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The Dangers of Being a Player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What Happened In the 1960s?

NOTE: the essay itself has been removed for the moment. Explanation later.

As some readers of this blog know, I've written a book which is part memoir and conversion story, part cultural history of the phenomenon we call "the Sixties." I have a certain amount of evidence that the attempt is not really successful. It's too long, for one thing: somewhere around 130,000 words, which makes it comparable in length to The Seven Storey Mountain (a book which I thought too long when I read it--so why did I think I could make one of equal length interesting?) I have a version which chops out most of the discursive social-philosophical-religious stuff, leaving something that's basically a memoir, and kind of a so-so one in my opinion. It's doubtful that either is going to see the light of publication day. 

In the first version, there's a long chapter which is a sort of bridge between my life up until I left home for college, and my plunge into the '60s cultural revolution. It attempts to describe the forces that made the revolution happen, the conditions in the mid-'60s which made many of us who were growing up at the time join that movement. I cut it out entirely from the second version of the book. But I think it's a worthwhile reading of those times and the way they led us to this time. So I cut it down by several thousand words, removing personal stuff, and leaving something that I hoped might interest a magazine.

Well, that didn't work out. I shopped it to half a dozen magazines and got no interest. So: one reason for having a web site in the first place is that one can publish whatever one damn well pleases. I've now posted the essay here, not as a blog post but as a standalone page. You can get an idea of what it's about from the original title: "The Tube, the Bomb, and the Closed World." Those are three of the factors I hold to have been of great importance in producing the revolution. The third one refers to the metaphysical closure of the Western mind over the past couple of centuries. As I say in the opening of the essay, understanding the phenomenon of "the Sixties" is important to understanding the culture war which it set in motion.

I should warn you that it's just under 4000 words long, which is rather lengthy for online reading. (The close approximation to 4000 is not an accident: that's the maximum acceptable length for articles at one of the magazines I sent it to.)


These Dang Republicans

Or, Right-Wing Virtue Signaling

Among other elections happening today is the one for congress from my district. It's a fairly close race so I've been getting a fair amount of advertising in the mail. Alabama is essentially a one-party--Republican--state now, so they're all Republicans. Their advertising all contains the following important facts about the candidate:

  • He loves Trump--and if any evidence at all can be found to support the claim, Trump loves him.
  • He will fight for and with Trump (and against Nancy Pelosi and that dreadful "squad").
  • He's a conservative Christian.

There generally follows mention of one or more of the specific issues that get the blood flowing for most Alabamians: abortion, illegal immigration, the 2nd amendment. Anything more definite is hard to find. It's exasperating--and I don't even disagree substantially with them. The candidates are more or less indistinguishable, though I feel pretty sure there would be reason to vote for one over another if I could find it. Journalism used to be helpful in this way but isn't much anymore, at least not around here. The newspapers have been gutted and are either vacant or clearly doing progressive PR, which doesn't seem to do the Democrats much good at the ballot box.

It's almost enough to make me feel sorry for Alabama Democrats, even for Doug Jones, the Democratic senator whose victory in 2018 was a fluke caused by the fact that the Republican nominee was the nut Roy Moore, and who is probably going to be sent back to Mountain Brook in November. Almost but not quite. I mean, Pelosi and the "squad" actually are pretty dreadful. 


The Culture War Is Asymmetrical

I'm constantly fighting the temptation to spend, or rather waste, a lot of time talking about current events, the perishing republic, and so forth. I believe it was in the very first year of this very long-running blog that I mentioned that urge, and noted that there was not much reason for me to carry it out because other people with much much much larger audiences were saying the same things I would say, and doing it better. 

Still, the need to grab the reader and say Don't you see what's going on?!?! is pretty strong sometimes, and I have to do it occasionally. Which is by way of excusing or sort of justifying or at least explaining this post, and also its brevity.

A few days ago I mentioned the sad phenomenon of  'the frenzied rhetorical attacks on white people and "whiteness" coming from the left.' In the comments, Stu replied that "the extremist right are also terrible." 

That's true, but it's not the most significant aspect of what's going on. It's not that there are racists or other assorted nasty people on the left, but that the left (using the term very broadly) holds the most prestigious and influential positions in society: education, the media apart from Fox News, entertainment, many of the courts, and most of the non-elected national government. And it tolerates or excuses or actively practices expressions of racial hostility which no one on the respectable right would dream of. Open race-based hostility on the right is marginalized by the right. Open race-based hostility on the left, provided it's directed at white people, is practiced frequently and is protected, at least, and often applauded, by the left.

More or less the same is true for other controversial issues, such as the various sexual causes. The progressive view is overwhelmingly portrayed in media, education, and entertainment as the correct, obviously virtuous and enlightened view. Opposition is very effectively stigmatized as, for instance, "homophobia" and the like. 

I'm not going to waste time trying to prove this by citing instances. I think it's overwhelmingly obvious. Rod Dreher provides examples almost every day, like this one, in which a black student (I think it's a student) complains that there are "too many white people" in the Multicultural Student Center, strongly suggesting that they leave. As Dreher says

...if a white student stood and ordered non-white students to vacate a space because their non-whiteness made it uncomfortable for white people, the entire campus would have had a gran mal seizure...

This was at the University of Virginia. Contemptuous and hostile references to white people--especially white men, especially white male Christians--as such, specifically because they are white--are perfectly acceptable at the most influential and prestigious levels of society, whereas the same sort of hostility on the part of white people toward others is mostly relegated to the gutter. It's not symmetrical. 


