Radicalizing To The Right
In his recent podcast conversation with his colleague Ezra Klein, Ross Douthat says, in a part of the conversation about J.D. Vance becoming Trumpier:
So, one, there is a strategic element of trying to be Trumpy in the way that you go after liberals that is a novelty of the last five years. There’s also, though, a real radicalization on the right, the assumption that, well, because I — I’m not accusing you of this, but other people saying, well, I met JD Vance five years ago when he was in Aspen, and he seemed like such a reasonable guy, and what happened to him?
Well, the Democratic Party moved substantially to the left. A lot of crazy things happened. Again, we had massive street protests of pandemic turmoil and all kinds of institutions. A lot of stuff went on in the last four or five years. The Kavanaugh hearing was an inflection point for some conservatives. And there’s been a general and I think sincere radicalization of a lot of people who fall or fell into an Ezra Klein’s thoughtful conservatives camp in 2015. And obviously, this hasn’t happened to me because my livelihood depends on being a thoughtful conservative who writes for a liberal readership. And so because of that, I’m sort of constrained and talked to my conservative friends —
EZRA KLEIN: Do you think it would have otherwise?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, I mean, I think maybe I’ve been radicalized a little bit, too, but I’m not going to tell you all of my most radical thoughts. Some of it is a little more mysterious to me, right? I looked at the Kavanaugh hearings and saw it as the case where I felt like I could see where both sides were coming from. And the fact that he ended up actually being put on the court, that was not a radicalization moment for me.
I think some of the shifts in sort of internal left wing discourse and politics over the last year or two, maybe some events cost people their jobs in certain liberal institutions … I won’t go into any great detail here, but some of that has had some kind of inevitable effect on me, yeah, absolutely. I guess I’m just saying when there is both a performative element to Republican Trump imitations and also a sincere shift in how some conservatives think about the left and what it wants for America, both of those things are in play in general.
I think maybe I’ve been radicalized a little bit too. Well, I have always been more radical than my friend Ross, but there is no question that events of the past few years — and of the past year in particular — have pushed me farther to the Right. So has working on my bookLive Not By Lies, and coming to understand what’s happening in America today as a soft totalitarian revolution. So has being in Hungary this summer. Let me explain without rehashing the argument of the book.
The argument I make in the book is not really mine; it’s the argument made by people who came to America fleeing Communist countries, a bitter experience that helped them understand the cultural revolution underway in America in a particular way — a way that eludes the understanding of most of us Americans, who have no experience with this stuff. In the book, I explain in detail what they mean by that. Regular readers have had lots of this stuff from me, so I won’t rehash it here. But this new development I learned of last night is a great example of the process underway.
There is a bill now before Congress that would establish a federal commission to rename geographical sites. From the text of the bill:
By now, we know where this is going. The thrust to identify evil people — according to woke ideology — and to damn their memory in public life is an open-ended revolutionary project. These terms — “equitable and just,” “cultural diversity” — have nothing to do with equity, justice, or cultural diversity. They are nothing more than weapons used by the Left to attack and destroy history, tradition, and culture they’ve identified as wicked. This is revolutionary. A few years back, I first read social anthropologist Paul Connerton’s book “How Societies Remember,” and wrote a long blog post about it. From that post:
Connerton begins by saying that “our experience of the present very largely depends upon our knowledge of the past,” and that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” Those memories, he contends, “are conveyed and sustained by (more or less) ritual performances.” Finally, he argues that these performances have to be embodied to be effective. Let’s unpack this.
When a new regime or social order takes over, the first thing it does is to find ways to sever the society’s connection to its past. ISIS is now doing that in the areas it controls, by erasing any physical embodiment of the memory of the area’s pre-Islamic past. “The more total the aspirations of the new regime, the more imperiously will it seek to introduce an era of forced forgetting,” says Connerton.
ISIS is an extreme example, of course, but this happens in all societies that are undergoing revolutionary change. The Communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe tried this too. Echoing Kundera, Connerton says that the “there were people [there] who realised that the struggle of citizens against state power is the struggle of their memory against forced forgetting.”
