are Virgils all around who can help you. You say you can’t believe in God now, but can’t you believe in Virgil (so to speak)? If you can begin to train your eyes to see as Tolkien saw, as Solzhenitsyn saw, as Dostoevsky, C.S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor, and so many others saw, you may wake up one day to find that the world does not look so Christ-haunted — that God is not a ghost, but an ever-present reality.

That’s how it was for me. And I would add: do your best to get out of your head. My confessor always tells me that this is my downfall. He’s not anti-intellectual, but he’s trying to get me to understand that what I seek is not likely to be found in books. What I seek is communion with God. You say that apologetics are not working for you. Fine — then put them down for now. Your intellect may not be able to perceive the Lord at the moment. There are other ways to know Him. Do you know any Christians whom you admire, who seem like good people? Draw close to them. If not, do you know where you might meet some of them? Then go there. Ask God to lead you to them.

You may never fully free yourself from doubt. That’s normal, and no reason to stay away from God. I lean heavily into talking about getting out of your head, and not basing your faith too heavily on intellectual grounds, because this was what I wish I had known when I was your age. But in sharing your letter with some readers, one man said that for him, it was the intellectual richness of the faith that drew him in. He was raised in a form of Christianity that wholly emphasized feeling the Holy Spirit. He felt nothing, and thought something was wrong with him.

He says that when he met Catholics at age 18, they explained the faith to him, and he was bowled over to discover that Christianity wasn’t only about touchy-feely subjective stuff. As he matured in the Christian faith, he explored the intellectual side by reading philosophers who argued for the existence of God. They made deism rationally plausible. That, plus prayer and worship, drew him more firmly into the faith. He said (this is for you):

So the point is that intellectualism and rational argumentation were what helped me to believe.  I don’t know if that would help the despairer at all, but he does say that he wants God to exist, and he wants Christianity to be true.  One justification for believing something is that we have good reasons to believe it.  Now as you’ve pointed out, quite well, I think, rational argument isn’t enough to sustain a life of faith; we need grace, action, prayer, community, liturgy, and a host of other things.  But it can be a start for some people.  

Another reader, this one also young, makes an interesting distinction between “truth” and “meaning.” She writes, addressing you:

Maybe instead of obsessing over the truth and falsity of Christianity, you should look for its meaning instead.  As C.S. Lewis said in “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” meaning is the antecedent condition of truth and falsehood.  Perhaps instead of your endless search for truth, you should also search for meaning–which can only be found in the practice of faith.  You’re not going to find it on the outside looking in.  If you find meaning, you’ll also find the truth. 

That has been my experience as well.  I gain nothing from simply knowing about God: I must know Jesus personally.  Scripture indicates that even the demons know of Jesus’s status as the Son of God, but clearly that simple knowledge is not enough to save them.  You must also know Him, and He is not to be reduced to a math equation to be solved.  He’s fully God and fully Man, and He wants a relationship with you, not just your mere intellectual assent. 

That’s very good. Meaning is found in the way we appropriate the truth inwardly, and communally. At the risk of being repetitive, reader, let me once again say that it would probably help you to think of your search for God not as the search for a golden, pristine, crisp set of propositional truths to which you can assent, as if closing a business deal, but rather to think about it as falling in love. When I think about how I fell in love with my wife, I remember the weekend me met, the trip to the monastery, the anxiety in my stomach as we shopped at Waterloo Records (“Do I tell her I’m really into her?”), our first kiss by the side of my car. I remember a trip we took during our engagement, and the time she came to visit me in south Florida, and we went for drinks on South Beach. I recall my proposal of marriage, and eating chips and salsa and drinking Veuve Clicquot in her little apartment in Austin, and calling all our friends to tell them the news.

All of these things were part of what helped us both to discover the truth of our love for each other, and its meaning. Similarly, I can point to stages along my way of pilgrimage to Christian faith — people, events, and moments that revealed God to me, and called me forward on the path to falling in love with Him. This is how it will be for you too. Waiting for the moment of perfect clarity is a deception.

She adds:

I understand your gloom over the state of the world, but your letter reminded me of the Dwarfs in Lewis’s The Last Battle.  They are so afraid of being taken in by unreal happiness that they cannot allow themselves to be taken out of their real unhappiness, as Michael Ward puts in his book, Planet Narnia.  They cannot see that they’ve reached Aslan’s land and stay locked in their gloom–they’re in Paradise but blind themselves to its reality. 
Ward points out that Lewis makes a similar point in “Meditation in a Toolshed” that we are also guilty of the same thing: we’re so weary of being deceived by “looking along the beam” that we think we should trust only what we look at.  But Lewis points out that the only answer is to “yet open once again your heart.”  
Despairer, I think the Kingdom is within your sight and your reach, but you have to open yourself to it in ways that you haven’t been doing up till now.  Immerse yourself in the faith.  Find other believers, even ones not your age, who are living a good life in Christ.  Pray and go to church.  Read the Bible and study it.  And most of all, don’t be discouraged by a denomination that you think doesn’t have all the answers.  I’m an evangelical, and one of the things that annoys me about my denomination is the pervasive anti-intellectualism.  It’s a flaw, yes, but the fact of the matter is, the only person who practiced Christianity perfectly is Jesus: don’t judge the faith by the foibles of its followers.
Above all, don’t let the gloom of this age blind you to the reality of the goodness of God and His kingdom.  As Lewis points out in The Great Divorce, the ultimate deception of Hell is to disguise Heaven’s joy.  It’s a lie that many have fallen for.  I pray you will see beyond it.

This is really helpful. I could not have put it so well. Her words are a reminder that you, my despairing reader, should rely on the help of others to see and experience God. Pope Benedict XVI said that the best arguments for the faith are Christian art and Christian saints. What he meant was that the works of Christian imagination, and the incarnate goodness of those who live by the faith, open up the hearts and minds of doubters in ways that rational argumentation may not. They don’t deny reason, but they may open the door to it.

I have written many times how an unexpected encounter with shocking beauty — the medieval cathedral of Chartres — awakened within me an awareness of God’s reality, and a hunger to know Him. I was 17 years old at the time, and thought I knew all there was to know, basically, about what it meant to be a Christian — and I knew it wasn’t for me. But there, in that cathedral, which I had entered as a teenage tourist, I was shocked into an awareness of how very little I, a young man born and raised in late 20th century America — knew about the faith at all. Now, hundreds of thousands of people pass through that same cathedral every year. Probably nothing happens to them, spiritually. But it happened to me. There is something else out there in the world that can speak to you — and will, if you open your mind and your heart.

You say that you and your family stopped praying, and that that was a milestone on the road to unbelief. You’re right about that. Marshall McLuhan said that all those he knew who had lost their faith began by ceasing to pray. Get a prayer rope for yourself — here’s a link to an Orthodox monastery where they make them, but you can find them all over — and teach yourself to say the Jesus Prayer. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It doesn’t matter if you’re Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. Give yourself over to that prayer discipline. Breathe deeply, rhythmically while doing it. It takes time to get this right. It’s not magic, but what it does is clear inner space for the Holy Spirit to work. It does clear your mind so that you can hear the voice of God. The protagonist of the Tarkovsky movie “Nostalghia” is a writer who is so caught up in his head, brooding over the things he has lost, that he can’t see or hear God. At one point, the writer is walking across the nave of a ruined abbey, and we hear the voice of a woman — the Virgin, one imagines — asking God to speak to the poor lost writer, or to somehow show Himself to the man. God answers that He does this, but the man can neither hear nor see.

That is me most of the time. Is that you? Seekers want God to make things clear to us, but in truth we want Him to say what we already believe. Do your very best to open yourself to signs of His love and presence. I don’t say be gullible, but I do say resist the hypercritical spirit, which is just as destructive to perceiving the truth as the mindset that believes everything.

Do your best to go to church, even if you don’t believe. That’s where the Christians are. Pray for the gift of faith. Don’t idealize other Christians; a few of us might be saints (those who are will be the last to think that of themselves), but all of us are your companions in shipwreck.

The fact that you “do not want to live in a country full of hatred” is a powerful sign that you are on the right path. So many people today find vindication in hatred, and regard it as proof of their virtue. We live in an information ecosystem that rewards hatred, and builds entire structures of lies and inhumanity on top of that hatred. St. Augustine says that we are what we desire, and you, friend, are a better man than most of us because you desire to love, and to live in peace. Follow that, and begin to train your heart to desire the good, the true, and the beautiful. Read what is good and time-tested, not what is fashionable. Listen to beautiful, life-giving music (including sacred music: Ancient Faith Radio plays Orthodox chant all day long online). Immerse yourself in visual beauty. And, above all, pray, even if you aren’t sure God is listening, or that there is any God there to listen.

Cultivate patience, and the ability to watch and wait. St. Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th century Russian Orthodox mystic and hermit, counseled the faithful to “acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.” He meant that people are drawn to those from whom light and peace radiates. The saint also said:

You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.

This is not who I am, I am ashamed to confess. But this is who I want to be. This is who you, and I, and everybody can be, if we open our hearts and commit our lives to walking with Christ.

I have to tell you, though, that when I was your age, I wanted to believe, but I wanted to understand it all first. It doesn’t work that way. When you meet the person you want to marry, it is unreasonable to expect that you can know everything there is to know about marriage, and about what it would be like to spend your life with that person. You start with the experience of love, and if, after discernment, you believe that this person is trustworthy, and your feelings for her are not an illusion, then you commit yourself to her in trust. It is like that with God too. Faith is not the sum total of doctrines, or the conclusion of a lengthy syllogism. It is more like a poem, but even that doesn’t fully capture it. It is a living relationship, a lifelong pilgrimage. To believe is to suffer — but not to believe is also to suffer. The difference is that the suffering believer endures all things with hope.

I wish I could tell you more. You are much closer to the Kingdom than you think. About Asia, please do not think that there is a geographical cure for what’s upon us all. Wherever there is WiFi, there is modernity. I do believe that some places are better than others, in terms of living among sane, good people, but ultimately, we are all going to have to strengthen ourselves internally, and within small communities. If you can, watch the Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life, about the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic farmer who died a martyr in a Nazi prison. He and his family lived in a tiny Alpine village, yet Nazism even found them all there. The mystery here — and it is a profound one — is that Franz, though he was persecuted in the village for his resistance, and ultimately executed for it, was blessed in death, while all those who conformed, and who survived, were cursed by their servile lives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another Christian martyr of the Nazis, famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Not very cheerful, that, but I can tell you with confidence, from the other side of the line between believers and unbelievers, that this is what it means to live.

Finally, let me leave you with this summary of your letter, shared with me by a reader of my newsletter, with whom I shared it (don’t worry, I kept your name out of it):

I can’t convince myself that Christianity is true anymore. I also cannot convince myself that any philosophy or religion is true.
I want people to be kind to each other. (Which also means, I don’t want others to suffer.)  I want to live in a good world. (Which also means, I don’t want to suffer, myself, either.)
I can’t orient myself in the world because it’s cultural meaning systems are disintegrating and I have no belief system of my own to hang onto. (Which means, I don’t have a way to make sense of suffering.)
I am afraid.
Is this fair, Despairing Reader? If so, is anything I have written here helpful to you? I am eager to hear from you. I have been where you are once. There is hope. There really is.
I am sending the link to this blog post to the Despairing Reader. He may not wish to respond, or may wish to respond in the comments, or send something to me in an e-mail. If he chooses the latter, I will post his response only with his permission. Thanks again to my Substack newsletter readers. If you haven’t seen my Substack, here’s a free post I put up today to show folks who don’t subscribe what they’ve been missing these past two weeks. Daily Dreher is a newsletter that focuses on culture and spirituality, with a bias towards finding hope and meaning.

leave a comment

White Riot

(Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Times columnist Tom Edsall called a bunch of academics to ask them for their take on why last Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol happened. His column about it is here. Excerpts:

There is evidence that many non-college white Americans who have been undergoing what psychiatrists call “involuntary subordination” or “involuntary defeat” both resent and mourn their loss of centrality and what they perceive as their growing invisibility.

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, wrote by email:

They fear a loss of attention. A loss of validation. These are people who have always had racial privilege but have never had much else. Many feel passed over, ignored. Trump listened to them and spoke their language when few other politicians did. He felt their pain and was diabolical enough to encourage their tendency to racialize that pain. They fear becoming faceless again if a Democrat, or even a conventional Republican, were to take office.

Cherlin pointed to the assertion of a 67-year-old retired landscaper from North Carolina who joined the Trump loyalists on Jan. 6 on the steps of the Capitol: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!”

There is a learning opportunity here. Remember all you on the Left who said that the riots last summer meant that the rest of us needed to listen to black America talk about its sense of pain and grievance over racism? Well, apply that logic to this. (And remember all of us here on the Right who were told that by the Left last summer? If what this white working class man is quoted saying resonates with you, then should we not revisit what the Left was saying about black grievance?)

The point is not that grievances — held by black people, white people, or any group — are objectively true. They might be, or might not be, or somewhere in the middle. The point is that if members of the group experience them as real and true, then they will act on that belief — and there could be violence.

More Edsall:

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, agrees in large part with Anderson, describing the fury and disappointment contributing to the takeover of Congress as concentrated among whites who see their position in the social order on a downward path. In an email, Keltner wrote:

The population of U.S. Citizens who’ve lost the most power in the past 40 years, who aren’t competing well to get into college or get high paying jobs, whose marital prospects have dimmed, and who are outraged, are those I believe were most likely to be in on the attack.

When pressed to give up power, he added, “these types of individuals will resort to violence, and to refashioning history to suggest they did not lose.”

This is a useful analysis, but here, from the same column, is an example of it taken too far by the Left:

Jane Yunhee Junn, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, was outspoken in her view:

People of color in political office, women controlling their fertility, L.G.B.T.Q. people getting married, using their bathrooms, and having children go against the state of nature defined by white heteropatriarchy. This is a domain in which men and white men in particular stand at the apex of power, holding their “rightful position” over women, nonwhites, perhaps non-Christians (in the U.S.), and of course, in their view, sexual deviants such as gay people.

This is what the riot looked like purely through the eyes of hardcore identity politics. Framed that way, the rioting whites have no moral standing, and are nothing other than menaces to the moral community. One of the less hotheaded academics pointed out that the almost entirely white DC mob attacked Congress, a predominantly white institution. (In fact, some were going through the Capitol chanting not “Hang AOC!” but “Hang Mike Pence!”, a white-haired white guy who is the creme filling of the whiteness Twinkie.

Here’s the thing: it really is true that whites, especially white men of the working class, really are losing power and status (you might say, with Chris Arnade, “dignity”), relative to their fathers and grandfathers, and relative to non-white groups. There is a temptation among people on the Left to say “suck it up, whiner, you had your day in the sun” — which ignores the fact that such a statement is unjust. (I grew up in the rural South, where white intergenerational poverty is a real thing.) To be fair, when non-whites complain about low power and status, many of us whites on the Right are often quick to dismiss their concerns as unfounded. Anyway, this is a social fact, one that has to be dealt with if we want to live in a peaceful society.

These white men — and all whites, especially the working classes — are bombarded constantly with the message that they are bearers of privilege by virtue of their “whiteness”. As I wrote here recently, in the San Diego public schools, all the teachers are being put through a propaganda course that compels white teachers to confess their whiteness, and to commit to teaching about the wickedness of white people (e.g., how white people “spirit murder” black and brown people). This kind of thing is normalized in liberal discourse now. What do you expect white people to think?

Don’t get me wrong: the Capitol Hill riot was absolutely wrong; those who broke into the Capitol should be punished to the full extent of the law, Trump should be impeached for his role in this, etc. Many of those people gave their minds over to insane conspiracy theories — something that is their own fault. But in our effort to deplore the Deplorables, we don’t dare forget that Trump, bad as he is, came from somewhere — that he came to power because he was responding to something real. As I wrote in that piece last week:

I was texting with a Democratic friend earlier this week. We were talking about the massive demographic changes America is now undergoing, and how conservative whites really are losing power relative to other demographic groups. The UK political scientist Eric Kaufmann talks about this in his book WhiteshiftHe did an interview last year with Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker about his thesis. Excerpts:

You write, “If politics in the West is ever to return to normal rather than becoming even more polarized, white interests will need to be discussed. I realize this is very controversial for left-modernists. Yet not only is white group self-interest legitimate, but I maintain that in an era of unprecedented white demographic decline it is absolutely vital for it to have a democratic outlet.” Can you say a little bit more about what specifically you’re arguing for?

Yes. Part of this comes from a view that what’s ultimately behind the rise of right-wing populism are these ethnic-majority grievances, particularly around their decline, and that ultimately this is about nostalgia and attachment to a way of life or to a particular traditional ethnic composition of a nation. Wanting for that not to erode too quickly is the motivation. I think the survey data show that it’s much more about that than about material things, for example, or even fears. It’s about attachment to one’s own group rather than hatred of other groups. This is an important distinction. The survey data from the American National Elections Study show that whites who feel very warmly toward whites are not any more cold toward, say, African-Americans, than whites who aren’t very warm toward whites.

When you say that “white interests” will need to be discussed in politics, I presume you acknowledge that the interests of white people are generally taken into account as much as any group, if not more than other groups. Do you mean explicitly discussed?

There should be an equal treatment of groups in the cultural sphere. There’s no question whites are advantaged economically, politically. I’m not going to dispute that. But in the cultural sphere, on immigration, the group whose numbers have declined, or who experienced a more rapid sense of change and loss due to migration, are the white majority. If, for example, they’re saying, “We would like to have a slower rate of change to enable assimilation to take place,” I think that’s actually a legitimate cultural interest. It doesn’t mean that it should drive policy. I think a moderate group self-interest is fine.

This is seen as toxic, as expressed by a majority group, but when minorities express these interests, that’s seen as quite normal. I think that when it comes to white liberals, there tends to be a double standard, as there is with white conservatives, by the way, when it comes to groups expressing their self-interest.

Are you saying that it is in the “self-interest” of white people to have lower immigration rates, or are you saying that if white people perceive that it’s in their interest, they should be able to express that without being shamed for being racist? Or both?

I’m saying that for the conservative members of the white majority who are attached to their group and its historic presence, I think that sense of loss and wanting to slow down that sense of loss is an understandable motivation. The problem is when you bar that from the discussion. It then gets sublimated and expressed in what I think actually are more negative ways, when it comes to racism. I think it’s not very different from African-Americans in Harlem not wanting Harlem to lose its African-American character. It’s a similar cultural loss-protection argument, which is actually not that different from wanting to preserve historic buildings or ways of life. The problem is that then they go toward fear of criminals and terrorism, and immigrants putting pressure on services, and all the things which there’s very little evidence for, and I think are more negative because they actually stigmatize an out-group, which is closer to the definition of racism than simply being attached to one’s own group. Not that that doesn’t carry some risks as well, but I think that it’s more problematic to suppress it for the majority and not for minorities. I think that’s creating a quite negative situation.

In his column today, Edsall speaks generally to this fact in this excerpt:

Bernard Grofman, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, put it this way in an email:

We would not have Trump as president if the Democrats had remained the party of the working class. The decline of labor unions proceeded at the same rate when Democrats were president as when Republicans were president; the same is, I believe, true of loss of manufacturing jobs as plants moved overseas.

President Obama, Grofman wrote,

responded to the housing crisis with bailouts of the lenders and interlinked financial institutions, not of the folks losing their homes. And the stagnation of wages and income for the middle and bottom of the income distribution continued under Obama. And the various Covid aid packages, while they include payments to the unemployed, are also helping big businesses more than the small businesses that have been and will be permanently going out of business due to the lockdowns (and they include various forms of pork.

The result, according to Grofman, was that “white less well-educated voters didn’t desert the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party deserted them.”

At the same time, though, and here I will quote Grofman at length:

More religious and less well-educated whites see Donald Trump as one of their own despite his being so obviously a child of privilege. He defends America as a Christian nation. He defends English as our national language. He is unashamed in stating that the loyalty of any government should be to its own citizens — both in terms of how we should deal with noncitizens here and how our foreign policy should be based on the doctrine of “America First.”

He speaks in a language that ordinary people can understand. He makes fun of the elites who look down on his supporters as a “basket of deplorables” and who think it is a good idea to defund the police who protect them and to prioritize snail darters over jobs. He appoints judges and justices who are true conservatives. He believes more in gun rights than in gay rights. He rejects political correctness and the language-police and woke ideology as un-American. And he promises to reclaim the jobs that previous presidents (of both parties) allowed to be shipped abroad. In sum, he offers a relatively coherent set of beliefs and policies that are attractive to many voters and which he has been better at seeing implemented than any previous Republican president. What Trump supporters who rioted in D.C. share are the beliefs that Trump is their hero, regardless of his flaws, and that defeating Democrats is a holy war to be waged by any means necessary.

It seems to me that if we really wanted to defuse this bomb, we would cease and desist with the identity politics, across the board, return to speaking the language of old-fashioned classical liberalism, and figure out a politics of doing more to ameliorate class differences. Having major corporations now double down on declaring white grievances absolutely null, and punishing those who have any sympathy with them, is only going to fuel the bonfire of rage.

The fact is that working-class white people know that among liberals — including liberal whites — it is permissible to say anything you want about them with impunity. They know that there are double standards in this country. They know how the predominantly black riots of last summer were framed. They know that the professions of shock over how the Trump mob treated lawmakers were not heard last summer when a hostile BLM mob surrounded Republican Sen. Rand Paul on the streets of DC. They know where they stand in this culture, vis-à-vis elite discourse and practices. That is not going away. The Capitol Hill insurrection, and Trump’s big fat mouth, only makes it vastly harder for these people with genuine grievances to get a hearing.

It is not a popular thing to say right now, a week after the shocking violence, but here it is: there are plenty of white people who are hurting and confused, and who don’t support that riot. What about them? Are they bad too? There are plenty of white people who have been seduced by the lies of QAnon and the MAGA extremists — people who aren’t bad, but who have been misled. What do we do with them? This is a moment in which they might be pulled back from radicalism — or driven more deeply into it.

The choice is theirs, above all. But it’s also ours. Both parties have to do more to reduce income inequality and increase opportunity. The Democrats have to surrender the language and policies of identity politics, in favor of old-school liberalism. Yet politics alone can’t solve the problems of decay and dissolution. This is a problem of church and culture. That’s another story… .

UPDATE: Here’s one example of double standards. Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, TAC’s Helen Andrews recalls how a left-wing riot meant to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention has been lionized by the Left. Excerpt:

The Chicago Seven were countercultural heroes in the 1960s. They thumbed their noses through one of the country’s most notorious political trials, taunting the judge and making a mockery of the proceedings with flippant courtroom pranks. Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed a movie about them last year, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which will probably win a few Oscars.

One thing people forget about the Chicago Seven is that most of them were guilty. Jerry Rubin admitted as much later: “We wanted disruption. We planned it. . . . We were guilty as hell. Guilty as charged.”

The crime they were accused of was crossing state lines to incite a riot. The defendants believed that Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 nomination for presidency was illegitimate. Nominations in those days were decided not by primaries but by backroom deals among party power brokers. The antiwar movement believed that a more democratic process would have produced a candidate opposed to the Vietnam War.

The question was whether the violent clashes between protesters and police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago were an unfortunate consequence of peaceful marching that got out of hand, or whether the organizers intended for things to get violent.

In February 1970, a jury convicted the five ringleaders—Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger and Rennie Davis. Peaceful protest is one thing, but attempting to disrupt a legitimate election procedure by violent intimidation is never acceptable. After last week’s incursion at the Capitol, can the rest of us finally agree?

