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The Dangers of Being a Player

Perhaps you've heard of a little controversy involving First Things. It seems that the editor, R.R. Reno, issued a quarrelsome Twitter post or two in which he called people who wear the masks prescribed as COVID-19 preventatives "cowards." I was aware that he has been skeptical and even scornful about the way the pandemic has been handled, and that some people were pretty annoyed with him on that score. But there was apparently quite an outcry about the "cowards" business, resulting in a lot of discussion about the magazine, its history and future. 

Here's Rod Dreher on the matter. (And here is his account of the initial explosion, if you aren't already aware of it and want to know.) 

When First Things appeared in the '90s I read it occasionally and liked it. But I didn't subscribe because (1) many of its articles were too academic for me, by which I mean they assumed a level of education that I don't have, and (2) it seemed to have a sort of program which I did not entirely buy into. That program was generally identified as neoconservatism. And I had many points of agreement with it. After all, I was and am in some literal sense a neoconservative in the strict sense of being one who was on the political left and moved to the right. But of course the term in practice encompassed and implied much more than that, so I didn't apply it to myself.

But I was bothered by something deeper than that, something I was only vaguely aware of and never gave much thought to. A sentence in Dreher's post (the first one linked above) gave me an abrupt realization:

Neuhaus’s great triumph with First Things came from his aspiration to make it a political player. He succeeded.

Yes, and that was the problem. When you want to be a player, you have to cultivate alliances, flatter this one and shun that one, calculate your position, keep a close eye on what people are saying about you and whether or not they are people who matter...on and on. I don't say that it's an indefensible thing. Maybe you can advance good causes that way. Maybe you can't accomplish anything much in the world without doing at least some of that. But it's not for me, and I think the scent of it--the impression that Neuhaus and company enjoyed that game, took pleasure in hobnobbing with the high and mighty--always bothered me.

Well, it's easy for me to criticize; I couldn't do that stuff even if I wanted to. I'm just not made that way. But, my personal qualities or lack thereof aside, the effort to become a "player" as a means of advancing the Gospel, or, more mundanely, of advancing political causes that you see as advancing the Gospel, poses obvious dangers. Dreher points out (the first post I linked to above is very much worth reading), and I think he's probably right, that the identification of First Things and neoconservatism in general with the Republican party has really damaged the effectiveness of the magazine even within the scope of Christian politics. The identification of so many prominent "public" Christians, including many of those at First Things, with Donald Trump has done even more. 

I don't mean the simple act of voting for Trump. In 2016 you had a choice between Trump and Clinton. In 2020 you will probably have a choice between Trump and Biden. (Let's ignore the third-party option; anyone who takes that road understands that his candidate has no chance of winning.) Given that choice, there are plenty of good reasons to vote for Trump. What I mean, what's doing the damage, is not that, but the fanatical embrace of Trump as righteous prophet-savior ordained by God to lead his nation, and Christians in particular, out of the wilderness. This is just the right-wing counterpart of the left's Obama-worship. And both, as I keep saying, are symptoms of a very bad development in American politics: the elevation of the presidency into the role of god-king incarnating the soul and will of the nation. You can hardly get more un-American than that.

More significantly for the fortunes of Christianity in America, though: when idols fall, those who have embraced them fall with them.


Trump Didn't Say That

The title would be applicable at least once a week. In a comment on some current-event-related post a while back, Janet said "Don't make me defend Trump." I find myself in that position a lot. So do enough people, I guess, that the Babylon Bee did a post about it

It's maddening. I really haven't changed my negative view of Trump. But the unrelenting effort by Democrats to destroy him by, apparently, any means necessary, makes me at least a little sympathetic toward him. Or at least toward the truth which is such a frequent casualty in this war.

I'm thinking right now of the insane bit of controversy that's happened over the past few days. Trump wondered out loud whether disinfectants should be studied as possible measures against COVID-19. That was immediately turned into "Crazy Trump Tells People to Drink Disinfectant." And then they warned people not to do it. As if the idea would ever have occurred to anyone without the help of the press.

