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Why We're Divided (2) + The Lamp

By an appropriate coincidence, on the same day that I did that last post the new issue of The Lamp arrived. It includes an essay of mine which discusses the development of the counter-culture of the 1960s toward the current culture war, and the post reiterates a point made in that piece: 

The essential feature of the youth rebellion of the Sixties is that it arrived at the point at which the simultaneous decline of Christian culture and the rise of secular materialism produced a mass movement which was in fact a new ersatz cultus, the Great Awakening of a religion of human liberation. It has attracted converts ever since and gone a great way toward converting the culture of which it is an antagonist, recapitulating the conversion of the Greek and Roman world to Christianity. It is for many a feverishly impassioned faith. Like the Church it looks with fervent longing for a world to come. If it stops short of explicit utopianism, it nevertheless postulates an “arc of history” which is an asymptotic approach to utopia.

My title for the piece was "What Happened in the 1960s?" The editor(s) changed it to "What The Culture War Really Is," which I didn't quarrel with. ("Ersatz cultus" also is the editor's phrase, not mine--I just said "religion.") 

It was originally a chapter in the book for which I'm currently trying to find a publisher. My initial intention and ambition for the book was that it would be a combination of personal and cultural history, part autobiographical narrative and part discursive reflection and/or analysis of the times. Reactions from the people who read it either suggested or stated outright that I hadn't really unified those two aspects, and I think they were right. And among other things the book was way too long, and so I removed a lot of the discursive impersonal stuff, like the chapter which became the essay on the Sixties.

What's left is basically a memoir, and I think there's an oversupply of memoirs these days, so I'm not very optimistic about getting it published. Yesterday I ran across this rather wonderful quote from Wittgenstein's introduction to one of his own books:

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

That's something like the way I feel. I don't think I can rewrite the book as it now stands in such a way that it would be greatly improved, though I have not stopped fiddling with details, and will soon try sending this new version to a publisher. 

Though I had excised that one chapter, I thought it was worth preserving. I cut it down from its original 7,000 or so words (by removing personal stuff) to 4,000. Almost exactly 4,000, in fact, which I know because I aimed for that in order to get it down to the maximum word count for First Things, thinking it might be something that would interest them. Well, it didn't. Nor did it interest several other conservative/Catholic publications to which I submitted it, so I put it on this site for a while. Perhaps you read it. 

Then Robert Gotcher told me about a new Catholic magazine called The Lamp. It looked interesting, and they were (are) considering unsolicited work, so I sent the piece to them, and somewhat to my surprise they accepted it. At that point I took it down here.

The Lamp is an interesting publication, describing itself as "A Catholic Journal Of Literature, Science, The Fine Arts, Etc." It's eclectic to say the least. I'm tempted to add "to a fault," and very handsomely produced. It is, however, a bit pricey at $60 for a print subscription, $45 for digital. You can read their editorial statement here. And here is a list of the issues. I'm pretty sure that you can read them online if you register first. It will offer to link your registration to your subscriber account, but you can close that tab, go back to the issues page, and view the articles. I think.

TheLamp-Issue-07-cover-imageCover image from the current issue. I think it's great.


Why We're Divided

The end of the Cold War three decades ago followed by the terror attacks in 2001 should have ushered in an era of consensus and low-intensity politics in the United States. That was the expectation at the time—but it turned out to be wrong. Over the past few decades Americans have turned on themselves, dividing into hostile tribes and parties with little common ground to hold the national enterprise together. As a result, as many now agree, the United States finds itself more polarized and divided over politics than at any time since the 1850s. But today, in contrast to the slavery issue of the 1850s or the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is no single crisis or line of conflict to account for the situation. We live in a time of general peace and relative prosperity and do not face any single challenge comparable to slavery or mass unemployment. America is coming apart, but no one can quite explain why.

That's James Pierson writing in a recent issue of The New Criterion (you can read the piece here, I think). With all respect to Mr. Pierson, who is far more qualified than I to discuss political and economic history, I believe I can explain why. The details are very many and sometimes contain contradictory and ambiguous evidence, but I think I've grasped the big picture, the essence of the conflict.

You can state the basic nature of the European aspect of World War II in Europe straightforwardly: Germany was an aggressive, repressive, and violent state that set out to conquer others, which then defended themselves. Even as a summary this leaves out a lot, starting with all the reasons why Hitler had come to power in the first place, the various ideas and obsessions that came together in National Socialism, the history of relations between the powers, and so on and so on, eventually for many volumes. But the simple statement is true.

