Politics Feed

A Republic, If We Want It

This is a little long for a blog post. It wasn't originally intended to be one. It was written almost six months ago and over that time was submitted, in various revisions, to four conservative/Catholic online publications. None of them wanted it (actually, none of them even acknowledged it with a rejection, which I guess is the state of online publication these days). So I'm posting it here, where at least a few people will see it. It was written before the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which has brought out more explicit and fervent rejection of the constitution on the left. I saw a link to a story at The Atlantic, a magazine I was once willing to pay to read, called The Constitution Isn't Working. I only saw the headline, but that seems enough.

A REPUBLIC, IF WE WANT IT

"A republic, if you can keep it." I suppose everyone knows that famous remark, said to have been made by Benjamin Franklin to a woman who asked whether the Constitutional Convention had created a republic or a monarchy. (The details of the story vary, but that seems to be a common version). The remark gets a lot of exercise, generally as a scolding of political opponents charged with being the menace against which Franklin warned. But there are good grounds for wondering now if the more pertinent question is not whether we can keep Franklin’s republic, but whether we want to.

I don’t know what potential failures Franklin had in mind, but for some time now one very clear possibility has been the reduction of the constitution to an empty set of words that mean whatever the Supreme Court says they mean. That possibility has long been foreseen by at least one side of the long-running argument between those who believe that the constitution should be interpreted straightforwardly as written, and those who believe that changing times warrant very loose interpretation.

Conservatives have naturally, almost by definition, been in the former camp, liberals or progressives in the latter. Many years ago when I was in high school I had a conservative civics teacher who truly valued free discussion and organized a formal debate on this question. As a teenager with leftward inclinations, I instinctively took the progressive side: conditions in the second half of the 20th century required creative new (or new, at least) interpretations of laws written two hundred years earlier, and so forth. “Spoken like a true liberal!” I recall my teacher saying triumphantly, and I was mildly pleased. But even as I made my argument I was troubled by the challenge posed by my opponents: what would or could be the limits of this flexibility? How and by whom might they be set?

It often seems that progressives do not in fact recognize any real limits on the license to interpret, and in effect redefine, the constitution's written words. They tend to see concern for the mere letter of that document as a small-minded obstacle to the implementation of their beautiful vision. They seem to believe that the intent of the constitution is simply the promotion of the good, and that therefore what is good (i.e. what is at the moment desirable to them) is necessarily constitutional, and what is not good is unconstitutional. Lately the progressive vanguard hardly even bothers with that argument, denouncing the constitution itself as being at best obsolete, at worst an actively harmful instrument of oppression, etc., etc.

Recently (and I suppose inevitably) a similar impatience has appeared on the right, in two forms. On the populist right, many Trump enthusiasts feel frustrated by institutions and politicians that seem forever retreating under progressive pressure. The idea that Donald Trump is in any serious sense "literally a fascist" is pretty ridiculous, but he does seem to have the temperament of an autocrat (not every autocrat is a fascist). And his most zealous followers don't seem to mind. They just want him to deliver a blow to a ruling class which no longer bothers to hide its contempt for them. That “he fights” is more important to them than his fidelity to the principles of the republic. It isn’t so much that they disregard, much less reject, the constitution as that they don’t think in those terms.

And on the more sophisticated right are those described, by themselves and others, as post-liberal: academics and pundits, many of them Catholic, who believe that the classical liberal foundation of the American system is intrinsically and fatally flawed, its metaphysical agnosticism making it unable to resist moral and cultural pathogens that are killing liberalism itself and becoming repressive in its name. I’m sympathetic to this position, and in fact said similar things more than twenty-five years ago in the pages of the little-known and short-lived Catholic magazine Caelum et Terra. I referred there to the Supreme Court as “nine popes without a God,” and I did not intend it as a compliment. But I am cynical and pessimistic by nature and figure that any replacement of the liberal order is likely to be worse, at least in its first century or two. I would rather see the liberal constitutional order revivified than abandoned, though cool reason gives me little hope that it will be.

