A Late Encounter with the Enemy

There has been much written about the inexplicable emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican frontrunner in 2016. Not surprisingly, people want an explanation for his popularity. It’s not simply that Trump is a dark horse, it’s that neither his campaign nor his constituents line up with what is considered conservative. A Trump victory at this point might upend the entire political balance, perhaps even creating a new ideological force in American politics.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames

Trump lives…..

One article that has gotten all too little attention is Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece on a late political activist’s influence on the Trump campaign. That activist, a man by the name of Sam Francis, advised the 96′ Buchanan campaign to make a wholehearted appeal to nationalism in order to further woo the then unaffiliated white working class. A strategy that was ultimately rejected by Buchanan himself. Says Dougherty:

To simplify Francis’ theory: There are a number of Americans who are losers from a process of economic globalization that enriches a transnational global elite. These Middle Americans see jobs disappearing to Asia and increased competition from immigrants. Most of them feel threatened by cultural liberalism, at least the type that sees Middle Americans as loathsome white bigots….

What is so crucial to Trump’s success, even within the Republican Party, is his almost total ditching of conservatism as a governing philosophy. He is doing the very thing Pat Buchanan could not, and would not do. And in this, he is following the advice of Sam Francis to a degree almost unthinkable.

It’s a good explanation of the Donald’s appeal. But the presence of Sam Francis’s ideas in the Trump campaign – paired with strange tweets by Trump himself – have much darker implications for state of white identity in America than might be gleamed from Dougherty’s article.

Almost a decade ago, as part of an early college interest in fringe ideas, I came across Francis’s name associated with the then emergent “paleocon” movement. At that time older conservatives like Pat Buchannan were looking for a platform to advocate protectionist and isolationist ideas, contrasting the then dominant neocons. However, Sam Francis took that project one step further.

Working for far-right publications such as the Occidental Quarterly, Francis advocated a wholesale return to ethnic and racial monoculture. Part nostalgia, part crypto-racist tirade, Francis became known as a stepping stone between conservatism and racial nationalism. By the time I came across his work in 2005 he and his like-minded contemporaries had formed a small but prolific online band. This was the beginning of what would later be known as the alternative right.

ir111_francis_200x267

Sam Francis, a founder of the alt-right

At the time it was community of refugees: people who had grown up appreciating the solidarity, familiarity, and racism (through not the rank bigotry) of an earlier white America.  To the followers of Francis, the United States had been betrayed by the 1965 immigration act and could only be restored by its total reversal. How this was to be accomplished was never addressed. And while these people certainly weren’t skinhead Nazis, their contempt for non-white and non-Western immigrants was palatable.

Truth be told, I found this movement fascinating in a dark way. As a millennial educated in a progressive public school, I had been warned of evil white racists dedicated to excluding minorities. In the real world these maleficent forces were ever absent. But here at last, in a bizarre corner of the internet, were the true enemies, the racists against which all multicultural piety had been raised against. Like an old soldier stationed in a remote garrison finally catching sight of the enemy’s banner, I found arguing against the alt-right perversely exhilarating.

However, as a nefarious adversary to multiculturalism, the movement was somewhat underwhelming. Certainly the alt-right had its intellectuals, some were even talented. But those who could think and write seemed pathologically obsessed with “race realism” -the idea that racial groups have distinct and immutable physiological differences. Not unlike the modern new-atheists, alt-right thinkers were ever convinced that they had “cracked the code” and unmasked the fraud of modern liberalism. While congratulating themselves on being “brave enough to see the truth”,  they underestimated the uncertainties in the science and over-estimated its potential impact on modern society.

attack

 A late encounter with the enemy…

But the fledgling alt-right movement had bigger internal problems yet. Composed mainly of old baby-boomers, the community was aging fast. And while each of the cohort thoroughly denounced laws they saw as leading to America’s decline, they didn’t seem to have a single plausible policy proposal. Later that year, when I heard Sam Francis had died, I considered the movement all but ready for the dustbin of history.

More fool I. Now, a decade later, the movement is alive and thriving. The very web communities I wrote off as aging and stagnant in 2005 are, in 2016, filled with enthusiastic young voices using real names and faces to espouse explicit racial nationalism. Some can even write societal critiques that are genuinely thought provoking . Whatever happened to the alt-right, its decline was my own wishful thinking

Of course, it is always hard to gauge the relative popularity of an online community. As seen from Tumblr, it’s all too easy to mistake the ardor of core members with general political strength. But as the Trump candidacy has itself demonstrated, America seems ripe for such a movement. The alt-right knows this and ultimately the Trump campaign might be just the beginning of a larger crisis in white American identity. Contemporary liberalism ignores the phenomenon at its peril.

