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The Fatal Bent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Compact: A New Post-liberal Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is no one’s Bible, no one’s Magisterium, to which Americans may, in the end, legitimately appeal on public matters. There is, literally, no higher law in the United States of America than the Constitution..... As far as the law and customs of the nation are concerned it is the Constitution which judges religion; it is the Constitution which says what really matters, what is right and wrong. This is quite a burden to place upon a thoroughly pragmatic document written one summer in Philadelphia by a group of men trying to organize a government. And of course now that the ethical consensus which underlay that document has cracked, the inadequacy of the document alone is obvious. If the people cannot agree about what a human being is or what its purpose might be, what a family is, what a right is, what liberty is, then the Constitution is utterly impotent to guide them...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Culture) War Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stupid Questions, Stupid Answers, Stupid Times

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

A few more questions:

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

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

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


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.


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.