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The Fatal Bent

I was discussing C.S. Lewis's Perelandra the other day with someone who considers it the weakest of Lewis's science fiction trilogy, in fact pretty much forgettable. I disagree, and find it eminently memorable. And one thing I always recall vividly is the opening, in which the narrator takes a twilight walk from a railway station to Ransom's cottage three miles away. I've always thought that scene, and the narrator's steadily increasing sense of dread, one of the most effective openings of a novel I've ever read. 

Thinking of it, I picked up the book and read that opening scene again. It really is quite good, as good as I remembered. But one thing jumped out at me, not necessarily part of that incident proper but a bit of explication by the narrator as he thinks about Ransom's revelation that our world is ruled by evil angels who

...are the real explanation of that fatal bent which is the main lesson of history.

That does seem to be the general drift of history, and I'm afraid we're seeing that fatal bent in operation again. Those who've been reading this blog for a while know that I've been concerned for many years about whether the United States can survive the cold civil war that's been in progress since the '60s, if not longer. We call it "cold" in the sense that the Cold War was cold--that it did not involve physical violence. But the emotions involved are very hot and getting hotter. I hope I'm wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine our ever being truly one nation again. Each side of the culture war now believes that compromise is a lost cause, and that its survival or at least its well-being can only be achieved by the decisive defeat of the other.

Few nations can match the combination of material prosperity, personal freedom, and stable, reasonably democratic government that we have achieved. Setting aside all the valid criticisms of the thinking and practices that brought about these things, and of the injustices and other defects that were and are part of it, the achievement remains astonishing in the broad context of human history. And few serious people seriously want to give up all its benefits.

Yet here we are: rich, angry, ungrateful, stupid, ignorant, as impassioned as we are irrational, indifferent if not hostile to the foundations on which the achievement rests. The most egregious and fundamental of these is the attack on the constitution, which amounts to a rejection of the rule of law, of the whole concept of a government of laws and not of men, upon which rests the structure of representative government.

Most often the attack is implicit, but sometimes it's explicit. I'd be willing to bet that no more than one out of ten of the people currently protesting the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade understand the constitutional question, or even in general the way the whole system works, with its complex balancing of power. And, worse, I'd bet that zero out of ten care. And, to be fair, there's a similar indifference in some quarters of the right.

What went wrong? Well, I could go on at length about that, and have done. And I certainly have strong ideas about which side is more at fault. But beneath those details I see the fatal bent in action, the universal tendency which is independent of places and times. There's still room for hope that it won't accomplish the ruin toward which it tends, but that probably requires a level of awareness of what's happening that doesn't seem to be very widespread at all. 


Compact: A New Post-liberal Magazine

"Post-liberal," in case you've missed it, is the tag now being applied to people, mostly on the right, who are more or less giving up on the classical liberalism which is the foundation of our republic. Or, if they haven't given up on it completely, have come to the conclusion that liberalism contains the seeds of its own destruction, which is now playing out in various political and cultural crises. A new publication called Compact, subtitled "A Radical American Journal," is the voice of some of them, though their masthead is by no means limited to conservatives: it includes Glenn Greenwald and some others who seem to be on the left (no "seem" about Greenwald, unless he's changed his mind about a lot of things). I believe the editor, Sohrab Ahmari, considers himself a Catholic integralist, and I see the names of one or two others who might accept that label for themselves. Matthew Schmitz, formerly of First Things is there.

I don't consider myself to be a post-liberal, but I do understand and sympathize with their pessimism about liberalism. My own basic view is expressed in the title of this post: "You're Gonna Miss Your Classical Liberalism When It's Gone." But I recognize the problems that are pretty much intrinsic to liberalism and certainly look as if they might destroy it. Here is a long post from 2017 about Ryszard Legutko's The Demon in Democracy, which discusses some of these ideas. I thought I had written a post about Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, but if I did I can't find it at the moment. 

