Deplorable

In his August/September column, “Bigot-Baiting,” R. R. Reno charges that the Democratic Party is largely a hodgepodge of various groups, tenuously allied, and that the precarious nature of these alliances requires a well-maintained persecution complex, lest those alliances dissolve. In this, he is, most assuredly, correct.

But it would appear to me that similar criticisms could be leveled at any political movement approaching a majority of the voting public. The ideas most important to me are, after all, unlikely to be important to even a slim majority of other voters. In order to cobble together a viable movement, therefore, I am forced to marry my most ardently held ideas to those to which I am largely indifferent—but that nevertheless are, themselves, capable of motivating a large swath of other voters who are mostly indifferent to the ideas that I hold most important.

How will I maintain the interest and enthusiasm of such voters (and they mine)? Reno observes that many Democrats have resorted to the language of assault and persecution, but they are hardly unique in this respect.

In the 1980s, the fabric of America was supposedly under attack by “welfare queens” who gamed the system at the expense of the working; too-soft-on-crime politicians who issued weekend passes to prisoners, enabling them to rape and murder again; and communists who sympathized with the USSR. It is notable that in each of these cases, a marginal part of the electorate was deemed to constitute a non-negligible threat, not only to the party responsible for exploiting such imagery, but to the entirety of American prosperity. And yet the conservative movement—capable of commanding large electoral majorities at the time—had no difficulty maintaining the plausibility of urgency. “Progressives need ‘haters,’” I suppose, as much as many conservatives appear to need drug-toting illegal immigrants storming our borders to loot and pillage, Shari’a-imposing Muslims undermining our values, low interest rates debasing our currency, cheap imports stealing American jobs, and whatever else happens to be the bogeyman of the day; the supposed threats need neither be catastrophic nor imminent.

“How long can a coalition that wins elections and exercises power pose as the party of the marginalized?” As long as they are winning elections. Political success never “undermines the urgency of a rainbow coalition”; it merely incentivizes the minority party to make greater overtures toward recruiting voters—either by adopting some of the views held by members of the opposing party or by de-emphasizing or repudiating views that have turned them away.

Is it unethical to rely on propagandistic tactics to cement voter support? I believe so. But the arguments themselves are either true or false. If they are false, the correct response is to attack them on their own merits; merely to point out, as Reno does, that the opposition stands to benefit from the charges (of bigotry, in this case) is to engage in a logical fallacy. The question of whether or not the charges are correct would still remain.

It is in this vein that Reno errs most egregiously. Indeed, the entire article may be read as a thinly veiled attempt to excuse the apparent bigotry being voiced by Donald Trump and many of his supporters. This is done not by making a case for Trump, of course, but by attempting to make a case against those who would accuse him of bigotry. And, importantly, it is done in a way that apparently shields both Trump and his supporters (even those who are avowed white supremacists) from any and all such charges being volleyed by the left.

But it is not only the left that is voicing these concerns. Because the radical left has been unsparing in its attacks on the right with charges of fascism, racism, and xenophobia for so long, they have, in effect, become the boy who cried wolf. But what of the warnings from those who have done no such thing? What of the warnings from staunch Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Tom Ridge, and Hank Paulson, not to mention George Will, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and the editorial board of the National Review?

To be fair, it is not clear whether Trump himself is a bigot. However, given his willingness to employ the language of bigotry when it suits his purposes, does it make any difference?

Over the course of this campaign season, Trump has stated that “Islam hates us,” and that we must ban all Muslims until we are able “to prevent the radicalization of the children and their children.” He has argued that an American child of Mexican immigrants has an “inherent conflict of interest” as a judge because of his ancestry. He has argued that President Obama should use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” “for no other reason [than] just to build up the spirit in our country.” In short, he has argued that ancestry determines destiny, and that anger based on tribalist beliefs to this effect should be channeled by political rhetoric. Yet Reno would have us believe that the charges of bigotry are, in fact, occurring solely “because of progress.”

If the use of such language by the presidential candidate of a major political party is of no concern, just what would be of concern? If these are not bigoted statements, what constitutes bigotry? If such views are not only tolerable—but justifiable—what, then, is unjustifiable?

Perhaps Reno, like many (perhaps most) of Trump’s supporters, discounts this rhetoric. But what, exactly, is the case for Trump when every statement has been discounted?

