Rod Dreher

Labradoodle Breeder Ketman

In Trumpworld, nobody knows you’re really a labradoodle (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The great Polish dissident and exile Czeslaw Milosz, in his 1953 book The Captive Mind, discussed the ketman strategy used by people under communism to cope with their condition. The condition is the “constant internal tension” between what they know to be true, and what the system compels them to say is true. Ketman is what you do to conceal from others what you believe is true, on the theory that to be honest would put one at grave risk.

Milosz identified different varieties of ketman. For example, “professional ketman” is the strategy of a lab scientist who convinces himself that it’s fine to go along with whatever the government says, because that’s how he keeps a measure of freedom to do his real scientific work. That is, he formally assents to the lie, and is seen to assent to the lie, for the sake of being able to do the work that matters most to him.

The most profound form of ketman is “metaphysical ketman,” and it is generally seen in countries with a Catholic past, says Milosz. It amounts to putting one’s belief in a metaphysical order (that is to say, religion) on hold to cooperate with the authorities. Milosz cited as an example Catholics in the Soviet bloc who openly cooperated with the authorities, trying to show themselves to be loyal servants of the new regime, and telling themselves that this is something they can do without truly compromising themselves. The person practicing metaphysical ketman thinks he is preserving himself from “total degradation,” and fooling the devil, but the devil knows exactly what he’s doing.

I am thinking right now of how ketman plays out in our time and place. It comes to mind because I’m revising my forthcoming book this week, and am reviewing the part about ketman. When I wrote the book, I was thinking of the way people who know the “diversity” schemes, the “safe space” ideology, and the lot, are lies, but who maintain their position in the system by pretending that they believe it, and by deploying internal rationalization strategies to live with themselves. I’m talking about people who know that all this talk about “equity” and the like is nothing but a cover for rearranging power, and who hope nevertheless to preserve their role within the new order by pretending to believe in it and serve its principles. I believe that college campuses, major corporations, and mainstream media newsrooms are full of ketman-practicers.

This morning, though, I’m wondering about the forms of ketman that people take to continue within the world of Donald Trump. What prompted it was this news:

On January 21, the day the first U.S. case of coronavirus was reported, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services appeared on Fox News to report the latest on the disease as it ravaged China. Alex Azar, a 52-year-old lawyer and former drug industry executive, assured Americans the U.S. government was prepared.

“We developed a diagnostic test at the CDC, so we can confirm if somebody has this,” Azar said. “We will be spreading that diagnostic around the country so that we are able to do rapid testing on site.”

While coronavirus in Wuhan, China, was “potentially serious,” Azar assured viewers in America, it “was one for which we have a playbook.”

Azar’s initial comments misfired on two fronts. Like many U.S. officials, from President Donald Trump on down, he underestimated the pandemic’s severity. He also overestimated his agency’s preparedness.

As is now widely known, two agencies Azar oversaw as HHS secretary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, wouldn’t come up with viable tests for five and half weeks, even as other countries and the World Health Organization had already prepared their own.

Shortly after his televised comments, Azar tapped a trusted aide with minimal public health experience to lead the agency’s day-to-day response to COVID-19. The aide, Brian Harrison, had joined the department after running a dog-breeding business for six years. Five sources say some officials in the White House derisively called him “the dog breeder.”

Azar’s optimistic public pronouncement and choice of an inexperienced manager are emblematic of his agency’s oft-troubled response to the crisis. His HHS is a behemoth department, overseeing almost every federal public health agency in the country, with a $1.3 trillion budget that exceeds the gross national product of most countries.

A labradoodle breeder. America was facing one of the most critical crises of its entire history, and who did this administration put in charge of day-to-day COVID response? A guy whose previous job was managing dogs screwing for profit.

Hey, the labradoodles Brian Harrison’s business produced are beautiful dogs! But come on. Come on! This is on the same level as the G.W. Bush administration putting a GOP hack whose job was working with Arabian horses in charge of FEMA, and then here comes Katrina.

