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What The Establishment Right Doesn’t Get

You can't fight Something with Nothing

Commenter Matt in VA sometimes gets on my nerves because of his white-hot anger at the conservative establishment (an anger I mostly share, but not nearly to the degree that he does). But whatever his faults, Matt is one of the most interesting thinkers I read anywhere on the Internet. If you don’t know, he’s a Millennial gay man, married to another man, and working in academia. He just posted this comment, quoting me at first:

[Rod:] I know, slightly, a middle-class young white man who was in no way oppressed. But as many teenagers do, he started feeling sorry for himself, and gave himself over to white nationalist websites. He convinced himself that his hate for other races was justified, in part because of propaganda like Robin DiAngelo’s. Last I heard, he was well on his way to ruining his life.

[Matt:] This sounds like some 10%+ of young middle class white men I know, if you substitute various things for the bolded text above — like “internet porn” or “weed” or “drugs” or “promiscuous gay sex.” And why do I suspect that conservatism’s attempt to address the problem(s) will be some smarmy Ben Shapiro born-on-third-base type tediously repeating for the 9,000th time “everything will be fine if you just graduate from high school, secure full time employment, and get married before you have children”?

This blog post is about how the left drives some white people to white nationalism, which “destroys their lives.” What does the Right do? “Go to church, young man” — how many lives have pedophile priests wrecked? Haha, okay, I’m amusing myself. But really… I don’t really feel that the right in America today offers anything to young men, other than “be a bourgeois.” Hey, Young White Men, I know how to speak to your deep and real need to live with meaning and purpose as a man — make natural law arguments while enjoying an academic or think-tank sinecure!

There is no one cause for Very Online white supremacy, but the Right is just as much to blame as anything else. Look at how dysfunctional the Right is in every way in today’s society — do you really think it’s doing OK when it comes to the messages it sends men? It has *nothing* to offer young men — they already get consumerism in spades everywhere they look, and the leadership class of the Right in America today is about telling young men to be a suburban bourgeois like they are. “Major in business,” “be a youth leader,” “study something that will enable you to make money,” — these messages don’t work when young men, who are idealistic and sensitive (people used to be able to understand that — see Goethe), can feel that something has gone horribly wrong with our society and it is hollowed out and atomized.

Men, especially young men, have longings — the longing for a woman, the longing for a brotherhood (to struggle together towards something), and the longing for a leader. In today’s society, longing for a woman, sincere longing with good intentions, is frowned upon, since we are all such careerists (thus, hook-up culture, in which entanglements and vulnerability are to be avoided — and conservatives are too stupid to understand that it is JUST AS MUCH the *women* who seek to avoid these entanglements and vulnerabilities, just as much as the men, so telling men “you need to commit and married” is missing the point — the *women* don’t want to commit!); longing for a brotherhood is “toxic masculinity” and all all-male spaces and venues are to be destroyed, especially those which are focused on struggling towards a goal (unless you’re gay — I have more access to genuine all-male spaces than most straight guys); and the longing for a lord/leader is despised by a culture in which everybody is supposed to be trained to be a “leader,” and “liberation” and the atomized individual is what our consumerist society wants the most (and, again, conservatism is greatly to blame for accommodating atomizing capital at every opportunity).

I am so sick of conservatives who lament identity politics for radicalizing everybody while not being able to see that identity politics fill a real felt need that atomizing global capitalism creates. When the neighborhood that you grew up in can be *completely* rendered unrecognizable in a single generation by mass immigration and planned-obsolescence architecture and urban planning (as is the case in about half of Texas — what a Godforsaken state)… what do you expect? I remember a while back, in a thread on the effects of mass immigration, a commenter writing about how the neighborhood he grew up in has changed so much that just walking down the street, he cannot understand what most people are even saying, because almost everybody speaks a different language now. What is being conserved here? “Well, we tell people to go to church!” Yes, a church that has nothing to say to men :as: men, either. There is a reason the church is full of pederasts and their aiders and abettors! Plus, the command to go to church is insincere — because it’s just as multicultural and contentless as anything else. We can see this in the way Respectable Conservatives treat go to church or synagogue or mosque as interchangeable. Join a faith — but if it doesn’t matter what faith it is, why bother? This is really just Unitarian Universalism!

It really comes down to this — by becoming the party of fealty to capital, Republicans/conservatives became the party of dull, insensitive clods, bourgeois sacks of flesh, and robotic ideologues; and young men — again, we are talking about a demographic who are often sensitive, idealistic, and desperately hungry for meaning, fraternity, and purpose — are *disgusted* by it.

