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A Couple of Things Before the Triduum

A few things I meant to say about The Dry Wood:

I'm not sure exactly what the title means. It's an allusion to Luke 23:31: 

For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?

That's the Douay-Rheims translation, which is the one Houselander uses, not surprisingly. I admit that I've never been entirely sure what it means. It's part of the warning Jesus gives to the people as he is about to be led away to his crucifixion, a warning that very bad things are coming for everyone. Flammability is one obvious difference between green and dry wood, so maybe "They're trying to burn green wood, so what will they do with dry wood?" is meant.  Anyway the general idea is that bad things are happening now and worse ones are coming. 

Here's what the editors of this edition say about it:

When a perfectly good green tree is burned (that is, when Christ sacrifices himself on the cross), what can the dry wood of fallen and broken humanity expect to find when it meets with fire? Fallen humanity can follow Christ to new life, but only at a price.

Well, that's obviously true, and the novel is very much about suffering, but I'm not totally convinced either that it's the correct interpretation of the words themselves or what Houselander had in mind in using them. I wonder if she meant something a little more specific: that her story describes the kindling of a fire in the dry wood of the people of Riverside. The plot supports that interpretation.

I mentioned the character of Solly Lee, a Jewish businessman who cynically tries to cash in on the popular devotion to Fr. Malone. That is obviously a somewhat stereotypical scenario, though probably, like most stereotypes, having some grounding in reality. But if that sounds like it might be heading toward anti-Semitism, it most definitely is not. The portrait of Solly is rich, sympathetic, and deeply and seriously engaged with his situation as a secularized Jew. To say much more than that I'd have to give away more of the story than I want to.  Suffice to say that it is not a hostile portrait.


The Trump indictment is a disaster for the nation. I say that with no sympathy at all for Trump himself. I think I've made my low opinion of him sufficiently clear over the years; search for his name on this blog if you want verification. If this involved a serious crime I would support it. But it's transparently contrived for political purposes, as the basic offenses are not only misdemeanors but misdemeanors for which the statute of limitations has expired, turned into felonies by the charge that they were committed in pursuit of another and so far unspecified crime. Even the vigorously anti-Trump David Frum thinks it's a bad case: 

From the moment rumors swirled that the Manhattan district attorney would move against Trump, many of us felt an inward worry: Did Alvin Bragg have a case that would justify his actions? The early reports were not encouraging. Many Trump-unfriendly commentators published their qualms. Over a week of speculation, though, it seemed wise to withhold judgment until the actual indictment was available to read. Now the document has been published. The worriers were right.

That's from The Atlantic, and I can't read the whole piece because I'm not a subscriber, so I don't know where he goes from there. I am a subscriber to Bari Weiss's Free Press, which has this analysis from Eli Lake; maybe you can read it. After explaining how thin the case is, he says:

All of this raises a question—not just for Bragg, but for the Democratic Party, the online resistance, and the media ecosystem that seems to exist simply to stoke outrage about Donald Trump for its overstimulated, progressive base: Is it worth it? Is the catharsis of seeing Trump indicted worth the damage a politicized prosecution of the former president will do?

Trump is bad, but it's the Democrats' reaction to him that is doing the most to tear this nation apart. Are they willing to do it because they know that Trump's supporters will be enraged enough to make him the Republican nominee next year, and believe they can defeat him? Or is it just the blood lust, the pleasure of humiliating the man they hate so much? (I was very surprised a while back to hear a progressive friend deny that she and others hate Trump. It confirmed my impression that zealous progressives are remarkably unaware of the demeanor which they present to those not of their faith.)

Either way, they are enlarging, possibly beyond repair, the rip in the fabric of our society. They are feeding the divisions that led to Trump's election in the first place. And they don't care. There are tens of millions of decent people who support Trump and believe that the ruling class of this country despises them and wants to render them powerless, or worse. Now you're encouraging them to believe that the law will not protect them if the progressive establishment goes after them. I suppose the Democrats think they can control the outcome, permanently defeating their enemies. And they may be right. But what will be the cost? 

One day, if history is told with any accuracy, they will be held in deserved contempt (along, probably, with Trump himself). But it will be too late to heal the nation. 

On that grim note, I'll sign off till after Easter. 


On second thought, I won't leave it on that note. Something reminded me of this picture, taken last fall at a state park in north Alabama. The light was extraordinary and though my phone didn't really capture it, it's still rather pretty.


Breaking the Outrage Porn Habit

It was only fairly recently that I became aware of the term "outrage porn," but I just learned from Wikipedia that it's been around since 2009, when a New York Times writer said:

It sometimes seems as if most of the news consists of outrage porn, selected specifically to pander to our impulses to judge and punish and get us all riled up with righteous indignation.

The Wikipedia article reveals that the phenomenon has been the object of study and analysis, mainly on the question of why and how journalists use it to attract and keep the attention of readers and/or viewers. 

But I didn't need anyone's analysis to recognize the phenomenon as soon as I encountered the term. I recognized it because it obviously referred to a tendency which I long ago noticed in myself: a perverse pleasure in being outraged, normally by someone else's misdeeds. Never mind the whole question of deliberate manipulation; I don't need to be manipulated into it, because I do it to myself. 

I first noticed it many years ago in reading the Catholic press. For as long as I've been a Christian the struggle between orthodox and progressive theology has been a highly visible fact of life in the Christian world. (I'm using "progressive" as a convenient way of referring to the tendency to reduce the faith to a matter of literature and psychology.) Given two items in a Catholic publication, one offering a meditation on some aspect of the faith and the other exposing some cleric or theologian's manifest heresy, it was the latter that I wanted urgently to read. The justification for the impulse--that it was important to know about these malign influences--was pretty thin. How much of my reaction was a genuine desire or need to know, and how much of it was the pleasure of thinking Isn't that awful? Aren't the people doing it terrible? I must read more, so that I can better understand how awful and terrible it all is.

Self-righteousness is certainly part of it, but it's much more than the normal "Lord, I thank thee that I am not as this sinner." It also includes personal anger provoked by a sense of being attacked; the sinner is not just doing something wrong which you, in your righteousness, are not doing, but engaged in something which damages you, or something or someone you love.

I did recognize it as an unhealthy tendency, but I don't know that I resisted it very hard. And that was before the internet, which, as we all know, has given that unhealthy impulse an injection of some kind of growth hormone. Thinking about it now, I see that I've sometimes, or often, forgotten even to recognize that it's unhealthy, or to be restrained by that recognition.

Culturally speaking, it has become a monster. We live in an angry and unhappy culture now, and the impulse that makes us propagate and enjoy--yes, that is the word--outrage porn is making us even more angry and unhappy than we would otherwise be.

This is on my mind because Rod Dreher's blog at The American Conservative has ended, and I'm trying to decide whether or not to follow him to his Substack site, Rod Dreher's Diary, which requires a paid subscription ($5/month or $50/year) for much or most of what he posts there. Dreher has a lot of worthwhile things to say, but he also, as I think he admits, has a tendency to revel in outrage porn. And I know that's the reason why a new post from him has always been the first thing I read at TAC. I can afford the subscription, but should I? Shouldn't I perhaps just try to break myself of the outrage porn habit, or at least make a continual effort to suppress it?

Here are two current Dreher stories:

The ‘Idyllically Sex-Positive World’
Crackpot therapist showcased by BBC calls for self-drugging women for fetish freaks

Stanford Law Students Are The Enemy
By humiliating federal judge, ruling class shows contempt for liberal democracy

The second article is available to non-subscribers, so you can read it if you want to. You may have read about the incident he's referring to: the usual shout-down of an unwelcome speaker by our version of the Red Guards. It's alarming and infuriating. Dreher says:

I cannot bear these people, these Stanford Law students and their grotesque Dean Steinbach. These people are the Enemy. I will vote for anybody who will stop them. They are destroying our liberal democracy. Every one of those students are going to go into the ruling class, and will spend their careers in the law trying to oppress the people they have decided don’t have a right to be free, or respected, or anything but crushed as wrongthinkers and Bad People.

And I agree with him, all too vigorously. But is any purpose served by my reading about this? It's not as if I can do anything about it. Is it not better that I tend my own garden, reading good books, listening to music, participating in the world as it presents itself directly to me, in general pursuing the good in the ways that are available to me? Obviously one can do both: tend one's garden and stay informed about what's happening in the world. And if one's culture is collapsing one ought to be aware of it. But where is the right balance? As things are going now, it's more or less impossible to be aware of current events and not be disturbed.

I still haven't made up my mind about Dreher's Substack, but thinking about it has made me realize that I need to resist more strongly the somewhat sick impulse to seek out things that anger and offend me. 


I think I would be correct in saying that for most of my adult life Christians have more often than not been the villains in popular culture. I don't have any hard data for that, of course. And it's not uniform; I think immediately of the reasonable and not unsympathetic treatment of the clergyman in Broadchurch. But I watch a lot of (too many) British crime dramas, and generally when an identifiably Christian character appears he or she is probably going to be somewhere between obnoxious and wicked. This may well be worse in American film and television.

