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Persecutorial Progressivism

Raising the flag outside the Cathedral (OLIVER BERG/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

Here’s a good piece by Yoram Hazony and Chris De Muth defending their recent National Conservatism conference in Rome, and specifically attacking the Tories for throwing under the bus an MP who spoke at it. Excerpts:

It is disturbing indeed that a legitimate public conference, convened to discuss the history, political philosophy, and current relevance of the idea of the nation state, can be twisted into a weapon for “cancelling” British conservatives who participated in good faith—thereby shutting down the possibility of respectful discussion of these topics in the UK.

Of course, the Conservative Party claimed that it was taking this action “in light of the views of some of those in attendance.” And it is certainly true that there are bad actors on the European and American right.

As conference organizers, it is our job to ensure that our growing movement of national conservatives is not hijacked by political racialists and anti-Semites or by anti-democratic agitators. That is our policy and practice, which we have pursued aggressively. As is evident from a simple Google search, the Edmund Burke Foundation and its conferences have been repeatedly and viciously attacked by alt-Right publications and figures for excluding racialists and anti-Semites from our events.

Does this mean that we have excluded everyone that the Guardian and Buzzfeed would have liked? Obviously not. But we are unwilling give the leftist media, which despises conservatives, a veto over who gets to speak at our conferences.

Instead, we have done our own research and exercised our own judgment.

More:

What have we found? Among other things, we agree with Douglas Murray, in his report from the Rome conference, that in British public discourse, “governments and parties are being called ‘far-right’ when they are not, and whole countries and movements are being anathemised when they will—must, in fact—be partners in the years ahead.”

And take a look at “Among the National Conservatives,” a moving essay by the celebrated American conservative intellectual Rod Dreher, which describes his two days of meeting European conservatives in Rome. Dreher, too, found that the conference participants were simply “normal” conservatives—a picture diametrically opposed to the one presented in the UK media and adopted by the Tories.

The Conservative Party’s dependence on the leftist media to decide for them who is a legitimate conservative—and who is a racialist or an anti-Semite—must come to an end. The Tories are now governing an independent country. Independent Britain will need friends and admirers and allies in other countries. It cannot afford to discard these friends and allies every time the Guardian decides to say that someone is “far Right” or “anti-Semitic.”

Read it all.

Yoram and Chris are correct. The Tories just repeated their earlier mistake, when they cast off Sir Roger Scruton for no good reason, only because a left-wing British magazine falsely accused him. I did not meet everyone at this conference. If I had, and had known their back stories, it is possible that I would have met someone I consider to be unsavory. But then, had this been a large gathering of the Tory Party, or the GOP, or of any organization on the Left, the same thing would have happened! For that matter, if you attend a church of any size, every Sunday you’re under the roof with at least one person you think is pretty icky, or at least you would if you knew their sins.

If the Rome conference really were about normalizing anti-Semites, then yes, concern would have been valid. But that was not remotely what this conference was. As I wrote in the piece Yoram cites, I was really moved to meet so many people — especially young people — from around Europe, who were friendly and normal, and who care a lot about their countries, and in some cases, their faith. In a way, I was kind of like the New Hampshire Democrat who went to the Trump rally, despite being warned about how horrible the MAGA people are, and found that they were just ordinary, friendly people. I didn’t expect anything bad from the Rome event, given that Yoram Hazony was a principal organizer, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover how personable everybody was. It was another reminder that you honest to God cannot trust the media to tell you the truth about the European Right. If I had read the UK papers, I would have thought this was the SA meeting at a Munich beer hall, or something.

Yoram and Chris’s piece puts me in mind of my trip to Bucknell University this week. Yesterday I returned home from an evening at the central Pennsylvania liberal arts college. I really enjoyed my time there, talking to conservative students and professors, all of whom seem to be an embattled minority on campus. I won’t write any details about what I heard here, though I invited the students I talked to to write me if they wanted to go into detail publicly. I can say, though, that I didn’t hear simply broad complaints about a climate of hostility. I heard very specific complaints. One conservative student leader told me that some students who write for the campus conservative newspaper write under pseudonyms because they fear retaliation from their professors. I was told by two different people, separately, that a leader of the campus Democratic Socialists of America had publicly announced a list of Bucknell professors that, in his view, needed to be fired for ideological reasons.

Prof. Alf Siewers, my host, was on that list, according to one student. Yesterday in the airport, I found this interview with him about a book he and a Bucknell colleague edited of scholarly essays examining the totalitarian legacy of the Bolshevik revolution. Siewers said that he and his colleague faced opposition on campus to the 2017 symposium out of which the book grew:

It’s interesting because on campus the faculty on the left opposed the symposium. When we announced this on campus, we had immediate push back from some colleagues in the history department who are more radically oriented and also some colleagues elsewhere on campus who have a positive view of Marxist-Leninism to one degree or another in the sense that the Bolshevik revolution was part of a progressive narrative of history reaching towards greater social justice and who accept, from my perspective, the good Lenin/bad Stalin narrative.  But their views were not derived from the kind of in-depth scholarship that our speakers practiced.

A lot of recent scholarship, a lot of scholarship based on materials from Soviet archives once those became available and open, really gives the lie to that good Lenin/bad Stalin narrative. That small but vocal handful of colleagues who objected to the symposium really in my view bought into that more superficial older view, which was never really justified by scholarship anyway, but it has certainly been superseded as scholarship has gone more deeply into these issues. 100 years later, we should be able to have a clear perspective on this, and I think that the speakers that we brought offered that.

Still, we were accused of organizing an ideological anti-communist program, and unfortunately very few of our colleagues in history or other related areas showed up for the Symposium.  There were a few colleagues who did, to their credit, and one in history actually help moderate one of the sessions, which was great.

But I think maybe the saddest thing about all that is people just not showing up to hear scholars with whom they disagree, without,  to my mind really understanding what the scholar’s work is about, based on the critical emails that we were getting from colleagues objecting to the symposium. It would be nice to think that people would be willing to show up, and, if they had disagreements with the scholars, and we’re talking about serious scholars now, to be able to have a discussion with them and try to make reasonable objections in a civil way during the Q & A would be a great model for the students. Unfortunately that seems to be a difficult thing to pull off today in academia generally.

This is consistent with what I heard yesterday, both from students and professors. It sounds like an incredibly demoralizing atmosphere, in the same category as what Hazony and De Muth describe: left-wing people demonizing anything to the right of themselves that they don’t like. David French, a former free speech litigator, writes about how campus free speech victories in court have not alleviated the sense of siege conservatives feel on some campuses.I heard from several conservative Bucknell students who are genuinely afraid of their left-wing professors, believing that their grades depend on not dissenting from the party line. Is this really true? Obviously I can’t prove it based on conversations, and maybe they can’t prove it either. But it’s important that students feel this way. The fact that they have this anxiety, even if groundless, is a concerning sign. Conor Friedersdorf wrote a good piece the other day about a new study at UNC-Chapel Hill reporting that conservatives students there really do self-censor. Anecdotally, I heard anecdotally that this goes on at Bucknell. 

In one of the meetings I had with students, an undergraduate man engaged me in conversation. He didn’t use the word, but he seemed pretty clearly to be an actual neoreactionary. We talked about Mencius Moldbug, and other figures. He doesn’t have a lot of regard for mainstream conservatives — and based on our conversation, he has real intellectual grounding in neoreactionary thought. A couple of things he said made me realize that his politics aren’t mine, and couldn’t be mine. But he’s the one I’m thinking about this morning.

That guy was one of the first people I talked to at Bucknell. It’s interesting to think about everything else I heard on this visit, in light of his conclusions about right-wing resistance. Why is that conversation I had with the young neoreactionary front to mind? Because assuming that what the conservatives there told me is fair and accurate — caveat! — in the face of the systemic left-wing radicalism of the university (both in many of the faculty and the students), the ordinary resistance from normie conservatism seems so feeble. Hey, I’m definitely a normie conservative, though as a conservative who is not a Republican, can’t stand the GOP establishment, and dislikes Trump, I’m in some sort of weird fringe of normieness!

But I’m wondering this morning: why? Why identify as conservative? What, exactly, is there left to conserve?

Don’t worry, I’m not getting red-pilled anytime soon. But that conversation with the neoreactionary made me reflect on how the neoreactionary view of the current situation is probably more accurate than the conservative view. Here’s what I mean:

The classical liberal tradition is in tatters, at least on some campuses. Students and faculty told me about how ordinary standards of discourse have in some cases been hollowed out by the radical left, and subordinated to identity-politics leftism. The transmission of knowledge has become ideological indoctrination. These are familiar complaints on the Right, but to hear these young people talking about specific examples, and what it is like to be a conservative on campus, was really discouraging. It’s all well and good to tell kids to suck it up, buttercup, and be prepared to take grief for their views. Nobody is entitled to avoid criticism. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the After my talk, a man from the community — a physician — told me about how his daughter had worked after college at a highly respected think tank, doing analytical writing on sexual orientation and gender identity issues — from a point of view critical of the progressive line. She’s moved on to other work now, but was warned by people outside that think tank that having her name associated with those positions will hurt her career forevermore. The left, entrenched in academia, really will make you pay a price for crimethought.

I’ve had a couple of conversations lately with academics who tell me that “diversity, inclusion, and equity” statements have been adopted by their departments or universities as part of the hiring process. It’s a loyalty oath, swearing allegiance to a highly politicized point of view that has nothing at all to do with teaching or scholarship. These professors see it as a way that faculties and institutions weed out the ideologically unreliable — the dissenter types who might cause them trouble, by, I dunno, holding academic symposia to examine the historical legacy of Bolshevik totalitarianism.

True confession: I don’t know much about neoreactionary thought, besides a passing familiarity with Moldbug. I tried reading him, but found his style to be frustratingly elliptical. Besides, too many of the neoreactionaries get sucked into the dark hole of politicizing race; I want no part of that. However, one of his neoreactionary concepts that I think is completely, irrefutable true is his idea of the Cathedral. That’s the term he uses for the network of institutions — universities, media, corporations, and others — that informally regulate what we can and cannot talk about. The term “cathedral” is brilliant, because it does two things: it frames the views of the progressive-egalitarian establishment as a pseudo-religion, and it signals that religion’s authority (a cathedral is the bishop’s church). It might sound like conspiracy theory to you, but it’s not. Moldbug has pointed out that it’s not organized. It’s a self-defined and self-regulating system through which elites form society to their ends. The Cathedral would anathematize academics who wanted to talk about the crimes of the Bolsheviks. The Cathedral would impose confession and penance upon a Tory party member who spoke at a conference of which the Cathedral disapproves. That kind of thing.

Here is another example of the Cathedral in action. A Soviet-born US academic, one of the sources of my forthcoming book, writes this morning to say:

Yesterday I spoke with my sister. She’s not in academia. She’s an entrepreneur, a hot-shot business woman, very successful. She called me to rant about how this woke rot is conquering the world of business. It’s now becoming pretty much obligatory to list your pronouns in business correspondence, and she says it’s getting to the place where you will become a pariah in business circles if you don’t. She routinely speaks to people like herself, owners of multi-million dollar businesses, CEOs of successful companies who confess to her in private that they routinely self-censor and are terrified of linking to any story on their LinkedIn profiles that isn’t completely woke.
I understand why people want to believe that this won’t touch them but they are in for a rude awakening.
(This is like the case that rocked the software development community Stack Exchange, which fired a moderator for declining to use preferred pronouns. Increasingly, you are going to have to accept that lie and obey its commands if you want to work in industry.)
In my study this past year of the Russian revolution, and of Marxism in eastern Europe, I have gained a real understanding of Marxism-Leninism as a pseudo-religion. This is not the place to expand on it; I wrote in more detail about it in this post. Obviously the Bolsheviks would have denied that theirs was any kind of religion. But it was a political religion to the marrow. Moldbug’s “Cathedral” concept illuminates the nature of progressivism, and progressive systems, in our liberal democratic society. It helps us to see that it really does operate like a religion: believing it possesses ultimate truths, has the authority to separate humanity into sheep and goats, and believes the true faith must be guarded and imposed by an enlightened clerical elite (professors, journalists, woke capitalists) who work within structures and institutions.
It is impossible to argue that political conservatives can be counted on to fight the Cathedral. They are more interested in political power, but fail to understand that the more important power is cultural. This is why despite Republican presidencies, and Republican control of Congress, society keeps moving left. Even when they have to stand in the back or along the sides of the nave, the Republicans are in the Cathedral. Trump is not really a threat to the Cathedral, because he’s a barbarian who just wandered into it, and doesn’t have the brains or the discipline to give it a good sacking. A smart, disciplined leader like Viktor Orban is much more of a threat to the Cathedral. The Tories, by disciplining their MP who spoke at the national conservatism conference, reaffirmed their bona fides as paid-up members of the Cathedral.
The point I’m getting to in this long ramble is this: as long as the Cathedral holds power, there will be no stopping the leftward movement of the culture, and the gutting of tradition, especially religious tradition, and of traditional liberties. As you know, I have a book coming out this fall talking about the emergence of what I call “soft totalitarianism.” Talking to students and professors at Bucknell, especially the neoreactionary student, compels me to think about how useless organized conservatism is in stopping any of this, at least in America.
Do not read this as me embracing neoreaction. I don’t. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it hard enough. I suspect the core of my resistance is the fact that I am, by conviction and temperament, a Christian Democrat — fundamentally a classical liberal who believes that the Good is, and should be, defined by Christianity, though with generous provision for dissenters. This good piece in Dissent, about right-wing anti-liberals, gets to the heart of why I am reluctant to embrace the more philosophically robust version of the political Right. But notice this excerpt in a discussion of Andrew Willard Jones’s book about medieval politics:

Even reframed in this way, the book remains revealing, for Jones is admirably unwilling to sand off the rough edges of his material. Thirteenth-century France was what the historian R. I. Moore dubbed a “persecuting society.” Although Jones doesn’t use this language, his account reinforces Moore’s suggestion that this society’s various forms of repression were part of a systematic and coherent edifice. Jones particularly stresses that the ferocious efforts to extirpate heresy throughout the century—most notoriously, the massacring of the Cathars of southern France—were inextricable from the broader effort to impose civil order. Within the logic of the system, heresy became synonymous with rebellion and vice versa; merely to live as a Cathar was by definition an act of violence against the social order. Nor was Louis IX markedly friendlier to the infidel than to the heretic. Resisting the temptation to write off the king’s anti-Jewish measures as a regrettable sideshow to his bureaucratic reforms, Jones insists that they were “integral to the rest of the program.” And the fact that the king spent much of his reign on crusade against the Muslims was hardly accidental, for in this world “the legitimate use of force becomes identical to holy war,” meaning that in practice “the drift of all sustained conflict . . . was toward crusade.”

Was the Most Christian Kingdom therefore an oppressive theocracy? “The answer is no,” Jones writes, because “the overriding logic of this understanding is the logic of peace, not that of violence.” Whereas modern social thought assumes a foundational conflict of interests, this world took peace as the baseline, so that coercive force was “legitimate only as a reaction to violence, only when directed at restoring the peace.” This becomes rather less comforting when we recall that any departure from orthodoxy constituted “violence” by definition, and that deviants could therefore be understood as “rebels against peace itself.”

Reader, does this not describe the world that woke progressives are bringing into existence in the territories they control — the universities, first of all, and then the media, and increasingly, corporations?

In the Cathedral’s religion, dissent from wokeness is heresy, and a form of violence. Progressive society is a persecuting society! Talk to conservatives who have to live and work within colleges and universities that have refashioned themselves as Cathedral seminaries.

I see no way around that conclusion. The Left has abandoned liberalism, and is becoming quite illiberal. The liberal Right — Republicans, normie conservatives, conservative churches, et alia — does little or nothing to fight it, or at least is not effective in fighting it (though they’re sure effective in fundraising off the fight). The National Conservative conference brought together small-d democrats of the Right who want to fight it within the bounds of liberal democracy — and the Tories horsewhipped their own heretic who showed up to speak there.

Which brings us back to where we started. People of the Right are faced with the systematic repression of the things they care about, and of themselves, by a pseudo-religious system that treats them as heretics who deserve persecution. There is increasingly no place for religious or cultural conservatives within the Cathedral. This is what I mean by an emerging “soft totalitarianism” — if you don’t bend the knee to whatever the progressives have come up with five minutes ago, you will be exiled. We are well on our way to a persecuting society run by the Left. I firmly believe that.

I do not want a persecuting society run by the Right, however. Unlike some fanatics of the anti-liberal Right, I want Jewish children to sleep in peace, knowing that the Pope’s agents are not going to break in and seize their children. But unlike some fanatics of the anti-liberal Left seizing children from parents for the sake of gender transition.You know as well as I do who has all the power in this society. Pius IX is dead and gone; the new popes of the Cathedral are imposing progressivist integralism on us.

In the end, I can’t think of a model of society that is more suited to peaceable co-existence than liberalism. But liberalism is going far off the rails, morphing into persecutorial progressivism — and the established Right has no idea how to stop it. The established Right is either about negotiating the terms of our surrender, or, in Trump’s case, 90 percent about performative bluster, without much effective follow-through.

This is why I focus so much on St. Benedict, and the Benedict Option. I see no real hope in politics; I do see hope, and positive work, in building up communities of deep resistance, capable of withstanding whatever comes. This does not mean that I counsel withdrawal from politics. Far from it! We have to stay involved as much as we can, if only to work to ensure the least-bad outcomes. But if the only political options on the table are a persecutorial society of the Left, or a persecutorial society of the Right, where does a Christian stand? I’m asking genuinely.

UPDATE: I should say that I left Bucknell feeling way more a part of Sohrab Ahmari’s camp. I don’t think David French’s defense of classical liberalism is going to be able to hold off the persecutorial progressives. That said, I don’t see that the Ahmarist Right has anything plausible to offer as a substitute for decadent liberalism. I might be wrong.

UPDATE.2: Good, challenging comment from C.L.H. Daniels:

[quoting RD:] Talking to students and professors at Bucknell, especially the neoreactionary student, compels me to think about how useless organized conservatism is in stopping any of this, at least in America.

MattInVA has been shouting this from the rooftops in your comment section for years now, and in my opinion he is right.

I think there is a real generational divide on the right, and in society generally. People like yourself and David French grew up in a time when liberalism, and also Christianity, were a strong influence on society. The principles of both were part of the underpinning of society even though they were decaying even then. People like Matt and I on the other hand grew up during the 90’s and came of age in the turbulent aughts. Most people probably remember the 90’s as something of a golden age, but in hindsight it was all meaninglessness and ennui papered over by economic prosperity and the rampant consumerism and hedonism that this enabled, while underneath veneer the termites were busy hollowing everything out. When the crash came, the veil was torn away and the basic nihilism of our society was rendered plain. Those who’d spent beyond their means in order to pretend that all was well lost everything. When you make materialism your lodestar, to what do you turn when prosperity fails?

It is of course dangerous to generalize too much, but I suspect that my generation is far more radical and far less nostalgic about the heyday of liberalism than you and your Generation X cohort are, to say nothing of the navel-gazing Boomers, and that is in part because we have grown up with the legacy of institutional and cultural decay bequeathed to us by those self-same Boomers. Those chickens really came home to roost for us in ways that they didn’t for the Xers. The American Dream, to us, has always been an empty platitude, a lie that is exposed every day by the basic realities with which we must contend. A place where anyone can do or become anything? Don’t make me laugh. I’m no fan of the left’s theories of structural racism, but there is some truth to the idea that we are all of us subject to forces much larger than ourselves. As the Boomers decided not only to allow but to encourage power to be concentrated in nearly all areas of society (economic, political and cultural), those of us not directly benefiting from that concentration (which is to say most of us) increasingly found that our so-called liberty was a liberty in name only. Sure, I am technically free to open a retail business in my hometown, but if there’s a Walmart fifteen minutes away, what’s the point? My business is nearly certain to fail against that kind of competition. Similarly, I can vote for whoever I want, in theory. But the structural concentration of political power into parties that are increasingly polarized and ideologically policed means that my choices are usually between bad and worse. Freedom of speech? What good does that do me when vast and remorseless cultural mechanisms will clank into action to cancel me if I express wrongthink? This isn’t liberty, it’s oligarchy that’s pretending not to be. The left at least has recognized much of this for years now. A lot of conservatives only just now seem to be waking up to it. Meanwhile our erstwhile overlords seem to be increasingly willing to do away with even the pretense that they’re anything other than our rightful rulers by some secular version of divine right.

Matt is a reactionary. I too am a reactionary in my own way, though I’d hesitate to classify myself under any particular ideological label because I don’t know of one that fits. I am, in any case, far more sympathetic to the idea that we ought to burn it all down and start over than I am to French-ist arguments about democratic incrementalism. Gangrene has set in; to save the patient now requires drastic measures. Matt once said something that stuck with me about how we could really use a stretch of “purifying warlordism”. As far as cures for decadence go, I can think of few better. In short, I have no faith at all in our institutions. They’ve been conspicuously failing and actively making things worse for my entire life. Why on earth would I look to them to resolve our problems? From where I sit they’re a big part of those problems, in which case they can hardly be the solution, can they? Year after year, election after election, it doesn’t matter who we send to Washington, nothing ever changes. As a young man, first I placed my faith in Barack Obama to fulfill his promises to bring change to Washington. He would be our savior. He turned out to be an avatar of the status quo. I got older and evolved on some issues. I also undoubtedly grew more cynical. I voted for Sanders, and when he was undermined by the establishment, I turned to the other disruptor at hand. Trump has done some genuinely good things, but it’s not nearly enough, and the scale and scope of opposition to his goals has made it clear just how undemocratic and corrupt our institutions actually are; a man with even an ounce more shame than Trump has would have been utterly destroyed by now. Looking to them for the change we need is a fool’s errand. They are beyond reform. They’ll chew up and spit out any and every reformer who naively engages with them in good faith. Instead we ought to bury them right alongside the Boomers, when they finally relinquish their increasingly febrile grip on power.

So when you look around and see how radical and angry a lot of young people seem to be, understand that they don’t have the same connection to a better past that you do. All they’ve ever known is a sort of slow-motion ruin in which things can indefinitely grow worse but never seem to get better, and in which no institution seems trustworthy or capable of making things better, and usually make them worse instead. The betrayal of the rest of us by our elites is a fact of life, one that is so obvious as to be unremarkable. Joe Biden, using his political connections to enrich his son? Don’t make me yawn. He’s just like the rest of them. It’s the rare honest politician that is the thing to be remarked upon, which is one reason, for better or worse, why Bernie is so popular. Rightly or wrongly, people believe him to be sincere in ways that they don’t ascribe to other politicians due to his decades-long consistency and contrary refusal to go along to get along.

If you hope to nurture a seed of renewal through the Benedict Option, then remember that it is all-consuming fire that paves the way for new growth in dying forests where a sapling would otherwise be choked out. Perhaps it is my generation that will be the flood against which you hope to prepare. You go and be the salt and the light. I prefer fire and flame.

That is an incredible last line. Terrifying to me, but incredibly powerful.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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