If we can’t, then we are going to continue to have violence … unless the Establishment can suppress it with force and a social credit system.

leave a comment

Impeachment As Exorcism

Photographed on the streets in Baton Rouge in 2016. I thought it was funny at the time. I was wrong

The president is not one bit sorry:

President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended as “totally appropriate” the speech he made at a rally last week that was followed by his supporters launching a deadly siege of the Capitol.

In his first live remarks since the violence last Wednesday, Trump deflected blame and sought to highlight other politicians’ comments last summer about protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

“If you read my speech — and many people have done it, and I’ve seen it both in the papers and in the media, on television — it’s been analyzed, and people thought that what I said was totally appropriate,” Trump told reporters at Joint Base Andrews, en route to Alamo, Texas.

“And if you look at what other people have said — politicians at a high level — about the riots during the summer, the horrible riots in Portland and Seattle and various other places, that was a real problem, what they said,” Trump continued.

“But they’ve analyzed my speech and my words and my final paragraph, my final sentence, and everybody — to the tee — thought it was totally appropriate.”

This man deserves the most forceful repudiation possible. More than that, this country needs to know that its leadership, in both parties, regards this kind of behavior as utterly disqualifying for public office, or respect. A bright red line must be drawn and defended. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 in the House GOP leadership, has come out for impeachment. The Times reports that Sen. Mitch McConnell is saying that he would favor it, to make it easier for the GOP to purge itself of Trumpism:

Yet as they tried to balance the affection their core voters have for Mr. Trump with the now undeniable political and constitutional threat he posed, Republican congressional leaders who have loyally backed the president for four years were still stepping delicately. Their refusal to demand the president’s resignation and quiet plotting about how to address his conduct highlighted the gnawing uncertainty that they and many other Republicans have about whether they would pay more of a political price for abandoning him or for continuing to enable him after he incited a mob to storm the seat of government.

I find that dishonorable — worrying about whether or not you’ll pay a greater political price for abandoning Trump. Of course many of them will. But it’s the right thing to do. How about showing some leadership, for once? If the price of winning your next primary is remaining silent on the question of Trump and his post-election behavior, which culminated in the storming of the Capitol by a “Hang Mike Pence!” mob, then you have lost your priorities. If you cannot explain to voters why they are wrong to give a pass to a president who behaved as Trump has done, and what it means to have a president who fouls American democracy by rousing the rabble to break down the doors of the Capitol and shout for lynching the vice president, then why are you in public service? If that’s what it takes to keep your job, why would you even want a job like that? Honestly, I do not get it.

Ross Douthat discusses how Trump may well have destroyed the Republican Party. Excerpts:

Here’s how it could happen. First, the party’s non-Trumpist faction — embodied by senators like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, various purple- and blue-state governors and most of the remaining Acela corridor conservatives, from lawyers and judges to lobbyists and staffers — pushes for a full repudiation of Trump and all his works, extending beyond impeachment to encompass support for social-media bans, F.B.I. surveillance of the MAGA universe and more.

At the same time, precisely those measures further radicalize portions of the party’s base, offering apparent proof that Trump was right — that the system isn’t merely consolidating against but actively persecuting them. With this sense of persecution in the background and the Trump family posturing as party leaders, the voter-fraud mythology becomes a litmus test in many congressional elections, and baroque conspiracy theories pervade primary campaigns.

In this scenario, what remains of the center-right suburban vote and the G.O.P. establishment becomes at least as NeverTrump as Romney, if not the Lincoln Project; meanwhile, the core of Trump’s support becomes as paranoid as Q devotees. Maybe this leads to more empty acts of violence, further radicalizing the center right against the right, or maybe it just leads to Republican primaries producing a lot more candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, to the point where a big chunk of the House G.O.P. occupies not just a different tactical reality from the party’s elite but a completely different universe.

Either way, under these conditions that party could really collapse or really break. The collapse would happen if Trumpists with a dolchstoss [stabbed-in-the-back] narrative and a strong Q vibe start winning nominations for Senate seats and governorships in states that right now only lean Republican. A party made insane and radioactive by conspiracy theories could keep on winning deep-red districts, but if its corporate support bailed, its remaining technocrats jumped ship and suburban professionals regarded it as the party of insurrection, it could easily become a consistent loser in 30 states or more.

Alternatively, a party dominated by the Trump family at the grassroots level, with Greene-like figures as its foot soldiers, could become genuinely untenable as a home for centrist and non-Trumpist politicians. So after the renomination of Trump himself or the nomination of Don Jr. in 2024, a cluster of figures (senators like Romney and Susan Collins, blue-state governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan) might simply jump ship to form an independent mini-party, leaving the G.O.P. as a 35 percent proposition, a heartland rump.

Read it all. 

I don’t see how the GOP avoids this fate. As Douthat points out early in his column, the Republicans have had to hold together during the Trump years by depending on having enough people who are able to tolerate Trump’s excesses for the good things his presidency has meant for them, even if it’s only keeping liberalism at bay. That’s blown sky-high now.

He’s talking about people like me. As bad as Trump was on many things, and even though I didn’t vote for him, I found him tolerable, mostly because the alternative from an increasingly woke Democratic Party and liberal establishment was even worse. Besides, though Trump was a particularly flawed messenger, the populism that he brought to the Republican mainstream was on balance good for a party that could not seem to break free of zombie Reaganism.

So, when, on Election Night, Sen. Josh Hawley — for me, a real hope for the conservative future — tweeted out that the GOP is now a working-class party, I saw that as good news. Trump might lose, but the track he put the Republican Party on was a good one, I thought.

But then he started up with the Stop The Steal garbage, and disparaging election officials. He trash-talked Georgia election officials, and ended up costing the GOP the Senate, and giving the Democrats unified control of Washington. Then came January 6.

There is no way I will have anything to do with a QAnon party. None. What the MAGA mob did last week was vile and extremely unpatriotic, and if a party of the Right cannot condemn it meaningfully, then that party has not the slightest appeal to me. I don’t understand how anybody can claim to love this country and support what that mob did, or even dismiss it as not so bad.

Even though I really do believe Sen. Romney has acted with honor and courage in this crisis, I don’t have any interest in a Romneyite breakaway party that would attempt to restore the pre-Trump status quo. The problem with Trumpism was Trump, not populism.

No doubt people like me are the smallest sliver in the conservative voter coalition, and we don’t matter much anyway. Most Republican voters would be able to make a choice between the two right-of-center parties, I suspect. But such a split would mean a long-term era of Democratic dominance has arrived.

Whether or not he is impeached and convicted, it seems unavoidable that Donald Trump will leave Washington having destroyed the Republican Party. If he had behaved just a bit more normally last year, he might have won re-election. Had he accepted his defeat like a normal person, he would have remained a kingmaker in the GOP, and could have been satisfied that he changed the Republican Party in his own image.

But that’s not the choice he made. After the once-unthinkable damage that man has done to the Republican Party, to political conservatism, and to American democracy, he deserves total repudiation. Politicians that cannot muster the wherewithal to issue a rebuke to this president, or any president who behaves as Trump has done, is not one that is going to command respect, loyalty, or votes outside of the hardcore Trumpists.

I had an extremely frustrating conversation this evening with a friend who believes all of this was invented by the Left to discredit the president. The narrative is unfalsifiable. It’s not a question of a political disagreement; it’s about living outside of reality. All day long I’ve been getting e-mails from people who are really suffering because beloved friends and family members — even elderly parents — are completely lost in this toxic unreality of paranoia and conspiracy. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, aside from woke militants. Something demonic is in the air. We might not need an impeachment and conviction so much as we need an exorcism.

If you think I’m overreacting with the demonic stuff, take a look at this interview with Arieh Kovler, an Israeli analyst who follows the pro-Trump Internet, and warned on December 21 that a MAGA mob on January 6 was going to try to storm the Capitol. Excerpt:

What did they think they were being called on to do?

They thought, “This is the thing we have been asked to do. Trump is telling us to do this, so we have to do it.” But more than that, it must be important enough, the key to his winning. Because why would he ask us to come to Washington if it wasn’t part of the plan? It wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a trend among the Trump fans—it’s almost religious—to see him as basically infallible and any mistakes are caused by bad people around him. He wouldn’t be calling us to Washington unless there was a purpose that would ultimately end in him winning the election.

So they saw that, and are convinced they’re coming in order to win the election. Or perhaps they’re going to be an army. You can see the discussions around this: “Why has he asked us to come? Surely there’s a reason.” They would say, “Should we bring guns? Is he asking us to bring guns? But maybe he doesn’t want us to be armed because if we’re armed we’ll get in trouble, and we need to be there.”

The other part of it this is that since the late summer, when Trump was falling in polls and Biden was polling thoroughly ahead, the one thing I picked up from all parts of Trump World—from the QAnon-ish to the MAGA-ish to fairly moderate conservatives—is: Trump’s gonna win. You didn’t see that from people supporting Biden. You saw, you really hope he wins. The Trump people thought: Trump’s going to win and not only is he going to win, you smug liberals, you’re going to have the smile wiped off your face. This ideology really took hold and a lot of people really believed it. Trump was continually telling them everything was in the bag and he was massively ahead and we’re going to win California and it’s going to be a landslide.

Come Election Day, he doesn’t win. So all these people go, “Wait, it can’t be. How could Trump possibly lose an election that everyone I know knew he was going to win?” I could just see a certain reality catching up with [them], and it would have to be on that day [of the certification]. And once they saw Trump saying to his supporters, come to DC on that day, I could see it going the wrong way.

You could see the discussion become less abstract. By last week, these people were sharing maps of D.C. They were talking about having enough of them that they would be able to erect basically their own cadre around the entire area of Congress. They had a map of the tunnels [in the basement of the Capitol], and they were talking about how they’re going to be able to stop Congress from leaving. They imagined that this was the day there were going to be mass executions of Congressmen.

But a lot of them also just imagined they were going to be there for this historic time when Trump pulled away the curtain and revealed that all of Congress were traitors and then took his just and equal revenge. There were a variety of characters: people who were there to watch Trump gain control and people who thought Trump would win, but only by activating the military, [with] a proper military coup that they supported. They thought they were there to go and purge Congress. They were there to stop the certification. They were there to punish those who went against Trump. When you put them all together, you get this explosive mixture.

The only thing that surprised me was that it was not the army I expected it to be.

By that Kovler means that he thought they would be armed. Read it all. 

The conservative Catholic writer John Jalsevac explains why he’s so angry right now. Excerpts:

Nothing, absolutely nothing, has disturbed me more over the past four years, than the weird misuse of Christian religious language, spirituality and mysticism in service of the Trumpist political agenda. I’ve written about this elsewhere, and so I won’t repeat myself here.

However, I will add that I hope the day will come when I will see other alleged Trumpist “prophets,” or the people who spread their prophesies, apologizing for misleading the faithful, as Christian leader Jeremiah Johnson recently did (And has since received death threats for so doing.)

The effect of these alleged prophesies has been to endow political loyalties with a degree of religious fervor and conviction that rightly belong only to God. Clad in the certitude of total faith, Trumpist true believers have breezily rejected every inconvenient fact or event or piece of evidence as a diabolical deception. After all, what do your “facts” matter, when God Himself has told us the truth? Eric Metaxas even stated that he didn’t need evidence that the election had been stolen; he knew that Trump had been re-electedbecause God was on Trump’s side.

In reality, this was the diabolical deception: the complete confusion of spiritual and political loyalties; the rejection of reason and fact in favor of credulous belief in unproven and untested “prophesies” that amounted to little more than wish fulfillment fantasies rubberstamped with divine endorsement.

In the world of Trumpism, religious principles were rewritten to accommodate Trump, rather than Trump being measured according to religious principles. The mere fact that Trump openly used religious language and imagery and made overt gestures to a religious demographic was taken as a de facto triumph, indisputable evidence that the President was bringing the United States back to God, that his faith was sincere, that he was God’s instrument doing God’s work.