And I don't think it's too egotistical of me to point out that I reached the same basic conclusion as the post-liberals over twenty-five years ago, and wrote about it in Caelum et Terra. You can read the whole somewhat lengthy essay here, but a few excerpts, from a section titled "Nine Popes Without A God," will do to as my assessment of the (possibly? probably?) fatal flaw(s) in our constitutional system:

It has frequently been observed that American institutions presume the existence of a coherent, more or less univer­sal, more or less Christian, ethic. It has been pointed out that the collapse of this consensus will lead, is leading, has led to the collapse of society. Both these statements are true. And nothing confirms them more clearly than the present condi­tion of the Supreme Court....

The law of the land, the law which really must be obeyed on pain of punishment, is the Constitution....

It would be unwise to try to make Scripture serve as the constitution of a civil government; Scripture is not meant for that purpose and can reasonably be invoked as sanction for a number of different forms of government. But it is equally unwise to make the Constitution into a scripture. And that is what America has done, or at least tried to do, because there is no other place than the Constitution to look for the establishment of fundamentals upon which all Americans must agree.

It is no one’s Bible, no one’s Magisterium, to which Americans may, in the end, legitimately appeal on public matters. There is, literally, no higher law in the United States of America than the Constitution..... As far as the law and customs of the nation are concerned it is the Constitution which judges religion; it is the Constitution which says what really matters, what is right and wrong. This is quite a burden to place upon a thoroughly pragmatic document written one summer in Philadelphia by a group of men trying to organize a government. And of course now that the ethical consensus which underlay that document 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...

Even those who approach the Constitution as a fundamentalist approaches Scripture accept the fact the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means.

It is in many circles somewhere between bad manners and villainy to admit to having fixed beliefs on most moral and philosophical questions. Yet it is clear that the human mind requires such points of fixity, and so we find the most skeptical intellectuals placing the most naive trust in the judgment of the Supreme Court. It is not just that they acknowledge the fact that the Court has the last word; there is almost a sense that they believe that the Court’s decisions constitute what is right and true, at least for the moment.

Things have gone a good deal further now, of course. There are significant numbers of people with significant levels of influence who don't even pay much lip service to the written text of the constitution, but simply look on the Supreme Court as a sort of wise tribal council with the power to decide matters as they see fit. The same people are likely to have quite definite and fixed beliefs on certain moral and philosophical questions. A few of those beliefs are, to be blunt, insane, and many are toxic.

And so the sense of despair about the possibility of salvaging liberalism has set some people to figuring out what comes next. Here's how the founders of Compact describe their project:

Every new magazine should be an intimation of a possible future, a glimpse of how the world might be. Our editorial choices are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right....

We believe that the ideology of liberalism is at odds with the virtue of liberality. We oppose liberalism in part because we seek a society more tolerant of human difference and human frailty. That is why, though we have definite opinions, we publish writers with whom we disagree.

Compact will challenge the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital.

I'm not endorsing the magazine. In fact I've only read a couple of pieces from it. But it's interesting, in itself and for what it represents. At the moment you can read it without paying, but that's meant to change soon, and I doubt that I'll be subscribing, as the price is a little high for my level of interest: after the first year it will be $90 per year. But then again I may change my mind when I've read more of it.


(Culture) War Fever

I suppose it's just a feature of my advanced age, but often when I find myself thinking "I've never seen anything like this before," it only takes a moment for me to realize that I have, actually, seen something very much like it. The current round of anti-Russian fever has produced exactly that train of thought. Twenty years ago there was a similar fervor in favor of invading Afghanistan and Iraq; thirty years ago for going to war with Iraq over Kuwait; when I was young the necessity of fighting communism in Vietnam. None of those ventures turned out very well, and I suppose it's at least a sliver of silver in the dark cloud that Russia's possession of nuclear weapons is probably the only reason that American soldiers are not now dying in Ukraine. Which, it should be obvious, is not to say that Ukraine does not deserve our help: Russia's invasion is an abominable crime, for which Vladimir Putin will probably pay dearly, in the next life if not this one. And the Russian people have already begun to suffer for it.

