Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

IMG_7188

 

A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

John Betjeman statue

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Advertisements

The Real Resistance

Protest Sign - Dump Trump Kill Brexit

The good aspects of this populist insurgency need saving from horrified (and increasingly organized) antidemocratic elites – but also from cynical and incompetent populist leaders who are squandering our last best hope of democratic renewal

I have struggled of late to bring myself to write much about politics. The temptation to offer the odd hot take on Twitter can never be fully avoided, but while I usually find myself with enough time to write only one of every five articles which pop into my mind, these past months I have struggled to generate more than a couple of vaguely original ideas or pieces of commentary in the space of a month.

The reason, I have come to realise, is that for all the furious words being written and opinions expressed, nothing much seems to be changing. Despite a political discourse which has rarely been more shrill, with unbridled hysteria on both sides and nearly every aspect of life being sucked into the black, inescapable vortex that is our ongoing culture war, neither side is making definitive progress. As at the Western Front in 1915, both sides have dug into hardened positions in anticipation of a long, drawn-out stalemate. Both sides double down on their dogma and rhetoric, both sides continue to defend or even embrace the worst elements of their own cause because the enemy does likewise with his; both dehumanise one another and suggest that what was once seen as sincere and legitimate political difference is now irrefutable evidence of moral turpitude.

Both sides feel that they are losing an existential fight; both feel under attack and in retreat. On a superficial level, the progressive left (and here I use the term to describe those who broadly hold socially liberal, secular, intersectional, economically redistributive and de facto open borders political views) have more cause to be alarmed – after all, they have to deal with what they see as the “twin disasters” of Donald Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom, as well as rising populism throughout Europe and much of the world.

However, as someone who fits into neither the populist or elitist category but perhaps has greater sympathy for the former, I see only danger, risk and oncoming ruin for the populists. My gnawing fear is that an increasingly inept Trump administration which fails to deliver on even his more decent campaign promises and a botched Brexit leading to economic damage and future ongoing “vassal state” status within an unreformed European regulatory ecosystem may come to represent the dismal high water mark of populist achievement. Such has been establishment shock at the political success of the populists, such is their determination to wrest back control and such is their domination of the main levers of influence and power (media, business and culture) that it is those gathered under the banner of unaccountable supranational and technocratic government who now march with a spring in their step, and those who believe in the nation state, democracy and self-determination who find ourselves endlessly on the defensive.

All of which might not be so bad if the temporarily-displaced elites had learned anything meaningful from their electoral rebukes, engaged in some introspection and returned chastened and humble, with a newfound willingness to consult and be guided by the people they lead rather than continuing to implement their own highly Utopian vision of the future with no consultation or consent. But of course there has been no such introspection, and there is precious little humility to be found among those who lost control of the political narrative in 2016.

President Trump is bad, but the people whose self-serving incompetence in government gave us President Trump in the first place are still very much present, unrepentant and with their credibility intact. Brexit negotiations may be lurching toward disaster, but the people whose uninspired leadership and scant regard for democracy helped give us Brexit in the first place soldier on with reputations intact, peddling the myth that everything was fine before the EU referendum came along, and that Brexit can be thwarted with no adverse societal consequences.

If the people who believe they are morally and intellectually better than Donald Trump voters and Brexiteers want to win, they need to do more than stand laughing or indignant at the sidelines as the worst elements of these camps drive their populist train off the rails; they need to actively come up with something more attractive; a unifying, compelling national vision which amounts to something more than just rolling the clock back to the day before the EU referendum or US presidential election. But instead we see little other than smug self-satisfaction and blind hatred of (or contempt for) those who took the populist side, born of the delusion that populist incompetence in government somehow discredits their basic cause, and that political elites can therefore press on with their own discredited and failed agenda without incurring any negative consequences.

But the populists are by no means innocent. It is very easy to strike a trendy rhetorical pose against unloved ideas and institutions, but much harder to grapple with cold hard reality and propose policy changes which respect democratic input while also standing a chance of lasting success in the real world. One of the hardest things in recent months has been witnessing thinkers, writers and organisations I once broadly respected choosing the path of least resistance, playing to their respective galleries and choosing outraged purity over sullying themselves with necessary compromise.

Thus we see this year’s Orwell Prize for journalism awarded to someone who sniffs out and extrapolates wrongdoing in the EU referendum Leave campaign to the delight of her establishment audience, but shows zero curiosity about malfeasance in the Remain campaign (or the relative impact of each). And thus we are subjected to otherwise-compelling contrarians like Brendan O’Neill of Spiked magazine actively harming the cause of Brexit by ignoring all nuance when it comes to the trade and regulatory relationships under discussion, turning the most momentous issue to face Britain in decades into just another facet of the culture war.