If you want to read a careful account of what Trump actually said and the way it was handled, read this piece by Andrew McCarthy: The Times Inflates Trump's Foolishness Into Monstrousness

How depressing is the erosion of the principle that when the president of the United States speaks, it means something, that it’s not just stream-of-consciousness that willy-nilly gets revised or reversed or treated like he never really said it. Just as depressing, though, is the media’s abandonment of straightforward fact reporting, in favor of unabashed alliance with Trump’s political opposition.

Why do blind partisans and demagogues have such sway these days? Because no one can trust the reporting of institutions we used to expect would give us an accurate rendition of the facts being debated....

When the president speaks publicly, he should stick to what he is in a position to convey factually, not hypothetically. Especially when it comes to scientific and medical information, as to which he is quickly out of his depth.

At the same time, no matter how much the press abhors Trump, no matter how sincerely believed its conviction that he is a dangerous man who will induce people to do dangerous things, reporters worthy of the name do not have license to portray Trump as living down to their worst fears when he has not. If he says dumb things, they should report that he said dumb things. That’s bad enough (and since they’re clearly hoping to hurt him politically, nothing stings like the truth). The press destroys its own credibility, however, by reporting the president’s ill-advised remarks as if they were culpably, recklessly irresponsible remarks.

I don't care much about Trump's political fortunes for Trump's sake, but I do care about the transformation of most of the national press into a weapon for his enemies, because it means that the institutions which are supposed to inform us, and are always eager to preen themselves upon their own importance, have more or less abandoned that duty where domestic politics is concerned. When I said "Democrats" earlier, I meant the word to include most of the media. As McCarthy says, "No one can trust the reporting." And as a journalist of another time used to say, "That's the way it is." 

TrumpSaysEatYourGrassAnd by the way Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet.


My Contribution to KOVID Konfusion

...is this article at a health and science site called Stat: A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data

The site seems sane and credible, and most of the stories about COVID-19 are fairly typical; that is, it's not some dodgy sensationalist site. And the author has credentials: "John P.A. Ioannidis is professor of medicine, of epidemiology and population health, of biomedical data science, and of statistics at Stanford University and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center."

He believes the evidence on which decisions are being made is "a fiasco." And if it's seriously overestimating the danger, then

...locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

You can read it for yourself at the link above and make up your own mind. Well, no, I guess it won't work that way, because the author doesn't know, either, and one can still say "Better to do too much than too little."

Up to a point.


Words and Numbers

As you may have seen, people have been having a lot of fun with this:

The actual number of dollars per citizen, of course is not 1,000,000, but 1 (sticking with whole numbers). It is a ludicrous mistake, and I had my laugh. And I wouldn't bother to comment on it, but I got to thinking about it, and I think I can see the mental mechanism that probably led to the mistake. I suspect it has to do with the use of the word "millions" instead of numerals. You see this:

Mike spent 500 [million]. There are 327 [million] people in this country. If he had distributed his 500 [millions] equally among the people, how many [millions] would each have received?

Since both numbers are a count of "millions," the mind tends to drop the words and focus only on the numbers:

Mike spent 500. There are 327 . If he had distributed his 500 equally....

Any third grader can see that 327 goes into 500 once, but not twice. So the answer is "one each, with something left over," right? 

Only of course it's massively, massively wrong. The first "million" is not a single object, but 1,000,000 objects. If you saw the problem presented with numbers instead of words, the string of zeroes would keep you from making that mental slip: 

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 = 1 and some remainder

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 obviously ≠ 1,000,000

Unless of course you're the sort of person who tends to skip numbers, but in that case you wouldn't make the mistake, either, because you wouldn't think about it.

That no one caught this before it was discussed on MSNBC, that both the host and the guest (a member of the New York Times editorial board!) sat there exchanging amazed remarks about the riches that could have been everyone's if Bloomberg had not squandered it on his political campaign, is pretty astonishing. 

