Ross Douthat, a very conservative Catholic, is persistently the most interesting of The NY Times’s stable of right wing columnists.
For me that’s because he frequently articulates perspectives that resonate to my experience, even if most of his desired remedies sound predictably retrograde.
Take, for instance, this reflection from August 6, 2019 on the recent carnage in El Paso & Dayton:
“I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that.
But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.”
Thus far, I’m with him (& by extension, New Ager Williamson):
“dark psychic forces” and “demonic elements” are real, even if hard to nail down & hazardous to apply; but there’s more going on here than a tweeter under an Orange hairpiece spouting hate.
Douthat does his best to link these:
“But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career. . . .”
“A spiritual black hole”; a useful metaphor, useful because it points at something hard to reduce to poll numbers, but which I too am convinced is really there. (My “enlightenment” came not out of “Miracle” weekend retreats, but from spending more than a decade working with soldiers and families shattered by U.S. wars.)
Douthat: “Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology).”
Not that I dismiss “gun policy” or facing off against racism. But of the responses by Democratic presidential candidates, the one way out front for me is Beto O’Rourke’s shout of rage in El Paso about 45’s stream of vocal excrement, followed by the profanely apt cry of “WTF!” There are times when expletives are appropriate: when facing the bloody work of demonic monsters is one.
Douthat: “But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one. . . .”
He’s still right. Douthat then goes on to sketch his usual religious conservative program as the response, and here I mostly part ways. But I won’t belabor all that.
Douthat: “But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.”
That goes for progressives too, who mainly stay in a secular, technocratic lane. But how does one take on “dark psychic forces” which loose “moral and spiritual” barrages on us?
Religious conservatives don’t have an answer to this, in my experience; but they at least have a name for an answer: “spiritual warfare,” drawing on Bible passages such as 2 Corinthians 10 and Ephesians 6.
But these passages are highly metaphorical too, and the practical recipes I’ve looked at mainly boil down to commands to “Pray a lot, send money (and vote Republican).”
Douthat’s is a more sophisticated version of this; but he can have it. What do Democratic techno-wonks have to say? Not much. Among the current presidential flock, only one stands out, Mayor Pete. From the first round Democratic debate:
“. . .[F]or a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is ok, to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
Of course, that shot hit the target not only because of its truth, but also because Buttigieg actually takes religion seriously. Yet it’s also a useful example. If progressives are going to take on those who are whipping up the dark psychic forces, I’m one who thinks it will take more than position papers, polls and platitudes.
I’m particularly mindful of that today, August 6th, in the shadow of Hiroshima. Some can look at the images from that day and see only a mushroom cloud, a technical or diplomatic problem.
I see more: a spiritual black hole. One we, or our parents, opened, and never closed.