Similarly, the essence of the current conflict can be stated like this: within Euro-American civilization a new religion has appeared, and has gained many powerful adherents who seek to impose it on the entire society, and are resisted by those who have not accepted it.

Obviously that doesn't begin to cover the subject. First of all one might discuss the sense in which "religion" is the right word for this new movement, and whether "pseudo-" or "crypto-" should be prefixed to it. And then one wants, of course, to describe the new religion, to understand it, to consider the ways in which the existing order produced the conditions for it, the ways in which it seeks to achieve its aims, to trace the history of its development and of the conflict between it and the society which gave birth to it.

And so on and so on. But if you don't see that one essential point--that this new movement is for all practical purposes a religion in the sense of providing a meaning and a mission for human life, and that it seeks to impose itself on everyone, you're missing the biggest part of the big picture.

I know I'm far from the only one making this basic point, or a similar one. But many of those who get it seem to me to stop short of what I'm saying. They note that politics has taken on a religious fervor and centrality for many people, and that is certainly true. But I think it's more than that: for the new religion, there is no distinction between religion and politics. Even that is too limiting a way to put it, because it treats religion and politics as separate things, which the new religion does not. Politics is its practice in exactly, not just analogously, the same way that prayer and church attendance are the practice of Christianity.

The fact that the new religion doesn't have a name and doesn't demand an explicit profession of faith makes its religious nature easier to miss, and also makes it easier to embrace. Nor does it see itself as "a religion" among others, but rather as the self-evidently true and good--which means that opposition to it can only constitute a choice of the false and evil. This likewise makes it easier to embrace, and also accounts for its almost perfect moral self-confidence.

The immediately apparent historical analogies are the establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the conquest of much of the Mediterranean world by Islam. I think the latter is really more comparable, for the same reason that I used the words "establishment" and "conquest"--the conversion of the Empire to Christianity was not primarily or initially by force, but the replacement of Christianity by Islam in much of the Mediterranean world was (though there was more to the story than that of course). And although the new religion does not (as yet) use physical force, it does use whatever means of informal and legal compulsion it can.

The course of the actual campaign of this attempted conquest is murky, as is generally the case. Relatively few people are firmly and consciously on one side or the other. Most people are down-to-earth and pragmatic and don't generally think too much about consciously-held abstract principle. Many who casually support it don't really grasp its totalitarian implications, or draw back from its more radical doctrines, such as the denial of sex.

Is this a fire that will burn itself out fairly quickly? Or is it the beginning of a long age of domination by a fundamental falsehood? Is that even possible for any great length of time? I don't know. I take a little comfort in considering how long Hitler's thousand years lasted. And totalitarian communism didn't do all that much better. Unlike fascism, though, communism didn't die. It has too much in common with the new religion (and both have more in common with fascism than they can admit). Many millions of people get misty-eyed when they sing "Imagine," which means they have accepted some of the doctrines of the new faith, whether or not they realize it.


Henry James On Rich Progressives

I'm reading The Portrait of a Lady (for the first time, and have no idea what is going to become of the heroine, so please don't put spoilers in the comments) and very much enjoying it. This passage has a striking contemporary relevance. Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, has come from America to visit her uncle, Mr. Touchett, an American who has spent much of his life acquiring a fortune in England. Since Mr. Touchett is portrayed as a pretty wise old fellow, I don't think it's too much to suppose that James agrees with him here. He's speaking to Isabel about the professed radical political views of a local aristocrat, Lord Warburton, and others like him.

"You see, when you come to the point it wouldn’t suit them to be taken at their word.”

“Of whom are you speaking?”

“Well, I mean Lord Warburton and his friends—the radicals of the upper class. Of course I only know the way it strikes me. They talk about the changes, but I don’t think they quite realise. You and I, you know, we know what it is to have lived under democratic institutions: I always thought them very comfortable, but I was used to them from the first. And then I ain’t a lord; you’re a lady, my dear, but I ain’t a lord. Now over here I don’t think it quite comes home to them. It’s a matter of every day and every hour, and I don’t think many of them would find it as pleasant as what they’ve got. Of course if they want to try, it’s their own business; but I expect they won’t try very hard.”

“Don’t you think they’re sincere?” Isabel asked.

“Well, they want to feel earnest,” Mr. Touchett allowed; “but it seems as if they took it out in theories mostly. Their radical views are a kind of amusement; they’ve got to have some amusement, and they might have coarser tastes than that. You see they’re very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury. They make them feel moral and yet don’t damage their position. They think a great deal of their position; don’t let one of them ever persuade you he doesn’t, for if you were to proceed on that basis you’d be pulled up very short.”


Notes On the Crack-Up of America

(I started fiddling around with this post several days ago, before the debacle in Afghanistan began to unfold. There was never going to be any good way for the U.S. to get out of that situation, but I never thought it would be bungled to this degree, in a repeat of the 1975 fall of Saigon. I had thought that if nothing else, and if only for the sake of its own image, the administration would see to it that the spectacle of terrified local civilians trying to flee the vengeance of the conquerors and being left behind, or even dying in the attempt to cling to aircraft, would not be repeated. I was wrong, obviously. The best single observation on the situation I've heard is in a tweet by someone named Jack Prosobiec, which was linked to by someone at another blog: "DC Theater gave way to reality." That says so much that's so damning about what's happened to our government and our country.)

The terms "liberal" and "conservative" as descriptions of our political factions have always been a problem, but now they make less sense than ever. For a while now I've tended to substitute the simple "left" and "right," because the liberals weren't very liberal and the conservatives weren't very conservative. Now even those are inadequate, so I've resorted to "left-crazy" and "right-crazy." It's crazy all around. 

This Quillette piece, "Watching America's Crack-Up", is a pretty good assessment of what we've come to, though I disagree fairly strongly with some of the specifics. In particular I think the author is seriously mistaken about what's happening and has been happening when Democrats are in charge. Joe Biden is a Hollywood image of what some want to see in a president: white hair, white teeth, blue eyes, handsome for his age. Or maybe not even Hollywood--just an advertisement aimed at old people, fairly old but "vibrant." And he has just about as much substance. Still, the piece is right on target as far as the basic situation is concerned.

This, I think, is the worst of the many problems the writer points out: "A significant segment of the American Left and Right have both, to a great extent, given up on the republic and its institutions." If that's true, and I think it is, how can recovery be possible? 

The writer notes that "both sides [are] hermetically sealed in their cultural, ideological, and political bubbles." The term "epistemic closure" was suddenly popular a few years ago. It's just a grander--and, I must say, cooler--way of saying "closed-minded." As far as I noticed it was used mainly, if not exclusively, by the left against the right. But it's just as applicable in the other direction, as the Quillette piece points out.

I have been pretty consistent in my low opinion of Donald Trump, before and after he was elected. "Donald Trump Is Not Right In the Head" (April 4, 2016) seems to have been my first post on the subject. I never changed my mind about that. I did, however, sometimes try to make the point that Trump was being portrayed as being far worse than he actually was. I don't necessarily mean in relation to competence, but to all the claims that he was literally the new Hitler, etc. Occasionally it was a conscious experiment: show people a transcript of what Trump actually said about, for instance, neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, and see what happens. The reaction of the fanatically anti-Trump was always what I think of as a "these go to 11" moment, i.e., a brief pause, then a repetition that Trump was a Nazi sympathizer (and I was a fool), as if nothing had been said or demonstrated. 

As far as I can tell the only thing I accomplished with these experiments was to make some people think I was a Trumpist. But it confirmed my impression of epistemic closure, which has been further confirmed since Biden took office, by the reception, running from acceptance to enthusiastic support, of things he's said and done that were as bad as or worse than any of the things that Trump was denounced for (quite rightly in many cases, of course).

Trump talked a lot of garbage which sensible people didn't take seriously, with most of the harm of it coming from the crazed reactions to it (which I think he enjoyed, demonstrating his unfitness for the presidency). And he also talked garbage that was genuinely harmful. But I can't think of anything he ever said that was as poisonous and destructive as Biden saying that a law intended to prevent election fraud was "Jim Crow on steroids." As a matter of simple fact, it's an insane assertion. As the word of a president charged with the leadership of an already divided country, it's contemptible. One could argue with specific provision of such laws, but to say what Biden said...well, I can't add anything to my preceding two sentences.

A week or two ago a reader of Rod Dreher's American Conservative blog wrote that there are three factions at work in American politics now. Quoting that reader, these are:

Woke Left: This is a group that needs no introduction.

“Loyalists”: These are the classical liberals, the Eric Weinsteins, Bari Weisses, Damon Linkers, and even you, Rod! I call you all the “loyalists” because you all, despite your diverse views, still believe in the American experiment, the Constitution, and embrace our history, good and bad, and would like to see this country stay together. I’m proudly part of this group.

