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Rod Dreher’s Race Problem

In wading into the “shithole” debate, Dreher betrays the dark side of his reverence for Western civilization.

Max Becherer/The Washington Post/Getty

Last week, Rod Dreher, one of the country’s leading conservative intellectuals, offered a defense of Donald Trump’s notorious “shithole” comments, in which the president bemoaned the fact that immigrants from “shithole” countries in Africa and elsewhere were coming to the United States. “The whole thing is more morally challenging than I initially thought,” Dreher wrote from his longtime perch at The American Conservative. What followed was a slip of the mask, a valuable insight into the uglier ideas that undergird Dreher’s great project of preserving Western civilization.

“Let’s think about Section 8 housing,” he wrote, referring to public housing for low-income Americans, many of them minorities. “If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? Be honest with yourself. Nobody would consider this good news. You wouldn’t consider it good news because you don’t want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighborhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?”

The connection between immigration and racial integration was so strong that it quickly drew attention on social media from writers like Jamelle Bouie. Dreher was hardly alone in this line of thinking, aggregating similar sentiments from several conservative columns. Dreher quoted a former Peace Corps volunteer’s visceral description of Senegal’s “fecalized environment.” He cited a columnist worrying that political correctness over immigration could result in another Rotherham, the English city where a group of Muslims abused some 1,400 children. Dreher’s objection to Trump’s comments were aesthetic—“crude and undiplomatic,” he called them—but on the moral side of the “shithole” equation, Trump had a point.

The blog post was classic Dreher, both in its palpable disdain for the poor and in its dubious racial politics. The Orthodox Christian writer did not specifically refer to people of color, but he didn’t need to; he just invoked their ghostly outlines and let the reader fill them in. His defense of Trump’s remarks are damning, not only for him personally, but for a certain kind of conservative intellectual who believes he is better than the vulgar ethno-nationalists at Breitbart. It is the logical end of a train of thought that often trails off and goes unspoken, just as those minorities in Dreher’s post are not directly identified but targeted under broad euphemisms like “the poor.”

It is a conspicuous silence that has been there all along. An examination of Dreher’s body of work reveals that his “shithole” defense is not an anomaly. Dreher has dedicated most of his written output to establishing two principle claims: that Western civilization is mankind’s supreme achievement, and that it is under attack. This is where the trouble starts: If the West is threatened, who are its enemies?

Dreher does not claim to be anything so gauche as a segregationist or a neo-Confederate. He has blogged for The American Conservative, an eclectic journal, since 2008, and has enough of a following that his culture war diaries make the regular outrage rounds on Twitter. He’s written four books, which have received generous treatments in prominent outlets like NPR and National Review. His latest, The Benedict Option, inspired a sympathetic profile in The New Yorker and confirmed his reputation as a leading thinker on the right.

Dreher’s dance around the issue of race is a fretful, obsessive one. Since 2015, he’s made nine references on his blog to The Camp of the Saints, the infamous 1971 novel by Jean Raspail that envisioned mass immigration from the developing world destroying Western civilization. From its apocalyptic warnings of white genocide Dreher gleaned a lesson. “It is offensive to read how Raspail depicts all non-Westerners as faceless, frightening hordes,” he admitted in a September 2015 post. “Yet beneath the ugliness of that, the novel makes some hard to ignore points. From what I can tell so far—and I’m only about a quarter of the way through the novel—the book is not about race, but about culture, and the West having become too broad-minded and humane to protect itself from an unarmed invasion by people who do not share its culture, and who do not want to adopt its culture, but only want to peace, security, and prosperity of the West.”

A week later, after finishing the book, he concluded that Raspail expressed himself “crudely” (that word again), that the novel is even “repulsive,” but that it also possessed merit he did not expect. “In the book, the militant pro-migrant humanitarianism of the elites and the masses that follow them do not reflect moral strength, but actually exemplify moral exhaustion,” he wrote. Weeks later, another turn of the screw: In a post called “It Really Is Camp of the Saints,” he announced, “The German village of Sumte (pop. 102) has been told it has to receive 750 asylum seekers. This will, of course, obliterate the village for all intents and purposes. But who cares about them, right?”

Notice that the specific ways in which this town would be “obliterated” go unstated. Sumte was going to get browner and more Muslim; it was going to be less white and less Christian. Dreher’s concluding remark: “Interesting.”

The Benedict Option chronicles Dreher’s visit to the Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy, and his growing conviction that faithful Christians, instead of imposing their vision of the good on a hostile world, may need to withdraw from it temporarily to remain true to their beliefs. It is separatism as spiritual quarantine—not an original idea within the global history of Christendom, as Dreher himself admits, but one he hopes to revive for current and future generations. Dreher admires intentional Christian communities, which can be loosely defined as groups of co-religionists who choose to live close to one another and often participate in communal worship and education. In The Benedict Option, he glowingly profiles a number of them, including a Catholic community in Hyattsville, Maryland. Dreher credits Christians for playing “a big part” in Hyattsville’s “renaissance,” but he fails to mention that the town is historically black, has always been Christian, and is gentrifying. After the publication of his book, some Catholics of color reported feeling excluded from the parish in question.

The Benedict Option, in fact, hardly mentions race at all. I found three mentions of the subject in its 272 pages. The most substantive discussion of it appears on page 159, where Dreher acknowledges that many private Christian schools in the South started out as segregation academies. That history, he writes, may “unfairly (but understandably)” make “African Americans and others suspicious of Benedict Option education initiatives.” The solution he puts forward is for these schools to recruit more black families. Forget public education, which historically has been ground zero in the fight for civil rights. For Christian families, only classical Christian education or homeschooling will do.

It seemingly never occurs to Dreher that classical Christian schools prioritize the Western canon at the expense of non-Western contributions to the arts and sciences. In fact, that these schools might have little to offer black and other minority families is something he cannot admit at all. The Benedict Option isn’t just a vision for Christian “strategic retreat.” It’s a full-throated defense of the West, which in Dreher’s writing is linked with Christianity. “It is not enough to present students with facts about Western civilization—the civilization that is the father and mother of every citizen of the West, whether their ancestors immigrated from Africa or Asia, and even if, like me, their Christian confession is Byzantine,” he asserts. No, you have to teach kids to love it, too, which means Christian educators should practice the “art of intellectual seduction.”

Dreher’s framing in this instance is telling. The ancestors of most black Americans did not “immigrate” from Africa; the Middle Passage was not a leisurely cruise. Insisting, as Dreher does, that the West is their beneficent father and mother is bizarre, if not downright insulting. But to Dreher, these skeptical Americans must be seduced into a love affair with Western culture. What a pluralistic society—with different outlooks, different faiths, different colors—might look like to Dreher remains something of a mystery.

Because he is such a prolific writer, there is much to learn from what Dreher chooses not to say. On race, his work is a series of silences, yet he is a font of words when it comes to very fine points of European culture. His ode to salami, for example, speaks volumes about what Dreher values. “Aside from being delicious, the cuisines of European countries are expressions of deep and abiding traditions,” he wrote at his blog. “I have a sacramental mentality, which means that I don’t sit down at a table in the Umbrian mountains and eat an antipasti platter of cured meats and experience them as merely delicious.” Dreher loves the meats so much that he wants to learn all about them, to better understand their role in local traditions. “I love old things, old buildings, old rites, and old places,” he explained.

His affection for meats contrasts sharply with his notorious 2001 New York Post editorial on the death of the R&B singer Aaliyah. It was her funeral, specifically, that offended him; he loathed its grandeur, and the largeness of the grief it contained. He took special exception to her horse-drawn cortege. She was no Byron, he observed, concluding, “The family of Aaliyah, a beloved daughter but undistinguished singer of forgettable pop songs, does the poor woman’s memory no favors with this tasteless gesture.”

A politics of supremacy is at work here. Some things should be revered, others not; the cultural importance of Italian meats outweighs the cultural importance of Aaliyah. From this Dreher draws a secondary conclusion, which is that what is most precious must be protected from what is most profane. The Benedict Option is a means to ensure purity. In his book, he dreams of “little shires” where Christians will sanctify themselves and offer “light-filled alternatives” to the raging hedonism of a darkening world. These shires will be free of birth control pills, and transgender people, and presumably Aaliyah; the hobbits will speak Latin and revere liturgy and their insularity will protect them from everything and everyone that could corrupt them. Muslims, Dreher has suggested, could form their own shires.

Though Dreher is loath to talk about race, his West-is-Best approach traps him in a specific racial politics. So he responds by being adamant that he is not racist, and that his critics are. Jemar Tisby, a black Christian who criticized the “shithole” post, supports “self-segregation” and is therefore the real racist. Diversity can be a form of persecution, in fact, and at universities, he warned in another post, social justice warriors rule and Christians are “dhimmis.” That word is popular with the alt-right, where it mostly functions as a conspiracy theory: Adherents believe that in a world run by Muslims, non-Muslims will be subjected to institutionalized discrimination. What a luxury it must be, to fear the far-fetched and to long for a past that is still very much with us.