A Lesson From The Spanish Civil War
Y’all know that I am a big advocate of studying the Spanish Civil War, looking for insights about where we in the US might — might — be headed, and how we can avoid Spain’s fate. If you haven’t yet watched this six-part 1980s-era British TV documentary on YouTube, please do — even if it’s just the first episode (prelude to war).
Many Americans don’t realize that the intelligentsia was, and is, heavily biased towards the Spanish Republican side, and against General Franco and the Nationalists. A reader of this blog says that the American academic historian Stanley Payne is the only reliable contemporary chronicler, in English, of the war. She sent me a new piece by Payne, in First Things, writing about the road to revolution. It’s excellent. It begins like this:
The classic theory of revolution was formulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed in The Ancien Régime and the Revolution that “it was precisely in those parts of France where there had been the most improvement that popular discontent ran highest.” Revolution is not generally provoked by deteriorating conditions; rather, complaints tend to increase after conditions have already begun to improve. “The regime destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than the one that immediately preceded it, and experience teaches us that the most hazardous moment for a bad government is normally when it is beginning to reform.” The absolutist government of Louis XIV had provoked less resentment than did the milder rule of Louis XVI.
Tocqueville’s observation has been borne out by history. Modern revolutions take place not in the most traditional societies, but in polities in which a certain degree of reform and modernization has already occurred. The preliminary revolution, called by Jonathan Israel the “revolution of the mind,” consists of rising expectations. Once such attitudes have taken hold, some new crisis or setback, which may or may not be important in itself, can trigger revolution.
Revolutions succeed only where the old order is relatively weak. Because the existing regime offers little resistance, the revolution’s initial stages may be comparatively easy, not accompanied by great disorder or bloodshed. Over time, though, the revolutionary process leads to greater radicalization and greater carnage, often involving civil or foreign war. It may stimulate violent opposition and, in some cases, a counterrevolutionary movement that may be almost as radical, though with a very different program.
Spain provides the only example of a full-scale, mass, violent collectivist revolution developing out of a modern Western liberal democratic polity. The Second Spanish Republic of 1931–39 had created the first liberal democratic system in the country’s history, with, at first, impartial elections based on universal suffrage and broad constitutional guarantees of civil rights. This achievement did not prevent revolution and civil war.
Payne writes about how in the Republic, the Left refused to allow parties of the Right to participate fully — and particularly tried to repress the Catholic Church. When the Republican government in 1934 included more right-of-center parties, leftist radicals staged bloody insurrections, which were put down by the state:
In fact, the republican government enforced the mildest repression after a major revolt in Europe since the Paris Commune of 1871. But the revolutionary insurrection was justified in the press as an act of defending democracy against fascism. This agitation, international in scope, marked the beginning of the mythification of the revolutionary process in Spain, an attitude that persists in some quarters to the present day. The portrayal of revolutionary insurrection as a defense of democracy followed Trotsky’s maxim in his History of the Russian Revolution: To have the best chance, revolutionaries must appear to act on the defensive when seizing power.
The failure of direct insurrection required a change in strategy. The left began to seize absolute power through the democratic process itself, advancing revolutionary aims under the cover of legality.
After the 1936 elections revealed a Spain more polarized than ever, leftist groups began staging more violent actions. This time, though, they held institutional power:
Though they were still divided among themselves, for the next five months the revolutionary movements participated in a prerevolutionary offensive with destructive zeal. Spain was roiled by violent demonstrations, strikes, mob outbursts, acts of arson and property destruction, and the direct seizure of farmland. Local governments under socialist control often abetted and sometimes led such actions. The socialists sought to use the republican government as cover for promoting violence and social breakdown, hoping that a weak-armed reaction from the right might provide justification for a socialist-dominated revolutionary government with broad power.
After the suspicious death, in state custody, of the spokesman for the parliamentary opposition, elements of the army, led by Gen. Franco, revolted. Spain was now plunged into a savage civil war. Read it all.
Payne concludes with this lesson for us:
Revolution is not an event but a process, and a complex one. Radicals who fail to overthrow a constitutional system by force may find it useful to exploit that same system. Though their intention is to destroy the regime, they can purport to defend it when its institutions serve their short-term interests. They will invoke free speech as a cover for left-wing violence, even as they deny it to peaceful demonstrators on the right. They will honor votes unless they endanger progressive dominance, in which case the victorious right will be labelled “undemocratic.” In these circumstances, far from being a guarantee against revolutionary takeover, democratic procedures provide cover for its advance.
In Live Not By Lies, I wrote about how the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in part because the broader middle class would not defend the autocratic system from radical challenge. Of course they were not called to defend a democracy, but autocracy. Yet that autocracy was vastly less bad than what the Bolsheviks brought to Russia. But people didn’t realize that in the pre-revolutionary years. From LNBL:
Arendt warns that the twentieth-century totalitarian experience shows how a determined and skillful minority can come to rule over an indifferent and disengaged majority. In our time, most people regard the politically correct insanity of campus radicals as not worthy of attention. They mock them as “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.”
This is a serious mistake. In radicalizing the broader class of elites, social justice warriors (SJWs) are playing a similar historic role to the Bolsheviks in prerevolutionary Russia. SJW ranks are full of middle-class, secular, educated young people wracked by guilt and anxiety over their own privilege, alienated from their own traditions, and desperate to identify with something, or someone, to give them a sense of wholeness and purpose. For them, the ideology of social justice—as defined not by church teaching but by critical theorists in the academy— functions as a pseudo-religion. Far from being confined to campuses and dry intellectual journals, SJW ideals are
transforming elite institutions and networks of power and influence.
The social justice cultists of our day are pale imitations of Lenin and his fiery disciples. Aside from the ruthless antifa faction, they restrict their violence to words and bullying within bourgeois institutional contexts.They prefer to push around college administrators, professors, and white-collar professionals. Unlike the Bolsheviks, who were hardened revolutionaries, SJWs get their way not by shedding blood but by shedding tears.
Yet there are clear parallels—parallels that those who once lived under communism identify.
Like the early Bolsheviks, they are radically alienated from society. They too believe that justice depends on group identity, and that achieving justice means taking power away from the exploiters and handing it to the exploited.
Social justice cultists, like the first Bolsheviks, are intellectuals whose gospel is spread by intellectual agitation. It is a gospel that depends on awakening and inspiring hatred in the hearts of those it wishes to induce into revolutionary consciousness. This is why it matters immensely that they have established their base within universities, where they can indoctrinate in spiteful ideology those who will be going out to work in society’s institutions.
As Russia’s Marxist revolutionaries did, our own SJWs believe that science is on their side, even when their claims are unscientific. For example, transgender activists insist that their radical beliefs are scientifically sound; scientists and physicians who disagree are driven out of their institutions or intimidated into silence.
Social justice cultists are utopians who believe that the ideal of Progress requires smashing all the old forms for the sake of liberating humanity. Unlike their Bolshevik predecessors, they don’t want to seize the means of economic production but rather the means of cultural production. They believe that after humanity is freed from the chains that bind us—whiteness, patriarchy, marriage, the gender binary, and so on—we will experience a radically new and improved form of life.
