“White Pride and Prejudice” by Ross Douthat
“My dear Mr. Douthat,” said the internet one day. “Have you heard that the alt-right has laid claim to Jane Austen?” I replied that I had not. “But they have,” returned she; “for The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times have told me all about it.” I made no answer. “Do you want to know how they have taken possession of her?” cried the internet impatiently. “You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” That was invitation enough….
…amid all the academic arguments about whether [Austen] was a Tory or a crypto-radical, much of her popular appeal clearly rests on the contrast between her social world and ours — the sense that hers was more romantic and more civilized, and that in becoming more liberal and egalitarian we have maybe also sunk a bit toward barbarism. This feeling, common to many Janeites of my acquaintance, is a reactionary frisson, not a real step away from liberalism. Nor is the overt misogyny and racism of alt-right Austenites likely to woo many normal Austen readers down that particular rabbit hole. Unless someday illiberalism comes as a Darcy rather than a Wickham.” END QUOTE
Be not annoyed on receiving this open letter, by the apprehension of its containing any disrespect toward your clever and provocative riff on Jane Austen as posthumous victim of an alt-right attempted literary coup. The effort which the formation and the perusal of this letter must occasion, should have been spared, had not a shade of Mr. Darcy’s character (in contrast to the liberalism your last sentence assumed) required it to be written and read. You must, therefore, pardon the freedom with which I demand your attention; your feelings, I know, will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice.
Two issues of a very different nature, and by no means of equal magnitude, occurred to me as I read your op/ed piece.
The first was prompted by your final sentence “Unless someday illiberalism comes as a Darcy rather than a Wickham”. I assume you chose your words carefully, and that you wrote about Darcy and liberalism, because you knew that the word “liberal” is used six times in Pride & Prejudice to describe Darcy:
“Can such abominable pride as his have ever done him good?” “Yes. It has often led him to be LIBERAL and generous, to give his money freely, to display hospitality, to assist his tenants, and relieve the poor.
“…His pride never deserts him; but with the rich he is LIBERAL-minded, just, sincere, rational, honourable, and perhaps agreeable—allowing something for fortune and figure.”
“…But he is a LIBERAL master, I suppose, and that in the eye of a servant comprehends every virtue.”
“It was acknowledged, however, that he was a LIBERAL man, and did much good among the poor.”
“…you yourself, when last at Longbourn, heard in what manner he spoke of the man who had behaved with such forbearance and LIBERALITY towards him…”
“It was reasonable that he should feel he had been wrong; he had LIBERALITY, and he had the means of exercising it…”
And so I understand why you --- and almost everyone else who has read P&P during the past 2 centuries --- believe that Jane Austen meant for us all to take those half dozen “liberal” usages to heart, and to come to realize, as Elizabeth Bennet does, that Mr. Darcy really is a good (liberal) guy after all.
However, my dear Mr. Douthat, perhaps there is more to Jane Austen’s novels than has been dreamt of in your philosophy; and had you read my following blog post…
…. you would realize that those last words you wrote have a secondary meaning you did not intend.
I assume that you require further inducement to read my above-linked post, so allow me to briefly explain myself, beginning by borrowing from Bill Maher’s joke last night about the Freedom Caucus. Maher drily observed that these 26 powerful white gentlemen are too polite to deal with women’s genitals by grabbing them – they prefer to control them by legislation.
In that same vein, the Mr. Darcy of what I call the “shadow story” of Pride & Prejudice is no gentleman, he’s an aristocratic ogre who was not, like Wickham, so heavy-handed a rogue as to run away with a young lady outside wedlock, using lies and flattery. Rather, he preferred to quietly take complete control over the woman who has dared to refuse his proposal of marriage, by other means.
Darcy’s far better plan was to set in motion a calculated disinformation campaign, fueled by his vast resources of money, power, and prestige, including a fully stage-managed trip for his “mark” to a fantasy world in which Mr. Darcy is portrayed by well-prepared surrogates as a god among men. That “show”, in short order, successfully manipulates an impressionable, vulnerable young woman (Elizabeth, not Lydia, Bennet).
By double-dealing and disguise (which actually is the shadow Darcy’s delight rather than his abhorrence), he reduces to rubble Elizabeth’s initial audacious and well-founded resistance to his attractions. And, for good measure, this duke of Darcy corners lets her dangle in the wind, believing all is lost for herself and her family, before he finally moves in to close the deal. And that’s the unintended meaning I saw in your final sentence --- Jane Austen deliberately created two alternative Mr. Darcys, and illiberalism did indeed come in the form of one of them!
This, sir, is a faithful narrative of every event regarding the true character of Mr. Darcy, in which we have been concerned together; and if you do not absolutely reject it as false, you will, I hope, acquit me henceforth of cruelty towards him. As I’ve briefly summarized, above, I believe I know in what manner, under what form of falsehood, he had imposed on you and everyone else; but his success is not perhaps to be wondered at. Ignorant as you previously were of everything concerning either, detection could not be in your power, and suspicion certainly not in your inclination.
For the truth of everything here related, I can appeal more particularly to the testimony of Jane Austen, who, by virtue of writing Pride & Prejudice, has been unavoidably acquainted with every particular of these transactions. If your suspicion of my being a crazy conspiracy theorist should make my assertions valueless, you cannot be prevented by the same cause from confiding in her.
Which brings me to my second principal point, which consists of a large irony, that I believe Jane Austen would have recognized in all of the above, and which ---all joking aside ----- actually goes to the heart of the alt-right’s attempted Jane Austen coup, and why it matters even more than you’ve already suggested.
We all know by now that the first page of the alt-right playbook contains one sentence:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you lie, and your lie is challenged, you will avoid political damage, if you just claim that you’re telling an “alternative fact (or truth).”
The left and the mainstream media so far have a pretty poor track record in defeating that Machiavellian (or Bannonesque) strategy. But here’s the irony – I am well aware that the alt-right’s “alternative facts” sound a lot like my claim that each of Jane Austen’s novels, including Pride & Prejudice, is a double story, with two independent, parallel fictional universes. So who am I, then, to be calling them out, when I seem to be working from the same playbook?
I explain that crucial distinction by pointing out that I also claim that Jane Austen was a secret radical feminist, who strove to give her mostly female readers the experience of interpreting a love story in two different ways, depending on point of view (i.e., reading her narration as objective, infallible fact, or reading it as subjective, fallible opinion). In contrast, Donald Trump et al have succeeded in confusing many of their followers, by making it seem as if there can never be any truth at all, which opens the door wide to emotional manipulation on a nationwide scale.
Stated another way, Jane Austen’s didactic goal was to help her female readers learn, by safely practicing their debunking skills reading and rereading her “romance” novels, how to protect themselves from both the Wickhams and the Darcys of her world – because, in the end of the day, the small piranha and the large killer whale both eat you up.
Perfect objectivity is a goal humans can never reach, but the healthy response to that central fact of human cognition is not nihilistic passivity. There is no omniscient narrator perched on our shoulder in real life, so we must struggle every day toward objectivity. By learning to recognize how our subjective pride and prejudice distort our vision, we can avoid being persuaded by con men using heavy handed methods of persuasion which prey on our perceptual vulnerabilities. As a people, via that struggle, we can continue to strive toward the more perfect union our founders dreamt of. And, for what it’s worth, I am also convinced that Jane Austen would have cheered upon hearing Madeline Albright’s opinion about women who don’t help other women. If you attend the next Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) in Huntington Beach in mid-October, I’ll be elaborating on that very theme as one of the presenters.
I will only add, God bless you---but perhaps more important, Jane help us all learn how to get much better at knowing when we’re being lied to, when we’re being turned on to a good new idea that at first seems too strange to be valid, and how to develop the wisdom to know the difference.
The Real Internet (aka Arnie Perlstein)
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter