Home/Rod Dreher/The Rational Reactionary

The Rational Reactionary

At dinner last night on a restaurant terrace on the Buda side of this city, I met an American conservative who recently moved to Budapest in despair over the state of our country. He’s trying to figure out where in the Visegrad countries he’s going to settle. “America is over,” he said, angrily.

Earlier on Saturday, out and about in my neighborhood, I found myself in conversation with a Hungarian conservative. I mentioned that a lot of disaffected Americans on the Right look to Hungary and the other Visegrad countries with longing, even envy. My interlocutor said this is a mistake.

“You all need to be careful about how you think of us. We are not that far behind you, especially in the younger generations. This country, Hungary, is not a religious country anymore. We are just as materialistic as you are. Maybe we haven’t fallen as far as you all have, but we don’t have the antibodies anymore to resist the viruses that are eating your American brains. It’s just a matter of time.”

I thought of these two conversations just now when I read Ross Douthat’s column about the “two crises of conservatism.” The first crisis, he says, is that Republicans don’t know how to win elections anymore. This will eventually be solved, just as the Democrats solved the same problem for themselves eventually. The second crisis is much deeper and more destructive. Douthat:

What does it mean to conserve the family in an era when not just the two-parent household but childbearing and sex itself are in eclipse? What does it mean to defend traditional religion in a country where institutional faith is either bunkered or rapidly declining? How do you defend localism when the internet seems to nationalize every political and cultural debate? What does the conservation of the West’s humanistic traditions mean when pop repetition rules the culture, and the great universities are increasingly hostile to even the Democratic-voting sort of cultural conservative?

At least you can still defend the heroic entrepreneur, say the libertarians — except that the last great surge of business creativity swiftly congealed into the stultifying monopolies of Silicon Valley, which are leading the general corporate turn against cultural and religious forms of conservatism as well.

This set of problems explains the mix of radicalism, factionalism, ferment and performance art that characterizes the contemporary right. What are we actually conserving anymore? is the question, and the answers range from the antiquarian (the Electoral College!) to the toxic (a white-identitarian conception of America) to the crudely partisan (the right to gerrymander) to the most basic and satisfying: Whatever the libs are against, we’re for.

On the center and the liberal center-right, meanwhile, there’s a sense that the way out of this mess is for decent conservatives to recommit to the liberal order — “to organize and draw a bright line between themselves and the illiberals on their own side,” as my colleague David Brooks put it this week.

But that might not be enough. In the end, conservatives need to believe the things they love can flourish within the liberal order, and it isn’t irrational to turn reactionary if things you thought you were conserving fall away.

Well, that’s pretty much where I am. But the thing is, there’s no place to escape to. I’ve been coming to Central Europe for three years now, and I’ve been hearing the same things from young Catholic conservatives in these countries that I heard from the Hungarian I chatted with today near the National Museum: what you Americans and western Europeans are today, we will be tomorrow. 

Thinking further about that conversation, I recall the Hungarian telling me that the laws having to do with the Sexual Revolution, broadly, are still strict relative to American laws, but the way people actually live is becoming much more lax and tolerant, along the American model. Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party may be in power, said the Hungarian (who supports Orban), but the culture is moving away from what Fidesz stands for. The Hungarian says that absent some kind of religious revival, social conservatives are fighting a losing battle.

I thought about that as I walked around the city later in the afternoon. This is what the death of God means to a civilization. You might remember this 2019 interview I did with the literary scholar Louis Betty, who is an expert in the novels of Michel Houellebecq. Betty wrote a great book analyzing the metaphysics of Houellebecq’s work, which Betty describes as being examinations of individuals and societies that no longer live under the “sacred canopy.” Excerpt from my interview:

RD: When we think of totalitarianism, our models are Nazism or Communism. Happily, the rebirth of either seems very unlikely. That said, many of the cultural and social factors that Hannah Arendt said opened the door for 20th century totalitarianism are also present today — especially radical atomization and loneliness, and the discrediting of familiar hierarchies. Unlike in the last century, liberalism seems not nearly so robust an alternative. What do most people on the left and the right today miss that Houellebecq sees?