Through the rhetorical mists we can discern on both sides a drift toward two types, maybe archetypes, of non-democratic government: the benevolent monarchy, and the council of the wise. As to the first: in every presidential election we hear people talk as if the president were a national father figure whose wisdom and power can, should, and will make everything all right, if only we will do as he says. Obama's more fervent supporters went wildly in this direction, and so have Trump's. Both tend to make striking—and to my eyes embarrassing—emotional displays of their devotion to the leader and willingness to serve him.

And as to the second: people now commonly talk of the Supreme Court as if it were a council of tribal elders endowed with a fundamentally unrestricted power to decide, on the basis of its own wisdom, what is best for the whole tribe. Progressives especially, but not only, tend to speak of the Court as if its job is to consider present circumstances, needs, and wishes, and to issue commands based on their judgment of those rather than on the constitution, closing the question with "we have spoken": in short, to make law, not to apply it.

And maybe we are indeed drifting toward one of these types, or a combination of them, adding our own technocratic touch in the form of advice and consent from “experts” whose acquisition of expertise clearly does not provide them with good judgment. And maybe that's because they are natural, and self-government is not. For years now I have had an unwelcome but persistent suspicion that self-government is an unnatural thing, something of a fluke when achieved, difficult to preserve, and probably short-lived. If that's true, then the U.S. has done very well to have lasted as long as it has. And it's no surprise that the machinery is now deteriorating, possibly beyond repair.

My use of the word "machinery" is significant. Our constitution and our system are rationalistic and somewhat mechanistic, with many moving parts driven by forces which are often in opposition, but harnessed and balanced to do the work of governance. Two gears do not turn together freely in a spirit of mutual support: one forces the other to turn, and without the resistance of the second the first would spin freely and uselessly. There is wear and tear on the parts, and like all machines this one will eventually fail without proper maintenance. I don’t think anyone would seriously claim that ours is now well-maintained.

Possibly the most significant aspect of this neglect is the indifference and ignorance of the putative citizenry, many or most of whom can hardly now be called "citizen" in any sense of the word richer than "resident." (That this is not altogether an accident is another and important topic, too large for this little essay.)

Maybe this is just a matter of the peoples of the modern democratic republics settling back into the normal human modes of organization. Maybe these modes are, so to speak, organic, developing naturally out of the nature of the human, in a way that our republican machinery, based on abstract principles, does not. Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches have always had some sort of part-monarchical, part-conciliar organization, and have lasted quite a bit longer than any republic.

I return to the question: do the American people of the twenty-first century A.D. want to keep their republic? And if they do not want it, what do they want in its place? Do they yearn in their hearts for one of those more ancient, perhaps more human, modes of governance? Is this the turn of events that Walker Percy describes in the opening pages of Love In the Ruins as a stalled roller-coaster starting to move again, with “...the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes….”?

Do these tendencies, so puzzlingly atavistic to those who believe in the inevitability of rational progress and in “history” as a deity on whose right hand they sit, suggest that our system is in some degree contrary to human nature? The Israelites asked for a king, and the prophet Samuel explained in the most definite and vivid terms why this would be a bad idea: see 1 Samuel 8:10-18. The warning was dire. But they insisted, and got their way. And Samuel was right, and it turned out badly for them.


Shine, Perishing Republic

July42015

This was my Fourth of July picture in 2015, not long after the Obergefell decision. It remains appropriate, but the reversal of Roe v. Wade is an occasion of hope that maybe the republic is not done for yet. Whatever you think about abortion, it was a victory for the constitution and therefore for the country.

The title is from the famous Robinson Jeffers poem. Our troubles are not the same as those of his time, but that phrase is one of those that comes into my head whenever I think of our political-cultural situation. I'm not linking to it because the only online texts I can find are pretty unappealing visually. But you'll find one quickly enough if you search for the title.


I Never Expected To See This Day

Well, maybe not never. But I didn't think it was very likely. And the fact that it has happened makes me think that it's at least possible that this country, which is in imminent danger of capsizing, might yet right itself. I've thought for many years that Roe v. Wade has been a terrible toxin in our body politic, rivaled only by our racial problem as a source of possibly fatal division. If it is indeed possible for the republic to function again more or less as designed and as specified in the constitution, it's a necessary condition that there be some return of independence to the states on matters where there is no national consensus.

