I’m even more sick of Rod Dreher than usual. I was obliged to write about the logorrheic American Conservative blogger and Benedict Option huckster a few days ago, and expected to take a few weeks off before wading through his sluices again. But, idle hands/devil’s playground and all that, I skimmed his slough and found something that was, as usual, ridiculous and, as often, hilarious. Unfortunately I couldn’t simply laugh it off, though, because it reminded me of another weird trend in current American political insanity.
The Dreher thing is one of his shrieks against witches and satanic influences in popular culture. If you’ve been around a while, you may remember when this used to be an extremely popular racket with rightwingers. The most famous usage was probably evangelist Pat Robertson’s 1992 description of the Equal Rights Amendment as the product of “a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Har de har har. But there were plenty of people who bought it, and it helped stop the ERA. America experienced many manifestations of “Satanic panic” in those days, and conservatives weren’t embarrassed to associate their cause with Jesus and their opponents with the Prince of Darkness.
Think of how excited rightwingers got in 2004 over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, with its swarthy Jewish tormentors and female Satan. (Here’s a Times story in which you can read a then-little-known Steve Bannon raving about the film and how “99 per cent of the content in the media’s sewage pipes is the culture of death, not life.”)
Back then the unaccountably popular blogger Elizabeth Scalia, who used to call herself “The Anchoress,” used to say things like “it seems like Old Scratch — who we know likes to get in the way of people trying to do good things — is doing his darndest to get in the way of the weekend…” Moldy figs like Marvin Olasky lamented that the kids didn’t love Easter anymore.
When goofy GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell revealed in 2010 that she’d dabbled in witchcraft, the conservative response was that it was actually Democrats who were demonic. (Future Breitbart writer John Nolte: “Does anyone find a young naive girl [or woman] under the influence of a guy she digs temporarily taking a wrong turn into witchcraft even a tenth as creepy as a grown man taking his children into Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church?”) A Virginia GOP candidate claimed yoga is a path to hell, etc.
For a while Republicans found it politically expedient to downplay this Dark-Lord stuff. But in this age of Trump and QAnon nuts who think all their enemies are Satanists, you’ll still see top guys like Sen. Mike Lee calling voting rights legislation “a bill as if written in hell by the devil himself” and so forth.
Rod Dreher has never been comfortable with anything even playfully Satanic, or even Halloween — as he said in 2008, “my friend, the Louisiana exorcist, strongly warned against it (and told pretty scary personal stories to explain his point).” (Exorcism is one of Dreher’s surefire topics.) Yesterday he flipped out over a cute Twix Halloween ad in which a little boy who likes to wear dresses gets a nanny who looks like a goth witch and, when bullies give him a hard time, the witch nanny blows them away:
So: a genderfluid little boy bonds with his witch nanny when she uses her occult powers to punish bullies who tell him that boys don’t wear dresses. Thanks, Woke Capitalism.
What is the message of this two-minute clip? That genderfluidity is right and good, and opposing it is what wicked bullies do. That a child struggling with gender dysphoria can turn to the occult for assistance, and to smite his enemies. God made them male and female, says the Bible, but the power of the occult can be accessed to overturn that bigotry.
This radical message, embedded in a humorous ad for Halloween candy.
This is an aspect of the weird totalitarianism we are living through today…
The whole thing is nuts and I picked some of the riper ones on Twitter. But later I thought about Dreher’s outrage and what’s behind it.
For some of us, fantasy is a pleasant diversion. But for the persecuted, neglected, and despised — or those of us who just sometimes feel that way — it’s a blessing. Whether it’s an exalted allegorical fable with elves and orcs and whatnot, or just a comic book superhero with whom you find you have a lot in common, it may be your best, indeed only relief. You may walk through a world of uncomprehending parents or bosses, of friends who betray you when things get rough, and of strangers who seem only to belittle or exploit you, but when you get home from that you can rely on fantasy to rewrite the script.
You can make up your own fantasy, but it’s even better when you can read or watch or listen to one that was devised by somebody else, because you not only get to script-flip, you also get to share with the author at the other end that need and that relief.
Fantasy isn’t always benign, of course. There are people whose feeling of oppression so blocks off their other feelings that they seek not justice but vengeance. Sometimes these people are unfortunate enough to find fantasy stories that exacerbate this tendency — like the Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who read a bunch of American rightwing rage merchants and decided to go to Christchurch, New Zealand and make his and their fantasy real.
So it’s good that a lot of people who might otherwise have nothing, or the worse-than-nothing that Tarrant got, can find less harmful and perhaps even constructive fantasy fodder. One encouraging development in recent years has been the proliferation of YA literature that helps kids, including LGBTQ kids, find their way through the confusions of teenage life. And if those fantasies don’t necessarily solve their problems, at least they may supply alternative scenarios where the frightened, uncertain kid is not just a victim — who, if his victimhood persists, may over time come to believe he deserves it — but also a potential victor.
The Twix commercial looks like that to me, and I can tell that’s what Dreher, a vicious bigot, hates about it. He would prefer a world where the kid who likes to wear dresses is not only bullied, but deprived of any avenue of relief from that bullying — even the surcease of fantasy. He wants that kid to not even imagine any interpretation of his desire except that it is sinful, and to hate himself as much as Dreher hates him and, as I believe, hates himself, so that the kid will end up twisted and angry and will displace his anger onto other people who are as non-conforming as he once was, the way a good Christian should, and thus spread the power of the shame and fear Dreher exalts.
That’s also what the whole Satanic panic is about, why they’re trying to purge YA reading lists, and why Halloween still gives them the willies — because they know that if we refuse to take their scary hellfire stories seriously, if we instead dream of good witches, and of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas and other fantasies that mock their religious terrorism and let us instead claim the power they seek to hold over us for ourselves, then they’re finished. And as far as I’m concerned that can’t come soon enough.