What in today’s world speaks to the young man whose heart is riven with a happy hunger, not for money but for glory, or achievement, or the pursuit of some noble difficult goal? The Left used to actually provide mechanisms for the young man to quest after the fulfillment of these longings for a woman, a brotherhood, a lord or leader; the Left used to be a masculine Left, but it is very feminized now. And the Right, the Reaganite/Movement Conservative Right, is for the contemptible soft bourgeois, the man whose “castle” is his hideous exurban tract home, the man who has been domesticated. Conservatives are supposed to know that there are some aspects of the human animal that cannot be waved away or abolished out of convenience. They need to be addressed or channeled toward some positive good or productive end. But conservatives, by becoming handmaidens of consumer capitalism, have thrown that all away (being a handmaiden of capital is slavish and servile; deferring to people because they are rich is not admirable; Chesterton said that the well-ordered society is the one in which the merchant is “almost an unimportant figure”); and Christianity, in as weak a form as it is today, is not filling the void, either. I am willing to believe that a robust, countercultural, pre-Vatican II Catholicism could do it, could be what is needed, but alas, we don’t have that.

To go back — all the way back — to the highlighted paragraph above. The young man you are talking about sounds *normal* for today’s society, in a way. He is “destroying his life” — OK, what do you expect? What do you think men do? Have you read Goethe? Stendhal? I know, I know — the typical Movement Conservative sneers at Goethe. That’s because the typical Movement Conservative is a philistine. Yes, the Movement Conservative with his painstaking natural law argument is a philistine — because he can’t see that the argument may be perfectly well-reasoned but it is ugly and sterile — yes, *sterile*, I use the word advisedly. It convinces no one and moves no one.

The Left has a tremendous and growing advantage these days over the Right in terms of “human capital” — that is, in terms of those with drive, ambition, and even sensitivity — because even if it is wrong, and I think it is wrong, it understands that there is something deep and compelling in the human soul that *rejects bourgeois smallness.* Remember that Orwell quote about how Hitler, in his horrible joyless fixedness, at least understood that people want something to suffer for? What is the Right (the Respectable Right) giving them? If the Right keeps giving them sinecured Robert George arguments…

Here, by the way, is a link to George Orwell’s 1940 review of Mein Kampf. Excerpt:

Also he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

An aside, but relevant, I think: I was just on the phone with my mother, asking her about the fallout from the announced closure of a paper mill that employed hundreds of people in our town and surrounding towns. The announcement came as I left for my recent book trip to Spain. She told me about a childhood friend of mine who will be losing his job when the mill closes in March. He’ll be 52 this year. What will he be able to do for a living? His wife has a serious medical condition, and they’re moving up her surgery before he’s unemployed and loses his insurance.

“I can’t imagine them moving away from here,” my mom said. I know what she meant by that: that family has been in the town for generations, and are deeply embedded there. But what choice will they have, if there is no work? The mill closed because it manufactured office paper, for which demand has greatly declined as everything has moved online. As far as I can tell, there are no villains in this case. Still, there were 700 good industrial jobs, but in March, there will be none.

What does the Republican Party have to say to people like those unemployed? What does the Democratic Party? More to the point, what does it have to say to the children of men and women like this?

I ask this in conjunction with Matt in VA’s comment because even though I think he is seriously underrating the boring bourgeois virtues, those who preach the bourgeois virtues can’t get a hearing if there is no stable employment for people who do the right thing. And, if those who do the right thing (by which I mean play by the rules: live lives of hard work, fair play, and self-discipline) can find everything kicked out from under them all of a sudden, it destabilizes the entire society.

I condemn identity politics of both the left and the right because judging oneself and others on the basis of race is to give oneself over to something ugly and destructive. We know this. It drives me crazy that progressives think they can get away with encouraging identity politics among non-whites without calling up the equal and opposite thing among whites.

I’ll give Matt in VA this: many people of all races who turn to identity politics are looking for something beyond themselves to believe in, and a sense of solidarity. Hasn’t the 20th century shown us, though, the extreme danger of making politics into a religion? That is, of expecting politics to give to people a sense of transcendent meaning? Do any of us really want to live in a country in which masses of people look to political leaders for meaning and purpose in life? Think about it.

The liberals and progressives who sneer at “Make America Great Again” are making a mistake. I agree with them that in Trump’s hands, it’s cheap sloganeering. But people are not wrong in longing for a country where people felt that their lives had a sense of purpose and solidarity, despite the country’s flaws. That was a real thing. In Trump’s case, it has proved to be little more than barstool sentimentality, but he touched something real.