It must be easy to write when possessed of great certainty that one is indisputably morally superior and on the “right” side of history (or at least that one’s actions and side will be recorded as being on the right side of history). I often envy the leftist, identity politics-soaked social justice warriors and their enablers within the political class for possessing such fervor. It is much harder to write day after day when one fears that one’s side will ultimately lose, and that one will be remembered as a cranky obstacle to glorious progress at best, and as something akin to a Jim Crow segregationist at worst. Every tweet or blog post them becomes not a small brick in the foundation of some glorious building for which one can claim partial credit, but rather just another nail in the coffin of one’s own future reputation and ultimate legacy.

And right now, I think the chances of defeat for conservatives, traditionalists, democrats and nation state defenders are very high indeed. In Britain, the UK government’s mishandling of Brexit and the atrophy of our self-governance capability may yet vindicate every hysterical warning about the folly of leaving the European Union’s unwanted, antidemocratic political-union-by-stealth. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s impulsive, often proudly ignorant or counterproductive policies and bigoted rhetoric tarnish the valid causes he supports (like greater immigration control) by mere association, rendering them toxic, while the reputations of some truly awful people are laundered thanks to their cynically ostentatious opposition to Trump.

In all of this, the media is firmly planted on one side, unable to report objectively on issues of concern to so-called populists by virtue of having so few reporters and editors drawn from the relevant social and demographic circles. And virtually every element of our culture, from classical and pop music to television and even corporate culture, are marching to the beat of divisive, intersectional identity politics with its avant garde gender theory and disdain for those institutions which are the bedrock of a stable society. In such circumstances it is small comfort to be right when one’s own side stands on the verge of total defeat.

And yet it is not in my nature to bow down before these forces and declare “I, for one, welcome our new antidemocratic, technocratic, authoritarian and coercive SJW overlords”. I don’t welcome them. Even if things go as badly as in my most pessimistic moments I fear they may, I believe it is still important to stand up and argue in the public square, register dissent, bear witness to what is happening and force the progressive side to defend their ideas on logic and merit rather than wallow endlessly in their feelings.

Conservatives and true liberal democrats, people who believe in government of the people and the right to freedom of speech and thought, should be under no illusion at this time – we are losing the decisive battle. A few standout conservative podcasts, YouTubers and bloggers are no match when the other side has a vice-like grip on the entire culture and is snarlingly intolerant of the slightest dissent to the extent that they willingly throw their own leaders and figureheads under the bus for thoughtcrime infractions.

I hope that this defeat can be reversed, but doing so will require millions of people who currently sit at home quietly shaking their heads at what our political elites and culture-makers are doing but otherwise raising no public objection to stand up and be counted – and quite likely incur social or economic cost – which they have not been called upon to do before.

I have just started reading “The Benedict Option“, a book by an American Christian conservative blogger I much admire, Rod Dreher. The book is a warning to Christians (particularly aimed at but by no means limited to traditionalists) that the demands of their faith and those of our culture and “polite society” are drifting decisively and definitively apart, and that the time may soon come when faithful Christians are forced to choose between practising their faith according to their conscience and maintaining their current social and economic standing.

I see a similar fork in the road coming the way of all conservatives and moderates, religious or not – indeed, anyone who is not a staunchly progressive social justice warrior or otherwise happy to accede to that particular worldview. Already we see businesses and charities seeking to adopt progressive positions on social issues as corporate policy, mandating speech and behavior which would force employees and volunteers to violate their own beliefs or else face disciplinary action. Already we see censorious activist mobs seek to dictate where private companies advertise or sell their product. And already, dissenters are paying the price when they stand up and refuse to go along with these coercive demands.

In a few weeks I shall matriculate at law school in Washington, D.C., where I will spend the next three years earning my law degree. Being on an American university campus, it would be infinitely easier – professionally, socially and otherwise – for me to simply delete my blog and Twitter account, and pretend to anyone who asks (and it will certainly come up; already I have had to give notice of my “preferred pronouns”) that I hold the standard suite of progressive leftist political views which are almost de rigeur for students and within the legal profession. But that would be a lie, and I will not do so. Will professing my religious and political beliefs cost me potential friendships and career opportunities? I would be naive if I thought otherwise. Will I find my own free speech threatened or stifled at times? Quite possibly – I have spent three years documenting on this blog what happens to free speech advocates and identity politics heretics on American college campuses, and it is often not pretty. But so be it.