Authoritarian Right: There’s really no other term to describe them right now. Much the way many of the Left came to embrace dictators or, at least, find something redeemable in them, the Right is also embracing dictators and finding something redeemable in them.

The picture is clearer if you substitute "authoritarian left" for "woke left," because the woke left is authoritarian to its core. "Loyalist" isn't the best term for the middle group. Lower-case "republican" would be accurate, but has obvious problems. As do terms like "traditionalist" and "Americanist," even "constitutionalist."

So "loyalist" will do. And like this person, I remain proudly a loyalist, and hope I never find myself forced to choose between the other two. My hope in all this is in the fact that the vast majority of people just want to mind their own business. And I see a fair amount of evidence for that in the real life around me, as opposed to the online world.

The first and third of those categories encompass the most politically engaged people (all the way up to "fanatical"), and it's these who have essentially given up on the philosophy on which the American government is based, the one embodied in the constitution and in many informal ways. For want of a better term, we can call that classical liberalism. I am very much aware of the problems, including what are arguably intrinsic problems that will or could ultimately doom any system founded on it. But as a matter of down-to-earth everyday goods, bads, and uglies, I think it's preferable to most of the alternatives. I have little patience for fantasies of a confessional Christian state; aside from the question of whether it would even be desirable (Kierkegaard has a few reservations), it is not a possibility. It can only arise after a period of collapse which very few will enjoy and in which many will suffer.

A few days ago someone made the point that conservatives--conservatives of the academic, journalistic, and think-tank worlds, anyway--tend to devote more time to talking about their ideas than do those on the left. My first reaction to that was to disagree. But on further consideration I think there's something to it. These conservatives are saying "Liberal democracy is failing, and will probably be followed by some sort of authoritarianism," and they are talking incessantly about what that might mean.

Their counterparts on the left are not doing that. They are simply pressing hard for what they want, and rather than considering whether what they want is compatible with American constitutionalism they are identifying whatever they happen to want with what they call "democracy." This, I think, is the reason for "our democracy" having become a sort of robotic tic in the talk of Democrats over the past few years. "Democracy" is identified with progressive policies, regardless of what connection they do or don't have to democracy in the formal sense. It can just as well refer to John Lennon's Imaginary world as to anything actually existing. And "our" is quite literal: "our democracy" seems to be "the system in which we govern." This means that opposition to them is anti-democratic. They're even getting fond of the epithet "anti-American," as they become more dominant. It's a nice and convenient rhetorical posture, pretty much the same thing that used to be practiced by the right when it attacked opponents as unpatriotic.

Notice, by the way, that the loyalists listed by Dreher's correspondent are not conservatives in any traditional sense. Most of them are secular liberals, but of the old liberalism that emphasizes reason, free speech, and open debate. Several have been badly burned by the woke authoritarians. I find some hope in this, too.


The First Resort of the Scoundrel

I've been going through scattered notes that exist as loose scraps of paper, disconnected sentences and paragraphs and whole pages in at least half a dozen notebooks, and text files on my computer, trying to get rid of the junk and put anything worth keeping in some place where I can find it again. The blog seems as good a place as any, better than most in fact, since I can search it.

I have occasionally thought about writing an essay on the whole topic of race and racism, and I think these two paragraphs were notes toward that. 

*

From the point of view of the character assassin the charge of racism is a wonderful thing. No evidence is required, much less proof. All that's needed is that the charge be repeated by enough of the right people.

It is a crime without degree--as if the law were to hold that to express dislike of a person's manners is the same as murdering him. The charge can be brought on some trivial basis, but the accused is guilty of everything. If the label sticks, you are morally indistinguishable from slave owners and segregationists.

*

Everybody knows the famous remark, which I think originated with Johnson: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." That was more true decades ago than it is now, as patriotism is a highly "problematic" thing among the enlightened of our time. More to the point now, demonstrated every day, is that the charge of racism has become the first resort of many scoundrels, many of them in high places--and their last resort as well. 

I abandoned the idea of that essay, by the way. It would be a lot of unpleasant work and in the end useless. There's no point in addressing madness with reason--or at any rate I no longer have the heart for it.

 


Two Smart People Discuss the Disintegration of Culture

I'm trying very hard, and so far successfully, to stifle my impulse to talk about the political crisis of the United States. The crisis is far from abating. It's quieter now that the frenzy surrounding Trump has ceased, but the basic situation hasn't changed, and I'm trying not to spend too much time fretting about the likely outcomes, which seem to me to range from not good to very bad. (All right, I'll go this far: I think the most likely is a continued decline toward a situation like that which has often existed in Latin American countries: a corrupt pseudo-republican government, a small class of very wealthy and powerful people, and a great many poor and almost-poor people.)

The civilizational crisis that underlies the political crisis, though, still engages my attention and still seems worth commenting on as part of my effort to grasp it. A British novelist named Paul Kingsnorth has emerged as an articulate and perceptive voice on that subject. This video is an hour of his conversation with a Canadian artist/thinker name Jonathan Pageau, previously unknown to me. It's very much worth watching as a sort of overview. The most interesting part to me begins a little less than halfway through; the first 25 minutes or so are introductory. I don't entirely agree with him about the importance of climate change, but that's relatively unimportant--I certainly agree that our culture's relationship to the created order is pretty sick. 

Rod Dreher has quoted and written about Kingsnorth frequently, and today is another instance. I have not yet read the First Things and other links in that piece, but as this post has been sitting half-finished for over a week and I'm ready to be done with it, I'm going to go ahead and say that they're most likely very much worth reading. 


How Biden Plans to Unify the Country

Many years ago I was sitting in a restaurant with a four-year-old boy. Like many or most four-year-old boys, he was intensely interested in vehicles of all sorts, especially the larger and louder ones. So when I heard a siren and saw something with flashing red lights go by, I said, "Look, there goes an ambulance."

He was already looking, naturally, and said "That's not an ambulance, it's a rescue truck."

In retrospect, I realized that it was stupid of me to argue with a four-year-old, but I was young and naive, and I persisted.

"No, it's an ambulance."

"No, it's a rescue truck."

"Are you sure? It looked like an ambulance to me."

He gave me a dark look and said "You have to compromise."

Surprised that he was using such a big and abstract word, I said "What does that mean?"

He gave me an even darker look.

"That means it was a rescue truck."


Election Comment (2)

Andrew McCarthy is an experienced and knowledgeable lawyer, and also a Trump supporter. He was the "yes" in that "yes-no-maybe" note about voting for Trump that I posted a few weeks ago. Like a lot of reasonable people, he thinks there are good grounds for believing that there was some cheating by the Democrats in this election. He thinks, for instance, that there could be as many as 10,000 questionable votes in Pennsylvania. But yet:

See, the president trails by 55,000 in Pennsylvania. It is anything but clear that all 10,000 late-arriving ballots are Biden votes — a goodly chunk of them could be Trump votes that the president would be knocking out. But even if we suspend disbelief and assume that they’re all Biden votes, the president would still be 45,000 short of flipping the state into his win column.

This is the president’s fatal problem. No matter which battleground state we analyze, there is always a mismatch between the impropriety alleged and the remedy that it could yield. Where Trump is strongest, as in the Supreme Court case, the yield in votes is a relative pittance. Where Trump’s claims are weaker and hotly disputed, the president is asking for mass disfranchisement, which no court is ever going to order.

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Election Comment

An angel came to me and said, "Ok, here's our best offer: Biden wins the presidency, and the Republicans keep the Senate."

I didn't have to think for very long. No more Trump craziness, from Trump himself, from his enemies, from his supporters. And the damage the Democrats can do will be severely limited.

"I'll take it," I said. 

"That's good," said the angel. "Because we weren't actually going to listen to you anyway.

 


You're Gonna Miss Your Constitutional Liberalism When It's Gone

Somewhere or other, sometime or other, I read that G.K. Chesterton, asked whether he was a liberal, answered that he was "the only liberal." I sometimes feel that way. I long ago acquiesced to the fact that in the American political context I'm more or less correctly classified as a conservative. But as the so-common-as-to-be-hackneyed followup to any such statement goes, what American conservatism seeks to conserve is in large part classical liberalism.

It probably doesn't need saying to people who read this blog, but in case it does: "classical liberalism" refers not to what we currently refer to as the liberal faction in contemporary politics, but to a political philosophy which is, in a nutshell, that of the United States of America. Most discussions of it emphasize its economic aspects, which I'm sure is accurate, but I'm not a political philosopher or economist and am not very interested in wrangling over the definition. For my purposes it's the political system described by the Constitution, and a corresponding culture which values self-government, liberty, the rule of law, reason, the free exchange of ideas, religious tolerance, and so on--the whole list of things which until recently were generally agreed upon, all based on what were considered in the 18th century self-evident truths about human nature. The American constitution puts that basic worldview into a system of government, and so I prefer the term "constitutional liberalism." (Also "classical liberalism" has other associations, with capitalism for instance, which I want to avoid--but that's another topic.)

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