LB: One of Houellebecq’s most remarkable qualities is his consistent anti-liberalism—“liberalism” meant here in the classical sense as an idea about human moral and

Louis Betty

economic freedom that emerges from the Enlightenment (I’m not referring to left-liberalism in the US). On the one hand, his novels paint a gloomy portrait of the consequences for family and community of the sexual revolution; essentially, they expose the underbelly of a social movement, championed by the modern left, that fancies itself sacrosanct and morally unassailable. So, in the moral sense, and especially vis-à-vis moral concerns surrounding sexuality, his treatment of the sexual revolution has a way of shocking left-liberal sensibilities.

On the other hand, MH is no great advocate for unfettered economic freedom. His novels suggest (or even demonstrate, if that’s a proper term for describing the work fiction does) that moral and economic liberation go hand in hand, and that it’s the very ideas and conditions that allowed for human economic emancipation centuries ago that eventually gave us the sexual revolution and the moral dissolution that arguably followed it (i.e., an increase in the divorce rate, more children born outside of marriage, etc.). The modern right, which likes to sing the praises of the free market but tends also toward moral and religious conservatism, isn’t primed to appreciate this rapprochement of material and moral license.

Ultimately, Houellebecq’s fiction points to a fundamental incoherence in modern, liberal political thought. You don’t get sexual freedom without the sort of economic emancipation free markets allow (it’s hard to multiply sexual partners when, say, you’re totally beholden economically to a spouse. That is, at least not without significant danger to yourself—just read some 19th-century social novels and you’ll see what I mean!). At the same time, you don’t get economic freedom and self-determination without a loosening of the moral constraints that material necessity used to hold in place. In any case, whatever side you’re on politically, the most important thing to understand as far as reading MH is concerned is that both of these visions—human flourishing understood either as economic or moral-sexual liberation—are materialistic and reductive.

And, rather obviously, they also fail adequately to address human beings’ metaphysical needs, which liberalism is content to leave up to the individual. Religion’s purpose, as I see it, is to order collective life sub specie aeternitatis, but you don’t get that when the hard work of metaphysical consolation becomes a private affair. In the vacuum, alternatives inevitably arise, some of the most pernicious of which we see today: ethnic and racial identitarianism, religious extremism and terrorism, and a tolerance and even embrace of totalitarian rhetoric across the political spectrum. I’m synthesizing a bit on Houellebecq’s behalf, but I think this vision can help us make sense of much of the tension we’re seeing today.

RD: Though he’s not a religious man, Houellebecq believes as a matter of sociological fact that no society can endure without religion. By “religion,” let’s use a broad definition that means “metaphysical framework” — though as you point out in your book, Houellebecq believes that transcendence itself is not enough; a resilient religion also has to offer some form of immortality. Is his case persuasive to you?

LB: Here it’s important, I think, to distinguish between religion as a human phenomenon and the specific case of Christianity in Europe. I don’t think such a thing as a “society without religion,” in the sense of having a metaphysical framework, really exists; to me, that’s akin to imagining a society without a language, or some notion of kinship, or ways of preparing food. I’m not an anthropologist, but it seems clear that any human society worthy of the adjective “human” is going to articulate some metaphysical system that makes sense of reality and offers consolation and a sense of meaning in the midst of natural vicissitude.

In the case of Christianity in Europe, I think the question to ask is something like this: can a civilization maintain its identity if it sheds its native religion? Houellebecq doesn’t think so, and neither do I. This isn’t a political or polemical point. Imagine taking as an anthropological platitude the claim that human beings will be religious and, moreover, that civilizations are built upon the metaphysical systems they create (or which are revealed to them, to give credit to the metaphysical on its own terms). It’s obvious from such an assumption that the collapse of the metaphysics entails the eventual collapse of everything else. This should be deeply alarming to anyone who cares about the West’s tradition of humanitarianism, which emerges—and it would be wonderful if we could all agree on this—out of the original Judaic notion of imago Dei and later from Christian humanism. Secular humanism has been running for quite some time on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian religious inheritance, but it’s not clear how much longer that can go on.