Look at this cri de coeur just published in The Guardian, and signed by leading Baby Boomer European liberal intellectuals, including Milan Kundera, Bernard-Henri Levy, Salman Rushdie, and others. Excerpts:

The idea of Europe is in peril.

From all sides there are criticisms, insults and desertions from the cause.

“Enough of ‘building Europe’!” is the cry. Let’s reconnect instead with our “national soul”! Let’s rediscover our “lost identity”! This is the agenda shared by the populist forces washing over the continent. Never mind that abstractions such as “soul” and “identity” often exist only in the imagination of demagogues.

That’s quite a statement, that last sentence. More:

Our faith is in the great idea that we inherited, which we believe to have been the one force powerful enough to lift Europe’s peoples above themselves and their warring past. We believe it remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages. What is at stake forbids us from giving up.

Hence this invitation to join in a new surge.

Hence this appeal to action on the eve of an election that we refuse to abandon to the gravediggers of the European idea.

And what is that “great idea” that’s “powerful enough to lift Europe’s peoples above themselves and their warring past”?

They don’t say. Seriously, it’s nowhere in this piece! Is it globalist consumerism? Borderless cosmopolitanism? What is it? They would never, ever say “Christianity,” though it’s the only conceivable solution. One might think that these liberal elites believe in nothing other than their own natural right to rule, because they are the best people. I am reminded of the cab driver in Dublin who told me he is not only completely alienated against the Catholic Church in which he was raised, but also that he is ready to join the Yellow Vests movement against the entire political elite of his country, because he believes that they don’t give a rat’s ass about people like him.

Meanwhile, in Spain, the populist party Vox has been voted into power in the province of Andalusia, ending forty years of Socialist rule in Spain’s most left-wing province. Why? The migration crisis, with Andalusia on the front line, has a lot to do with it.  In Spain, a man told me that his relative works for the government on those front lines, and voted for Vox because he can see with his own eyes, every single day, migrants coming ashore and melting into the greater European population — while the government does nothing. Another Spaniard told me that people in Andalusia were sick and tired of corruption in the ruling party, which they had come to see stood for nothing more than protecting itself.

Vox is hysterically denounced by the Spanish and European media as “far right.” Here, in the liberal Madrid daily El Pais, is a description of Vox’s platform. Read this and say with a straight face that Vox’s sensible, moderately conservative nationalism counts as “far right.” It’s an absurd slur, and shows just how far Europe’s liberal establishment — of which the intellectuals who are signatories to the Guardian column — have drifted from the legitimate needs of the people.

Why do I bring this up in connection with Matt in VA’s comments? Because though I am far more critical of identity politics than Matt is, he’s not wrong to say that bourgeois consumerism and hedonism is not enough to hold a country together. Let us be very clear, though, that the opposite of bourgeois consumerism and hedonism can be — can be — far, far worse. In his review, the socialist George Orwell gave the devil (Hitler) his due. What Orwell was trying to say is that you can’t fight Something with Nothing.

As regular readers know, I care more about the church than I do the state. I’m strongly inclined to agree with Matt that the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism on offer at most churches is worthless. If that’s all Christianity is, why bother? I’ve noticed lately at my local Orthodox parish, we’re starting to see more young adults showing up, especially men. It’s certainly not because Orthodoxy is about machismo. It’s partly because Orthodoxy gives young men something to struggle against, and it doesn’t cater to pop culture fashion. It’s spiritually and morally serious, and gives people something to struggle for. Again: you can’t fight Something with Nothing. So much American Christianity is … nothing.

I’ll end this rambly post by quoting Matt in VA again:

It really comes down to this — by becoming the party of fealty to capital, Republicans/conservatives became the party of dull, insensitive clods, bourgeois sacks of flesh, and robotic ideologues; and young men — again, we are talking about a demographic who are often sensitive, idealistic, and desperately hungry for meaning, fraternity, and purpose — are *disgusted* by it.

Okay, but what do the Democrats offer? I’m not asking in a “whatabout” sense; I really want to know. Intersectionality? Condemning “toxic masculinity” and “whiteness”? Fifty genders, and a new set of pronouns? Give me a break.

Is it possible that some political leader is going to emerge who will transcend the two parties, and run against them both?

UPDATE: Now’s a good time to re-up a comment made on this blog a couple of years ago by a reader posting under the name Zapollo:

I’m a white guy. I’m a well-educated intellectual who enjoys small arthouse movies, coffeehouses 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.



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