The Thomas Achord Affair (and What it Taught Us)

The Thomas Achord Affair (and What it Taught Us) December 3, 2022

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I had a lovely Thanksgiving at home with my family. Sadly, while I was doing my best to unplug and count my blessings, Twitter was roiling with a deeply troubling, ugly clash over the secret online life of a classical Christian school headmaster. The whole sorry little scandal erupted in such a small pond, relatively speaking, that my agnostic writer friend Ben Sixsmith joked he had no idea what we were all arguing about, but it looked like Christian Twitter “was struggling to reach an Achord. Hahaha.” One of Ben’s followers tried to give him the one-line summary, “Christian headmaster a secret online Nietzschean shitposter.” It wasn’t bad. I was impressed.

My own personal timeline stayed a little quieter than the rest of Christian Twitter through the peak of this particular Christian Twitter storm. This is because I chose to set my account to private before driving home for the holiday. I had a good reason for this: The minute I had started to say anything even vaguely connected to the whole thing, I had been rather nastily quote-tweeted by some little rando who accused me of being the sort of woman who just loves “doxxing” and destroying people online. In this respect, I was apparently just like my friend Neil Shenvi, whom I had defended as a thoughtful writer and all-round mensch. I had put this observation out there in one of those “apropos of nothing” tweets which is obviously about something, in this case the small part that Neil played in catalyzing L’Affaire Achord.

I’m not going to rehash the sordid details of the case very much beyond the one-sentence summary above. If you know, you know. If you don’t know, you can get caught up with Rod Dreher—see this post for his initial reaction and key contributions to L’Affaire, which hit close to home as it concerned his family’s school, and this post for his incandescent reaction to our secret Nietzschean headmaster’s pathetically lame “confession.” TL;DR: Achord initially insisted that the creepily racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic shitposting account known as “Tulius Aadland” was absolutely positively not his, although the school had still fired him after a “cordial conversation,” mysteriously. Thus shrouding himself in wounded virtue, he implored everyone to contribute to a GiveSendGo account a friend had set up to support his family—a friend who, equally mysteriously, happened to be in the microscopic Facebook friends circle of the Facebook mirror of said creepily racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic shitposting account. That’s just a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg of completely public circumstantial evidence that convinced most reasonable observers he was obviously a lying creep, even before the “confession” where he “remembered” that the gate key account actually was his, he had just been in a fugue state and blanked it out. As Dave Barry would say, we swear we are not making this up. Even if I hadn’t seen receipts that would make the case against Alger Hiss look shaky, I would have been tipped off by Achord’s own initial self-defense essay, which read like a high school rhetoric student’s last-minute homework assignment. I should know, having graded high school rhetoric students’ last-minute homework assignments.

Anyway, as Rod details, the debate around Thomas Achord was a flashpoint for a bigger clash around this new book by Stephen Wolfe on Christian nationalism that everyone’s been talking about in my mentions lately. Wolfe was at the center of the firestorm because he and Achord were co-writers/podcasters. Wolfe denies having known anything about Achord’s alter-ego. The rest of us have drawn our own conclusions. Meanwhile, Wolfe wants everyone to get back to reading and talking about his book, which sensible critics like Shenvi and Kevin DeYoung have already been doing, at great length (Shenvi’s review is four parts long—I’ve only linked part one). Indeed, as Jonathan Tomes points out at Mere Orthodoxy, that’s exactly what people were doing when they quoted a particular relevant thread from Achord’s burner, which was so easily linkable to Achord that they assumed this wasn’t a state secret. Indeed, Achord himself apparently forgot to pretend the account wasn’t his, since he interacted with Shenvi in a way that sure made it sound like he had written the thread.

Me, I approach L’Affaire more like Rod Dreher approached it: as someone who cares very much about classical Christian education, but doesn’t care very much about Christian Nationalism. I have a couple friends who find it endlessly fascinating, which is awesome for them, but I’m not going to read a 500-page political theology book—any 500-page political theology book. I’m just not. Not my circus, etc. (Although, if those friends insist, maybe I’ll read the two or three chapters that are rather good, actually, or so they tell me.) With that, my thoughts here are going to focus less on Whether the Christian Nationalism Project Can be Saved From Creepy Racism and more on a few of the more-interesting-to-me meta-debates this debate has generated. In particular, I want to throw some pennies on the pile about online anonymity, identity, and the role of conservative Christian men in “negative world,” as Aaron Renn has coined it.

