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The Revenge of God and the Threat to the Open Society
Don’t call it a resurrection
Everywhere, anti-liberals and post-liberals are imposing doctrinaire views of political order, sex and gender, and historical progress with the personal fervor and theological rigidity of zealots. This poses a serious threat to the continuation of liberal pluralist principles that undergird societies where mutual toleration, freedom, and human dignity are highly valued. Such approaches, even when they are ostensibly aligned with efforts to oppose inequalities and abuses, represent a closing of society that we must guard against.
One challenge is that these anti- and post-liberals don’t believe all of these values are necessary for a flourishing society. Adrian Vermeule’s “common-good constitutionalism” is a kind of Augustinian and Hobbesian mish-mash of social contract theory subordinated to a deeply authoritarian set of religious conceits. For Vermeule,
Common-good constitutionalism is not legal positivism, meaning that it is not tethered to particular written instruments of civil law or the will of the legislators who created them. Instead it draws upon an immemorial tradition that includes, in addition to positive law, sources such as the ius gentium—the law of nations or the “general law” common to all civilized legal systems—and principles of objective natural morality. … [C]ommon-good constitutionalism does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, a wise teacher, and an inculcator of good habits. Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them.
Other thinkers share this concept of a good—probably better put as a capital-G Good—authored from time immemorial and in need of being reimposed on society. In 2021, Sohrab Ahmari launched a remarkable piece of invective against conservative Trump critic David French titled “Against David French-ism.” In that essay, he assails the liberal commitments of religious conservatives like French, who are unwilling to abandon principles like individual freedom and mutual toleration.
For Ahmari, the end goal is a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good. As he concludes:
Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.
Frequent Ahmari and Vermeule collaborator Gladden Pappin shares this view. Pappin’s most famous public act so far was undertaken under the guise of a pseudonym. He, along with Julius Krein and others who still remain anonymous, launched The Journal of American Greatness. That short-lived project purported to be “the first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism” and involved a lot of gleeful nose-thumbing at the conservatives panicked by Trump’s rise. Today, Pappin is just one of several American right-wing personalities, Rod Dreher being another, who have decamped to Budapest to study at the feet of Europe’s leading Christian anti-liberal, Viktor Orbán.
Like Ahmari and Vermeule, Pappin’s version of conservatism is infused with a kind of Christian dominionism, influenced by his Catholic faith. He styles himself a “postliberal,” though I find this to be a euphemistic gloss on what can be quite a coercive political philosophy upon close inspection. Writing recently for France’s L’incorrect, Pappin stated, “Today’s right-wing postliberals take a robustly political approach, are open to political strategies and are skeptical of liberalism’s permanence, and heavily accent classic Catholic goals.” That “robust” approach entails subjugating the whole of the political system to a narrow set of orthodox preferences. When asked by Vice reporter Mathew Cassel, “Does being anti-liberal mean doing things like changing the Constitution in your favor?” Pappin responded, “Yes, obviously.”
While Vermeule, Ahmari, and Pappin are all thinkers whose particular Christian beliefs are suffused throughout their ideas about government and society, I don’t think that Christian faith per se is a prerequisite for the broader trend I am describing. That, in fact, is less about faith in god and more about a deep belief in a big truth, one that asserts rigid facts (often, one big fact) about the essential nature of things—as they are, have been, and should or will be. If the rise of modernity euphemistically killed god in some way—through the progress of science and technology, the brutality of the two world wars, or the disorienting wickedness of the Holocaust—a wide cast of anti- and post-liberals are now arrayed to reassert deeply coercive and uncompromising worldviews predicated on capital-T truths that brook no challenge.
Plenty have argued that this or that—but especially politics—has replaced religion. Shadi Hamid claimed in The Atlantic that this is the case in America: “Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.” And he acknowledged, like I must here, that “the notion that all deeply felt conviction is sublimated religion” is a recurring idea.
But I think the pervasive nature of fervent belief in things seen and unseen, centered on often simple but non-negotiable claims of truth, presents real challenges. It leads to a treatment of one’s enemies as evil and dangerous heretics, and their belief systems as being built on the immutable genetic code of human history. It’s more than just explanatory; it’s prophetic. What it never is is wrong.
Moisés Naím’s excellent Revenge of Power is an account of how authoritarian styles and methods have returned to politics in both established and developing democracies around the world in the aftermath of the hopeful period of the 1990s and early 2000s. And the title of this piece is a nod to Naím’s description of how the new populist, faux-democratic form of authoritarianism sweeping the globe constitutes a return of power as a brute thing in 21st century politics. As Naím writes:
It is as if political power had taken stock of every method free societies have devised over the centuries to domesticate it and plotted to strike back. That is why I think of it as the revenge of power … it has arisen from the ashes of an older form of power, devastated by the forces that spelled its end.
This is not an analysis of religiosity in American political life. Neither is it an argument about the role of God in the capital-G sense in our politics. Rather, it’s an observational and unsystematic look at how much of our increasingly tribal and toxic politics resort to faith-like commitments to highly rigid first principles and belief in the immutable, essential nature of big concepts like progress, history, and truth and how these come to operate a sovereign place in the authorization of politics for many.
Sex is Real(ity)
Things not seen is a good pivot point to the current debates around sex precisely because the current binarism in vogue among the “sex is real” and “team empiricism” detractors of trans rights is in fact built on a view of sex that does not hold up to empirical scrutiny. The gender critical movement insists that gender identity and biological sex operate in wholly distinct ways. The latter, they argue, is a fixed thing that cannot be altered by a person’s self-identification.
Such a view reifies a largely cultural notion of sex as binary and immutable. And it provides the starting point for a defense of women’s spaces that zealously excludes trans women. Bathrooms and other spaces where biological sex can be brought to the forefront have dominated these discussions. American readers will be familiar with the wave of bathroom bills that swept red states in the late 2010s. In the United Kingdom, activists have also raised concerns about the supposed dangers of allowing trans women access to women’s shelters. In the U.K., this has also extended to some gay rights activists. The LGB Alliance voices concerns that a focus on gender identity obfuscates and displaces conversations about sexual orientation, but they have also come under heavy fire from trans rights groups. The group opposed the inclusion of transgender conversion therapy in the U.K. gay conversion therapy ban bill on these grounds. In 2020, the U.K.’s chief communications regulator, Dame Melanie Dawes, argued that citing LGB Alliance on trans issues is “entirely inappropriate” and continued “I think this is absurd because you would never do a report on racism, for example, and call in a racist organization to say that they don’t think black people have a right to equality.”
The most extreme activists in gender critical spaces are hostile to the very concept of trans women. As Katelyn Burns put it at Vox, “Gender-critical feminism, at its core, opposes the self-definition of trans people, arguing that anyone born with a vagina is in its own oppressed sex class, while anyone born with a penis is automatically an oppressor.” Critics apply the term “trans exclusionary radical feminist” (TERF) to these activists. And the movement has become especially dominant in the United Kingdom. Writing for The New York Times, feminist scholar Sophie Lewis stressed the focus on trans issues as “junk science” and “the impulse among TERFs to proclaim their ‘no-nonsense’ character; witness the billboard Ms. Parker paid to have put up last fall dryly defining a woman as an ‘adult human female.’”
Many of these women do not see themselves as anti-trans and stress that their efforts are simply focused on “the body” as an essential fact for feminism—and I should say that I think it’s wrong to assume bad faith among everyone who adopts this position. The problem is this is an ideal of sex rather than a well-supported scientific claim. Many children are born exhibiting non-binary sex characteristics. As Gillian Branstetter has observed, medical professionals have for most of modern history displayed little compunction about recommending and performing procedures that curate the sex of a newborn in ways that are either most convenient or preferred by the parents. GLAAD points out on their website that “[t]he most pressing concern in the intersex community is the fact that many intersex children undergo irreversible unnecessary surgeries and treatment—without their consent,” adding that they have historically been viewed as needing to be “fixed.”
Beyond this, the issue of sports competition offers another arena where the supposed immutability of one’s assigned biological sex is on display. Governor Ron DeSantis made Florida one of a number of states to ban trans women from girls sports, and he even went so far as to make a proclamation declaring a Florida athlete the winner over trans NCAA swimmer Lia Thomas.
But the data here once again is murky and not evidence of the immutability of sex. Researchers continue to suggest that hormonal treatment can often achieve the necessary standards of fairness for athletic competition, and IOC guidelines are in line with this view. Moreover, trans men perform extremely well relatively to their male counterparts. This suggests a kind of belief in sex as a particular thing rather than a body of concrete evidence for such a thing. In addition, none of the studies available so far look at outcomes for athletes who began receiving hormonal treatment during puberty.
Throughout all of this is the much more base prejudice of dead-naming and ignoring the preferred pronouns of trans individuals. Frequently, this is done with the semantic flourish of referring to them as “biological males/females.” All of this is done under the banner of the simple proclamation that “sex is real.” But, again, such a proclamation functions better as a statement of belief than as one of biological fact.
I remember growing up around fellow Christians who would insist that they harbored no prejudice against various other faiths—or other denominations for that matter. It’s just that it was clear that the laws of God were black and white, and those other groups were outside of his salvation. I find a certain resonance here with the gender critical insistence that it is not anti-trans to believe that trans people cannot actually change their sex or to insist on referring to trans women as men. How does one square such a skewed proposition?
I am not attacking those who are approaching a fraught issue with caution or even with understandable confusion. In fact, I don’t claim to be a medical or sexuality expert. But much of the hardline, aggressive pushback against trans people and their access to the spaces we all enjoy is about a totalizing, faith-like assertion of the immutable, all-defining nature of sex. And that simply doesn’t hold up.
Michael Knowles’s Albigensian Crusade
For others, it’s not enough to insist on the inflexibility of sex as a biological matter. Trans people are not viewed so much as mistaken in how they express their identities as they are dangerous, heretical ideologues. This is what the new right evokes when it talks about trans ideologies. And it’s what was on display at CPAC when Michael Knowles called for the “eradication” of this thing called “transgenderism.”
Michael Knowles insists there was nothing eliminationist about his declaration that,
For the good of society ... transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely—the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.
When coverage of his speech first appeared, Knowles’s ire was initially directed at a now-altered Daily Beast headline that suggested he had called for the eradication of trans people. Yet how are we supposed to split the difference here? More than one person has noted that calling for the eradication of the belief that trans people can exist and should be allowed to live as such is in fact a call to eradicate trans people–even if it’s not a call to murder them. As Brynn Tannehill observes, Knowles’s argument is in part about the risk posed by trans people to the wider community, that they are carriers of a kind of “contagion” that risks infecting and destabilizing American society and culture. And I have made the case previously here at Arc, when I discussed the broader trend on the hard right of pathologizing their opponents, that this focus on aberrant qualities as highly communicable is central to the demonization of trans people and other groups.
Allow me to bypass the modern examples of genocide altogether and evoke a more ancient, yet still harrowing, example from the 13th century. The horrifying crusade against the Cathars in Languedoc initiated by Pope Innocent III was not a war against an external enemy or a bloody police action against an disruptive group. Instead, it was a campaign of cultural extermination against an idiosyncratic internal group that, to Innocent’s mind, posed a threat to the reforms the papacy had recently imposed in Rome and throughout European Christendom.
Historian Tom Holland notes:
To [Pope Innocent III], the reason for God’s anger was glaring. … Evil as the Saracens were, they were not so evil as heretics. … He could not risk the contamination of the entire Christian people by the Albigensians.
Holland has stressed the distinctly genocidal nature of the Albigensian Crusade:
The crusade against the Albigensians was war of a kind that Christians had never fought before. It was not, as Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons had been, an exercise in territorial expansion, nor was it, in the manner of the crusades that aimed at the liberation of Jerusalem, an armed pilgrimage to a destination of transcendent holiness. Rather, it had as its goal the extirpation of dangerous beliefs.
Much in the way the supposed threat of the Albigensian heresy was more a concoction of the zealousness and ruthlessness of those who took it upon themselves to put it down, the story with Knowles’s “transgenderism” is similar. The simple reality is that transgender people exist and largely desire to live undisturbed as full members of their communities. Knowles’s attack on “transgenderism” is in the voice of a call for purification against a sinister heresy, one that threatens society as a whole. And I see little reason to soften the analysis of it to suit his sensitivities. As Holland describes the panic with which Innocent’s bishops came to regard the Albigensian issue: “heresy was a plague … and plague unchecked was bound to spread.”
True, Knowles has not called to put anyone to the sword. I am compelled by my desire not to be sued for libel to say that he has not called for the killing of any trans people. But his language should make any decent and reasonable person blanch. And the imagery behind it, one of cosmic and cataclysmic vengeance on behalf of a divine mission, is both impossible to ignore and essential to confront.
Beating Crosses Into Hammers and Sickles
Marx may have called religion the opiate of the masses, but today there are many corners in which a pious, self-satisfied, and all-consuming politics of the left passes for political consciousness. It’s one that often indulges authoritarian fantasies of political change in America and treats the brutality of self-styled communist states around the world as either praiseworthy policy or CIA-manufacted disinformation. And it comes with a delirious internalization of Marxian analysis, not as one form of social scientific thought with varyingly useful and weak insights, but as a kind of mystical key to understanding human history—both how we got here and where we are going. Moreover, because the Marxist promised land is a utopian one, the process of coming to understand this is often presented as a kind of faith conversion.
Over the last decade, the Chinese crackdowns in Hong Kong and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been especially useful in highlighting a certain strain of thinking on the far left. This mindset cannot conceive of actions by the these actors as anything but either justified or, where they are most egregious, fabricated. The U.S. and its allies are always already in the wrong. To be clear, this isn’t nuanced political thinking that acknowledges the many failings of America and its allies and rejects tidy, state-sanctioned narratives whenever they arise. Again, it’s a kind of inverted American exceptionalism applied in such a way that the author of all ills is America, its allies, and their particular brand of capitalism. And anyone placed within that framework as an opponent of these forces must, by necessity, be essentially good.
Such people are often derisively called tankies. Noah Smith dedicated a great primer to the current social media phenomenon of tankies. In all their iterations, though, tankies are leftists so committed to an orthodox kind of Marxist-Leninism that they have become stalwart defenders of Communist China and the legacy of Joseph Stalin. Meanwhile, like above, they ascribe every ill imaginable to America, its allies, and especially capitalism—regardless, it should be said, of whether the historical or political context makes any sense for this analysis. Take, for example, popular “educational” account Historic.ly proclaiming Stalin “good” and any suggestions to the contrary the result of “Nazi propaganda.” Or look at the rampant denial of the Chinese state’s abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, for which we have only received increasing and distressing evidence of its reality.
But, in case you’re tempted to relegate this to a case of the very online left, it’s worth noting that organizations like Codepink and publications like Monthly Review have openly fêted authoritarian apologists from the likes of the Qiao Collective and others dedicated to spreading the agitprop of Putin, the Chinese Communist Party, and various supposed bulwarks against Western decadence.
Throughout the Hong Kong protests, Codepink regularly insinuated the movement was a “color revolution.” On the far left and in the propaganda of authoritarian state media emanating from Russia and China, color revolution has become not merely a code for pro-democracy protests attempting to throw off illiberal regimes but for the notion that these events are astroturfed productions of America’s foreign policy agents. Codepink’s China Is Not Our Enemy project, despite the noble message in its name, has regularly held collaborative events with Qiao Collective, an ethno-nationalist outfit that frequently spreads misinformation and Chinese state-sanctioned narratives about domestic and international issues.
In 2020, Monthly Review ran a piece authored by the Qiao Collective that purported to push back on unfair Western narratives about China. It was standard Qiao fare, chalking up the entirety of negative stories about Chinese state activities to American foreign policy interests and propaganda produced by entities like the CIA and National Endowment for Democracy. The piece was condemned by the left-oriented group, Critical China Scholars, which includes academics like David Brophy and Angie Baecker. In their open letter, they wrote:
We fully acknowledge the need for a critique of America’s cynical and self-interested attacks on China’s domestic policies. We are committed to that task. But the left must draw a line at apologia for the campaign of harsh Islamophobic repression now taking place in Xinjiang.
Returning to the question of “Nazi propaganda,” a strain of this also runs through the opposition to Ukraine in hard left circles. Ukraine, it is asserted, is a hotbed of Nazism, the various historical crimes committed against its people are fascist lies, and the Russians really are combating Ukrainian aggressions as they cut their bloody path through the country. Denial of the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine, is at the center of almost all these arguments.
Again, Marxism as a school of scholarly thought and analysis is not really what I’m indicating here. I know and deeply value many academics who make use of analyses and works produced by Marxian historians, sociologists, and political economists. The milieu I am focused on has little about it that is genuinely scholarly. Indeed, many of these self-styled communists are deeply sectarian in their approach and consider various examples of other Marxist thinkers or scholars to be apostates. Similarly, their defense of any and all states that claim a Marxist inheritance as good and those persons or entities that criticize them as evil, even in the face of documented atrocities, is hard to distinguish from religious fanaticism. That fanaticism has, like many religions, a deep conviction in the teleological nature of history and progress. There is a pervasive tendency to label many of the people I mentioned above as merely grifters, co-opted by one authoritarian interest or another, but I think that a certain blind faith more accurately describes many of these individuals. How else do you dismiss with such certainty the accounts of abuse, corruption, and systematic rights violations?
Lest I get charged with committing a ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy here, I should say that almost every actually existing state that has claimed a Communist identity or inheritance has been among the most heinous and authoritarian of the modern world. The Holodomor, Stalin’s Great Purge, and Mao’s Great Leap Forward all stand out as testaments to this. But what’s more interesting to me is the utter devotion these individuals and organizations display to such states simply for being aligned against America and its liberal allies. It’s a kind of sloppy Zoroastrianism animated almost entirely by a preoccupation with the liberal West as ontologically evil. And it leads a kind of delirium in which the mass murder of civilians must be waved off as a mix of Western propaganda and good and necessary sacrifices for the continuation of these states.
I worry a little that this essay will present me as a relativist—which is something I’m not. But I am a pluralist. And a wrinkle of pluralism is that a capital-T conception of Truth is often an insufficient standard for organizing society. As I’ve noted before here at Arc, this is at the core of Popper’s open society.
I also hope it’s clear I’m not attacking personal religious faith in any way but rather a political worldview that stems from a kind of all-powerful authorizing sovereign—“the common good,” binary and immutable sex, historical materialism—that imposes an inflexible operating framework.
It might be said by some of those I’ve named here that liberalism imposes its own systems. But the great paradox of liberalism as an idea is that it rests fundamentally on individual human freedom, a feature that can make it as difficult to pin down as quicksilver. And liberalism accommodates and contains a great range of thought, from socialism to libertarianism.
Moreover, what these rigid frameworks above hold in common is their willingness to accept, and at times even a tendency to actively embrace, coercion and authoritarian methods to put down heretics. This is justified by a habit of viewing such heretical thinkers not merely as different but as agents of harm and evil, or even as evil in and of themselves.
But really it’s that a challenge to the sovereign authority to which they cling cannot be tolerated. Ideology and partisanship are pernicious enough things. But when we believe our conception of politics, society, or even the world is a divinely authored one that is accessible to us in its full and perfect form, we open the door to all manner of oppression of our fellow man.