News From Walter Duranty’s Paper
You might have missed Bret Stephens’s evisceration, in the pages of The New York Times, of The 1619 Project. It was respectful, in the sense that a pious gourmand prays over his meal before he devours it. Excerpts:
Journalists are, most often, in the business of writing the first rough draft of history, not trying to have the last word on it. We are best when we try to tell truths with a lowercase t, following evidence in directions unseen, not the capital-T truth of a pre-established narrative in which inconvenient facts get discarded. And we’re supposed to report and comment on the political and cultural issues of the day, not become the issue itself.
As fresh concerns make clear, on these points — and for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize — the 1619 Project has failed.
These two flaws led to a third, conceptual, error. “Out of slavery — and the anti-Black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional,” writes Silverstein.
Nearly everything? What about, say, the ideas contained by the First Amendment? Or the spirit of openness that brought millions of immigrants through places like Ellis Island? Or the enlightened worldview of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift? Or the spirit of scientific genius and discovery exemplified by the polio vaccine and the moon landing? On the opposite side of the moral ledger, to what extent does anti-Black racism figure in American disgraces such as the brutalization of Native Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act or the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II?
Monocausality — whether it’s the clash of economic classes, the hidden hand of the market, or white supremacy and its consequences — has always been a seductive way of looking at the world. It has always been a simplistic one, too. The world is complex. So are people and their motives. The job of journalism is to take account of that complexity, not simplify it out of existence through the adoption of some ideological orthodoxy.
This mistake goes far to explain the 1619 Project’s subsequent scholarly and journalistic entanglements. It should have been enough to make strong yet nuanced claims about the role of slavery and racism in American history. Instead, it issued categorical and totalizing assertions that are difficult to defend on close examination.
It should have been enough for the project to serve as curator for a range of erudite and interesting voices, with ample room for contrary takes. Instead, virtually every writer in the project seems to sing from the same song sheet, alienating other potential supporters of the project and polarizing national debate.
Stephens says, “The 1619 Project is a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around,” and concludes, “Through its overreach, the 1619 Project has given critics of The Times a gift.”
Read it all. It was a thorough repudiation of the celebrated project. Given the Jacobin atmosphere in the Times newsroom, Stephens has real stones to write that, and so does whoever runs the editorial page these days for running it. Someone, can’t remember who, said on Twitter that Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger must have been really pissed off over the criticism of The 1619 Project if he signed off on such a rebuke in the pages of the paper. Maybe. He ought to be. The 1619 Project, as Stephens proves, was nothing but left-wing agitprop.
Well. Today Times executive editor Dean Baquet came out swinging on behalf of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning matriarch of the project, issuing this statement:
“Work that boldly challenges prevailing views”? Please. The 1619 Project says exactly what America’s liberal and corporate elites want to hear. Besides, if the Times published an editorial package claiming space aliens built the pyramids, that would be boldly challenging prevailing views too (but the National Enquirer beat them to the story in the 1970s).
Baquet must have been under enormous pressure to make that statement. But it comes at a cost to his reputation. The essayist Wesley Yang tweeted:
Yep. The 1619 Project tells an ideologically appealing falsehood. It’s corrupting. And it’s a sign of decline towards something nasty. As I write in Live Not By Lies, Hannah Arendt saw this kind of thing — propaganda, and the willingness to believe useful lies — as a bellwether of totalitarianism:
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.
Here’s an important example of this happening in our time and place. In 2019, The New York Times, the world’s most influential newspaper, launched the “1619 Project,” a massive attempt to “reframe” (the Times’s word) American history by displacing the 1776 Declaration of Independence as the traditional founding of the United States, replacing it with the year the first African slaves arrived in North America.
No serious person denies the importance of slavery in US history. But that’s not the point of the 1619 Project. Its goal is to revise America’s national identity by making race hatred central to the nation’s foundational myth. Despite the project’s core claim (that the patriots fought the American Revolution to preserve slavery) having been thoroughly debunked, journalism’s elite saw fit to award the project’s director a Pulitzer Prize for her contribution.
Equipped with this matchless imprimatur of establishment respectability, the 1619 Project, which has already been taught in forty-five hundred classrooms,16 will find its way into many more.
Dean Baquet was faced with a powerful argument by one of his newspaper’s own columnists, revealing without a shadow of a doubt that The 1619 Project was based on a lie — but he still defended it. The mask and gloves really are off at Mr. Duranty’s paper.
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The Eyes Of Dorota Kravjanska
Great letter from a reader, who gives me permission to post it as long as I take his name out:
My name is [deleted], and I’m a young professional living in Boston, who was absolutely blown away by how compelling I found Live Not by Lies. I graduated an Ivy League university a couple years ago and had always assumed I would be a minority given my political/religious affiliations in liberal circles, but the past six or so months have truly astounded me in terms of people I thought were reasonable fully buying into lies as well as the total lack of normality that they support.I can think of a woman I work with (Evangelical background from [the South]) who I had previously held very frank and honest conversations with, who I can best describe as having been radicalized. She went home for the initial COVID work from home and then returned a completely different person. She has put gender pronouns in every single email, Zoom call and Skype message and joined the Diversity, Inclusion and Equity team with gusto. Now, she only talks about BLM and reducing the number of straight, white men in hiring and has essentially disowned her family and her background. What is bizarre to me is that she’s urged me to join those types of committees as well, assuming that I’ve changed too. I’ve decided to keep my distance and not buy into the series of lies and divisive content that those views propagate.On a more profound note, one line from your book in particular (from when you spoke to Krizka) has stuck with me, “The secular liberal idea of freedom so popular in the West, and among many in his postcommunist generation is a lie. That is, the concept that real freedom is found by liberating the self from all binding commitments (to God, to marriage, to family), and by increasing worldly comforts–that is a road that leads to hell.”It made me remember my favorite passage from Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven, condemning“our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of “making it”; our addictive dependence on drugs, “entertainment,” and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and familial ties, our preference for “nonbinding commitments”; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we “impose” our morality on others and thus invite others to “impose” their morality on us; our reluctance to judge and be judged; our indifference to future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude to the newcomers born into our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.”
I know you likely won’t be surprised by this (I’m a regular reader of your blog), but I think it’s worth mentioning just how atomized and disconnected from any sense of our culture, history and society the young elite class of our country are. My father always says, “You never learn who people truly are until you hear them speak when they think they’re among their own”. I can tell you firsthand: almost every single top Ivy League grad (working in investment banking, consulting, etc.) prizes nonbinding commitments above all, is obsessed with individualistic morality and sex, and has utter contempt for those with traditional lifestyles and closely-held views of right and wrong. Not that this makes them happy! You would not believe the rates of psychoactive drug prescriptions among this group of people and how deeply unhappy their lifestyles make them. I pray that those among this group who I consider friends eventually see the errors of their ways, but I don’t have much hope. All major societal institutions are telling them they are right and just.
Another reader writes about the “Living With The Body” post from earlier, saying that he teaches in a public high school, and recently led a discussion about a debate between two thinkers:
Virtually all of my students were all in when it came to expressive individualism. Even when I pressed them on the contradictions of the ideology and how it leads to absurdities, they clung to it. The word that comes to mind is “stubborn.” Even the Christian kids–who lead evangelical Christian groups on campus–couldn’t see the absurdity. Expressive individualism was to them like saying “the sky is blue.” Reminds me of that viral youtube video a while back where the interviewer got college educated young adults to claim with a straight face that they’d call him a 6 ft5 Chinese woman (the interviewer looked around 5ft 8 or so and was a white dude) if he identified as such.I think we have our work cut out for us. I try to do my part, but it feels like holding back a tsunami.
From his interviews with former Christian prisoners, Križka also learned something important about himself.
He had always thought that suffering was something to be escaped. Yet he never understood why the easier and freer his professional and personal life became, his happiness did not commensurately increase. His generation was the first one since the Second World War to know liberty—so why did he feel so anxious and never satisfied?
These meetings with elderly dissidents revealed a life-giving truth to the seeker. It was the same truth it took Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a tour through the hell of the Soviet gulag to learn.
“Accepting suffering is the beginning of our liberation,” he says. “Suffering can be the source of great strength. It gives us the power to resist. It is a gift from God that invites us to change. To start a revolution against the oppression. But for me, the oppressor was no longer the totalitarian communist regime. It’s not even the progressive liberal state. Meeting these hidden heroes started a revolution against the greatest totalitarian ruler of all: myself.”
All those rich, successful, miserable people in Boston don’t know as much about the secret of a good life as a poor elderly Slovak pensioner who had everything taken from her.
The photo above is of Dorota Kravjanska, one of the Slovak prisoners of conscience Timo photographed and interviewed for his extraordinary book Light In Darkness. I did the companion English text for him, with the help of Google Translate. I hope that the success of Live Not By Lies will inspire an American publisher to bring out a US edition of this incredible work by a brilliant young Slovak photographer.
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Living With The Body
Quillette is so invaluable. Where else would you be able to read this amazing warning tale by Scott Newgent, a female-to-male transsexual who is happy living as a male, but who says the overwhelming number of websites and media outlets selling trans to unhappy teenagers are lying to those kids and their families about what’s ahead. Excerpts:
Anyone going through this is in store for a brutal process. Yet we now have thousands of naïve parents walking their children into gender-treatment centers, often based on Internet-peddled narratives that present the transition experience through a gauzy rainbow lens. Many transition therapies are still in an experimental phase—as you will learn if you become sick during or after these treatments.
During my own transition, I had seven surgeries. I also had a massive pulmonary embolism, a helicopter life-flight ride, an emergency ambulance ride, a stress-induced heart attack, sepsis, a 17-month recurring infection due to using the wrong skin during a (failed) phalloplasty, 16 rounds of antibiotics, three weeks of daily IV antibiotics, the loss of all my hair, (only partially successful) arm reconstructive surgery, permanent lung and heart damage, a cut bladder, insomnia-induced hallucinations—oh and frequent loss of consciousness due to pain from the hair on the inside of my urethra. All this led to a form of PTSD that made me a prisoner in my apartment for a year. Between me and my insurance company, medical expenses exceeded $900,000.
During these 17 months of agony, I couldn’t get a urologist to help me. They didn’t feel comfortable taking me on as a patient—since the phalloplasty, like much of the transition process, is experimental. “Could you go back to the original surgeon?” they suggested.
Whenever you question the maximalist activist line on trans affirmation, you are directed to The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (or WPATH) as a reference. But much of what you find there consists of vague phrases such as “up to doctor’s discretion.” Several lawyers suggested I had a slam-dunk medical-malpractice case—until they realized that trans health doesn’t really have a justiciable baseline. As a result, treatment often is subpar, as I have experienced first-hand.
Newgent believes that transition ought to be restricted to adults, who, unlike children and minors, have the capacity to make these decisions:
For parents, I would say this: It is simply not your right or duty to decide to medically transition your child. Remove that burden from your mind. Medical transition is for adults. The negatives associated with medical transition are vast, and you won’t be the one who lives with the consequences. It will be your child. If your child tells you they will kill themselves if you do not allow them to medically transition (perhaps following a script he or she is provided on Reddit or Tumblr), take them to the hospital so they can be treated for suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation and seeking transition are separate issues, so separate them.
We talk a lot about oppression and marginalization. Well, I’m one of the people who’s been oppressed and marginalized—more so now that I have outed myself so that I can try to help others. The least you can do is pay attention to my message.
Read it all. It’s very brave. Newgent will be set upon by trans activists.
Later today I will be participating in an online Zoom discussion alongside Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon and the New York Times‘s Ross Douthat, in which we discuss a new book by O. Carter Snead of Notre Dame: What It Means To Be Human: The Case For the Body in Public Ethics.
I don’t want to give away here too much of what I’m going to say in my comments, but I’ll say this: Snead’s great new book really does illuminate how far we have gone down a dark road in our society. The three areas he focuses on are abortion, assisted reproduction, and end of life issues. Transgenderism never comes up, but it easily could have, as the thing all these phenomena have in common is a certain way of regarding the body. The word “God” never comes up in this book, and doesn’t need to for Snead to make his case. I finished the book with a greater understanding of the critiques I have been making for years about our social order. It might even be accurate to say that what is wrong with us is less about losing God than about losing Man — though I would say that having first lost God, we could not help but lose Man.
The core of the book is about the bioethics results from the anthropology nearly everyone has come to accept in the modern world. Snead says that our approach to bioethics depends on “an image of the human being that does not reflect the lived experience of embodied human reality in all its complexity.
Instead, it relies on a partial and incomplete vision of human identity that closely tracks what both sociologist Robert Bellah and philosopher Charles Taylor have identified as “expressive individualism,” in which persons are conceived merely as atomized individual wills whose highest flourishing consists in interrogating the interior depths of the self in order to express and freely follow the original truths discovered therein toward one’s self-invented destiny. Expressive individualism, understood in this sense, equates being fully human with finding the unique truth within ourselves and freely constructing our individual lives to reflect it.
People thus encounter one another as collaborative or contending wills, pursuing their own individual goals. Claims of unchosen obligations and unearned privileges are unintelligible within this framework. In this paradigm, the goods of autonomy and self-determination enjoy pride of place among ethical and legal principles. Law and government exist chiefly to create the conditions of freedom to pursue one’s invented future, unmolested by others and perhaps even unimpeded by natural limits.
Snead goes on to say
What is needed, and what this book offers, is an anthropological corrective, an augmentation to the foundations of American public bioethics. To govern ourselves wisely, justly, and humanely, we must begin by remembering the body and its meaning for the creation and implementation of law and policy.
Again, Snead’s arguments in the book are not based on religious claims. Rather, he talks about what it means to live as creatures with bodies. As it happens, I am deep into a terrific new novel, Alexandria, by the English writer Paul Kingsnorth, that is about the same thing. The novel is set a thousand years into a post-apocalyptic future. I won’t give away too much, but the philosophical question at the heart of the conflict is: what does it mean to be embodied? One character speaks of the glories of bodiless existence:
I have no sex, no prejudices, no mother, no father, no family, no home, no history. Thus, I am liberated.
If we use advanced technology to rid ourselves of our bodies, the conceit goes, then we can truly be free. We are free from suffering and death only when we shed our bodies. In the novel, there are a primitive people who resist this claim — but their resistance, interestingly, is based on what can only be described as religious belief. They are not Christians — Christianity seems to have disappeared from this world — but they hold the Earth and all that is in it to be sacred, and believe that those who preach bodiless liberation are demonic. I’m about three-quarters of the way through the novel (which comes out next week), and one thing that impresses me is how none of these simple people can make a philosophical argument against the sophisticated dualists. They rest on their pagan religious beliefs, and the deep intuitions they have from their bodies.
I didn’t plan to be reading Carter Snead and Paul Kingsnorth’s books at the same time, but doing so has been a revelation to me. Snead’s book revealed to me how the Story Of Which We Find Ourselves A Part (to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase, quoted by Snead) is wholly one in which nearly every narrative is built to support expressive individualism, and its core idea that you are what you desire to be. Kingsnorth’s dystopian fiction is about where that philosophy takes us — specifically, about the violence that Man does to Nature, and ultimately to himself, by using his intelligence and his technology to force the natural world, and his body, to surrender to his unfettered will.
Snead quotes Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion, for the Supreme Court majority, in the 1992 Casey decision reaffirming Roe v. Wade:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Embedded in this statement is the anthropology of expressive individualism. It’s the water in which we all swim. It minimizes and ultimately denies the reality of our embodied existence. Reading Carter Snead, and Paul Kingsnorth, and Scott Newgent together brings about an epiphany that makes one shudder, given how unlikely our civilization is to surrender this, its central myth. As the evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich explains in his wonderful new book The WEIRDest People In The World, this is not a belief that emerged in the 1960s, or even in the twentieth century. It has been building in the West for centuries.
But it’s a lie. The world is not like that. Seems to me that we need both critiques like Carter Snead’s and storytelling like Paul Kingsnorth’s, working together to help us remember who we are. We are embodied creatures. We are made to love and to suffer, together. This is the testimony not only of holy books, but of our bodies.
Anyway, I hope to see you on Zoom later this afternoon for the seminar.
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Deadly Sins Of Left & Right
American Compass runs a couple of interesting features from partisan thinkers criticizing their own side.
Here’s leftist academic Ruy Teixeira talking about the Five Deadly Sins of the Left. Even though the Left is probably going to win this next election, that’s a sign of Trump’s weakness, not the Left’s strength, says Teixera, because the truth is, “the public just isn’t interested in buying what the Left is selling.” Excerpts:
The Left has paid a considerable price for its increasingly strong linkage to militant identity politics, which brands it as focused on, or at least distracted by, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to this emerging worldview and are willing to speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They really are looked down upon by elements of the Left—typically younger, well-educated, and metropolitan—who embrace identity politics and the intersectional approach. This has contributed to the well-documented rupture in the Democratic Party’s coalition along lines of education and region.
What makes this sin so strange, counterproductive, and perhaps unforgivable, is that popular views on basic issues of tolerance and equality have become much more liberal over the years. The very things the Left was originally fighting for have become less controversial and more accepted—from gay marriage to women’s and racial equality to opposition to discrimination. The Left won.
Of course, that argument was prosecuted in the familiar language of fairness and civil rights; universal principles that have wide appeal and a deep foundation in the nation’s discourse. The same cannot be said for the boutique, academic-derived ideas and language favored by the identity-politics Left, or for the distinctly illiberal attitudes displayed toward dissent from those ideas or use of dis-approved language. Indeed, such emphasis and behavior is antithetical to the universal political and moral principles that have typically animated the Left and underpinned broad coalitions for social change. So long as the Left appears more interested in finding new enemies than in seeking new friends, it will fail to advance its many important priorities.
Identity politics is only one of the deadly sins of the Left, according to Teixeira. Read it all to see his full list.
His point is that the Left really could speak to what most American voters want — but it will have to overcome its own elites and their preferences to do it. He says:
A Left that promotes universal values, a better model of capitalism, practical problem-solving on climate change, and an economy that delivers abundance for all has a great opportunity. But first the Left has to decide if it wants to be popular or Brahmin, only one of which is likely to succeed in a democracy. That is a debate not currently happening.
Meanwhile, conservative think-tanker Henry Olsen shares his Three Deadly Sins of the Right. He begins by asking why it is that for the last 90 years, more Americans have said they are Democrats than Republicans, even when Republicans when national elections? The first Deadly Sin is free-market fundamentalism. Excerpt:
A commitment to individual freedom cannot, however, transform into a dogmatism that blinds its followers to the misery that individual human beings can cause to one another, including misery delivered by private means. Human history teaches us that the vast majority of people do not aspire to greatness, are not entrepreneurial risk takers, and will submit to bad deals to avoid death or penury. The very virtues that lead to good in the hands of the talented and the virtuous can, and too often do, lead to exploitation at the hands of the callous and the corrupt. Human civilization does not present the simple binary choice between public and private action that ideologues Left and Right want, with all good on one side and all evil on the other.
Too often, the Republican Party falls prey to market dogma and exalts private action and choice as goods in and of themselves regardless of the circumstances or the effects. Thus, the poor are undeserving of help because they are to blame for their plight; those who see their livelihoods cast aside and their communities destroyed by globalization deserve no consideration; minorities who are subject to discrimination on the job just need to take their lumps and persevere, perhaps even content in the knowledge that such inefficient human-resources practices will surely lead to their employers’ demise. This attitude is what I label “free-market fundamentalism,” the notion that whatever happens in private affairs is good per se and that government action can never be countenanced to restore justice to our lives, nor will it succeed if tried.
That’s true — but it’s also easy, and obvious. Still, I’m glad he said it, as I think it is the biggest problem facing the Right. A more interesting Deadly Sin of Olsen’s is Hubris, which expresses itself, he says, in part through the GOP fetishizing two personality types: the Businessman and the Pious Man. Excerpt:
Mitt Romney exemplifies the first category; much of his support was attributable to his business success. One Republican activist told me in 2012 that he backed Romney because his background meant he could make the necessary tough decisions. “He’s fired his friends,” this person exclaimed, seemingly oblivious to the fact that friends want help, not dismissal. When I warned another GOP leader that Romney was losing because voters perceived him as the scheming Mr. Potter from the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, that person responded that the film’s hero George Bailey, was a simp, and that Mr. Potter was a praiseworthy “value creator.” It was this sense that led Romney and many others in the GOP to embrace the morally obscene “makers versus takers” argument, the exposure of which arguably sunk Romney already floundering campaign.
Many in the Republican camp likewise elevate the believing Christian, seeing all others as fallen not only theologically, but also politically. Increasingly, Republican presidential nominees courting Iowa’s dominant religious conservatives feel obligated to proclaim fealty to Jesus Christ before the caucuses. Ted Cruz said during his presidential campaign that, “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.”
What do you think? What do you believe are some deadly sins of your own side? Or if not deadly sins, then at least things that make the party less successful or appealing than it really ought to be?
One I would add to the Right side — and I don’t know if this is a Deadly Sin, or a sin at all; it might just be an annoyance — is how the Right deals with patriotism. The Left comes across as ashamed to be proud of this country and its history. That’s repulsive to ordinary people. But the opposite extreme in the Republican Party is pretty off-putting too. This is probably the voice of a middle-aged guy who grew up in a period in which American greatness and military might was a constant message in popular culture (read Andrew Bacevich’s 2013 book about American militarism for good insight into this era and its psychological consequences), and who watched America launch a disastrous war in Iraq and an inconclusive forever war in Afghanistan. I don’t suppose it really costs the GOP much to be superpatriotic, but in the aftermath of these wars, this conservative voter finds it really off-putting. I feel like they’re trying not only to sell me something, but to sell themselves something. It’s political kitsch. Milan Kundera, talking about communist kitsch, says:
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
Kundera elsewhere defines kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit.” That’s pretty good. Republican kitsch absolutely denies that America is capable of shitty things. Democratic kitsch absolutely denies that American is capable of non-shitty things, except for when it admits its shittiness. I hate both forms of kitsch. They’re unreal, and they seem more about managing partisan emotions than saying anything true about our country and its people.
Again, I’m pretty sure that’s a boutique complaint. But as a conservative, I get so tired of the phony, manufactured emotionalism on my side. The first time I ever had a good thought about Donald Trump was the moment in the 2016 GOP candidates’ debate in South Carolina, when he said the Iraq War was a bad idea, breaking a taboo among major Republican candidates (Ron Paul had honorably said the same thing in his past runs, but he was always a fringe figure). Why was this taboo until Trump said it? The answer to that, however you define it, is a sin of the Right, possibly a deadly one.
Anyway, let’s hear it from you, about your own side: What are some deadly sins?
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Amazon Gives A Hand To Soft Totalitarianism
From Live Not By Lies:
Soft totalitarianism, as we will see in a later chapter, makes use of advanced surveillance technology not (yet) imposed by the state, but rather welcomed by consumers as aids to lifestyle convenience—and in the postpandemic environment, likely needed for public health. It is hard to get worked up over Big Brother when you have already grown accustomed to Big Data closely monitoring your private life via apps, credit cards, and smart devices, which make life so much easier and more pleasurable.
We’re always looking for ways to make our customers’ lives better, and one area where we’ve spent time innovating is the customer shopping experience in stores. Today, our physical retail team is excited to introduce a new innovation called Amazon One. Amazon One is a fast, convenient, contactless way for people to use their palm to make everyday activities like paying at a store, presenting a loyalty card, entering a location like a stadium, or badging into work more effortless. The service is designed to be highly secure and uses custom-built algorithms and hardware to create a person’s unique palm signature.
They add, in a Covid-19 reference:
And it’s contactless, which we think customers will appreciate, especially in current times.
In our social credit future, this biometric system and the data attached to it will be used to keep Deplorables from going into stores and workplaces. It will be difficult for them to buy or sell if they do not conform. The palmprint is the mark each of us will need to buy or sell — which we can do as long as the regime certifies that we are compliant, because there are no compromising data attached to our hands.
Let the reader understand.
You don’t think you need to read Live Not By Lies? Each day brings more birth pangs of the new world.
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Covid Slaps Tony Green Hard
Tony Green’s story is as scary as hell. Tony, 43, was a Covid minimizer, until it hit him and his family. Read on:
When President Trump got sick, I had this moment of deja vu back to when I first woke up in the hospital. I know what it’s like to be humiliated by this virus. I used to call it the “scamdemic.” I thought it was an overblown media hoax. I made fun of people for wearing masks. I went all the way down the rabbit hole and fell hard on my own sword, so if you want to hate me or blame me, that’s fine. I’m doing plenty of that myself.
He and his partner and their families had been social distancing for a long time, and finally got fed up with it. They planned a long weekend get-together. More:
I have about 4,000 people in my personal network, and not one of them had gotten sick. Not one. You start to hear jokes about, you know, a skydiver jumps out of a plane without a parachute and dies of covid-19. You start to think: “Something’s really fishy here.” You start dismissing and denying.
So they did. At the end of the weekend, Tony got sick. Then his partner did. Then both sets of parents did. All six people at that weekend get-together came down with the virus. Here’s where it gets freaky:
I told myself it wouldn’t be that bad. “It’s the flu. It’s basically just the flu.” I didn’t have the horrible cough you keep hearing about. My breathing never got too terrible. My fever peaked for like one day at 100.5, which is nothing — barely worth mentioning. “All right. I got this. See? It was nothing.” But then some of the other symptoms started to get wild. I was sweating profusely. I would wake up in a pool of sweat. I had this tingling feeling all over my body, this radiating kind of pain. Do you remember those old space heaters that you’d plug in, and the red lines would light up and glow? I felt like that was happening inside my bones. I was burning from the inside out. I was buzzing. I was dizzy. I couldn’t even turn my head around to look at the TV. I felt like my eyeballs were in a fishbowl, just bopping around. I rubbed Icy Hot all over my head. It was nonstop headaches and sweating for probably about a week — and then it just went away. I got some of my energy back. I had a few really good days. I started working on projects around the house. I was thinking: “Okay. That’s it. Pretty bad, but not so terrible. I beat it. I managed it. Nothing worth shutting down the entire world over.” Then one day I was walking up the stairs, and all of the sudden, I couldn’t breathe. I screamed and fell flat on my face. I blacked out. I woke up a while later in the ER, and 10 doctors were standing around me in a circle. I was lying on the table after going through a CT scan. The doctors told me the virus had attacked my nervous system. They’d given me some medications that stopped me from having a massive stroke. They said I was minutes away.
That’s the crazy thing about this virus — it hits people in different ways. I found out over the weekend that a classmate of mine from high school has been fighting the virus and its effects since June. He is now hospitalized; somehow, the thing is in his bones.
Tony wrote about it too for the Dallas Voice, the city’s gay newspaper. In his column, he said:
You cannot imagine the guilt I feel, knowing that I hosted the gathering that led to so much suffering. You cannot imagine my guilt at having been a denier, carelessly shuffling through this pandemic, making fun of those wearing masks and social distancing. You cannot imagine my guilt at knowing that my actions convinced both our families it was safe when it wasn’t.
For those who deny the virus exists or who downplay its severity, let me assure you: The coronavirus is very real and extremely contagious. Before you even know you have it, you’ve passed it along to your friends, family, coworkers and neighbors.
And now, husbands, wives and children are being separated. The sick are taking care of the sick while those without symptoms are self-quarantining. I am aware of how my bias could discredit me with some, but trust me, you do not want this virus. And you do not want your loved ones suffering and dying from this because you are taking a “political stand” or protecting the economy over their lives.
We are all at the precipice of a common heartache.
The next time you’re put out because your favorite spots are closed or because they won’t let you enter without wearing a mask, and you decide to defy them rather than comply because you’re defending your rights and freedoms from being trampled, just remember: Your family and friends may be next.
Is that too harsh? Try imagining someone you care about on life support. Try being the one to pick the only 10 people allowed to attend a funeral for a loved one. But don’t fret; you’ve got time to ponder, because the mortuary is booked out for at least a week.
Now imagine one more thing: That pool party, the mixer or family reunion you’re pushing for resulting in you being cold and alone in a hospital bed, fighting for your life. Imagine the only human contact you feel is a stranger’s rubber glove giving you medication, checking your vitals and changing your diaper.
That is exactly what has happened to our family.
America, this is not going to go away without sacrifice. Either way, we are going to pay a price. Governments are faced with making difficult decisions, and they cannot appease and satisfy everyone.
I appreciate his testimony. I needed to hear it. We cannot get complacent. Today I’ve been sleeping because I’ve had something of a relapse of Epstein-Barr symptoms, after having a reprieve in midsummer. It always comes back when I’m under stress; maybe all the book publicity triggered something, I dunno. If — probably when — Covid hits me, God knows what it’s going to do to me. It’s so unpredictable in its effects that the whole thing seems like a lottery.
News from Politico that the nations of Central Europe are really feeling the strain right now. I was e-mailing with a friend in Hungary about this earlier today, who said that Hungary faces a Sophie’s choice: either shut down hard and tank the economy, or try to stay open and overwhelm the health care system. This is going to be a very hard fall and winter, isn’t it?
As I’ve said here often, I think Trump’s handling of the virus has been terrible, really terrible. But I don’t expect things to change with the virus should Joe Biden become president. Here was the scene outside the Staples Center last night when the Lakers won the NBA Championship:
— Petros Papadakis (@Theoldp) October 12, 2020
We are Americans. We don’t discipline ourselves. We believe that will can overcome anything.
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‘F— You, Fascist,’ Said Progressive Christian
I received a longish e-mail last night from a reader, aged 62, who described himself as a progressive Episcopalian. He wrote to tell me why he has quit reading this blog. Most of the letter is regret, then anger, that I have not adopted the mainstream liberal line on all things racial. But then, at the end, he reveals his hand:
You’ve shown yourself to be a cruel, warped little man, and I can only hope and pray that one day you finally come to your senses. In the meantime, I’m joining several other people in calling for your jurisdiction in the ROCOR to suspend you from the sacraments until you publicly repent, and I hope the day soon comes with all of the mainstream denominations drive you and your ilk out for good.
So with all that said, let me offer my parting words: f*ck you, fascist scum. And if progressives ever do actually get political power in the United States – which I almost certainly won’t live to see at my advanced age, but one can always hope – you can better believe we’re coming after white supremacist churches like yours, and we’re not going to stop until you all lose your tax exempt status.
Well, golly. Rebukes like that make me laugh. I wrote back to the poor soul to offer gentle mockery, which was probably unkind, but was kinder than he deserved after that outburst. Perhaps I’m a bit too in touch with my inner Uncle Chuckie, but it comes with over three decades of being an opinion journalist. What other reasonable response is there to a grown man — indeed, a man of mature years — upchucking such drivel onto a stranger? What gets in to people?
(Plus, I’m not in a ROCOR — Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia — parish, but if I were, the idea that the most conservative jurisdiction of Orthodoxy in America would take orders from a progressive Episcopalian on how to govern its people is genuinely comical. But you’d have to be Orthodox to appreciate the vanity of a progressive Episcopalian saying so.)
I’m sharing this here, though, because that final paragraph really is a warning to the rest of us. I believe that there is a significant element in progressive Christianity in America that in years to come will be leading the charge to punish traditional churches and individual believers, to prove their loyalty to the regime and its ideology. It won’t be out of fear of their own persecution. It will be because they really do believe it.
From Live Not By Lies:
It’s possible to miss the onslaught of totalitarianism, precisely because we have a misunderstanding of how its power works. In 1951, poet and literary critic Czesław Miłosz, exiled to the West from his native Poland as an anti-communist dissident, wrote that Western people misunderstand the nature of communism because they think of it only in terms of “might and coercion.”
“That is wrong,” he wrote. “There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction.”
In The Captive Mind, Miłosz said that communist ideology filled a void that had opened in the lives of early twentieth-century intellectuals, most of whom had ceased to believe in religion.
Today’s left-wing totalitarianism once again appeals to an internal hunger, specifically the hunger for a just society, one that vindicates and liberates the historical victims of oppression. It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of “victims” to bring about “social justice.”
The contemporary cult of social justice identifies members of certain social groups as victimizers, as scapegoats, and calls for their suppression as a matter of righteousness. In this way, the so-called social justice warriors, (aka SJWs), who started out as liberals animated by an urgent compassion, end by abandoning authentic liberalism and embracing an aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism, as the Soviet style of communism was first called.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the cultural critic René Girard prophetically warned: “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.”
Girard and Milosz describe my correspondent, though he remains a religious believer, albeit one anchored in a diminishing cult that substitutes left-wing politics for authentic Christian spirituality. (We have these on the Christian Right too, sadly.)
What interests me more — and concerns me more — is how Critical Race Theory and “antiracism” is racing through the more conservative churches. Let me remind you of some fundamental dogmas of antiracism (an Orwellian term designed to manipulate), as stated by its chief spokesman, Ibram X. Kendi:
- The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.
- The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one.
- An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. “Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment.
There you have it. The only way to achieve justice, according to Kendi, is to discriminate against white people. White people who believe that justice requires fighting discrimination are worse than white nationalists. And there is no such thing as neutrality: all of life is filled with racial politics; everything you do and everything you think is either racist or antiracist.
This is a totalitarian race ideology — totalitarian because it leaves no aspect of life untouched by its race radicalism. Note well that it explicitly calls for people — white people, in this case — to be treated unequally under law because of their race, and if you oppose this because you believe that racial discrimination of any kind is immoral (as Dr. King taught), then you are worse than Richard Spencer and David Duke.
Ibram Kendi and his poison are welcomed by the most powerful companies in America to spread the word within. He is invited onto national TV to offer his counsel. “Antiracism,” a left-wing illiberal ideology, is part of the successor ideology to liberalism. This is what the powerful increasingly believe in this country. A college professor who teaches at a major US university told me the other day that the “architecture” of suppressing academic freedom, free speech, and free thought is going up right now throughout American academia — all in the name of “antiracism.”
Let me be clear: racism is wrong. Racism is sin. But you do not fight one kind of racism by instituting a different kind of racism. That’s what Kendi and his followers believe. It’s toxic, it’s dividing our country, and it’s going to lead to something very, very ugly.
This ideology has made its way into the (online) pages of Christianity Today, for a long time the flagship journal of American Evangelicalism. From an essay CT published online last week, under the title, “The Shocking Necessity of Racial Violence.” The author is a black woman, Christina Barland Edmondson. She begins by recalling the horrific racist violence of the 1920s Tulsa massacre. She points out — rightly! — that the Christianity of the white people of Oklahoma did not keep them from killing and plundering black people, solely because of race. There can be no doubt that Edmondson is right on this point. But then:
The so-called shared faith of white Christians and black Christians does not guard against violence toward the Emmett Tills, Tamir Rices, or George Floyds of society.
White supremacy’s sinful dance, swaying back and forth between Klansmen’s sheets and clergy robes, pains and plagues Christian of color and lies to white Christians. Violence is not neutered or challenged. White Christianity’s very design exists to maintain false piety and sear the consciences of white people against the oppression and exploitation of blacks.
Whoa! Emmitt Till was murdered by whites in Mississippi in 1955, in what was unmistakably a racist crime. The child Tamir Rice was shot by police in a 2014 accident when he pointed a toy gun at officers. That was a tragedy — but how in the world is it a racist act comparable to the murder of Emmitt Till? And in the George Floyd case, it is by no means clear that his death at the hands of Minneapolis police was motivated by racism. For Edmondson, though, the fact that the victims in all these cases were black is the only fact that matters.
This, of course, is how the “antiracism” theorists reason: the only explanation for disparities in outcome among racial groups in which blacks are disadvantaged (not, say, the NBA), is racism.
Edmondson goes on:
Spiritual violence against black Americans in the political sphere means disparaging and minimizing the faith of black Christians. Appealing to the notion of a singular Christian worldview, Southern Baptist Seminary president Al Mohler stated in a room filled with white men that a vote for Trump in 2020 would be most in line with “Christian worldview.” Mohler’s statement went beyond the partisan and political. His statement was theological with significant implications for the unity of the church in America. As president of the flagship seminary for the largest Christian denomination in the United States, his religious endorsement of a highly controversial president known for racist and sexist rhetoric and actions mattered significantly.
Christians debate the appropriateness of religious leaders speaking so openly about their personal support of candidates and the necessity of other Christians to fall in line. My concern, while subtle, knocks at the door of spiritual violence. By saying one’s “Christian worldview” leads to reelecting Donald Trump in 2020, Mohler asserts that faithful Christian theology applied to politics must draw the same political conclusions as most white conservative Christian men in this country. This is the group that has voted and will likely vote for Trump in large numbers again.
This same assertion, proclaimed from pulpits, tweets, and faux confessional statements, put on trial the Christian integrity and witness of black Christians who have overwhelmingly voted against Donald Trump. Black women report some of the highest levels of Bible study, charitable giving, authoritative views on Scripture, amount of time praying, and church attendance. But because of their political and theological misalignment with Trump and Republican agendas, they are deemed by default biblically ignorant, and at worse, heretics, cultural Marxists, and whatever new term works to caricature and discredit those holding a differing view. Welcome to politically motivated spiritual violence.
This is appalling, and I cannot believe it was published by Christianity Today. Al Mohler may or may not be correct about the necessity for Christians to support Donald Trump. It is a prudential judgment. I know Christians who are completely unconflicted about voting for either Trump or Biden. But I also know Christians who are going to vote for Joe Biden, though they cannot abide the Democratic Party’s policies, because they believe that the continuing presence of Trump in office hurts the country. And I know Christians who are going to vote for Donald Trump, though they cannot stand him and think he has been a lousy president overall, because they believe that putting a Democrat in the White House would result in laws and policies that hurt the country more than having Trump does.
I don’t judge the quality of those people’s faith based on how they plan to vote, and I resent it when people do. Edmondson crosses some important lines in her denunciation of Al Mohler. She’s perfectly within her rights to criticize his judgment. But she goes farther. She accuses him of racism, simply for reaching a different political conclusion than black Christians — as if disagreeing with black Christians on political matters is necessarily racist. She puts words in Mohler’s mouth that he did not say. She accuses him of “politically motivated spiritual violence.” Coming right after a denunciation of the murderers of the Tulsa victims, and of Emmitt Till, as well as those who killed Tamir Rice and George Floyd, this is unconscionable. Christianity Today ought to be ashamed for publishing such slander.
Edmonson ends with this:
The humanity and its intrinsic resistance to oppression is so evident in the black believer in America, pushing, pressing, praying, and protesting against the violence of racism. Through humor, scholarship, and art, they mock the foolishness of the caste system that places the beloved of God on the bottom. The necessary violence of racism is combated by the nonviolent and steadfast resistance of black Christians, which reminds all of us who we are designed to be. White Christians, will your shared humanity and Christianity move you from violence and violence-denying to the nonviolence of empathy, solidarity, and repair?
Oh? What about all the rioting and looting, in which black Americans participated? Was that the fault of black Christianity? Of course it wasn’t. You cannot blame the black church for what those individual criminals did. You cannot plausibly blame all black people for what they did, any more than you blame all white people for racial violence perpetrated by individual whites. The sacrificial work of abolitionism by white Christians of the 19th century does not negate the evils done by white segregationist Christians, but it should at least remind people that the line between good and evil on racial matters does not run between the races.
Collective guilt is a monstrous idea. Racializing ordinary political and theological differences, and accusing one’s political opponents (if they are white) of being party to a long and brutal history of violence, including rape and murder, simply because of the color of their skin — that is scandalous.
And it is fundamentally anti-Christian. Every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us has it within our hearts to give ourselves over to all manner of sin, including violence. And, like the aboriginal sinner Adam, we want to point the finger at the Other, to externalize our shame by saying that the Other Person made us do it, or the Other Person bears the true guilt here, or the Other Person is more evil, and so forth. Resorting to a strategy of collective guilt (and its corollary, collective innocence), is dangerous and corrupting.
I don’t see anything wrong in principle with examining the history of how the church in America has handled, and mishandled, racial matters. But this interrogation has to be carried out in good faith, not as an empty exercise in asserting power. What I’m seeing today from too many places — including among white Christians — is exactly what Rene Girard saw twenty years ago:
The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.
We are living through a caricatural “ultra-Christianity” that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by “radicalizing” the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.
I took that from the Stanford scholar Girard’s 2001 book I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning. This further quote is useful:
I did not read Mohler’s defense of voting for Trump, but I imagine it has to do with the fact that the Democratic Party and contemporary progressivism favors precisely the things that Girard lists as the effects of radical contemporary victimology: abortion, euthanasia, and sexual undifferentiation. It is entirely possible that Trump is so bad that it is necessary for believing Christians to vote for the Democrats anyway. I don’t believe that personally, but I believe that it is possible for a Christian to believe that in good faith. But what must be firmly rejected is this idea that a Christian who votes against the party of abortion, euthanasia, and sexual undifferentiation is guilty of racialized “spiritual violence.”
This is a great deception. It is being used now to silence dissent: either get in line behind progressive politics, racial and otherwise, or stand denounced as a bigot. This is not about expanding the conversation and deepening our understanding of a complex phenomenon. It is about forcing dissenters to fall silent.
It will not stop there. Mark my words: it will not stop there. I began this post with a quote from a letter a self-described progressive Episcopalian sent to me to denounce me. I believe the vanguard leading the charge against individual traditional Christians, their churches, and their institutions — will be zealous progressive Christians. Ultra-Christians, as Girard might have called them. More Christian than Christ.
UPDATE: Reader Digory posts this comment:
Just so there is no confusion, Christina Edmondson appeared at an event hosted by the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2016. The Gospel Coalition was also a host (think Trevin Wax). So she’s not criticizing Al Mohler from the outside; this is internal warfare against religious conservatism.
Evangelical leaders made *huge* bets that Edmondson and friends would bring about racial reconciliation in our churches. Instead, there is huge pressure to join Kendi’s feel-good racism. Either the SBC and PCA will become a force for this new liberation theology, or else there will be new, woke-evangelical denominations.
About 15 years ago, we had a resurgence in Reformed Puritanism among evangelicals. It’s hard to believe it all amounted to the creation of a new PC(USA). But that seems to be the best possible outcome.
UPDATE.2: Sorry, a reader just pointed out that I forgot to link to the CT essay. I’ve repaired that in the above post; here’s the link again.
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Queering The Elementary Classroom
I was catching up on your blog today when I read “White Kids To Back Of School Bus” and saw that none other than Evanston, Illinois has finally made its inglorious AmCon debut.As you’ve read, it is an incredibly Progressive area, with BLM and “In This House We Believe In…” screeds on every front lawn.So I am not at all surprised to see that Superintendent Horton has made the blog. I used to work as a substitute teacher in an Evanston school district. Attached are a couple of pictures that I took [last year] of some of the posters which are tacked up on the bulletin boards in every classroom at an elementary school.This is indoctrination for a secular religion. It is frightening.
One of contemporary progressivism’s commonly used phrases—the personal is political—captures the totalitarian spirit, which seeks to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness. Indeed, the Left pushes its ideology ever deeper into the personal realm, leaving fewer and fewer areas of daily life uncontested. This, warned Arendt, is a sign that a society is ripening for totalitarianism, because that is what totalitarianism essentially is: the politicization of everything.
Infusing every aspect of life with ideology was a standard aspect of Soviet totalitarianism. Early in the Stalin era, N. V. Krylenko, a Soviet commissar (political officer), steamrolled over chess players who wanted to keep politics out of the game.
“We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” he said. “We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess,’ like the formula ‘art for art’s sake.’ We must organize shockbrigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.”
This is how it’s done: immerse the children in left-wing cultural politics from the time they are tiny.
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The Story Of Which We Are A Part
I’ve always got several books going, and yesterday I added one more to the mix: Alexandria, the forthcoming novel from Paul Kingsnorth (will be published on October 20; pre-order here.) I love Kingsnorth’s essays — read some of them here — and have become e-mail friends with him since he wrote me earlier this year after commenting on this blog. He’s an Englishman who lives in rural Ireland. He arranged for his publisher to send me an advance copy of Alexandria; it arrived yesterday. I started reading it at once, and though it’s a little hard to get into, I’m hooked now.
It’s set far into the post-apocalyptic future, among a small community of people living in the fens of east England. They are primitive; we don’t know the nature of the apocalypse that befell the Earth in time out of mind. They have created a natural religion to help them make sense of their world — a story of which they are a part. What made this book a little difficult for me to get into was Kingsnorth’s experimental prose. He is imagining the way people living under those circumstances would talk, having only received the English language, and standard English spelling, in a fragmentary way after the apocalypse.The brokenness of their sentences and spelling is a sign of the severity of the collapse. Here’s an excerpt:
I was struggling with this style until I read it out loud, as an experiment — then everything clicked. Kingsnorth writes like a bard.
Here is the Fall of Man myth that the people of this community hold. Notice how it’s the same one from Genesis — a serpent seducing man — but they have no memory of the Bible.
Get that? The tempter comes as as one who will expose the Way as a lie, as a construct of power that prevents Man from realizing that He is actually a god. He is the bodiless exposer of the Way as a lie meant to keep Man down. Note that in this mythology, the fact that Sir Pent doesn’t have a body is indicative of his nature as a Deceiver. Somehow, I believe, as this book unfolds, we are going to learn that the mythology that these people live by derives from their experience living with bodies in the world.
These people have a prophet, an old man who dreams. They regard birds as sacred, and as carrying portents for them. Early in the book — I’m only 35 pages in — he foretells the return of swans, which no one alive has ever seen. These are the first glimpses the reader gets of the story that this isolated community of survivors lives by.
Anyway, the book is fascinating. Once you get used to its style, it’s like reading documents from an ancient world, though this one far into the future.
It brought to mind a famous line of Alasdair MacIntyre’s:
I’ve been thinking about this quote this weekend, actually. On Saturday, I participated in a small Zoom discussion of Live Not By Lies that an old friend organized. One of the participants mentioned that it’s a shame that so many people were so willing to abandon churchgoing in Covidtide. I told him that I disagree — and that my take on the topic was determined in part by realizing that the story of which I find myself a part is the story of Christian prisoners of conscience in the Soviet bloc. (I didn’t put it like that, but that’s what I was saying.)
I explained that I found myself less freaked out by the Covid restrictions on churchgoing than many of my Christian friends did. I couldn’t quite understand it, until I thought about it, and realized how deeply I had absorbed the accounts of Christians who survived communist prisons.
One of the best books I read in my Live Not By Lies research is the prison memoir of Silvester Krcmery (pronounced “kirch-MERRY”). I have an English translation published in Bratislava under the title This Saved Us: How To Survive Brainwashing. It was later published in the US under the more anodyne title Break Point. Whoever holds the copyright to this book, I beg you to bring it back into print now that Dr. Krcmery is a key figure in a new American bestseller. This book is absolute gold.
In it, Dr. Krcmery, who was thrown into a communist prison in Slovakia for his Christian faith, talks in detail about the things he did to withstand torture, interrogation, and imprisonment. Among his strategies: never feel sorry for yourself. Think of the time in prison as an opportunity to do penance. Think of yourself as “God’s probe” — there to learn spiritually and morally, so that you can help others. With the normal Christian life taken away from you, establish prayer disciplines within the confines of your new reality. Offer your suffering as a gift to God, for the sake of others who suffer. Meditate on your life and on all those you know and love. Think about Scripture. Pray. Pray. Pray.
How small our sacrifices seem when compared to what Christians like Dr. Krcmery, and countless others, had to endure at the hands of communist torturers and jailers! Nevertheless, they were and are real sacrifices. Krcmery teaches us how to approach this trial. I’m also reminded — and I’ll post on this tomorrow, in a separate context — of something a friend told me about recently: the Stockdale Paradox. It’s something that the heroic prisoner of war Admiral James Stockdale once said, about those who survived captivity in Vietnam, and those who didn’t. The optimists were the ones who died of heartbreak, Stockdale said — the ones who kept telling themselves things like, “We’ll be home by Christmas!” The ones who survived were those who held onto hope that they would eventually prevail, but who did not fortify themselves with the false promises of optimism.
So it is with us Christians during Covidtide. The story of which we find ourselves a part did not include suffering, not really. That’s why we have been so cold-cocked by the Covid plague: this kind of suffering has not been in our experience. We didn’t imagine that it could happen to us. But here it is. Now it is time for us to realize that what happened to Dr. Krcmery, and all the other prisoners of conscience, really is part of our own stories as Christians. And because these men and women learned first-hand what it means to suffer well, with sanctity and integrity, they share that with us, so we can make it a real part of our own chapter in the Christian story stretching around the world, and back two millennia.
What if Covidtide has been a severe mercy from God, a gift given to prepare us for a much worse trial to come? In Live Not By Lies, I quote Dr. Krcmery (d. 2013) saying:
We live, contented and safe, with the idea that in a civilized country, in the mostly cultured and democratic environment of our times, such a coercive regime is impossible. We forget that in unstable countries, a certain political structure can lead to indoctrination and terror, where individual elements and stages of brainwashing are already implemented. This, at first, is quite inconspicuous. However, often in a very short time, it can develop into a full undemocratic totalitarian system.
Dr. Krcmery was ready for the harshness of communist prison because his spiritual father, the priest Tomislav Kolakovic, had prepared him and the others in their fellowship. Now Dr. Krcmery, Father Kolakovic, and the others are offering to us their stories, for the sake of our own preparation. If you have absorbed these stories as I have, you will not be rattled by this Covid trial of church closures, because you know that it can get much, much worse, and that we Christians absolutely need to prepare ourselves internally and communally for a time when we may not be able to go to church at all, and not because of a virus. Let the reader understand.
One more quote from the Krcmery part of Live Not By Lies:
“Memorizing texts from the New Testament proved to be an excellent preparation for critical times and imprisonment,” he writes. “The most beautiful and important texts which mankind has from God contain apriceless treasure which ‘moth and decay cannot destroy, and thieves break in and steal’ (Matthew 6:19).”
Committing Scripture to memory formed a strong basis for prison life, the doctor found.
“Indeed, as one’s spiritual life intensifies, things become clearer and the essence of God is more easily understood,” he writes. “Sometimes one word, or a single sentence from Scripture is enough to fill a person with a special light. An insight or new meaning is revealed and penetrates one’s inner being and remains there for weeks or months at a time.”
Dr. Krcmery did not want to be in prison, heaven knows. But the communists didn’t give him a choice in he matter. His spiritual preparation ahead of time (including memorizing Scripture for a time when he could not have a Bible), and his fundamental attitude of there being nothing greater than the opportunity to lay down his life for God, made all the difference. It will for us too, under our much less harsh but still burdensome circumstances.
We will only know what we are to do when faced with trials if we first know the story of which we find ourselves a part. Our story as the Church on a pilgrimage through time is also the story of martyrs and confessors. They offer us priceless wisdom that we now need to understand how to be steadfast in the face of trials that we cannot escape, but only endure. Mere optimism will be the spiritual death of us. We need hope.
For most of us, our story as Americans and as American Christians, has been one of freedom, stability, and prosperity. Of course black Christians have a very different narrative (I hope a black Christian writes a Live Not By Lies or a Benedict Option based on the black church’s historical experience), and other religious believers (Catholics, Mormons, etc) have found themselves persecuted at times. For most of us, at most times, our story is one of peace and plenty. As Dr. Krcmery, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and other dissidents testify, this can all disappear faster than you think. If our story as Christians does not make a central place for suffering as a normative part of the Christian experience, then we are not going to make it through this coming trial. American believers who have only ever been taught that peace, plenty, and religious liberty are normal will experience the loss of these things as a falsification of the Christian story. Those who know better, they stand a better chance of coming through with their faith intact.
I’m going back to Alexandria now, to see how Kingsnorth’s fictional tribe finds the hope and meaning they need to endure their trials. Stories like this can sometimes become part of our story too. Kingsnorth’s terse retelling of the Fall of Man myth helps me understand the actual Fall better. The second part of the myth involves Man climbing into the crown of the World Tree, and the serpent binding him there in pain and terror for nine days, before letting him fall back to the ground. I am quite eager to see where Kingsnorth takes his characters, and me, his reader.