Finally, unlike the Bolsheviks, who wanted to destroy and replace the institutions of Russian society, our social justice warriors adopt a later Marxist strategy for bringing about social change: marching through the institutions of bourgeois society, conquering them, and using them to transform the world. For example, when the LGBT cause was adopted by corporate America as part of its branding strategy, its ultimate victory was assured.
What does this have to do with what Stanley Payne wrote about the prelude to the Spanish Civil War?
The cultural left really is marching through the institutions, and using institutional power to marginalize conservatives and moderates, and push us out. This year, we have seen an upsurge in institutional radicalization, with even the books and ideas that do not affirm the Revolution now being cast out of high schools and colleges. This is exactly how a revolution happens, even if the structures are left standing. And nobody protests! Here’s Bari Weiss, who took a costly stand against the mob, calling on people to end their silence:
If the people who understand what is happening, and how the Left is installing a soft totalitarian system while at the same time claiming to be fighting against racism, homophobia, and the rest, then we will fall. The other day I heard from a prominent conservative Christian who told me that Live Not By Lies is right on target, but that everywhere he looks he sees fellow conservative Christians who will not risk discomfort by standing up against this soft totalitarianism.
I know what you’re thinking: “If you think the Left is such a threat, why are you not out there supporting Stop The Steal, the Jericho March, and the Resistance?” The answer is because I don’t trust them at all, and because in truth, they pose no real threat to this increasingly unquiet revolution. It’s all performative with that crowd. They satisfy themselves with, “But he fights!” — ignoring that at best, Trump has only slowed down the takeover. There’s no strategy there, only emoting about God, the flag, and pillows. Instead of a Gen. Franco, a leader who seriously and effectively fought the radical left, they have produced a Gen. Flynn, the crackpot who is now openly promoting the QAnon cult.
The Right needs leadership. Desperately.
Beyond that, all of us need to wake up to where we are going if we don’t stop ourselves. The Spanish Civil War caused terrible scars in Spain, scars that are barely even scars, but still close to open wounds. This is not what we want, Left or Right. But at some point — you see this in that documentary series — the hatred and polarization was such that war was unavoidable. If you think it can’t happen here, you aren’t paying attention.
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Continuing The TAC Conversation
In these waning hours of 2020 — O Year of Infamy! — I’d like to appeal to you readers who are not struggling financially to consider a tax-deductible gift to The American Conservative.
I don’t know how many of you read around on the site, but I do know that all of you read this blog. This morning I’ve been thinking back over the past decade for a roundup post I’m doing, and it occurred to me that I started working at TAC in the summer of 2011. I have worked at TAC for longer than I worked anywhere else. I cannot even begin to count the number of words I’ve written here, but I can tell you that this blog was the birthplace of four books: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013), How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015), The Benedict Option (2017), and Live Not By Lies (2020).
Four books that wouldn’t exist if not for this blog. Four books that wouldn’t exist if not for you faithful readers, especially you donors. That photo above, from TAC’s 2018 fundraising gala, is an example of how this works. See the guy on the right, Viliam Ostatnik? He’s a Slovak grad student who was in Washington as part of his studies. He’s a young conservative, and came to our event. I met him there, and we became friends. The next year, when I was in Bratislava researching Live Not By Lies, Viliam served as my interpreter, opening the door to a new world. I absolutely could not have written Live Not By Lies without him. We met at a TAC event. Here is Viliam, Self, and historian Jan Simulcik in 2019, in a secret chamber underneath a Bratislava house; in that room, for ten years, the underground church printed samizdat prayer books, catechisms, and other material, right under the nose of the Communist secret police. Jan was part of that movement, and is now a historian of it. Viliam translated Jan’s words for me. I write about that room, and Jan’s role in the underground church, in Live Not By Lies.
There you have only one fruit of your investment in cultivating ideas, writers, and community around The American Conservative. There are more!
I hear these days from readers who write to tell me that they used to think of me as an alarmist, but this year, 2020, has convinced them that I was right all along. That pleases me, not in an “I told you so” way, but because I have written my last two books as an alarm to wake up the church and to inspire us to prepare ourselves, individually and collectively, for hard times to come. If not for the fact that TAC has given me a place to write, and to work out my ideas in public before writing about them in books, I am certain that these books would not exist. If you recognize any value in the things I have written in those books, please consider a gift to TAC.
What a privilege it is to be a writer who works for a magazine that will not cancel me for saying what I think! Do you know how rare that is? Nobody at TAC has ever told me what I can and can’t write. That is golden. If TAC went away, it would be impossible for me to get a job in mainstream media, simply because of my stated opinions on identity politics — opinions that haven’t essentially changed since I first became a conservative three decades ago, but which are now forbidden in our mainstream media. TAC has been a home to me for almost a decade, and the home of many other writers whose views now make them persona non grata among the Respectable Establishment Media.
Look, I know you don’t agree with everything I write, or that TAC publishes. I know I make everybody here mad about something from time to time. I write a lot, almost every day. Sometimes I’m wrong (in which case, I appreciate your telling me). I always try to be interesting and challenging. If it’s important to you to keep publications where that kind of thing is possible, then won’t you consider a year-end donation to TAC?
I’ve been to the DC Mothership of TAC three, maybe four times in the past decade. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it is a shoestring operation. I don’t mean by that “rinky-dink,”not at all, but I mean that your donations really do go primarily into content. When you give to TAC, you’re not supporting DC journalism swamp creatures. You are helping to support writers who really care about ideas, and who could make a lot more money doing something else, but they choose to write for a living because they see it as an important vocation.
I hope you do too, and I hope those of you who have extra to spare this year will consider supporting our vocation here at The American Conservative. I thank you for the votes of faith you have given us with your faithful readership this year and every year, and I especially thank you who have favored us with (tax-deductible!) financial assistance. It means the world. Click here to donate, and to continue the conversation into the new year.
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Sexual Soft Totalitarianism
Several of you have sent me the link to this First Things piece by Carlo Lancellotti, titled “The Origins Of Sexual Totalitarianism.” Before we start on it, let me issue in public an appeal I have made to my friend Carlo in private: please write a book about this stuff! Carlo is the translator into English of the Italian political theorist Augusto Del Noce. Del Noce is not easy to read, but Carlo is an excellent writer; I think he could write a kind of “Del Noce For Dummies” book that would popularize the great man’s work.
A few years ago, I asked my pal Carl Trueman to write a “Philip Rieff For Dummies” book to help the likes of Self, who gets lost in Rieff’s prose. Carl produced this fall one of the most important Christian books I’ve ever read: The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self. It goes way beyond Rieff. If you want to know why things are the way they are, then read Carl Trueman. This really is the book so many of us have been waiting on.
I have every confidence that Carlo, who is a superb writer and thinker, could write a similar book explaining Del Noce. Everybody needs to tell Carlo this, so he will stop cruelly denying us this much-needed book!
Anyway, before we get to Carlo’s new essay, I want to share a couple of pertinent videos with you. The first is of feminist protesters in Argentina celebrating the legalization of abortion in that country:
NEW – Argentina becomes the first country in Latin America to legalize abortion after a landmark vote.pic.twitter.com/obFbMJrLiv
— Disclose.tv 🚨 (@disclosetv) December 30, 2020
Naked, fueled by serious drugs and with weird haircuts. Young Argentine women take to the streets to celebrate that they will now be able to legally terminate the lives of the unborn. Behold the MTV/Hollywood/Instagram generation… #CulturalMarxismpic.twitter.com/su8aGQ3Wrl
— RedPilledPoland (@RedPilledPoland) December 30, 2020
So, here’s Carlo Lancelotti, commenting on the failure of many of us conservatives to understand why we have been baited-and-switched on “dialogue” about LGBT in the churches:
I will use as a guide some observations by Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who in the 1960s witnessed the early stages of the sexual revolution. Del Noce was original in studying the sexual revolution as a philosophical phenomenon that reflected a new worldview and not just new social circumstances (e.g., women working, or contraception). In my opinion, a failure to fully grasp this worldview is the reason why today many intelligent people seem genuinely surprised that movements putatively seeking tolerance for marginalized minorities should be so intolerant of dissent.
Del Noce himself was frustrated by his fellow Catholics’ failure to correctly assess the sexual revolution. Despite being by all accounts a gentle and polite man, in 1970 he wrote that the fact that so many people thought they were merely facing changes in “society’s sense of modesty” could be used as evidence that “Catholics are a mentally inferior species.” In reality, he explained, what they were facing was “a condemnation of modesty as abnormal, and this condemnation is moral in its own way.” These words encapsulate what he considered the worst possible misunderstanding of the sexual revolution: as a slackening of morals. Looser sexual morality may have been its practical result, and was probably how common people experienced it, but it was absolutely not how the sexual revolution was conceived by the many writers, filmmakers, therapists, journalists, and intellectuals who advocated for it. To them it was not a moral slackening but a moral quickening. It meant freeing people from irrational and oppressive taboos, harmonizing morality and nature, reconciling life and science. The revolution was “in its own way” intransigently moral—it just inhabited a different ethical universe. This is why, Del Noce wrote, “any ‘dialogue’ with the advocates of sexual liberalization is perfectly useless, simply because they start by denying a priori the metaphysics that is the source of what they regard as ‘repressive’ morality.” It was a waste of time to try to convince them of moral claims that made sense only within a philosophical framework they rejected, and did little to alert the rest of society to what was really at stake.
Carlo says Del Noce took Wilhelm Reich, the theorist of sexual revolution (he actually wrote a book called The Sexual Revolution), seriously. Reich thought that the only thing keeping us from reaching our goal of happiness was sexual repression. Here’s Carlo:
Del Noce observed that Reich’s idea of “sexual revolution” contains in nuce exactly the totalitarian tendencies that have become more visible in recent years. Indeed, if “science” guarantees that mankind can achieve “happiness” by eliminating all forms of “repression,” how can “religion” (and “Fascism,” of course) be allowed to stand in the way? The following sentence from The Sexual Revolution sums it up nicely: “Religion should not be fought, but any interference with the right to carry the findings of natural science to the masses and with the attempts to secure their sexual happiness should not be tolerated.”
Read the whole thing. See, this is why I say there can be no dialogue within the church over LGBT rights [UPDATE: within the Church, is the context I mean here: the role of LGBT people, and of gay sex, within the Christian church]. “Dialogue” is just a strategy to make what should not be up for discussion up for discussion. When the sexual liberationists take power, then they will suppress as bigots the traditionalists who were foolish enough to agree to talk to them. This is what has happened in the Episcopal Church. This is what revolutionaries are trying to make happen in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. And they are not wrong to want to repress the traditionalists! If I believed that there was nothing wrong with gay sex, or sex outside of marriage, and further, if I believed that sexual satisfaction (“happiness”) was a matter of fundamental justice, then you’d better believe that I would seek to suppress those who denied it. Wouldn’t you?
If I had to write Live Not By Liesagain, I would have discussed Del Noce and the Sexual Revolution. You can be sure I’ll bring him up in the Schmemann Lecture I will be delivering next month (via Zoom), sponsored by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Many on the Orthodox Left — advocates for changing Orthodox teaching and practice on homosexuality — have been campaigning to get my lecture cancelled. I hope you will sign up to watch it. I will not mince words when I talk about the crisis facing the Orthodox Church, and all traditional churches, in this era of soft totalitarianism.
Anyway, please take Carlo Lancelotti seriously here. Del Noce was right: we traditionalists (Christians and otherwise) who will not yield to the demands of the Sexual Revolution will be made to suffer. This is what happens in revolutions. Del Noce is right: what they demand is not a loosening of sexual strictures, but the overturning of the metaphysical basis of Christian morality. This is not “reform”; it really is revolution.
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The Daily Dreher
I want to give you readers who haven’t looked in on my Substack newsletter a heads-up. This is the last week I’ll be writing it for free. Starting next week, I’m moving to a paid model — five dollars per month, which amounts to 25 cents per day (I write it every weekday night). Now’s a chance to read back issues to see if this is something you’d like to have coming into your inbox every night.
You’ll find that this newsletter is written in a quieter, more pensive mode than this blog. I approach the newsletter as a kind of spiritual exercise in honing my inner eye to be more perceptive of hope, of beauty, and of the presence of God in our world. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that I am pretty apocalyptic about the state of the world. I stand by that. But I am also a Christian husband and father who needs to be reminded why even though there is no reason to be optimistic, there is always reason to hope. The newsletter reflects my search for that. The kinds of things I write about there are too quiet for this blog, I think, and anyway, I am more direct about my Christian faith in the newsletter. As I’ve said before, I certainly don’t hide my Christianity, or the fact that I analyze the world from a Christian perspective, but I try hard not to come across here, in this secular magazine, as an advocate.
Here’s a link to today’s (well, last night’s) newsletter. Here we join a conversation about “Penrose tiling,” a phenomenon that the Nobel-winning physicist Sir Roger Penrose discovered when he was bored, and allowed his artistic instincts to kick in:
I didn’t know what Penrose tiling was until reading the Spectator piece, and looking up examples, but they sent me to my bookshelf, and to this passage from God And The World, one of the book-length interviews that Peter Seewald did with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was to become Pope Benedict XVI. The cardinal said:
The Christian picture of the world is this, that the world in its details is the product of a long process of evolution but that at the most profound level it comes from the Logos. Thus it carries rationality within itself, and not just a mathematical rationality — no one can deny that the world is mathematically structured — not, that is to say, just an entirely neutral, objective rationality, but in the form of the Logos, also a moral rationality.
[Seewald:] But how can we know that with such certainty?
[Ratzinger:] Creation itself offers indications as to how it should be understood and upon what terms it should be accepted. This can be obvious even to non-Christians. But faith helps us recognize the clear truth that in the rationality of creation is to be found not only a mathematical but also a moral message.
Ratzinger goes on to discuss what C.S. Lewis identified in The Abolition of Man as the Tao, which he defined as “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”
Ratzinger talks about how similar myths recur across cultures. Take the story of the Tower of Babel, which the future pope reads as a warning against attempting to usurp the Divine by humanity’s own efforts, and against trying to create a universal civilization by means of technology. It’s a story about the ruin that comes upon humankind when it tries to be God. Stories like this are common in the mythological treasury of mankind. They speak of a deep collective wisdom — of a Tao. This is not the same thing as relativism, but rather is testimony to a core moral order perceivable by men.