At this point I can hear the objections from my more level-headed readers. Why should we worry about this fringe movement? Won’t discrediting such explicitly racist ideas be easy in the modern progressive age? Well, to tell you the truth, I am not sure.

Fundamentally, the power of the civil rights movement derived from a core moral appeal to egalitarian justice. It was the Christian principles laid out in King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail that forged America’s commitment to integration and its subsequent rejection of racism and white ethnic nationalism. But such old-fashioned moral infrastructure has now been deliberately undermined by generations of progressive identity politics. When appeals of to specific racial interests become explicit, can poorer whites be long maintained in the belief that their own group interests are illegitimate?

Even the language used to identify bigotry has been fundamentally cheapened. Under white-privilege theory, the definition of “racist” now seems to include most every person of European descent. Not surprisingly the term no longer has the same impact. Even I find myself reacting to it less and less. When I was young a “racist” was a person who maliciously harmed his fellow citizens, today it’s the frat boy down the street who threw an insensitive party on Cinco de Mayo. As when an antibiotic is overused, it is only a matter of time until a resistant strain emerges.

We have a tendency to believe our own propaganda. As such symbolic preparation for an old enemy is often misguided and fundamentally ineffective. As the French discovered about the Third Reich and the Chinese discovered about the Golden Horde, highly publicized defensive structures have a tendency to be naive. The idealistic demonization of a foe prevents the very understanding necessary to confront him in reality.

I shouldn’t overstate the case. Even in its reinvigorated form, the alt-right is a disorganized trainwreck. Yet, looking at it again, it’s hard not to recognize it as a malignant tumor steadily growing in one of modern culture’s largest blindspots.

We should be vigilant. If careless liberal America might yet be shaken to its core by a late encounter with the enemy.

Advertisements

Leah Libresco (audio): “Accidental Stylites: The Benedict Option”

An amazing talk by Leah Libresco on how to build community through small groups. I really liked the story about Leah’s dinner community that became a focal point for young adult organization in her community. Worth a listen.

Theology on Tap

From Theology on Tap @ the Rattlesnake on 13 January 2016

View original post

That Dragon, Cancer….

Despite the unending internet controversy, I remain resolute in my stance that video games cannot be art. Games contain a fundamental opposition at their core between players and audiences that cannot be resolved. Failing some huge revolution in Western culture where we suddenly conceptualize beauty as something you can “win”, I wouldn’t expect the next Picasso to be releasing his work at a GameStop.

Still, every now and again I see a new title that makes me question my conviction. Enter That Dragon, Cancer, a small indy game being released this winter. The game is an auto-biography that tells the story of a young Christian couple and their struggle with the extended sickness and death of their infant son, Joel.

Yes, I know this sounds like a macabre subject for a video game, but it makes more sense when the entire story is told. The NPR show ReplyAll does a good job explaining:

This is by no means the first artsy viewpoint-style video game. But from what I can tell, That Dragon, Cancer takes the form one step further. It contains genuine emotion that I just haven’t seen in titles like Gone Home or Life is Strange. Moreover, there is a raw power apparent in the story. It’s certainly art, even if it’s ultimately not much of a game.

But the strangest component of this game is its apparent focus on religion. Christianity is at the heart of That Dragon, Cancer. The central layout is a cathedral, the family’s own spiritual beliefs are a driver of the plot, and the original purpose of the game was to express the emotions felt during a moment of prayer. Ultimately, I will be very interested to see how these themes are expressed in the medium of video games.

The central problem of art in video games has always been player choice. Video games put the player at the center of making decisions beyond the creator’s control. Thus there is an interplay between the two where the desire of the artist to challenge assumptions and the desire of the player to escape reality are at odds. The more the artist introduces a strong narrative and challenging messages, the more a constraints are needed to steer players away from their natural inclination towards self-affirming fun.

In the past artsy video games like Limbo and Bioshock have addressed the problem of choice by making the futility of the player’s decisions a central theme. With enough existential “Waiting-For-Gidot style” doom, a player can be artfully compelled towards an art-house ending without damaging the realism. A seemingly open world where the character’s minor decisions cannot assuage their final doom might be the plot of every French existentialist novel, but it’s also an easily programmable format for a video game.

But the subject of futility and choice also have a direct relationship to prayer. Prayer is a difficult thing to explain to most non-religious people. Do believers really believe they are influencing the will of God? Do the pious think they can bend the universe with the force of supplication? If not, isn’t the whole endeavor futile?  All these questions are fair, but very difficult to answer without extended analogy. To the religious prayer comes naturally, and there is is an ineffable flow and logic to those who practice it regularly.

During more religious ages powerful scenes of prayer in fiction were passed over with little commentary. Our contemporary age is quite different. When so few people practice devotion themselves, a depiction of such requires explanation. But is any verbal explanation adequate?

The central inspiration for That Dragon, Cancer was a prayer of a father for his son when nothing else seemed to make a difference. Certainly, the prayer neither stopped the cancer nor ceased the pain, but was it futile? Perhaps prayer might be better thought of as something that brings rational order to a reality that would otherwise seem cruel and futile. It might even be possible that this side of prayer is better expressed in a video game than in written theology.

I’ll be looking forward to “playing” That Dragon, Cancer when it comes out. However, I might have to force myself to play all the way through. A strange problem for such a typically addictive medium.

Friday Quick Link: The Question of Distribution

There was a rather interesting discussion today on NPR concerning the possibility of a guaranteed minimum income, a proposal close to the hearts of distributists everywhere.

http://onpoint.wbur.org/2016/01/14/universal-basic-income-government-welfare

I really wish the host had let Megan McArdle explain more about the drawbacks to such a plan instead of letting the end of the conversation devolve into emotion.

I am a proponent of a guaranteed income policy but I think McArdle had a great point. The perverse incentives both at the political and the personal level just make the practical implementation a nightmare. It’s worth more thought.

Text and Community

I run a small book discussion group through my local parish. This year, in coordination with the Pope’s own advice, we are tackling Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Fall we finished Inferno. This Lent we read Purigorio, then Paradiso after Easter.

For a while I have considered blogging about this project.Read2 Certainly re-reading the Comedia has changed my perspective on theology and the history of Catholic thought.

However, probably the single greatest insight I have gotten from re-reading Dante is just how much community means when experiencing a work of fiction. I first read and discussed the Inferno as part of a general-ed literature class in college. The impression it made on me would be hard to understate. With both Professor and students eager to dismiss the work as a grand Florentine revenge fantasy, the poem was quickly used to bolster my already unflattering view of the Medieval mind.

Needless to say, revisiting Dante’s hell with a group of orthodox Catholics is very different. The theology built into every layer of the burning perdition is too sophisticated for any modern Catholic to dismiss. The sins that bring the souls to their eternal torment are a little too close for any modern Christian’s comfort. The experience is rich, chilling, but not easily explained in words

There are certain works of art that might only be authentically experienced from inside a certain community. I remember thinking this again when seeing the new Star Wars movie on opening night. Not being a fan myself, I could understand something key about the film just by being in the audience. It wasn’t just a matter of absorbing the excitement, I could -in fact- understand a very different message being communicated. To the audience there, The Force Awakens was a fresh story of redemption even if the individual plot points were, well totally predictable. It was a story about their community, and ,more importantly about what it meant to truly like Star Wars. You had to be among them to really understand that.

Generalizing, it might be worth trying to read a book popular with an antagonistic community this way. I can’t be the first Christian who has wondered what it must be like to read The God Delusion with a group of atheists. I read the book a while back and found it to be preachy, tiresome and self-righteous, but I know people who have read it lovingly over twenty times. Perhaps the true appeal of Dawkin’s labored tirade could be better understood through seeing it read and discussed inside an atheist book group. Might it be less an explanation of scientific fact than a story of community’s exodus, liberation, and rebirth? This would indeed be a greater story.

Ideology in the Ivory Tower: Old and New

As the rehash notable news stories start rolling in for 2015, the conflict between campus radicalism and free speech has been an unavoidable addition. From the Yale halloween costume fiasco to the Missou poop-swastika, this has been a banner year for progressive campus melt-downs.

5641956dc46188e85b8b4590
A less well publicized scandal was a reciprocal right-wing over-reaction coming from a midwest evangelical college. While, I can’t say the incident is indicative of a larger trend, the story of a Wheaton Professor being suspended for wearing a hijab and stating that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” was certainly chilling. In fact, I find it odd that the incident didn’t get more media coverage, especially since it contrasted the main narrative of intransigent campus progressive busy-bodies cracking down on largely conservative victims.

Now the suspension of the Wheaton professor does has some caveats that make it less egregious than the radicals at Missou or Yale. Wheaton is explicitly religious and does not accept federal funds (in contrast to larger state-schools). The professor also signed an agreement to adhere to orthodox Christian doctrine as a condition of employment, an agreement that was arguably violated by her stating that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” (this might be argued one way or to the other).  However, despite these excuses, the incident at Wheaton demonstrates what the college is at its core. Wheaton is first and foremost a safe haven and platform for ideological instruction. It is only secondarily a community for exploring and exchanging ideas.