A major part of our problem is that we have irreconcilable differences, and the overextension of the national government's reach and power has created a situation in which each side of that division believes that its only hope of survival is to once and for all defeat and subjugate the opposition. This decision is a major step toward defusing that situation. Or at least it should be; in the short run it will make it worse.

Naturally abortion proponents aren't going to accept anything less than total nation-wide elimination of restrictions. And a lot of anti-abortion people are now calling for a national ban, which I think is a bad idea, almost certain to fail and certain to make divisions worse. (A bad idea under present conditions, I mean--possibly a good one at some time in the future if more people come over to the anti-abortion side.)

Some might reply to that by saying that if a national ban would save lives then it's worth tearing the country apart. After all, that's what it took to end slavery. But the two things in themselves, and the situations surrounding them, are very, very different, in ways which ought to be obvious to anyone, and I don't see how the question could be resolved by any violent means short of near-extermination of its enemies by one side or the other, followed by the establishment of an extremely authoritarian regime. That can hardly be "worth it."

A lot of people are feeling joyful. My own feeling is a sort of somber satisfaction. This was the right decision. But, as has always been insisted upon by those paying attention, it's only one battle in a war: a major battle to be sure, but still only one battle. And I'm braced for a frenzy of hatred, lies, and attempts at political destruction from the pro-abortionists. By "political destruction" I mean, for instance, calls for the Supreme Court to be ignored and in general for the substitution of mob-like demands, perhaps of actual mobs, for law. Significant violence is certainly possible; that's hardly an unreasonable concern, since some leftists have already promised and begun it. 

In other words, the left in general, including the Democratic party, will engage in exactly the same attacks on "our democracy" that they accuse the right of. They may not do anything as dramatic as invading the Capitol--after all, they are the party which controls the presidency and Congress as well as the education and journalistic establishments, so they have many more avenues of action. But they may be more effective. I think it's been pretty clear that when they say "our democracy" they mean "that system of government in which we rule." The "our" is proprietary.

No matter what you think of Donald Trump, it seems beyond question that his presidency is directly responsible for this victory. Obviously a victory by any Democrat, and especially the one actually running in 2016, would have prevented it for another few decades. I don't think highly of Trump and didn't vote for him in 2016, because I live in the reddest of red states and availed myself of the permission, so to speak, to make a third-party protest vote. But this is his doing. You can argue that any Republican would have done the same, though that's debatable, but the fact is that he was there and he did it--with, of course, a lot of help and cooperation from those establishment Republicans whom many conservatives despise (not entirely without reason, but excessively). I think, in retrospect, that more harm was done to the country by "the Resistance" (the disgustingly appropriated title awarded to themselves by many of his enemies) than by Trump himself. But in any case: credit where credit is due. 

Just in passing, and mentioned only because I've already read it a dozen times today: the abortion-rights people have never stopped bringing up rape and incest as reasons to keep it legal. This is not a good-faith argument, because they would never support a law that banned abortion in every case except those. It's just a tactically useful appeal to natural emotions.

We can't lose sight of the fact that the desperation to hang on to the more or less unrestricted right to abortion gets its passion from the sexual revolution, from the need to preserve it at all costs, and, more fundamentally, to uphold the quasi-religious doctrine of the separation of sex and reproduction. That physical, spiritual, and cultural lie can't be defeated by law, in fact can never be entirely defeated. But it can be dethroned from its all-but-omnipotent position of power in our culture. Apart from the obvious duty of Christians to help women with unwanted pregnancies, we should also make some effort to empathize with people who have grown up believing that sexual expression does not and should not have any restrictions, that from some time in adolescence on everyone can and should engage in whatever sexual activity strikes his or her fancy, with no adverse consequences. A young woman growing up with those assumptions might well be terrified--I mean, really and sincerely terrified--by anything which promises to cut off her escape in the event that her sexual activity has what was once considered its natural result.

For Catholics, the timing of this announcement is providential: the feast of the Sacred Heart. That's a devotion which I've never been attracted to, not because I think there's anything wrong with it but because it just doesn't appeal to me. Perhaps I should give it another look. Also, in normal years (see this) June 24 is the feast of St. John the Baptist, which is, you might say, even more providential.

