Øystein Sevåg: "Cobalt"
Why We're Divided (2) + The Lamp

Why We're Divided

The end of the Cold War three decades ago followed by the terror attacks in 2001 should have ushered in an era of consensus and low-intensity politics in the United States. That was the expectation at the time—but it turned out to be wrong. Over the past few decades Americans have turned on themselves, dividing into hostile tribes and parties with little common ground to hold the national enterprise together. As a result, as many now agree, the United States finds itself more polarized and divided over politics than at any time since the 1850s. But today, in contrast to the slavery issue of the 1850s or the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is no single crisis or line of conflict to account for the situation. We live in a time of general peace and relative prosperity and do not face any single challenge comparable to slavery or mass unemployment. America is coming apart, but no one can quite explain why.

That's James Pierson writing in a recent issue of The New Criterion (you can read the piece here, I think). With all respect to Mr. Pierson, who is far more qualified than I to discuss political and economic history, I believe I can explain why. The details are very many and sometimes contain contradictory and ambiguous evidence, but I think I've grasped the big picture, the essence of the conflict.

You can state the basic nature of the European aspect of World War II in Europe straightforwardly: Germany was an aggressive, repressive, and violent state that set out to conquer others, which then defended themselves. Even as a summary this leaves out a lot, starting with all the reasons why Hitler had come to power in the first place, the various ideas and obsessions that came together in National Socialism, the history of relations between the powers, and so on and so on, eventually for many volumes. But the simple statement is true.

Similarly, the essence of the current conflict can be stated like this: within Euro-American civilization a new religion has appeared, and has gained many powerful adherents who seek to impose it on the entire society, and are resisted by those who have not accepted it.

Obviously that doesn't begin to cover the subject. First of all one might discuss the sense in which "religion" is the right word for this new movement, and whether "pseudo-" or "crypto-" should be prefixed to it. And then one wants, of course, to describe the new religion, to understand it, to consider the ways in which the existing order produced the conditions for it, the ways in which it seeks to achieve its aims, to trace the history of its development and of the conflict between it and the society which gave birth to it.

And so on and so on. But if you don't see that one essential point--that this new movement is for all practical purposes a religion in the sense of providing a meaning and a mission for human life, and that it seeks to impose itself on everyone, you're missing the biggest part of the big picture.

I know I'm far from the only one making this basic point, or a similar one. But many of those who get it seem to me to stop short of what I'm saying. They note that politics has taken on a religious fervor and centrality for many people, and that is certainly true. But I think it's more than that: for the new religion, there is no distinction between religion and politics. Even that is too limiting a way to put it, because it treats religion and politics as separate things, which the new religion does not. Politics is its practice in exactly, not just analogously, the same way that prayer and church attendance are the practice of Christianity.

The fact that the new religion doesn't have a name and doesn't demand an explicit profession of faith makes its religious nature easier to miss, and also makes it easier to embrace. Nor does it see itself as "a religion" among others, but rather as the self-evidently true and good--which means that opposition to it can only constitute a choice of the false and evil. This likewise makes it easier to embrace, and also accounts for its almost perfect moral self-confidence.

The immediately apparent historical analogies are the establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the conquest of much of the Mediterranean world by Islam. I think the latter is really more comparable, for the same reason that I used the words "establishment" and "conquest"--the conversion of the Empire to Christianity was not primarily or initially by force, but the replacement of Christianity by Islam in much of the Mediterranean world was (though there was more to the story than that of course). And although the new religion does not (as yet) use physical force, it does use whatever means of informal and legal compulsion it can.

The course of the actual campaign of this attempted conquest is murky, as is generally the case. Relatively few people are firmly and consciously on one side or the other. Most people are down-to-earth and pragmatic and don't generally think too much about consciously-held abstract principle. Many who casually support it don't really grasp its totalitarian implications, or draw back from its more radical doctrines, such as the denial of sex.

Is this a fire that will burn itself out fairly quickly? Or is it the beginning of a long age of domination by a fundamental falsehood? Is that even possible for any great length of time? I don't know. I take a little comfort in considering how long Hitler's thousand years lasted. And totalitarian communism didn't do all that much better. Unlike fascism, though, communism didn't die. It has too much in common with the new religion (and both have more in common with fascism than they can admit). Many millions of people get misty-eyed when they sing "Imagine," which means they have accepted some of the doctrines of the new faith, whether or not they realize it.


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"But if you don't see that one essential point--that this new movement is for all practical purposes a religion in the sense of providing a meaning and a mission for human life, and that it seeks to impose itself on everyone, you're missing the biggest part of the big picture."

I believe that you are speaking of the "left" in this sentence. You do realize that people on the left feel the same way about the "right", I am sure. Thus the divide.

Well, sure, they do, and the right certainly has its share of fanatics and cultists. But that's not the point I'm making. I think I've said here somewhere before that (speaking broadly) the right's political views *include* religion, but for the left political views *are* the religion.

The conflict is at bottom not an argument between, for instance, differing opinions about health care. It's a conflict of fundamentally irreconcilable worldviews.

And one doesn't have to be on one or the other side to recognize that. Some on the left certainly do.

There is certainly merit to your hypothesis. As you know, I for the most part choose to try and ignore all of this other than offering an occasional opinion here on your blog. While I am moderately "left" I remain quite offended by the woke crowd and have enjoyed watching the new Dave Chappelle stand-up on Netflix (while it is still there).

Mac, would you say the alternatives are something like, "Burkean conservativism" and the new secular "religion"? Most people are inconsistent or not reflective on the fundamental principles of either.

If we're talking about the opposition to the new religion, it's nothing as definite as Burkean conservatism. It doesn't really have a name, either. Old school Americanism, maybe, which includes a whole lot of disparate stuff, including B.c. But I guess you could say it's all united (to the extent that it is) under the banner of classical liberalism. Besides being the bedrock of the American order, c.l. is very tolerant of various views that are in some ways at odds with it.

Stu, you're exactly the kind of person I was thinking of who may have a lot of specific political or social views in common with the new religion but isn't on board with the whole world-view, especially in its more radical and coercive mode. If the woke stuff gets stopped, it may be partly because people like you are not committed in the way the fanatics think you are, and leave them out on a limb, with a lot less support than they thought. Or at least that's one way things could shake out.

"Many who casually support it don't really grasp its totalitarian implications, or draw back from its more radical doctrines, such as the denial of sex."

I read something recently where the writer said that if people viewing this stuff from afar do not realize the inherent danger, by the time it comes close to home it may be too late to resist. Even classic liberalism tends to colonize, and this newer form is far more virulent in its totalizing endeavors. It will of necessity continue to push the envelope, and the opposition will respond, but whether the latter will prevail remains to be seen. I have my doubts.

I think people who don't regularly see conservative media don't realize just how aggressive, widespread, and successful the movement is. I know you read Rod Dreher's blog, and he pretty much has a new instance every day. Not necessarily big stories like MIT cancelling a guest lecturer, but also smaller stuff, like people who work for big corporations describing the pressure to make explicit statements of support for various woke causes.

Some of the most effective opponents are secular liberals who have been burned in one way or another. Most ordinary liberals just cave, either out of self-interest, or just a sort of cognitive inability to see that anything clothed in leftish rhetoric can be seriously bad. Joe Biden, for instance--he's just a hack politician who will go whichever way the wind blows. But there are people like Bari Weiss who aren't (at least at this point) at all conservative in any usual sense of the word, but are truly committed to classical liberalism, and are speaking out very strongly.


The Democratic party is disheartening. I suppose if I voted Republican I would think the same thing. Because of Fr. Lucey passing away a few weeks back I've spent a lot of time thinking about him and things he said in homilies. There was a time period when I attended his 7:30 am Mass pretty much daily, so I had large doses of his thinking and of the many remembrances I have is his response to a "who are you" type of question: "I'm Greg, and I am a sinner". I find that type of thinking so refreshing, especially back then when I was a new convert and really trying to put evangelical Christianity behind me, but just in general for all of us and it informs how I feel about all these people in politics. Humans, human institutions, that are of course run by sinners. They have no way of being perfect in any way. However, if the people behind them at least had some kind of humility (It would be too much to ask that they be believers in the true sense of the word) things could be so much better for everyone!

How to tell one view from the other. If I say the phrase cancel culture, do you say that's good, or that's bad?

I believe it's bad, Robert. One of the current in vogue things that makes me the least happy.

One of the things that's often remarked on about...I wish we had a good word for it..."woke-ism" is that it has no place for forgiveness, or for accepting human frailty and imperfection in general. Although it's on the left in a sense, it's vastly different from liberalism in either the classic or current senses. It's frequently compared, accurately in my opinion, to the Red Guards of Mao's China. It's a cult of ideological purity. Not to mention power.