This fever is much like that which took hold of much of this nation after 9/11. That, too, was understandable and to some degree justified. But it led to a series of military ventures in the Middle East that almost everyone now sees as having been anywhere from mistaken and misguided to disastrous to criminal. Physical warfare being off the table for the U.S., the fever now expresses itself mostly in talk and gestures.

By "the fever" I don't mean the impulse that drives the many admirable humanitarian impulses, from the special collection at my parish to those who actually go to the war zone and care for the wounded and assist the refugees, and whom I regard with respect bordering on awe. I don't even mean the hardly helpful symbolic gestures, like putting the Ukrainian flag on your social media profile. I don't go in for that sort of thing myself, partly out of a constitutional aversion to hopping on bandwagons, but they're well-intentioned and harmless, at worst a form of virtue signaling. Well, mostly harmless, as the aliens in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy concluded about our planet and species--because the fever is not harmless.

By "the fever" I do mean the fiery passions of hatred for the enemy and of certainty that one's own cause is absolutely good and the other absolutely evil, passions which incinerate good sense and prudence, cause one to actively desire war, and make any contrary view, any awareness of ambiguity, any reservation about the purity of the cause, seem an act of disloyalty if not treason, and evidence of sympathy for evil.

What's strikingly different about the current fever is that so many on the left have it. Some on the right are caught up in it, as they were about the Iraq war, but these seem to be mostly in the Republican establishment, which is by no stretch identifiable with "the right" at large. Mitt Romney, for instance, denounced former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard as speaking "treasonous lies" because she pointed out, truthfully as far as I know, the existence of biological research labs in Ukraine and the possible danger posed by them.

And the neoconservative hawks of twenty years ago, propelled by detestation of Trump, have either distanced themselves from the rest of the right or gone over more or less completely to the other side of the great political divide. They never much liked religious conservatives anyway, and they hated the Pat Buchanan school of anti-interventionist conservatism (see that infamous National Review piece by David Frum).

Many on the right have grown disenchanted, to say the least, with our government's willingness to use military power for ill-defined, arrogant, and generally futile efforts to bring democracy and freedom to the rest of the world. I include myself among these. I was never willing either to defend entirely or to denounce entirely the Iraq war and our long engagement in Afghanistan. I hoped they would succeed, and that peace and freedom would flower in the Middle East. But after enormous levels of destruction and death, the region remains an unstable mess. Our wars were clearly not just a failure but a disastrous, destructive failure. I'm now of more or less of the same mind as those who describe their position with the phrase used by The American Conservative: realism and restraint. In practical terms that means a view which has something in common with that of the anti-war left. Now, strangely, it is the object of fury on the part of much of the left. 

The upper-class left, the gentry left, whatever it should be called--the leftism of the Democratic Party, the dominant media, academia, the entertainment industry--has contracted the fever in a big way. (From what I can see, the old school, hardcore, actually communist left has not.) Like almost everything, the Ukraine war has been made an issue in the culture war. Perhaps the fever is even in part produced by the culture war. Peter Savodnick, writing at Bari Weiss's Substack site, makes a case for that. He describes a 2019 gathering of Democratic congressmen and wealthy Hollywood donors. The congressmen wanted to talk about issues, but the Hollywood people, believing that Russia was responsible for Trump's presidency, wanted to talk about 

...trans rights and the climate apocalypse. And Russia. There was a lot of talk about Russia.....

Then came February 2022. The Russia haters claimed that they hated Russia because Russia had attacked Ukraine, but that was incorrect. In 2014, the last time Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russia haters were silent. In 2004, during the Orange Revolution, when Ukrainians revolted against the Russian-backed puppet regime in Kyiv—same thing. The important thing was what came in between now and eight years ago: the 2016 election. The Russophobia was an extension of our domestic politics. It was not a thoughtful hate but an automatic reaction to whatever one’s political foe said or did.

