As my readers know, I’m a big Dreher-ist. I have a huge amount of admiration for the Rod Dreher, both professionally and personally. His book The Benedict Option is the single biggest influence on my book The Reactionary Mind. When his latest book Live Not By Lies came out last year, I gave it a very positive review.
For those who don’t know, Live Not By Lies has two theses. Actually, it’s more like two short books combined into one normal-sized book. Part One talks about the rise of soft totalitarianism, largely under the guise of woke capitalism. Part Two compares our own “soft” totalitarianism to the “hard” totalitarianism suffered by those who lived under the heel of Soviet communism.
In my opinion, Part One is much stronger than Part Two. I thought the parallels between these “soft” and “hard” totalitarianisms—though certainly interesting and somewhat instructive—fell a bit short.
Well, Rod’s spending a month in Hungary as a fellow of the Danube Institute, a conservative think-tank run by my old boss and mentor John O’Sullivan. And we can readily forgive Rod for indulging in a bit of Hungarophilia while he’s in Budapest. But the more I read his dispatches at his blog for The American Conservative (which everyone should read, every day), the more I suspect that he’s looking at American politics too narrowly through the lens of communism in Eastern Europe.
I. Revolutions and Restorations
My critique of Dreher is rooted, I think, in my disillusionment with Edmund Burke.
Now, I really like Burke, too. Just not for the reason conservatives like him. I appreciate what he says about the need for Church and State to act in concert, in order to impress a “wholesome awe” upon the citizens. (Most of the Founding Fathers, especially John Adams, roundly agreed.) But his analysis of the French Revolution is pretty much useless.
Reading Burke, you get the sense that the Jacobins just came out of nowhere. Everything was great in Frogland until a bunch of yuppies read Rousseau and decided to cut the heads off their lovely king. It’s inexplicable! Everything was going so well until, all of a sudden, this Robespierre character appeared and started guillotining all the aristocrats.
As a repp-stripped Young Republican, I accepted Burle’s reading implicitly. I never thought to question his diabolus ex machina theory of the French Revolution.
Then I began reading two very disparate thinkers: Hilaire Belloc and Joseph de Maistre. Despite their (many, many) differences, Belloc and Maistre are both French Catholic monarchists. Both championed the Middle Ages and criticized the Enlightenment. Both also felt the French Revolution was inevitable, even necessary.
Needless to say, both also abhorred the Jacobins’ excesses. But Maistre saw the Jacobins as as “God’s scourge” (to quote Fra Girolamo). He believed that Providence was using the Revolution to punish the French elite for their corruption, greed, decadence, and impiety. Belloc, meanwhile felt that the French Revolution was actually a sort of counter-revolution: a revolt of the reactionary serfs against the progressive aristocracy who sought to take away their feudal rights and privileges.
Ultimately, both agreed that Louis and his courtiers had it coming.
That’s why I balk now when I read Burke. Only a foreigner—a Whig, like Burke—could valorize the Ancien Régime. These are the sissies who whizzed on the floor and made their servants clean it up. They formed secret societies where members crawled around on the ground wearing dog collars and kissed statues of pugs on the butt. They competed with each other for the privilege of helping the king put on his underwear.
Bear in mind, all of this was going on while the old peasants were starving outside their windows. The aristocracy used land grabs and tax hikes to finance their decadent lifestyle while sending the children of those starving peasants to die fighting their old enemy, England, in far-flung climes like America.
The Church should have been the first to call out these excesses. In Blighty, for instance, Catholic peasants launched the Pilgrimage of Grace as a sort of counter-revolution. They were opposed to impious, abusive liberal oligarchs like Henry VIII and his courtiers. But seeing as every single bishop was a nobleman in the time of Louis XVI, the Church was firmly on the side of those impious, abusive liberal oligarchs.
In a word, the Ancien Régime was awful. Once it was gone, no true Frenchman really missed it—not even a diehard royalist like Maistre.
Of course, one needn’t go so far as Belloc and actually praise the Jacobins. We might simply follow Ralph Adams Cram in distinguishing between the Renaissance monarchies (which “were so obviously out of key with the fundamental principles of justice and liberty”) and “the free kingship of the Middle Ages.”
Yes, the Ancien Régime failed by the standards of a liberal democrat. But it also failed by the standards of a Catholic monarchy.
This is something that Burke clearly didn’t understand. And it’s a real shame that Anglo-American conservatives have never been able to see past his narrow, sentimental vision of Versailles. We really do seem to think that revolutions just come out of nowhere—that a bunch of happy serfs watched a play by Voltaire and then decided to go out and burn the country down.
The French Revolution wasn’t caused by bad ideas. The bad ideas were only a symptom. The French Revolution was caused by failed elites.
It’s the same with every other revolution in history. The Russian, the Vietnamese, the Chinese: you name it. All were illegitimate responses to legitimate grievances. You just can’t convince that many people to kill and die for an abstract theory. The human instinct for self-preservation is too strong. That’s why, among all the bishops of England under Henry VIII, only one—St. John Fisher—died for the faith.
Really, Burke gave too much credit to human nature. Most of us aren’t brave enough to give our lives for a cause just because we happen to think it’s a just cause. We only fight when our backs are against the wall.
That should be obvious to intelligent conservatives and thoughtful Christians, if no one else. We’re the ones who are always going on about original sin, the principle of imperfectability, etc. And yet, whenever we hear the word revolution, we think of Burke weeping over the death of Marie Antoinette, crying: “The Age of Chivalry is gone, and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever!”
I mean, Jean II led his troops into the Battle of Poitiers swinging a maul over his head. The Age of Chivalry died was gone when the King of France started rocking up to orgies in high heels and a powdered wig.
II. Our Recreational Revolution
No, revolutions don’t fall out of thin air. But I’m afraid that Rod has the same blind spot as Ed Burke. He doesn’t see that revolutions have to come from something.
And, whatever else you want to say about the unrest in the US of A, that’s not true of our country. The woke are not responding to a legitimate grievance. Ours is a purely recreational revolution.
Look at the facts. Americans vastly overestimate how often unarmed black men are killed by the police. We vastly overestimate both how many LGBT people there are in this country and how often they suffer homophobic or transphobic violence. Identity politics is built on a narrative of grievance, but that narrative isn’t supported by the facts.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. don’t exist. And I hope it goes without saying that hating someone for the color of their skin or their sexual proclivities is wrong. It’s un-Christian. And I don’t know any conservative or Christian who would disagree.
But identity politics as a mass movement is predicated on a belief in some “systemic injustice” that doesn’t actually exist. And while ordinary leftists might not know that, someone high up in the progressive oligarchy is making up these lies.
Rod might grant that today’s revolutionaries “live by lies,” and yet point out that the violence it’s generating is all too real. Take the BLM riots, for instance.
I would only point out that the rioters experienced absolutely no resistance from law enforcement. At no point did our municipal, state, or federal governments try to quell the unrest caused by the death of George Floyd. And when the protestors did face some resistance, they broke ranks pretty quickly.
Case in point: Watch a video of some Antifa goons attacking some ProudBoy goons. At first, Antifa outnumbers the ProudBoys ten to one. Even then, as soon as the ProudBoys start fighting back, the Antifa guys scatter like hyenas. This isn’t a hardened vanguard we’re talking about. They’re opportunists, looters, and thugs.
Now, as I’ve pointed out before, most every revolution ends up falling into the thrall of some greedy sadists like our friends at Antifa. But those greedy sadists only attract followers if they can exploit a legitimate grievance. Hitler and Mao couldn’t have come to power unless there was serious, widespread desperation among the German and Chinese people. That desperation simply doesn’t exist in America.
Just the opposite, in fact. Americans are the most pampered, privileged people in the history of the world. In fact, we’re so comfortable that we pay people to make our lives more difficult. We’ve freed ourselves from manual labor… only to spend our leisure hours at the gym, picking up heavy blocks of metal and then putting them back down. That, to us, is a legitimate hobby. Which is mad.
But this disconnect between the modernity we were promised and the modernity we were granted is hugely frustrating. We see the year 2021 as the consummation of all human history, only to find that it’s actually pretty dull.
No, Americans are not oppressed. We’re just bored. We have no friends and no family. We don’t drink and we don’t smoke. We don’t have hobbies; we don’t even have sex. We, as a civilization, have nothing going for us. We’re the basement-dwelling neckbeards of the human race. It’s just Netflix and Pornhub for us, day in and day out.
So, what do we do with ourselves? Well, we watch Netflix shows about prepubescent strippers. (Empowering!) Sometimes, we watch gay porn on the ‘Hub. (Edgy!) If we get really desperate, we pay some quack doctor a bunch of money to cut off our penis. (Stunning and brave!) We tweet our solidarity with the thugs and looters who are “prosecuting racial justice” by looting corner stores and Fifth Ave shops.
Why? Because we know that none of it will effect us. We don’t know the Lebanese immigrant in Minneapolis whose family’s deli was torched by rioters. And the good people of Gucci won’t complain if one of their stores is ransacked by SJWs. They can take the hit, as long as it’s for The Cause.
Really, the oligarchs are as bored as we are. They have more money than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes. That’s why they, too, spend all their free time on Netflix and Pornhub. It’s the great equalizer.
III. The United States of Amazon
This is why I take Part One of Live Not By Lies and swap out Part Two for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
If America ever becomes a totalitarian state, there will be no violent revolution. If we’re watching for a Bolshevik-style coup, we’re going to miss the real signs of immanent tyranny.
If America ever becomes a totalitarian state, it will be cheered on by our sluggish bourgeoise. We’ll happily go along with any far-left agenda—so long as we get to keep our Netflix and Pornhub. We’ll gladly turn over the country’s entire economy to Jeff Bezos—so long as he makes good on his free two-day shipping.
Our new tyrants only need to fit three criteria. (A) They have to be boring. No sudden movements, now. (B) They have to be woke, but they can’t demand anything from us. We will be “performatively woke,” but that’s it. We’ll post their hashtags and show up to their sensitivity training—hey, it beats working!—but nothing more. (C) They can’t interrupt our WiFi connection. That one is strictly non-negotiable.
But here’s another thing. I don’t think these New Totalitarians would necessarily belong to some malicious, shadowy conspiracy. Look at how popular the idea of a Universal Basic Income has become in just two or three years.
We’ve given all the good jobs to machines and/or outsourced them to China, and so most of us simply don’t need to work anymore. We don’t make anything useful; we’re not integral to the supply-chain. Then a nice-looking, well-meaning brainbox like Andrew Yang comes along and proposes a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Basically, he offers to put our Netflix subscription on the government’s tab. How can we refuse? Why should we refuse?
It’s like Wendell Berry said: “The great question that hovers over this issue, one that we have dealt with mainly by indifference, is the question of what people are for. Is their greatest dignity in unemployment? Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal?” The modern man replies: Why, yes, of course!
While I don’t think he’s evil, Mr. Yang bothers me more than BLM and Antifa. He bothers me exactly because I don’t think he has a whiff of malice in his body. He clearly thinks he’s helping people—and people clearly think his UBI would help them. They would rather be gainfully unemployed than work some bullshit job for their measly keep.
But if/when America gets a UBI, our last tether will be cut. We’ll be completely submerged in the artificial reality. Our entire experience of life will be conditioned by Big Brother, whether he’s dressed in the blue blazer of Big Government or the pinstripes of Big Business.
Maybe Rod would agree with me here. I’m certainly grateful that he’s using his platform to warn about the (totally legitimate) dangers of “soft” totalitarianism.
But by talking so much about Hungarian communists, I’m afraid the image he’s actually putting into people’s heads is one of hard totalitarianism. I wonder how much of his book’s appeal is based on his drawing connections between the old USSR and the modern Left. I’m afraid he’s offering comfort to those who cling to that stale, Cold-War paradigm of American conservatism.
If so, I’m sure he doesn’t mean to! But only because I believe so strongly in his message do I want to be sure that it’s communicated as effectively as possible. He sounds the alarm about this Brave New World, and yet the picture he paints is more 1984.
IV. The Reactionary Imperative
The good news is that American conservatives are finally beginning to think beyond merely preserving the status quo, or even the status quo ante. Dreher himself recently penned a glowing review of a column by Ross Douthat; Rod’s post was called “The Rational Reactionary.” It riffs off one of Douthat’s asides: “In the end, conservatives need to believe the things they love can flourish within the liberal order, and it isn’t irrational to turn reactionary if things you thought you were conserving fall away.”
Yes: the reactionary is one who looks for a restoration rather than a mere conservation. He doesn’t care at all about preserving the status quo; he’s repulsed by even the faintest whiff of historicism. He takes no stock in the Burkean idea that “progress” is good, so long as it’s gradual and not “disruptive.” Because the reactionary doesn’t take progress for granted. If politics is a pencil, he’s just as deft with the eraser as he is with the tip.
But what is it, exactly, that he’s trying to restore? Why, the adventure, of course!
As we said, the big problem with modernity is that it doesn’t work. And because it doesn’t work, it generates an unprecedented amount of anger and discontent. We are (in theory) the most hedonistic society in history, but also (in practice) the most miserable.
The great god Progress promised us unlimited ease, pleasure, and freedom. Well, he didn’t deliver. So, we have two choices: (A) we foreswear the Church of Progress and return to our ancient traditions, or (B) we double down. Our faith in Progress grows even more zealous. We become more modern than ever before.
I sincerely believe that, in time, we’ll opt for “A.” But I think we have to suffer through a bit more of “B” before we get to that point. We have to pour a little more water on the grease fire before we realize that it’s not going to put it out. Eventually, though, we’ll smarten up.
And what will the Counter-Revolution look like? Well, Maistre said, “What is needed is not a revolution in the opposite direction, but the opposite of a revolution.” The opposite of revolution.
The revolution is showy. It draws attention to itself. The Counter-Revolution will be subtle, almost imperceptible. It will be fought, not with guns and pamphlets, but with the ordinary witness of men and women who lead profoundly ordinary lives.
They will be profound because they won’t see life as an adventure to be embraced—not an inconvenience to be minimized, as the moderns do. The great John Senior once spoke of an “air-conditioned holocaust”: man’s maddening and futile attempt to make life so simple that he may as well be dead. Teddy Roosevelt lamented “those poor souls who neither enjoy much nor suffer much.” Peter Vierek referred to our “morally illiterate culture of unhappy and untragic pleasure-seekers.” The reactionary bravely embraces both joy and suffering, both happiness and tragedy, knowing that one must always accompany the other.
They will be ordinary because they will follow the traditions and taboos that modern men dismiss as fusty and fogeyish. They will gladly accept their role (however small) in God’s great plan for salvation. They’ll have a damn good time doing it, too, and their witness will be irresistible.
“Look at those guys! The men are hunting and fishing… Their fingernails are dirty… They’re throwing toddlers up in the air, and catching them, and laughing… They’re drinking and smoking… Now they’re playing the guitar and singing… And none of them are on their phones…
“Hey, it looks like they’re reading the Bible… Now they’re praying the rosary… And the ladies seem to be having just as much fun as the men… Jeez, they’ve all got wedding rings, and they’re so young… But they’re holding hands and passing babies back and forth…”
Yeah, that’s what we do. Come on and join us.
“Ehh, I don’t know. .. I have to watch some interracial rape porn and then mow down some Nazi Zombies on CoD…”
No, don’t do that. That’s stupid and gross. Come hang out with us.
“Are you sure…?”
Yeah, absolutely We all came from somewhere, brother.
It’s not that hard. Not really.
Live a good life, and invite others to do the same. The best argument you can give is your example. Monogamy is hard, but it’s more fun than Tinder. Raising kids is hard, but it’s more fun than the Pill. Male friendship is hard, but it’s more fun than video games. Playing music is hard, but it’s more fun than Spotify. Loving God is hard, but it’s more fun than living without Him.
Now, let’s be clear: these things are good even if (or when) they don’t give us pleasure. But we live in the most hedonistic society in the history of the world, and—by happy coincidence—a traditional lifestyle renders more pleasure than Netflix, Pornhub, and Prime put together. (Believe me, babies are better than fur babies.) So, why not press home our advantage?
The Counter-Revolution will be fought, not by a hardened foco, but by happy warriors. We need do nothing but live our best lives and hope others will follow our lead.
This is how we bring down the revolutionary paradigm. We utterly refuse to use the word “systemic.” We seize our unconditional right to be happy, good, and free.
Just give people that out. That’s the reactionary imperative. Lead a life that’s worth living, and let every man do the same.