Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: politics (page 2 of 9)


Having written recently about the death of Queen Elizabeth, I’d like to call attention to some of the things I’ve written in the past about what I believe to be the essentially monarchical character of the human imagination: 

Short version of all this: Every distinction we make between our “modern” selves and our “primitive” ancestors is wrong. We’re exactly like them in all the ways that really matter for our own self-understanding. 

Sigal Samuel at Vox:

The world has no real plan to stop the genocide underway in China. Some Uyghurs are at the point where they wish the world would just cop to that harsh fact, rather than paying lip service and raising their hopes over and over.

“We had an illusion that the world would do its best to stop China from this genocide,” said Tahir Imin, a US-based Uyghur academic who believes many of his relatives are in the camps. “But the world has no plan to stop this genocide. It’s not happening. The governments should clearly say that. Either stop the genocide — or admit you will not.” 

 Have been trying got the past couple of years to avoid buying anything made in China, because much of it is made by slave labor — but it seems that everything I might want to buy is made there. So I just have to redouble my efforts. 

I keep thinking about what the late great Paul Farmer said: “I love WL’s [White Liberals], love ’em to death. They’re on our side. But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.” 

Russell Moore

Today’s American evangelical Christianity seems to be more focused on hunting heretics internally than perhaps in any other generation. The difference, however, is that excommunications are happening not over theological views but over partisan politics or the latest social media debates.

I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to see fellow evangelicals embrace Christian leaders who teach heretical views of the Trinity or embrace the prosperity gospel but seek exile for those who don’t vote the same way or fail to feign outrage over clickbait controversies.

But something more seems to be going on here — something involving an overall stealth secularization of conservative evangelicalism. What worries me isn’t so much that evangelical Christians can’t articulate Christian orthodoxy in a survey. It’s that, to many of them, Christian orthodoxy seems boring and irrelevant compared to claiming religious status for already-existing political, cultural, or ethnonational tribes. 

A strong and sad Amen to this. It is perfectly clear that there is a movement in America of people who call themselves evangelicals but have no properly theological commitments at all. But what’s not clear, to me anyway, is how many of them there are. Donald Trump can draw some big crowds, and those crowds often have a quasi-religious focus on him or anyway on what they believe he stands for — but those crowds are not large in the context of the entire American population. They’re very visible, because both Left and Right have reasons for wanting them to be visible, but how demographically significant are they really?  

I have similar questions about, for instance, the “national conservatism” movement. Is this actually a movement? Or is it just a few guys who follow one another on Twitter and subscribe to one another’s Substacks? 

Questions to be pursued at the School for Scale, if I can get it started. 

an allegory of American political life, especially online

Dante, Inferno, Canto XXX (Hollander translation): 

And I to him: ‘Who are these two wretches
who steam as wet hands do in winter
and lie so very near you on your right?’

‘I found them when I rained into this trough,’
he said, ‘and even then they did not move about,
nor do I think they will for all eternity.

‘One is the woman who lied accusing Joseph,
the other is false Sinon, the lying Greek from Troy.
Putrid fever makes them reek with such a stench.’

And one of them, who took offense, perhaps
at being named so vilely, hit him
with a fist right on his rigid paunch.

It boomed out like a drum. Then Master Adam,
whose arm seemed just as sturdy,
used it, striking Sinon in the face,

saying: ‘Although I cannot move about
because my legs are heavy,
my arm is loose enough for such a task.’

To which the other answered: ‘When they put you
to the fire, your arm was not so nimble,
though it was quick enough when you were coining.’

And the dropsied one: ‘Well, that is true,
but you were hardly such a truthful witness
when you were asked to tell the truth at Troy.’

‘If I spoke falsely, you falsified the coin,’
said Sinon, ‘and I am here for one offense alone,
but you for more than any other devil!’

‘You perjurer, keep the horse in mind,’
replied the sinner with the swollen paunch,
‘and may it pain you that the whole world knows.’

‘And may you suffer from the thirst,’ the Greek replied,
‘that cracks your tongue, and from the fetid humor
that turns your belly to a hedge before your eyes!’

Then the forger: ‘And so, as usual,
your mouth gapes open from your fever.
If I am thirsty, and swollen by this humor,

‘you have your hot spells and your aching head.
For you to lick the mirror of Narcissus
would not take much by way of invitation.’

I was all intent in listening to them,
when the master said: ‘Go right on looking
and it is I who’ll quarrel with you.’ […]

‘Do not forget I’m always at your side
should it fall out again that fortune take you
where people are in wrangles such as this.
For the wish to hear such things is base.’ 

Ché voler ciò udire è bassa voglia — to will to listen to such contemptible trash, to desire it, is base, low, self-degrading. Let me be Virgil to your Dante: When people online or on TV are going at each other, when they’re engaged in their spittle-flecked mutual recriminations — avoid it, flee it. Find something, almost anything, else to do with your time. 

Games, Mysteries, and the Lure of QAnon | WIRED:

There’s a parallel between the seemingly unmoderated theorists of r/findbostonbombers and the Citizen app and those in QAnon: None feel any responsibility for spreading unsupported speculation as fact. What they do feel is that anything should be solvable. As Laura Hall, immersive environment and narrative designer, describes: “There’s a general sense of, ‘This should be solveable/findable/etc’ that you see in lots of reddit communities for unsolved mysteries and so on. The feeling that all information is available online, that reality and truth must be captured/in evidence somewhere.” 

I would amend to “somewhere on the internet.” The assumption here is not simply that “the truth is out there” but “the truth is out there and I can find it without ever having to get off my ass.” 


Sheila Fitzpatrick:

‘Man lives in the real world; but there’s also a parallel world: a paper one, a bureaucratic one. So the passport is the person’s double in this parallel world.’ The comment comes from a Russian woman in her thirties interviewed as part of a study in St Petersburg in 2008. She might have been channelling the philosopher Rom Harré, who called these bureaucratic doubles ‘file-selves’. It mattered a lot to Soviet citizens what their file-selves looked like: the wrong social class or nationality entered in an internal passport, or a notation restricting movement, could be a disaster. But file-selves matter elsewhere too. The Anglosphere – the UK, Canada, the US, Australia – may have eschewed the Russian/Soviet path of a compulsory internal passport, distinct from the passport required for foreign travel, but drivers’ licences and credit records often serve the same functions, and electronic identity cards may not be too far away. The British, while skittish about mandatory ID cards, have the largest number of surveillance cameras per capita of any country except China.

This is good … but maybe not as good as my essay on passports?

Ken Burns’s ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ – Dara Horn:

Burns has a soft spot for Franklin and Eleanor, the subjects of one of his prior films, and here he treats them with kid gloves, blaming most of the missteps on State Department antagonists. The series makes a point of establishing the bigoted, racist atmosphere of the U.S. at the time, showing Nazi rallies in New York, clips of the popular anti-Semitic broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, and colorized footage of a Nazi-themed summer camp in New Jersey. But the film goes out of its way to outline the pros and cons of Roosevelt’s decisions, leaving his reputation intact. To be clear, Roosevelt is an American icon and deserves to remain one. The problem with this approach is less about Roosevelt (there are plenty of convincing arguments in his favor, not least that he won the war) than about how it contradicts the rest of the film’s premise. The goal of the series is seemingly to reset America’s moral compass, using hindsight to expose the costs of being a bystander. But every bystander, including Roosevelt, can explain his choices. The film’s refusal to judge the commander in chief plays into a larger political pattern: offering generosity only toward those we admire.

Or whom we perceive to be on Our Team. The whole essay is excellent, but I especially appreciate the unpacking of this point: “Democracies, for all their strengths, are ill-equipped for identifying and responding to evil.” 


A: I don’t know, I think we need to get our own house in order before we launch into critiques of our enemies. 

B: There’s no time for that! The situation is too dire. 

A: But what if the situation is dire precisely because we never got our house in order, because we tolerated dishonesty, corruption, and short-term and shabby thinking for so long? 

B: Maybe that’s true, but we can’t worry about that now. Our enemies are taking over and we have to stop them at all costs! 

A: But isn’t that what you were saying years ago, in a situation that you now see as less dire than the current one? 

B: This is a do-or-die moment. You’re just denying reality if you don’t see that. 

A: You said that years ago also. If every moment is one of absolute crisis, then no moment is. I know a guy, a maker, a very successful small businessman, who is running way behind on his work. He’s facing a genuine crisis. And yet he just took six weeks off to completely reorganize his workflow and his workspace. He did so because he knows that (a) he should have done it long ago and (b) his problems won’t go away — unless people stop ordering his products because he doesn’t deliver. In that case his problems will have gone away because his business will have gone away. He’s taking a big hit to his business in the short term because that is the only way for him to be successful over the long haul. That’s precisely how we ought to be thinking. It is never the wrong time to get your house in order. And maybe the greater the crisis the more essential it is to take a good hard look at ourselves before flailing at our opponents.  