In early 2022, hating Russia, which is the flip side of loving Ukraine, is like brandishing one’s pronouns and triple-masking: it has become a way of signaling that one believed whatever one was supposed to believe right now.

The gentry left has made Russia the object of a campaign of absolute unqualified vilification, the sort of thing which they called xenophobia and Islamophobia when it was directed against Islamic countries and cultures. Strangely excessive anti-Russian reactions are happening, like the dismissal of Russian musicians from orchestras and theaters. An acquaintance of mine, a musician and academic of more or less progressive political views, was called a "fascist stooge" for questioning the firing of Russian soprano Anna Netrebko by the Metropolitan Opera.

Totally forgotten are the many instances of cooperation with Russia by Democrats: Hillary Clinton's absurd "reset" button, Obama's juvenile "the 1980s called" mockery of Mitt Romney's warning that Russia is not our friend, his sneaky "I'll have more flexibility after the election," the Clinton Foundation's financial connections to Russia, and so on. And if you search for something like "Ukraine far right 2014" you'll find a great many articles from the left-leaning press warning about the influence of the far right on the Ukrainian government. All that might as well be down the memory hole as far as current rhetoric is concerned.

Since the R&R conservatives have not contracted the fever, and because they are the enemy in the culture war, their questioning of the straightforward good vs. evil narrative is vigorously attacked. They are asking questions that in previous situations have been considered important, even essential, but now are forbidden. To ask them, to say that our policies and actions probably helped to create the situation, to question the purity of the Ukrainian government's aims and actions, to attempt to grasp the Russian point of view, to say that Putin has ever been right about anything whatsoever, is to be called a "Putin shill." 

I keep seeing the claim that "the right" is pro-Putin, pro-Russia, etc. Those voices may exist, but I read a lot of conservative journalism and have never encountered anything that could reasonably be described that way. The qualifier "reasonably" is necessary, of course. (Tucker Carlson is frequently mentioned in this respect, but as I don't watch television news I don't know whether that's fair or not.) There is certainly some partisan equal-and-opposite-reaction, but I suppose the invasion is too self-evidently wrong to support much active favor toward Russia.

The culture war has done what modern wars do: reduced the battleground to a shattered ruin. One thing we should have learned from our recent attempts to export democracy is that democracy is far more than rules and institutions. It's a whole culture, and our rules and institutions can't survive the descent of our culture into tribal hatreds. What is happening in Ukraine is terrible but it is not a direct threat to us. But Biden, along with many, is engaging in the sort of rhetoric used by the proponents of the "Global War On Terror": "We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom."

No, we aren't. We're helping a small nation resist conquest by an aggressor. Isn't that a noble enough cause? The American propensity to cast every conflict as a quasi-divinely mandated crusade is unhealthy, to say the least. It is not our job to maintain and advance democracy anywhere and everywhere, or to expect, much less to demand, that the whole world implement our idea of freedom. We don't even agree on what those words mean anymore. The threat to us comes from within. And it is dire.


Stupid Questions, Stupid Answers, Stupid Times

It was absurd for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) to ask Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson to give her a definition of "woman." It was even more absurd for the nominee to say that she could not do so because she is not a biologist. 

A few more questions:

  1. If the definition of "woman" is not what we generally assume it to be, what could Biden have meant in saying that he would nominate a woman?
  2. Did the eventual nominee undergo testing or inspection by qualified biologists which determined that she met the criterion?
  3. If not, how do we know whether Biden kept his promise?
  4. Does not the assumption, revealed in Brown's answer, that being a woman is a biological condition show that she is what the gender activists would call "transphobic"?

These are also stupid questions, but logical, based on Brown's response. As Kevin Williamson of National Review is fond of saying, we live in stupid times.

