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Did Trump Actually...oh, never mind

Every few days, at least once a week, I see headlines about something outrageous Trump has said. Until recently my reaction tended to go like this:

1) Gosh, that sounds bad.

2) I wonder if he actually said it.

3) I will look for the transcript or the tweet and learn the truth.

Two months ago, I wrote a post condemning the way journalists distort Trump's words. At least one commenter (who hasn't been heard from since) seemed to take this as a defense of Trump, but it wasn't. It was an objection to the press making a bad situation worse by making Trump look even worse than he actually is: pouring gasoline on an already dangerous fire. From that post:

I do care about the transformation of most of the national press into a weapon for [Trump's] enemies, because it means that the institutions which are supposed to inform us, and are always eager to preen themselves upon their own importance, have more or less abandoned that duty where domestic politics is concerned. 

Well, that was a happier time, a time when I was naive enough to think that the distinction between "true" and "false" could make much difference in the level of rage consuming our politics. Now my reaction to the latest Awful Trump story is:

1) Gosh, that sounds bad.

2) I wonder if he actually said it.

3) Oh, who gives a ****?

It doesn't matter. Trump haters don't care whether he actually said it or not. Trump lovers, if they care, will assume the reports are false. Both will probably soon forget about it, but their anger will have been pumped up a bit further, and the cold civil war will get hotter.

By the way: I made the first notes for this post last weekend, prompted by that moment's outrage. Today, when I sat down to complete it, I had to stop and think to recall what the outrage had been about. I'd be surprised if you remember (looking it up doesn't count).


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.

Continue reading "A Bit More On Impermissible Ideas" »


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.

           --Orwell.

Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

 

 


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. 


Conservatism, Briefly Defined Described

Several days ago I wrote about the Ahmari-French argument, which might better be termed the liberal-postliberal argument (meaning classical liberalism, not the current party label), and which is currently happening on the right. See this post. I don't entirely agree with either side, and am not much interested in participating in the argument, so will not bother trying to articulate my view.

It's been something like forty years now since I somewhat reluctantly admitted that I had become, for lack of a better word, a conservative. But I've always maintained a certain distance from the conservative movement, and had only limited interest in the never-ending debate about What It Means To Be A Conservative.

Conservatism, as Russell Kirk said, is the negation of ideology. Or it ought to be. Accordingly, it resists definition. A decade or so ago I had an unpleasant argument with a traditionalist Catholic who had, in my opinion, taken Thomistic (or just scholastic?) logic where it doesn't readily go, and insisted (triumphantly) that because conservatism could not be defined precisely it must not exist. Cf. jazz, I thought; I can't remember whether I said it or not. That something cannot be defined in a complete and unambiguous way does not mean that we cannot speak of it.

The following note is from Kevin Williamson's entry in the Ahmari-French controversy. Both French and Williamson write for National Review and are in rough agreement on the question at hand. But this struck me as a fundamental truth that transcends that question:

Conservatives have always been, and will always be, at a disadvantage against the utopians of the Left and the utopians of the Right in that conservatives believe that it very often is the case that there is nothing to be done, or not much to be done, that most problems are to be managed rather than solved, that we should aim at mitigation rather than transformation, that we are better positioned to assuage than to conquer, that things are what they are and must be dealt which on that basis.

A few (?) months ago someone complained that I had "gotten so reactionary." Well, I may or may not be fairly described as reactionary, but if I am I have not gotten that way anytime recently. I've held pretty much the same basic political views since that transition forty years ago. Williamson expresses very well the foundation on which those views rest. I would add that "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. The list of specific policies that it requires or rejects as being intrinsically good or bad is fairly short. 

I sometimes think conservatives are in a situation something like that of Cordelia in King Lear. Her father is enraged by the modesty of her profession of love and duty toward him. The extravagant promises of Goneril and Regan are much more pleasing, so naturally he thinks better of them--for a while.

Of course conservative hopes can sometimes be overly modest, willing to tolerate evils that could be ameliorated (though probably not obliterated). A perfect balance between the impulse to preserve and the impulse to improve would be...perfect. And is unlikely.

*

Some people say "conservativism" instead of "conservatism." I've always thought it sounded cumbersome and a little silly, like Peter Schickele's "musicalologist." But a few days ago I read someone's case for it as being more correct. "Liberal" is made into the noun "liberalism," not "liberism." "Conservative" therefore should become concrete in something called "conservativism."

This is going to bother me for the rest of my life.


Unfortunately, I'm Right

Some twenty-five years ago I wrote a piece for Caelum et Terra in which I asserted that a fundamental weakness of the American system is that it is agnostic on the ultimate questions. The Constitution defines a structure and a set of procedures that are meant to be philosophically and theologically neutral. It assumes a workable consensus on the fundamental questions, and therefore has no mechanism for coping with fundamental disagreements. Now that such disagreements have arrived, and on a scale where each side has enough political power to prevent either from totally dominating the other, we're in trouble.