B: Stop blaming the victims! 

(P.S. I’m A. You wouldn’t have guessed.) 

Michael Gerson

When we are caked with the mud of political struggle, and tired of Pyrrhic victories that seed new hatreds, and frightened by our own capacity for contempt, the way of life set out by Jesus comes like a clear bell that rings above our strife. It defies cynicism, apathy, despair and all ideologies that dream of dominance. It promises that every day, if we choose, can be the first day of a new and noble manner of living. Its most difficult duties can feel much like purpose and joy. And even our halting, halfhearted attempts at faithfulness are counted by God as victories. 

God’s call to us while not simplifying our existence does ennoble it. It is the invitation to a life marked by meaning. And even when, as mortality dictates, we walk the path we had feared to tread, it can be a pilgrimage, in which all is lost, and all is found. 

Before such a consummation, Christians seeking social influence should do so not by joining interest groups that fight for their narrow rights and certainly not those animated by hatred, fear, phobias, vengeance or violence. Rather, they should seek to be ambassadors of a kingdom of hope, mercy, justice and grace. This is a high calling and a test that most of us (myself included) are always finding new ways to fail. But it is the revolutionary ideal set by Jesus of Nazareth, who still speaks across the sea of years.

open letter

Politics is exceptionally difficult. I mean, think about it: what could be more complex and challenging and fraught with landmines than the attempt to figure out ways for all of us, with all our differences, to live in some semblance of just harmony together. Moreover, as we have seen repeatedly throughout human history, even the most well-intentioned and well-informed of policies can have unfortunate or even disastrous unforeseen consequences. (What William Goldman said about the movies is even more true of politics: “Nobody knows anything.”) And, to add to all that: I have no specialized political knowledge or experience. Sure, like everyone else, I have my preferences and inclinations and aversions, but there is absolutely no reason for me or for anyone else to think that my opinions have any particular weight or value. So, in public I will remain largely silent about political matters, and will focus instead on writing and speaking within my areas of expertise. In that way I hope to provide some public service while also avoiding the dangers of darkening counsel by words without knowledge. 

Yours sincerely, 

No academic ever 



While I’m in Covid-induced memory mode… This is my beloved, circa 1981, with what I think is her first selfie. She had been listening to a public radio show featuring Ben Wattenberg in which Wattenberg explained that the Communist government in Poland had been cracking down on “antisocialist elements” — which led to dissidents making shirts on which they proudly identified themselves as just that: ELEMENT ANTYSOCJALISTYCZNY. So Teri found an address and wrote to Wattenberg to see if he could get her such a shirt, and behold — this selfie. She still has the shirt, by the way, though that old Minolta SLR is long gone. 

The Constitution Is Broken and Should Not Be Reclaimed:

Americans could learn simply to do politics through ordinary statute rather than staging constant wars over who controls the heavy weaponry of constitutional law from the past. If legislatures just passed rules and protected values majorities believe in, the distinction between “higher law” and everyday politics effectively disappears. 

Hard to see what could go wrong! No Constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech, freedom of the press — heck, no Constitutional prohibition of slavery! Let whatever “values majorities believe in” reign! I mean, come on, when have majorities ever believed in unjust things? 

What logicians used to call the “planted axiom” — the fundamental unstated assumption — is pretty obvious here: People who agree with me will always be in charge. So if there’s no freedom of the press, how is that a problem? We’ll just use our power to shut down Fox News, not any of the networks we approve of

As I’ve been saying for many years, I am always fascinated by the number of philosophers who habitually consider political questions from the position of power. They never seem to imagine what the situation might look like if their enemies were the ones in charge. 

liberalism vs. centrism, adjacency and action

I’ve written often about philosophical liberalism on this blog, because I have a complicated relationship to it. On the one hand, like John Milton, I don’t believe most of the things that philosophical liberals believe. On the other hand, it’s clear that at least some of the common critiques of liberalism fail to account for the complexity of the views of the smartest liberals, especially John Stuart Mill. Also, while the idea that liberalism provides a “level playing field” for all is and always has been a fiction, I believe that a more level playing field is something worth striving for, and that the current tendency among many Americans to make illiberal power grabs, or anyway to fantasize such power grabs, on the grounds that “politics ain’t beanbag,” is regrettable and makes me nostalgic for liberal proceduralism