Corrections: Blackburn is a senator, not a representative, as I originally had it. And I changed question 4 to make it clear that "transphobic" is a word used by others, not by me.


Ukraine etc. again

I've been occupied with various immediate matters (nothing bad, just normal things) for the past few days and have not been able to get to writing about several books that I've read recently. Also pulling me away from those are the events of the past few days. And now I'm about to be away from my computer for a couple of days. So I'll just offer a couple of remarks on the Ukraine war (I guess it has to be called that now.)

I have read several things suggesting that Putin is finding that his intended conquest of Ukraine is not proceeding as quickly and smoothly as he expected. Also that the negative reaction by the rest of Europe and the U.S. has been greater than he expected. I expected Germany, France, and others to make only token objections, but what I've read--and I emphasize that it isn't all that much--suggests that they are seriously alarmed and are taking more-than-token steps. Some also speculate/hope that Putin may be willing to settle for less than the total conquest he wanted. I hope that's true.

Now I read that Putin is rattling the nuclear saber, and I think "he's not that crazy." But maybe he is. Or maybe he is resorting to the tactic of making his enemies think that he's crazy and they'd better not upset him too much. I have no idea, of course. But I hope he's not that crazy.

Also, I'm not hearing the chorus of demands that we go to war, George W. Bush style, on behalf of Freedom that I half-expected to hear from the neo-conservative/neo-liberal/whatever voices that were urging us to invade Iraq twenty years ago (not to mention various other interventions). Whether I'm just not in the way of their conversations or they're not blowing the trumpets (for others to follow), I don't know. Maybe they learned their lesson.

Anyway, you don't need me to summarize the news, but here are a couple of things you might find interesting:

This podcast, which is an interview with an emigre from the Soviet Union who worked for some time in our Defense Intelligence Agency. She thinks that our government still doesn't have the ability to understand what makes Putin and others like him do what they do.

And this Rod Dreher post, which includes an interview with a Scottish journalist, Neil Oliver, who makes a point I made in comments on the earlier post--that the most immediate threat to those of us who are not Russia's neighbors is the breakdown of our own internal liberal order. The video itself is more than an hour long, but when I clicked on it it began with Oliver's monologue. If that doesn't happen for you, skip forward to about the 5:30 mark. 


Russia, Ukraine, and Us

I hardly ever post about this sort of thing, and in most cases don't even have an informed opinion (which doesn't necessarily stop me from having an opinion, but I try to keep it to myself). That's true in this case, too. But I think this article by Michael Brendan Dougherty in National Review is an opinion worth a hearing. He argues that we have made a big mistake in expanding NATO after the end of the Cold War:

Not just predictable, but predicted. Twenty-five years ago, not long before his death, the man who pioneered the policy of containing the USSR throughout the Cold War emerged from his retirement as a cragged old man with a warning:

Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.

Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.

He would predict to Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, “Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong."

The old man referred to is George F. Kennan. Here's a link to the whole thing, but it may not work because the article is subscriber-only. Dougherty goes on to say that those who agreed with Kennan lost the post-Cold-War argument, and that those who won it have produced the current situation.

Two assertions that I think are justified even in absence of foreign policy expertise:

1) After Vietnam and all our disastrous war-making in the Middle East, the argument from Neville Chamberlain does not automatically win.

2) If there is any question of actually sending in our military, no one who is unwilling to go, or to send a child of his own, is worth listening to.


On Not Watching the Olympics

There was a time when I enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics. I found them more interesting than the summer games, and I think the reason for that was that they were more exotic. Having lived all my life in the deep south, I had never engaged in any of those sports and never would (except once--see below). Snow has always been a very rare thing for me, and mostly enjoyable, which I understand is not necessarily the case for those who deal with it all winter. Sliding down a snowy hill on a pair of skis looked like a lot more fun than plain old running and jumping. And it was certainly more interesting to watch.

