State of the Culture Feed

A Bit More On Impermissible Ideas

This piece by Stanley Kurtz at National Review is a commentary on the very rapid growth of the belief, and subsequent practice, of left-wing journalists that views which they despise should not be heard. It's worth reading in its entirety, but here's how Kurtz ends it:

Classical liberalism arose to prevent murderous civil strife between those who could not agree on ultimate things—and who questioned each other’s good faith as a consequence. Throw aside the marketplace of ideas, throw aside even the aspiration to neutral reporting, and throw aside, on this account, the basic rights of those with whom we disagree, and we are back in the soup, back to the wars, back to the days before liberty and civil peace, the crowning achievements of our history, the history we’ve stopped celebrating—or even remembering. Is that what we want? Because that is where we are headed.

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Impermissible Ideas

As it always had the potential to do, the philosophical and religious neutrality which is the ostensible framework of the American system is collapsing. See this post by Rod Dreher, one of many in which he describes the movement in big-time journalism to full-on advocacy for various left-wing causes. Here's an anecdote:

All this put me in mind of a conversation I had maybe 15 years ago, when I was a columnist and editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News, with a Millennial writer there. He knew that I was a conservative, and I knew that he wasn’t, but none of that mattered. I mentioned to him one day that I thought the paper’s coverage of the gay marriage issue was one-sided, and had become a matter of pro-LGBT advocacy journalism. He agreed that it was one-sided, but told me that he didn’t think there was a legitimate other side. I pointed out that we lived in a rather conservative part of the country, and that most of our readers took the opposite position on gay marriage (this was around 2005, I think). Were they all bigots who didn’t deserve to be consulted in our reporting? Yes, he said. If the paper was reporting on the Civil Rights movement, he said, would we feel morally and professionally obligated to seek the views of local KKK leaders?

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What Happened In the 1960s?

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

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

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

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

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

The Culture War Is Asymmetrical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Sigh on MLK Day

I'm sure he would be distressed by the level of deliberate and strenuous efforts to ratchet up racial animosity that are prevalent among certain classes of people now. At least I hope he would.

The shocking thing, the thing which I at any rate certainly did not anticipate in the '60s when the major civil rights legislation was passed, is that the most visible manifestation of this effort now comes from the putatively anti-racist side, in the form of the frenzied rhetorical attacks on white people and "whiteness" coming from the left. Much of it is is open and unashamed racism and would be recognized immediately as such if the terms were reversed. The most alarming aspect of it is that it isn't the work of obscure and generally disdained cranks and yahoos but of respected academics and journalists who wield a great deal of influence. Respected by each other, anyway. And in any case fairly powerful.

King's ideal of a color-blind society is now considered to be an expression of racism, at least if advocated by white people. It wasn't supposed to be like this. 

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.


Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.



Two New Year's Day Reflections

I find Kevin Williamson to be the most consistently interesting writer at National Review these days. That's not necessarily entirely a good thing, because when I say "interesting" I also mean "entertaining," and often that entertainment involves scathing language about someone. In principle I do not approve of scathing language about persons and try to resist the temptation to use it, so I guess what it amounts to is that I'm vicariously enjoying his put-downs, which makes me feel just a touch guilty. Not very, because most of the time the put-down is merited.

And I usually disagree with at least some part of any piece he writes, sometimes something minor and sometimes major. His brand of conservatism is definitely more libertarian than mine. But--and this is a little surprising for a libertarian, or at least a somewhat-libertarian--he is really at his best on deeper subjects. This is one:

If we are to resolve something for 2020, then maybe that should be our resolution: to bear always in mind that this is not Donald Trump’s America or Elizabeth Warren’s America but ours and Walt Whitman’s and John Coltrane’s and Herman Melville’s and Toni Morrison’s, and that if we really love this country, then that can only be because we love the people in it, the ones who are with us still and the ones who have been, who are “not enemies but friends.”

This will be our year. It will be the year that we make of it, which is both our great hope and our great, fearful responsibility.

Read the whole thing; it's worth it. One thing I like about him, something he shares with recently citizen-ized Charles Cooke, also of NR, is an appreciation of this country in all its madness and glory. Elsewhere he recently said something to the effect that what works for health care in Switzerland will not work here:

The basic problem with that always has been that Switzerland is full of Swiss people, while the United States is full of maniacs.

Precisely. I always stress that when discussing American politics and culture with someone from another country: you simply won't understand us unless you start with the recognition that we're more than a little crazy. Samuel Johnson's famous remark that "If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" applies triply to the United States of America. I am often sickened and repelled by this, that, or the other in the U.S., but never not interested. 

And, as Williamson says, life in these United States is not defined or limited by politics. I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to "Donald Trump's America." I fear such people live in cyberspace, large parts of which Donald Trump has made his own in the way that is too often effective in cyberspace: by being a troll. A great many people on the left seem to feel that their lives have been almost ruined, or in some cases not even "almost," by Trump's presence in the White House. This is...unhealthy to say the least, and as it's partly a choice, most unwise. 