Well, okay, as I say it's been that way for decades. Still, I was unprepared for something I ran across the other day. I have a mild taste for certain video games, and was reading this article about indie games (more likely than the big names to interest me) when I encountered a description of a game called The Binding of Isaac Rebirth:

The game follows Isaac through an unknown world, as he makes a quick escape into a trap door hidden in his bedroom to flee his devout Christian mother hellbent on sacrificing him.

That opens a vista of ignorance and malice beyond anything I had imagined.

More and more it seems that a great many people, especially young people, have somehow absorbed a great hostility to Christianity without having any clear idea of what it is. 

Vatican II; Sherwood; Trump the Jerk

Continuing the discussion of the success or failure of Vatican II, from this post: Ross Douthat (as quoted by Rod Dreher, because I can't view Douthat's entire New York Times column) asserts that the council was and is a failure on its own terms. The measures intended to invite and draw "modern man" to the Church have been accompanied not by growth but by decline, as measured by membership and activity, at least in Euro-American civilization. That's a plain fact. Whether the decline would have been greater or lesser without the council can only be speculative. I'm sure that question has been studied and answers attempted, but it's the sort of thing where sociologists can probably make either case, depending on what questions they ask and how, and on their own predilections. (Is sociology a science? Not really. Statistical methods are no doubt mathematically sound, but they don't choose or interpret their own data.)

In that post I linked to this one by Larry Chapp which goes ferociously after the follies that came and have continued, following and often in the name of the council. Let's call that Chapp 1, because there is also Chapp 2, which says that the council was "a success, in spite of the many deviations from orthodoxy and sanity that followed in its wake."

Success or failure, then? It's largely a matter of the time frame in which one makes the judgment. Douthat is looking at the time from the end of the council till now, and in that frame it is certainly true that the council has not succeeded in making the Church any more of a factor in modern life than it had previously been. One could argue about whether it is less so--I think it is--but it is clearly not more so. "Modern man" in the mass has only drifted, or in many cases run, away from Christianity at large and the Catholic Church in particular. In fact it is not at all fantastic to foresee, a century or two from now, the reduction of the Church to a few tiny bands of holdouts, as in Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, at least within that part of the world which was once known as Christendom.

The argument of Chapp 2 is really twofold. The first part, that the council has been a great success, is really not based on a measurement of success in the terms Douthat examines (in fact Chapp agrees with Douthat's assessment in that respect) but on the assertion that many or most of the council's changes (the actual changes, not those speciously done in its name) were for the better--the vernacular liturgy, for instance--and are now taken for granted. Some of those, the liturgy in particular, are, as we all know, still very much debated, but I agree with Chapp that they were good. It's only an accident of history that I appear to be a "conservative" Catholic; I've always said that if I had been an adult Catholic at the time of the council I would almost certainly have sympathized, at least, with its aims and the documents produced by it.

The second part of Chapp 2's argument is that the council will in time be truly successful, contributing powerfully to the long-term health of the Church and the effectiveness of its mission. Chapp 2 accepts that these things can take quite a long time--centuries--to work themselves out. I certainly hope so and am willing to believe it, but none of us will be here to see it. (I personally, as I lamented in that other post, cannot look forward to anything but continued intramural strife.) Chapp presents a picture of a renewal which he believes the council intended, and which he believes may yet come, and I very much share that view and that hope.

As for the present, though, Chapp 1 presents a grim and discouraging picture, not nearly as positive as Chapp 2. For me the grimmest single item in that piece is the mention of the progressive party, encouraged by Pope Francis, as viewing the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as an "interruption" of the council's work. This view represents nothing less than the abandonment of authentic renewal and the re-energizing of the destructive forces which would turn the Church into something like liberal Protestantism, a voice of solicitous approval for whatever is demanded by and for the therapeutic mentality.

Philip Rieff saw this very clearly at the time the council was actually in progress:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic.

Some of the psychobabble I've seen attributed to the "synod on synodality" supports--no, expresses--that view.


The emergence of the very well produced cinematic work for which the term "television series" is inadequate is, like craft beer, one of the compensations for living in a culture which seems to be falling apart, both in an organizational sense and in the sense of mental breakdown. I've just finished watching a new one from the Brits, Sherwood. It falls into the pretty conventional category of "crime drama," but a very very good one. It's set in a place referred to bitterly as a "former mining town" in Nottinghamshire; both Sherwood Forest and an archer are involved. 

The story takes place in the present day but has deep roots in the mining strikes of the 1980s. I don't know very much at all about those, but I know the British left hated and still hates Margaret Thatcher as much as the American left hated Ronald Reagan, so I don't necessarily take the show's view of those conflicts as the last word. But I don't doubt that they were as bitter as portrayed. 

It's a very complex story, very well done, on a level with Broadchurch, among the best in this genre. Maybe no single character is quite as memorable or as memorably performed as those portrayed by David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, but anyone who watches a lot of British TV will recognize many faces, if not the names that go with them. It's available on Britbox via Amazon. 


Donald Trump is a jerk. That's been pretty obvious all along. His presidency had some very good results (and some very bad ones), but his basic and base nature didn't improve. He did not, as some hoped, rise to the office. What his supporters liked to dismiss as "mean tweets" were often expressions of a really deep ugliness. He's now vilifying Ron DeSantis, a popular conservative  who actually cares about and is skilled at governing, because, as Rich Lowry says, DeSantis is in his way:

Trump will have no compunction about crushing the future of the party to maintain his grip for another two years and possibly beyond.  

It's grimly appropriate, I guess, that a nation in such decline as ours, committed to narcissism as a way of life, would have two presidents in succession who are men of such plainly bad character, each in his own very special way.

A Republic, If We Want It

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shine, Perishing Republic


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

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

I Never Expected To See This Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Save the Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fatal Bent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compact: A New Post-liberal Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Culture) War Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid Questions, Stupid Answers, Stupid Times

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

A few more questions:

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

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

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

Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lamp Has A Blog Now

And they've invited me to contribute a monthly post. I'm extremely flattered, and a bit intimidated, as it puts me alongside Peter Hitchens and probably some other people who are better writers than I am. 

My first post appeared yesterday. It's called "Being Honour Bred," a phrase from a Yeats poem which mentions people who lie without shame. It's a pretty grumpy post, which was not really the way I wanted to start out, but the poem has been very much on my mind. The next post should appear in late December and will be about Christmas.

Peter Hitchens's first post is here, and it's a jewel.

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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Trump: Yes, No, Maybe

Three writers at National Review give their opinions on voting for him, or not. I hope these links work. They may be subscriber-only.

Yes: Andrew McCarthy

No: Ramesh Ponnuru

Maybe: Charles Cooke

Of the three, I'm most nearly in agreement with Cooke. However, unless something dramatic happens between now and November 3--and I can't imagine what that could be--I'm going to "vote for Trump." That is, I'm going to vote against Biden/Harris. 

It's a Scylla and Charybdis choice. As I may have said here in a comment a while back, I had been thinking of that analogy, but in a mistaken way. I was thinking that Ulysses somehow steered between them, and that our position is worse because we have to choose one or the other. But I was misremembering. Ulysses chose to steer closer to Scylla (monster), who would inevitably eat some of his sailors, rather than to Charybdis (whirlpool), which would result in the loss of the entire ship. 

So the analogy is actually precise. I think the damage that will almost inevitably be done by Trump is less than that which the Democrats actively intend.

It's not that I think Trump is a better man than Biden (I think they're both pretty sorry, actually). My great-grandfather was active in Pennsylvania politics as a Democrat, and his daughter, my great-aunt Ann, once told me that he advised her to forget the conventional counsel that one should vote for the man and not the party. On the contrary, he said, voting for (or against) the party is more important, because individual politicians come and go but the party persists and, at least in theory, shares your political principles, at least the most important ones. Here again it's a question of voting against: I don't want the Republican Party's principles, such as they are (whatever they are), to prevail, but I believe the Democrats as a party no longer believe in our form of government, but want to "fundamentally transform" it. I don't. That's a bigger problem and a deeper disagreement than anything involving specific policies. 

As Cooke says:

If the Democrats were sensible, I would likely sit this one out. But the Democrats are not sensible. The Democrats are threatening to blow up the American constitutional order in ways that would make President Trump’s execrable excesses seem quaint. 

This Is Why I Keep Warning People

And part of the reason why the press is doing so much harm by making Trump seem even worse than he is, which is bad enough. (Not that anybody much is listening to me. This blog has an audience numbered in the dozens at best.) But I'll say it again: sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Anyone who doesn't believe that serious left-vs-right violence can't happen here understands neither human nature nor this country nor the real-world effects of spiritual evils such as hatred. And anyone who thinks the evil is all or even mostly on the other side is willfully blind.

Americans Increasingly Believe Violence is Justified If the Other Side Wins.

A 9/11 Note

Southerners in general are not known for their warm affection toward those they consider to be "Yankees," which for some can be anyone born or living outside of the southeast quadrant of the country. In particular they do not tend to hold residents of New York City in the greatest esteem. I admit to having a stereotype along those lines: the native New Yorker who taught (journalism, I think) at the University of Alabama when I was working in a bookstore just off campus, and fixed my impression of him by standing at one end of the counter while I was dealing with a customer at the other end, banging on the counter with the newspaper he wanted to buy and braying "Hey! ya wanna take care a this?!?" *

Even before that I had taken as my own the title of a Buck Owens song: "I Wouldn't Live In New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town)".

No, not really. I mean, sort of. It's true that I would not at all like to live in New York City, but that has more to do with my general dislike of big cities than with any particular defects of New York. I wouldn't want to live in Atlanta, either. I spent a memorable week or so in New York when I was a teenager--I actually saw folk singers in Greenwich Village--and there was a time when I wanted to go back. But the only time I ever have was an overnight work-related trip sometime in the 1980s. 

And of course it is well known that many New Yorkers hold the South in great contempt, which of course only makes the Southerner more resentful. Yet when 9/11 happened, Southerners were as outraged as anybody, volunteered to go and help, volunteered to join the military to help avenge the attacks and prevent future ones (which is not to say that the wars that followed were wise or just). 

I remember thinking at the time that in spite of all the regional animosity, which was partly in jest anyway, people here in the South, and elsewhere, nevertheless viewed the city as in some sense America's city, and were as outraged by the crime as they would have been if it had happened to them or to some place much closer to them, both geographically and culturally. 

I'm not sure that it would be the same if something similar happened now. The country was bitterly divided during the '80s and '90s, but not so much that we didn't come together in the face of the 9/11 attack. Now the division is more intense, with genuine bitter hatred and contempt boiling on both sides. America's major cities now are seen as the chief source of hostility and disdain for much of the rest of the country, for what is still called Middle America, though somewhat implausibly. If a major attack or some other disaster happened to New York City now, would the rest of the country rally around as it did 19 years ago? Or would most people say "Gosh, that's awful, glad it wasn't us" and go about their business? I hope there wouldn't be many who would say "They had it coming," but there would be some. 

And of course it goes the other way, too. There are no specific major symbolic locations that define "red America," so a single huge event like 9/11 directed at it is hard to imagine. But I've seen plenty of more petty reactions to bad things happening in the South or other less enlightened parts of the country: "They voted for Trump; they deserve whatever they get." 

It's hard to imagine the return of that brief post-9/11 unity. Almost every presidential election since 1980 has aggravated our divisions, and it gets worse every time. We can be sure that it will after this next one. 

* Note added a couple of days after this post: I've been thinking about this incident and am pretty sure I've exaggerated it. He was a bit rude, and that's why it stuck in my memory. But when I replay it in my mind I feel a bit sheepish: it wasn't that bad.

Christopher Lasch: The Revolt of the Elites


Having finally read this well-known and so-often-recommended book, I'm sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in it. It's not that there is anything wrong with its actual contents--it's a good book, and I recommend it--but that the contents aren't quite what I was expecting. I assumed that the topic named in the title would be the entire subject of the book. But "The Revolt of the Elites" is really the title essay in a collection whose subjects range somewhat afield from that of the one. They are certainly related, describing other components of the general "betrayal of democracy" which is the book's subtitle, but they don't deal specifically with the revolt.

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(One of) The Deepest Root(s) of Our Political Disaster

I didn't at first include the stuff in parentheses. I added it because of course there is no single explanation for what's gone wrong, and it is going very, very wrong. But this is one important factor.

I'm sure I've remarked on it before, though it would be difficult for me to search out any single post in which I said it: that there is serious reason now to doubt whether a majority of Americans actually want the form of government laid out in our constitution. So I was glad--no, not glad exactly, but interested, and somewhat pleased to see that Trump's recent executive orders caused some to ask the disturbing question:

Do Americans Even Care If There's A Constitution?

The first paragraph in that piece contains a link to a more extensive discussion of Trump's orders in particular, and the fact that they are essentially the same sort of thing that Obama did. And that Trump's orders are fine with Trump supporters, and Obama's orders are fine with Obama supporters. It becomes more clear all the time that a great many people, both partisans who just want their side to win by any means necessary, and simpler folk who think the president should rule as a sort of philosopher-king, have no real interest in the whole idea of rule by impersonal law, of a government of laws and not of men, of checks and balances intended to distribute and restrain power.

Benjamin Franklin's famous remark that the Constitutional Convention gave Americans "a republic, if they can keep it" is frequently cited by partisans as a warning against whatever evil they think their enemies are up to. But at this point it's applicable to the people at large. It's questionable whether they even want a republic.

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.