Last night I watched “Paper Heads,” a 1995 documentary about Communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. It mixed propaganda films from the regime with testimony from people who had been tortured in communist prisons, or whose relatives had been abused in some way by the state. It was a crude but very powerful film. All that talk about brotherhood and shared prosperity and justice concealed cruelty, injustice, and murder of those who stood between the Party and Paradise.
The most chilling part of the film, at least to me, were the clips of the 1950s show trials. The rhetoric from the judges and prosecutors, and the narration by the state media announcer, denounced the accused as traitors, parasites, enemies of the people, and so forth. And these poor people, dignified but clearly in terror, confessed to their “crimes” and received the death penalty. Only in this way could the worker’s paradise be built, or so it was claimed by the communists in the film.
Just now I read David Brooks’s column today about how progressives are winning the culture war. Brooks had recommended earlier a moderate approach to advancing gun control, beginning with treating gun owners with respect. He now concedes that he might have been wrong about that. Excerpt:
It could be that you can win more important victories through an aggressive cultural crusade than you can through legislation. Progressives could be on the verge of delegitimizing their foes, on guns but also much else, rendering them untouchable for anybody who wants to stay in polite society. That would produce social changes far vaster than limiting assault rifles.
Two things have fundamentally changed the landscape. First, over the past two years conservatives have self-marginalized. In supporting Donald Trump they have tied themselves to a man whose racial prejudices, sexual behavior and personal morality put him beyond the pale of decent society.
While becoming the movement of Dinesh D’Souza, Sean Hannity and Franklin Graham, they have essentially expelled the leaders and thinkers who have purchase in mainstream culture. Conservatism is now less a political or philosophic movement and more a separatist subculture that participates in its own ostracism.
Second, progressives are getting better and more aggressive at silencing dissenting behavior. All sorts of formerly legitimate opinions have now been deemed beyond the pale on elite campuses. Speakers have been disinvited and careers destroyed. The boundaries are being redrawn across society.
As Andrew Sullivan noted recently, “workplace codes today read like campus speech codes of a few years ago.” There are a number of formerly popular ideas that can now end your career: the belief that men and women have inherent psychological differences, the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, opposition to affirmative action.
The black NYU undergraduate who got two cafeteria workers fired because she took the menu as an act of racist aggression hardly qualifies as a commissar sending dissenters to the gulag. But that incident is certainly on the spectrum. Imagine that: two people are out of a job now, and have their careers tainted by accusations of racism, simply because they were trying to show sensitivity to black students, but one black student was offended, and the gutless university administration preferred to sack those workers than to be accused by anybody of complicity in their horrible racist act of serving ribs and collard greens. All it takes is an accusation from one of the privileged — like Nia Harris, the NYU undergrad — to destroy a man’s career, even over something as stupid as cafeteria food.
Note well: the people running the cafeteria had consulted black co-workers about what they should serve to honor black history. But they hadn’t asked the right kind of black people, apparently. Working-class black people don’t count. You have to ask a bourgeois black person, because they are the kind that have the power and the desire to get you fired. And they have that power because spineless apparatchiks like NYU president Andrew Hamilton kowtow to these privileged children.
This is the world progressives have made, and are making. In “Paper Heads,” a couple of those interviewed talked about how in periods of crackdown, many people kept their heads down and tried not to say anything controversial, ever, because they were terrified of losing their jobs. One man, a computer programmer, expressed shame over his own capitulation, but said he would have been out of work if he hadn’t.
I suspect those Czechs and Slovaks would understand very well the mentality that got those two food service workers at NYU fired. We don’t even know if those fired workers were conservatives or not. All we know is that they were denounced by this middle-class black daughter of a Chicago administrative judge, and now they are jobless, with the scarlet letter of Racism staining their resumés forever.
That’s what it means to hold the commanding heights of the culture war: you have the power to annihilate someone’s career with the power of accusation. You think those workers and their families are going to be more sympathetic to the cause of racial justice now, given what was done to them?
