The New Jacobin Normal
On the Christian pessimism thread, reader Candles writes:
I was talking to a friendly acquaintance of mine a few days ago, a liberal/left professor at a R1 university. We were talking about politics broadly and the democratic race, and I was biting my tongue a lot. He’s mid-late 30’s, not married, no kids. Family was historically Russian Jewish immigrants, but he’s an atheist, for what it’s worth. Likable guy.
At some point, he meandered onto the general topic of all the things he would like to see the Federal government doing and enforcing. He mentioned that he had spent a year living in Utah, and how frustrating it was, the general lack of cultural respect for separation of church and state there, as he saw it. And this dove-tailed with his general notion that the federal government had made great progress in forcing people in places like suburbs in Utah to respect various Civil Liberties over the last half a century, but that it hadn’t gone nearly far enough, and he thought much further efforts in those directions were both morally good and inevitable.
At a certain point, I said, “You’re essentially advocating that Mormons should be forced by the coercive powers of the state and its monopoly on violence to be Unitarians in everywhere broadly conceived, by people like you, as the public, right?” And he shrugged and said, “Yeah. What’s so bad about that?”
I think this interaction gets right deep in the heart of why there’s no way for this to end in peace. As far as my friend is concerned, as long as there is anywhere in the country he could move that would make him living in accordance of his own values difficult or even impossible, America is not living up to (his vision) of its founding principles. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere etc etc.
And to be totally honest, if I were him, and I had been forced by my job like he had to move to a very heavily LDS part of Utah, I’m sure it would have been very frustrating. I’m actually pretty sympathetic to his point of view.
But a consequence of his concerns for himself and people like him is that he wants to live in a world where Mormons are forced, by the state, with its guns, to live a version of Mormonism that he and people like him have functionally colonized. He is fine with Mormonism as long as it is a properly subjugated and subordinate to his values anywhere Mormons might interact with him (or with what he would categorize as oppressed groups, which, if push came to shove, would include Mormon women and Mormon children who might be gay or transgender).
I’m no longer Mormon, and I have misgiving about the Church, but I found myself pretty frustrated with the conversation. And he’s no kind of firebrand – I don’t think he felt like anything he was saying was particularly provocative. But I think he just couldn’t recognize that “Mormons have to be Unitarians in public, and they’re not nearly Unitarian enough yet, so that state needs to do much more” is tyranny for a large amount of Mormons in exactly equal measure that it’s liberation for him.
Which is to say, I’m very sympathetic to the general thrust of your arguments.
Thank you. One of the most galling things about these arguments is the assumption by secular liberals (and their liberal Christian fellow travelers) that their own beliefs are neutral, and more, so obviously neutral that anyone who dissents only does so in bad faith, and must neither be accommodated nor taken seriously. It’s like Scientism in that way.
A few years back, veteran religion journalist Kenneth Woodward, writing on the Commonweal blog, explained how The New York Times is its own religion. It was a great piece, and said a lot, generally, about the culture of mainstream journalism, not just at the Times. If you can find a conservative who works in a major American newsroom, ask him or her what it’s like to be a dissenter there. You will learn that the homogeneous groupthink is overwhelming there, and it’s exacerbated by the conviction among the True Believers that they simply see the world as it really is. The epistemic closure is epic. And you know, I can live with epistemic closure, because all belief systems and cultures have to draw the line somewhere. What I find repulsive is the conceit these people carry that they have no biases or prejudices at all.
Reader Sean writes:
The moment I became pessimistic was not at the Obergefell decision. While I was dismayed like a lot of other people, I thought we might be able to outlast it and eventually begin to turn public opinion, like in Roe v Wade. No, the moment pessimism set in was in the fierce reaction I got from acquaintances and friends on Facebook.
I had worked in local politics for the better part of a decade, both on campaigns and working for elected officials and advocacy organizations. When I started pushing back on the gay marriage ruling on social media, I was immediately met with a tidal wave of vitriol and anger. From my acquaintances on the left I was expecting it, but what took me back was the hatred directed my way from many of my fellow Republicans, particularly the younger and college-age set.
These were people I had worked side by side with on many campaigns, who I had formed social clubs with and gone out many a time for a friendly drink. Yet after Obergefell they were denouncing me as a hate-filled bigot who might as well have wanted blacks to still be stuck under Jim Crow. The attacks were incredibly personal, and from people who knew me, not just random trolls on the internet.
What’s more, they were gleeful at the prospect of religious believers being railroaded on this issue. When the Barronelle Stutzman and the later Indiana RFRA issues hit the news, the dominant reaction of many of the young Republicans I knew was, Serves you right, that’s what happens to bigots. When I raised the prospect of churches being directly targeted for not performing gay marriages, I was met with airy dismissals. Some, alarmingly, were not even bothered by the idea.
I knew then that none of our ostensible political allies would come to our aid when the time came. It’s hard enough to ask people to sacrifice for a cause when it directly affects them. It’s extremely unlikely that people will go to the wall for a cause they only have a vague philosophical agreement with and especially when they consider the people they would be fighting for as the worst sort of bigots.
Thus we will be on our own for the foreseeable future, which was why I was so interested when I came upon your idea for the Benedict Option. We need something to help keep us together during the times ahead, otherwise we will all hang separately.
In my experience, there is nothing like the hatred that comes from the LGBT movement and its allies, even straights. Oh, do I ever have stories about this, from my life and the lives of others. Watching Barronelle Stutzman, a gentle elderly Baptist lady from a small town, break into tears last week, talking about all the people who have threatened to kill her, and to burn her house down, all because she wouldn’t arrange flowers for a gay wedding — that tells you something important about the nature of what we’re up against.
But this is the New Normal. Dig in and get ready for the long night. A reader of this blog, an academic, said to me (maybe in a comment, or in a private e-mail, I can’t remember) that he’s a conservative on a liberal college faculty. He loves his older colleagues, all of whom are liberals of the old school, meaning they are genuinely tolerant and supporters of the free exchange of ideas. But he lives in fear of his younger colleagues, who are Jacobins to the last man.
Robert Nisbet has written, in his 1953 classic The Quest For Community:
For the Philosophical Conservatives the greatest crimes of the Revolution in France were those committed not against individuals but against institutions, groups, and persona statuses. These philosophers saw in the Terror no merely fortuitous consequence of war and tyrannic ambition but the inevitable culmination of ideas contained in the rationalistic individualism of the Enlightenment. [Emphasis mine — RD] In their view, the combination of social atomism and political power, which the Revolution came to represent, proceeded ineluctably from a view of society that centered on the individual and his imaginary rights at the expense of the true memberships and relationships of society. Revolutionary legislation weakened or destroyed many of the traditional associations of the ancien régime — the guilds, the patriarchal family, class, religious association, and the ancient commune. In so doing, the Conservatives argued forcefully, the Revolution had opened the gates for forces which, if unchecked, would in time disorganize the whole moral order of Christian Europe and lead to control by the masses and to despotic power without precedent.
And so it did, and will again. We are living through a contemporary version of this. The revolution is the next phase of the Sexual Revolution, the revolution that Philip Rieff called the most consequential one ever. Our own Jacobins are now attempting to separate our people, starting in early childhood, from their own masculinity and femininity. They are unleashing forces that will disintegrate what remains of the moral order, and are bringing forth despotism.
In his brilliant book How Societies Remember, social anthropologist Paul Connerton says that every revolutionary regime has to suppress, even exterminate, the symbol system that keeps the people it wishes to rule bound to old ways of thinking. The forces of revolution have to deprive the ruled of their memories:
All totalitarianisms behave in this way; the mental enslavement of the subjects of a totalitarian regime begins when their memories are taken away. When a large power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness it uses the method of organised forgetting. In Czech history alone this organised oblivion has been instituted twice, after 1618 and after 1948. Contemporary writers are proscribed, historians are dismissed from their posts, and the people who have been silenced and removed from their jobs become invisible and forgotten. What is horrifying in totalitarian regimes is not only the violation of human dignity but the fear that there might remain nobody who could ever again properly bear witness to the past. Orwell’s evocation of a form of government is acute not least in its apprehension of this state of collective amnesia. Yet it later turn out — in reality, if not in Nineteen Eighty-Four — that there were people who realised that the struggle of citizens against state power is the struggle of their memory against forced forgetting, and who made it their aim from the beginning not only to save themselves but to survive as witnesses to later generations, to become relentless recorders: the names of Solzhenitsyn and Wiesel must stand for many. In such circumstances their writing of oppositional histories is not the only practice of documented historical reconstruction; but precisely because it is that it preserves the memory of social groups whose voices would otherwise have been silenced.
Similarly, anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her classic work Natural Symbols, writes:
Each social form and its accompanying style of thought restricts the self-knowledge of the individual in one way or another. With strong grid and group, there is the tendency to take the intellectual categories which the fixed social categories require as if they were God-given eternal truths. The mind is tied hand and foot, so to speak, bound by the socially generated categories of culture. No other alternative view of reality seems possible. … Anyone who finds himself living in a new social condition must, by the logic of all we have seen, find that the cosmology he used in his old habitat no longer works.
This is one reason I keep tub-thumping about the Benedict Option. It is in large part a call to prepare for what is to come by grounding ourselves so deeply in our faith and our communities of faith that we can resist anything they throw at us.
We are not Solzhenitsyn or Wiesel, or Wojtyla, Havel, or Sakharov. God willing, we never will be. But to assume that the only way a system erases cultural memories is through governmental coercion is incredibly naive. Consider what Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen wrote of his own students earlier this year:
My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.
It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.
But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?
Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?
Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present.
Over and over again, when I speak to professors who teach at Christian colleges, the story is the same: these kids come to us knowing next to nothing about the faith. Nobody at the Ministry of the Suppression of Christianity ordered their families, their churches, or their Christian schools to deprive these kids of their inheritance. They didn’t have to — and that is the epic tragedy of our time. People without a past will have whatever future those who command their attention want for them. If you think your children, and your children’s children, will be Christian in any meaningful sense of the term without you and your community fighting like crazy to swim upstream against the current of this post-Christian culture, you are living a lie. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.
You may not be interested in the Jacobins, but the Jacobins are interested in you — and your children. We must fight them every opportunity we get, but we have to know what we’re fighting for, and we have to know how to continue the fight underground if we are ultimately defeated.
Leaving aside the infinitely more important cause of the eternal fate of souls, there is the matter of making sure that there are people alive in the generations to come who can properly bear witness to the past — not just the particularly Christian past, but to Western civilization, the civilization that — I speak symbolically, of course — came from Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. We fight for Christian civilization itself, which includes what emerged from Moscow too. And therefore we must fight against the nihilistic successor civilization of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Brussels. We fight for the Paris of St. Genevieve, not the Paris of Robespierre. Modern civilization has no past, only a future. If our civilization is to have a future, it must be rooted in our past. We must remember our sacred Story.
I believe we will have a future, and I will fight for that future by fighting to keep alive the memory of the past. I won’t stake my life on defending New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Brussels, but I will stake my life on defending Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, and Moscow. That’s where the battle is. It’s a battle taking place in every city, town, and village in America. Which side are you on?