And so even if it brings less joy than it once did, I will keep writing, speaking and standing up for both the expression and validity of traditional, time-proven values and honest political opinions which were considered perfectly mainstream just a few years ago, but which are even now being recast as fundamentally hateful and ignorant by zealots who would reshape the world with their uniquely totalitarian conception of tolerance.

We all have a duty to take a stand, and this is what I shall do, from my own very marginal and unscrutinized place in history. I encourage others to undertake a brief personal inventory and consider whether there is more that you could do at this juncture with your own time, talents and resources. Because right now, we are losing the war. Worse still, some of the gravest long-term threats we face come from the supposed leaders of our cause, and too few of us are willing to admit this painful truth.

Help is not going to come from outside; we go to battle with who and what we have at hand. Unlike the people who melt down over a presidential tweet or democratic referendum, or who cynically downplay their own immense power and privilege to cast themselves as latter-day victims, it is we who are engaged in the real resistance of our time.

The Resistance - Clenched fist protest - US flag

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Who Is Truly Marginalized?

Kevin Williamson - The Atlantic - When the Twitter mob came for me

The marginalization of people and the marginalization of supposedly harmful ideas are very different phenomena, and the continued existence of the former neither requires nor excuses the latter

Rod Dreher has a great reflection on his blog today about who and what viewpoints in our present society are truly marginalised. Unsurprisingly, he is of the opinion that the side which bleats the loudest about its vulnerability and powerlessness is, more often than not, actually the one which is not only ascendant but effectively dominant, wielding both the power to destroy nonconformists and an increased willingness to deploy that power for social and political ends.

Dreher quotes a powerful passage from fellow writer Kevin D. Williamson, who made much news this month for being first hired and then swiftly fired from The Atlantic because of previously-expressed heterodox opinions. Williamson writes of a journalistic panel event he attended at South by Southwest on the subject of marginalized points of view:

Which brings us back to that event at South by Southwest, where the Atlantic was sponsoring a panel about marginalized points of view and diversity in journalism. The panelists, all Atlantic writers and editors, argued that the cultural and economic decks are stacked against feminists and advocates of minority interests. They made this argument under the prestigious, high-profile auspices of South by Southwest and their own magazine, hosted by a feminist group called the Female Quotient, which enjoys the patronage of Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Deloitte. We should all be so marginalized. If you want to know who actually has the power in our society and who is actually marginalized, ask which ideas get you sponsorships from Google and Pepsi and which get you fired.

My emphasis in bold above. Note Williamson’s correct observation that the “advocates of minority interests” increasingly see themselves as persecuted underdogs, not just the minority groups on whose behalf they claim to speak.

Dreher goes on to give another example provided by a reader, all the more serious because it impacts a private citizen who is simply attempting to go about their daily life (as opposed to making a living by expressing opinions in the public square like Kevin Williamson):

True. This past weekend, I heard from a reader who holds a management position in a Fortune 100 company. The reader is a Christian, and is struggling because the reader’s company has been pushing its employees, especially at that level, to get involved in their community as advocates for LGBT inclusion. The reader, who is closeted as a Christian inside the company, has stayed very quiet, but the reader’s bosses are starting to wonder why the reader isn’t signing on. The reader is dealing with a serious medical disability, and cannot afford to lose this job. Understandably, the reader is really starting to get anxious.

[..] This Christian reader is at the mercy of this woke corporation. But as a traditional Christian, this reader will always and everywhere be the Oppressor in the eyes of this company, even though people with the views of this reader are powerless within its culture.

Dreher’s conclusion:

Williamson is on to a truly remarkable thing about the way the power-holders in our society work: their ideology allows them to tell themselves that they are advocates for the oppressed, and stand in solidarity with the marginalized, etc. But it’s a sham.

I think it is important here to distinguish between those on the sharp end of lingering prejudice and discrimination to a greater or lesser degree – groups which certainly include ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals and those who place themselves outside what is now called the “gender binary”, but also other far less favoured groups like white working class boys, people whom it is not fashionable to pity – and those who experience blowback either voluntarily expressing their own opinions on social issues in the public sphere (including journalists and public figures) or in the course of their daily lives (people of faith working for corporations, etc.)

In the case of the former, reasonable people still ought to be able to agree that historically disadvantaged minorities still have it worse on aggregate, despite often-tremendous strides of progress and occasionally even surpassing parity with the “privileged” majority. The aggregate experience of most minorities in countries like Britain and America is significantly better than would have been the case just two decades ago, but it would be churlish to deny that the legacy of past discrimination and its lingering remnants do not have a disproportionate effect on those who are not white, male and wealthy (though we can certainly quibble over the degree).

