Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

In Weimar America: ‘Only Brokenness’

Fanatical left-wing colleagues go 'Lord of the Flies' on a professor, who turns to a Russian novel for solace

A reader of this blog, a college professor, sent me this e-mail this afternoon. I publish it with his permission, editing it very slightly to protect his privacy:

A few days after the election, a member of an academic listserv I belong to emailed the group with what has become by now the standard progressive response: lamenting that fascism has won, berating all Trump’s supporters and fellow travelers, and asking us to support a statement of “safety and inclusion” for all our members who were members of some “underrepresented group.”

For the first time since I joined the group, I replied to all with a statement agreeing that Trump’s election is disconcerting for many reasons (I was and remain a vocal Trump opponent; I voted third party), but offering a qualified defense of his supporters. I explained that I grew up in the Midwest and that there are many logical, rational reasons someone in that region (or indeed any region) might support Trump. I further explained that most of my students at this college were Trump supporters, and that not a one could be described as a bad person. Quite the opposite, in fact: they are some of the kindest people I’ve ever known.

I suggested to my colleagues that if they are truly so disturbed by the election, then they should stop the obsessive focus on electoral politics and turn inward to the truly important work: family, friends, neighborhood, and so on. I suggested they plant a tree and play with their children, and asserted that such work would be much better for the world than yet another anti-Trump screed. In other words, I suggested something like the Benedict Option.

You can probably guess what happened next. I was savaged. I was called a racist, a sexist, and a bigot merely for my halfhearted defense of Trump supporters. Bear in mind I stated explicitly in my email that I believed Trump was a decadent and immoral buffoon who could do little good for his supporters. No matter: any defense of Those In Error is error itself, apparently.

Perfectly decent college professors piled on me in emails, insulting my students and saying that nothing good they did in churches or homes could overcome the evil of their vote for Trump. Worse, though, they told me that my BenOp-ish suggestions revealed that I was merely “privileged” and that my rejection of electoral politics was “an insult” to (get ready for it) “queer, Latinx, trans, non-cis, Muslim” populations. One particularly memorable line: “It must be nice to be able to plant a tree and not be shot or put into an internment camp.” After that, I was summarily banned from the listserv.

I admit I was hurt. But more than that, I was simply amazed that scholars and professors could so quickly descend into a hysterical mob focused on outing thought criminals, and I was left utterly disconsolate about the future of this country’s democratic citizenship. It seems to me that we have passed some sort of terrible Rubicon, and that social trust has been permanently negated. Recall the opening of After Virtue, when MacIntyre speaks of the loss of any common moral language that allows social cooperation in morally fungible matters. He was right, of course, but it’s so much worse now: today other people are not just speaking a different moral language but have become moral enemies.

Unsure where to turn, I decided to reread the book that affected me most powerfully in 2015: Laurus. It was just as beautiful in a second read, and this time, with the election in the back of my mind, the book seemed even more powerful. You might recall we corresponded last fall about the “vertical motion” section, in which Arseny is told that he must put aside worldly concerns and focus on the work of Christ. That’s still important, but what stood out this time was Ambrogio’s discussion with Arseny on the nature of time. From pages 228-9:

I am going to tell you something strange. It seems ever more to me that there is no time. Everything on earth exists outside of time… I think time is given to us by the grace of God so we will not get mixed up, because a person’s consciousness cannot take in all events at once. We are locked up in time because of our weakness… O friend, I do not question the necessity of time. We simply need to remember that only the material world needs time.

From page 235:

I think, said Ambrogio, that it is not time that runs out, but the occurrence. An occurrence expresses itself and ceases its own existence.

And finally, from the last page:

You have already been in our land for a year and eight months, answers blacksmith Averky, but have understood a thing about it.

And do you understand it yourselves? asks Zygfryd.

Do we? The blacksmith mulls that over and looks at Zygfryd. Of course we, too, do not understand.

It seems to me that [author Evgeny] Vodolazkin captures something truly powerful about the Judeo-Christian secular split. When I taught at a Catholic college, our (priest) president used to joke that the Church moves so slowly because, when your time scale is eternity, you don’t get too bogged down in day-to-day stuff. The line got a laugh, but it’s also eerily accurate. My colleagues on the listserv (and, with a few exceptions, throughout my institution) are universally secular progressives. They have no “vertical motion” in the sense that we have it. This means their vertical motion — because everyone has something they aim toward, some telos — becomes electoral politics, and so each election takes on an eschatological veneer. It is the realm of their salvation and their redemption.

But for small-o orthodox believers, this is is unfathomable — and I mean this in the sense that we almost literally cannot comprehend it, just as they cannot comprehend our position. MacIntyre’s problem of incommensurability comes to the fore: we are not just speaking different moral languages; because the so-called Christian consensus has collapsed in the West, we now inhabit something like very different moral worlds. In their world, you bend nature to your will and make yourself a god and declare that tradition has no hold on your mind (or, increasingly, your body). In our world, you put yourself in harmony with nature and know that you are made in the image of God and declare that tradition is what shaped and shapes us. And most importantly: we admit our ignorance. We are not gods; we are fallen men, and we act like it.

We know that this election is a tiny blip in the plan of God, and that as Ambrogio says we “cannot take in all events at once,” and that we are “locked up in time because of our weakness.” We 51zxofx1fgl-_sx324_bo1204203200_know that only the material world needs time, in the right-side-of-history sense, because people of faith recognize patterns of circularity in the universe and in human events. Trumpism is an “occurrence,” and it will express itself and then cease. And then something else will take its place, and then something else and something else. For the secular progressive, these are the worldly battles being fought and they alone possess metaphysical importance. But people of faith take the larger view. Again to Laurus, page 330, with my emphasis:

Being a mosaic does not necessarily mean scattering into pieces, answered Elder Innokenty. It is only up close that each separate little stone seems not to be connected to the others. There is something more important in each of them, O Laurus: striving for the one who looks from afar. For the one who is capable of seizing all the small stones at once. It is he who gathers them with his gaze. That, O Laurus, is how it is in your life, too. You have dissolved yourself in God. You disrupted the unity of your life, renouncing your name and your very identity. But in the mosaic of your life there is also something that joins all those separate parts: it is an aspiration for Him. They will gather together again in Him.

It seems to me that an integral part of the Ben Op is this attempt to see from afar: to see, as much as possible, from the viewpoint of our Creator. This is why I encouraged my fellow academics to plant a tree and spend time with their children: those are attempts to transcend our meager lifetimes and see from afar. It speaks volumes that those suggestions were denounced as the words of a bigot. For modern secular progressivism, there is no view from afar. There is the mastery of nature and the will to power. I hesitate to denounce them because I am having just as much trouble seeing from their viewpoint as they are seeing from mine.

Perhaps, as Ambrogio says, there is no time. There is no before or after. There is God, and there is us divided from him in earthly form, and then reunited with him in death. Remember that when Ambrogio says the “city of saints” presents us with “the illusion of life,” Arseny replies: “No… they disprove the illusion of death.” When you take the long view, the view from afar, Trump’s election seems awfully minor. But to the people who banned me — who silenced me for my dissent from groupthink — there is no view from afar. There is only the here and now. My inability to see their viewpoint worries me just as much as their inability to see mine. There are no winners in the United States this month. There is, it seems to me, only brokenness.

I invite you to read that letter a second time, and to think about it.

Readers, I told you yesterday at length why I thought the Benedict Option was still urgently needed, why Trump’s election means very little in the long run. This professor’s e-mail powerfully underscores that. We are entering a period of intense conflict. I wish we were not, but wishing does not make it go away. Peter Burfeind, writing at The Federalist, makes the same point as the professor above, saying that many secular people, especially Millennials, answer their longing for transcendent meaning and purpose by elevating politics to a kind of religion. Burfeind predicts that in the Trump era, the left will double down on the dogma of the faith.

I believe that is true, though I wish it weren’t true. We need to avoid these conflicts if we can. Charity is not cowardice. But as with my professor correspondent, the conflicts will at times come to you. What will you do? How will you be prepared to respond? It will be very easy to respond to hatred with hatred, something that Christians, at least, are strictly commanded not to do. It will be easy for others to pretend that this isn’t happening, that everything will be fine if we just wait this out. That’s a delusion. People like the fanatics that threw the professor out of the group control the culture-making institutions. This is going to matter much more in the long run, as politics is downstream from culture. Politics will not save us or our faith. Rather, doing things like the professor suggests, as well as strengthening the church and community, and undertaking initiatives like starting new schools — this is what we must do, right now, to prepare. The Trump presidency might give us a few more years to prepare, but that’s the best we can hope from it — and I would say that if Trump were manifestly a saint. Social and religious conservatives must not make the same mistake that the left makes, and think of politics as the source of our salvation. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in The Benedict Option when it’s out next year.

In the meantime, don’t let the berserkers stand for all liberals. There are some strong voices on the left who are learning from recent events. Take Mark Lilla, the Columbia professor, who, in a chastened and chastening column in The New York Times, says that “the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” More:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)


This campus-diversity consciousness has over the years filtered into the liberal media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America’s newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement — and has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-wing media, as journalists like Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But it also appears to have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors, that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.

That is the gospel truth. One more:

Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.

Yes, as I’ve been saying. You can’t have identity politics on the left without calling up and legitimizing the same thing on the right. There are very powerful forces on the left — in media, academia, and entertainment — that do not want to recognize this basic truth. They will fight like mad dogs to maintain their illusion.

David Brooks writes today that 

[w]e will have to construct a new national idea that binds and embraces all our particular identities.

I hope we can do that, to gather all the small stones with our gaze, so to speak, for the sake of peace and order. But traditionalists must not allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. We may not consider ourselves enemies of the kind of people who went all Lord of the Flies on the professor above, but they most certainly consider themselves enemies to us, and they hold the heights of cultural power, which matters more than holding Capitol Hill. Plus, do not forget that all those who fight on our side are not our friends, but could easily lead us to ruin. If we are in a Weimar period in America, it is characterized as such by the fact that the center is fast-shrinking, and people are choosing sides on either extreme.

Again: prepare. You would do well to read Laurus, which is now out in paperback. It’s by no means a culture war book, not at all. It’s a book about a quest, and meaning. Here’s a link to the posts I’ve written about it over the past year. It’s the only work of literature I’ve ever read that made me want to pray every time I set it down.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now