Verwoerd’s revenge

Update: They removed the affinity groups from the public page.

I don’t write much about the culture war because it seems that one side won, and it’s not my side. If my side is going to win, it won’t be through arguing. In the early 9th century the Patriarch of the Church of the East in Bagdhad had to defend Christianity in the court of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Obviously, he had to tread lightly. This was not a debate he was going to win. The goal was not to lose too badly. This is where I feel the ‘non-woke’ faction among cultural elites is. Just not losing is the victory. But in the long run, the Church of the East went into decline. If you even feign the shahada, the punishment for apostasy is social death.

So I don’t try to argue in public. Resistance needs to be in private because public attention is an invitation to get targeted.

But sometimes something so ridiculous comes on my radar that it warrants public comment.

Over at Bari Weiss’ Substack, she posted a piece from a teacher at an elite private school, I Refuse to Stand By While My Students Are Indoctrinated. This part jumped out at me:

Recently, I raised questions about this ideology at a mandatory, whites-only student and faculty Zoom meeting. (Such racially segregated sessions are now commonplace at my school.)

This seems crazy to me. Racial segregation? I wondered on Twitter how common this sort of thing is. It must be an aberration, no? Well, a friend who is faculty at Michigan State screenshotted an email he received (this is on a public page too).


I’m going to blockquote a portion if you don’t want to click to enlarge:

We invite attendees to participate in an affinity group during the Student Success Spring Conference. Affinity (or caucus) groups provide spaces for people to work within their own identity groups. To advance racial equity, there is work for white people and people of color to do separately and together. For white people, an affinity group provides time and space to work explicitly and intentionally on understanding white culture and white privilege and to increase one’s critical analysis around these concepts. For people of color, a caucus is a place to work with peers to address the impact of racism, to interrupt experiences of internalized racism, and to create a space for healing and working for individual and collective liberation.

If you are “woke” you see nothing wrong with this I assume. And that’s fine, we understand each other. On the Last Day, we’re on different sides. There’s no possibility of meeting in the middle.  No compromise. I’m marked as to who I am. You know me as an enemy or friend, and there’s really no ambiguity about that. And I will know some of you too! I call you friend now sincerely, but on the Last Day I’ll show you as much loyalty as I’ve received from you.

But what about the rest? There are many academics who find these racial affinity groups disturbing. But they are busy with research. Do they need the hassle of speaking out about these things? Enough. As my friend who sent me the screenshot said: this is being complicit. Other academic friends tell me there is a “hidden majority.” If there is, you are all weak cowards. You count for nothing. The insanity marches and you avert your eyes. Why are you devoting your life to truth, while not confronting the abomination suffocating your institutions? This is evil.

Evil is a strong word. Some of you who are not woke, but moderate, may argue like Abraham haggling with the angels that there is some righteousness in Sodom and Gomorrah. My feelings here are quite personal. I have small children of mixed racial backgrounds. Though the infractions are minor, we’ve encountered strange things in regards to the race of my children. Both my wife and I have been disturbed by requests to clarify our children’s racial identity by school authorities. The only way I can explain what’s going on is it’s like being a Jew in 1980’s Northern Ireland and being asked if your children are Protestant or Catholic. We’re not Christian, and race isn’t super important to our identities (unlike some people). Being asked even implicitly is an imposition and we don’t appreciate our children be asked to racialize themselves (I’m being politic, we were enraged).

But the real problem I have is the white affinity groups. I am not happy with the “people of color” affinity groups either, but in some way, these have been around since the 1960’s. The emergence of white affinity groups seems a nod to the re-racialization of society as the explicit text. The fundamental issue is simple: I do not want white people to think about their race. I do not want white people to think of themselves in racial terms. The history of white Americans thinking in racialized terms is not good for people who look like me. These fools are going to get us killed!

Taking activists who are nonwhite at their word rather than self-interest, they believe white examination and embrace of their racial identity will allow for true anti-racism and justice. My rejoinder is simple: you put far too much faith in the innate goodness of these white people. My wife’s grandparents were good people, yes, but I know for a fact they were opposed to integration. They were good people, but of their time. Most people conform and follow the spirit of the times. Don’t tempt fate to think you can tame the snake of racial identity. It’s evil among all races and all people. It is always with us, but it is sin. As a brown-skinned minority in a majority-white country, I do not want white people to think in racial terms.

More concretely I cannot tolerate resegregation in this country. It would separate me from those who I care about most in the world. It would possibly separate my own children from each other. Today their differences of complexion are matters of happenstance. Perhaps in the future, it would be more important? When on Sesame Street a character says “The color of our skin is an important part of who we are” I feel a cold wind blowing. The context is much more innocuous than some have made it out to be, but for some of us, skin color is an accident.

As a quick aside, this is where some white nationalists freak out and declare “see, his mask has slipped, he’s anti-white!” Fools, I’m brown. My opposition to your kind is on my skin. I was always against you, just like I’m against the Critical Race Theory Bolsheviks. I see you two as the same thing. I always have. I’m a brown-skinned man whose ancestors took the alien name Khan and adopted a foreign religion. I have relatives across the world as we scatter. My whole lineage screams cosmopolitan. It has for hundreds of years. This is my nature, constitutive to me. Since the Axial Age there have been symbol-manipulators who transcend nations and bind peoples together ideologically. That is me and my kind.

The way I differ from some of my kind is I do not expect most humans to be like this, nor do I think it is feasible that we should force others to be like us. Human societies need to operate at some sort of equilibrium so that extreme cosmopolitans (like me) and extreme localists can coexist. The liberal democratic compromises of the late 20th century were good. They established an equipoise for a pluralistic society. What is happening now is cultural radicalism is destroying the social capital and trust that liberalism needs to survive and persist. Once the capital is exhausted people will fall back on other identities. Religion is one possibility. But race is another.

And that is why I think complicity with racially segregated groups is horrible and evil. Most people have no deep beliefs. They have shallow conformities. It’s best not to reawaken affinities and identities that have been submerged and sublimated.

Finally, the universities need to account for themselves. The public fisc will face more stress in the near future. Those of us who feel persecuted by the radicalism bred on these campuses need to stop arguing with the new commissars and ask why we’re subsidizing their livelihood. We need change the course of history or it will run us over. This is not a plea. This is a fact.

29

Cancellation will lead to clan

Over 25 years ago I read Daughter of the Empire, a political fantasy that prefigured elements of the “grimdark” genre. The protagonist was involved in various machinations where she had to sacrifice aspects of her humanity so that she, and her house, could survive in an amoral game of competition between nobles in the Empire of Kelawan. One of the plot points is that she makes a “calls to clan,” the clan being a collection of noble houses united by notional descent from a common ancestor. Because she has to fight another house that is far more powerful, she makes the appeal to those who are part of her lineage group to come to her aid. The other houses normally are reluctant to intervene, and there are all sorts of manipulations required to prompt the other houses to show solidarity with her.

Nevertheless, the idea exists that a group of houses bound together by kinship, fictive or real, operate as a unit against common external threats.

This is not hard to understand in terms of why these phenomena develop.

Recently, one of my readers at Brown Pundits has been vocal on Indian political events, which have gotten heated. Though he is American, he has family in India, and there has been an instance of social media harassment (or at least contact) with his cousin in that country, relating to his political views (and apparently some accusations of anti-Sikh prejudice on his part). The motives here are not important. The point is that my reader spoke out as an individual, and that has triggered a collective and coordinated action.

One of the implications of The WEIRDest People in the World is that the individualistic social context of the West must rely on rules and norms, rather than interpersonal relationships that extend to lineage groups. But, this means that there must be some element of fairness in meting out punishment.

What if punishment and attacks are capricious? What if they come en masse from a group against an individual? Over ten years ago there were issues relating to Barack Obama’s relationship to Jeremiah Wright, and some liberal journalists on an e-list were thinking about how they should defend Obama. One journalist basically proposed going on offense:

I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It’s not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright’s defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.

A decade out this seems high-minded as it serves some purpose. The reality is the way “cancellation” works today is that there is an element of capriciousness involved. There’s a positive feedback loop as major players send their “forces” against nobodies for no reason, except that the mob needs to feed. As an example of this senselessness, consider what happened to a college student in South Dakota, when a bunch of young adult fiction authors and various influencers attacked her on specious grounds. You Google her and this ridiculous controversy comes up, which basically struck her like lightning.

The problem is that people face these forces and coordinated attacks as individuals. What if that woman had a lineage group, a clan, who she could rely on that? The clan, in its turn, could seek out cyber and reputational revenge against those who attacked her. Of course, this sort of behavior erodes the norms and social capital which allows for a high trust society, but I don’t think it’s feasible for individuals to keep worrying that they’ll get sucked into the undertow and take reputational hits indefinitely. For example, I know an academic who is a conservative who donated to Donald J. Trump. Though passions have cooled, he found out last fall that some of his neighbors were thinking about making his political views an issue, likely attacking his reputation and asserting he was a racist and a fascist. Should he just accept this? The neighbors have numbers on their side and feel they can act with impunity. They won’t suffer any reputational damage or feel discomfort. But every action has an opposite and equal reaction.

Perhaps to maintain some semblance of our current culture we should take steps toward more explicit pillarisation.

+3

When the divine becomes the devlish

Over at his blog Rod Dreher has posted an email exchange we had with the title Razib Khan, Anti-Woke Mage Of Old Religion.

Blog-on-blog interaction. Feeling a 2005 vibe!

So here’s the context: I’ve been online for twenty years and have a “name” or “reputation”, and people approach me for advice a lot. If you’re surprised, trust me, I am too. This wasn’t a life aspiration of mine, I just kind of “fell into it.” Most people who read this weblog are aware of the nature of the cultural change over the past generation. In certain institutions and careers, people have to be very careful of what they say and exposing what they believe. They don’t feel they can trust anyone, but, they do feel that they can trust me. I can put people “in touch” who are “safe” close at hand because many people tell me what they “really believe.”

Last week I put a “blind item” out:

Once there is a reasonable gap in time I feel more comfortable saying things like this. For example, the far-left socialist who has more 50,000 Twitter followers who sent me a gushing fan message on Facebook in 2008, can you guess who that is? I won’t say!

In any case, who the person above is is immaterial. The person is influential among the high-middle-brow intelligentsia, and I think that’s a good thing. But Rod messaged me and asked what I was trying to say here. What did I mean “crypto-pagan” and “Christian”?

What I don’t mean is pagan and Christian in any literal sense. I speak in coded and cryptic terms that are clear to anyone who has eyes and awareness but is hidden to the blind. Some people follow me because of an interest in evolution and genetics have conventional liberal-left views. Obviously, I don’t mind offending people, but the outraged and over-wrought responses are tiresome, and engaging with people I am cordial with takes time and energy when our priors are so incredibly different that useful conversation is impossible (e.g., “cancel culture” is a myth, and clearly the people who reach out to me are “frauds who don’t exist”). So I have found if I speak in historical analogies these people simply shrug and move on since they don’t know enough history to make heads or tails of what I’m saying. In contrast, those who are “woke” to the intellectual conformity that many chafe under often become aware over time exactly what I’m talking about, and appreciate what I’m trying to get at (I have DMs to prove this).

These sorts of exercises do cause false positives. A prominent conservative writer unfollowed me immediately after I talked proudly of being an “out” pagan, who stood against the ascendent tyranny of the Christians. Similarly, when I use analogies to the Indian caste system while talking about something totally different, I routinely get unfollows from Indians who are following but offended that I’m talking about India…even though I’m not talking about India at all.

The fundamental issue is when you have many people who read you, you want to speak in a different register to different people. So this sort of “language game” becomes highly useful. It is, after a fashion, using the “master’s tools against the master.”

Finally, this strategy is a concession that my naivete about “information wanting to be free” which is a hold-over from the 1990s is no longer something I hold to. There may not be an Inner Party, but there should be.

Addendum: Some of you may want to know exactly the sort of moments where people get “woke” and then reach out to me. In 2018 a graduate student in population genetics in a prominent lab read David Reich’s op-ed in The New York Times. They were relatively new to the field, but they agreed with the thrust of the op-ed. Their own projects involved human population genetics. They were shocked and confused when many (though not all) of their colleagues denounced the op-ed, with some casting aspersions at Reich’s mastery of the subject matter. The question that went through their head: were they insane, or was everyone around them lying?

I am quite aware that this person’s mentor is very “woke” (I use quotes for a reason) privately, but in public, they present as you would expect. Their ideological beliefs in this area were as vigorous and sincere as Ausonius’ Christianity. The graduate student reached out to me, and my “circle”, and we confirmed that yes, they were not insane. The old gods were real, and the pagan rites were true. The salvation that their colleagues proclaimed was just a damnation of the mind. Mind you, I did counsel taqiya. There are others who venerate Ali that I know still in academia. There is no need to become Husayn.

+3

On the varieties of Marxism

Democrats’ Georgia Hopes Rest on Jon Ossoff, 33. How Did He Get Here? He’s rich. That’s it. No need to read the piece, that’s all it is. Yes, he has other attributes, but his main qualification is that he is from the leisure class. You knew that before you read the piece. This is not a huge ideological point. George W. Bush was from a wealthy and well-connected family. He had other attributes, but without the financial and social capital, he would have gone nowhere in life probably judging by his dissolute middle period.

It doesn’t really matter if you are a partisan. Ossoff will vote with the Democrats. That’s the reason to vote for him if you are a Democrat, and against him, if you are a Republican. For many years Nancy Pelosi has been one of the wealthiest members of Congress (#3 in 2018), and she’s led the Democrats without any problem.

The Democratic party is the party of the economic left. The base and the members of Congress are to the left of the average Democrat. But, as David Shor pointed out, the Democratic leadership and base are much further left in relation to the average Democrat on cultural issues. The Democrats have gotten some serious policies predicated on their economic liberalism (e.g., ACA). But, on the whole, that is small-ball in comparison to other left parties the world over.

Time’s up!

But on cultural topics things are different. Right now some stupid person is denigrating the classics as white male and worthless, etc. The usual. I still see academics use the term “Latinx” in places like The New York Times even though it’s ridiculous and opposed by the people who it purports to describe. Through the capture of media, academia, and in alliance with the corporate and governmental bureaucracy, the left is rearranging and modifying our language and categories. To be frank, I feel they are engaging in an inverted rectification of the names; attempting to make reality conform to names.

A left materialist critique of this pattern is that this is neoliberal co-option of the class struggle and transmutation of it into something that capital can control and leverage. It’s idealism. The people stay poor, but they are given the opium of the ideals of antiracism. I have right-libertarian friends who agree in some ways with this critique, but they look positively on it. They are more fearful of distortion of the market process that materialist leftists would engage in, rather than ransacking our cultural categories.

So what would you pick: Canadian single-payer healthcare with Shakespeare or no Shakespeare without single-payer? It’s a stupid contrast but it cuts to the heart of the issue. I think there are people on the right who are so well-off due to their position within capital that the rise of cultural barbarism does not concern them. They are in their gated community. What would you prefer, that they come for your tax bracket or your soul? Perhaps it depends on what bracket you’re in and if you can buy a soul.

+2

To my sons: be a man as Poitier is!


The death of Olivia de Havilland made me very sad. For many years I had tracked the passing of various “Golden Age” movie stars. I myself don’t remember this period, but their fame and films haunted the last decades of the 20th century. These were the artistic ‘classics’ of my youth, and the human witness of that period decayed and dying in their turn, one by one.

Of the very oldest there seems to me to be three prominent women and one prominent man now that remain aliive. Of the former, Eva Marie Saint, June Lockhart, and Angela Lansberry (I date Betty White’s real fame to a much later phase in her career). And then, there is Sidney Poitier.

Poitier has always held a special place in my heart. As a small child, I remember watching his films such as To Sir, With Love, and Lillies of the Field, with great interest. Poitier was a striking figure, a black man with very dark skin who modeled a sort of dignified and earnest Western manliness. Unlike black actors such as Harry Belafonte, Poitier’s visage exhibited no glimmer of Europe. His very appearance was unapologetically black with no compromises. But his mien, his bearing, was universal and admirable, reaching out across the chasm of external difference, bringing home the common virtues which bind us.

The 21st century

In this way, he exemplified a particular conservative and traditional attitude toward race and culture which I have always been personally sympathetic to. Integration into the fabric of society as a man on his own terms, rather than separation as a people apart.

That was always my goal. Whether I succeeded or not is a different matter, though that might be due to my own eccentricities rather than the broader culture.

I am the father of two young sons. Men who will grow up in this century, nurtured by its cultures, tempered by its traumas. I worry about them. And yet sometimes I think of someone like Poitier, who experienced a level of racism simply due to his physical appearance that we couldn’t even imagine, and yet who became something of a role model and figure of admiration, even to brown children of immigrants new to this country.

Let your bearing be reverent when you are at leisure, be respectfully attentive in managing affairs, and be loyal towards others. Though you be among barbarians, these may never be cast aside.

+3

Men and women really don’t differ in the generality on abortion

Many years ago I wrote an op-ed which reported the simple and obvious fact that there isn’t a difference between men and women when it comes to abortion as a policy issue. The only reason that the op-ed was written is that the media seem to be under the impression that women are more pro-choice than men. Not really.

Now that abortion is in the news again I thought I’d check the GSS to see if anything had changed in the last few cycles. As you can see, nothing much has (perhaps a tilt toward more support for abortion rights?). Also, the plot above should make it clear: men and women seem to change their opinions in sync. Basically there is broad social consensus impacting both sexes.

The correlation between the two series over the years is 0.83. So your eyes aren’t lying.

+2

Twitter and the rise and fall of information republics

In the spring of 1995 I was logging into Gopher, reading the CIA Area Handbook series archives, and using Usenet and Talk to communicate with people on the other side of the world. The period between 1995 and 2000 was a wide-open era when phrases like “information wants to be free” were asserted as mantras. Many of us believed on some level we were going to witness a flowering of a new “republic of letters” as the global mind emerged.

As someone involved in the blog-era of the 2000s, in particular the golden age between 2002 and 2006, some of that optimism persisted despite the .com crash. We are going to “fact-check” the press. The “Army of Davids”. It was a time and place when heterodoxy was tolerated, and “thinking out loud” was expected.

Sitting here in 2020 the vision was naive, wildly optimistic, and wrong-headed. In 2020 the massive information flows on the internet consist of:

porn, to which people masturbate
– social media, which facilitates gossip
– streaming video, which replaces television
– and e-commerce, which sends us packages of consumer goods

In the series which began with Ender’s Game the child geniuses manipulate the world through their eloquence on Usenet. This was plausible in the 1990s, and even somewhat anachronistically in the world of blogs. Today Peter Wiggin would be a teenage porn addict with dark obsessions, and Valentine Wiggin would have an OnlyFans with a low price point (because she’s compassionate).

To use an ancient framing the internet is not an extension of our noblest intentions, but our basest urges. There is far too much Rousseau. Just do what comes naturally.

The intellectual efflorescences of the past, the Golden Age of Athens, the House of Wisdom, and the Aristotelian Renaissance, to name a few, were I believe matters of contingency and fashion. That is, particular social and cultural forces come together to generate surplus amenable to intellectual leisure, and society or the rulers provide intellectuals patronage. These older intellectual subcultures were frail, a thin skein atop the real work of these societies as one of primary production, their “protection” (the men with swords), as well as the priestly classes which regulated social affairs.

Europe’s economic explosion and technology such as the printing press allowed for the emergence of an intellectual culture without a premodern parallel after 1600. But I do not believe that this is just a matter of economics. Elite European society valued science as an avocation. The fusion of science and engineering eventually made it indispensable.

The technology of the internet should have made this even better. Supercharged it. But I do not believe that is the case. Christopher Beckwith’s Warriors of the Cloisters has convinced me that the particular structure of the written text can matter a great deal in forwarding arguments and understanding. Though YouTube videos can be informative and engaging, they are often unstructured and their information density is low. The same with podcasts.

Twitter is text. But it too lacks structure. Tweet-storms/threads are always inferior to writing in paragraphs.

The platform is invaluable as a means to obtain information. And I have had many interesting conversations on Twitter. But as someone with many followers, the replies can be overwhelming. Many are not smart, because most people are not smart. Additionally, over the last few years, it has become obvious that the low barrier to entry means that those who will have little to add nevertheless will add, and, massive positive feedback loops can be generated as information bubbles emerge. Over time Twitter has begun to feel much like social life in one’s early teens. Too early to imagine one’s career or be involved in a serious relationship, but a time when hormones are flowing and new enthusiasms are taking hold. The reign of the Mean Girls.

Where do we go from here? Though Twitter will persist in its niches (e.g., it’s great for delivering “breaking news”), many will slowly become passive consumers due to the toxicity of the typical conversationalist (additionally, there are pretty clearly governments who are purchasing troll armies in bulk to try and shape conversations).

Many of us are moving to private channels of various sorts. But this is not a full replacement for Twitter. The blog is fine, as far as it goes, but several years ago friends of mine convinced me to start a newsletter. I have only used it for very rare announcements. In the next few weeks, I will debut a paid newsletter service. These are all the rage now, and I will try and combine more polished essays along with bloggy observations. My blogs will not go away, and I will continue to blog. This will be the place where my reviews of papers and such things will continue. But I am curious about the less cacophonous “captive audience” of a newsletter.

The ultimate goal is slowly pull myself out of the vast, thin, and toxic, soup of Twitter.

+7

Asian American kids in the 1970s and 1980s the WEIRDest in the world?

Reading Joe Henrich’s newest book I realized some things about my own life, which led me to a weird hypothesis: the WEIRDest people in the USA could very well be the children of Asian immigrant professionals in the 1970s and 1980s.

As I was growing up there was always a large cultural chasm between my parents and myself. I always attributed this to my personality, a natural individualist and liberal orientation in the broad sense. There were other children of these immigrants who were more traditionalist, after all. So there were natural dispositions that varied. At least that was my thought.

Without getting into personal details though, recently I found out that many of the young women I grew up within our family’s small Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani, social circle are not married. Most are successful professionals. In many ways far more successful than me! (e.g., I’m thinking of a girl who graduated from Yale Law, for example). There were way too many professional unmarried women to think of this cohort as “traditionalist.”

Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous observes that the vast majority of societies are much more familialist than those in the West. Westerners rely on impersonal institutions and rules and tend not to favor their families. They’re not as embedded in extended family networks and tend to focus on guilt rather than shame.

My parents have plenty of non-Western values and preferences. But when they arrived in the United States in the early 1980s they were the only members of their whole families who lived in North America. I did not grow up with a rich and nourishing extended family network, because I had no one in my family outside of the nuclear family. To be frank I grew up a bit jealous of my friends who would visit their cousins since my cousins were simply vague names and faint memories. Growing up in a small town in eastern Oregon there was no one of my notional religion and hardly anyone of my race. There were families who were well known around town, and with hindsight, I assume that they would help their nieces and nephews with summer jobs and other such things. I could not, and never did, rely on such informal networks. I lacked such networks. All I could rely on were explicit and formally objective institutions and systems.

Finally, this individuality did not just apply to me. My parents moved themselves to a foreign country without any social or familial network. In various ways, over time they rebuilt something of a non-kin community, but it took literally decades. They didn’t just have shallow roots, they had no roots. Like me, they relied on explicit formal institutions and systems. That was all they had.

Obviously it is somewhat different for later generations. The immigrants of the 1970s and 1980s sponsored their relatives. And in the 1990s a massive wave of Asians into places like Silicon Valley allowed for the emergence of genuine enclaves in a fashion that wouldn’t be imaginable in previous generations. In many ways, the  Indian American Zoomers are probably more Indian than the Indian American Gen-Xers.