Where it gets far more interesting, though, is who wins the “marginalization contest” when it comes to publicly expressing viewpoints or living one’s values in modern society. And here, I think both Rod Dreher and Kevin Williamson are right that the situation is almost completely reversed. When it comes to which worldview and values dominate our society (from the political and corporate worlds down through academia, high and low culture) social progressivism is utterly ascendant. More than ascendant, in fact; it has won the battle of ideas and done so without grace or magnanimity towards those it vanquished along the way.

When somebody like former Google engineer James Damore can be summarily fired from his job for publishing a controversial but eminently reasoned and defensible memo on Google’s hiring policies, it is not the supposed “victims” of his memo who lack agency, power or a platform to defend themselves. When so many prestigious and supposedly trustworthy news sources can casually refer to Damore’s “anti-diversity screed” without critically reading it or placing it in proper context, how is Damore the all-powerful oppressor who must be purged from society for the protection of others?

And when writers like Kevin Williamson are hounded out of their jobs by baying Twitter mobs before they even get their feet under the desk, and not once contacted by any of the major news outlets who extensively covered the story in order to seek his comment and version of events, how is Williamson the snarling ideological hegemon with his jackboot on the neck of the innocent masses?

This all points to a contradiction at the heart of the debate over social justice and identity politics which is often overlooked in the glib media debate: those traditionally considered vulnerable and marginalised minorities often do continue to experience an unequal playing field and have just cause for complaint, even while the most extreme elements of progressivism (fully unrestricted abortion, open borders, the imposition of radical new gender theory) are now established orthodoxy nearly everywhere that it matters. Or to deploy a military analogy, while many foot soldiers and protectorates of their movement continue to be pinned down by sporadic enemy resistance on the ground, they are also secure in the knowledge that their side enjoys total air superiority and that ultimate victory is all but assured.

One then has to ask whether it is right that the progressive air campaign is allowed to dominate in such a fashion. Many would glibly answer “yes”, and perhaps suggest (not unreasonably) that the right of a minority individual to be physically safe and undiscriminated against in the affairs of life far outweighs the rights of the newspaper columnist or blogger to express their dissenting opinion on social issues. As a rhetorical device this argument is quite effective, but it is also a deceptive false dichotomy. While social justice advocates may claim that dissenting speech is the equivalent of physical or mental harm, this is nothing but cynical, censorious manoeuvring on their part. Kevin Williamson writing for The Atlantic no more made anybody unsafe than James Damore’s respectfully-worded memo. To the extent that harm of any kind is suffered, it is entirely through the self-imposed mental fragility of the identity politics movement, which often takes grown people and renders them screechy, adult-sized babies.

As Rod Dreher notes elsewhere:

It’s like everybody just wants to be offended, and so offended that they become emotionally disabled, because that’s how they know who they are. I am offended, therefore I am. Not too long ago, to admit to being undone by the least little thing would have been seen as a sign of weakness, of feeble character. The man or woman who was able to endure all kinds of insults and threats to their lives — think James Meredith and Ruby Bridges — without desisting from their path were real heroes.

Now? The therapeutic mindset has triumphed so thoroughly that the faintest flap of a butterfly’s wing will cause an emotional hurricane within anyone who feels the air quiver. It’s the way to achieve power.

Ultimately, we need to be able to acknowledge that while discrimination against minorities continues and is appalling, that the victim status does not extend to those fighting on their behalf. A woke Hollywood A-lister with the power to direct his legions of social media followers to hound and destroy the livelihood of a working class citizen who expresses less than politically correct views or attempts to live out traditional values in their own life is no brave underdog – he is a bully. A corporate CEO who cuts short a vacation and flies home to summarily fire a diligent employee for making a thoughtful contribution is not a good corporate citizen – she is a mini tyrant, seeking to control her worker’s thoughts and actions with the same impersonal intensity as the industrial revolution mill-owner of old.

Victimhood is not transferable from those who genuinely suffer disadvantage to those who ostentatiously advocate (or posture) on their behalf. The sympathy or compensatory advantages due to somebody who suffers the barbs of ongoing racism or discrimination must not be appropriated by those who make a profitable cottage industry of fighting for “equality”. Yet this is precisely what currently happens, even though these two wrongs in no way make a right.

Censoring or otherwise persecuting those who dissent from the slightest aspect of progressive orthodoxy is not a just punishment for past discrimination against minorities, particularly when those doling out the punishment are among the most successful and privileged people in society. Destroying innocent careers or purging heterodox or dissenting viewpoints from the public square must not become seen as a valid reparation for society’s past sins.