And if you doubted this, it was because you lacked faith.

The result was a weird, perverse form of Christian nationalism. As Russell Moore wrote this week:

The sight of “Jesus Saves” and “God Bless America” signs by those violently storming the Capitol is about more than just inconsistency. It is about a picture of Jesus Christ and of his gospel that is satanic. The mixing of the Christian religion with crazed and counter-biblical cults such as Q-Anon is telling the outside world that this is what the gospel is. That’s a lie, and it is blasphemous against a holy God.

Trump has not brought the country back to God. He and his grifter friends have infiltrated and perverted the Church, exploiting Christians’ spiritual loyalties to serve his personal ambitions, recreating the church in MAGA’s image, and luring us away from our core religious, ethical and political principles.

So yeah, I’m angry.


I have said since the first day of Trump’s presidency, that the primary result of his presidency would be to foment a backlash from the left that would not only erase whatever conservative gains he pursued in the meantime, but would ensure that conservatives were ultimately far worse off than if he had never been president.

It is hard to deny that this is where we find ourselves now: Most of Trump’s accomplishments were accomplished through personnel changes or executive orders. All of this will be wiped out on the first day of the Biden administration. Meanwhile, MAGA has descended into a rat’s nest of violence, conspiracy theorizing, and cultish thinking, culminating in a horrific attack on the seat of democracy that has given the tech giants the excuse and public support they need to conduct a purge, silencing and marginalizing conservative voices. Meanwhile, the whole GOP is weakened by this internal civil war, the conservative movement divided and rendered ineffectual by ferocious disagreements over the personality who has dominated our every waking hour for the past five years.

The right’s response right now is to blame everything on the left. No doubt, the left bears a great deal of the blame. I can recite the litany of leftist crimes of the past four years as well as anybody else. But I have lost all patience with whataboutism. I have lost all patience with the mental habit of eschewing responsibility by responding to all criticism or internal self-doubt by reciting the litany of grievances against the left.

All we had to do, was stay true our principles: Truth matters. Character matters. Charity, decency, honesty, the rule of law, love for our enemies, humility, goodness – all of these matter.

Some conservatives have been asking me why I’m directing so much of my anger at “our side,” when the “other side” has done so many horrible things. The short answer? Because I’m not responsible for the other side. I can’t change them. I have no influence over them. I am not surprised when my enemies do things I disagree with. It doesn’t make me angry, because I never expected anything different.

But when my own side abandons its own principles willy-nilly, and then girds itself in the impregnable armour of puerile whataboutism (“Ok, so we did riot a little. But what about all those BLM riots over the summer, huh? Why didn’t the media get as angry about those!”), then I get angry.

Read it all. I’m sick of it too. Today I spoke to someone who — how shall I put this? — is in a professional position to know what the capabilities of surveillance are, and what it likely to happen next. This person reached out to me to say they had read Live Not By Lies, and that all of it is spot on — except that it’s actually worse than I say in the book. This person said that because of what happened in Washington on January 6, all the soft-totalitarian things that I write about in the book are going to come at Christians and conservatives much faster.

I’m open to hearing arguments in the comments section for why Congress should not impeach and convict Trump. But I’m weary of hearing I told you so from the Left, and whatabout and traitor! from the Right. If you have something substantive and meaningful to say about this, comment away. If you just want to shout, taunt, or troll, save it, because I’ll spike your comment.

leave a comment

Defending Ignatius Reilly

Above you can see Self, in the attractive Ignatian millinery, with S. Frederick Starr and, on the right, the infamous New Orleans boulevardier Ken Bickford. Fred is an academic, jazz clarinetist, author, and the owner of Lombard Plantation, an 1825 house and small property that he and his wife bought and restored in the New Orleans Bywater neighborhood. Fred is also a devotee of A Confederacy Of Dunces, and was delighted that when I visited him on Sunday night, I recognized the bottle of Ignatius’s favorite tipple. Fred told Ken and me that many years ago, Thelma Toole, the mother of Confederacy author John Kennedy Toole, has given him a personal tour of all the sites in town that her son, who died a suicide before his novel was published, used in his book. Can you imagine? It’s like Dante’s poet pal Guido Cavalcanti squiring a fellow around Florence.

Well, my valve slammed shut when I read the new essay in The New Yorker by Tom Bissell, in which he concluded that ACOD is overrated. 

I first read “A Confederacy of Dunces” when I was in my early twenties. Of that reading I can recall only a vivid, tingling antipathy, akin to walking into a party and realizing instantly that you want to leave. The book, which has become a classic of Southern literature and a mainstay on college syllabi, is entertaining—by any metric, the work of a hugely promising young writer. It’s also repetitive and numbingly antic. Shorn of its unusual publishing history and its author’s heartbreaking fate, it’s hard to imagine it receiving anything resembling the acclaim that occasioned its 1980 publication, much less the Pulitzer Prize that it was awarded, by a jury eager to tweak the New York publishing leviathan. Toole would almost certainly have published better novels had he been given the opportunity to write them.

Still, as I settled into the book again, twenty-three years later, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. For one, there is its impish spirit; Toole’s jolly novel of New Orleans remains somewhat anomalous in the Southern canon, especially in how it skewers that canon’s presiding deity. “Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate,” Ignatius asserts at one point. At another, he refers to Twain as a “dreary fraud” and announces, “I have never seen cotton growing and have no desire to do so.” “A Confederacy of Dunces” might be the only novel ever written about New Orleans in which jazz is described as “obscene.”

One of the novel’s particular virtues is its screwball dialogue, the closest approximation of which might be that of the Coen brothers’ great comedic films: “The Big Lebowski,” “Raising Arizona.” Of the writers of his era, Toole most closely resembles Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, and Stanley Elkin, all of whom were partial to dialogue-heavy novels. But Toole’s characters don’t use human speech to exchange useful information. Although they argue constantly, they never do anything so banal as change their minds. They’re more akin to musicians, each waiting for a chance to solo. Early in the novel, Ignatius stands outside a department store with his mother while a dim-witted police officer named Mancuso attempts to arrest him:

“How old is he?” the policeman asked Mrs. Reilly.

“I am thirty,” Ignatius said condescendingly.

“You got a job?”

“Ignatius hasta help me at home,” Mrs. Reilly said. . . . “I got terrible arthuritis.”

“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

“Ignatius makes delicious cheese dips,” Mrs. Reilly said.

This confrontation sets the novel in motion, for, shortly after Ignatius and Irene make their escape, Irene smashes her car into a building, causes a thousand dollars in damage, and forces Ignatius to go to work to help pay off her debts.

OK, stop there. I know people who can’t stand ACOD, and know it from near the beginning. It has to do with the fact that Ignatius Reilly is a grotesque. He is slovenly, arrogant, gross, flatulent, rude — just an awful person. There are some folks in this world who cannot stand the thought of reading a book about such a character. He makes them nervous. The whole world Toole brings vividly to life makes some people nervous. I’m not exactly sure why — I think it has to do with the fact that it’s hard to put the characters into neat boxes; this is something that people who aren’t from the South often find hard to figure out about the South. Anyway, I think Bissell is being true to his own instincts. Tom Bissell is from Michigan. Everybody from New Orleans who has read ACOD recognizes instantly how realistic the characters are. People really are like that down here! I don’t want to say, “He’s a Yankee, he wouldn’t understand,” because that’s a crude judgment to make. On the other hand, I have seen ACOD have that effect on people who come from cultures that recoil from grotesques.

My wife, for example, raised in suburban Dallas within a middle-class Southern Baptist world. She finds Ignatius awful, and nothing about him and his world interesting. She reads far more widely in fiction than I do, and has better taste in it. Her response to ACOD is something like my response when I tried to read Henry Miller in my early 20s: there is nothing about him or his world that I find interesting, or at least the things that are interesting are inaccessible because the world Miller creates is so repulsive.

Back to Bissell and ACOD. He didn’t like the book when he first read it, so why would he read it again? Maybe to see if he was wrong the first time? Fair enough. Lo, he finds Ignatius just as disgusting this time around:

These antics, so jarring to modern sensibilities, can nevertheless be hilarious. (The Levy Pants sequence especially is a comedic tour de force.) But Ignatius simply is not compelling enough to make lovable the repulsive qualities that his creator takes immense pains to describe, such as the smell of his body (“old tea bags,” we’re told), his filthy bedsheets, or his volcanic flatulence. By the time I hit page 241, which finds Ignatius feeling “worse and worse” and describes how “great belches tipped out of the gas pockets of his stomach and tore through his digestive tract,” I suddenly recalled why I found the novel so repellent the first time I read it. It’s not that I “don’t like” or “can’t relate” to Ignatius; no serious reader should care about such things. It’s more that, at every turn, Ignatius is exactly the character you expect him to be. Late in the novel, one character asks him, “Don’t you ever shut up?” He doesn’t. That’s the problem.

This is the first time I’ve ever encountered anyone complaining that Ignatius is not lovable. Of course he’s not lovable! You aren’t expected to see him as some farty Ewok. Do you think Flannery O’Connor’s characters are lovable, in the conventional sense? It’s silly to expect characters in film or fiction to be lovable; we only have a right to expect them to be interesting.

And Ignatius is that. He’s an intelligent, educated man who is so alienated from the world around him that he exists in a constant state of rebellion against it. But he is also lonely and a stranger to himself. He doesn’t recognize his own vices, which, after the laughter of his antics dies down, make him a tragic figure. It is an old story that professional comedians are often really sad people who developed an acute comic sense to cope with their sense of outsiderness. I used to know a guy — not a comedian — who is very, very funny, and who denounces with Ignatian ferocity and (in his case, knowingly comic) pomposity about What’s Wrong With The World. He used that humor as a coping strategy. Deep down, he was never comfortable in the world. Maybe he was a man out of time. Ignatius certainly is.

What makes Ignatius so amusing is that he is captive to his own reality, the disjunction of which with the real world is inherently funny. What makes him so tragic is that he can’t deliver himself from that world. The novel ends with him escaping New Orleans. The idea is maybe living in a crazy city made him crazy, so finding a new place to live could mean a new start for him. But the reader (well, this reader) is sure that wherever Ignatius goes, he will not be able to escape himself.

I love this book in part because I am fascinated by grotesques, and because I know the world Toole writes about is real. I didn’t grow up in New Orleans, but these people in the book have their close analogues all over south Louisiana. I also love it because though I am a much nicer and far less flatulent man than Ignatius Reilly, I share his quixotic sense of being at odds with modernity. Maybe one difference is that I understand myself enough to laugh at myself, I dunno. The guy who wrote a book talking of the virtues of a key figure of the early Middle Ages, and what they have to teach us living in the ruins of modernity, is naturally going to find a sense of affinity with Ignatius. After all, Boethius, Ignatius’s philosophical lodestar, was a contemporary of St. Benedict’s.

Anyway, it will not surprise you to learn that Bissell does not care for the novel because it is politically incorrect by 2021 standards (as it was by the standards of the early 1980s, when it was published, but we used to be more sophisticated and less puritanical than we are now):

MacLauchlin, Toole was influenced by Cervantes, Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh. From Cervantes, he likely inherited his love of episodic, picaresque narrative; from Dickens, his fondness for grotesque yet effective characterization; from Waugh, his taste for mock-heroic snobbery. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system,” Ignatius writes, in one of his treatises, “the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendency.” That Toole might have been only half kidding when giving voice to such pronouncements was suggested forty years ago, by the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. “A fair amount of the author’s ridicule and venom is reserved for female liberals and liberationists,” Rosenbaum noted, while the book’s “ostensible right-wingers” (such as Mancuso, the moronic police officer in desperate search of someone to arrest) are usually depicted “as lovably harmless and ineffectual creatures.” Rosenbaum, who admired the novel, nevertheless judged it to be “reactionary.” Well, there’s reactionary and there’s reactionary. Ignatius doesn’t want to go back to the nineteen-fifties, or even the eighteen-fifties. He wants to go back to the thirteen-fifties.

Well, yes — and that’s why it’s funny! What kind of puritanical mindset casts a suspicious glance at ACOD because it makes fun of the Freud-obsessed feminist Myrna Minkoff? Claude Robichaux, the suitor of Ignatius’s mother Irene, is always ranting about the “communiss” — Toole’s obvious mockery of right-wing conspiracy thinking. It requires motivated reasoning to see Claude and Patrolman Mancuso as “lovably harmless” but think that Toole is unfairly trashing feminists and liberationists (I guess by that he means the Crusade for Moorish Dignity that Ignatius organizes).


This might account for [editor Robert] Gottlieb’s complaint that “Dunces” wasn’t “about anything.” In one sense, the critique is well founded. Toole’s characters seem bizarrely determined—even proud—to learn nothing from their choices, other people, or the world around them.

Yes, and that is the point! More:

Toole either didn’t care about or couldn’t achieve a traditionally satisfying narrative. What did interest him? Character, mainly, though a peculiarly prescribed form of it. Over and over in “Dunces,” Toole launches his obdurately one-dimensional creations into predicaments that they are comically incapable of understanding, and then mercilessly records the results. Artistically speaking, this is the book’s core problem: the thing that makes it interesting is also the thing that makes it unsatisfying.

But character is everything in that novel! Everyone in that book is a lesser version of Ignatius — everyone except Jones, the black janitor, whose shuck-and-jive mannerisms are the mask he wears. Jones, ostensibly the Fool, is the only one in the novel who has everybody’s number.

I honestly don’t understand complaining about a novel in which nobody Learns Valuable Lessons, at least not when that novel is A Confederacy Of Dunces. We’re not talking War And Peace here. P.G. Wodehouse wrote eleven uproarious comic novels about Jeeves and Wooster. Nobody ever learns anything from the comic adventures of the characters. They all remain more or less the same. Those novels are comic masterpieces. Has any critic ever raised an objection to them because Bertie Wooster never learns from his mistakes, or Aunt Dahlia fails to become a nicer person, etc.?

What a weird essay Bissell has written. But one that is sadly true to our time. We have forgotten how to laugh at ourselves. We have forgotten how to laugh. We can’t just sit back and smile at the folly of humankind. No sir, we have to be Serious, and sternly moral. I guess we are all Yankees now. Ignatius’s absurd reactionary crusades are all about trying to create utopia (as are those of his former girlfriend, leftist Myrna Minkoff), but you cannot build a pavilion in Paradise with the crooked timber of humanity. One of the genius themes of this book is to reveal the ridiculousness of utopia. Ignatius, a very lonely man, can only see others as projects (again, as does Myrna). He doesn’t see them in their humanity. The scenes in the Prytania Theater, when he rages at the actors on screen, reveal a profound darkness in his soul. He’s not just a world-class eccentric, but like some other utopians, he actually hates people, because he hates himself.

What a glorious book! Don’t let clueless Yankee moralism ruin it for you.

The other night, sitting around with Fred and Ken talking over pizza, and telling funny stories about characters we’ve known, Fred said, “Isn’t this what life is about? Enjoying food and wine, and talking pleasantly about the world around us?” Of course it is. Fred Starr is not from New Orleans (he was born in Cincinnati), and he lives most of the time in Washington now, but he told me that he was drawn to New Orleans is because it is so humane in its eccentricities. You can gallivant all over the city and meet people today who are a lot like all the characters in A Confederacy of Dunces. Not too many people are going to hold you to high account for morally improving yourself. They will judge you, though, on your gumbo. After leaving Fred and Ken, and the best evening I have had in almost a year of lockdown, to drive back to Baton Rouge, I thought, “O Fortuna, why don’t I live in this town?”

Conor Friedersdorf, Ignatius, and me, on Canal Street

leave a comment

Who Is The MLK Of The Deplorables?

King speaks at the March on Washington (US National Archives)

This is blowing up on the right-wing Internets this morning. It’s a Project Veritas undercover compilation of the chief legal counsel for PBS letting it all hang out regarding his opinions of conservatives:

You should watch the whole thing. You might say that they took these quotes out of context. But listen to the whole thing — there is no way any of that sounds any better in any context.

I am utterly confident that this man, Michael Beller, means what he says. I heard that same kind of hatred from time to time when I moved in circles that included elites like him. So many of you readers have over the years reported the same kind of extreme spite within the media, academic, and corporate circles where you work.

People like Beller really do hate us. He is a powerful man. They are all powerful, within their own spheres. Here’s the thing, though: when people on the Right do things like give themselves over to quixotic quests like “Stop The Steal,” show up at big public rallies with guns (even legally brandished), and, I dunno, stage an insurrection on the US Capitol and stomp around the halls chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” — things like that only increase and solidify the power of people like Michael Beller.

They do so because they confirm the views of those people, and also of liberals and moderates who don’t share Beller’s hatred, but fear the right-wing mob more than they loathe Beller’s bitchy snobbery.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that it’s 1957, and a young civil rights activist secretly records a high-level Washington bureaucrat — someone of Beller’s station — making the same kind of vicious remarks about black civil rights advocates. What would be the smarter move?

  1. For civil rights leaders and activists to stage marches, including violent marches, and embrace violent rhetoric; or
  2. For those same leaders and activists to embrace peaceful rhetoric and actions, including civil disobedience, to gain sympathy for their cause?

The answer is obvious. The civil rights leaders knew that they were badly outnumbered, and that if they were going to prevail, they had to win a majority of Americans to their cause. They did this through non-violence. Can you imagine how hard it was for King and the others to take beatings and abuse, year after year, without fighting back?

But that’s how they won! That, and having concrete goals.

You will remember that the Democratic data scientist David Shor lost his job last summer for posting this data. The loony young left within the Democratic party professional establishment despised him for casting a shadow of a doubt over whether or not the BLM protests and riots were anything but splendid:

Take the same logic and apply it to our situation on the Right. After the Washington insurrection, do you really think that the share of Republican vote will increase because of that?

In the year of race riots, Antifa, “All Cops Are Bastards,” and so forth, had Donald Trump had been only a bit more normal, he would have been re-elected and the Senate would still be Republican. But that’s not how it shook out.

The Right has to understand that it has the Michael Beller class firmly against us — and they hold the power in this society. Violent radicalism, and the language of violent radicalism, only increases their power. Trump pulled off an extraordinary thing, getting elected, and showed the power of populist ideas. But he did not govern with discipline or intelligence, or by principle, and thus squandered a golden opportunity. It is going to be hard to get that opportunity back. Inevitably the hatred the the Belleristas will cause them to overplay their hand, in the same way the passions of the MAGA mob drove it to do the same thing. But we can’t count on that.

We need serious strategy. We need serious leadership: moral, disciplined, driven by love, not hate. The question is this: Who is the Martin Luther King of the Deplorables?

Do we even have the culture on the Right — especially in the churches — capable of producing  an MLK of the Deplorables?

UPDATE:Michael Beller resigned. 

UPDATE.2: It turns out that Beller was not PBS’s chief legal counsel, but rather much farther down the totem pole. I regret taking Project Veritas at their word. Every word Beller was caught on tape saying was repulsive and offensive, but he was not the power-holder that O’Keefe said he was. I think they should have left him alone. The general view on liberal power-holder elitism I espouse is still true, but I regret that they went after someone relatively low-level, and I regret not checking his position out before promoting O’Keefe’s clip. Won’t make that mistake again.

leave a comment

Leviathan Vs. Kraken


ABC News reports:

Starting this week and running through at least Inauguration Day, armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols and at the U.S. Capitol, according to an internal FBI bulletin obtained by ABC News.

The FBI has also received information in recent days on a group calling for “storming” state, local and federal government courthouses and administrative buildings in the event President Donald Trump is removed from office prior to Inauguration Day. The group is also planning to “storm” government offices in every state the day President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated, regardless of whether the states certified electoral votes for Biden or Trump.

“The FBI received information about an identified armed group intending to travel to Washington, DC on 16 January,” the bulletin read. “They have warned that if Congress attempts to remove POTUS via the 25th Amendment, a huge uprising will occur.”

Along those lines, this is going around on right-wing social media:


What do these fools hope to accomplish? “Demand freedom”? “End the corruption”? Empty words. Are they coming out with their guns to frighten people? What they’re going to do is draw down the full weight of the state onto them — and for what?

There is nothing good, pure, noble, heroic, patriotic, or godly about any of this. And among other things, it’s dumb as hell. Here’s a great piece by Nicholas Grossman, a professor who teaches about national security.

Grossman write, addressing “the QAnon community, and others involved in storming the Capitol”:

You cheered on lawyers who said they’d release the Kraken. But now you’ve poked Leviathan.


You really do need to read the whole thing — especially if you or anyone you care about is involved with QAnon or adjacent movements. People are going to destroy their lives. This is not a game.

Look at this guy:

He’s crying like a baby because — surprise! — he’s on the no-fly list. He wails that they’re trying to ruin his life. This is coming. You know how I talk about us getting a Chinese-style social credit system here? This is part of it. What happens when everyone associated with QAnon or one of these protests gets put on the no-fly list? In China, if you behave like what the government considers to be a bad citizen, you get put on things like no-fly lists, and can’t go anywhere that you can’t get to by car.

They can do many, many other things to you. You can be shut out of whole areas of the economy. Hey, if you are only on the no-fly list, that means you cannot get a job that requires you to fly. Maybe a company looking to hire you — a firm more sophisticated than Bubba’s Bait Stand — does a background check on you, and finds that you’re on the no-fly list. They call you in to explain that — if you’re lucky. They’ll probably end up just throwing your CV in the trash can, because who wants to take a chance on a guy who ended up on the no-fly list by being part of a seditious action.

Nicholas Grossman is trying to tell y’all to wake up and understand what the Trump insurrectionists have done to anyone active in that movement. He says in his piece that the entire government system set up to fight Al Qaeda is going to turn on domestic terrorism. Because everything is connected in this wired world, you could end up in a world of hurt — again, in an American social credit system (except in China’s social credit system, you can earn your way out of a low rating; that’s not going to happen to those involved with seditious and violent activities).

In the UK, far-right figures who have not been involved in any crimes have lost their banking privileges — not by state action, but because their bank did not want to do business with them anymore. There’s no law forcing a bank to do business with you. I think there should be, as a protection for all people from politically motivated punishment by banks. But I’m fairly certain that in the US, that law does not exist now, so if a bank verified that you are on some sort of list of political extremists, they have the right to cut you off. There are lots of banks in the US, so you might be okay. But what if credit card companies refuse to issue you a card through your local bank?

You see how this might work? The state doesn’t have to move against you in any serious way for you to have your life radically changed by your involvement with QAnon and other groups like it.

The day may come when simply being a conservative or a particular kind of Christian will land you inside the informal social credit system. If that is the price of practicing my faith or standing up for my political convictions, I hope I have the courage to withstand the punishment. But if it should come to that, then I hope I will have taken a stand for something that matters, and not because I lost my damn mind to a crazypants political cult, or wanted to take my gun to the State Capitol to make some sort of statement on behalf of Donald Freaking Trump.

Let’s say you take your gun to your State Capitol, and because you live in an open-carry state, it’s legal. What happens if some excitable demonstrator starts shooting? Even if you get out of there alive, you can be quite sure that your face will have been captured on video by law enforcement, as well as Internet activists who will be eager to dox you and make sure your employer knows that you were part of that crowd. And then what?

The point is, last Wednesday was a bright red line. There’s no going back from it. And there will be no mercy for those who live the QAnon/seditionist lies going forward. You LARPers are putting the liberties and the livelihoods of all of us people on the Right at risk, for no good reason.