In any case, it’s a hypothesis to test.

+4

The culture war comes to you

Over the past few days, there has been a somewhat noticeable Twitter conflagration (when isn’t there?) over a tweet sent out by the Paris-based writer Thomas Chatterton Williams. The author most recently of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, Chatterton Williams is someone with whom I have been relatively friendly (I interviewed him for a podcast last year). If you want to read anything by him, I suggest the piece in The New Yorker, The French Origins of “You Will Not Replace Us”.

The conflagration basically has to do with the fact that many American religious conservatives  objected to Chatterton Williams evincing a disrespectful attitude toward prayer. Rod Dreher, again, someone with whom I have been friendly, posted Christian Coronavirus Scapegoats on his blog and attacked the tweet. Dreher refers to Chatterton Williams as a “Blue Chekist.” It is a pedantic point, but Rod, not Thomas, actually has the blue check. But we all know what Rod meant, at least if we’re on Twitter. The “blue check” in a symbolic sense is the smug descendent of mid-2000s Jon Stewart. Generally, they have a preoccupation with “social justice,” and are embedded in the New York to D.C. media culture. The “blue check” is Lauren Duca.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is none of these things.  Rather, I think it’s defensible to describe him as an “IDW-adjacent” figure. Basically, a conventional late 20th-century liberal. As such, he takes a skeptical attitude toward conservative religion. In particular, toward conservative evangelical Protestantism, which is viewed as regressive and apocalyptic by 20th-century liberals. Recall Richard Dawkins’ interview of Ted Haggard in 2006 to get a sense.

With a serious world-wide pandemic coming toward us, I assume that many people of Thomas Chatterton Williams’ milieu were alarmed when they saw a photograph of Mike Pence leading the team tasked to respond to the pandemic praying. As the kids would say, “it’s not a good look.” The image was pregnant with many connotations.

Rod Dreher is not the only person who responded very negatively to the above tweet. I actually initially saw it via another conservative writer I follow. We can set aside the political opportunism of figures like Jeff Sessions. I think it is clear that many people were sincerely offended. Where the secular person might see a useless gesture at best, and a sinister one at worst, religious conservatives see normal, banal, and conventional behavior. For them, the act of prayer is a conventional part of daily life. It is not surprising they would be offended and angered that actions which they know to be in good will, and meritorious, were seen in a negative light.

The conflict between the secular intellectual and religious traditionalists is old in the modern West. It goes back a century at least, and conflicts are over substantive disagreements about the nature of the universe, and what that entails about the good life. But this is not truly the conflict that I believe religious conservatives are reacting to. Thomas Chatterton Williams’ tweet, which reflected late 20th-century tensions, was sucked into the undertow of 21st-century culture wars.

Though the blue checks may espouse secularism, their contempt and distrust toward religion has little to do with the metaphysical claims of religion, and all to do with the reality that they are presenting an alternative Weltanschauung to that of the religious conservative. They aim to replace religious morality with their own strident ethos. Whereas someone such as Richard Dawkins fixated on asking obnoxious questions dripping with acid contempt, the new cultural Left aims to revolutionize our understanding of what is good, right, and true, in a deeper manner. Dawkins himself is for this reason in bad odor with this set, because he still seems to prize thinking things through before agreeing to what the Ummah proposes.

In a dualistic form of Zoroastrianism, there is an evil spirit, Angra Mainyu, who is the enemy of God. The nature of this spirit is the inversion of God, as the two serve as a sort of balance. Someone like Thomas Chatterton Williams is somewhat outside of the dualism of the contemporary Western culture war. He is broadly liberal, but he is also skeptical of Ta-Nehisi Coates.  He is an unbeliever in both regnant cults. Nevertheless, the above tweet was caught in the slipstream of the dualistic culture war. To some extent, we’re all drafted into this duality.

The conflict before us comes to us, even if we don’t seek it.

+2