My one experience of skiing, on a work-related trip to Utah with an avid and capable skier who talked me into giving it a try, showed me that, like pretty much everything that isn't bad for you, skiing was not nearly as easy as it looked.  My co-worker got me into a pair of skis and to the top of a short slope which I later learned was not for beginners but rather for those who had already learned the basics. With a casual "All you need to do is..." he zipped off down the hill and I didn't see him again until it was time for us to go. By then I had begun to get the knack of staying upright, but I couldn't figure out how to turn or slow down, so when I was heading for a tree or felt like I was getting too fast, I just fell over.

Getting upright again took some time, so since I did this every fifty feet or so I only traversed the slope three or four times while we were there. But by the time we left I was at a point where I could say "I can see how this might be fun."

That was something close to forty years ago, and it did not destroy the mild fascination that winter sports held for me. But the fascination has been dying for a while, and has now been completely extinguished. The bizarrely grandiose hype and spectacle, the breathless reporting, the manipulative shaping of some chosen competitors' backgrounds into grand heroic-sentimental narratives, the corruption that apparently goes on behind the scenes--all of that had been turning me off for a while.

The fact that China is hosting this one while engaging in terrible crimes and belligerently denouncing--or worse, if it can get hold of them--anyone who points it out only turned indifference into outright hostility. Saturday night I was in a restaurant that was showing the opening ceremony and I found myself thinking of The Triumph of the Will and other self-glorifying events staged by oppressive regimes.

This is very unfair to the athletes, I know. But blame the Chinese government and the American TV industry. 


Joan Didion, RIP

At this point in my life I find myself sometimes mentally compiling, not a desert island list of books and music, but a nursing home (or, preferably, assisted living) list: the books I would take with me if I had to go live in a very small place with one very small bookshelf. I've actually only read three or four of Joan Didion's books, but The White Album would make the list. Maybe also Slouching Toward Bethlehem. She saw some things that nobody else was seeing in the '60s. And mostly still don't. RIP

In her early years she wrote for National Review, and they've put those contributions online. You can read them here. I haven't read these particular essays, and probably won't get a chance to do so till after Christmas. But if you haven't read anything by her they might be a good place to start. Although I see they are PDFs of scanned copies of old magazine pages, and not all that comfortable to read. 


The Lamp Has A Blog Now

And they've invited me to contribute a monthly post. I'm extremely flattered, and a bit intimidated, as it puts me alongside Peter Hitchens and probably some other people who are better writers than I am. 

My first post appeared yesterday. It's called "Being Honour Bred," a phrase from a Yeats poem which mentions people who lie without shame. It's a pretty grumpy post, which was not really the way I wanted to start out, but the poem has been very much on my mind. The next post should appear in late December and will be about Christmas.

Peter Hitchens's first post is here, and it's a jewel.


If this doesn't give you the creeps...

...it probably should. This of course is from the Department of Homeland Security.

KeepAnEyeOnYourNeighbors

I cringed when the Bush administration created DHS. Apart from its ominous name, it seemed an admission that the Department of Defense is not primarily about defense, and that the existing law enforcement and intelligence agencies weren't up to the job. Now that the Washington establishment, with help from some Trump followers, is trying to make the case that right-wing "extremists" pose a major threat to the nation, this kind of thing is more unsettling than ever. Even parents yelling at school boards, when the complainers are on the wrong political side, are now open to some very unwelcome attention from the FBI.

I'm sure there are some violent right-wingers out there, but the FBI and others managed to keep the Klan, the Weathermen, and other domestic outlaws in check back in the '60s and '70s. More, and more politicized, federal surveillance and policing are not comforting thoughts now. You could hardly ask for a better definition of mission creep, or a better example of the tendency of any government department to expand indefinitely, than the DHS Focus page, which lists climate change and COVID-19 as "part of the department's mission." Meanwhile, the southern border is porous, to say the least. 

I hope that guy doesn't live in my neighborhood. If I see him I'm going to report him. He makes me feel unsafe.