My copy of the Connerton book is on my shelf back in Louisiana, so I can’t consult it here. I recall, though, that he talks about the symbolic meaning of the French revolutionaries decapitating the King. It is the violent proclamation of a new order. Changing the names of places is a form of this. If the woke, and woke legislators, can change the names of places, they are erasing society’s connection to its own past. What we are living through now in the United States is a change of regime, in which power-holders in Congress and (especially) in all the leading institutions of civil society are explicitly condemning the existing American order, and undertaking well understood measures that will cause radical (= radix, at the roots) change. This is the meaning of all the changes in academia. This is the meaning of removing the statues. This is the meaning of redefining flawed historical actors as History’s Greatest Monsters.
This is not gradual change; this is a cultural revolution. In 2021, after what we have lived through these past few years, you are a fool if you don’t see that.
Hungary is being punished severely by the European Union for having passed a law this summer that restricts the presentation of LGBT content to children and minors. Hungarians are not religious, but they are culturally conservative. The government, seeing how the constant stream of LGBT propaganda aimed at children is changing Western societies (e.g., a 4,000 percent increase over a decade in the number of UK minors referred for transgender treatment), chose to fight back in a modest way. Every society chooses what is appropriate for its youth to experience, and usually codifies that in law. Not every society agrees on these points, but every society sets these rules. There is a reason why our laws set the age of sexual consent at a certain point. Societies differ on what that age is, but all societies recognize that children must be protected from the sexual desire of adults. Societies also set restrictions on whether or not minors can receive certain kinds of sexualized information — porn, I mean. Unlike the countries of Western Europe, Hungary believes that children and minors should not receive information normalizing LGBT. They are trying to protect their youth from the cultural revolution that has consumed the West. They are trying to protect their kids from decadent propaganda like this:
Maybe the Hungarians are wrong. Maybe they went too far. But for many of us American conservatives, it is remarkable and even inspiring that Hungarian lawmakers dared to stand against the woke juggernaut. Our American conservative politicians rarely ever do.
For that, Hungary is being severely punished by the EU, which is withholding Covid relief and rebuilding funds. Hungary is one of the poorer EU countries. The EU is holding it hostage in order to impose its own radical left views of proper child-raising. We who believe in what was standard and normal five minutes ago are not now tolerated, but rather hated by the regime. You don’t think this is cute? Damn you, normie bigot.
This is a cultural revolution.
We are living through a revolution that, in the name of liberal principles, abandons liberalism. Did you ever think that after the Civil Rights Movement, we would ever again live in a country in which people are condemned for the color of their skin, and treated as pariahs? Well, we are. The Left and the major institutions of American society are leading a cultural revolution that demonizes white people. We are expected to agree that this is right and just. That’s what the Democratic Party tells us. That’s what academia tells us, and media, and virtually every other cultural institution. We are told to despise our fathers and grandfathers, because the only thing meaningful about the lives they lived, and the country they built, is that they held opinions that are offensive to most Americans in 2021.
We are told to despise as uniquely horrible the Capitol Hill rioters of January 6. Me, I was and am appalled by what they did, and am all in favor of punishing them. But I was paying attention in 2020, when left-wing rioters ran rampant through many American cities, looting and burning and terrorizing cities, all in the name of “social justice.” The media fell all over itself to cast that violent lawlessness as somehow right and necessary. It was the media, and the Left in general, who cast a shadow of contempt across all law enforcement officers, making them all guilty for the repulsive actions of a few. It was the Left in this country that normalized widespread street violence. And it is the Left today trying to pretend that none of that had anything to do with the January 6 mob.
Being in Hungary has given me a rare (for an American) perspective. The Left, both in Hungary and in Western Europe and the US, construes Hungary as some sort of fascist state because of the policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. (Normie Republicans in America do this too.) In 2015, Orban refused to open Hungary’s borders to the tsunami if Mideast refugees. He understands that he leads a small country in the heart of Europe, one with a declining population, and with a unique language and culture. He understands that mass migration and open borders would mean the end of his nation. He also understands that there are very rich and powerful men, like George Soros, who dedicated their wealth and power to dissolving the Hungarian nation. He’s willing to fight this. For this, he’s called a fascist.