Is “political correctness” (a term, in Trump’s usage, that is apparently synonymous with “respect,” “courtesy,” and, at times, even “morality”) such a great scourge on our society that each bit of divisive rhetoric (no matter how factually inaccurate or likely to incite animus) is a justifiable evil in the fight to rid ourselves of its bonds? Once we are unbound, what important new views will we be free to voice? In what ways are we not free to voice them now? How will the world be made better by our voicing them? More importantly, why is it that falsehood (rather than truth) is the weapon of choice in this battle? And, if truth would be preferable, how are we to tolerate (let alone justify) Trump’s outright hostility to it?

Rick Garrelts
lafayette, indiana

R. R. Reno replies:

My object in “Bigot-Baiting” was not to survey the role of hyperbole in democratic politics. As Rick Garrelts correctly points out, our big, baggy political parties must work hard to keep their coalitions together, and that often requires dire, sky-is-falling rhetoric. Anticommunism played this role on the right in decades past. Instead, my purpose was to analyze a paradox. Why has liberalism’s insistence upon the threats of bigotry increased in recent years? Here the analogy to anticommunism breaks down.

Conservatives did not ramp up anticommunist fear mongering after the fall of the Soviet Union. Contrast this with progress in so many campaigns of identity politics. It seems that every gain for women, minorities, and gays is now accompanied by ever-shriller bigot-baiting. Thus we have the spectacle of Hillary Clinton calling a large share of Americans a “basket of deplorables.” Richard Nixon never said that half of those who supported George McGovern were communists or communist sympathizers.

I do not discount concerns about Trump’s manipulations of identity politics to suit his own interests. The accusation of partiality leveled against a Mexican-American judge was particularly egregious. But I don’t want to add my voice to the chorus of the virtuous. I am concerned instead with a cold, analytical question. What accounts for today’s hysteria of denunciation and anguished hand-wringing about bigotry, racism, exclusion, and oppression? The concept of bigot-baiting seeks to identify a political imperative—maintaining a diverse coalition in support of a largely white, liberal elite—that might explain the incentive to ramp up the denunciations, not in spite of, but because of progress beyond old racist and bigoted attitudes.

More recently, I’ve come to see another factor. Our political culture is shifting from a contest between left and right into a struggle between populist, anti-establishment insurgents and establishment power. In these circumstances, the establishment seeks to discredit challengers as morally and intellectually unfit. When the challenges come from the right, European elites favor the epithet “fascist.” In the United States, we derogate anti-establishment challengers from the right by calling them “racists.”

I can understand why those seeking to preserve their power might talk this way. But it is unbecoming of a person who seeks to understand our present reality. Fascism was a perversion of solidarity in an earlier era when modern societies were consolidating in response to the social dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, a disastrous continent-wide war, and economic turmoil. Today, Europe is characterized by individualism, not collectivism, which is why fascism seems so unlikely. The same holds for racism or other forms of bigotry in America. We are living in a time of unprecedented acceptance and disregard for once all-important differences. All the worries about racism and the litany of phobias strike me as less than irrelevant to the real problems our society faces.

Russian Myths

Going through the pages of Vodolazkin’s essay “The New Middle Ages” (August/September) in First Things, I could not escape one persistent thought: A Russian is a Russian is a Russian. Especially if he is an intellectual of Putin’s new empire. Stereotypical, I know. Generalizing demeans the brave Russians who are willing to go against the current of pseudo-patriotic madness. Yet, this stereotype works simply because it reflects overwhelming reality. Exceptions exist, but they are few and far between.

There is not much I could manage to reflect on Vodolazkin’s essay. The sour taste just cannot be avoided. Leaving the subject matter aside, only two points:

1) Vodolazkin refers to The Primary Chronicle as “the first Russian chronicle” and mentions “the Russian attack on Constantinople that occurred before Russia had adopted Christianity.” One could try labeling Gregory of Tours’s Ten Books of Histories as the Prussian chronicle that describes the Prussian attack on the Visigoths of Alaric II just after the Prussians adopted Christianity under Clovis. Yet, even that would be falling short of close approximation to Vodolazkin’s references. One cannot discount such gross misrepresentation as mere ignorance. First of all, Vodolazkin is a scholar of medieval literature and only then a writer of—I have to admit—a brilliant fiction.