The Issues Are Not the Issues Anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet he has pretty well delivered on his promise to appoint constitutionalist judges, who are the final bulwark of a republic deserving the name. The man progressives call authoritarian is actually, where it counts, shoring up the foundations against authoritarianism. 


Ahmari and French Debate

It's perhaps a bit wrong of me to post this--or inappropriate, or ill-mannered, or something--because I probably won't actually watch the debate. Well, maybe I'll find a transcript and read it. But I'm posting it for one reason. I guess all conservatives and some others are aware of the intra-conservative argument which is represented by these two; if you're not, see this. For my part I don't really want to take a side, as I think both have pretty strong arguments.

The two met for an in-person debate a couple of weeks ago. Here's a report on it from a reader of Rod Dreher's blog. That page also includes a video of the event. But here is the one thing that really struck me, from the reader who was there:

There seemed to be something of an age divide. The older folks in the room seemed to more likely to be in French’s corner, whereas all of the Millennials and Gen Zers I talked to instinctually agreed with Ahmari....

I think that's very significant. The times they are a-changing. Again. I myself have noticed that people of more or less my generation, and maybe a bit younger--let's say people over fifty--tend to see our current politics in more or less classically liberal and constitutionalist terms, as David French does. That framework has less purchase on the minds of younger people. Of course that could be only an effect of age itself; the younger people may change their minds as they get older. And I emphasize "tend to"; I can certainly think of plenty of exceptions, in both directions. 


Stupid, Stupid, Stupid Trump Controversies

A few months after Trump's election I realized that there was no point in following the news stories about him. Every few days there was some new burst of outrage, and at least two thirds of the purported scandals turned out, when I read more about them, to be exaggerated, trivial (what was that nonsense about Melania's jacket a while back?), or sometimes just plain false. It's just not worth the bother of paying attention. Even the big He's A Russian Agent!! story pretty much fizzled out, and in fact, according to some non-crazy people, was more of an FBI scandal than a Trump scandal.

I thought most of the media had thoroughly discredited themselves years ago, but they continue to dig their hole deeper. They clearly see destroying Trump as part of their mission, at the moment probably the most important part. And I suppose it works for them in some ways. It does serve to keep the anti-Trump outrage at fever pitch. But for those who, like me, don't much care for him but have kept some sense of balance, it produces only irritation and disdain. And of course his millions of active supporters just dig in their heels and see him as a hero-martyr. All in all, it serves only to deepen the cloud of anger and mistrust that has enveloped the country.

As of today the completely stupid uproar about Trump's statement that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama has been going for about a week. I frequently use Google News to get an overview of the day's news stories. This is about half of the stories about Hurricane Dorian currently displayed there. 

Trump-Dorian

This is crazy. On both sides. It's hard to tell at this point who's baiting whom, and who's crazier. I'm not sure what Trump originally said, but the fact is that we here in Alabama were worried about Hurricane Dorian for a while. "Threatened" might be overstating it, but the projected path of the storm for several days had it heading more or less due west across the Florida peninsula. It is not only possible but has in the past happened that a storm has done that and then re-strengthened after it got into the Gulf. And I assure you that any hurricane in the northern Gulf of Mexico is always a big deal for us. Damn right we were concerned, and watching closely, until it became more or less certain that the storm was going to turn north. In calling it a threat to Alabama, Trump was not lying and not crazy. At worst he was exaggerating and/or speaking carelessly. It was not a big deal

But then of course the Trump Derangement Syndrome sufferers in the press and social media had to jump in and start jeering and accusing. And then of course the thin-skinned egotist in the White House had to respond. And the thin-skinned egotists in the press had to respond to that...and here we are, a week later, still talking about it as if it were important. I wonder if anyone has brought up impeachment yet.

I would like to think that this is some sort of nadir, but it can probably get worse. 


Johnny Tremain

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

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

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


Who Would Dumbledore Vote For?

I don't care. But apparently a lot of people do. Apparently J.K. Rowling is "a major voice in world affairs". I've missed that development. The piece I linked to there is from 2017, and maybe she is not speaking out as much as she was then. I looked at her Twitter account and there is very little there from recent months.

But the fact that she would reduce her characters to political puppets in this way is to me of a piece with the general quality of the Harry Potter books. And, I'm sorry to say, of the general cast of Rowling's mind:

She has revealed Dumbledore was gay and that Hogwarts would have been a ‘safe place’ for LGBT students.

Oh, come on.

I really tried to like the books because one of my children was of exactly the age to be an enthusiast. I succeeded to some degree, and mostly enjoyed them, though the last couple seemed so diffuse and convoluted that the resolution they offered didn't have the impact that I think they were meant to. The books never truly engaged or moved me, not like the work of Tolkien and Lewis did. I don't think it's just me, either; I think my view of them is more or less objectively correct. I don't think they will be much read fifty years or so from now, or a hundred, whereas I think the others will move a great many people as long as the language remains accessible to the average person.


The President and the Congresswoman from Twitter...

...have a whole lot more in common than either would like to think, much less admit. See this. Today Ocasio-Cortez is apparently denying that she meant what she obviously meant. A Taylor Swift-vs.-Katy Perry feud comes to the House of Representatives.

I guess we can expect a whole lot more teenage social-media spite among our elected officers as general interest in preserving and governing a republic continues to wane. 

I am going to swear off commenting on politics but apparently not today.