The only thing I’d say to my progressive friends is, be careful how you win your victories. It is one thing to win by persuasion and another thing to win by elite cultural intimidation. Illiberalism breeds illiberalism. Using elite power, whether economic or cultural, to silence less educated foes usually produces a backlash.
Conservatives have zero cultural power, but they have immense political power. Even today, voters trust Republicans on the gun issue more than Democrats. If you exile 40 percent of the country from respectable society they will mount a political backlash that will make Donald Trump look like Adlai Stevenson.
He’s right about that. See, this is what the media don’t get. They accuse Trump of fomenting white tribalism, and they’re not entirely wrong to say so. But here’s the thing: events like the firing of the cafeteria workers do all of Trump’s work for him. They signal to ordinary working people that the elites (college presidents, for example) will happily throw them to the wolves to appease progressives. In her new book about political tribalism, law professor Amy Chua quotes this e-mail I posted a year ago here, from a reader named Zapollo. Today is a good chance to re-up it:
I’m a white guy. I’m a well-educated intellectual who enjoys small arthouse movies, coffehouses and classic blues. If you didn’t know any better, you’d probably mistake me for a lefty urban hipster.
And yet. I find some of the alt-right stuff exerts a pull even on me. Even though I’m smart and informed enough to see through it. It’s seductive because I am not a person with any power or privilege, and yet I am constantly bombarded with messages telling me that I’m a cancer, I’m a problem, everything is my fault.
I am very lower middle class. I’ve never owned a new car, and do my own home repairs as much as I can to save money. I cut my own grass, wash my own dishes, buy my clothes from Walmart. I have no clue how I will ever be able to retire. But oh, brother, to hear the media tell it, I am just drowning in unearned power and privilege, and America will be a much brighter, more loving, more peaceful nation when I finally just keel over and die.
Trust me: After all that, some of the alt-right stuff feels like a warm, soothing bath. A “safe space,” if you will. I recoil from the uglier stuff, but some of it — the “hey, white guys are actually okay, you know! Be proud of yourself, white man!” stuff is really VERY seductive, and it is only with some intellectual effort that I can resist the pull. And yet I still follow this stuff, not really accepting it, but following it just because it’s one of the only places I can go where people are not always telling me I’m the seed of all evil in the world. If it’s a struggle for someone like me to resist the pull, I imagine it’s probably impossible for someone with less education or cultural exposure.
It baffles me that more people on the left can’t understand this, can’t see how they’re just feeding, feeding, feeding the growth of this stuff. They have no problem understanding, and even making excuses for, say, the seductive pull of angry black radicalism for disaffected black men. They’re totally cool with straightforwardly racist stuff like La Raza. Why are they unable to put themselves into the shoes of disaffected white guys and see how something similar might appeal to them? Or if they can make this mental leap, why are they so caustically dismissive of it — an attitude they’d never do with, say, a black kid who has joined the Nation of Islam?
I’m sorry, but there are two alternatives here. You can push for some kind of universalist vision bringing everybody together, or you can have tribes. There’s not a third option. If you don’t want universalism, then you just have to accept that various forms of open white nationalism are eventually going to become a permanent feature of politics. You don’t have to LIKE it. But you have to accept it and learn to live with it — including the inevitable violence and strife that will flow from it.
If the Left can’t let go of identity politics, then let me be clear: What comes next is on THEM. A lot of us don’t want to live in a world of tribes, and we never asked for it. But people will like those young dudes attracted to white nationalism are going to play the game according to the rules as they find them, and they will play to win. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
You know what’s going to happen? Middle-class white people who find Donald Trump vulgar and beyond the pale, but who keep their mouths shut about what they really think so they will keep their jobs, understanding that the only thing standing between them and ruin is the goodwill of people from the culturally privileged tribes. They will correctly figure that there is no way to tell from one day to the next which of their words or deeds might cost them their careers. They won’t tell anybody what they’re thinking, but quietly, they will reconcile themselves to voting for Donald Trump, or whoever his successor is — not because they love Trump, but because they fear progressives in power.
