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Watership Down reveals the radical centre, rabbit-style

October 22, 2019 - 5:07pm

Whatever your politics, Ross Douthat has to be the most interesting columnist at the New York Times.

Inspired by reading the famous 1972 novel out loud to his daughters, he devotes today’s column to the political lessons of Watership Down.

His reading rests on the idea that the rabbits, in escaping their doomed warren and seeking to found a new one, are trying to create a new political order. On the journey there, they come across two alternative warrens, each flawed in its own way.  The first seems oddly reminiscent of liberal modernity:

The first warren, where they briefly try to settle, appears at first to be idyllic. The rabbits are sleek and well-fed, they have plenty of space (the burrows are oddly underpopulated), the lands around are completely clear of predators (“elil” in Adams’s rabbit tongue, Lapine), and best of all the local farmer just tosses leftover produce in the fields.

But soon it becomes clear that this warren has shed all the rabbit-y virtues, cunning and daring and courage and mischief, in favor of odd imitations of human culture — attempted sculptures, existentialist poetry. Its denizens are bored or irritated by tales of adventure and heroism; they cultivate a condescending skepticism about El-ahrairah, the rabbit trickster-prince of legend; they seem comfortable and smug and yet subtly depressed

- Ross Douthat, New York Times

It turns out that this decadent pleasure-world is sustained by a dark secret: the farmer keeps them fed and safe in exchange for a number of sacrifices which he takes for their pelts and meats.

The second warren they come across, Efrafra, is even worse – a regimented police state with disempowered females and a tyrannical dictator in the form of General Woundwort.

According to Douthat, the fear of these two extremes represents the two terrors at the heart of the current culture wars and political instability:

One anxiety in the Western world right now, palpable on both the right and the left, is that the plush, end-of-rabbit-history warren is liberalism’s dystopian destination: a sleek and fattened inhumanity, a terrible mix of comfort and cruelty, a loss of basic human goods under the pressure of capitalism or secularism or both.

The other anxiety, dominant in the embattled liberal center, is that the people who want more than what modernity is currently delivering — whether they’re socialists or populists or integralists or something else entirely — are in various ways really just interested in building up Efrafa: either a literal police state with strongmen and zealously guarded borders and tight control of reproduction, a Gilead or Fortress Europe, or else a police state of the imagination,

- Ross Douthat, New York Times

The eventual harmonious, balanced and virtuous society the rabbits create at Watership Down steers clear of both these horrifying poles; it is a place of distributed power, where the rabbits are celebrated for their different gifts and given power accordingly, “a mixture of hierarchy and liberty that works with the grain of rabbitness instead of seeking a corrupt comfort or an impossible level of security.”

The ‘radical centre,’ rabbit style.

*18:22 Update*
It turns out that the whole Watership-down-as-allegory-for-communitarian-values idea was already written by none other than UnHerd’s Giles Fraser, in the Guardian in 2016.


Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.


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