The current argument raging among conservatives is at least partly about that same question, and it caused me to re-read my essay. And I think I was right. Am right: 

...now that the ethical consensus which underlay [the Constitution] 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. To look to it for assistance in matters of first principles is like reading the owner’s manual of your car in hope of learning where you ought to go: as if a family, having decided to pack up and move, were to expect that by reading the instructions for checking the oil and changing a tire they would learn whether or not they could expect to find contentment in Chattanooga.

You can read the whole essay here, though I should note that it's on the long side for online reading (somewhere around 6,000 words). I think it holds up well, though I probably wouldn't write that last section today in a political context. Euthanasia has not made nearly as much progress as I expected it to, but sexual "liberation" has gone much further. It is all too accurate now to say that the people do not agree about what a human being is.

If you haven't heard about it, the argument I'm referring to is between conservatives who are beginning to give up on the whole classical liberal project and those who think it can still be saved.

Political liberals have long been impatient with the Constitution, pushing the concept of a "living Constitution," a sort of secular version of the interpretive technique by which progressive theologians make the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Political conservatives, aka classical liberals, have defended the Constitution as written and as straightforwardly understood ("strict construction," "original intent," etc.). This argument has been going on for a long time--my high school civics teacher staged a debate on the question fifty years ago. (I took the progressive side.)

In recent years there have been more voices on the left calling either explicitly or implicitly for the whole thing to be disregarded or dumped ("written by dead white males," etc. etc. etc.) Now some on the right are beginning to give up on classical liberalism, which of course has been pretty much the essence of American conservatism. (I know, the terminology is confusing, but you have to use it to talk intelligently about this stuff.) Ross Douthat has a pretty good overview of the controversy in the New York Times. Follow his links if you want to know more.

Personally I have a great deal of sympathy for the David French side of the argument. As I said here quite a few years ago, I would like to preserve and reform the American constitutional order, and I haven't changed my mind about that. Nor do I have any enthusiasm for the idea of Christian/Catholic integralism, especially considering the character of the upper levels of the Catholic hierarchy now. But I fear that the argument is becoming irrelevant. Possibly the greater danger is that the citizenry as a whole no longer really care about preserving the republic that the Constitution defines. Many on both the left and the right are looking (mostly unconsciously, but evidently) for some sort of authority figure to lead the forces of good against those of evil. Or, less apocalyptically, to be the benevolent and all-powerful Father of the Nation who will provide for them. As different as Obama and Trump are, you can see the tendency plainly among the enthusiastic followers of both.

OffACliff


May 29

It happened to come to my attention earlier today that this was the date in 1453 when  Constantinople fell to the Turks. Many years ago I read a book about that event which was sad and disturbing, as is almost any account of mankind's propensity for conquest and slaughter. 

I thought often of that story in the days following 9/11 when more than one prominent American sought to defuse American anger by reminding us of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099. This event, we were assured, was a memory still very much alive and important in the Islamic world. The suggestion was that our outrage ought to be lessened or at least balanced by Muslim outrage over that nearly-thousand-year-old event. In particular I remember Bill Clinton talking about it, and including a gruesome story of horses wading in blood up to their knees (which seems likely to have been an exaggeration where no exaggeration was needed). 

There was nothing wrong with that in itself. It is well for Christians, and Westerners who though not Christian have an attachment to Western civilization, to be reminded that the Christian-Muslim conflict has over the centuries included atrocities and injustices on our side as well as theirs.

What is however wrong, and wrong in a very significant way, is that I never heard any of these enlightened persons mention the sack of Constantinople, or any other historical instance of Islamic aggression. It hit home to me, not for the first time by any means, but powerfully, that sophisticated Westerners would not or could not defend their own history, at least not if it meant defending Christianity. Oh, they might go to war for the usual very concrete reasons having to do with wealth and power. But they had no affection for or pride in their civilization as something existing in history as well as geography. Increasingly, they have no real knowledge of it, even the putatively educated. It's possible that Bill Clinton did not know that the event of 1453 ever happened.

Or if they have knowledge, it consists mostly of the knowledge of the bad things. Western history for them consists of the so-called "Dark Ages," colonialism, slavery, and Hitler. (The ignorance involved in referring to the medieval era as "the Dark Ages" is an amusing irony.) Western civilization is held to an impossible standard of perfection, others indulged and patronized.

This is no compliment to the others, as it suggests that they aren't capable of meeting the same standards that we are and shouldn't be held to them. But that's another story.