Diversity

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

 

Violence And Death In Charlottesville, And A Morally Compromised President

Charlottesville protest - car attack - far right domestic terrorism

If President Donald Trump cannot bring himself to explicitly condemn an act of domestic terror perpetrated against anti-racism protesters in Virginia, one must question not only whether he is capable of bringing Americans together as one nation, but whether he even intends to try

What hath identity politics wrought?

That was the question that stuck in my mind as I sat and watched footage of the far right and Antifa protests in Charlottesville, Virginia today, culminating in that heinous act of domestic terrorism where a car rammed a group of counterprotesters at high speed, killing one and injuring nineteen – a deliberate copy of the kind of low-tech attack perpetrated by radical Islamist extremists recently in Europe.

As part of my media monitoring watching this story develop, I spent some time tuned into a livestream report from Alt-Right conspiracy site Infowars. Their reporter was embedded with a group of Alt-Right protesters who had been dispersed by the police and were trying to regroup. Several of them openly admitted to being racist on camera. A couple spoke about the conspiracy of “international Jewry”, while others just barked the name George Soros over and over again. One talked about the demographic timebomb that threatened America when Texas finally turns into a Blue state due to Hispanic immigration. Lots seemed to want a complete shutdown of all immigration, legal and illegal. And all this on top of the images we have seen of protesters bearing swastikas and making Nazi salutes.

Nobody is covering themselves in glory at this point – not the far Right white supremacist protesters, not the more extreme Antifa elements of the counterprotest, not the news media, not people on Twitter and certainly not the President of the United States.

Many people have made the point that the Left’s obsession with identity politics has helped to fuel the white nationalist/supremacist backlash we are now seeing from the far Right. They’re not wrong. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the relentless growth of identity politics, aided and abetted by cynical left-wing politicians, has certainly put rocket boosters on right wing extremist sentiment.

But none of that matters in the moments after a car is driven at speed into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, in what can only be described as an act of domestic terrorism. At that point it doesn’t matter whether the counterprotesters were trying to suppress the free speech of the far Right, or whether their own leftist ideology is flawed. At that point, these discussions should be put on hold, to be relitigated after we have condemned this singular and abhorrent act of violence.

If there was a time for Donald Trump to step up and show that whatever his flaws he could be president of all Americans, this was it. He failed that test, making a statement consisting of weasel words that condemned violence “on all sides” but without mentioning the focal violent incident of the day.

Remember: this is a president who is happy to shoot his mouth off on Twitter about terror attacks in distant lands, offering certainty and condemnation even before the facts are fully established (and sometimes getting it plain wrong in the process). This is a president who can be frighteningly specific when a particular person or group has roused his anger – when he wants to be. As one Twitter user noted, it would have been nice to hear the President of the United States condemn the mowing down of protesters with the same stridency and tone he uses to attack the likes of Rosie O’Donnell or any of the other celebrities he likes to feud with.

But instead Trump said this:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

Well yes, there were certainly acts of bigotry and violence committed by Antifa and others among the counterprotesters. But to paint any kind of equivalence when violence from one side has resulted in death and multiple injury is morally questionable, and politically self-destructive.

There exists a preset media narrative that the Trump White House is staffed with people who are white nationalists at best, and white supremacists at worse. This is mostly media hysteria – while Trump certainly made racist comments during the presidential campaign (not least of which suggesting that Judge Gonzalo Curiel would be incapable of ruling fairly in a Trump University pre-trial hearing because his Mexican heritage would create bias because of Trump’s border wall policy) he has not yet taken any executive action which a reasonable person could construe as being motivated by white supremacist leanings.

Nonetheless, Trump should have realised – and probably was fully aware – that anything less than irreproachable behaviour on his part on any issue touching race would be jumped on by political opponents and the media, bogging his administration’s agenda down and giving Americans just cause to fear that their president was in fact not equally concerned with the welfare of all citizens regardless of race.

And yet when given the lowest of hurdles to jump over – unambiguously criticising violence committed by white supremacist protesters – Trump failed to clear the bar, instead preferring to issue a meandering blanket condemnation of violence which was never going to be enough to satisfy the politicians, media outlets and commentators sniffing for blood.

Why not? Well, to my mind there are only two potential explanations. Firstly, Trump did not specifically condemn the white supremacists because he sympathises with their cause. Or secondly, Trump does not agree with (or is ambivalent about) their cause, but values the votes and political support of this subgroup too much to risk displeasing them by making an overt criticism.

In the first instance, this would make Donald Trump utterly depraved and unworthy of political support from any decent elected official. And in the second instance, this would make the President of the United States a coward for failing to risk taking a political hit in order to tell the kind of harsh truths and specific admonishment to the far Right that much of America needed to hear. Complicity in racism or rank political cowardice – neither characteristic befits the office of president.

Rod Dreher gets it right:

Trump’s response to the racist rally has been — how to put this? — underwhelming.  No, I’m sorry, it’s not “underwhelming”. It’s disgusting. And given that professional racist David Duke invoked Trump’s name favorably at Friday night’s rally, Trump has every reason in the world to condemn this rally and its attendees in no uncertain terms. But he didn’t do it.

[..] Yes, we can and should talk about how left-wing racism and antifa violence are feeding this right-wing racism and violence. But that can come later. Today, all that needs to be said is: these white thugs who desecrated Charlottesville today are evil, and must be condemned and resisted by all decent people. And also, by the American president.

The National Review’s Rich Lowry also makes a fair point:

I don’t have a problem with Trump condemning both sides, since both sides resorted to violence. And he did denounce bigotry and hatred. But I agree that it was mealy-mouthed and wrong not to specifically name and slam the white supremacists whose march was the precipitating event here. Putting aside the merits, if you are a president people suspect is allied with the nastiest forces on the right, you should leap at the opportunity to denounce violent white nationalists. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Trump takes a second bite at the apple sometime soon, but this shouldn’t be so hard.

While Michael Brendan Dougherty is even more appalled:

This weekend in Charlottesville Richard Spencer organized his “Unite The Right” march.  David Duke was there too. Fights broke out between the demonstrating racists and the people protesting them. A motorist driving a Dodge muscle car rammed into a group of anti-racist protestors, injuring several and killing at least one.

Even if you believe as I do, that Spencer’s form of white nationalism is a marginal movement granted far too much attention, the sight of hundreds of unmasked young men marching through Charlottesville with torches and chanting racist slogans inspires genuine fear in many Americans. Trump was given a chance to speak to that fear today, and to offer the same moral condemnation and deflation he’s given others. Instead he essentially repeated his disgraceful half-disavowal of Duke. He refused to call out these white supremacists by name, and condemn them. He merely condemned “all sides.”  An energetic law and order president who had any sense of the divisions in his country would have announced today that he was instructing his Justice Department to look into the people in these groups, and zealously ferret out and prosecute any crimes they turned up.

This is a target-rich environment. Some of these scummy racists in Charlottesville wore chainmail, others went around shouting their devotion to Adolf Hitler. A president with Trump’s intuitive sense of depravity should be able to call them what they are: evil losers. More pathetic: evil cosplayers.  Just as Spencer took Trump’s “I disavow” without a direct object to be a kind of wink in his direction, surely he’ll take today’s statement about “all sides” as another form of non-condemnation. With his performance today, Trump confirms the worst that has been said about him. He’s done damage to the peace of his country. What a revolting day in America.

What stubborn obstinacy exists within Donald Trump that makes him unable to do the sensible thing, to follow the path of least resistance, time and time again? Trump knows that his every statement and every tweet will be parsed by the media, many of whom are actively antagonistic to his agenda (see CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta’s preening, virtue-signalling battle with Stephen Miller over immigration at a recent press briefing). So why feed them more ammunition? Surely Trump knows that given widespread concerns about his attitudes to race, he needs to be whiter than white (if you’ll pardon the pun)?

More importantly, Trump should realise that criticisms of identity politics from his administration and other conservatives will be even less likely to get a fair hearing than would otherwise be the case, so long as he refuses to condemn white nationalist violence with the same zeal that he criticises violence committed by other identitarian movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Maybe somebody smarter than me can come up with a better and less worrying theory as to why Trump deliberately avoided the path of least resistance when making his statement. But to my mind, the only reason the president would refuse to explicitly condemn white nationalist violence – when he knew that the entire country was watching and waiting for him to do so – is because there is a certain constituency he is sufficiently keen to keep on-side that he is willing take the political hit for issuing a mealy-mouthed, non-specific condemnation of the violence in Charlottesville.

There is an exceedingly unpleasant subgroup within Donald Trump’s support base that holds utterly abhorrent views which need to be acknowledged and confronted, not just by ordinary grassroots conservatives or sycophantic GOP politicians but by Trump himself. And every day that the president fails to denounce that racist element, what little moral authority he has left will continue to ebb away.

 

Charlottesville protest - Unite the Right - white supremacists salute

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Tales From The Safe Space, Part 55 – Lena Dunham And Toxic Left Wing Call-Out Culture

Lena Dunham - social justice call out culture

The Regressive Left applauds when an overwhelmingly privileged “woke” celebrity shames and reports two off-duty service employees after taking offence at their private conversation

Lena Dunham, creator and star of the execrable television series Girls – and now seemingly a full-time social justice warrior – has form when it comes to policing both the internet and the real world for any instances of conservative thoughtcrime or failure to subscribe to the new progressive orthodoxy on various social justice issues.

To summarise: Lena Dunham was walking through the arrivals hall at JFK airport in New York when she allegedly overheard two off-duty American Airlines flight attendants having a private conversation about their views on the issue of transgenderism. During the course of this conversation, the flight attendants apparently agreed with one another that transgenderism is “gross” and that they would “never accept a trans child”.

(Note: Lena Dunham also has form when it comes to telling outright falsehoods, making her account of this supposed conversation immediately questionable).

And so naturally Lena Dunham did what any self-respecting, censorious young social justice warrior with a huge social media presence is honour-bound to do – she tweeted her shock at having heard opinions expressed which contradicted her own, shamed the unknown flight attendants and demanded that American Airlines re-educate their employees to ensure that such spontaneous acts of independent thought never again occur during the course of a private conversation between off-duty employees.

Specifically, Dunham wrote in a direct message to the airline:

“I heard two female attendants walking talking about how trans kids are a trend they’d never accept a trans child and transness is gross. I think it reflects badly on uniformed employees of your company to have that kind of dialogue going on. What if a trans teen was walking behind them? Awareness starts at home but jobs can set standards of practice. Thanks for your consideration!”

First off, this is as blatant an invasion of privacy as one can imagine. While a reasonable person might expect the possibility of being overheard while having a conversation in a public place, there is no reasonable expectation that a sanctimonious “woke” celebrity would rebroadcast their conversation – which again, took place while off duty if it even happened at all – to millions of followers on social media, contact their employer to trigger an investigation and quite possibly precipitate disciplinary action including the loss of their jobs.

Assuming that Lena Dunham isn’t simply lying again, there are multiple ways that she could have handled the situation better, rather than resorting to social media shaming combined with self-aggrandisement and virtue-signalling. The simplest option would have been for Dunham herself to intervene directly and voice her disagreement with the two flight attendants. This was a public place with very little risk of a physical altercation or any of the other reasons which might discourage direct action, so there was no good reason for Dunham not to take up the issue directly with the people allegedly involved, if she was sufficiently offended.

If Dunham lacked the courage to tackle this alleged intolerance in person (which would be a bit rich given that she co-founded Lenny, a website and newsletter almost exclusively dedicated to stridently advancing social justice issues), she could also have taken the matter up with American Airlines management staff while still at JFK airport rather than airily tweeting her allegations from the comfort of home, hours later. And if she was time-pressed and unable to do so, she could still have raised the matter privately with AA and written a more considered take on the situation once the investigation had run its course rather than tweeting about it in real time.

But of course none of these options would have been remotely satisfactory for Lena Dunham, because (more than) half the point of being a social justice warrior is the thrill of wielding power over others by policing language and behaviour, and enforcing your own worldview and etiquette onto other people. Directly confronting the people with whom she had a conflict or raising the issue privately would not have given Dunham the opportunity to flaunt her right-on credentials or display her conspicuous compassion; far better to raise the issue on social media, ostensibly so that it might serve as a “teachable moment” for other corporations and service workers (but really just to maintain her SJW credentials).

Robert Tracinski of The Federalist gets to the heart of the matter:

Saying “I overheard a conversation” but giving no specifics might prompt American Airlines to send out a general notice to its employees to watch what they say while in the terminal—which is a little unsettling in itself. But giving specific information only has one purpose: to help the airline locate, identify, and punish these specific employees for holding politically incorrect views.

It’s the hashtag #acrossfromthewinebar that sent chills down my spine. Dunham is acting like an informant working for a totalitarian police state—but boastfully, in public, on social media. With a hashtag.

Undoubtedly, someone will point out that this isn’t really totalitarianism because these are all voluntary actions by private citizens and organizations, not the government. Dunham isn’t a paid stooge of the police, but a citizen acting on her own initiative. American Airlines isn’t doing this because the government told them to, but because they’re terrified of bad press. (Which they are still going to get, but from the other side.)

Yet somehow this makes it all worse, because it implies we are being trained to internalize the ethos of the police state—and to enact it voluntarily, on our own initiative, without having to be coerced. We’re building a self-enforcing police state.

Equally concerning is the fact that Lena Dunham and her SJW colleagues feel it is in any way appropriate for corporations to take it upon themselves to “train” their employees in matters outside the skills required to successfully perform the job, particularly hot-button social issues. Whereas a decade ago one could reliably find leftists railing against the power of corporations and the supposedly unfair, coercive power balance between employer and employee, now those very same leftists are screeching that big corporations are not doing enough to indoctrinate their employees with the new social justice dogma.

Of course, vesting corporations with such power is in fact highly dangerous and quite likely unconstitutional, particularly when lawsuits start to emerge where employees allege that their employer has pressured them to violate their own conscience when it comes to matters outside the workplace. Already we see this coercive behaviour taking place in some large organisations, most recently the UK’s National Trust charity and the latest scandal to envelope Google.

Conor Friedersdorf also makes this point very eloquently in The Atlantic:

I suppose it was theoretically conceivable that Dunham’s public complaint about insensitivity by low-level staffers would prompt the multinational airline to put the offending employees—or all employees—through training in “awareness” or “love and inclusivity.” But I am doubtful that it would be a good thing, on the whole, if corporations began punishing workers for what they say off-duty, or aggressively regulating or engineering not just how employees treat colleagues and customers, but their every belief. Corporations are institutions driven by profit, not moral rectitude; many often do what is good for shareholders and bad for employees or the public. Trusting them as a reliable mechanism for positive social change is short-sighted.

Not that I presume that even earnest, right-thinking corporate altruism would necessarily bear fruit. Think of your attitudes toward trans people. Would your employer be able to fundamentally change your views, whatever they are, with  compulsory education? I suspect the very people with animus of a sort that does harm would be least likely to be swayed and most likely to double down on their beliefs.

And in response to this incident, or a rising tide of working-class people being reported to corporate employers for expressing beliefs that a lurking celebrity or journalist calls out, I can imagine the imposition of new, onerous, generally applied restrictions on where uniformed flight attendants can socialize with one another in airports, or whether uniformed retail employees are allowed a quick cell-phone conversation inside the mall while on break. Asking myself who that new regime would most harm, the answer is marginalized people; pondering who would find it easiest to navigate, the answer is creative professionals like Lena Dunham and me; we attended colleges that prepared us to navigate the elite’s social norms, and we don’t wear uniforms in public that identify our corporate bosses to eavesdropping strangers.

Ultimately this speaks to the paternalistic role that the progressive Left envisage for government and anyone else in positions of authority. First, these key institutions are to be fully captured by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, and then they are to be leveraged to enforce the same uniform dogma relating to sexuality, gender theory and everything else.

Rod Dreher has also sounded the alarm about this phenomenon:

I know a man who is a senior manager at a major corporation. He is also a Christian. Every year during Pride Month, for the past few years, the human resources department at the firm has been after employees to declare themselves “allies” of the LGBT cause. This man has never done so, because he would consider it a violation of his conscience. He is scrupulously fair in his dealings with his employees, both gay and straight, and would also consider it a violation of his conscience to discriminate in the workplace against his gay employees. He is afraid that the day will come when his refusal to declare himself on the LGBT issue will be viewed negatively within the corporation, and it will damage or end his career there.

This is not paranoia. McCarthyism did not end with McCarthy.

The very real danger is that within a relatively short space of time, it may become impossible for people to avoid withholding their most deeply held personal and religious beliefs from their employer, precisely because people like Lena Dunham insist that corporations act as a co-equal auxiliary parent, together with the state, to both educate their employees in the ways of progressive dogma and then to secure their active participation in advancing the agenda.

If you think that this is ridiculous conservative scaremongering, just take a quick peek inside the mind of someone who occupies a senior position in the entrepreneurial-tech world:

Fortunately, Joshua McKenty’s vision of a “directory of known misogynists and racists, used to avoid hiring or contracting” would likely fall foul of the US constitution. But you can be sure that McKenty’s fellow ideologues will push in that direction as far as the law will possibly allow, given half the chance. And what of those of us who do not live in the United States under the protection of the US Constitution? What is to stop multinational firms with offices in Britain, where there is no written constitution, from demanding positive affirmation of progressive social policies from their employees?

And so what starts as just another Twitter-based hissy fit from Lena Dunham is in fact only the tip of the iceberg. It certainly doesn’t help when “woke” celebrities abuse their vast social media platforms to shame working and middle class service workers who dare to express outdated or unfashionable opinions, but that is not the real threat.

The real danger comes when corporations and private citizens no longer have to be bullied by the likes of Lena Dunham into acting as enforcers of the social justice movement, because they choose to do so willingly.

 

Safe Space Notice - 2

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.