At this point in the Trump administration’s tenure, though, one hardly notices. One has come to expect it, in fact. Why not a labradoodle breeder in charge of managing the US Government’s response to a deadly global pandemic? Is that any worse than the president’s son-in-law managing anything for the government?

So, my question here is, what kind of ketman does it require for honest conservatives to continue working in, or otherwise supporting, this administration? I’m not talking about true believers here, so if you are a true believer in Trump, stand down; this is not about you.

I’m also not talking about conservatives who know that this guy is a fraud and an incompetent, but are sticking by him anyway for purely practical reasons (e.g., judges, fear of Democratic rule). I was likely to be that guy this November, but the severity of this crisis, and this administration’s handling of it, has made me strongly reconsider.

What I’m talking about is those people, both employees within the administration and supporters of it, who in their heart know how rotten this whole thing is, but who outwardly continue to support Trump. How do they do it? I’m not asking that in a rhetorical sense, e.g., “How do these people live with themselves?!” I’m asking in the spirit of Milosz, trying to figure out the specifics of the mental strategy.

I think people like Dr. Fauci, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and others practice, or practiced, professional ketman. Frankly, I am glad that Fauci is doing it, because think of the alternative. My guess is that Fauci recognizes that if he said what he really thought, he would be out of a job, and who knows who would be put in charge of his critical agency in this time of national emergency? Maybe Dr. Oz. Maybe an expert in kitty humping from New Jersey.

I think there is probably some metaphysical ketman going on, though, among Republican regulars. True, they believed in the old Republican Party line, but didn’t the 2016 primaries and election show that GOP voters don’t share the old faith? Now the New Faith is here, and maybe some good can come out of it for conservatism if they, as reliable GOP establishmentarians, work with the administration loyally. Deep down, they know that they are having to affirm things they know aren’t true, and are forced to pretend that the administration is competently running things, and even working hard to “drain the swamp.” But they justify it to themselves by convincing themselves that there is ultimate meaning here, and that they haven’t betrayed their principles at all. Sure, Trump is awful in many ways, but you have to give him credit for breaking new ground, and getting rid of structures that had outlived their usefulness. He’s a man they can work with. These people don’t respect Trump at all, but think that they are somehow keeping their inner citadel unviolated by serving him with stoic dedication.

I am sure Trump has their number, and is not in any way fooled by them. He is a cunning man.

Readers, if you want to talk about varieties of Trump ketman, please do. If you want to talk about forms of progressive ketman, I welcome that. What I urge you to do — and I’m going to approve comments with this in mind — is to make sure you understand what I’m talking about here. Again: I’m not talking about people who are true believers (in Trump, in diversity ideology, whatever), nor am I talking about people who openly admit that by supporting Trump, or [fill in the blank], they are siding with a figure or a cause that is deeply flawed, but which they embrace for purely transactional reasons.

I am talking instead about how individuals navigate the tension between who they really are, and who they pretend to be. I am talking about those people who in their innermost selves believe that the figure or the cause they serve is rotten and unjustifiable, but who outwardly present themselves as true believers. How do they manage the cognitive dissonance?

There are a lot of people who work in ministry or church administration who are well practiced in metaphysical ketman. I’d like to hear from some of you who have practiced this, or seen others practice it. I’ve talked to Catholic priests over the years who are expert in practicing professional ketman vis-a-vis their bishops, believing that if they just pretend to be cheerful team players, they will be left alone to do the work that really matters to them in the parish. What would it be like to descend below professional ketman, within Church government, and to practice metaphysical ketman?

I can think of one case in particular in which I worked with someone who was manifestly incompetent, but who had been hired for diversity reasons. After this person’s utter inability to do the job became clear, I made my views known to my superior, and after that said nothing else. My boss, who I greatly respected, knew exactly what I thought, but my boss also knew that as a matter of professional responsibility, I was going to do my best to be a team player, and help the team succeed. Eventually it didn’t work, and the hire moved on. I did not practice ketman, though, because I never allowed myself to be seen as a supporter of this hire or the ideology that caused it to happen.

Anyway, ketman. Let’s hear what you have to say. Labradoodle Breeder ketman is today’s most exciting form of ketman, don’t you think?


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