For some people, a main takeaway from this mess is that we need to discourage online anonymity. Shane Morris lays out this view in a Twitter thread here. Here’s his argument:

I think there’s prob an argument in some cases for using online pseudonyms. But those most passionate about them seem to be: a.) Seriously overestimating the importance of saying things on Twitter, & b.) ignoring that the rly troublesome pseudonyms are idea ppl & teachers by day. IOW, if you’re a dude who works at Starbucks and you’re worried your conservative opinions will get you canceled, why is it so important to share them thru an anon? And if you’re a teacher, writer, or pastor…why are you hiding what you believe? In my estimation, the sheer ubiquity of anon accounts in some quarters has bred a radioactive climate that does far, far more harm than good. It’s easy to convince yourself today that every Tom, Dick, and Harry needs a consequence-free digital platform to air opinions. But this is part of the spell of the internet. Until very recently, only a tiny % of people had the ability to publicly opine on every headline. There’s a reason we have names and faces. It isn’t so that we can ritualistically divorce them from our ideas en masse. Again, there are probably exceptions. But the dustups we’ve seen lately involve whole gaggles of nameless, faceless actors, often producing awful ideas.

Now, I agree with some of what Shane is getting at here. We did see gaggles of nameless, faceless actors whip themselves up into the sort of mob frenzy that one normally thinks of as the purview of the left. At a certain point I began lurking on certain sub-threads, taking note of which of my followers had written or “liked” certain tweets, and pruning my list accordingly. It was also equal parts comical and unnerving to see grandiose declarations of “war” in the aftermath of the full reveal, with lots of inflated rhetoric about what “we” are going to say and do now that someone has “fallen” in said “war.” It’s almost as if for these guys, this sort of stuff has become its own kind of super-nichey fantasy role-playing game.

Further, the anon at the center of all this—Thomas Achord—was one of those “idea people and teachers” who didn’t need to hide “what he really thought,” provided that “what he really thought” fell within the boundaries of normal, sane conservative discourse. Clearly it didn’t, which is why he had an anon. I made the same point in an exchange with one of the more friendly but frustrated tweeters who acknowledged Achord had lied but also wanted to insist that Achord (and Wolfe) had been trying to fill a need, or tap into something important, or something. In a “negative world” where all the tools for culture-making and institution-building have been taken away from him, what’s your average red-blooded, God-fearing conservative guy to do? Maybe we can forgive him if he goes a little crazy.

The obvious problem here is that Thomas Achord wasn’t just your average red-blooded, God-fearing conservative guy. Indeed, as the headmaster of a classical Christian school, he was one of those God-fearing conservative guys who did have “the tools” for culture-making and institution-building. His problem was not that he had no tools. His problem was that, having acquired said tools, he thought to himself, “You know what would be a cool constructive thing to use these tools for? White nationalism.” He explicitly said as much in his own words, on his own shitposting account. It’s right there, guys.

However, having said all that, I don’t think Shane’s thread is adequate either. There are whole categories he misses in his rough dichotomy of Starbucks Randos and Christian Ideas People. He misses conservative Christian grad students in secular degree programs, for example, who needed to “go dark” online if they were to have any prospects of getting into the program of their choice, and then stay dark to have any prospects of getting a job and getting tenure once they’ve graduated from that program. I’ve personally known guys who can attest to this. It happens to strike close to home for me as a millennial academy brat. My dad didn’t have to think about this stuff, but that’s because it was about 1992. This just in: It’s not 1992 anymore. Indeed, you can ask any number of conservative Protestant or Catholic academics younger than my dad but older than my dad’s grad students. They’ll tell you. It’s become a cliche, because everyone just knows this is how it works. (This thread and subsequent replies/quote tweets provide some good examples.)

And then there’s, well, me, who spent years doing my own ideas writing under a pseudonym. Granted, I decided to shed the pseud once a) it just got too awkward to keep it up and b) I got a foot in the door of Christian ed. But I had good reasons for using it, and I didn’t shed it lightly. Even now, I don’t know what repercussions my choice will have for my future.