UPDATE: Reader Jonah R. left a good comment on the Lost MAGA/QAnon souls thread, but I’m afraid y’all won’t see it if I don’t publish it here. It fits:

I’m not a Republican, I’m only moderately conservative, I’ve considered Trump a con man from day one, and I don’t at all believe the election was stolen. I’m furious at those fools who stormed the Capitol last week and I look forward to their criminal sentences.

That said, I’m not surprised that people have been pushed toward insane ideas, because our media is a mess, Democratic politicians are hypocrites, and the standards for both decorum and truth change by the nanosecond.

In the District of Columbia, the city government endorsed Black Lives Matter and gave them their own special plaza, where they had massive demonstrations and street parties, sometimes with thousands of people, during a pandemic where we’re all supposed to be socially distant. Meanwhile, DC churches had to sue the government simply to hold small outdoor services, which didn’t happen until October, seven months into the pandemic.

We’ve had TV journalists literally standing in front of burning buildings insisting that demonstrations are peaceful. There’s been no federal manhunt for “riot tourists” who fly from Portland to DC on a whim to burn and break things. And nobody has criticized Antifa for bullying and threatening journalists who try to cover them, which has been happening for years.

And then there’s Governor Cuomo, who’s done a lousy job during COVID but somehow gets praise and a book deal. Leaders in cities all across the country tell us not to go to restaurants, not to leave our homes at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they’re traveling, ignoring their own quarantine restrictions, getting special service at restaurants and hair salons, visiting family, and apparently living pretty normally.

Joe Biden, a political punchline since the ’80s, gets the presidential nomination even though he’s clearly past his prime. His VP choice is as tough on crime as a “Contract with America” Republican–but she makes dance videos and is brown and went to Howard, so all is forgiven.

And then there’s the Covington schoolkid who did nothing wrong except stand there wearing a hat he bought at a tourist stand, and the entire media jumps him.

And let’s not forget the governor of Virginia, who wore blackface and/or dressed as a Klansman in medical school, long after he should have known better. He doesn’t get hounded out of office because doing so might put a Republican in office. He goes on with his life. Roseanne Barr, who holds no power over anyone’s government or life, cracks a nasty joke about a black woman and her career is over.

Then you turn on the TV looking for same late-night laughs, and all of the shows have turned into recitations of Democratic talking points. One night back in the spring, all four of Jimmy Kimmel’s guests were Democratic politicians or pundits. You’re dying for someone to lob a softball at a Democrat, even a feeble joke about how Joe Biden looks like one of Jeff Dunham’s ventriloquism dummies.

And those are just the examples off the top of my head. Imagine turning on the TV, seeing this stuff, and wondering: Why isn’t anyone stating the obvious? Why aren’t these people consistent with their stated beliefs?

The QAnon stuff is asinine and leadership on the pro-Trump right is a clusterfudge of con men, blowhards, and loonies, but is it any wonder that there were people and groups waiting to tell the Trumpers they weren’t crazy for seeing what they plainly saw? Who’s more ripe to be conned by a cult than people who already know they’re being conned by someone else but aren’t sophisticated enough to grope toward the truth on their own?

All true! But are we on the Right really going to let the Democrats and the media get away with that by turning ourselves into crazy, violent people?

UPDATE.2: Reader Chris R.:

There’s an obvious reason why just about everybody in America has lost his (or her) mind: COVID. Our social fabric was already fraying, and fear and paranoia were already the driving forces in American politics, but the virus dropped a cinderblock on the fragile Jenga tower which is American society—with rapid-onset wokeness, riots, and QAnon cultism being the predictable results. People feel impotent . . . because they are impotent. They’ve been forced to endure a year of economic ruin; a year without personal progress; a year of endless crisis; a year without hope. They’ve been forced to hide their faces from each other like Afghani women. They’ve sat at home while their fathers and grandmothers died alone in nursing homes. They’ve been given an ultimatum: Either live in isolation, or live through social media. They’ve been told by journalists and epidemiologists that this hellish reality is just a “new normal” we’ll all have to accept for years—or maybe forever. Plus, they’ve seen all the hypocrisy that Jonah R. mentions.

All this is why the number-one priority of anyone in any branch of government ought to be ending the pandemic and returning to normal. Not lingering in half-lockdown for three years. Not masks for eternity. No. Going back to the way things were. The mental breakdown will continue, and the violence will worsen, unless and until people have reason to get off social media and regain a modicum of control over their own lives.

The vaccinations can’t happen quickly enough.

Good comment. But just to note, my mom, who is 77 and a prime candidate for the vaccine, was hesitating about taking it because of crazy conspiracies she read on Facebook. Nothing I said to her changed her mind. It took the family doctor speaking to her and telling her to please put her name on the list for her to do it. She awaits the shots now. Point is, a lot of people who ought to be getting the jabs aren’t going to do it because they’ve come to believe something that they learned through the polluted information environment.

UPDATE.3: A reader says, of the guy in the video above:

Snopes is reporting that the “no-fly list” video is miscaptioned. He was not denied boarding because he was on the no-fly list, nor is there any evidence that he was involved in the Capitol riots. He was denied boarding because he refused to wear a mask.

So noted. That might be the reason for that guy, but you can be sure that no-fly lists are coming.

leave a comment

Introducing ‘The General Eclectic’

My friend Kale Zelden finally talked me into doing a video podcast. We call it The General Eclectic. Kale’s a small-o orthodox Catholic, a teacher of literature, a fellow Louisiana guy, and a conservative. I think we talk well together, though I hate the sound of my own voice. The first episode is above. My audio was a bit off, but we’re going to fix that for the next edition. We recorded this one last Tuesday, the evening before the Washington MAGA insurrection. We record the second episode tomorrow.

What do you think? How could we improve?

UPDATE: Forgot to say that we’re both Southern guys who are religious conservatives, and really interested in religion and culture. But we are also eclectic, so we’re not going to only talk about religion and culture and politics.

leave a comment

The Lost Souls Of MAGA & QAnon

January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This blog has been chronicling over the years the takeover of the progressive mind by the cult of Woke. Because the world I live in is predominantly an intellectual one, I am more in touch with conservatives who work and move within institutions like media, academia, and corporate America. The cult of Wokeness is very real to me, because of what my friends and contacts report. What this cult has done to the minds of those who have given themselves over to it is horrifying.

But in the past few days I am realizing that I did not know how far the Trump cult had gone into conquering the minds of its adherents. I mentioned that over the weekend, I spoke with a friend who completely believes that the MAGA riot on Capitol Hill was actually an Antifa operation, and, of course, that Trump obviously won the election in a landslide. Nothing anyone can say can falsify what this friend believes.

Well, this letter came in from a reader just now:

I’ve been talking with friends who are Trump supporters and I’m genuinely disturbed by the stuff they’ve been saying. So much so, I had to delete many of the messages because it was like reading the texts of some ancient Satanic cult or something. I’m not being facetious, either – the delusion has set in and it’s consumed them.
They really believe this election was stolen. They really believe that Trump won by a landslide. They believe any judge who ruled against Trump, doesn’t agree with Trump’s version of events, even if they’re dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, is in on the fix, a liar, traitor, what have you. I mean, how can Trump be telling the truth 100% time, anyway?
But, the worst part of all, they think what happened at the Capitol wasn’t only understandable, but legitimate, going as far as to say they should’ve seized and occupied the building! I really can’t say any more than that – it’s all crazy talk and, as much as I want to share what they said, in the principle of honor, I still want to protect their identities.
However, it absolutely crushes me that these people, who just a year or two ago, were some of the most clear-headed, insightful, knowledgeable, and sober-minded thinkers, have succumbed to this madness. One person went from predicting Trump would lose the 2020 election to winning it for sure, with no clear linkage on how they got from point ‘A’ to ‘Z.’ Nothing I say can get them to see reason. They continue to insist this isn’t about Trump, but about the nation. Yet, if that were truly the case, why are they throwing their whole weight behind Trump, as opposed to some platform or principle? These people are doing and saying things they would’ve never otherwise if Trump didn’t put them up to it. They can’t or won’t see the damage he’s done to conservatism, the nation, and the republic, yet he’s still the hill they want to die on.
Strangely, the radical right and the left have become unified on one principle — this country’s damaged beyond repair and a revolution’s the only thing that can bring deliverance to the country. Because it won the election, the left will, at least in the near term, utilize legitimate means to impose what they consider necessary change on the country. This also means the right will resort to increasingly illegitimate means to force change. We may begin to see large-scale, violent protests become as ubiquitous of a strategy on the right as it is on the left. But the right’s protests will be met with counter-protests on the left, as we saw in Pacific Beach, San Diego over the weekend. This sort of thing will intensify and repeat itself over and over and the authorities will be largely powerless to prevent it.
When history judges these events, I think there’s no way to do so without strongly factoring in COVID and the associated lockdowns. The pandemic and the economic crisis that was inflicted de-stabilized society in ways that still haven’t become entirely obvious to many, particularly in elite circles. I told you before that extremists cannot prevail in stable societies. They also cannot prevail in stable economies. People are just too busy to indulge in such fantasies, even if they might talk about this stuff at home over a beer. I don’t know how many people in MAGA-land are unemployed or underemployed, but I think COVID, the lockdowns, and the George Floyd protests had a catastrophic impact on the way they viewed their country and the world. It’s very possible they came to believe that their country was crashing down around them and it drove them mad. Trump’s irresponsible actions and rhetoric, combined with the Democrats delivering an equally catastrophic political defeat, only accentuated that point.
As if that wasn’t bad enough already, look at what Gov. Cuomo said earlier today:
We simply cannot stay closed until the vaccine hits critical mass. The cost is too high. We will have nothing left to open. We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely.
If anyone thinks this is a good move on his part, they’re sadly mistaken. This contradicts the narrative that we’re in the midst of fierce “second wave” that’s got no end in sight. The damage done to the economy already also means that you can’t just open things back up and expect things to return to normal. More relevant to the point, MAGA will use this as evidence that the lockdowns were entirely motivated by politics. Now that Trump’s out of office, the Democrats are changing their tune on the lockdowns, hoping the economy will recover, and it’ll cement their political power for at least the next two election cycles.
I don’t believe either will happen. The economy will continue to suffer and this sort of move will breed cynicism and resentment on the right that’ll only add fuel to an already raging inferno.
The other day, a different reader wrote to me this letter, which I have slightly edited to protect him and his parents:
I have never been particularly enthusiastic about the fact that I am an American, which is not to say that I have ever been antagonistic about it, but rather that it never really factored into my view of self or the world. At most, it rose to the level of embarrassment, as it is all too easy to see how the American way of life openly and proudly conflicts with one’s Christian faith (simpler times): war-like, materialistic, and generally godless. The events of the past week have shown me just how much more I valued this American order than I realized.
I am writing from the living room of my parents house. Why do I mention that? I mention it because they are Qanon’ers. That is a charge I do not level lightly. In fact, I rejected it for the longest time. Right-winger? Clearly. Trump supporters? Without hesitation. A touch on the radical side? One could say so. It has, however, accelerated over the last year. When they left their church in the town in which they live to begin attending [an Evangelical megachurch pastored by a celebrity preacher associated with Trump], I began to worry. Then, my sister shared with me the full extent of the abomination, and they are in the tank. As it turns out, the reason they have shielded my from it is because, according to my sister paraphrasing my mother, “I am just not going to listen,” to what they have to say. Pardon my language, but you’re g*ddamned right I’m not going to listen. I give heresy no quarter.
My field is mental health, and what I see is mass psychosis, perhaps some sort of stress-induced schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is characterized by the individual essentially occupying two worlds: the physical world of reality, and the much darker and more terrifying world of their own imagining. Let it be known, I know a few people who spent their careers in military intelligence, so I have learned, to the extent that a civilian can be told, just how dark and dangerous the world is. For instance, one such person into whose hands I would entrust my life, has told me that the CIA makes the KGB look like a collection of “pre-pubescent choir boys”. I have been told, with a twinkle in this person’s eye, that, “Accidents happen every day.” The world is a dark and dangerous place, but at its worst it does not approach the everyday delusions of this disturbing (and growing) rabble.
In a sense, it is understandable to see how an individual might come to this low mental place. If they had spent the last decade obsessively watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh and his much louder counterpart Mark Levin, it’s only reasonable that before long they would be in a state of immense emotional duress, perhaps even to the level of existential crisis. When the media you watch is curated to promote the belief that a monster lurks under every bed and around every corner, and that only by watching the next segment after a series of “Buy gold!” and My Pillow commercials, you are going to be frayed, particularly if you do not have an adequate spiritual counterweight. To that end, our churches — some more so than others — bear some responsibility for this disaster.
When your entire religious foundation is built on the slogan, “Jesus is all I need!”, then when you are met with an overwhelming worldly darkness, suddenly you are left wanting. If Jesus was all that I needed, then why does it feel like I am drowning? By removing the value and unavoidable reality of suffering from our sermons, by preaching a watered down, emotive gospel where one’s feeling is the only arbiter of truth, we have set up our congregations for exactly this shit. If “Jesus is enough!”, and a strongman like Trump comes along, well, maybe Trump is Jesus’ chosen one. Brilliant! Were Solzhenitsyn to give his Harvard Address today, he would be killed before exiting the stage from which he spoke.
This lunatic Right is, in large part, a reaction to the lunatic Left. Now that elements of that Left are about to assume the full authority of government, they are going to push their boundaries to an obscene distance. We all know that this will only motivate the Right to move even further to their respective boundaries. Have you every tried stretching a rubber band to your full wingspan? It snaps, and is no longer functional. What do we think will happen as society continues its march to either extreme? If history has taught us one single lesson, it is that no society is invincible (interestingly, and I say this as an unapologetic monarchist (that’s right), the British Monarchy, for all the reduction in global influence felt over the last two centuries, has nonetheless been more or less stable for a very long time. Something to think about).
It was Plato who said that oligarchy turns into democracy. In a democracy, Plato said, freedom is the supreme good, but also the slave master. Because man is free to do as he so desires, any semblance of social cohesion or unity eventually degenerates. My desires become the highest good, and society must conform to them, because I am an individual, and we know for a fact society exists to promote individual freedom. Now, multiply such selfish sentiments by 329,000,000. Plato goes on to say that once freedom (selfishness) hits critical mass, it further devolves into tyranny. No one possesses any real sense of discipline, and all falls into chaos. Democracy is taken over the the desire for freedom, power must be seized to maintain control, a champion will come along and experience power, and will become a tyrant.
What we saw in the Capitol Insurrection — and insurrection is clearly was, if words hold any meaning anymore — was the first public step into true, verifiable, chaotic tyranny.
I am a great admirer of Prof. Jordan Peterson (and am grateful that he is now well on his way back to health after a harrowing 18-month bout with benzo withdrawal), and one of the cornerstones of his program is that meaning is the antithesis and antidote for chaos. Conversely, a lack of meaning will lead to chaos. His teaching focuses on the individual level, but it’s easy enough to expand outward. How does one find meaning, then? The commonly accepted answer is through the fulfillment and exercise of our rights. Bullshit, Peterson says. Rights, rights, rights is all we hear, and look where we are because of it. Rights do not exist without another R-word: responsibility. One of Peterson’s “rules” is to set your own life in order before setting out to change the world. This is where his whole, “Make your bed” thing comes into play: if you cannot be so bothered as to attend to the least responsibilities in your life, why should you be entrusted with anything greater? To go to the Gospels, “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required; and to whom they have committed much, of him they will demand the more.” (Lk. 12.48).
Why do I bring this up? Because those who bear the responsibility are being given cover. Ashli Babbitt is a martyr! She was just a peaceful protester and was murdered in cold blood! Actually, no. She was part of a violent mob, a mob which has killed at least one Capitol police officer, and at the moment she was shot, she was actively climbing through a broken window in an effort to further storm into the House Chamber. That sounds like criminal trespassing to me, and the fact that she was one of dozens at that particular scene only adds to the justification of the use of force. Capitol Police, Secret Service, etc. have one single job: to protect the U.S. government. You cannot attack the government — its servants or its buildings — and not expect to be met with equal or greater force. My point, though, is that no one is taking responsibility for this. That mob wasn’t MAGA, or even Qanon, the Right says. No, it was Antifa, obviously, because false flag and deep state and pedophilia and good Lord give me a break from this garbage.
Because of Covid, I have been unable to find a new job (though I am close to a couple). As a result, at the end of this month, I am going to have to — temporarily — move in with my parents. Me, a Catholic, mental health professional Dead Head who loves mindfulness, reading, writing, and playing guitar, will lay my head at night 50-60 feet from two people who, despite our close physical proximity, no longer occupy the same confines of reality. It’s heartbreaking and, if I am being perfectly honest, more than a little concerning. My parents are good, decent, hard working people, but I have seen their winds warped to such a radical, previously unthinkable degree. Where will they be in a year? I fear for their safety.
It is clear to me now that the United States is in much deeper trouble than I realized even a week ago. In Live Not By Lies, I write about how closely the US today resembles Hannah Arendt’s portrait of a pre-totalitarian society. I focused on the ideology that the progressive Left believes, and is putting into place in the institutions where they dominate. The mainstream media don’t see this, because they are part of it. But it’s real, and it’s happening.
However, as I’ve said here in the past few days, and as I repeat again, the depth of the ideological capture of the Right by a parallel insanity is becoming clearer to me. It troubles me not because I think these people have any chance at taking and exercising power — remember, Trump, for all his bluster, did not change much — but because in their willingness to live by lies, they not only can mount no effective defense against the much more powerful Left, but they also will act to give that same Left — which controls the infrastructure of the United States — reasons to lean more heavily into soft totalitarianism. From Live Not By Lies:

To grasp the threat of totalitarianism, it’s important to understand the difference between it and simple authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is what you have when the state monopolizes political control. That is mere dictatorship—bad, certainly, but totalitarianism is much worse. According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.”

This is what the two readers above are talking about with the QAnon/MAGA-ists in their circles. They have given themselves over to an ideology that seeks to define and control reality. Wokeness is the same kind of thing. As a conservative, and as a more or less normal person, I no more want to be ruled by QAnon/MAGA loonies than I want to be ruled by the Woke. But you see the totalitarian temptation on both sides.

Arendt wrote, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (quoted in Live Not By Lies):

What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world, is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.

With reference to the first reader’s observation that both the radicalized Left and the radicalized Right have united themselves on the view that America is beyond repair, here’s a clip from Live Not By Lies:

Americans’ loss of faith in institutions and hierarchies began in the 1960s. In Europe, though, it started in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Surveying the political scene in Germany during the 1920s, Arendt noted a “terrifying negative solidarity” among people from diverse classes, united in their belief that all political parties were populated by fools.

I want to point out one more thing that Arendt saw as pre-totalitarian: the desire to transgress. I cited it in Live Not By Lies to talk about how liberal elites are willing to tolerate the total transgression of liberal norms of free speech, fair play, and so forth, for the sake of so-called “social justice.” The justification by conservatives — not necessarily elites, but any conservative — of transgressing the Capitol for the sake of Trump, shows how deeply the rot has gone on our side too. In LNBL, I wrote:

Her point was that these authors did not avail themselves of respectable intellectual theories to justify their transgressiveness. They immersed themselves in what is basest in human nature and regarded doing so as acts of liberation. Arendt’s judgment of the postwar elites who recklessly thumbed their noses at respectability could easily apply to those of our own day who shove aside liberal principles like fair play, race neutrality, free speech, and free association as obstacles to equality. Arendt wrote:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it. 

The Left has been doing this for years now, in slow motion, throughout institutions. This is what the capitulation of university presidents and editors-in-chief to new illiberal norms means. But let’s be honest: Can we not now say that far too many conservatives do not object to paying a price — the destruction of our democracy and its norms — for the fun of seeing how the Deplorables forced themselves into the Capitol?

I am sorry to keep quoting my own book here — it’s in poor taste, I know — but I want to help readers understand how serious the situation is, and how events of the past week have revealed the corruption of the mind of the Right in a new way, at least to me. From Live Not By Lies:

Heda Margolius Kovály, a disillusioned Czech communist whose husband was executed after a 1952 show trial, reflects on the willingness of people to turn their backs on the truth for the sake of an ideological cause.

It is not hard for a totalitarian regime to keep people ignorant. Once you relinquish your freedom for the sake of “understood necessity,” for Party discipline, for conformity with the regime, for the greatness and glory of the Fatherland, or for any of the substitutes that are so convincingly offered, you cede your claim to the truth. Slowly, drop by drop, your life begins to ooze away just as surely as if you had slashed your wrists; you have voluntarily condemned yourself to helplessness.

You can surrender your moral responsibility to be honest out of misplaced idealism. You can also surrender it by hating others more than you love truth. In pre-totalitarian states, Arendt writes, hating “respectable society” was so narcotic, that elites were willing to accept “monstrous forgeries in historiography” for the sake of striking back at those who, in their view, had “excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind.” For example, many who didn’t really accept Marx’s revisionist take on history—that it is a manifestation of class struggle—were willing to affirm it because it was a useful tool to punish those they despised.

I have written an entire book explaining how this exists and works on the contemporary Left, and within the institutions under its cultural domination (again, including corporate America). Now, though, we see that so many people on the Right — the parents of the second letter writer, and the friends of the first — are willing to relinquish their moral responsibility by surrendering to conspiracy theories. They hate the Left, and enemies of Donald Trump (on the Right as well) more than they love the truth. If you missed The Atlantic‘s long piece about QAnon last May, by all means read it now. 

Dark days are here. Get ready. One of the hardest things ahead for all of us, no matter where we come down on the political spectrum, is going to be keeping a clear head and a clean heart.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I’m reading Carl Trueman’s book right now–amazing book–and what’s mind-blowing (and depressing) is how his book describes EVERYBODY.  The history it traces is leftist history: Rousseau to the English Romantics to Nietzsche/ Marx/ Darwin to Freud and on down to the proponents of intersectionality, etc.  But what the last few years have shown me–distilled into the last few days most potently–is how all of this stuff applies to the right as well.  The therapeutic, feelings as fact culture is not just the province of activists and intersectionality scholars.

Look at the language of the therapeutic, the language of feelings–so much of the talk of election conspiracies, theft, etc., is rooted in the language of feelings.  Most infamously is Metaxas’ take on how he doesn’t need any evidence because he KNOWS in his heart that this steal happened, but I feel–haha–like I’m seeing this kind of language more and more from conservatives in every area.  And look at some of the more craven responses to the events of last week.  I have a strong, solid evangelical friend who sort of engaged in a pro forma “yeah, this was bad, these guys should go to jail” but then started going off on “well, you can only push people so far and if you tell them they’re bigots for calling a she a she sooner or later they’ll punch back.”  I have seen this a lot—these people believe the election is being stolen, they don’t have a voice, blah blah blah.
Leaving aside that they believe this because in many cases they’ve been lied to and exploited (I know that sounds patronizing but it’s true), that is the argument of a CHILD.  “I had a bad day at school and Johnny picked on me and Mrs. Smith called ME out for talking instead of him so I threw my papers across the room!”  John Lewis got his skull bashed in and he ran for congress.  The Black marchers in the civil rights era, who endured about a million times worse than their preferred social media site being kicked off line, marched and organized and rallied.  These guys believe that because the rest of society isn’t respecting what they FEEL to be true, that they’re perfectly justified in smashing up the capital, beating up people, rioting, vandalizing–tell me how this is ANY different from the things the left got up to in May.  Except it’s worse because 1) the capitol is not some courthouse in Portland or a liquor store, 2) they were attempting to attack a building WHILE THE LEGISLATURE WAS IN IT, and 3) they beat a cop to death!
Now here I can hear people say “whoa whoa.  These guys aren’t “the right.”  These guys are the crazies.  Yeah–crazies who were egged on, summoned, and endorsed by literally the president of the United States of America.  And if we want to go that way, we have to be fair and allow that most of “the left” isn’t antifa.  It’s human nature to see the other side as a monolithic block of evil and your own as more nuanced and graded, but it’s also wrong and our duty as Christians, if that’s what we are, to push back against that.
This has gotten far afield–sorry.  The point isn’t to engage in whatabouttery or fruitless comparison, but to say that this culture of insulting my feelings equals attacking me, and I’m entitled to a universe that treats what I BELIEVE and FEEL as reality–that’s exactly, EXACTLY what this MAGA/ election steal/ riot/ anti-elite stuff is.  This is the world of liquid modernity and the therapeutic self, as Trueman says, and fundamentally, for all intents and purposes, the right lives in it as much as the left, and boy does last week show that in spades.
Also–have you ever thought about designing a course around your thought from the last few years?  I’ve been making a lot of connections through it and I bet some Christian college would love to have you teach a class virtually.  Like you’ve got BenOp and Live not by Lies, but all this ties into the things Trueman writes about (Rieff/ Taylor), the post-liberal thinkers (Deneen/ Legutko), and contemporary political conservatism and its internal and external critics (stuff like Carney, Arnade).  Might be cool.  The more I read the news, the more I feel like BenOp is your most important work here–the last year has revealed that the failure of the church to be the church and develop itself has paved the way for both pathologies of the right and left.  Seeing this in my own tradition is INCREDIBLY depressing.  We’ve got churches going full MAGA/Q, we’ve got churches going full SJW, we’ve got not that many churches just preaching the gospel and the ones that are are struggling with members that are far more animated by MAGA/Q or SJW/ BLM.
Carl Trueman’s fantastic book, The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self, is only $7.99 on Kindle today.
UPDATE.2: Reader EVW, who is an Evangelical, posted an interesting comment:

Does Christian Smith mention the long-term effects of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? This may be what we’re seeing, which oddly has overlap with Critical Theory of all types. Both philosophies are me-oriented, and MTD easily becomes victim-oriented like CRT when God doesn’t give me what I want. MTD states that if I’m good, God will give me what I want. If the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and I want change, God certainly must want that for me. And if I can’t get it, God must be blessing my fight to demand it.

I know it’s important for the David Frenches and Russell Moores of the evangelical world to write their vociferous denunciations of the acts at the Capitol. They are public figures and need to distance themselves as much as possible from all the crosses and Jesus signs and loud Christian music blaring on the mall. But I actually think they need to be exceedingly brief on the subject. Their denunciations are falling on very angry, deaf ears. Despite the similarities and shared experiences (like, say, their home church pew), they do not share the same faith with many of the people in their orbit. In fact, their denunciations will probably fan the flames. I wonder why the Frenches and Moores, who were quick to reach across the aisle for the BLM issue, are not doing the same with these conservatives. My guess is they erroneously think they’re on the same side. They aren’t.

I’m actually surprised to see that most of the people speaking about reaching across the aisle and building unity and trust are coming from secular liberals, not Christians. It’s very disconcerting because while I agree that we are better equipped to admonish our own “people”, we bridging the gap (where I thought Moore and French might fall) are also the best to help in the unity-building. But the lectures will only make that harder.

I listened to a podcast in which a journalist described going into the capitol with the rioters. This is a secular liberal who has been following the BLM protests and getting to know both Proud Boy members as well as Antifa. One of his main take-aways was that people are so desperate to be heard that they’re taking matters into their own hands. BLM at least has the media who will listen. This rabble on Wednesday does not. Having people supposedly from their side lecturing them will not be viewed as an admonition. It will just be a call to arms to try it again.

leave a comment

Anarcho-Tyranny And Infrastructure

(Photo by Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

An academic friend has been stressing over the weekend in private messages to me that Trump’s Twitter and Facebook bans aren’t the real story. The real story, he says, is “infrastructure” — that is, the means by which all of us do business. If those who control the infrastructure choose to punish conservatives, it’s a much more serious thing. For example, it’s probably bad if publishers decide that Author X is blacklisted, but it’s infinitely worse if Amazon, which sells the overwhelming majority of books in America today, decides that books by Publisher X will no longer be sold by Amazon. You see the difference?

We have a shocking example today, said the professor. He texts:

The number one thing driving innovation in software the last 15 years has been the servicization of everything. You might have heard of “software as a service” (the business model). What that means is that rather than code my own email system, login system, marketing analytics, etc, I pay another company to do this and just insert their code into my website. There are tons of benefits to this but also a number of downsides.

Parler, which claims to have over 10 million users, has lax rules over content, making the platform very attractive to far-right groups. Google and Apple removed Parler’s smartphone app from their app stores, claiming that the platform allowed posting that seeks to “incite ongoing violence in the U.S..” Amazon took similar measures, removing Parler from its hosting service.

Reddit users claim that the scrape was made possible due Twilio, an American cloud communications platform that provided the platform with phone number verification services, cutting ties with Parler.

In a press release announcing the decision, Twilio revealed which services Parler was using. This information allowed hackers to deduct that it was possible to create users and verified accounts without actual verification.

With this type of access, newly minted users were able to get behind the login box API used for content delivery. That allowed them to see which users had moderator rights and this in turn allowed them to reset passwords of existing users with simple “forgot password” function. Since Twilio no longer authenticated emails, hackers were able to access admin accounts with ease.

These hackers will have enough information now to dox everyone. This, I am told, “is a version of what some on the online right have dubbed anarcho-tyranny: actions of a private company create a space for illegal actors to do things for which no one will be punished by the state for ideological reasons.”

As far as I can tell, the term “anarcho-tyranny” was coined by the late far-right writer Samuel Francis. In this 1994 essay, he explains:

In the United States today, the government performs many of its functions more or less effectively. The mail is delivered (sometimes); the population, or at least part of it, is counted (sort of); and taxes are collected (you bet). You can accuse the federal leviathan of many things—corruption, incompetence, waste, bureaucratic strangulation—but mere anarchy, the lack of effective government, is not one of them. Yet at the same time, the state does not perform effectively or justly its basic duty of enforcing order and punishing criminals, and in this respect its failures do bring the country, or important parts of it, close to a state of anarchy. But that semblance of anarchy is coupled with many of the characteristics of tyranny, under which innocent and law-abiding citizens are punished by the state or suffer gross violations of their rights and liberty at the hands of the state. The result is what seems to be the first society in history in which elements of both anarchy and tyranny pertain at the same time and seem to be closely connected with each other and to constitute, more or less, opposite sides of the same coin.

This condition, which in some of my columns I have called “anarcho-tyranny,” is essentially a kind of Hegelian synthesis of what appear to be dialectical opposites: the combination of oppressive government power against the innocent and the law-abiding and, simultaneously, a grotesque paralysis of the ability or the will to use that power to carry out basic public duties such as protection or public safety. And, it is characteristic of anarcho-tyranny that it not only fails to punish criminals and enforce legitimate order but also criminalizes the innocent.

Francis cites as an example Keith Jacobson, a farmer in the Midwest who was a pedophile (though the farmer claimed that he never acted on his perverted urges), who was arrested in a government sting operation in which he was induced to buy mail-order child porn (this was before the Internet era). The Supreme Court eventually exonerated him, but his life was destroyed. Francis writes that the laws against child pornography are certainly justified, but it does not follow that because the state cannot get at the overseas producers of the stuff, it should entrap American citizens with it. Francis goes on:

The Jacobson case is particularly important because, in a way, it was a kind of prototype for the later cases of David Koresh and Randy Weaver, and it may reflect a deliberate strategy by which admittedly bizarre people are selected for persecution. Few people can be expected to rush to the defense of a religious crackpot like Koresh, a white separatist like Weaver, or a pedophile like Jacobson when their rights are threatened. And, conservatives in particular can be expected to overlook the procedural irregularities in these cases if they disapprove of, or condemn, the substance of what the targets are doing. But, once these cases become precedents, citizens who are considerably less bizarre in their personal habits and beliefs than many conservatives will be safe for the anarcho-tyrants to hit.

The definition of “anarcho-tyranny” that my correspondent uses seems to have developed into something a bit different from, but obviously related to, what Sam Francis said back then. The Urban Dictionary defines it as:

Anarcho-tyranny is a concept, where the state is argued to be more interested in controlling citizens so that they do not oppose the managerial class (tyranny) rather than controlling real criminals (causing anarchy). Laws are argued to be enforced only selectively, depending on what is perceived to be beneficial for the ruling elite.

Anyway, something to think about.

What the forthcoming doxing of Parler users will do is foment civil war. Not just this particular instance, but the habit of doxing. I know of a person in Washington who is a Trump appointee working in the federal bureaucracy, nobody you or anybody else would have heard of. I looked up the person’s job title, and it is about as benign as you can imagine. This person is in the process of getting their family out of Washington, anticipating hackers, Antifa, or some other actors putting the family’s home address online, and left-wing ragemonkeys showing up at their house to teach “collaborators” a lesson. Is this person paranoid, or prudent? What would you do if you worked in Washington for the administration? Do you think your low level and your relative anonymity would protect you and your family — not from the state, but from these rogue actors.

The far right is going to start doing it back to people on the Left who are not involved at any high level in the state, or in corporations (but I repeat myself). If you were in management at Amazon Web Services now — AWS booted Parler — or at Twilio: how safe would you feel from doxxing? Could you protect your family if armed right-wing extremists showed up on your doorstep? What if some Antifa monsters, using the information they gathered from the Parler hack, show up at someone’s house and burn it down, or harm them or their family? What if they get the Parler person fired, and put him and his family into poverty? You think people are just going to sit back and take it?

And vice versa: people on the Left are not going to sit back and take being threatened by right-wing extremists.

This is how we are going to end up with an American version of China’s social credit system, as a means to control violence. I don’t anticipate that the state will implement it, as in China. I believe it will be instituted — and is now in the process of being instituted — by corporate America, led by Big Tech. Everyone who lives any part of his or her life online — and that’s most of us — is part of the network, and is traceable. There are going to be penalties for being associated with anybody connected to Trump or the Trumposphere. I’m not saying there should be; I’m saying that it’s coming, and that they’re going to do it legally, under the American framework. If you can be found online linked to any “problematic” people, well, you may not be able to shop on Amazon, or your shopping will be limited. You may not be able to get access to the infrastructure that makes the economy run. Maybe the Right will build an alternative institution — but how will those alt-builders get access to the infrastructure? If you were a young techie, how willing would you be to make yourself unemployable by helping Deplorables build networks within which they can shop, and find employment?

You see how this works? The government doesn’t have to get involved at all. It only cares about Evangelical Christians who won’t make wedding cakes for gay couples. It doesn’t care if Amazon decides to cut off problematic publishers or people from the electronic economy. Under our system, if Amazon (or any company) is not cutting you off for civil rights reasons — that is, for being a person of color, a woman, LGBT, etc. — then, broadly speaking, they can do it with impunity. This is what was annoying about Sen. Hawley’s denunciation of Simon & Schuster for dropping his book deal the other day. It wasn’t “Orwellian,” as he claimed, nor was it illegal. It’s perfectly legal. Whether it should be legal is an interesting question, but the plain fact is, corporate America has that power. The way it’s exercising it now, and will be doing in the days and weeks to come, is why I call it soft totalitarianism.

Conservatives are about to find out what it means when the power of corporate America is turned against us. Ask yourself: what would you do if your church found itself unable to participate fully in the economy because some of your parishioners had been on Parler, and companies that service your church found this out, either because someone doxxed them and made the connections, or the companies found out on their own? Would you stand by those parishioners, even though it imposed a cost on your church? These are the kinds of dilemmas we are going to be facing. The stuff I talk about in Live Not By Lies — it’s going to be very real here, starting right now. Watch the infrastructure.

leave a comment