I was about to say that what they lacked was what people who deal with data and calculations of various sorts call a "sanity check": asking whether a result is even within the bounds of reason and possibility. If a policeman's radar tells him that a car is going 1,000 mph, something is wrong with the radar or his reading of it. But anyone ought to have questioned that number. How many people behind the scenes saw that same tweet and assisted in getting it on the air, but never noticed that it was nuts? Why did no one think "A million per person, 327 million people...hang on, that's got to be way more than 500 million." (It's actually in the trillions, 327 of them.)

"It all became clear." "It's an incredible way of putting it." Yes, it is incredible, but not in the way you mean it.

As many have noted, this does provide some insight into those who believe that we can fund all sorts of massively expensive social programs--universal health care and the like--simply by "taxing the rich." Charles Cooke at National Review has filled in some of the details about that fallacy.


"In fact, you will not be saved."

That's a line from Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "Nightmare, With Angels." I first read it long ago, but I'm not sure when or where. I had thought it was freshman English, in the Sound and Sense textbook/anthology. But I've just looked, and it's not there. Could it have been in high school? That seems unlikely, but it's possible. Anyway, it made an impression on me, and I think of it from time to time. Here is a link to it.

It's been on my mind especially in recent weeks and months, as the American republic seems to be having some kind of breakdown. So is the Catholic Church, at least large segments of it. A few days ago, in a Facebook group devoted to the renewal of the Church, someone posted a list of proposed responses, basically theological, to a recent survey indicating a serious decline in the number of American Christians (of any and all denominations). It included things like reviving a genuinely Christian philosophy, getting rid of hyper-political partisanship within the community, and so forth. It was all perfectly sound, but very unlikely to have any discernible effect anytime soon--and by "soon" I mean within the next several decades. I guess I was feeling grumpy that day, because I responded with the Benet poem, among other helpful observations:

Fine, good things in response to bad errors. But as far as Western Formerly Christian civilization is concerned, Stephen Vincent Benet had the general idea right: "In fact you will not be saved." This train is not going to be stopped until it goes off a cliff or, best case, runs out of fuel. Either way it looks to be a long time.

Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong. And I'm sorry if I sounded like a jerk. But I don't see how any any theological adjustment can possibly turn things around, or even slow them down. [This program] is a good thing but a project for generations, maybe centuries.

I mean--pardon my crudeness, but: we live in a society which has decreed that as a matter of law and custom there is no ontological or teleological difference between a vagina and a rectum. How do you even converse with that? Unless we're in the final apostasy of the end times, which is certainly a possibility but not one to which I've ever committed myself, the Church will be renewed, and a new culture will arise around it. But I can't see a turnaround in our present trajectory. I think we'll have to hit a wall of some kind.

This may sound like despair, but it really isn't. The ship of the Church will eventually right itself, at least to the degree that it is ever really righted. The ship of state is a different story; perhaps it will be righted, but perhaps it will slowly turn into something else, something that may or may not preserve the form but definitely does not preserve the substance of the constitutional order.

It's a rejection of the belief, so beloved of those of us who spend a great deal of our time thinking and writing and talking, that if we can only formulate and propagate the correct set of ideas things will be put right. It's a recognition that we are riding extremely powerful waves generated by the uncontrollable movement of great masses far below the surface of the sea. It's true that ideas have consequences. But this doesn't mean, as those who traffic in ideas are tempted to think, that ideas determine events. 

I find that I've lost interest almost entirely in that kind of talk, especially talk that involves proposals for the reform of society, sometimes the construction of societies in the air, according to distributist, or Christian democrat, or Christian liberal, or integralist, or whatever, principles. It's a sort of hobby for which I've lost my taste. 