Now probably Shane would acknowledge me as one of his “exceptions,” since he himself hosted me on his podcast under my pen name before I uncloaked. And I was more successful and had more ideas than average, I admit. But there are other people with genuinely interesting ideas who could use a space to think out loud with the sort of like-minded friends they can’t find IRL (a problem unto itself), yet can’t voice those ideas out loud because they’re in a mainstream university space, or a corporate space (or even Starbucks—I mean, it is possible to work at Starbucks and still be interesting!) One of the most vocal anons I’ve seen around these Twitter circles will often talk about his corporate job where everyone is subjected to regular DEI sessions. Mind you, I don’t think he’s used his anonymity in particularly helpful ways. He came down on entirely the wrong side of the Achord affair and is blinded by the sort of “no enemies to the right” philosophy that will make people excuse a Thomas Achord and savagely attack a Neil Shenvi. But I never despised him just for wanting to be anonymous while working in corporate. Many, many guys are in the same boat. And then some guys just like to guard their privacy, because reasons. Back in the day, when my mother was a maverick right-wing group blogger, she rubbed shoulders with a guy who had the pseud “Zippy Catholic”—I kid you not. Some of Zippy’s ideas were a little out there, granted. But by golly, you respected Zippy, because Zippy was the sort of guy who commanded respect. One did not simply wander into an argument with Zippy. This joint obituary by Mom and other colleagues will give you a taste of the guy, whose shoes Mr. Tulius Aadland wouldn’t have been worthy to lace up.

Anyway, I view anonymous accounts the way Shane (talking movie Shane now, not Twitter Shane) views guns: They are as good or as bad as the men using them. Thomas Achord and some of his defenders are bad men. Maybe an argument could be made that their extended experience marinating in anonymous online Twitter community catalyzed or accelerated their descent into badness. Perhaps there’s something there, but I’m inclined to think that out of the abundance of the heart, the thumbs tweeteth.

For me, the creepiest thing Achord tweeted as Tulius Aadland wasn’t actually any of the racist/misogynistic/whatever stuff (although his tweet rating the Cuties as “ugly” girls who “would grow up to be fives at best” was up/down there). It was this meme about public and private identity, which, as we now know, was literally how he structured his own identity:

No description available.

I mean, just wow. Sure, when I was cloaked, I said things I didn’t say to various people I knew IRL—that was the point of being cloaked, after all. But I didn’t become an entirely different person, for God’s sake! One reason it took so long for people to come around and acknowledge the obvious with Achord is that those who knew him IRL simply could not overcome their prior probability that the Thomas Achord they knew would never do something like this. The Thomas Achord they knew has been variously described as gentle, modest, sensitive, soft-spoken, and ready to help anyone in need. Dreher himself mentions that he knows Achord went out in a little boat to rescue people during a flood in Baton Rouge. One vlogger couldn’t believe that the juvenile, almost philistine voice of Tulius Aadland belonged to a man he knew to appreciate art and the finer things in life.

I, of course, did not know Thomas Achord IRL, so I came to the circumstantial evidence against him without any bias tugging me away from the objective facts. It prompted me to think, though, what if this had happened to someone I knew, someone I held in high esteem, someone who seemed absolutely nothing like who he appeared in this alternate identity, or that abuse allegation? Would I be so objective? Would I acknowledge the obvious so quickly? Or would I just keep running up against that prior of “But it couldn’t be, it just couldn’t be”? I don’t know. I certainly hope I would do the right thing. But I can’t deny it would be harder.

So how did this happen to Thomas Achord? How did the “personal account” and the “anon account” fall so far out of gravitational attraction to each other?

Well, first, it should be noted that these things weren’t so far out of gravitational attraction to each other as all that. As others have noted, he had published work under his own name that flirted with sources like Sam Francis and VDare on race. I myself first became aware of him when he ran a poll on his real-name Twitter (since deleted) where he asked people if it was better to ban same-sex and interracial marriage together than to codify both into law. I quote-tweeted him with something like “My guy, this is not helping.” Apparently, his colleagues weren’t even aware of this completely open work, let alone his anonymous shitposting. So there’s one piece of the problem: Nobody was alert enough to haul this guy aside and give him some tough talk face-to-face, man-to-man.

Running through both Achord’s open work and his shadow work is a thread I recognize well, because I’ve seen it in other men before—a cumulatively reinforced darkness of the mind, especially around race crime. It reminded me of an old blogger my mother used to follow, a talented pundit who was one of the few voices willing to consistently call out journalistic double standards around black-on-white vs. white-on-black crime. But over time, my mother sensed a darkness settling in, an inability to break out of the cycle of obsession with these particular kinds of news stories. She came to feel strongly that it was bad for this blogger’s soul to keep dwelling on these things, even if some of his blogs were still technically saying things that weren’t false. Eventually, he began writing that he’d decided heinous criminals had lost the image of God. The people in his comments section, meanwhile, were even worse. Mom either watched or fortunately stopped a similar progression in other guys she encountered in those years, guys who were just odd and restless and politically homeless, and thus in danger of spiraling into cynical nihilism.

Of course this was all years ago, but men like this are still with us, and they still have no shortage of material with which to darken their minds. More than one black-on-white murder has made headlines this year. An especially horrific case is underway right now, the brutal killing of a priest and his female assistant. Stories like this have been circulating the same picture of their killer, a powerfully built black man wearing a gold chain. Whole little cells of online community can form around these kinds of stories, with white men working themselves into such a frenzy of hatred against the black perpetrators that they begin aggressively searching for “root causes,” which inevitably leads them straight into the vilest cesspools of “race science.”

It seems to me that something like this happened to Thomas Achord. Perhaps, too, his outwardly gentle nature actually fits into all this in a sad way—after all, men who adopt an aggressive alternative identity tend to be compensating for a masculine confidence they don’t feel in their personal lives. So they become ubermenschen in their own minds, building fantasy dreamscapes where they are forever slaying men and bedding women (to paraphrase one of the Tulius tweets). It goes without saying that this should not be so for any man who claims to be a Christ-follower. Sadly, it is so, more often than we would like to think.

So what does this all mean? Where do we go from here? So far, I see a couple distinct patterns of meta-analysis emerging in the aftermath. The initially Achord-friendly “stream” is represented in this essay by Jon Harris (the same vlogger who couldn’t believe the artistically sensitive Achord was such a philistine online). The initially anti-Achord “stream” is represented in this essay by Sam James, who often writes around meta-questions of online culture and evangelical discourse.

Sam’s essay is obviously much better-written than Jon’s, which makes several basic errors of reading comprehension (even of one of Achord’s own tweets), and takes a couple swipes at Achord’s critics that are so stupid/slanderous I’m not even going to bother with them. Jon’s essay also ignores the point I made above about Achord’s privileged position as the headmaster of a classical Christian school. Instead, he’s painted as a tragic villain who was first driven to dark places by his sense of powerlessness as a “marginalized little guy” (aka, a Christian white man). Cue the world’s smallest violin. This is silliness.

What’s not silly, though, and what might be worth some reflection if it wasn’t being applied to a man like Thomas Achord, is the fact that a lot of Christian men are understandably bored, restless, and irritated with limp, cookie-cutter evangelical rhetoric. I’m not sure Sam is quite attuned to the sense of artificiality that comes across when pastors all feel like they’re reading from the same script on “justice issues.” And it’s not just disaffected Christian men who feel it. My little sister, who’s about as far removed from all these stereotypes as you can get, became irritated with her youth pastor when he began whirring out various canned memes and buzzwords around the racial tensions of 2020/21. She told me it felt like an insult to her intelligence and her moral character. She didn’t need a pre-packaged lecture on racial justice. That wasn’t what she was looking for when she went to church, and it’s not what these bored young men are looking for either.

