Some Dad-Rock for Father's Day
If You Like Waugh's Sword of Honor Trilogy...

Unfortunately, I'm Right

Some twenty-five years ago I wrote a piece for Caelum et Terra in which I asserted that a fundamental weakness of the American system is that it is agnostic on the ultimate questions. The Constitution defines a structure and a set of procedures that are meant to be philosophically and theologically neutral. It assumes a workable consensus on the fundamental questions, and therefore has no mechanism for coping with fundamental disagreements. Now that such disagreements have arrived, and on a scale where each side has enough political power to prevent either from totally dominating the other, we're in trouble.

The current argument raging among conservatives is at least partly about that same question, and it caused me to re-read my essay. And I think I was right. Am right: that the ethical consensus which underlay [the Constitution] has cracked, the inadequacy of the document alone is obvious. If the people cannot agree about what a human being is or what its purpose might be, what a family is, what a right is, what liberty is, then the Constitution is utterly impotent to guide them. To look to it for assistance in matters of first principles is like reading the owner’s manual of your car in hope of learning where you ought to go: as if a family, having decided to pack up and move, were to expect that by reading the instructions for checking the oil and changing a tire they would learn whether or not they could expect to find contentment in Chattanooga.

You can read the whole essay here, though I should note that it's on the long side for online reading (somewhere around 6,000 words). I think it holds up well, though I probably wouldn't write that last section today in a political context. Euthanasia has not made nearly as much progress as I expected it to, but sexual "liberation" has gone much further. It is all too accurate now to say that the people do not agree about what a human being is.

If you haven't heard about it, the argument I'm referring to is between conservatives who are beginning to give up on the whole classical liberal project and those who think it can still be saved.

Political liberals have long been impatient with the Constitution, pushing the concept of a "living Constitution," a sort of secular version of the interpretive technique by which progressive theologians make the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Political conservatives, aka classical liberals, have defended the Constitution as written and as straightforwardly understood ("strict construction," "original intent," etc.). This argument has been going on for a long time--my high school civics teacher staged a debate on the question fifty years ago. (I took the progressive side.)

In recent years there have been more voices on the left calling either explicitly or implicitly for the whole thing to be disregarded or dumped ("written by dead white males," etc. etc. etc.) Now some on the right are beginning to give up on classical liberalism, which of course has been pretty much the essence of American conservatism. (I know, the terminology is confusing, but you have to use it to talk intelligently about this stuff.) Ross Douthat has a pretty good overview of the controversy in the New York Times. Follow his links if you want to know more.

Personally I have a great deal of sympathy for the David French side of the argument. As I said here quite a few years ago, I would like to preserve and reform the American constitutional order, and I haven't changed my mind about that. Nor do I have any enthusiasm for the idea of Christian/Catholic integralism, especially considering the character of the upper levels of the Catholic hierarchy now. But I fear that the argument is becoming irrelevant. Possibly the greater danger is that the citizenry as a whole no longer really care about preserving the republic that the Constitution defines. Many on both the left and the right are looking (mostly unconsciously, but evidently) for some sort of authority figure to lead the forces of good against those of evil. Or, less apocalyptically, to be the benevolent and all-powerful Father of the Nation who will provide for them. As different as Obama and Trump are, you can see the tendency plainly among the enthusiastic followers of both.



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So you're saying that contentment can be found in Chattanooga, or not? I'm confused. It seems unlikely.

Everyone has to define his own concept of Chattanooga.

Their own, I mean.

Stu, contentment may or may not be found in Chattanooga. But in no case will that info be found in your owner's manual. All it can do is assist your getting there.

I wonder if it is more a case of having a comic book, un nuanced, black and white view of political morality than actually anfmd really thinking Obama or Trump is a deity

They're kind of the same thing, or aspects of the same thing. Not deities but Men on Horseback. Unnuanced view leads to desire for the hero who can sort things out. I have serious doubts as to whether the human race can sustain republican government and a high degree of political freedom for very long.

Mac, I read Nothing at the Center when it was first published in Caelum et Terra, and I knew then that you were right, unfortunately. Nothing has changed my mind since. In fact, the recent push to legalize infanticide shows that the disintegration is accelerating. God bless you and yours'.

"I have serious doubts as to whether the human race can sustain republican government and a high degree of political freedom for very long."

Whenever I wonder about that Shigalev's comment from Demons always comes to mind: "Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism.”

And all the variants of "If you can't govern yourself, someone else will."

Thank you, Tom, and God bless you and yours also.

The disintegration is *really* accelerating--from our point of view. From the opposing side, though, it's the opposite: it's integration, the forces of good beginning to get control.

~~And all the variants of "If you can't govern yourself, someone else will."~~

Liberals always complained about the "government in the bedroom." We're moving toward a society where that's the only place we won't be under surveillance.

I can't remember whether you were reading Surveillance Capitalism or not. It's not a book I want to take the time to read, but the subject and the concerns seem to be real enough.

The alignment of big business and big government is taking a turn neither the left nor the right expected.

Yes, that was me. I read it back when it first came out. I wish she'd put out an abridged version for the general reader. The current one, although a very worthwhile read, is pretty daunting.

I can't quite figure out why, but I have become a slow reader. Slower than I used to be in the actual act, and taking longer to get through a book than I used to. At least part of the reason for the latter is that I spend too much time reading stuff online. I'm currently considering going almost completely offline. But anyway, partly for that reason, I don't read books that aren't either pretty directly related to my chief interests, or promise to be very enjoyable. Zuboff's book doesn't make the cut in either of those respects, important though it may be.

Yeah, I'll rarely read an "important" book if it doesn't concern something I'm fairly interested in. Piketty's book on capitalism is a perfect example: I'm interested, but not enough to want to dive that deep, so to speak.

Also with me, age is a factor. It's not unlikely that I won't be here ten years from now, and ten years doesn't seem like very long anymore. So I explicitly ask myself whether this or that book is likely to be worth the time spent.

Although I'm a little younger than you I feel the same way. I very much realize that there are numerous things I "should" read but will most likely never get to, so why sweat it? There are classics I've missed along the way, and if I get to them, I get to them, but I can't beat my reading self up over it!

Like you say, I'll stick to stuff I'm interested in and/or will find enjoyable.

I always wanted to be Well Read, but that became impossible a long time ago. Certain still-unread classics, though, are part of the reason I cull things like Surveillance Capitalism that are important to what's going on. There are some classics that for various reasons (not particularly related to being Well Read) I feel I need to read. I'm soon going to embark on Paradise Lost, for instance.

I've found that having a fairly simple reading plan is helpful. I seldom chart things out further than a couple months, but I try not to get off track too much, except for the odd occasion when something pops up that I feel I should read "right now." For me that happens more often with non-fiction than with fiction, except when an author I really like puts out something new.

I can claim to have a plan only in the sense that I look one or two books ahead of what I'm currently reading. I'm in awe of Craig Burrell's planning and perseverance.

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