When people stop wanting a level playing field, they opt for a more confrontational model of politics — but there are several such models on offer, or perhaps it would be better to say that there are several kinds of confrontational practices, from the snarky to the murderous. In a new essay at the Hog Blog, I have tried to offer a taxonomy of those confrontational practices, and a suggestion that those of us who would like to see a lowering in our current level of toxicity should probably focus our attention on the people whose behavior is closest to our own. Adjacency as a guide to action. 

Let me add to this gumbo one more idea — one that I should probably develop further at some point. 

I often hear it said that people who reject illiberalism (of the right and the left, insofar as those terms have any meaning today) and who are committed to proceduralism are “centrists,” and while that might often be the case, it’s isn’t necessarily. I do not consider myself a centrist — indeed, my recent move towards anarchism (about which I’d like to say more, but I have to wait until my essay on the subject comes out) takes me considerably farther from the “center” of the current system than the Left Purity Cultists or the MAGA-heads, both of whom basically just want Management to take their side. There’s a simple distinction between ends and means at work here: the political ends I envision are pretty radical, but the means by which I hope to achieve them are peaceable and centered on persuasion, fair-mindedness, respect for the integrity of my political opponents, even charity. By contrast, the illiberals of left and right want to employ drastic means, but their ends would leave transnational capitalism securely in place. They’d just have managed to climb the greasy pole to the top; I’d like to take down the pole. 


In Defense of National Conservatism – Scott Yenor:

National conservatives would have public and private institutions honor Christianity above other religions and would protect the rights of minorities to practice their religious traditions. Fundamentally, national conservatives think that America should take its Protestant roots more seriously and legislate toward a Protestant vision of family life, public research and so on. 

It’s worth noting that this is an explicit repudiation of a principle George Washington thought essential. In his once-famous and now-neglected letter to the Newport synagogue, Washington replies to a letter of praise and gratitude from members of that synagogue. They had written, 

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine: This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Publick Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies Of Heaven and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good. 

Washington expresses his appreciation for these kind words, but also insists upon a clarification: 

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. 

That is: I and people like me do not offer “toleration” to you and people like you, because it is not in the power of some Americans merely to tolerate the exercise of other Americans’ rights. To be an American is to be on the same footing with every other American. This is the view that Yenor rejects: he’s explicitly pursuing an America in which Protestant Christians have the power to tolerate others, and the liberties of those others depend upon the sufferance of their Protestant rulers.

It’s not going to happen, of course, but it’s another entry in the Dictionary of Contemporary Illiberalism. That Dictionary is getting pretty thick! 

another friendly reminder

Spy Vs Spy

Here’s the good news: Most Americans are not hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors.

Here’s the bad news: The hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors dominate social media – they’re on it all the time. They toil not, neither do they spin, but they never stop posting and tweeting and reposting and retweeting and shitposting and shittweeting.

And here’s more bad news: the professional media make bank by showcasing the hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors – and they too never stop their destructive work. There is a malice there that does not sleep.

But – finally – here’s more good news:

  1. You can stop reading Twitter and Facebook, you can stop watching TV “news,” you can stop listening to loudmouthed podcasters.
  2. You can change your news consumption to a weekly cycle rather than a daily – or hourly – one.
  3. You can spend more time with monthly or quarterly periodicals; you can read books — even old books. 
  4. You can also listen to music, ideally music not served up to you algorithmically. Buy one CD or vinyl record per month and listen to it all the way through, multiple times. Retrain your attention.
  5. Go outside as often as you can, ideally without devices. Work in the yard, or just walk around. Pause occasionally to take a few deep breaths. When you come back in, do not head straight for your device; instead, make a cup of tea, straighten your shelves, or pray.

We can do this! 


Every day, American politicians re-enact the Trolley Problem, and every day, they find a third option: to run themselves over with the trolley. 

a friendly reminder

A year ago I wrote: “Wondering how to decide what to read? Here’s a simple but effective heuristic to cut down the choices significantly. Ask yourself one question: Does this writer make bank when we hate one another? And if the answer is yes, don’t read that writer.” The same rule applies to TV, radio, podcasts. If their clicks and ratings and ad revenues go up when we hate one another, flee them like the plague they are. 


A while back I mused on a question: What do we owe the more-than-human world? It seems to me that that question has a certain set of implications for the way we design our political order. For instance, here in the United States we have a representative body, the Senate, that many people denounce as insufficiently democratic. How, they ask, can it be reasonable for Wyoming (pop. 576,850) to have the same number of Senators as New York (pop. 20,215,751). One reasonable answer is that Senators don’t just represent people; they also represent places. I don’t think it would be politically healthy for people in New York and California to have, simply because of their sheer numbers, nearly untrammeled power over a place that’s a thousand or two thousand miles away from them, a place they will probably never see, a place whose land and creatures they will never know. 

Of course, people elected to office by their neighbors can make unwise decisions, can be corrupt, can be selfish, can abuse their environment; but they are much more likely to suffer consequences for what they do, either directly or as a result of public pressure, than those who make such decisions from great distances. 

A system such as ours, with representation split between the Senate and the House, is certainly not the only way to maintain some degree of local control over local environments; and it may not be the best way. But such control is necessary for the flourishing of places and communities. So those who want to abolish the Senate need to decide what they’re going to replace it with, because a system that gives even more power to the coasts over flyover country will necessarily be a more unjust system than the one we now have. 

How to Search for Life on Mars — The New Atlantis:

Despite what it says, NASA has actually made the decision not to look for present life on Mars, even though tools that could identify life have been available to the agency for twenty years. Even worse, NASA’s existing rovers operating on Mars are being directed to avoid areas most likely to harbor life, and its plans for future human exploration are being designed in a way that would minimize their exploratory capability.

What in the world is NASA thinking? And how can we get the agency back on the path to finding life? 

A fascinating essay, and a kind of case study on how bureaucracies evaluate risk vs. reward.  

Ellul and anarchism

This will be my last post this week — I’m off soon to Laity Lodge!    


I’ve said before that I think Anarchy and Christianity is Jacques Ellul’s worst book but I don’t think I’ve ever said why I believe that. So here goes.

I’ll start with a key passage from pp. 32–33:

Now it is true that for centuries theology has insisted that God is the absolute Master, the Lord of lords, the Almighty, before whom we are nothing. Hence it is right enough that those who reject masters will reject God too. We must also take note of the fact that even in the twentieth century Christians still call God the King of creation and still call Jesus Lord even though there are few kings and lords left in the modern world. But I for my part dispute this concept of God.

Throughout the book Ellul portrays himself as a careful reader of the Bible, which is why he begins this section by saying that theology has insisted that God is Lord of lords – he presents his argument as a refutation of theologians, not of the Bible. But this is evasive: Ellul knows perfectly well that in the Old Testament God is repeatedly described as King and Lord — e.g. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19) — and that in the New Testament Jesus Christ is called “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15, the concluding phrase appearing again in Revelation 19:16). It is a mere delaying tactic. So ultimately he admits it:

I realize that [this concept of God] corresponds to the existing mentality. I realize that we have here a religious image of God. I realize, finally, that many biblical passages call God king or Lord. But this admitted, I contend that the Bible in reality gives us a very different image of God.

A rather subtle distinction, isn’t it? That the Bible can repeatedly – it would be fair to say obsessively – call God King and Lord and yet all of that is somehow not the “image of God” given in the Bible. Ellul is simply denying the relevance of everything in Scripture, no matter how prominent, that clashes with what he believes to be the genuine biblical picture of who God is. As though he can wave a rhetorical wand and make all countervailing evidence just disappear.

Why does Ellul do this? In large part because he knows that Lords and Kings give commands, and he intends to deny that God would infringe on our anarchic freedom by giving commands. Alas, the Bible continues to fight against him – he eventually is forced to admit that in the Bible we do see “divine orders. How are we to understand this?” He claims that “God’s commandments are always addressed to individuals. God chooses this or that person to do something specific. It is not a matter of a general law. We have no right to generalize the order” (p. 40). He gives the example of the “rich young ruler” whom Jesus commands to sell all that he has and give to the poor, and claims that that order is given only to that man and not to anyone else – not an eccentric reading of that particular pericope, but the denial that there are any “generalized orders” in the Bible is very eccentric indeed. Who is the “individual” whom “You shall not kill” is addressed to? Or “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”?  