Honestly, it’s frightening to think what a truly post-Christian West would mean for our basic institutions. I’m not stumping for Christianity here; I just happen to have the intellectual conviction that the analysis of human society begins with religion. If you incline toward Marxian thinking, which looks at things in the diametrically opposed way, you’re going to hate what I’m saying. But that’s how I see it.

We are looking for political solutions to religious problems. Today after the divine liturgy at a local Orthodox church, I found myself walking up Szerb utca (Serb Street) talking to an older man, Nektarios, I had met in the courtyard following services. I told him how much I enjoyed being in Europe.

“Europe is finished,” he sighed. And he went through a short litany of the same problems we’re facing in America, adding a couple particular to here, but all of them adding up to the crisis of a civilization that has lost faith in God and in itself.

(Nektarios also said, “I have a friend in America, from here. He lives in Boston. He is quite old now. He is telling me that the things we all suffered under Communism are now starting to appear in America. Can you believe it?” I assured my new friend that I could indeed believe it.)

Look, by the way, at this slide from a presentation at the Brearley School. Parents are starting to see how the new woke curriculum has turned the girls in the school on each other. My source said the focus on race is trickling out of the classroom and down into text and email chats among students. Now, girls are accusing each other of being racist, on no grounds at all, and friends are criticizing one another’s musical taste as being “too white.”  Said my source, “They are playing with fire, making pre-teens and teens obsessed with skin color, race and identity … and now it is bearing bitter fruit.”

From the slide presentation to the Brearley students:

 

There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of these topics, but taken together, and realizing they are being taught to middle schoolers, these children of the tippy-top elites are being taught to despise their civilization (and themselves) before they’ve learned to love it. Why should they “decenter Europe” in middle school and high school? Everything, or nearly everything, about them, whatever their color, is the result of a culture that began in Europe and the Near East. And yet they are learning from their teachers to hate it. No civilization can survive this. And if you think this is going to stop at the borders of Brearley, or the institutions of the high elites, you are completely ignorant of the power of social media and the Internet, as well as the power of the gatekeepers to professional success.

We cannot keep a liberal democratic society together without belief in values rooted in Christian conviction. It is no accident that liberal democracy arose out of advanced Christian society; read historian Tom Holland’s Dominion for more on this, or this very short 2016 piece he wrote for New Statesman, saying how startled he was to discover that the things he values as a liberal are rooted not in classical culture (which is his area of academic speciality), but in Christianity. What is emerging quite quickly in America is an illiberal left-wing democracy.

The term “illiberal democracy” is often associated with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, who said in a 2014 speech that he is trying to build an “illiberal democracy” (and note well, he has been democratically elected several times). This passage from that speech gives you a sense of what he’s talking about. When he says “liberal,” he means “classical liberal,” not “the political philosophy of the Democratic Party.” I have highlighted certain lines:

As the matter stands, if we look at the surrounding events from here, we can consider three ways to organize a state that we so far knew, as a starting point: the nation state, the liberal state and then the welfare state, and the question is, what is coming up next? The Hungarian answer is that the era of a workfare state could be next, we want to organize a workfare state, that – as I previously mentioned – will undertake the odium of expressing that in character it is not of a liberal nature. What all this exactly means, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, is that we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.

I will only mention two dimensions of this — I do not want to get into a longer lecture here — and I only want to touch on them, so that the importance of the matter could be sensed. When it comes to a relationship between two human beings, the fundamental view of the liberal way of organizing a society holds that we are free to do anything that does not violate another person’s freedom. The twenty years of Hungarian environment preceding 2010 was founded on this theoretical, conceptual starting point. It accepted a principle that is otherwise a general principle in Western Europe. In Hungary however, it took us twenty years to be able to articulate the problem, that this idea, besides being very attractive on an intellectual level, yet it is not clear, who is going to say at what point my freedom is violated. And as this does not come without understanding, then it has to be fixed and determined by someone. And as nobody was appointed to decide this, therefore everyday life experience suggested to us that it was the stronger party who decided this.

We constantly felt that the weaker were stepped upon. It was not some kind of an abstract principle of fairness that decided upon conflicts originating from a recognition of mutual freedoms, but what happened is that the stronger party was always right: the stronger neighbor told you where your car entrance is.  It was always the stronger party, the bank, that dictated how much interest you pay on your mortgage, changing it as they liked over time. I could enumerate the examples that was the continuous life experience of vulnerable, weak families that had smaller economic protection than others during the last twenty years.

Our suggestion for that, and we will try to build the Hungarian state on this, is that it should not be the organizing principle of Hungarian society. We can’t pass a law for this. These are principles that you are free to do anything that does not violate another’s freedom. Instead the principle should be do not do to others what you would not do to yourself. And we will attempt to found the world we can call the Hungarian society on this theoretical principle, in political thinking, education, in the way we ourselves behave, in our own examples.

If we put this idea in the dimension of the relationship of the individual and the community, so far we were talking about the relationship between two individuals, then we will see that in the past twenty years the established Hungarian liberal democracy could not achieve a number of objectives. I made a short list of what it was not capable of.

You can read the whole thing to get an idea of what he’s talking about. I recall my first visit to Hungary, talking to a working-class Hungarian I’d just met who was explaining the basis of Orban’s appeal. She told me that he had recognized that so much of Hungary’s industry had, in the immediate post-communist period, been sold off to rich foreigners at fire sale prices. This meant that Hungarians themselves did not have control over their nation’s economic destiny. In his first term, Orban made repatriating industry a priority, my interlocutor said.

I pointed out that he has been criticized for putting cronies in charge of those industries. The Hungarian said that maybe there’s truth in that, but that is a second-order problem, one that can be solved here. The important thing is to make sure that a small state like Hungary has as much de facto sovereignty as possible, she said.

Look, I don’t want to get into an argument here about Viktor Orban’s governance. I’m going to be in Budapest for months, so I’m sure that will happen here on this blog. I don’t know enough about his conduct in office to give an overall thumbs-up, or thumbs-down, to the way he has governed. Maybe he has done good things, maybe not good things, or (likely) both. Who am I to say? My point here is to say that Orban realized earlier than most that the liberal democratic model could not conserve some basic things that in his view needed conserving; that it could not protect certain people and institutions that needed to be protected from powerful cultural and economic forces. Whether he has succeeded in his goals is a fair question. I praise him in this column in a narrow sense: to say that Orban asks a variation of Douthat’s question. Douthat says the Right in the US is faced with this question: What are we actually conserving anymore?

Orban’s take at framing the problem might be understood like this:  How should we act politically when the structures of liberal democracy end up leaving our people disempowered and vulnerable, and are causing us to lose important virtues?

In America now, liberal democracy is not able to stop the spread through every institution an extremely illiberal ideology that racializes everything, and trains Americans to see each other primarily in racial terms. The vulgar cultural Marxism of Ibram X. Kendi is now spreading into the military, thanks to a senior officer class that has become enamored of it. and into corporate America. There is nothing classically liberal about it — but we are told that the threat to liberal democracy comes from the Right.

We have seen in recent weeks US states considering legislation to bar biological males presenting as females from competing in female sports, which would obviously put biological females at a great disadvantage in competition. States considering this legislation have faced serious threats from major corporations, and the NCAA, all of whom have promised to punish the states if they passed these laws — laws that are simply common sense. Tell me, when a state is not permitted to protect its women athletes and the integrity of fair competition from this trans madness, because of the wrath of Big Business and the NCAA, is liberal democratic society working for them?

Amazon.com has amassed incredible power over our economy. Publishing is one industry key to the success of liberal democracy. Amazon is now deciding not to sell titles critical of transgender ideology. The practical effect of this is that those books will not be published, because no publisher can afford to bring out a book that Amazon cannot sell. Amazon is well within its right to do this, but let’s not be naive here: this move violates the spirit of liberal thought and practice. It is what you would expect in an illiberal democracy of the Left, in which the perceived greater good of the whole society trumps individual rights.

The Left rages at Viktor Orban for his illiberalism (e.g., pulling accreditation and funding for master’s and PhD programs in state universities), but he is acting in what he believes is the public’s interest. (And he’s right about that too: look at how the US is destroying itself with gender ideology and Critical Race Theory, and you’ll see that this stuff is like a deadly virus of the mind.) The Orban government did not ban the subjects, or writing on the subjects. He just said that the state will not pay for it, nor will they permit students to get degrees in that field of Grievance Studies. It was an illiberal move, but a far, far less important one, overall, that Jeff Bezos’s decision “not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness” (which Anderson’s book does not do, incidentally). The world’s largest bookseller, and the one with the power to control what gets published in America, has unilaterally, and within its rights, decided that the public debate over transgenderism is over, and no dissenters need ever be heard from again. Amazon is helping to send any dissent down the memory hole. The major media are too; where are the many op-eds critical of gender ideology, Black Lives Matter, and Critical Race Theory? We used to have a media that was on the Left, generally, but still at least formally dedicated to fairness and broad discussion. No more.

Because we live in an increasingly illiberal left-wing democracy.

And don’t even get me started on the e-mails I have been getting for years from teachers and students in colleges and now high schools, telling me in detail how afraid they are to speak their minds in class, for fear of being denounced as bigots, and punished. Academia is a mainstay institution of liberal democracy. There are no laws forbidding the discussion of these things in academia in America’s liberal democracy. But you can’t do it, de facto, in many places, without risking your livelihood. And few power-holders, in political office or otherwise, will come to your aid. They can rail at Orban for interfering with academic freedom, and they will have a point (though his point is that gender studies are so toxic that suppressing it is in the greater good), but the academic Left in the US has done far, far more than this. They have abandoned liberal democracy, and are now upholding illiberal democracy — from the Left.

The veteran journalist David Rieff is a man of the Left, but he absolutely despises wokeness, because it is illiberal. In a post on  his new Substack newsletter, Desire And Fate, Rieff points out that wokeness is being imposed and defended by progressive autocrats. “In global terms, contra the expectations of the 1990s, it is autocracy not democracy that is becoming the rising norm rather than the fated to be eclipsed exception,” he writes. He goes on:

Autocracy and Woke. A marriage made in heaven as far as I’m concerned. And more likely to end in lifelong harmony than in eventual divorce. Wisecracks aside, the liberal democratic order was always going to end, as all political systems end, just as surely as individual human lives do. The only important question was when it would end. Everything I see around me, read, watch, suggests to me that the answer is that it will be sooner rather than later, that is, if it is not ending already.

He’s right. Me, I prefer liberal democracy, but the conditions in America for a healthy liberal democracy — chiefly, tolerance of difference within a stable order — are disappearing. The Left advocates for illiberal democracy, while gaslighting the rest of us into thinking that the Right is the real enemy of liberal democracy. It’s a lie, but a lie that they devoutly believe (Rieff said that liberalism is the only ideology in the history of the world that doesn’t think of itself as an ideology). The question is coming to be: what kind of illiberal order shall we have? Douthat’s line:

In the end, conservatives need to believe the things they love can flourish within the liberal order, and it isn’t irrational to turn reactionary if things you thought you were conserving fall away.

Yes, this exactly. The things I love are increasingly unable to flourish in the liberal order. This is why I want to build the Benedict Option: so that we can try to come through the chaos resiliently. What other choice is there? Again, this is not a political question; this is a religious question. In the liberal democratic order, what exactly are conservatives conserving? I could live with the right to be left alone, but that is no longer on offer.

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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