Last night I read this striking line from Marshall McLuhan, who was a practicing Catholic:
“Myth is anything seen at very high speeds; any process seen at a very high speed is a myth.”
Could we say, then, that myths are beautiful, in that they illustrate the moral order by representing a process at a very high speed? And is it not the case that one property of true beauty (as distinct from superficial beauty) is that it is capable not only of pleasing us aesthetically, but also giving us something to contemplate intellectually? And spiritually?
I have traced my spiritual awakening as an adult to an encounter with awe in the Chartres cathedral. I did not understand anything about that moment, other than that I had stumbled into the presence of God. To go back to a McLuhan passage I wrote about in last night’s newsletter, I was all percept; the concepts would come later. At some point within the past decade, I began reading books about the Chartres cathedral, and began to understand the staggering mathematical genius that went into its construction. None of it was accidental; all of it was precisely constructed to illustrate meaning. The entire medieval Christian cosmos was designed into the stone. I did not know what I was reacting to, and certainly could not have “read” the cathedral at age 17. What I perceived, though, was a dazzling symphony of order — layers and layers of harmonies, all of which pointed beyond themselves.
You can perceive this in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Unfortunately some of the beauty is lost in translation, like wearing sunglasses on a visit to the Uffizi. Dante constructed the entire tripartite poem — over 14,000 lines — in a rhyme scheme he devised for it: terza rima. Each Italian line consists of three lines of 33 syllables, interlocked links in a chain in this rhythmic pattern: ABA/BCB/CDC, and so on. Here are the opening lines from the Inferno, part one of the Commedia:
Dante ends cantos with either single lines or couplets, because it could go on forever like this without knotting the ends. The point is, Dante structures the poem geometrically in patterns of threes, to reveal the Trinitarian nature of reality. (Note: to reveal what is really there, not to impose a human concept on inert matter.) This is harder to see in translation, because it’s impossible to reproduce Dante’s terza rima faithfully in English. You see what I mean, though, about missing some of the beauty of the poem.
Thinking about Chartres, about Dante, and about Penrose tilings, brings to mind a quality of beauty identified by Elaine Scarry, in her wonderful little book On Beauty And Being Just. She writes that all beautiful things share an “impulse toward begetting.
It is impossible to conceive of a beautiful thing that does not have this attribute. The homely word “replication” has been used here because it reminds us that the benign impulse toward creation results not just in famous paintings but in everyday acts of staring; it also reminds us that the generative object continues, in some sense, to be present in the newly begotten object. It may be startling to speak of the Divine Comedy or the Mona Lisa as “a replication” since they are so unprecedented, but the word recalls the fact that something, or someone, gave rise to their creation and remains silently present in the newborn object.
For Dante, the generative impulse behind the Divine Comedy was his love of Beatrice and her beauty — but, as she tells him when they are reunited at the peak of the mountain of Purgatory, he erred grievously when he made an idol of her, instead of seeing her iconographically: as a medium through which the glory of God shone, and a sign pointing him to the divine origin of all beauty and love.
Sir Roger Penrose found that the design beauty of what would come to be known as Penrose tiling produced fruits in mathematical computation. For me, the beauty of Chartres generated religious conversion, and new life. Later, the beauty of the Divine Comedy served as map and a guide leading me out of a period of great despair. The beauty of my wife led me to marriage (23 years ago tomorrow), and has produced three children. And on and on.
What is so wonderful — literally, wonder-full — about the Divine Comedy is how Dante reveals that life is a pilgrimage towards greater revelation of light, of beauty, of harmonious order, and of love. All of these are the same thing in God. As Dante progresses through Paradiso, his ability to see depends on his growing in holiness. He is too weak spiritually to behold the full glory of God, shining through the heavenly beings; the divine light shining through their forms would annihilate him. Gradually, though, as his intellect, his nous, become illumined, he is able to perceive more truth, behold greater love, become more united to God, and filled with the Light.
There’s a reason I titled my book How Dante Can Save Your Life. I wasn’t kidding. And this is the spirit in which I’m trying to write this newsletter: moving forward towards sight, and light.
Read the whole thing. This is the kind of thing I’m writing over there. Starting this Friday, Jan. 1, I’m going to post the button that will allow folks to subscribe. I hope you’ll give it some thought. I never start writing that night’s newsletter until around 8pm or so, because I don’t want it to interfere with my TAC work. And I almost never know what I’m going to write about until I begin by assessing the day. I work really hard on it — you can imagine how difficult it is for the likes of Rod Dreher to look deep into the world for signs of hope — and find at times that I’ve spent four hours on a single issue. But like I said, this is important for me to do, as a spiritual exercise. I hope you get as much out of it as I do.
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The Railroading Of Mark Crispin Miller
Earlier this semester, Mark Crispin Miller, who teaches media studies at New York University, got in trouble because of something he was accused of saying in his class on propaganda. The academic free speech organization FIRE explains:
In September, a class session focused on campaigns promoting mask-wearing as a means of limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus. After a student took issue with some of Miller’s in-class statements and the sources he cited, she took to Twitter calling for him to be fired. Miller’s department chair, Rodney Benson, replied to the student’s posts and indicated that the department had made her concerns a priority.
On Oct. 6, Miller responded on his personal blog, outlining the material he shared in his course, noting the criticism he received, and expressing concerns — which FIRE shares — about the threat to academic freedom posed by investigations into course content. He also shared a petition asking NYU to affirm his right to academic freedom, which has garnered more than 17,000 signatures.
Then, on Oct. 21, several faculty members of the media department penned a letter to Dean Jack H. Knott and Provost Katherine Fleming calling on them “to publicly support the NYU community and undertake an expedited review . . . of Professor Miller’s intimidation tactics, abuses of authority, aggressions and microaggressions, and explicit hate speech, none of which are excused by academic freedom and the First Amendment protections.” However, the letter itself contained no specific allegations of policy violations, focusing instead on “the way in which [Miller] engages discussion around controversial views and non-evidence based arguments”; his petition, which they characterize as an “email campaign against the department”; and others’ negative responses to the student’s criticism of Miller’s course.
On Oct. 29, Dean Knott launched an investigation into Miller based on the letter.
FIRE takes Miller’s side in the matter, and explains why; read its entire piece, and the letter it sent to the president of NYU defending Miller from this outrageous investigation.
I know about this because of this fascinating interview with Miller on the dirtbag Left podcast Red Scare. I strongly urge you to listen to it. Miller is, by his own proud admission, a man of the Left, but he lays into the Left for supporting what he calls in the interview a form of totalitarianism like we have not yet seen. Here, in Miller’s own words, is the background of what happened to him (it’s a more detailed version of what the FIRE story says).
As Miller explained on the podcast, he asked his students to think about the way Covid masking was sold, as a story about propaganda. He says he never told his students not to wear masks, and wouldn’t have done so. But he did want them to understand how propaganda works, using a contemporary example. It’s not the case that propaganda is always for a bad cause (though Miller apparently believes that masking is ineffective, or at least not as effective as we have been told). The point, Miller told the podcasters, is that he wants to encourage students not to take the word of authorities — not even himself — at face value, but to do their own research on all issues.
This prompted a single student to take to Twitter to accuse him (falsely, he says) of telling students not to mask, and thereby making her feel unsafe. Here’s a tweet in which she called for action, and a tweet in response from Miller’s department head:
So they went after Miller. Nineteen of his colleagues signed a document demanding an investigation. According to Miller, none of them contacted him in advance to get his side of the story, or anything normal like that. This is why he has filed a lawsuit.
Miller tells the podcasters that it’s his belief that at least some of his colleagues signed the letter to punish him for something he said earlier about transgenderism. Miller comes across as a kind of anarcho-leftist, highly suspicious of concentrated power. He said that he has absolutely no objection to transgendered people, but he did mention that on his website, he published his “critique of transgender ideology.” [Hear MCM talk about this starting at the 49:55 point on the podcast.] He says that it was occasioned by a Sprite commercial showing a mother binding the breasts of her daughter. Here’s a link to MCM’s post, from back in February. MCM demands to know why billionaires are funding the transgender movement, and offers what sounds to my ears like a crankish leftie theory.
But so what? It’s a very fair line of inquiry, sparked by his wondering what interest an international soda corporation has in airing advertising affirming youth transgenderism. MCM links to this Jennifer Bilek piece from First Things in which she traces the money trail from rich men like George Soros and Warren Buffett, to the front lines of transgender activism. You would have to be blinded by ideology not to wonder what was going on here. According to Miller, this is what triggered one or more of his colleagues to falsely accuse him of saying that he hates transgendered people, and so forth.
It is entirely possible that MCM is partially, or even mostly, a left-wing crank. He believes that the Covid response is in some sense hyped to promote corporate power and centralization, and though he despises Donald Trump, he believes that the presidential election was stolen from Trump. Is he nuts? Maybe he is. But academic freedom protects people like MCM who hold unpopular opinions. In the podcast, Miller says that his academic colleagues are so deep inside an ideological bubble that they believe what they hear on NPR and read in the Times without question, and demonize any person and any claim sounding like it might be something that Trump would say.
Again, I would by no means say that I agreed with everything Mark Crispin Miller says. I don’t know much about him, though there is no question (based on things he’s published on his website) but that he believes the Covid phenomenon is a conspiracy to police the population and to concentrate power and control into a few hands. This might well be a crackpot belief — but the man should not be libeled and be forced to fight for his job because of this belief. Listening to him tell his story reminded me of how it felt to be part of the public discussion back in 2002, as millions of Americans (including me) were convinced that only cowards and fools believed that the US had no business launching war on Iraq. Today, Mark Crispin Miller might well be a fool about Covid, but I am not willing to stand back without protest and watch him crushed professionally for his dissent, even if he is wrong.
Listening to that podcast episode, and reading up on this controversy, it is clear to me that he is at the very least a victim of the kind of soft totalitarianism that I’ve been warning about for some time. As I said earlier in this post, he even talks about what’s going on as a form of totalitarianism, on the Chinese model. I wish he had said more about it. You do not have to agree with MCM on Covid, or on anything else, to recognize that what is being done to him is also happening to dissenters within academia and other institutions — those who have the courage, or the craziness, to stand against the cancel-culture mob. Once more: the principle of academic freedom is meant in part to protect gadflies like Mark Crispin Miller from precisely the kind of cancel-culture frenzy that is operating here. It is very much in the interest of all free thinkers — Left, Right, and center — that he should prevail in his lawsuit against the NYU mob.
It is also very much in our interest that we inform ourselves about what Prof. Miller is being put through by his institution and those within it. They will eventually come for us all, you know. One thing Miller said in talking about Covid struck me: he said that extended lockdowns destroy small businesses, and benefit major corporations (especially Amazon), who have the size to withstand the shock, and who can buy up ailing small businesses for pennies on the dollar. Miller may believe that the Covid lockdowns are being staged precisely for this sake, but I don’t think you have to believe that it’s all intentional to recognize that this is one economic effect of the crisis. If we have fewer small businesses, we are all more vulnerable to woke social engineering at the hands of major corporations. Small businesses are one of the few institutions where dissidents can find shelter — where they can make a living without having to compromise their consciences. If we emerge from this crisis with many fewer of them, who does that benefit, and who does that hurt?
Here is a link to the Red Scare podcast with Mark Crispin Miller:
I shouldn’t have to say this again, but to get out in front of accusers in the comments section, I will: my recommending the podcast interview does not mean that I endorse any of Prof. Miller’s views. It only means that I think he has some things to say that we should listen to and think about. He is a victim of soft totalitarianism within NYU. You might think he’s 100 percent wrong about Covid, but that does not justify the way he is being railroaded by NYU. If they get away with what they’re doing to him for his Covid opinions, they can get away with doing it to anybody over anything.
UPDATE: I have no idea if Conor is talking about Mark Crispin Miller, but this new tweet applies:
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Father Zatorski, Dead Of Covid
News from the Tyniec Abbey in Poland, and it’s not good (translated from Polish by Google):
Today, December 28, before 5:00 p.m., Fr. Włodzimierz Zatorski, a monk of the Benedictine abbey in Tyniec, died.
Father Włodzimierz was born on June 27, 1953 in Czechowice-Dziedzice. After graduating from high school in 1972, he began studies at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice. Repressed for his opposition activities, in 1976 he spent over six months in prison and was suspended as a student. He graduated from the Jagiellonian University in 1980 with a master’s degree in physics. Immediately afterwards he joined the Benedictine abbey in Tyniec; He took the habit on August 23, 1980, and made his first monastic vows on August 26, 1981. On the feast of St. Benedict made solemn profession in 1984 and was ordained a priest on May 9, 1987.
Founder and longtime director of TYNIEC of the Benedictine Publishing House and initiator of many publishing series appearing until today. Among the numerous tasks entrusted to him in the monastery was the office of prior, performed by him in 2005-2009. As a novice master between 2010 and 2013, he formed many monks for monastic life. In 2011 he stayed in a hermitage in Masuria and in a Benedictine abbey in Jerusalem.
In the years 2013-2019 he took care of the monastery’s financial affairs as the steward of the abbey. The deserving prefect of the Tyniec Oblates, he held this function from 2002 to 2019, contributing to the significant development of this community and caring for the formation of all lay people who wanted to live according to the Rule of St. Benedict in the world.
Author of many books, respected preacher, retreatist and spiritual director, recently involved in the activities of the Benedict Option Foundation; for many a close friend and spiritual father. In 2012
He stayed in the hospital from December 9, when he developed breathing difficulties. There, he was diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The funeral will be held on Saturday, January 2 at 11:30 in the Benedictine Abbey church in Tyniec. Due to the epidemic threat still present, we appeal for remote participation in the Holy Mass. funeral via Tyniec.tv or YouTube channel . We ask everyone to pray for our Confrere, that our Savior will accept him to His glory.
Father Zatorski was deeply interested in The Benedict Option, and indeed established a foundation in Poland to support a Benedict Option community. He was its spiritual director. Here is something from the Opcja Benedykta website:
WHO WE ARE
We have families, circles of friends and acquaintances. Like everyone. We are senior and ordinary employees, we work in schools, offices, and public institutions. We run businesses. Among us, there are retired people who have the willingness and the time to share their knowledge and experience. Among our many obligations, we try to find the time and place for prayer and quiet, for reflecting on God’s Word, and for Christian meditation.
In the “Benedict Option” Foundation we wish to build a culture of living in community. We base ourselves on what is important for us in life: the Benedictine Ordo et Pax, respect for humankind and nature, trust, responsibility, balance between work and rest. We wish to offer workshops and retreats for spiritual and personal development to all who are searching for meaning in life. We wish to create a space for believers and seekers. We wish to serve as a place in which peace and tranquillity prevail, where the rhythm of the day is marked by the Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina (spiritual reading) and meditation.
We have chosen the region of Mazury, on the edge of the Pisz Forest, far from tourist routes. Here we are building our Centre and hermitage.
THE IDEA BEHIND THE FOUNDATION
The idea of a community was born 30 years ago in the heart of a Benedictine monk, Fr. Włodzimierz Zatorski. It was he who inspired lay people who went to Tyniec for retreats and workshops.
Like St. Benedict, we wish for “God to be worshipped in everything”: at work and at home, in daily duties and in leisure, and in encounters with other people. The wisdom written down in the Rule of St. Benedict would appear to be a timeless remedy for the maladies of today’s world. It is a list of simple truths, tested both in lay and monastic life. They are universal laws governing people’s spiritual life. The Rule was written 1,500 years ago and was a response to cultural decline. Today we are similarly experiencing a crisis of faith and spirituality, a crisis of being and of mutual relations. This is happening because basic laws of life itself are being broken. The building of communities is a response to these challenges, as was said half a century ago by the Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
Because ever more people are struggling with basic questions relating to the meaning of life, happiness, and faith, we therefore see profound sense in creating a “Benedict Option” community. It attempts to build on tried and tested laws relating to life, because no matter what we think up, even if it seems to us to be the noblest, most excellent idea, and then try to do it ourselves without divine guidance, it will become fruitless and lack life. Therefore the first and most essential thing is for us to hear God’s word, directed to us. Only then, by responding to it, can we do anything which builds us up and roots us in truth and in life.
What a man the monk Father Zatorski was! When I met him at Tyniec, others told me afterward that he is known all over Poland for his spiritual wisdom. And now he has gone to be with God, far too soon for us all, especially for his beloved Poland, which is suffering so much from the loss of faith.
Now that he’s gone, I can tell you that it was Father Zatorski who confirmed for me at Tyniec what young Catholics in Warsaw and at a conference in Tyniec were telling me: that Poland is ten, maybe twenty, years from turning into Ireland — a former Catholic stronghold where the faith has disappeared seemingly overnight. We were talking in a meeting room at the Tyniec monastery. I told the monk that this was so difficult for me to accept, because Poland has always been to my mind a bastion of faith. Well, he said, it’s a hard truth, but it’s true.
Why is this happening? I asked him. Father Zatorski’s English was not strong, but he thought for a moment, and said the word, “Vainglory.” Through the translator, he explained to me that the Polish institutional church was so pridefully focused on itself that it missed the decay of the faith in broader Polish society, and has responded badly to the challenge. This was one reason he was at the time (we met on July 14, 2019) planning to start a Benedict Option retreat center and community.
Any reader of this blog who is moved by Father Zatorski’s life and death, or who loves Poland and wants to help preserve the faith there, please consider donating something in his memory to the Opcja Benedykta Foundation in his memory.
Father Zatorski had earned a good retirement. But despite his age, he did not rest. He read the signs of the times, and acted to serve God and Poland by doing something bold and new. I thank God for his life, and am confident that we have gained a powerful intercessor.
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‘Alexa, Put Me Under’
I’m sorry, but this is crazy — and not because I don’t believe in hypnosis. I do believe that it can work. From the Wall Street Journal:
Hypnosis is no longer considered crazy in the medical field, doctors say, but many patients, like Ms. Cutler, still are leery. The practice has increasingly gained acceptance in the medical community, and in the last two years, the research into how and why it works has accelerated, with new studies on the use of hypnosis to alleviate anxiety; ward off pain; and successfully inhibit the fear circuitry structures in the brain.
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors have started to take notice, creating new apps that aim to popularize hypnosis in a similar way to meditation, which until recently was also considered fringe. A safer alternative to medications like opioids, hypnosis can be a helpful tool for combating the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, doctors and researchers say, especially as it can be done successfully via recording or over Zoom.
Now there’s a hypnosis service that you can access over your Amazon Alexa home speaker:
Reveri Health works on Alexa by using natural language processing, which decodes incoming sounds and matches them to pre-prepared instructions or responses. The program asks questions like “Where are you feeling stress right now?” and responds to the answers accordingly, then asks the user to participate in a series of breathing and imagery exercises. (“Picture that you’re surfing waves of uncertainty.”)
In recent years, new research has led to a greater understanding of how hypnosis works. Four years ago, brain imaging published in the journal Cerebral Cortex suggested that the hypnotic state reduces activity in the parts of the brain involved in critical judgment and analysis, allowing a therapist to reach areas of the brain that are more open to suggestion.
Or as California hypnotherapist and coach Linda Shively explains it, “hypnosis gets the conscious mind out of the way.” That way, she adds, “change can happen quickly, relatively painlessly and effectively.”
So: you are opening your subconscious mind to suggestions offered to you by an external electronic source that adjusts its responses to your own? Gosh, no way that can be abused, right?
Actually, that’s not the main worry about this, not for me. If this service were found to be abusing its privilege –and that would be easy to detect — it would be disastrous for the company. The real worry is that users are giving incredibly detailed personal information to the company about their own problems, and teaching the company which buttons to push to render them susceptible to subconscious control.
It’s one thing to use an electronic hypnosis program that’s on a closed loop. I tried one for weight loss the other day on Spotify, as a way of trying out the Air Pods Pro I got for Christmas. It was pleasant, but didn’t really work; I didn’t go under. Maybe I’m not hypnotizable, or maybe I was just too tense. I’m not planning to try it again. But that was a pre-recorded program. This Alexa thing is on an open loop that responds to one’s commands. Is it wise to teach an AI machine how to hypnotize you? Is it wise to learn how to be hypnotized by AI machines?
Is this the kind of relationship we should be having with our machines? You know that everything you say to Alexa is potentially recordable, right? Is it smart to give Jeff Bezos and his agents the key to your subconscious?
Don’t forget what former Czech dissident Kamila Bendova said inLive Not By Lies: any information you provide Them will be used against you one day, if they choose to. I would love to e-mail Kamila and ask her for her opinion about hypnosis through Alexa. But that’s not possible, because she doesn’t use e-mail. Too risky. Her flat was bugged by the communist regime for years, and her husband was behind bars as a political prisoner for four years. Anyway, I know exactly what she would say about this Alexa hypnosis thing. And so do you.
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Should Elderly Die For Social Justice?
Because this essay by the Johns Hopkins political scientist Yascha Mounk appeared only two days before Christmas, you might have missed it. You really should read it. In it, Mounk, who is a liberal, confessed that he is “losing trust in the institutions,” and explained why. Here’s the core:
[T]here are also some bedrock principles on which virtually all moral philosophers have long agreed.