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Addendum: in putting forth the Benet poem, I don't mean to be saying that we in the U.S.A. and Europe are headed for cataclysmic violence. I don't in fact think we are. The poem was written in the 1930s, when the fact that war was coming was pretty clear to perceptive people. I think we are, rather, in a decline the outcome of which I don't claim to foresee. But the first angel's lament for all the unfulfilled hopes and promises of history is poignant, and the second angel's brutal crushing of such hopes applicable enough in general.  


The Issues Are Not the Issues Anymore

I've been trying to remember where I heard, attributed to some leftist, the saying that "The issue is not the issue." The only thing turned up by a quick search is a remark attributed by David Horowitz to some SDS organizer of the '60s: "The issue is never the issue. The issue is the revolution." 

Even if that's apocryphal, it certainly describes the method of many political activists, especially those who see themselves as being engaged in a campaign for some sort of broad and fundamental change. You pick particular situations that can be exploited for your purposes, but they're mainly important as means toward a far more important end.

I think--I'm afraid--that the quotation has a wider application now. It pretty much sums up our whole political situation. Right and left disagree as much as they ever have about specific policy questions. But those are somewhat in the background except insofar as they can be used to advance the essential cause: for progressives, to gain decisive control of the federal government so that "the New America" can begin (I've been seeing that term a lot recently); for conservatives, to prevent that. 

Old-fashioned liberals believed in the constitution, but they are a fading breed, being replaced by leftists for whom the constitution is at best a set of more or less arbitrary rules that can be set aside when progress requires it. At worst it's just one more oppressive structure put in place by white men to keep everyone else down. In any case, it should be construed as requiring (or permitting, as the case may be) whatever advances the progressive cause. That tendency on the left has been evident for as long as I can remember, but it's far stronger now. 

It becomes more and more clear that a lot of very influential progressives simply don't care in any positive way about the actual history, culture, people, and constitution of this country. They can only value it insofar as it seems to promise a bright shining socialist John-Lennon-Imaginary future. Anything that would get in the way of that vision must be discarded or destroyed. They're best understood as millenarian religious fanatics. I don't by any means say that everyone on the political left thinks this way, but, as I said, they are many and influential beyond their numbers.

So when the question "What do conservatives want to conserve?" is asked, my answer now is pretty simple: the constitution. Everything else in American political life depends on that. If we lose it, we lose the republic. And I think that would be a bad thing--even for those who don't at the moment understand that it would be. 

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review a couple of weeks ago in response to a New York Times call for "packing" the Supreme Court as a way of defeating the obstacle of originalist judges, makes the point brilliantly:

Bouie complains: “In the past, courts have walled entire areas of American life off from federal action. They’ve put limits on American democracy.” Indeed, they have — that is what they are there for. The Constitution and, specifically, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments exist explicitly to “put limits on American democracy.” Majorities do not get to overturn freedom of speech or freedom of religion. They do not get to impose slavery or imprison people without trial. There are lots of things majorities do not get to do. This is not some modern conservative invention to frustrate progressives — it is the design of the American constitutional order.

(Strange that you never hear progressives complaining about how Roe vs. Wade “walled off” abortion from majoritarian lawmaking.)

Bouie’s majoritarian ideology is nowhere to be found in the Constitution; in fact, the very structure of American government is designed to frustrate that kind of crass majoritarianism. Hence the Senate (as originally organized) and the presidential veto, both designed as checks on the excessive democratic passions to which the House might be subject; hence the written Constitution and the Bill of Rights, i.e. America’s Great Big List of Important Stuff You Idiots Don’t Get a Vote On, and a Supreme Court constitutionally empowered to police those limits. You can call that an ideology, too, and even conservative ideology, which it is: Properly understood, the principles and philosophy of the Founding are what it is conservatives try to conserve.   

Exactly. The movement for getting rid of the Electoral College deserves similar scorn for similar reasons. Speaking of which, there is no surer way to get me to vote for Trump than to attempt to subvert the Electoral College. (You can read Williamson's whole piece here.)

