State of the Culture Feed

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.

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.

A turrible thing in this life

In one of Flannery O'Connor's stories, if my memory is correct, a stolid and far from young woman, the kind she often portrayed, offers this observation: 

A unsatisfied woman is a turrible thing in this life.

I thought of that when I read this remark in an article called The Lie I Tell My Husband Every Day To Keep Him Happy:

I know I have a great life and so much to be thankful for, but I can’t truthfully say I am 100 percent happy yet. I simply haven’t achieved everything I need in order to be absolutely happy.

If you read the whole story, it's clear that the woman is more sensible than those remarks suggest. But still, it strikes me as extremely strange that she even thinks it possible, maybe even reasonable, to expect to be "100 percent happy" and "absolutely happy." It looks like a recipe for future trouble.  I wonder if she really needs to hide from her husband that she is not 100 percent happy. I'm sure he could say the same. Adults ought to understand that such is the human condition.

Aside from its unreasonableness, I wonder if an attitude of that sort is behind a rather bitter and depressing meme I saw the other day:

How many stepdads does it take to raise a child?
As many as it takes for Mom to find the happiness she deserves. 

I remember being told, many years ago (back in the '70s) that I "deserved to be happy." I remember it because I thought it was such a strange idea. I suppose it's a widely accepted one now.


I Judge This Book By the Cover

I was in my local independent bookstore one day last week. I don't go there very often, even though I am happy they've survived and even prospered (though book sales are not their only revenue), and I want them to continue to do so. There just aren't many current books that I have much interest in, so I don't go unless I have some specific reason. I had been there several weeks earlier for some Christmas shopping (which proved to be futile), and discovered that they had a copy of Alfred Corn's new translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies.

I was surprised to see it, as the store's poetry section is very small and not very interesting. And I've been wanting to read this translation, but was in a hurry and there was a long line at the cash register, so I didn't buy it at the time. Figuring, correctly, that it would probably still be there after Christmas, I went back to get it.

I could not miss the many copies of this book, very prominently displayed:


The idea that these two very successful, very rich, very honored, very influential and in Obama's case directly powerful, men are in any conceivable sense "renegades" is just too much. That the title was chosen, and approved if not proposed by the two, reveals the way left-liberal America still sees itself, in spite of its commanding cultural position, as a band of plucky rebels challenging a repressive establishment. I guess that still generates a lot of energy.

A few years ago there was a TV commercial, for what I don't know, which involved an older white man, a stereotypical old-school corporate executive, bragging about getting some sort of special deal (sorry, I really don't have any idea what it was about). He says to a subordinate "It's my way of sticking it to the man." 

"But sir," says the subordinate. "You are the man." Exactly.

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.

A New Kind of Crazy

From a comment at Rod Dreher's blog: "Throughout human history....people have gone stark raven mad or crazy."

I like that. I had a post about that kind of thing not so very long ago--not craziness, I mean, but the phenomenon where someone substitutes for a word that was really part of a saying or idiom another that sounds like it, as in "tow the line." Though this one may just be an erroneous auto-correct that slipped by. Anyway, it's a rather striking image. 

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.”