The first is that we should avoid “leveling down” everyone’s quality of life for the purpose of achieving equality. It is unjust when some people have plenty of food while others are starving. But alleviating that inequality by making sure that an even greater number of people starve is clearly wrong. The second is that we should not use ascriptive characteristics like race or ethnicity to allocate medical resources. To save one patient rather than another based on the color of their skin rightly strikes most philosophers—and most Americans—as barbaric. The Centers for Disease Control have just thrown both of these principles overboard in the name of social justice.
In one of the most shocking moral misjudgments by a public body I have ever seen, the CDC invoked considerations of “social justice” to recommend providing vaccinations to essential workers before older Americans even though this would, according to its own models, lead to a much greater death toll. After a massive public outcry, the agency has adopted revised recommendations. But though these are a clear improvement, they still violate the two bedrock principles of allocative justice—and are likely to cause unnecessary suffering on a significant scale.
Since states will now have to decide whether to follow the CDC’s recommendations, the fight for a just distribution of the vaccine is not yet over. At the same time, the past days have already taught us two lessons that sum up some of the most worrying developments of the past years: The attack on philosophically liberal principles has by now migrated from leafy college campuses to the most important and powerful organizations in the country. And, in part as a result, it is getting harder and harder to trust institutions from the CDC to the New York Times.
Mounk recounted the process within the CDC that led to its advisory opinion on vaccine prioritization. Kathleen Dooling gave the presentation:
As the presentation acknowledged, the likelihood of dying from Covid strongly depends on age. According to the CDC’s model, prioritizing essential workers over the elderly would therefore increase the overall number of deaths by between 0.5% and 6.5%. In other words, it would likely result in the preventable deaths of thousands of Americans.
And yet, the presentation concluded that science does not provide a reason to prioritize the elderly. For, as Kathleen Dooling wrote in one of the most jaw-dropping sentences I have ever seen in a document written by a public official, differences in expected consequences that could amount to thousands of additional deaths are “minimal.”
Minimal. Your grandmother. Your mom. You. All for the sake of “social justice.” More:
It is, all of us acknowledge, very important to ensure that members of ethnic minorities are not excluded from access to the vaccine on the basis of their race. But to prioritize a 23-year-old Latino Uber driver who is very likely to weather infection with Covid over an 80-year-old white retiree who is likely to die from it because the former is part of a group that includes marginally more brown people and the latter is part of a group that includes marginally more white people is to inscribe racial discrimination at the heart of American public policy in an astonishing manner.
It gets even more shocking. The difference in the percentage of white people across age groups is comparatively small. The difference in the percentage of infected people who succumb to Covid across all age groups is massive. Giving the vaccine to African-American essential workers before elderly African-Americans would likely raise the overall death toll of African-Americans even if a somewhat greater number of African-Americans were to receive the vaccine as a result.
In other words, the CDC was effectively about to recommend that a greater number of African-Americans die so that the share of African-Americans who receive the vaccine is slightly higher. In blatant violation of the “leveling down objection,” prioritizing essential workers in the name of equality would likely kill more people in all relevant demographic groups.
Read it all. I cannot urge you strongly enough to do so. Mounk concludes by saying that this should put away, once and for all, any claims that the social justice craziness is merely a fringe phenomenon. It very nearly resulted in the most important public health agency in the United States making a judgment that would have resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths, all because of progressive racism. Mounk says that he’s losing faith in the mainstream institutions of American life precisely because they are being overwhelmed by this same crackpot ideology. He writes, “I no longer trust any institution in American life to such an extent that I am willing to rely on its account of the world without looking into important matters on my own.”
He’s right. Pay special attention to the willingness of the woke to lie to cover up what they’re doing. Mounk points out that not even The New York Times reported on what the CDC came very close to doing. Of course not! If more people knew what these power-holders really thought, and were really doing, they would be outraged. Your white granny (and maybe even your black granny) needs to die for the cause of social justice. That was almost the official policy of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since the Tuskegee experiments were made public, black Americans have tended to distrust public health experts. Maybe whites are now learning that black folks were onto something.
In an infinitely less important, but still telling case, when the Wall Street Journal reported the other day that a teacher named Heather Levine bragged about getting “The Odyssey” cancelled in her school, because it’s white supremacist, Levine was indignant on social media:
Unfortunately for Levine, the Internet remembers what she said earlier this year:
I’ve had a couple of posts in this space recently (see here and here) about a quiet move afoot at my alma mater, Louisiana State University, to mandate a class in “antiracism” for all undergraduates, as a condition of earning their degree. The proposed class is described like this in a bill before the Faculty Senate:
The LSU administration supports this move, it was reported by the Baton Rouge Advocate. Note that the purpose of the class is to teach students how to “identify and combat anti-Blackness,” which is not defined in the bill, but certainly has a politically charged meaning. It is also a class to teach students how to identify and combat “the many forms of intersecting oppression” in American life. This sounds like a class in cultural Marxism, trying to fly below radar cloaked as a mere course on “the Black experience.” The authorities that the people of Louisiana trust to educate their children at LSU are planning to inflict this on them, unless they are stopped by the public and lawmakers. How many people in Louisiana — taxpayers who support the university, and tuition-payers — follow curriculum requirements at LSU? I’m pretty well-informed, but I knew nothing about it until a campus source tipped me off. It’s like Yascha Mounk (a liberal!) says: social justice ideology has so captured the institutions that we cannot rely on the judgments of those who run them.
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Cancel Cult Comes For Homer
Another day, another crazy thing from the world of progressive utopians. Meghan Cox Gurdon writes in the Wall Street Journal about how the latest lunatic thing is banning the study of Homer, Shakespeare, and the other greats because of white supremacy. Excerpts (behind paywall):
A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.
Their ethos holds that children shouldn’t have to read stories written in anything other than the present-day vernacular—especially those “in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm,” as young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman writes in School Library Journal. No author is valuable enough to spare, Ms. Venkatraman instructs: “Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.”
The subtle complexities of literature are being reduced to the crude clanking of “intersectional” power struggles. Thus Seattle English teacher Evin Shinn tweeted in 2018 that he’d “rather die” than teach “The Scarlet Letter,” unless Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel is used to “fight against misogyny and slut-shaming.”
The demands for censorship appear to be getting results. “Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash),” tweeted Shea Martin in June. “Hahaha,” replied Heather Levine, an English teacher at Lawrence (Mass.) High School. “Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” When I contacted Ms. Levine to confirm this, she replied that she found the inquiry “invasive.” The English Department chairman of Lawrence Public Schools, Richard Gorham, didn’t respond to emails.
Of course they didn’t respond. These people don’t want the world to know what they’re doing. Read it all, if you can get around the paywall.
This is a manifestation of what I mean by “soft totalitarianism.” The state is not forcing any school or any teacher to do this. But they’re doing it — they’re sending the works of great writers, including works that are foundational to our civilization, down the memory hole, all in the name of a utopian political idea that treats teaching as therapy.
What these totalitarians are attempting is to erase the memory of our civilization’s past, as a way of establishing control. Here are two relevant passages from my book Live Not By Lies:
Those steeped in the teachings of Marx believed that communism was inevitable because History—a force with godlike powers of determination—required it. Kundera says that what makes a leftist (of any kind—socialists, communists, Trotskyites, left-liberals, and so on) a leftist is a shared belief that humanity is on a “Grand March” toward Progress: “The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.”