Strangely enough this evangelical perspective on the role of the university dovetails exactly with the oft-heard radical demand that secular campuses should primarily be homes for radicals to find shelter and make common cause. Both groups implicitly desire a situation where discussion and investigation take a back seat to moral insulation. In fact, the foundational idea of a Patrick Henry or a Wheaton college is identical to the cause of radical progressive activists. Setting aside that the progressives are lobbying for ideological control inside supposedly neutral state-financed institutions, the alignment of the two demands is telling.Meeting_of_doctors_at_the_university_of_Paris.jpg

But perhaps the convergence of the left and right over the idea of college as an ideological finishing school is not so coincidental. The original purpose of the university was in fact evangelization and training clergy (see Harvard’s own history). It was not until the late German enlightenment that the university was put forward as a non-ideological space for debate and investigation. Subsequently the idea was copied throughout the 19th and 20th century and only then became universal throughout the modern world. But this transformation may only be temporary. Ultimately, the 20th century perspective of a neutral and intrepid institution of higher education might itself represent only a marked intermission between the university’s role as an organ of Christian evangelization and the university’s new role an organ of Marxist and progressive evangelization.

Too much digital ink has already been spilled lamenting the closed mindedness of the modern campuses and I don’t intend to spill more here retreading the same tired points. However, before we completely resign ourselves to the death of the intellectual university there might be a few reservations that should be considered even by those firmly enconsed in the left or right side of the culture war.

There is a central problem with treating advanced education as an ideological finishing school; namely, it really only works well in societies where the indoctrinated viewpoint is nearly universal. Hence, the old Christian colleges of the renaissance worked very well in times of universal religiosity but began to shift in their foundations after the move towards secularization in the late 19th century. As students, it’s just not very comfortable moving from an ideologically pure university to a society where those very principles are routinely called into question. The education feels incomplete.

I have noticed this phenomenon in some of my own friends who have come from more conservative communities and subsequently attended ideologically conservative Catholic colleges. Many of them – even those still firmly committed to their faith – seem wistful for the opportunity of greater engagement with the intellectual ideas that undergird the society that they now occupy. It’s one thing to be educated as a conservative Catholic to live among one’s own while dealing with outsiders only through activism, it’s quite another to take this educational perspective to the life of a minority in a highly secular city such as New York or San Francisco. It occurred to me many times that these student’s own religious perspectives might have been made more confident had their alma mater made a greater effort to incorporate controversy and contrasting views into the ideological curriculum.

Sure+it+s+only+free+for+straight+white+males+typical+cis+privilege+_2574036b86bedd0691457f93070af4cbThere are be some lessons here, most obviously for those religious conservatives calling for a further “Benedict-option” withdrawal from contemporary society. But more so, I think there is a stark warning for progressives. So far it seems that the breakneck leftward lurch of the universities was catalyzed by similar leftward shift in major urban areas. Without the assurance that alumni would not be greatly perturbed in their progressive perspective during their post college lives, the radical tilt could have never been accomplished with such ease. It’s not hard to graduate a generation of college students with no knowledge of non-progressive ideology if those students are headed towards lives in an urban area that votes 99.9% democrat.

However the ideological shift in the university towards radical pedagogy may make their indoctrination all the more brittle. Progressives might assure themselves that they will maintain a near ideological monopoly in the academy. However, the near conformity of the progressive world-view in wealthy urban communities is unlikely to be sustained. If history is any guide, urban areas are prone to ideological flux. This change may not be conservative, Christian or even Western in nature but ultimately the universal progressive dominance of urban spaces will eventually fall.

With this change to, radicalized universities will finally have to come to terms with their roles as ideological clearing houses for a very particular kind of religion. Perhaps, more disconcertingly students graduated from these institutions will have to come to terms with their roles as evangelical ideologues placed within an intellectual environment of which they have no understanding, nor tools to confront. Perhaps this will be an environment to forge a new generation of intrepid progressive missionaries but it certainly won’t be a place of safe-spaces and trigger warnings.

Resolutions and Blogging in 2016

Welcome 2016!

No I haven’t formed any of my New Year’s resolutions, but there are some changes coming to this site. I am taking up blogging again on a more regular basis and the focus will be slightly changed to emphasize shorter posts with more audio and illustrations.

banner3

Some additions I am working on:

  • Comics and Illustrations Page –  consolidates the comics and illustrations that I have been working on
  • Lectures and Videos – contains links to my youtube channel and playlists that feature discussions and lectures on a variety of topics
  • Essays – All the long form articles that appear on the blog organized according to their subject
  • Sources for Community  – Links to resources for community and local subsidiarity

See you in the next year!