So, again, why does he do this? Because he believes that universal commands would make us “robots for God who have to execute the decisions of him who made us” (41). But if commands turn us into robots, then that would make the rich young ruler into a robot. Does he really mean to say that God turns some people into robots but not most? If so, if he confines his absolute kingly commands to only a few, would that make him any less of a tyrant, any less of an infringer upon freedom?

The whole argument is just … nuts. And also, I think, based on a confusion of categories. Ellul seems to have taken the concept of anarchism – which is a political concept pertaining to the way that human beings order their common life – and seen it instead as a metaphysical principle, as a foundational truth about the entire cosmos. But why would he do that?

I think it’s because he knows the long history of politics, in which actual or would-be kings present themselves as regents of God, as having a divine right to authority over us that is rooted in God’s authority over us. But when someone says “Because God is King over all I am king over you” I don’t think the most reasonable critique of that claim is to say, “God really isn’t a King and therefore you are not either.” A more appropriate response would be that God alone is king and all human beings are servants of the same master. Ellul seems to take the hardest possible road to his desired destination, which is to undermine the tyrant’s claims to authority. And his determination to undermine that claim leads him into bizarre theology and indefensible exegesis. 

I also think he wants to claim — in this case quite properly! — that the Christian God does not insist on his sovereignty, but rather casts it away, and does so most dramatically in the sending of his Son Jesus Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2). This is of course vital. But a King who humbles himself before his people, who sacrifices himself for their salvation, need not be and indeed is not a non-King, an anarch. (And even that great kenosis passage concludes thus: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”) 

There is, I think, a serious Christian defense of anarchism, even if Ellul hasn’t found it. It’s similar to the proper Christian argument for democracy. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.” A Christian argument for anarchism would begin there – though not end; there is still a lot of work to do. I’ve tried to do some of it in an essay that I think is forthcoming – though with regard to that also there is still a lot of work to do. But eventually, one way or another, you’ll hear from me on these matters.

the two enemies

I have come to believe that almost all of our social pathologies stem from two deeply-ingrained tendencies: 

  1. People care more about belonging to the Inner Ring than about telling the truth. Indeed, in many cases lying for the Ingroup is the best means of demonstrating one’s commitment to it. 
  2. People are presentists not just in the sense I often talk about — attending only to the stimuli the dominant media offer now — but in the sense of doing whatever offers immediate gratification and leaving the future to care for itself.  

Anyone who cares about the flourishing of our social order and of the planet needs to think about how to chip away at these tendencies — and I think “chipping away” is the best we can do. A while back I was on a Zoom call with Jonathan Haidt, and I asked him whether he thought that seeing and acknowledging the truth about one’s condition might be an evolutionarily adaptive trait. He replied that beyond some fairly low-level lizard-brain things — like seeing that that really is a bear charging at you and you had therefore better take evasive action — he thought not. For human beings, the ability to belong is more adaptive than the ability to see what’s true. 

So: these are incredibly powerful forces; none of us will ever be completely free from them, and some of us will be prisoners of them all our lives long; but their hold can be weakened, and I think constantly about how to do that — for myself first, and for others later. 

Chris Stirewalt:

There are species of bacteria that actually thrive in the toxic emissions from hydrothermal vents deep below the ocean. What would be killing sulphuric acid to most animals is food for them. We have created a similarly hostile climate in media and politics: high pressure, extreme temperature swings, and a toxic atmosphere. We should not be surprised, then, that unlovely creatures are the only ones who can thrive in this space. 

Decent people with dignity are easy marks for outrage mobs, cancel culture, and the clickbait press. But fools with no shame are impervious to such a climate. Men and women of character tend to stay away, and if they don’t, are much more subject to the extortionate pressures of the political world. If your reputation is already poor, you can chase celebrity, frolicking among the deep-sea plumes, while your more delicate competitors are floating on the surface, poisoned.

Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume III

“Whenever I was late, no matter what the reason, Johnson called me a lazy, good-for-nothing n****r,” Parker wrote. And there was an incident that occurred one morning in Johnson’s limousine while Parker was driving him from his Thirtieth Place house to the Capitol. Johnson, who had been reading a newspaper in the back seat, “suddenly lowered the newspaper and leaned forward,” and said, “‘Chief, does it bother you when people don’t call you by name?’” Parker was to recall that “I answered cautiously but honestly, ‘Well, sir, I do wonder. My name is Robert Parker.’” And that was evidently not an answer acceptable to Johnson. “Johnson slammed the paper onto the seat as if he was slapping my face. He leaned close to my ear. ‘Let me tell you one thing, n****r,’ he shouted. ‘As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, n****r, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.’” 