And it came to pass that when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.


God Save the Queen

I can't say I've paid close attention to the Diamond Jubilee celebration. I guess I'm not much for lavish public celebrations of anything. I certainly never would have come up with the idea of parades or processions. If I'd been the mayor of some medieval town and citizens had come to me with a proposal for an elaborate procession honoring the town's patron saint, I would have said something like "But what's the point?" I don't get it. I'm certainly not saying there's anything wrong with it, but I just don't get it.

I'm also not really, truly, an Anglophile. Or maybe I am, but if so it's in a mild way. I do love English literature and English folk music and generally enjoy things British. I watch too many British crime dramas. But I don't claim any great knowledge of the country, or its history, or its ways, or attempt in any way to adopt those ways. 

(Well, except maybe for Marmite. A few years ago, out of sheer curiosity, I went to some trouble to obtain a jar of Marmite, and soon discovered that I rather like it. A piece of bread, buttered, toasted, and then spread with a very thin layer of Marmite, topped with a slice of cheddar cheese, is quite a tasty breakfast. My local grocery store now carries it, in the section labelled "International," since "Foreign" would no doubt be in bad taste now, so I can't be the only one, even in Alabama. 

And as far as I know my ancestry for at least the past few centuries is English and Scottish--a bit of Ulster, but that's effectively also Scottish and English, probably in that order. And I feel that there is something in my blood, to use the old-fashioned term, that responds to many things in that culture. Or perhaps I should say those cultures. I don't usually use the phrase "I feel"--it suggests a sloppy and subjective quality to whatever follows, and if whatever follows is meant to have objective validity then it's not the appropriate term. But in this case it is. I can't provide any justification for this feeling, apart from the facts of my ancestry, beyond the fact that I feel it. I also suspect, for similar reasons, that if I were to delve further into my ancestry there would be a Scandinavian connection. The Vikings had a considerable impact, genetic as well as cultural, on the British Isles.)

And yet. The witness of Queen Elizabeth somehow speaks deeply to me, and the fact of the Jubilee touches me. Maybe it's nothing to do with ancestry or Anglophilia. Maybe it's the fact that my life is roughly contemporaneous with her reign. She was crowned in June 1953, when I was a few months away from being five years old. I have a scrap of memory of the event, though I can't figure out how I came by it. I want to say I may have seen it on television, but I don't think my family had one then, so it's more likely that I saw something in a magazine. But then I did not yet know how to read. The memory remains a little mysterious. 

Perhaps it was not at the time of the coronation but a couple of years later, when I could read, that I became aware of it. Somehow I also knew of Prince Charles. There the timelines run very close together: he and I were born approximately six weeks apart (I'm the elder). I was aware of his existence and felt a certain kinship with him. This seems rather odd to me now, considering that I couldn't have been more than six or seven years old, maybe younger, when I learned of him. What could I have known or cared? But I do remember that knowledge and that feeling.

Now we, Charles and I, are seventy-three years old, and the Queen is in her last years. And I don't know about him--maybe he's been fuming for the past forty years or so that he isn't king--but it feels to me that she is the last remnant, soon to vanish, of something which is not much found in our oh-so-proud-of-itself contemporary world. 

Many things have changed for the better in my lifetime. For an American, the end of legally enforced racial oppression is high on that list--on the top of it for me, in fact. But much has deteriorated. Qualities which we used to include in the word "character" have become less valued and accordingly more rare: a strong sense of duty; loyalty; self-restraint; dignity; integrity; simple love of country. We, or at least I, associate these with the British at their best. Perhaps Elizabeth does not in fact embody them as much as I, and apparently many others, want to believe, but at any rate she is a powerful symbol of them.

I don't much associate them with the British at present. Well, in fact, my impression is that the British now rival us in developing a culture which favors and encourages their opposites. The culture of narcissism has gone far beyond anything that Christopher Lasch witnessed. And that makes this Jubilee, and the passing of the Queen which can't be very far in the future, poignant, especially to those of us old enough to recall that not so very long ago her virtues were more valued than they are now.


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.


Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 


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.