We're in a strange situation now (to say the least). I don't think Trump really understands or cares about the constitution much more than most of these progressives do. People call him a fascist, but that's silly and lazy: if the word means anything useful (which is questionable), a fascist is a person with a rigid ideology. That's one of the last things Trump can be accused of being. The note in his manner and behavior that makes people think of fascism is that of the caudillo: the amoral strong man of the sort who tends to gain control of nations that have no strong constitutional framework, no strong deeply-rooted sense of "government of laws, not men."

And yet he has pretty well delivered on his promise to appoint constitutionalist judges, who are the final bulwark of a republic deserving the name. The man progressives call authoritarian is actually, where it counts most, shoring up the foundations against authoritarianism--even if he doesn't know exactly what he's doing. 


Sohrab Ahmari: Through Fire By Water

I'm really trying not to say "Here's yet another conversion story." Every soul is unique, every soul's relationship with God is unique, every conversion story is unique (as is every story of a soul who doesn't have to be converted, in the sense of adopting a new religion). Yet there is also a certain degree of similarity in all these stories, and it's probably a good idea not to read too many of them in quick succession. 

Here's what is unusual about Sohrab Ahmari's story: he was born in Iran, to a not-particularly-observant Muslim family, after the Islamic revolution had, to the distress of his family, taken power.  He and his mother came to the U.S., and not just to urban or typical suburban U.S., but to Mormon Utah. There he had a very American adolescence which involved rejection of the mainstream (as it existed there), subsequent atheism, nihilism, communism, and other forms of modern Western alienation. As happens fairly often, actual experience led him away from cultural and political leftism in general toward the kind of conservatism that respects religion--which in this country means above all respecting Christianity--without believing in it or practicing it. a species of conservatism. That "actual experience" provides some of the most interesting moments in the book, including his covertly joining a group of young men attempting to emigrate from the Middle East to Europe.

I think I will leave the rest of the story for you to read. It is worth reading.

Ahmari-FromFireByWater

Okay, I know that sounds like faint praise, and I guess it is. I enjoyed the book but I don't expect to return to it, and my relative lack of enthusiasm is similar to what I felt about Hillbilly Elegy: while the matter is certainly interesting, the quality of the writing is not high enough to make me value it for that reason.

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Ahmari has of course been in the news, at least in certain circles, because of his call, in First Things, for a more aggressive Christian tactic in the current religious conflict. Ahmari criticizes a different approach, to which he appropriated the name of one of its practitioners, calling it "David-French-ism." I don't feel obliged to take a side in this argument, or even inclined to.  As I said in a comment just this morning, the fact that the liberal democratic tradition has a fatal philosophical flaw does not mean that it must actually die very soon, and I see no reason why I myself need to take any definite view on whether I think the case is hopeless or not. At any rate I think French has a very good point, on display in this piece about a difficult but successful religious liberty lawsuit, that too many Christians and conservatives are much too quick to give up the fight even on the terms required by the liberal tradition itself. To that extent, then, my view differs from Ahmari's, that the "...the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us." 

I don't think anyone has ever accused me of optimism, and if anyone did he was mistaken or taking some anomaly for the norm. But I don't quite accept "inexorably." 


Johnny Tremain

I thought we had discussed this book here once, although I have not read it, but I can't find any mention of it. Anyway, here is an interesting discussion of it by Francesca Murphy at Public Discourse. She says it is

a liminal secular-religious book. It is on the border between the two, broad enough on both sides to pose a challenge in either direction. It challenges its secular readers to have a deep enough conception of the secular to encompass dying for the sake of freedom. It challenges its religious readers to deepen their pieties sufficiently to encompass the aspiration for freedom that is written in the human frame.

Well, I don't know about that, obviously, since I haven't read it. But apart from the identity of the author, this strikes me as an interesting indirect comment on the argument that's been going on among conservatives for a while now: is the liberal (and effectively secular) tradition a good thing or a bad thing, especially as it relates to religion? And in either case what are its prospects?