2) The explanation lies in the last section of the essay. The author in a somewhat awkwardly exuberant manner points out to the reader “the similarity of Russia and the U.S.” and laments “our misunderstandings,” saying “the harshest confrontations involve similarity.” This is neither a novelty, nor a rarity for the Russian elites. Moreover, it doesn’t have the same meaning that an average Western reader might read into the text. These semi-cryptic lines of reasoning find their clear expression in the workings of Russian propaganda, mostly for internal consumption. One of its main building blocks goes along the lines of “Why, if the U.S. can invade Iraq, can’t we invade Ukraine?” Despite the mandatory “two minutes hate,” Russian media is full of admiration for what it perceives to be the hegemonic domination of the world by the U.S. This admiration is like the young wannabe gangster’s respect and love for the mafioso who beats him. It is one of the main justifications of the new pan-Russian creed of “Russkiy Mir.” Its commonalties with ideologies of Soviet communism and fascism are clear enough to earn the new term “Russcism.” And it is sad to see First Things being used as means to spread this new menace to the world.

Sergey Fedorovich Dezhnyuk
tulsa, oklahoma

As a student of medieval theology and not contemporary literature, I profited greatly from Eugene Vodolazkin’s piece. But I question his cultural and political analysis. Medieval and postmodern literature may have similar textual fluidity, but they seem to be the product of two different worldviews. In the medieval case, textual fluidity is a result of the authority of Scripture and a deeply enchanted view of the world. But is this the case in contemporary literature? One of the reasons Laurus has been so successful, I would argue, is that it clearly captures a world saturated with the divine and wonder—a world many no longer experience. Contemporary textual fluidity seems to arise from the authority of the self, of the author and reader, and a world saturated with metaphysical and moral ambiguity, not numen. Vodolazkin says that the Epoch of Concentration faces certain problems it must resolve: individualization and secularization. If this is the case, how can contemporary literature work to resolve the things that give birth to it?

As for politics, it’s not exactly clear to me what parts of contemporary Russia Vodolazkin would have us learn from. Yes, the American founders warn against the tyranny of the majority, and yes, Russia and the United States have Christian heritage worth saving. But the founders checked that tyranny with mechanisms to channel the will of the people and help keep society free. Putinism—imperialism and caesaropapism, invading Ukraine and beating gays—would be a cure worse than the disease.

Nathaniel Peters
milwaukee, wisconsin

Thanks very much to Tom Holland for his finely written and highly suggestive “All the East Is Moving” (August/September), to Eugene Vodolazkin for his equally well written, also highly suggestive “The New Middle Ages” (August/September), and to First Things editors for provocatively pairing the two articles and thereby inviting readers to consider the extent to which our postmodern age may have arrived at a juncture remarkably similar to the one Europeans faced in the early Middle Ages, when Germany’s borders were overwhelmed by immigrants from Hungary and scribes in Benedictine monasteries compiled texts via cut-and-paste maneuvers that were not governed by the modern idea of an author. Could history be repeating itself? That would be impossible. The real subjects here are the ways in which our era is different from the Middle Ages, despite certain rhyming similarities. Yet it should also be said that while Holland has a firm grasp on how and why liberal democratic leaders, unlike Otto and Ulrich, will in all likelihood (given our post-World War II obligation to not use the First Reich as a rallying point, and liberal suppositions that make it difficult for us to recognize how reason is founded on faith of one kind or another) fail to adequately meet the challenges we face, Vodolazkin for his part seems blinded by a perhaps too great confidence in the conservative religious revival currently underway in Russia, under Putin’s opportunistic watch.

Postmodern literary practices do bear a striking resemblance to medieval ones, and Vodolazkin appears to be on promising ground when he cites “the fragmentary character of the contemporary text,” Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” conceit, “perpetual revisability,” postmodern fascination with the idea of an ending, and, too, Eco’s conviction that the whole world is now “text,” as evidence. But these sorts of similarities do not by themselves merit a claim that the resemblance between the two ages is systematic, and nowhere is this more clear than when Vodolazkin ups his argument a notch and cites our current-day preference for nonfiction and (using his term here) “unconditional reality.” Though it is to a certain extent true that the medieval reader “read all texts as nonfiction, as what happened in reality,” Vodolazkin’s qualifier that “reality” (to a medieval reader) was “not just what had been but what should have been” marks an important difference between the modern and medieval eras, a difference which is most efficiently described by measuring the degree to which each age believed in the Word rather than just the word. Perhaps we ought to think a little harder than Vodolazkin apparently does about what the modern interest in unconditional reality actually means. To be sure, that interest could be limited to “narrative nonfiction,” as booksellers have taught us to think of bias-driven observation. On the other hand, though, it could involve an intensifying interest in eliminating mediatory agents altogether and in this way repudiating the very same incarnational principle Christendom was founded on.

That established, it would be wise to be skeptical of Vodolazkin’s claim that we are entering a new “epoch of concentration” in which “excessive individualization” will be corrected, wise also to wonder whether his too-casual optimism might in fact hasten the arrival of a genuinely dark age much as Berdyaev’s conveniently hazy picture of a new feudal era did, back in 1923.

Will Hoyt
cadiz, ohio

Eugene Vodolazkin responds:

This response to readers’ letters is an exception for me, one I decided to make for a journal I respect. I don’t usually respond to statements—be they positive or negative—regarding my texts. It’s enough for me when my opponent and I have stated our opinions; may they lead parallel existences. I don’t believe that truth is born in argument: More often than not, aggression is born there.

The letter from Sergey Dezhnyuk, who accuses me of every deadly sin, is a vivid example of this. I felt uncomfortable for its author when I read it. It would be beyond strange to argue with him, so I will inform rather than argue. When I speak of a “Russian” chronicle, I’m using a traditional medieval studies term that doesn’t refer to Russians in the contemporary meaning of the word. The term is associated with the toponym “Rus” rather than “Russia,” and it’s a name that a people used for itself; it denotes a people from whom Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians subsequently descended. Dezhnyuk accentuates my ancestry, repeating the word “Russian” three times. Yes, I am Russian, though one time is enough for me to denote that circumstance. I’ll further note that I grew up in Ukraine and that I know and love Ukrainian culture no less than Russian culture.

I’ll permit myself to look simultaneously at the letters from Nathaniel Peters and Will Hoyt, not only because they’re written without the slightest bias but also because they touch on similar issues. Among other things, they address phenomena common to the Modern Age and the Middle Ages that came about for varying reasons. I fully agree with that perspective, since things could not have been otherwise, historically speaking. The task of my article was to show that similarity, regardless of how it arose: After all, we’re dealing with effects rather than causes. At the same time, when establishing the partial return of a previous form, we watch the form with particular attention to see if it’s pulling its previous content behind it. In other words: If a culture is destined to change substantially, then a form is already prepared for those changes; this, too, is far from accidental.

As for the interrelations of what exists and what should be, under contemporary conditions, in essence they’re no less quirky than interrelations during the Middle Ages. This is echoed, for example, in all three writers’ mentions of “Putin’s Russia” (“empire”). What’s in mind here is obviously the country I see reports about every now and then on Western television: That country bears little resemblance to what I see living in St. Petersburg. The Russian response is the imperialistic, equally hopeless America that exists on our television screens. From the perspective of the opponents who film those reports, Russia and America should be like that, and so reality, by comparison, is a pure misunderstanding.

Mythmaking has achieved heights that would have been difficult to imagine even during Soviet times. If we set aside political folklore (something politicians, unlike the majority of the population, are able to do), then we can speak of a harsh confrontation of geopolitical interests. The countries are achieving entirely pragmatic results by using mantras about moral values; this is a fairly cynical process.

And finally, when I’m asked about my political views, I answer that I don’t have any. I define my philosophy as Christian personalism and examine each situation from the perspective of my notions of good and evil, without party politics and without ideology. Neither states nor peoples are subject to morality, but a person is. A person can be good or evil, smart or stupid. A person can be a friend or a betrayer. Studying peoples is possible only by knowing individual people, and literature is devoted to them. If you want to learn something trustworthy—rather than propagandistic—about a country, then turn off the television and open a book. Particularly if the country is as literature-centric as Russia.

Blowing Smoke

In “Donald Trump, Man of Faith” (August/September), Matthew Schmitz quotes those who accused the late Norman Vincent Peale of “blind prejudice.” Yet Schmitz analogizes Trump’s abstention from smoking and drinking to that of Hitler and Mussolini. I am reasonably sure that Mother Teresa never smoked or drank. But Schmitz conveniently overlooks such facts, thus revealing his own “blind prejudice.”

God declared his creation (including man and thus man’s heart) “good,” indeed “very good.” I think we can presume with some degree of confidence that Adam and Eve did not smoke cigarettes. With equal certainty I think we can conclude that, despite the wickedness in their hearts, God would say that their abstention from smoking was “good,” or perhaps even “very good.” After all, smoking desecrates the temple (body) that God created. So, if Trump has abstained from smoking his entire life of 70 years, isn’t that something Schmitz should applaud rather than link to Nazism?

Curt R. Craton
long beach, california

I read, with interest and some despair, Matthew Schmitz’s assessment of the late Norman Vincent Peale, whom I knew in the mid- to late-1970s and at whose church, Marble Collegiate, I was both a member and an usher for a few years. There are others, many others, who have a better knowledge of Peale than I can claim, but I did see him and hear him up close, something I suspect Schmitz did not.

It is rather facile, I believe, to dismiss Peale in Stevensonian terms, finding “the apostle Paul appealing and Peale appalling,” as the oft-repeated line goes. It also sells the man, and the congregation, rather short. While Marble Collegiate, along with much of the Reformed Church in America, has listed left in recent decades, the church I attended was more orthodox than Schmitz’s commentary would suggest.

Yes, Peale promoted his gospel of positive thinking to the max, something Mitch Horowitz ably discussed in his 2014 book, One Simple Idea. But I also sat under Peale’s preaching toward the end of his life when he made a heartfelt plea for hearers to repent of their sins and turn to Christ for forgiveness and a new life. (Interestingly, the late Rev. Robert H. Schuller’s sermons, toward the end of his public career, were also more gospel-centered.)

My sense of Peale, from having read The Power of Positive Thinking several times over the past 45 years or so, from having interviewed him in person once, and from hearing him, live and unfiltered, at Marble Collegiate Church, was of a man convinced of the verity of the Christian message who wanted his hearers to have their lives changed by the very same Jesus to whom Peale turned to overcome his own inferiority complex, a repentance, if you will, that was life-changing for the one-time newspaper writer.

Oh, and that execrable Trump fellow? I agree with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and Peter Wehner, among others: “The Donald” may have been baptized as a Presbyterian, but Nietzsche’s philosophy seems to be his (possibly unconscious) North Star.

Mark A. Kellner
holladay, utah

Matthew Schmitz is evidently not enamored with Donald Trump’s alleged fetish for positive thinking: He sees it as the weakness of a man who has not embraced, as he describes it, “the gloomy aspect of traditional Christian practice.” As much as I wish we could find a candidate who would ascend the steps of the Capitol on Inauguration Day while kneeling on shards of broken glass in penitence, such is not the choice that has been given to us. I must confess a certain consternation toward the many Christians I know who remain obstinately unwilling to face the political realities of this election cycle. If, as he seems to, Schmitz wants to experience the power of negative thinking, he would do well to ruminate upon the horrific ripple effects of a President Hillary Clinton. This woman will stack the Supreme Court for a generation with justices intent on twisting the Constitution irrevocably. Her frivolous disregard for human life is reflected in both her unrepentant support of partial-birth abortion and her reckless endangering of lives while Secretary of State. It is time that certain fussy, holier-than-thou Christians understand the stakes. Trump has boorish tendencies, to be sure, and of course is not a perfect candidate or theologian. But Washington will not be awakening from the marble, and Jesus is not running for president. We must vote as best we can. To a nation fraying at the seams, the almost hysterical anti-Trump rhetoric coming from certain evangelical enclaves contributes nothing.

Jon Brown
asheville, north carolina

Matthew Schmitz responds:

Norman Vincent Peale was a good and decent man, and I am grateful to Mark Kellner for reminding us of that fact. The same is not true of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and readers who think that I prefer the latter to the former are mistaken.

About Trump: By saying he is Nietzschean, his critics paint him as foreign and fascistic, as someone who stands far apart from the therapeutic and optimistic strains of American culture. This makes for good denunciation and self-exculpation. It reassures us that Trump’s wrongness does not taint or impurify the rightness of our national character. But it does not help us to understand Trump, who has never picked up a copy of Nietzsche. It is simply a high-brow ad hitlerum.

I wanted not only to avoid this tendency, but also to make light of it, and so I noted that what Hugh Trevor-Roper first observed about the abstemiousness of Mussolini and Hitler is also true of Trump. I meant this only in jest, but Curt Craton raises a real question about it. Let me try to answer.

If our bodies are temples, we should not fear to fill them with smoke. Aaron burned sweet incense every morning before the ark, and again every evening when he lit the lamps. So began an unending offering of prayer, a perpetual incense before the Lord that has lasted through the generations. Let my prayers rise before you as incense, wrote the Psalmist, and those prayers were answered in clouds of smoke as Word became flesh. It was when Zacharias went to the temple to burn incense, that he was visited by an angel who announced the birth of John. Christ’s birth was likewise greeted with frankincense, a fitting offering for the temple that would be rebuilt in three days.

Now, incense is not tobacco, and I consider smoking a beautiful indulgence but an ugly habit. Still, I cannot help but think that a leaf hailed by the French as une volupte nouvelle, the only pleasure unknown in ancient courts, is a fitting symbol for the advent of our Lord. We know what the ancients did not; we taste the sweet presence for which they longed. Christ is the true volupte nouvelle. To those who know him, all other pleasures seem tired and worn.