Parker found that incident in Johnson’s limousine difficult to explain or forgive. Years later, as he stood beside Lyndon Johnson’s grave thinking of all Johnson had done for his people, Parker would say he was “swirling with mixed emotions.” Lyndon Johnson, he would write, had rammed through Congress “the most important civil rights laws this country has ever seen or dreamed possible.” Because of those laws, Parker would write, he felt, at last, like a free man. “I owed that freedom to him…. I loved the Lyndon Johnson who made it possible.” But remembering the scene in the limousine — and many other scenes — Parker was to write that on the whole working for Johnson was “a painful experience. Although I was grateful to him for getting me a job I was afraid of him because of the pain and humiliation he could inflict at a moment’s notice. I thought I had learned to fight my bitterness and anger inside…. But Johnson made it hard to keep the waves of bitterness inside… But I had to swallow or quit. If I quit, how would I support my family? I chose survival and learned to swallow with a smile.” And, Parker would write, “I hated that Lyndon Johnson.” 

Here is Robert Parker’s book. 

Matt Yglesias:

And I’ve been saying for a long time now that we need to get out of this rut. You can shut things down for 15 days to slow the spread. You can even keep things semi-closed for a year until the arrival of vaccines. But you can’t just permanently impair the basic functioning of society due to a new respiratory virus; it doesn’t pass cost-benefit scrutiny. But that doesn’t mean there are no costs. We are living with lots of people dying of a virus that didn’t previously exist. We also have people going to the hospital and suffering long-term damage to their lungs or other organs. What the Covid hawks get right is that this is genuinely a very bad situation, and not just something we can declare ourselves “over.”

But the response we need is a pharmacological one, and that’s where we are failing.

The virus is evolving faster than our vaccines. And while scientists keep diligently plugging away at next-generation vaccination ideas, the idea of a whole-of-America effort to do R&D and production and fast-tracked regulatory approval seems gone and forgotten. That’s a disaster for the country, and we need to change course. 

The whole post is very good, and unfortunately accurate in its diagnosis. See also this Eric Topol post. I’m not afraid, but I’m concerned. 

the sheepdog’s view

I’ve been thinking about the weirdly intense hatred many conservatives feel for people like David French and Liz Cheney — for anyone they think isn’t “fighting.” Here’s my conclusion: The conservative movement has too many sheepdogs and not enough shepherds.

Sheepdogs do two things: they snap at members of the herd whom they believe to be straying from their proper place, and they bark viciously at wolves and other intruders. Sheepdogs are good at identifying potential predators and scaring them off with noisy aggression. (Often they suspect innocent passers-by of being wolves, but that just comes with the job description. Better to err on the side of caution, etc.) 

What sheepdogs are useless at is caring for the sheep. They can’t feed the sheep, or inspect them for injury or illness, or give them medicine. All they can do is bark when they see someone who might be a predator. And that’s fine, except for this: the sheepdogs of the conservative movement think that everyone who is not a sheepdog – everyone who is not angrily barking — is a wolf. So they try to frighten away even the faithful shepherds. If they succeed, eventually the whole herd will die, from starvation or disease. And as that happens, the sheepdogs won’t even notice. They will stand there with their backs to the dying herd and bark their fool heads off. 

habits of the American mind

The American Civil War was not that long ago. The last surviving Civil War veteran died two years before my birth. A conflict of that size and scope and horror leaves marks — marks on the land and marks on the national psyche — not readily erased.

I have come to believe that certain habits of mind arising directly from the Civil War still dominate the American consciousness today. I say not specific beliefs but rather intellectual dispositions; and those dispositions account for the form that many of our conflicts take today. Three such habits are especially important.

