I think I’ve found something new to say about French-Ahmari. But first, a couple of things.
Reader Matt in VA, a stalwart Trump backer who really does hate with the hate of a thousand million suns what he calls “Respectable Conservatism” (= any conservatism that criticizes Trump) so much that it colors everything, comments on why people like him feel the way they do:
It’s emotional. Trump voters think that movement/respectable conservatives are worse, and more, than they are *traitors.* It is an intensity of feeling like how Dante put traitors at the very center of Hell. Trump voters feel *betrayed* by the Republican Party.
It is emotional and connected to the way people feel about those deep and mythopoetic topics, blood and soil.
The media dropped story after story after story after story, wall-to-wall-to-wall, about Trump’s corruption and self-dealing in 2015 and 2016. It didn’t make a difference then, and it won’t now. This is about matters of the heart. Movement conservatism/respectable conservatism has lost people in a way that is emotional; and other people, people like me, hate it in a way that colors everything. It would not be unfair or false to say that this political question touches the very way we feel about our own fathers.
Similarly, back in 2017, the left-liberal Swarthmore professor Tim Burke wrote about “Trump As Desecration”. Excerpt:
Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.
Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.
Even when we intellectually understand that our sense of the sacred in civic and public life may be dysfunctionally entangled in stifling technocratic arrogance or neoliberal visions of governmentality, even when we believe ourselves to be open to a more carnivalesque or improvisational mode of public leadership, we still have very deep feelings about what’s proper and improper, righteous and demonic, sanitary and repellant. And Trump is violating every intuition, every deep reservoir of feeling we have about how one ought to be a man, a leader, a symbol of our national identity. We are not distracted when we respond to those feelings. In fact, we might be better off to articulate our responses as feelings, as intense and profound and utterly righteous feelings.
I encountered that Burke piece via a great 2017 New Atlantis essay by Alan Jacobs, in which he attempted to explain campus wokeness as a form of myth. I can’t do justice to this essay by quoting it at length here. Let me just quote this from the beginning, where Jacobs talks about the intractability of campus protests:
The problem lies in a failure to grasp the true nature of the students’ position. If we are going to understand that position, we will need to draw on intellectual sources quite other than those typically invoked. What is required of us is the study of myth — and not in any pejorative or dismissive sense, but in the sense of an ineradicable element of human consciousness.
In his book The Presence of Myth, first published in English translation in 1989, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski divides our civilization into two “cores.” This is his term for two cognitive, social, and ethical networks, “two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world.” One of these cores is “technological,” the other “mythical.”
The term “technological core” is potentially misleading. Kołakowski is speaking of something broader than what we usually mean by “technological,” something influenced by Martin Heidegger’s understanding. To Heidegger, and therefore I think to Kołakowski, technology is not the product of science; rather, science is the product of a “technological enframing.” Technology, on this view, is not a set of methods or inventions but a stance toward the world that is instrumental and manipulative, in relatively neutral senses of those words. The technological core is analytical, sequential, and empirical. Another way to put this is to say that what belongs to the technological core is what we find to hand: whatever occupies the lifeworld we share, and is therefore subject to our manipulation and control, and to debates about what it is and what might be done with it. To this core belong instrumental and discursive reason, including all the sciences and most forms of philosophy — everything that reckons with the possible uses of human power to shape ourselves and our environment. The technological core undergirds and produces the phenomena we typically refer to as technological.
The “mythical core” of civilization, by contrast, describes that aspect of our experience “not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs.” It encompasses the “nonempirical unconditioned reality” of our experience, that which is not amenable to confirmation or disconfirmation. As will become clearer below, the mythical core describes our most fundamental relation to the world. It is our metaphysical background, the elements prior to our manipulation and control. For Kołakowski, the failure to distinguish between the mythical and technological cores leads to a failure to understand many social trends and events.
Kołakowski brackets the question of whether “nonempirical unconditioned reality” actually exists — that is, of whether metaphysics is fictional. He is interested, rather, in the impulse toward connecting with such a reality, which he says is persistent in human civilization, though it takes many forms.
He also wants to understand this mythical core on its own terms. But this understanding can be difficult, for our society “wishes to include myth in the technological order, that is … it seeks justification for myth.” And the only way to seek justification for myth is to analyze it into components and reassemble them in a logical sequence. That is to say, myth can only be justified by ceasing to be myth:
The Gospel phrase, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” appears to an eye accustomed to rudimentary logical distinctions a jumble of words justified at best as metaphor translatable into several distinct utterances: “I am offering you proper directives,” “I proclaim the truth,” and “If you obey me I guarantee that you shall have eternal life,” and so on. In fact, these sorts of conjectured metaphors are literal, do not demand to be understood and to be translated into the separate languages of values and information. One can participate in mythical experience only with the fullness of one’s personality, in which the acquisition of information and the absorption of directives are inseparable. All names which participators in myths have given to their participation — “illumination” or “awakening” or such like — refer to the complete acts of entry into the mythical order; all distinctions of desire, understanding, and will in relation to these global acts is a derivative intellectual reconstruction.
This description is deeply insightful, useful to reflection on many cultural phenomena. But here we need only observe that it helps to explain a great deal of what’s happening on certain American college campuses these days.
Please do read the entire essay. It’s very rewarding.
Borrowing from Kolakowski’s two categories — the Technological and the Mythological — Jacobs concludes that our society has moved from one kind of conflict (Technological vs. Mythological) to a clash of mythologies.
To go deep into this point, I highly recommend this 2018 essay from Areo analyzing Social Justice as a form of religion. It’s incredibly illuminating, in that it shows how the tenets of Social Justice ideology are held by believers as outside of rational examination. To try to submit them to rational examination and debate is to subject them to demythologizing — and that is what the SJWs fiercely reject. As James Lindsay writes in that essay:
Identities in Social Justice are understood mythologically by being reinvented as ideologies—including whiteness, blackness, and masculinity—established in (“authentic”) expressions of lived experience and defined according to the articles of faith of applied postmodernism. As such, they are not to be reasoned with, and they cannot be disagreed with or challenged “without tearing holes in the web and leaving it dangling and useless.” This is where you should check back with that bookmark about the totalizing understanding of social construction with regard to gender (and even sex), which should make it clear that social (and critical) constructivism is a part of the mythological core of Social Justice. As explained by Kołakowski, “One can participate in mythical experience only with the fullness of one’s personality, in which the acquisition of information and the absorption of directives are inseparable.” This can be taken as a reliable sign that mythological thinking in service to sacrosanct ideas is taking place.
It strikes many of us conservatives (and old-school liberals) as bizarre, hysterical, and manipulative when SJWs react to skeptical questioning of their claims with some version of, “You are trying to debate my right to exist!” But as Kolakowski et al. would say, that’s because we outsiders are trying to subject mythological knowledge to technocratic analysis. Since the Enlightenment, generally, and certainly since the 19th century, Christians have had to get accustomed to our beliefs treated not as facts, but as myth. SJWs react to the same thing, when applied to their core beliefs, with the fervor of a fundamentalist mob. Those who challenge them are not just wrong, they’re evil. They’re blasphemous.
The paradigmatic example of the futility of employing technocratic means to combat mythological fervor is poor Prof. Nicholas Christakis attempting to reason with the SJW mob on the grounds at Yale. Remember this, from 2015?:
No matter how patiently he tried to engage the students with discursive reason, it didn’t work. They were operating from different cores.
There are two basic reasons, I think, why liberals fail to appreciate the challenge from these SJW radicals.
First, they assume that because these students are usually secular, that their orientation towards their cause is not religious. Liberals have it in their minds that only Religious Right people are irrational. They let their guard down around SJWs, thinking that the SJWs are technologically oriented (in the Kolakowskian sense), when in fact they’re mythological.
Second, the SJWs advocate for causes that liberals generally support: equality, diversity, and so on. It’s easy to see why liberals in positions of authority capitulate to these tirades from left-wing students, whereas if they were coming from the right, they would not tolerate it for a second. Liberals, especially those in power, may feel guilty about their “privilege,” and feel that they are not sufficiently committed to the causes of racial justice, gay rights, feminism, and so forth. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
SJWs are conquering institutions everywhere, none as thoroughly, or as consequentially, as the university. They have succeeded in causing institutions to treat their beliefs as knowledge, writes James Lindsay in that Areo essay. More:
Social Justice is an application of postmodern philosophy, we must remember. That means that Social Justice is a moral tribe whose central fascination is power and how it can shape society. And its agenda has never been secret: it is openly to remake society according to its aims and “theories.” This means that Social Justice is a collection of moral tribes, whose primary agenda is its own institutionalization, and they’ve made the universities not only into their cathedrals but also, in something of an ironic throwback, into their seminaries. By seeking to conquer educational institutions first, Social Justice has effected a social and cultural coup that religious hardliners have only been able to dream about for most of the past century.
Emphasis mine. In an advanced, secular, technological society like ours, capturing the educational institutions really is capturing the highest ground. Everyone who will be moving into leadership positions in every other institutions will first pass through university — and that means they will be indoctrinated into the “faith system” (Lindsay’s term) of Social Justice. Many readers who work in media or in corporate America can tell you that Social Justice is already taken as fact within those environments. The New York Times, the most important journalistic institution in America, is facing a civil war within its ranks, between old school liberals in higher ranks, and younger reporters and editors coming from colleges that have inculcated them with the SJW gospel. Using the Kolakowski model, older journalists were trained to consider journalism as a craft within the Technological core; the younger ones see it as part of the Mythological core.
So, what does this have to do with David French and Sohrab Ahmari?
French, as you’ll recall, is a conservative Evangelical lawyer who believes that the classical liberal system we have now offers us enough resources to fight against left-liberalism’s excesses.
Sohrab Ahmari is the journalist who believes that French’s approach is too polite, and that the right needs to fight harder, with gloves off.
Seen through Kolakowski’s framework, we can say that French is applying technological methods to a mythological challenge. And this is reasonable, given that the liberal order is a Technological one.
But liberalism, as we know, is in crisis. More and more people on the left and right are losing faith in the fundaments of classical liberalism (see Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed). If you read the James Lindsay essay, you’ll understand better why this is happening with young people in this post-Christian society. Here’s an excerpt in which he comments on a Jonathan Rauch book:
Without getting too far into the details of Rauch’s argument—which insists that people feel that the Enlightenment liberal values and norms of Modernity are a bit too callous and dry in these regards to constitute a human cultural staple—these complaints “speak less to liberal science’s badness than to its completeness.” In short, people often perceive them to fall short in speaking to our deeply human needs for wonder, purpose, morality, mythological interpretation, and shared belief. Thus, it should be sufficiently clear to conclude that what he calls “skeptical faith” makes it difficult for people to meet the precise needs premodern constructs like religion and their attendant mythologies exist to fill.
These dissatisfactions spawned a new postmodern anti-Enlightenment project as a reaction to and rejection of the great, sweeping “metanarratives” of Modernity that so plainly failed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rather than attempting to go backwards and linking arms with premodernists and their religions, however, the postmodernists recognized and accepted the hardest truth of the Enlightenment: God really is dead. With it, they seem to have adopted the bleak nihilism the premodernists consistently warned would come of such a conclusion, should it be embraced.
Postmodern faith is therefore not like premodern faith, but it is still faith. In Social Justice, for instance, it still looks to the assurance of things hoped for, seeing itself as inexorably on the “right side of history.” It is also the conviction of things not seen.
French believes that Christian faith and conservative principles can exist peaceably within modernity, which is to say, within the liberal order established by the Enlightenment. Ahmari does not and, as a right-of-center Catholic, wants to fight for an order that is built on pre-Enlightenment principles. SJWs, as postmodernists, are trying to create an order based on considering left-wing ideological beliefs as if they bore the force of metaphysical truth.
If current trends continue, though, SJWs will have conquered the institutions that produce lawyers — and may have already done so. The outward forms may remain liberal, but the core beliefs of those who administer the system will have become illiberal. This takeover of the courts by Social Justice may be hard to see, because all other institutions will have moved in the same direction. Anyway, it is difficult to grasp how core institutions of liberal democracy can remain intact if those who administer and populate them are no longer committed to classical liberal principles, but rather have gone over to the religion of Social Justice. Or, to put it another way, the courts cannot remain Technologically oriented if all the judges have a Mythological sense of justice.
The point is, French’s cause may not have much of a future. David Brooks has a powerful column up today, in which he examines what to do if the presidential vote comes down to Donald Trump vs. Elizabeth Warren. He says that Warren is pretty bad for four basic reasons, but
…if it comes to Trump vs. Warren in a general election, the only plausible choice is to support Warren. Over the past month Donald Trump has given us fresh reminders of the unique and exceptional ways he corrupts American life. You’re either part of removing that corruption or you are not. When your nation’s political system is in danger, staying home and not voting is not a responsible option.
Politics is downstream from morality and culture. Warren represents a policy wrong turn, in my view, but policies can be argued about and reversed. Trump represents a much more important and fundamental threat — to the norms, values, standards and soul of this country.
I have said that I would either vote for Trump, or not vote. But it’s not hard to imagine that Trump could lead us into a situation in which I could be persuaded, like Brooks, that the threat a second Trump term poses to the country is greater than what a President Warren would mean. It’s possible.
But if Warren wins, there will be millions of people like Matt in VA who do not see her as legitimate. As he puts it, this is a “matter of the heart.” He believes establishment people like Brooks are guilty of “treason” — a claim that Matt seems to concede in his comment quoted above he holds to as a Mythological claim. I think that is extreme and irrational, but that’s beside the point. The point is that people like Matt in VA — and there are a lot of them — have lost a lot of faith in classical liberalism, which is a Technological system.
Now, if Trump wins again, does anybody doubt that the Tim Burkes of the country — and there are a lot of them — will refuse to accept his legitimacy? As Burke said, he is the “Piss Christ” of the left (for you youngsters: that’s a photo by Andres Serrano, of a crucifix submerged in urine, that caused a national controversy in the early 1990s). Trump is a Mythological figure for the left. If a Technological system (liberal democracy) produced not one, but two Trump presidencies, the sense that democracy is a fatally flawed system will likely be widespread on the left.
The danger is that we Americans could find ourselves approaching the condition of Spain in the first half of the 1930s: a nation where both left and right ceased to believe in democracy, because it was a system that allowed the other side the possibility of gaining power. The chasm between the two mythologies — on the right, Catholicism, monarchism, conservatism, reaction, and falangism; on the left, atheism, socialism, communism, and anarchism — was too great. Eventually, the Republic fell, and there was civil war, which in an essential way was a war of religion.
If I were betting on the future of America, I would say that the Matts in VA and the Tim Burkes had the momentum. The center is disappearing. And that means that Sohrab Ahmari, despite lacking in specifics (he’s getting there), has a more accurate read on the nature of the conflict upon us, and what it’s going to take to join the battle.
Here’s the problem, though: how are we on the Right going to form the kind of warriors capable of resistance? The Left is already doing this through institutional capture. Harvard’s integralist law professor Adrian Vermeule talks about marching through the institutions from the Right, which I certainly hope will happen, but where are these troops going to come from? The churches? At this point, alas, that’s a sad joke. The ranks of homeschoolers, and other Benedict Optionistas? There aren’t enough of us, and as one Catholic homeschooling mom testified here, it is no guarantee at all. The universities? Come on.
I don’t say that to be discouraging, but only to be realistic. We can only fight the Mythological with the Mythological. The pseudo-faith of Social Justice may be shallow, but it has the force of institutional power, and it is well on its way to capturing elites — which, as the sociologist James Davison Hunter has argued in his book To Change The World, is how cultural transformation happens:
The work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life. Even where impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.
By all means let us attempt a Christian march through the institutions! But first, many believing Christians are going to have to march through their own institutions, especially the Catholic Church. This is going to have to be the work of generations, though — and the assault on Christian belief, both intentional and passive, by the forces of liquid modernity is unremitting.
What I’m saying is that a religious war is coming. I don’t think it’s going to be between the Social Justice crusaders and Christians, for the most part. I think it’s going to be between the Social Justice crusaders and the post-Christian Right, which is to say, a confederation of nationalists and populists, and tribalists.
Trump is going away at some point, but the country is not going to return to the status quo. In his must-read new book Return Of The Strong Gods, R.R. Reno analyzes the exhausted liberal society — both left-liberalism and right-liberalism — and says that we are going to see a return of “strong gods.” By that, he means forces that unite us and give our lives meaning and purpose. Mythological forces, in the Kolakowskian sense. The religion of Social Justice offers strong gods. They are false gods, but they are strong. In his book — I intend to write about it in a separate post — Reno makes a case that we on the other side of that political and cultural chasm had better come up with beneficent strong gods of our own — and I think Ahmari’s traditionalist version of Catholicism would qualify — or the craving for the Mythological will summon up dark ones.
That’s enough for tonight. On Friday, I will be sequestered working on my book in the morning, and traveling in the afternoon. I’ll update the comments as often as I can, and might be able to post a blog or two.
UPDATE: A reality check from Jonah R.:
“The center is disappearing.”
Is the center really disappearing, or is it drowned out and being deprived of venues for its voice? I ask because I live in the brightest of blue counties in a blue state, and while I encounter woke SJWs on occasion, all of our Chik-Fil-A locations are packed nearly all day, every day. I see some terrible liberal/Democratic policies being enacted, but very few of my neighbors have this religious devotion to wokeness.
I do see it in a handful of people here and there, and they are usually people in higher education and the media, but the world I see on social media and in pundits’ blog posts and columns doesn’t match my day-to-day experience. Maybe it would look familiar if I worked at Yale or attended a Unitarian Universalist church or knew millennial reporters at my regional newspaper. But nearly everyone in my day to day world is just trying to get by. Political ideology isn’t at the center of their lives.
I see something similar when I go down to the Deep South to visit my relatives. I’m related to several big Trump fans, but even for them, politics is a mid-level priority in their lives at best. I can much more easily find people who voted for Trump grudgingly and chose him only because they saw him as the lesser of two evils. I can also easily find conservative rednecks who are quick to tell me how much they dislike the man. But overall, I’m often surprised by how disengaged people are from politics in TrumpLand and what a small minority the actual die-hards are. Everyone else just want to get on with their lives.
All of this may sound very Pauline Kael, but I feel like the politics-as-religion types on both sides add up to a vocal, influential minority holding the rest of us hostage through their zealotry. I spend an hour on Twitter and it feels like a cultural civil war is coming to a head. But when I go literally anywhere else in real life, I see little anger or conflict: not at Wal-Mart, not at Chik-Fil-A, not at the public library, not at school events, not at birthday parties for kids whose parents are Democratic activists, not at the gun range, and not in countless places where I stop and talk to people when I drive all over the damn country on business. So why are we letting the two most extreme ideological factions in our country pull all of us into their vicious and constantly escalating cycle of conflict?
For all the bluster, the majority of Americans have too much to lose to want the chaos that comes with religious and cultural war. Matt in VA can rant about “respectable conservatism” all he wants; he’s a college administrator who’s doing nothing more than what I’m doing right now: ranting pseudonymously on a blog without putting anything on the line. Puncture and deflate the bluster on both sides, and how eager is the vast majority of the country, really, for the consequences of this conflict we’re half-heartedly flirting with?
Of course you’re right. My mother is a 75 year old widow who watches a LOT of Fox News. I speak to her every day. Sometimes I have to give her a few minutes to express anger at the liberals because of what she has watched on TV that day — sometimes I agree with her, sometimes not — but 95 percent of our conversations are about what happened in town that day, and with my kids. I think that’s how life is for most people. When I’m at social gatherings, and someone starts going on about Trump (for or against), most people tense up, as if to say, “Come on, not here with that stuff.”
That said, it’s not the “ordinary people,” left or right, who are driving the trends in both parties. I remember back in 2005 or thereabouts, seeing the first big Pew study of American politics, and being shocked that the 10 percent on either extreme were driving the platforms of both parties. At least that year, the vast majority of Americans were in the big middle. In fact, the exact center, according to Pew, was “socially somewhat conservative, economically somewhat liberal”. But these people had no influence at the policy making level of the two parties! The donors and the committed ideologues drove that. It was quite an education. We know from history, as well as from social science, that a small number of active, committed people can control the politics of a democracy where most people are passive.