Here’s another small but telling example: the exchange earlier this week at the Supreme Court between Justice Alito and lawyer Daniel Rogan, who was defending a Minnesota law prohibiting the wearing of clothing bearing political messaging to polling places. The state had forbidden a man wearing a t-shirt saying “Don’t Tread On Me” from a polling place because of his shirt. Justice Alito queried Rogan about what kind of slogan constitutes impermissible political speech, and what doesn’t. Their exchange was profoundly revealing about what passes for fairness among progressives. Alito reduced Rogan to saying, essentially, that whatever liberals decide is non-political is non-political, and whatever they call political is therefore political. I’m serious. Look at this part, with framing commentary by Joe Carter:
JUSTICE ALITO: Okay. How about an NRA shirt?
ROGAN: An NRA shirt? Today, in Minnesota, no, it would not, Your Honor. I think that that’s a clear indication — and I think what you’re getting at, Your Honor -
Rogan’s conclusion: A symbol for a conservative cause (gun rights) would be political, and thus not allowed.
JUSTICE ALITO: How about a shirt with the text of the Second Amendment?
ROGAN: Your Honor, I — I – I think that that could be viewed as political, that that — that would be — that would be –
Rogan’s conclusion: The text of an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be considered political because it is primarily supported by conservatives, and thus not allowed.
JUSTICE ALITO: How about the First Amendment?
ROGAN: No, Your Honor, I don’t -I don’t think the First Amendment. And, Your Honor, I -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: No — no what, that it would be covered or wouldn’t be allowed?
ROGAN: It would be allowed.
Rogan’s conclusion: The text of an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would not be considered political because it’s supported by people other than just conservatives, and thus would be allowed.
You see the point. The Minnesota law gives entirely arbitrary power to authorities to determine what constitutes a forbidden “political” message, and what doesn’t. Thank God for Justice Alito. The more cultural power progressives accumulate and exercise illiberally, the harder it is for people like me to hold our ground against voting for Trump. If the judges he appoints are the only thing standing between progressive commissars and my livelihood, then not voting for him is risky.
Look at this clip from Duke Divinity School this week, in which a group of gay activists disrupted the scheduled “State of the Divinity School” address this week to issue demands. Clip here:
The 15 demands were divided into three categories—“immediate,” to be met by the end of the semester; “short-term,” to be met by Fall 2018; and “long-term,” to be met by Spring 2019.
Immediate demands include mandatory gender and sexuality training for staff and faculty and access to LGBTQIA+ resources. The five short-term demands include a class on queer theology and establishing a number of scholarships for queer or trans students. All four long-terms demands involve hiring faculty and staff who are either trans, queer or can provide LGBTQIA+ resources.
Thursday morning, [Divinity School head Elaine] Heath sent an email to members of the Divinity School addressing the previous day’s incident.
“The issues raised by the students point to the need to continue this dialogue to grow as a diverse and hospitable community that generates an environment for deeper and broader theological reflection and formation, amidst a church and culture that is divided and faces further fragmentation,” she wrote.
Heath also asked the community to shift from “mirroring the polarization of society” to achieve “discernment and creativity, together.” She pointed to the Divinity School’s work with Sacred Worth, the school’s LGBTQIA+ student group, including designating a room for the organization and inviting members of the group to give a presentation to the faculty.
However, [protesters’ spokeswoman Madeline] Reyes said she was “infuriated” by Heath’s response. She noted that some protesters were members of Sacred Worth themselves.
Now, Elaine Heath deserves whatever she gets from these militants. Last year, her PC appeasement of radicals drove one professor out of the school (I reported on that here). I have no doubt that these militants will get whatever they demand, and Duke Divinity School will continue down the road to ruin. In a sane world, those students who interrupted the dean’s address with their bullhorns would be suspended; they plainly have no idea what it means to be part of a scholarly community. But that won’t happen. Power-holders like Elaine Heath and Andrew Hamilton will collapse in the face of progressive militancy.
You might think: universities are bubbles unto themselves, and what happens there won’t hurt me. You’re wrong. Universities are only at the leading edge of a society-wide movement. As the Indiana RFRA debacle in 2015 — of which Memories Pizza was a part — showed that progressives don’t have to win over ordinary people to exercise power. They only have to win over power-holding corporate elites.
Finally, take a look at this sign of the times: Mike Huckabee was forced to resign from the board of the Country Music Association Foundation, CMA’s charitable arm, one day after he was appointed to it. When I first heard about it this morning, I assumed that it was because he had become too politically divisive, given his tub-thumping for Trump. Yes, that was it, sort of. But here’s the real reason:
Jason Owen, co-president of Monument Records and owner at Sandbox Entertainment, called the appointment a “grossly offensive decision” in an email to the association’s CEO Sarah Trahern and CMA Foundation executive Tiffany Kerns.
Owen wrote that due to Huckabee’s election to the CMA Foundation’s board, neither his companies, nor anyone they represent would continue to support the foundation.
Owen and his husband Sam are fathers to a young son and are expecting twins. Owen said that Huckabee’s stance on the LGBTQ community “made it clear my family is not welcome in his America.”
“The CMA has opened their arms to him, making him feel welcome and relevant,” Owen wrote. “Huckabee speaks of the sort of things that would suggest my family is morally beneath his and uses language that has a profoundly negative impact upon young people all across this country. Not to mention how harmful and damaging his deep involvement with the NRA is. What a shameful choice.”
So, get this straight: a former Southern governor and ordained Southern Baptist minister was forced off the board of a Nashville-based country music philanthropy because he supports traditional marriage. Look, I think Mike Huckabee, who I supported in the 2008 GOP primaries, has made a fool of himself with his Trumpishness, but when he is not permitted to serve on a country music board because he is a traditional Christian on the subject of gay marriage, then cultural conservatives like me — and you, reader — had better pay attention. We might be more winsome (I hate that word) than Mike Huckabee, but we are no different in the eyes of the left-wing militants. I have been resisting this conclusion hard for a long time, but I can see with each passing day that it is becoming untenable. You don’t have to like Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, or any of that populist tribe to understand that they are not coming for your job, and they are not trying to drive you out of decent society.
I’ll close by re-upping one of the most popular posts I’ve ever published here: my interview with the pseudonymous “Professor Kingsfield,” a law professor and Christian deeply closeted at one of the most elite law schools in America. I did this interview in 2015, after the Indiana RFRA event. It’s almost three years old, but it holds up very well. Excerpts:
What prompted his reaching out to me? “I’m very worried,” he said, of events of the last week. “The constituency for religious liberty just isn’t there anymore.”
Like me, what unnerved Prof. Kingsfield is not so much the details of the Indiana law, but the way the overculture treated the law. “When a perfectly decent, pro-gay marriage religious liberty scholar like Doug Laycock, who is one of the best in the country — when what he says is distorted, you know how crazy it is.”
“Alasdair Macintyre is right,” he said. “It’s like a nuclear bomb went off, but in slow motion.” What he meant by this is that our culture has lost the ability to reason together, because too many of us want and believe radically incompatible things.
But only one side has the power. When I asked Kingsfield what most people outside elite legal and academic circles don’t understand about the way elites think, he said “there’s this radical incomprehension of religion.”
“They think religion is all about being happy-clappy and nice, or should be, so they don’t see any legitimate grounds for the clash,” he said. “They make so many errors, but they don’t want to listen.”
To elites in his circles, Kingsfield continued, “at best religion is something consenting adult should do behind closed doors. They don’t really understand that there’s a link between Sister Helen Prejean’s faith and the work she does on the death penalty. There’s a lot of looking down on flyover country, one middle America.
“The sad thing,” he said, “is that the old ways of aspiring to truth, seeing all knowledge as part of learning about the nature of reality, they don’t hold. It’s all about power. They’ve got cultural power, and think they should use it for good, but their idea of good is not anchored in anything. They’ve got a lot of power in courts and in politics and in education. Their job is to challenge people to think critically, but thinking critically means thinking like them. They really do think that they know so much more than anybody did before, and there is no point in listening to anybody else, because they have all the answers, and believe that they are good.”
On the conservative side, said Kingsfield, Republican politicians are abysmal at making a public case for why religious liberty is fundamental to American life.
“The fact that Mike Pence can’t articulate it, and Asa Hutchinson doesn’t care and can’t articulate it, is shocking,” Kingsfield said. “Huckabee gets it and Santorum gets it, but they’re marginal figures. Why can’t Republicans articulate this? We don’t have anybody who gets it and who can unite us. Barring that, the craven business community will drag the Republican Party along wherever the culture is leading, and lawyers, academics, and media will cheer because they can’t imagine that they might be wrong about any of it.”
The emerging climate on campus of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and the construal of discourse as a form of violence is driving Christian professors further into the closet, the professor said.
“If I said something that was construed as attacking a gay student, I could have my life made miserable with a year or two of litigation — and if I didn’t have tenure, there could be a chance that my career would be ruined,” he said. “Even if you have tenure, a few people who make allegations of someone being hateful can make a tenured professor’s life miserable.”
“What happened to Brendan Eich” — the tech giant who was driven out of Mozilla for having made a small donation years earlier to the Prop 8 campaign — “is going to start happening to a lot of people, and Christians had better be ready for it. The question I keep thinking about is, why would we want to do that to people? But that’s where we are now.”
I pointed out that the mob hysteria that descended on Memories Pizza, the mom & pop pizza shop in small-town Indiana that had to close its doors (temporarily, one hopes) after its owners answered a reporter’s question truthfully, is highly instructive to the rest of us.
“You’re right,” he said. “Memories Pizza teaches us all a lesson. What is the line between prudently closing our mouths and closeting ourselves, and compromising our faith? Christians have to start thinking about that seriously.”
UPDATE: Reader Mac61 writes:
This won’t be useful to anyone, but despite growing up in a political household and volunteering for numerous campaigns, I believe politics is worthless. If all of our differences are going to be hashed out in courts, legislatures, ridiculous clownshows called presidential campaigns and corporate boardrooms, it’s over.
I abandoned the left 20 years ago, became conservative just in time to see W trash everything I believed in. Would like to be moderate (Kasich was my guy) but both parties purged their mocerates long ago. Moderates were the first to be marginalized.
I don’t think the Moderate Militant Middle Class Milquetoast Caucus, aka The Live-And-Let-Live Party, will have any influence on the scorched earth culture war. Politics is hopeless.
Might the Progressive=LGBTQTIA movement go too far? The pendulum is theirs now to take as far as they want.
My guess is they go too far.
But I am not interested in this political mess. It’s hopeless. But I am also not interested in war. Bless your enemies.Bless those who persecute you. I am not liberal. I am not conservative. In the world to come, there are neither Republicans nor Democrats. The faith has survived 2,000 years (4,000 years for others) under all kinds of conditions. We might have to die. We might have to go underground. So what? Can you imagine what Oscar Romero had to go through watching two idiotic violent factions take him to his death? Trust in God. And follow God. But I have zero faith in the Republican Party to do anything but continue to shred everything that would have sustained a conservative movement in this country.
Politics is hopeless. It’s over. Unless the pendulum goes too far, which it will.
UPDATE.2: The great Jones weighs in, at last:
Ugh. Unusually crap comments. Your anonymous correspondent deserves better. In general, it would be better if those few of us who get could have a conversation among ourselves, and screen out the nonsense. We all know now that the pretense of “dialogue” and “debate” is a sham. But that’s what it means to be underground — to be constantly hounded and hunted down by the restless hegemony.