Along the lines of Rob's 6:04 comment, I think there are a lot of people who aren't in favor of the woke agenda but still "don't see that one essential point." To them, people making the one essential point look like alarmists or conspiracy theorists.

What is Pierson thinking? (I haven't read the whole piece.) Is he just being disingenuous? Is the new religion so self-evidently true and good that a significant disagreement with it doesn't occur to him as a possible source of the divide?

No, he's not even seeing the new religion. He's just looking at it from a fairly conventional politics and economics point of view. That's really what prompted me to write this post--the fact that he raises the question but thinks the answer can be found somewhere in the ins and outs of those matters, when the real conflict is driving those, not being driven by them.

Re your previous comment: it's possible to be an alarmist and be correct. :-) I think frequently of Cassandra. You can see a lot of that kind of denial in the comments on Rod Dreher's blog. "Oh sure, those people who got that professor fired are crazy, but they don't really matter." But Dreher's thing--and although I do think he goes over the top at times in his agitation I also think he's right to be alarmed. Those people *are* a big deal, because they are increasingly in positions of power, or are able to push the people in power around. Biden being a good example. That link I posted above is the State Department doing transgender propaganda. It's National Pronoun Day!

When the State Department tweets that "the United States embraces sharing pronouns," I remember what a friend said after 9/11: "Al-Qaeda's not wrong about everything."

Which was/is true, alas.

The thing that gets me about this is not so much even that the department responsible for our foreign affairs is on the bandwagon, but that they think this is the face we should be showing to the world, some large part of which thinks it's crazy. What an advertisement....

"But Dreher's thing--and although I do think he goes over the top at times in his agitation I also think he's right to be alarmed. "

I'm reminded of what one of the Southern Agrarians said in the 50's when he was asked why their project ultimately failed. He gave a few possible reasons then said something along the lines of "Maybe we just didn't ring the alarm bell loud enough."

Dreher certainly can't be charged with making that mistake! I think the difficulty with getting more people to hear the alarm bell now is that so many people, even those who aren't conscious of it, have their picture of the world defined by the standard media, and it's able to suppress or distort so much. "Republicans Fight Voting Rights Bill" is a headline I saw just a day or two ago.

I don't think that was the main problem for the Agrarians, though. Besides being too much against the times, they were inextricably associated with slavery, segregation, and racism. As you know I don't use that last word lightly, but unfortunately there are things in their writing that are racist by reasonable standards, not today's unreasonable ones.

Not, of course (just to be clear), that that renders other things they say false. But it unavoidably taints them. Not many people are willing or able to make that kind of separation. Especially if they don't want to.

Tim Stanley recently wrote a piece on this new religion in the Telegraph that managed to make me smile, with lines like these:

"Around the time most mainline churches dropped their more remarkable claims, be it miracles or the end of the world, wokery picked up and ran with them, the mystery of religion replaced with wonder at nature. In ages past we studied Bible stories told in church windows; now we gawp at David Attenborough documentaries on TV, trying to divine a hidden meaning in the sex lives of penguins."


Behind a paywall, unfortunately, for me. That's funny but strikes me as more applicable to an older set of radicals than the current wokesters. It's just an impression but they seem to me to be extremely far removed from nature, not just as a matter of experience but also of interest, except for the climate change panic. I think the internet has something to do with that. They don't just live in the artificial environment of the contemporary city, but an artificial mental environment

However, all it takes is one male penguin trying to mate with another male penguin to establish that Science has proven that homosexual behavior is natural. So I guess that's a kind of attention to nature. In fact maybe that's what he's referring to?

Unstated corollary: if it's natural, it must be right.

Unstated but nonsensical. Some animals sometimes devour their young.

"Besides being too much against the times, they were inextricably associated with slavery, segregation, and racism."

True in hindsight, but if memory serves only two of the essays in I'll Take My Stand mention race, and as Berry says somewhere, you can remove the racial elements from the book without at all affecting its main arguments.

Given their uphill battle I'm not sure they would have gotten a true hearing even without the race aspect being present.

That's true, I'm sure. As for the explicitly racist bits, now that I think about it, it probably serves more as a convenient reason for trashing them now than it did as a reason for rejecting them at the time. The simple fact of their defending the old South at all was probably enough for liberals of the time to reject what they had to say. Though I don't really know how the book was received at the time.

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