He recognized that Soros was using a college he founded, the Central European University, as a beachhead to introduce into elite Hungarian circles the kind of ideology that has conquered the West, and is dissolving the Western tradition everywhere it reigns. He drove most of CEU out of Hungary. For this, he’s called a fascist. I probably wouldn’t have gone as far as he did, but seeing how elite American universities are the fountainhead of this ideology causing America to tear itself apart, maybe I would have done. In any case, it is absurd for the left-wing illiberals who control most American campuses, and who are using their power to destroy entire fields, such as the Classics, for being insufficiently woke, to complain about Orban. In America today, medical schools are denying one of the most fundamental facts of biology: sex — all because of a radical crackpot ideology that came out of leading US universities. Who has been a major funder of transgender ideology, for years? George Soros. Yet the Left, and the US media, constantly condemn Viktor Orban for anti-Semitism because he dares to call out Soros the Destroyer.
It’s a lie. It’s one of the many lies they tell us.
People here criticize Orban for having engineered the sale of most Hungarian media to his own supporters. I agree that it was a dodgy move. The thing that nobody reports, though, is that the biggest Hungarian media outlets in terms of circulation (and therefore influence) are on the Left, and opposed to the government. Whenever a US conservative complains about the utter dominance of the Left in American media, the Left says, “But what about Fox ews?” Every conservative with a brain in his head would happily trade Fox News for ABC, NBC, CBS, The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR … . There’s a similar dynamic at work in Hungary. Two different journalists told me that if not for the Orban policy, no conservative voice would ever be heard in the Hungarian media. I have no way to verify that, but I suspect it’s true.
In any case, we have seen in the US media the replacement of old-fashioned liberalism with a hard-edge, Jacobin wokeness. A liberal reporter, commenting on this, told me that the younger generation of journalists think that “fairness” and “balance” are weasel concepts that make it possible for evil people to have a voice that they do not deserve. This is the death of liberalism. Old-fashioned liberals think conservatives are wrong; the Woke think we are evil.
The bill to wipe all memory of “problematic” people from names of places is not something proposed by a student activist group. It is proposed by Democratic members of Congress. Supermarkets aren’t forcing their employees to go to Bible study and to sit through lectures urging them to embrace conservative political causes; they are, however, compelling employees to sit through woke catechesis, and join progressive activist groups.
Do I need to go on? My overall point, again, is that what calls itself “liberalism” has become illiberal, and is not interested in defending classical liberalism, regarding what was once cherished as a workable system for allowing diverse people to live together in peace now as an intolerable system that permits Evil to flourish. One reason I have been on the fence in the Ahmari-French debate is that as much as I recognize that Sohrab Ahmari grasps the deep structural problems with liberalism, I can’t think of a better and more fair way for a wildly diverse, pluralistic society to live together peaceably. If we lose liberalism, as flawed as it is, then it is just a struggle for power.
So, if I have become a little bit radicalized over the summer, it’s because I have seen with more clarity what is happening to my country, and how difficult it is going to be to salvage liberalism with the woke controlling all the institutions, and most of the government, and with wokeness explicitly rejecting core liberal principles, like free speech, freedom of religion, and tolerance.
What I’ve also seen is that the Left is almost completely blind to what it’s doing. Here in Hungary, there was outrage on the Left over the Orban government transferring public dollars to private foundations overseeing institutions (educational, etc) broadly favorable to conservatism. Were I on the Hungarian left, I would have complained too. But here’s the thing: massive amounts of public monies have gone for years and years to institutions — colleges and universities — that are broadly favorable to liberalism and/or socialism. Nobody on the Left cares about this, because they believe it is the natural order of the world. They believe that it is their right to use liberal institutions (universities) to advance illiberal, socially destructive ideologies. And they want the public to subsidize the destruction of its own traditions, morals, and political interests.
Orban says no. Unlike Trump, he is a skilled politician who knows how to govern. The challenge I’ve had to face this summer is with my own belief in classical liberalism. I am a half-hearted classical liberal at best, but I honestly believe that classical liberalism on a base of robust Christian belief is about the best form of government we can hope for in the modern age. Not a perfect form of government, but better than the other possibilities on offer. Yet having seen what has happened in the US in the last few years, especially over the last year, I don’t really believe anymore than liberalism as we have known it can defend itself. Nor do I have much confidence that it should be defended. If “liberalism” requires a nation to open its children’s minds to transgender propaganda, then to hell with liberalism. If “liberalism” requires white people to despise themselves for the color of their skin, and requires Asian people to disadvantage their own children, who are supposed to suffer because they study hard and lead disciplined lives, then to hell with liberalism. If “liberalism” means that we are supposed to prove our virtue by denouncing our ancestors and purging our libraries and our classroom of books that have long been part of the canon of Western civilization, then … you know. Why should we want to defend this culture of death?