If progress is inevitable, and the Communist Party is the leader of society’s Grand March to the progressive future, then, the theory goes, to resist the Party is to stand against the future—indeed, against reality itself. Those who oppose the Party oppose progress and freedom and align themselves with greed, backwardness, bigotry, and all manner of injustice. How necessary—indeed, how noble—it is of the Party to bulldoze these stumbling blocks on the Grand March and make straight and smooth the road to tomorrow.
“There was constant propaganda about how communism was changing the village for the better,” recalls Tamás Sályi, a Budapest teacher of English, of his Hungarian youth. “There were always films of the farmer learning to improve his life with new technology. Those who rejected it were [depicted as] endangering their families. There are so many examples about how everything old and traditional prevented life from being good and happy.”
Thus does the Myth of Progress become a justification for exercising dictatorial power to eliminate all opposition. Today, totalitarianism amounts to strict, forced regimentation of the Grand March toward Progress. It is the method by which true believers in Progress aim to keep all of society moving forward toward utopia in lockstep, both in their outward actions and in their innermost thoughts.
Tamás Sályi, the Budapest teacher, says that Hungarians survived German occupation and a Soviet puppet regime, but thirty years of freedom has destroyed more cultural memory than the previous eras. “What neither Nazism or Communism could do, victorious liberal capitalism has done,” he muses.
The idea that the past and its traditions, including religion, is an intolerable burden on individual liberty has been poison for Hungarians, he believes. About progressives today, Sályi says, “I think they really believe that if they erase all memory of the past, and turn everyone into newborn babies, then they can write whatever they want on that blank slate. If you think about it, it’s not so easy to manipulate people who know who they are, rooted in tradition.”
True. This is why Hannah Arendt described the totalitarian personality as “the completely isolated human being.” A person cut off from history is a person who is almost powerless against power.
Communism was a massive use of lethal state power to destroy memory. Back in the United States, Olga Rusanova, a naturalized American who grew up in Siberia, says, “In the Soviet Union, they killed all the people who could remember history.” This made it easier for them to create false history to serve the regime’s needs.
Yes, in the late Soviet period, most people had ceased to believe the communist line. But that doesn’t mean that they knew what was true. As historian Orlando Figes says of those who came of age after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, “for anyone below the age of thirty, who had only ever known the Soviet world or had inherited no other values from his family, it was almost impossible to step outside the propaganda system and question its political principles.”
You don’t have to be a Christian to benefit from reading my book, and red-pilling yourself as to what these totalitarian #DisruptTexts teachers are doing. This is about establishing control, and this is about erasing from the common memory all traces of our civilization before Year Zero, which started the day before yesterday. This is a cultural revolution.
If you want to know more about #DisruptTexts, read this Quillette article from a couple of weeks back. Excerpts:
In the past, one answer to the question, “Why should we be inflicting Silas Marner on kids?” was “cultural literacy”—a term popularized by scholar E.D. Hirsch, which refers to a person’s ability to understand and communicate using literary and historical allusions such as “witch hunt” or “Trojan horse” or “tilting at windmills.” Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to acquire this cultural knowledge and consequently less likely to attain a higher command of the English language.
But the #DisruptTexts movement does not conceive of education as the process, inter alia, of transmitting Western cultural heritage to the next generation. Why would they, when they perceive that heritage to be a dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime? Why should they give primacy to literature which interprets the world through the white gaze? “Let us be honest,” Germán admits, “the conversation really isn’t about universality, and this isn’t about being equipped to identify all possible cultural references. This is about an ingrained and internalized elevation of Shakespeare in a way that excludes other voices. This is about white supremacy and colonization.”
To Kill a Mockingbird was voted “America’s Favorite Novel” in a PBS competition in 2018, but #DisruptTexts finds that Atticus Finch is a white savior, and an ineffectual one at that. And Lord of the Flies, a novel featuring “elite, upperclass, private school [students] who are white, cisgender, European males,” is condemned for what it implies about civilization and savagery. So #DisruptTexts has created reading guides which pair the classics with complementary YA literature by authors of color, an intelligent and appropriate remedy for the lack of diversity in the canon. However, the curated list is diverse in everything but theme—five of the eight books are about teenagers of various ethnicities struggling with their identity. One of the recommended reads is Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby.
The leaders and followers of the #DisruptTexts movement hold the following truths to be self-evident:
- It is a “professional responsibility to… develop students’ critical literacy skills to question the status quo.”
- Teaching literacy is teaching kids “to discern where and how oppression exists in society, to articulate the oppression we witness or experience and argue for justice, and to strive for a more equitable world.” This “gets at the crux of why we read and write.”
- We must “recognize the ways we are all complicit in perpetuating systemic oppression and consequently responsible for dismantling it.”
- These truths are non-falsifiable because any objection (invariably described as an “attack”) is motivated by white supremacy.
And while the average parent may never have heard of #DisruptTexts, the movement has made a significant impact in public education. Notwithstanding their insurrectionary rhetoric and the clenched fist on their movement’s Twitter profile, these activists are not obliged to disguise their efforts “to fuel resistance and positive social transformation” and “bring the power of literacy for collective liberation.” They are not forced, like the teachers of the McCarthy era, to take a loyalty oath. On the contrary, the co-founders speak at educational conferences and workshops, they are promoted by Tolerance, a subsidiary program of the Southern Poverty Law Center; they are featured on the websites and publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the International Literacy Association; they have a regular column in the journal of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), whose next convention is dedicated to “Equity, Justice and Anti-Racist Teaching”; and Penguin Books has partnered with them to promote YA novels by BIPOC authors.
And all this has been accomplished without (apparently) incorporating #DisruptTexts as a society or non-profit. It is a grassroots, crowdfunded, and teacher-supported movement operating without the accountability which comes with becoming a legal entity.
Nor are these activists simply assuming a fashionable pose when they express their desire to transform society. They are in earnest. And they are convinced that their ideals are so self-evidently correct, their cause so righteous, and the need so imperative, that they openly speak of “throwing out the white canon” and pushing their students to adopt their views. Movement-inspired teachers exchange ideas on Twitter, podcasts, websites, and various forums. “How do I authentically engage with… a predominately White American student population? How do I manage student resistance to these topics?” asks the Pushing the Edge podcast. Another podcaster reports that “it is the stance against To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby that has met [with] the most white fragility.”
Read it all. When people deny that there is any such thing as “soft totalitarianism,” you will know that they are lying. That’s what #DisruptTexts is.
Do you know if this is happening at your kid’s school? Do you care? You had better. Go read the #DisruptTexts website to learn more. These fanatics are truly passionate about their cause. If we are not at least as passionate about defending our culture and civilization from them, we will lose. One lesson of the Bolshevik Revolution is that a highly disciplined, highly motivated minority can defeat a disengaged majority, especially if the minority conquers elites and elite networks. Read my book to better understand what’s happening, and how we can resist.
UPDATE: Heather Levine put this self-exculpatory lie on Twitter in the wake of the WSJ piece:
But that’s not what she said earlier this year:
Social Justice Warriors lie to cover their tracks.