I think the reality of life for the very large majority of us is that politics generally has a relatively small impact on our day-to-day lives, and plays a very small role in our conversation and other dealings with other people. I can recall only a few face-to-face conversations over the past half-year or so with anyone except my wife in which the subject even came up. Two of those were with liberals, and when the conversation drifted into politics--not by my choice--it immediately blew up in my face. The level of rage was disconcerting, and I will certainly try hard to avoid any more of those. 

Also at National Review, Richard Brookhiser does a nice exegesis of Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush." Perhaps you remember that it was the first poem in the 52 Poems series that I did a couple of years ago. I don't think more than a few days ever go by without my thinking of those last two lines.

"In fact, you will not be saved."

That's a line from Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "Nightmare, With Angels." I first read it long ago, but I'm not sure when or where. I had thought it was freshman English, in the Sound and Sense textbook/anthology. But I've just looked, and it's not there. Could it have been in high school? That seems unlikely, but it's possible. Anyway, it made an impression on me, and I think of it from time to time. Here is a link to it.

It's been on my mind especially in recent weeks and months, as the American republic seems to be having some kind of breakdown. So is the Catholic Church, at least large segments of it. A few days ago, in a Facebook group devoted to the renewal of the Church, someone posted a list of proposed responses, basically theological, to a recent survey indicating a serious decline in the number of American Christians (of any and all denominations). It included things like reviving a genuinely Christian philosophy, getting rid of hyper-political partisanship within the community, and so forth. It was all perfectly sound, but very unlikely to have any discernible effect anytime soon--and by "soon" I mean within the next several decades. I guess I was feeling grumpy that day, because I responded with the Benet poem, among other helpful observations:

Fine, good things in response to bad errors. But as far as Western Formerly Christian civilization is concerned, Stephen Vincent Benet had the general idea right: "In fact you will not be saved." This train is not going to be stopped until it goes off a cliff or, best case, runs out of fuel. Either way it looks to be a long time.

Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong. And I'm sorry if I sounded like a jerk. But I don't see how any any theological adjustment can possibly turn things around, or even slow them down. [This program] is a good thing but a project for generations, maybe centuries.

I mean--pardon my crudeness, but: we live in a society which has decreed that as a matter of law and custom there is no ontological or teleological difference between a vagina and a rectum. How do you even converse with that? Unless we're in the final apostasy of the end times, which is certainly a possibility but not one to which I've ever committed myself, the Church will be renewed, and a new culture will arise around it. But I can't see a turnaround in our present trajectory. I think we'll have to hit a wall of some kind.

This may sound like despair, but it really isn't. The ship of the Church will eventually right itself, at least to the degree that it is ever really righted. The ship of state is a different story; perhaps it will be righted, but perhaps it will slowly turn into something else, something that may or may not preserve the form but definitely does not preserve the substance of the constitutional order.

It's a rejection of the belief, so beloved of those of us who spend a great deal of our time thinking and writing and talking, that if we can only formulate and propagate the correct set of ideas things will be put right. It's a recognition that we are riding extremely powerful waves generated by the uncontrollable movement of great masses far below the surface of the sea. It's true that ideas have consequences. But this doesn't mean, as those who traffic in ideas are tempted to think, that ideas determine events. 

I find that I've lost interest almost entirely in that kind of talk, especially talk that involves proposals for the reform of society, sometimes the construction of societies in the air, according to distributist, or Christian democrat, or Christian liberal, or integralist, or whatever, principles. It's a sort of hobby for which I've lost my taste. 


Addendum: in putting forth the Benet poem, I don't mean to be saying that we in the U.S.A. and Europe are headed for cataclysmic violence. I don't in fact think we are. The poem was written in the 1930s, when the fact that war was coming was pretty clear to perceptive people. I think we are, rather, in a decline the outcome of which I don't claim to foresee. But the first angel's lament for all the unfulfilled hopes and promises of history is poignant, and the second angel's brutal crushing of such hopes applicable enough in general.  

The Downton Abbey Movie

I'm not that much of a fan and would probably not have bothered on my own, but I thought my wife would enjoy it, and anyway I'd sort of been wanting to see a movie in a theater. I enjoyed it, with my usual reservations about its soap-opera-ness etc. Suffice to say that they did a good job of creating a lavish two-hour episode of the series; that is to say, if you like the series you'll surely like the movie.

But what really struck me, and the reason I'm writing this post, was that it is in at least one respect deeply counter-cultural. I mean its approval of, its positively reveling in, hierarchy. I know its the opulence and the romance that draw in its audience, which I think is predominantly female. And I know it paints an unrealistic picture of the life of a wealthy English family and their servants. So I'm pretty sure that the mutual regard of upper and lower classes--the loyalty and devotion of the servants, the kindness and concern of the masters--is at least somewhat exaggerated and sentimentalized (though I hope not entirely without foundation in fact). It's very prominent in this film, and important to the plot. The fact that this picture is apparently very attractive to a lot of people seems significant.

I think we all in our deepest hearts believe things should be this way, though it flies in the face of many of the attitudes and presuppositions of our culture (not to mention the actual injustices it so often involves in the real fallen world). And that's because, cosmically, that's the way things actually are. 

DowntonAbbey-VulgarityAnother counter-cultural sentiment. And yes it's probably vulgar of me to post this.

The Issues Are Not the Issues Anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahmari and French Debate

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

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

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

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