So where does that leave us, politically? I wish I knew. I can’t see much cause for hope right now on the Right. The most passionate of us are wasting themselves in crackpot causes. The smartest of us seem lost. Damon Linker, a good liberal (I say that unsarcastically; Damon really is a principled man of the center left), worries about the fascist temptation on the Right — specifically, in a shocking podcast conversation between Michael Anton and Curtis Yarvin. Linker:
I have described Anton’s conversation with Yarvin as helping to shift the Overton window away from liberal democracy and toward a defense of tyranny. Yet this isn’t how either man understands the American present. Rather, they agree early on in the podcast (around minute 24) that the current American “regime” is most accurately described as a “theocratic oligarchy” in which an elite class of progressive “priests” ensconced in the bureaucracies of the administrative state, and at Harvard, The New York Times, and other leading institutions of civil society, promulgate and enforce their own version of “reality.” Anton and Yarvin treat this assertion as given and then proceed to talk through how this theocratic oligarchy might be overturned. (One of their substantive disagreements concerns how long this regime might last if it’s not directly challenged. Anton is hopeful it will collapse of its own incompetence and corruption, while Yarvin thinks the current “clown world” could continue onward for decades or even a century, with the United States slowly decaying into something resembling a Third World country.)
I haven’t listened to the podcast, but I generally agree with this diagnosis (by Yarvin and Anton). The rest of their argument (as Linker recounts it) is something I absolutely disagree with. They seem to look forward to some sort of American Napoleon. I can’t go there. Viktor Orban is not that kind of figure. He is an elected democrat, and if he loses next year’s race, he will leave office. Orban’s appeal to conservatives like me is that he is not only deeply unwoke, but he also has a clearer and more accurate read on the Left, and is far more willing than American conservative politicians to play hardball with it. Donald Trump is only superficially like Orban. Trump is a clown who was never serious about governing. He wasted the opportunity history and the American people gave him. He antagonized the Left and accelerated the Left’s radicalization without providing a meaningful and effective opposition from the Right. He tweeted; Orban governs. In fact, I have had many conversations this summer with voters who are ready for a change, but who are planning to return Orban’s party to government because they don’t trust the opposition to govern well. They believe that the opposition will just do what Brussels tells them to do.
The podcast concludes with Anton quoting another Claremont writer (Angelo Codevilla) on how Trump dropped “the leadership of the deplorables,” which is waiting to be picked up by someone “who will make Trump seem moderate.” Yarvin responds approvingly with a quote by Serbian dictator and indicted genocidal war criminal Slobodan Milošević, who said the goal should be that “no one will dare to beat you anymore.”
That is ugly. No one should quote Slobodan Milosevic. That speech, though, occurred at Kosovo Field, in a context of ethnic Serbs being attacked by ethnic Albanians. Milosevic awakened ethnic nationalism that led to attempted genocide. But look, not having listened to the podcast, what I would say is that if you don’t want to empower an American Milosevic, stop justifying turning white Americans into second-class citizens because of their supposed bloodguiltiness. Why on earth can’t the Left see that this is a formula for tearing the country apart in racial violence? You are pushing people to radicalization. If, God forbid, we get an American Napoleon, or infinitely worse, an American Milosevic, you will share a lot of the blame.
So, yes, I have become more radicalized this summer. I believe I better understand what the end game is for the Left, which is to say the people who hold all the institutional power in the US. The old liberals are gone, or at least they don’t have real power anymore. It’s all revolutionary radicalism, carried out by nice people in pleasant offices, who want to erase history, deny identity, and subjugate those who resist.
You tell me: why are we on the Right supposed to believe that these are normal times, and that we can protect ourselves through normal means?
I hate where this is going. But it’s the Left who is shoving their batons into our backs, pushing us there. I would rather be a reactionary living in a liberal democracy, where we are pretty much left alone. But the Left is not giving people like me that choice. Do I side with the possibly unsavory people who at least don’t hate me, or do I side with the socially privileged people who would just as soon push people like me to the margins, and treat us and the things we love with utter contempt? Is this even a question?
UPDATE: A reader who is so interesting he should get his own blog writes: