Rod Dreher

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The Totalitarian ‘They’

Farhad Manjoo (PBS NewsHour)

Sohrab Ahmari of the NYPost tweeted this:

Yes indeed! My valve slammed shut when I read that.

Similarly, every once in a while a piece of journalism will appear that seems custom-made for this blog. In the case of New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo’s latest bit, in which he calls for the abolition of gendered language. Mind you, Manoo is not a columnist for the Oberlin student daily, but the most influential newspaper in the world. He says he’s a normal suburban dad, and doesn’t mind if you call him “he.” However:

But “he” is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

Right. We’re the ones who are “irredeemably obsessed” with genitalia, not the progressives who can’t stop talking about it. More:

I think that’s too cautious; we should use “they” more freely, because language should not default to the gender binary. One truth I’ve come to understand too late in life is how thoroughly and insidiously our lives are shaped by gender norms. These expectations are felt most acutely and tragically by those who don’t conform to the standard gender binary — people who are transgender or nonbinary, most obviously.

But even for people who do mainly fit within the binary, the very idea that there is a binary is invisibly stifling. Every boy and girl feels this in small and large ways growing up; you unwittingly brush up against preferences that don’t fit within your gender expectations, and then you must learn to fight those expectations or strain to live within them.

Read it all. Michael Brendan Dougherty pushed back, which drew a Twitter response from Manjoo. to which MBD replied:

Well, not only that, but Manjoo seems oblivious to the ideological privilege he has. Try questioning publicly “every inherited part of the culture and seek to justify it” when the inherited part of the office culture is the standard progressive roster of Thou Shalt Nots — including questioning the abandonment of the gender binary. I am writing this from Poland, which is in general a more culturally conservative country than the US. There are people who work for US-based multinationals who are afraid that they’re going to get fired if they object in any way to this stuff being introduced into their workplace via ukase from American HR departments.

Damon Linker has a great piece about how out-in-left-field-over-the-wall-into-the-bleachers-and-halfway-to-Albuquerque liberals have become on gender in just two shakes of RuPaul’s tail. Linker points out that Manjoo is not going out on any kind of limb here. This kind of gender radicalism is now part of everyday discourse in pop culture, advertising, media discourse, and in the catechisms generated by corporate HR departments. Here’s the most interesting part:

The first thing to be said about these convictions is that, apart from a miniscule number of transgender activists and postmodern theorists and scholars, no one would have affirmed any of them as recently as four years ago. There is almost no chance at all that the Farhad Manjoo of 2009 sat around pondering and lamenting the oppressiveness of his peers referring to “him” as “he.” That’s because (as far as I know) Manjoo is a man, with XY chromosomes, male reproductive organs, and typically male hormone levels, and a mere decade ago referring to such a person as “he” was considered to be merely descriptive of a rather mundane aspect of reality. His freedom was not infringed, or implicated, in any way by this convention. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to think or feel otherwise. Freedom was something else and about other things.

The emergence and spread of the contrary idea — that “gender is a ubiquitous prison of the mind” — can be traced to a precise point in time: the six months following the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, which declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right. Almost immediately after that decision was handed down, progressive activists took up the cause of championing transgender rights as the next front in the culture war — and here we are, just four short years later, born free but everywhere in chains.

Linker goes on to say that there is no limiting principle in any of this. It’s all rebellion:

Will Manjoo’s call for liberation from the tyranny of the gender binary catch on in the way that the push for same-sex marriage did before it? I have no idea. What I do know is that, whatever happens, it’s likely to be followed by another undoubtedly very different crusade in the name of individual freedom, and then another, and another, as our society (and others like it) continues to work through the logic of its devotion to the principle of individualism.

The only thing that could halt the process is the rejection of that principle altogether.

Read it all. 

A couple of months ago, when I was in Prague, I sat in a pizza joint interviewing three of the late Czech dissident Vaclav Benda’s adult sons. One of them said something that stuck with me. He was paraphrasing his father:

At the heart of all the totalitarian regimes is the idea of correcting the Creator and stealing your freedom so we can build the new world.

I went back last night to search my electronic copy of Benda’s essay collection The Long Night of the Watchman. I was looking to see if a phrase close to this turned up. I found this:

There are times when Christians do not realize that the idea of the forced establishment of paradise on earth and the emancipation of man with regard to any kind of higher authority comes from the same crucible as the idea of the improvement of sinners (or elimination of their occurrence) with the help of draconian laws, the idea of Christian dictatorship (totalitarianism): rebellion against the Creator stands at the root of all this, the same longing arbitrarily to correct imperfections in His work of creation.

An interesting point! I read on, though, and found this:

Totalitarianism devotes all its strength, all its technical know-how, towards a single goal: the unimpeded exercise of absolute power. It is capable of the most bizarre tactical somersaults imaginable, but it can never, under any circumstances, admit that anything is more important, more sacrosanct, than “the leading role of the party.”

Substitute “progressive towards diversity and inclusivity” for “the leading role of the party,” and you’ve got a pretty good general explanation for these weird manifestations like Manjoo’s column.

Benda said there can be no compromise with totalitarians:

One has either to submit oneself unconditionally to the violent and totalitarian power which sees a threat in every shadow and every free breath, or to confront it and to pit real strength against it (even if this is “mere” moral strength, for even that has shown many times in the history of Christian civilization how effective it can be). What is without any sense at all is to try to persuade the power that we mean well, and that we intend to limit its monopoly (its very essence!) only in its very own interest.