To the correspondent:
What you said about internalizing the attacks is important. As social animals, it’s really hard not to feel, on some visceral level, like a criminal when you deviate from the herd. Even though you’re right. It’s built into us.
Even harder, speaking as a fellow quasi-academic: suppressing the desire to engage, to be intellectually honest and charitable to your opponents/enemies. I speak as someone who’s spent most of my life dedicated to dispassionate debate, to fidelity to the intellectual virtues. With the alt-right and Trump supporters, I was sort of a fellow traveler for a while. I had many of the same critiques, though I rejected their solutions. But in the end, I had to really make sure that one fact sunk in: these people hate me. (I’m a Muslim.) At the end of the day there’s a conflict, whether you want one or not. You don’t always get to choose whether you have to wage war.
Same with progressives. No one should be taken in by their murmuring about “social justice” or “rights.” Their actions only come into clear focus when you look at them through the lens of power. It’s as if an enormous burden has been lifted from their shoulders, with the election of Donald Trump. Any pretense of fair-mindedness or compromise can now be gleefully abandoned. And what a relief . . . because it’s soooo painful! Now we can all do what we really want to do deep down, which is sling mud without shame or guilt. The naked ends-justify-the-means logic of their project is revealed for all to see. And that cat is never going back into the bag.
I wouldn’t let any of that stuff get to you . . . it’s Satan whispering in your ear, trying to sow confusion and doubt in your heart. It really doesn’t matter what these people have to say.
The comments to this post are unusually sh-t, I would guess, because you wrote about voting for Trump. Despite their claim to have advanced us beyond such primitive, barbaric forms of morality, these people still think in terms of taboo, as of course they must. And voting for Trump is a taboo for them, a sacred line marking off the bounds of decency itself. So an unusually high number of people have written to lash out at your post, kind of grasping at whatever they can to fling at you. That accounts for the — to me, surprising — number of people writing about something that seems tangential and not very important to the themes of your letter.
I really hated Trump and his supporters. Really did. And I feared a lot for this country when he was elected. A lot has happened since then though. As I see it the worst possibilities have largely been contained. I tried to argue against his presidency to people on the right by trying to convince them that Trump wouldn’t make much of a difference on the things that really mattered, and might even hurt their cause — possibly even cripple it, by associating it so clearly with incompetence and blatant venality. I think that’s pretty close to what’s happening. Flynn is out. Bannon is out. There’s a lot of dangerous and bad stuff actually or potentially happening but much of it is contained by our system working more or less as it is supposed to.
And I will concede that there is one thing I’m kind of grateful for. Electing Trump showed that these people are vulnerable. The success of progressivism is not guaranteed. That is why they are reacting so badly. This is not in the script. It’s not supposed to happen. Unfortunately, along with Trump’s damage being contained, the other side of the prediction is bearing out as well. Progressivism’s sources of strength are not rooted in any temporary political victories, but in a deeper realignment of power. And electing Trump is not doing much of anything to really challenge that. The social and cultural reeducation agenda is proceeding according to plan. I honestly never thought this heinous ideology would make it this far, nor knew just how disgusting it would look in practice.
Anyway, more recently I’ve had some surprising thoughts about Trump. On a visceral level, I’m deeply fearful of what would happen if Trump failed to win the next election. That feels borderline insane, and I want to learn more about what damage is really being done out there. But I think there’s no doubt that progressivism is the real enemy, and the one we’ll be dealing with for a while. The rise of progressivism is tied to a generational shift, and the answer is going to have to come from a completely new force that hasn’t begun to form yet.
The starting point is people who appreciate the critical lens of the “new right,” but recognize that the Trump movement is not an answer. And it’s going to have to be people under 35. Imagine if everyone over that age disappeared from America?