I did not like this book as much as I expected. In part that’s because, as an American, a narrative of British decline resonates with me less deeply, simply because much of the culture, politics and daily life of Britain is not familiar to me. In part it’s because the book is written in a somewhat didactic, overly episodic, fragmented fashion. But mostly, I think, it’s because I’m weary of conservative jeremiads that don’t offer any constructive recommendations on what to do. After all, as my mother used to tell me, “if there’s no solution, there’s no problem.” Conservatives who bemoan how bad things have gotten (and they have gotten very much worse in Britain since this book was written, 1999, or even since it was re-issued with a new Introduction, 2008) need to offer real alternatives and solutions, or they might as well not bother.
The Benedict Option is, as I expected, an outstanding book. Rod Dreher has definitively shown that he is the Pope Urban of a new and dynamic movement, and this book has occasioned much commentary in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, the main point of Dreher’s book—to make a countercultural call for individual and group Christian renewal focused on communities of believers—has been somewhat lost in a secondary point, the real and growing persecution of Christian believers in mainstream society. This was inevitable, I suppose, because persecution is more interesting to outsiders than a call to holiness, but unfortunate, because it caricatures Dreher and tends to erode receptivity to his message.
[This colloquy sprang from a Facebook discussion (largely, but not always, an oxymoron) about “fake news,” which I alleged may exist, but not in the sense used by the Left, and that in the sense used by the Left, it was merely a proxy for suppression of conservative speech. As always, italics are my interlocutor.]
This is a self-help book. I don’t mean it’s to be found in the bookstore under the sign “Self-Help,” where people gather to remake their lives by unlocking the secret of costless auto-regeneration. Rather, this is a self-help book because it, like the famous Kitchener poster, points at the reader and says, “You—there is a problem, and you are the solution.” Of course, since the author, Charles Chaput, is a bishop (and an archbishop at that), and this is not Pelagianism, the reader is not expected to act in isolation, but with the guidance and help of God. He is to act nonetheless, and much hinges on what he does.
Published in 2014, this book has an eerie vibe, redolent of a past that seems distant but really was just yesterday. Intertwined with gentle criticisms of Nordic foibles is an iron self-confidence that “we,” a group constantly referred to but never defined, desire above all things “modernism”: absolute equality of result and a rejection of sex differences, collectivism, atheism, multiculturalism, the death of traditional cultures through multiculturalism, and the active, aggressive suppression of any view or speech deemed “right-wing.” Viewed from the post-Brexit, post-Trump, pre-Le Pen perspective of early 2017, this seems as quaint as nostalgia for steam locomotives. It worships something that was hollow and imaginary then and is now, fortunately, being dragged out, still struggling weakly, to be thrown on the ashheap of history. Reading this book is like seeing a man venerate a statue of Mithras—it just seems odd, with a frisson of fading menace.
As we all know, one of the results of the rise of social media is that people are able to communicate their political views more often, in fact continuously, to their friends and acquaintances. We can leave aside that most of this is utterly inane, most of this is virtue-signaling, and little of it is helpful in reaching common ground. My focus here is on a subset of such discussions—those among highly educated, intelligent and rational people who have personally known each other for a long time. We can call these people the “Rationals Known To Each Other,” or “RKTEOs.”
[This is a reaction requested from me regarding a Washington Post article, by Alex Nowrasteh, titled “The right has its own version of political correctness. It’s just as stifling.”] This is not convincing, because it posits a false analogy. (It is also extremely badly written.) The analogy is false because it falsely defines “political correctness.” Conservatives don’t regard PC as bad because it shows that people have strong feelings, or because those feelings are believed to be irrational. (A side note: PC has been around for 30 years, not 10. See my review of Thiel’s “The Diversity Myth,” which was written in 1996.) They regard PC as bad because in wide swathes of America, and disproportionately in elite occupations, it is used as both reason and mechanism to punish those who fail to toe the line on whatever today’s PC orthodoxy is. (That orthodoxy, and the weighting of its different tenets, as with any religion substitute ideology, shifts constantly—see, e.g., transgender rights.) That is, PC imports ideological concepts as a tool to punish and silence ideological opponents, …
“The Diversity Myth” is a twenty-year-old book that nobody would remember, despite its many virtues, were it not for that its authors (and many of the young figures in its pages) have since then become highly-visible billionaires, and, in the case of Peter Thiel, prominent public intellectuals. None of them knew that then, though (presumably!), which makes the book even more interesting.
“The Blueprint” is well written. But its predictions have now been repeatedly falsified, and it downplays critical elements in its analysis. Therefore, I cannot recommend it except as a narrow and dated historical analysis of Colorado politics in the middle of the last decade.
This is a deeply pessimistic book. Charles Murray warns, Cassandra-like, of the ill effects that are resulting and will result from the economic and cultural divergence between the upper and lower classes. Even so, he tries to be optimistic, and he succeeds in being optimistic himself, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing the reader to be optimistic.