You do know that this stuff really is totalitarian, right? I bet Manjoo doesn’t. It’s totalitarian in part because it will tolerate no deviations. Take the time to read James Lindsay’s and Mike Nayna’s terrific piece analyzing Social Justice as a religion. They say that adherents to the cult aim to establish total power over society, to remake it in their ideal image. Excerpt:

That Social Justice defines the ideology motivating a moral tribe is instantaneously clear. Few communities of people organized around a shared moral vision aside from the most orthodox and fanatical religious sects and cults (whether religious or not) exhibit the traits of moral tribalism more overtly than Social Justice. That Social Justice represents a moral tribe is particularly evident in its tendency to police the moral behavior and thought within it and, where it can, reach outside of itself with what seems to be inexhaustible fervor and near-utter intolerance.

As dissident Benda observed when dealing with the Communist version of this fanatical mentality — which, you will notice, he said can happen also in a Christian context (Benda was a devout Catholic) — there is no peace to be made with these people. They cannot tolerate others, because their reason for being would cease to exist. To tolerate others is to co-exist with “Hate.”

Here, in another Benda passage, is another way that the Social Justice cult and its pomps and works is totalitarian. Remember, he’s writing in the 1980s, talking about Communism. But keep in mind how this applies to what we’re dealing with:

This decisive modus operandi of Czechoslovak totalitarianism is the atomization of society, the mutual isolation of individuals and the destruction of all bonds and facts which might overcome the isolation and manipulability of the individuals, which might enable them to relate to some sort of higher whole and meaning and thus determine their behavior in spheres beyond pure self-preservation and selfishness. I like to use the image of an “iron curtain” lowered not only between East and west, but also between the separate countries of the East (it is very noticeable that our contacts with the west increasingly take the form of an absolute idyll in comparison with the difficulties and adversity we encounter in establishing direct relationships with people from other Eastern countries), between separate social classes and groups, between separate communities, regions and enterprises. But iron curtains were and are lowered inside communities and enterprises too, and—when it comes down to it—even within families (we’ll leave aside curtains around individuals and in their inner selves, whose functioning would require a more subtle analysis). …

Hand in hand and in simple logical connection with the destruction of all social bonds is also the denial of any sort of truth which would be just somewhat impersonal and beyond current practical utility (not long ago I was shocked by young students’ simple unfamiliarity with orthodox Marxist terminology—even in their own schools they no longer try to pretend they are presenting some truths), the collapse and reduction of all values to nothing, the denial of any sort of order, morality and responsibility and eventually the particular perversion of freedom (that supreme gift of God), which is tolerated or even preferred only as mere license and arbitrariness.

As Linker avers, the Left is racing as far and as fast as it can to total atomization, and to unwittingly destroying any natural connections between individuals, and between individuals and objective reality. In Orwell’s 1984, the State sought to conquer Winston Smith’s mind by making him believe that all truth derived from what the Party said — and the Party decreed that all reality was in the mind. If the Party said that 2 + 2 = 5, then that was true. The Party, through its artificial language Newspeak, sought to change the way people talked so as to limit, even eliminate, the ability to think contrarian thoughts. In the end, it would not be enough for the Party to terrorize all opposition to Big Brother into silent submission; the Party’s ultimate goal was to make all souls love Big Brother.

Does this seem overwrought to you? After all, we’re just talking about a dopey column by a sweet, nerdy Millennial NYT columnist, right? See, though, this is exactly how this stuff gets institutionalized. As Linker points out, four years ago, what Manjoo claims in his piece is arbitrary and oppressive was so normal that nobody even thought about it. Now this kind of thing is quickly becoming orthodoxy within the Inner Party leading progressive circles.

Manjoo engages in a classic piece of left-liberal rhetoric here, saying he wishes that our world were one

… in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs

See what he does here? The people who object to his absolutely radical proposal to alter English as it has been spoken for centuries, so that it can fit a bizarre model of biology that only a relative tiny elite of progressives accepts — hey, they’re the ones who are “obsessed” by meaningless flesh in people’s crotches. Fifteen years ago, progressives taunted those who questioned the wisdom of smashing the traditional model of marriage as being “obsessed” with what other people did behind closed doors, etc. The idea is to stigmatize norms as being arbitrary, irrational, and even immoral, as a way to pave the way for the uncompromising introduction of new norms … which are presented as obviously true and good.

Again: this is totalitarian. There’s no limiting principle within this insane ideology. If it’s going to be stopped, it’s going to be stopped by force. One hopes only moral force, and the force of voters pushing back as hard against it as it is pushing against us. One hopes by fighting like mad in the courts to stop it.

This morning in Poland, I am going to give a lecture on the Benedict Option to a group of Polish college students who are on a summer school focusing on theology and politics. I’m going to talk about the Ben Op in a mode that I rarely do: as giving them the kind of deep grounding and formation they need — spiritually, morally, intellectually, and in terms of fellowship and discipleship — to fight these fights. As in the case of Dr. Benda and the Czech dissidents, the day may come when the Party holds all the levers of power. Resistance will have to continue through other means. Doing the Ben Op now, though, means that we will have been formed in the mental, moral, and spiritual habits of resistance.

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