That piece of the puzzle seems missing in Sam’s take, which is focused entirely on psychologizing the bored young men:

I only want to make one brief point, and it’s a point I’ve been coming back to a lot over the last four years or so. Part of the reason that today Thomas Achord’s life has fallen apart is that his anonymous Twitter account was embedded in a larger aesthetic of conservative Christian culture that not only turned a blind eye toward what he said about blacks, women, etc., but celebrated it. Why did some celebrate these awful posts? Surely, part of the answer could be that some are simply deeply immoral, prejudiced people. But I don’t think that’s the whole answer. I think another part of the answer is that, for a certain kind of young, male, politically conscious Protestant, these types of sentiments feel especially powerful. Their potential to shock and shame “the elites” makes them appealing. And, while Stephen Wolfe (the author of The Case for Christian Nationalism) is not responsible for what his podcast co-author did in a shadow online life, this controversy seems to circumscribe an entire moment in evangelical culture.

This moment is exemplified not just by rancid bigotry but also a posture of unceasing combativeness and pugilism. It’s exemplified by an instinctive aversion to tenderheartedness, forgiveness, and gentleness. It’s exemplified by a way of talking about and doing politics that focuses almost myopically on winning: defeating the Left, pushing them out of the cultural center, and exiling any Christians who aren’t willing to do whatever it takes to achieve this. People who criticize this attitude are routinely accused of covert liberalism; they are “female-adjacent,” “soyboys” who crave Big Eva approval. This is the soil in which Achord’s self-described cynicism and spiritual darkness seemed to flourish so well.

More:

The church is not a system that can be tweaked to go along with the times. It’s the body of a living man: Christ Jesus, whose Holy Spirit is the one and only source of Christian power in this world. And this Holy Spirit is a political liability. He is not a skilled wordsmith of put-downs. He is not a ruthless social media assassin. He is not “based.” He is the Spirit of a crucified Savior, a King whose throne was a cross.

I do think Sam is right here in that some of these types have wandered so deep into their specific brand of role-playing, they now see a Neil Shenvi or a Kevin DeYoung as “Big Eva” or “the enemy.” This is the part where, if they had any self-awareness, they’d stop the tape and rewind to figure out where they miscalculated. But they don’t, so they won’t.

But I also think there has to be more to the remedy than a generically redoubled focus on “tenderheartedness, forgiveness, and gentleness,” or a downplaying of the desire to push the Left out of the cultural center. Mind you, I don’t think the Left is going to be pushed out of the cultural center any time soon, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a noble cause in theory, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight like hell for those little corners of turf where we might yet be able to push back. Sam seems to be circling back to acknowledge this in his last paragraph, where he says nothing he’s written means he thinks we should “retreat from culture” and “surrender the earth to thugs.” But in that case, I’m not sure why he tends to give “the culture war” negative valence in his work. Either there is a culture war or there isn’t. If we agree that there is, then why pathologize the desire to “win” in and of itself? Yes, Jesus has “already won” in an ultimate, heavenly sense, but as Sam himself is noting here, there is still earthly ground to be stood, and there are still earthly thugs to fight.

I also think the remedy must consider Jesus as we find him in the gospels, all of Jesus, including the Jesus who was actually incredibly based and could land very sick burns. I’ve never understood the “Kids, don’t try this at home” view of Jesus’, the apostles’, or the prophets’ harsh rhetoric, which suggests these figures had some exclusive right to the sick burn. Why? Yes, I’m aware that the sick burn can be misapplied by laser-eyed anons who are playing stupid games for stupid prizes. That’s not an argument against the sick burn, in principle. (This is where my friend James Wood has really been doing an excellent service with some of his ressourcement work, which you could call a “ressourcement of basedness.”) One could make an analogy to a stupid kid who picks up a sword and starts waving it around under the illusion that he knows what he’s doing. If the kid is old enough and willing to be taught, then you don’t just take the sword away and scold him not to touch sharp things. You teach him how to use the sword. In short, we don’t need more nannies. We need more fencing masters. This is something like the point that I think Jon Harris wants to make in his post-mortem. The problem is that the edge of his own blade is too dull, and his handling of it too clumsy to distinguish carefully real friend from real foe.

So what did the Thomas Achord affair really teach us, in the end? It taught us the imperative of not coddling, excusing, or enabling men like Thomas Achord. It reminded us of the darkness of the mind that settles over such men when they obsessively ruminate on ugly things they cannot control, rather than devoting themselves to the building of beautiful things they can control. And it reminded us that now more than ever, we need real men who are prepared to fight real battles with real blades, not fake “wars” with cardboard swords. God grant that all of us may be so enabled to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light.


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