  1. Among Southerners – and I am one – the primary habit is a reliance on consoling lies. In the aftermath of the Civil War Southerners told themselves that the Old South was a culture of nobility and dignity; that slaves were largely content with their lot and better off enslaved than free; that the war was not fought for slavery but in the cause of state’s rights; that Robert E. Lee was a noble and gentle man who disliked slavery; and so on. Such statements were repeated for generations by people who knew that they were evasive at best – the state’s right that the Confederacy was created to defend was the right to own human beings as chattel – and often simply false, and if the people making those statements didn’t consciously understand the falsehood, they kept such knowledge at bay through the ceaseless repetition of their mantras. (Ty Seidule’s book Robert E. Lee and Me is an illuminating account, from the inside, of how such deceptions and self-deceptions work.) And now we see precisely the same practice among the most vociferous supporters of Donald Trump: a determined repetition of assertions – especially that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen, but also concerning COVID–19 and many other matters – that wouldn’t stand up even to casual scrutiny, and therefore don’t receive that scrutiny. It’s easy to fall into a new set of lies when you have a history of embracing a previous set of lies. 
  2. Among Northerners, the corresponding habit is a confidence in one’s own moral superiority. Because the North was right and the South wrong about the institution of slavery, it was easy for the North then to dismiss any evidence of its own complicity in racism. Our cause is righteous – that is all we know on earth, and all we need know. (But if our cause is righteous, doesn’t that suggest that we are too?) And then, later, whenever there were political conflicts in which the majority of Northerners were on one side and the majority of Southerners on the other – about taxation, or religious liberty, or anything – the temptation was irresistible to explain the disagreement always by the same cause: the moral rectitude of the one side, the moral corruption of the other. The result (visible on almost every page of the New York Times, for instance) is a pervasive smugness that enrages many observers while remaining completely invisible to those who have fallen into it. 
  3. And among Black Americans, the relevant disposition is a settled suspicion of any declarations of achieved freedom. Emancipation, it turns out, is not achieved by proclamation; nor is it achieved by the purely legal elimination of slavery. Abolition did not end discrimination or violence; indeed, it ushered in a new era of danger for many (the era of lynching) and a new legal system (Jim Crow) that scarcely altered the economic conditions of the recently enslaved. After this happens two or three times you learn to be skeptical, and you teach your children to be skeptical. Brown v. Board of Education produces equal educational opportunity for blacks and whites? We have our doubts. The Civil Rights Act outlaws racial discrimination? We’ll see about that. I wonder how many times Black Americans have heard that racism is over. They don’t, as far as I can tell anyway, believe that things haven’t gotten better; but they believe that improvement has been slow and uneven, and that many injustices that Americans think have died are in fact alive and often enough thriving.   

I think these three persistent habits of mind explain many of the conflicts that beset Americans today. And if I were to rank them in order of justifiability, I would say: the first is tragically unjustifiable — and the chief reason why, to my lasting grief, we Southerners have so often allowed our vices to displace our virtues —; the second is understandable but dangerously misleading; and the third … well, the third is pretty damn hard to disagree with.  

As the man said: The past is not dead; it is not even past. 

The Best and the Brightest


I’ve been reading David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest for the first time in 40 years or more, and returning to it after all this time my primary response is that it has been somewhat overrated.

To be fair, Halberstam has an incredibly difficult task, because in order to pursue his main goal, which is to explain how it is that “the best and the brightest” of American society, the intellectual elite of the nation – highly educated, exceptionally intelligent, shrewdly perceptive – nevertheless managed to immerse us in a quagmire in Vietnam, he has to give us huge chunks of the history of Southeast Asia in the 20th century. He chose to to do this by introducing each chunk of history only when it appears to be necessary to the stage of the narrative that he is in. The relevant history gets doled out in bits and pieces – a little bit when we’re hearing about LBJ, a little bit when we’re told about the appointment of an ambassador, a little bit when we’re learning about the relevant figures in the State Department or the Department of Defense. We hear a lot about the French in Indochina and how that involvement shaped the later American involvement before we hear about the Communist takeover in China, which was the very event that made the U.S. so willing to intervene in Southeast Asia. This kind of historical mosaic can be an effective technique – it’s what Rebecca West does in what I have said many times is the best book of the twentieth century, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – but it is exceptionally difficult to pull off, and I don’t think Halberstam does it well at all. As I read I struggled to assemble all his little chunks of historical narrative into a coherent arc or structure.

There are also a good many errors, mostly minor. For instance, Halberstam writes of “the great English novelist Joyce Carey,” but his name is spelled Cary, he was born and mostly raised in Ireland and is therefore better described as Anglo-Irish, and I doubt anyone ever called him great. Another problem is repetition: we are twice told, in detail, the story of how General Maxwell Taylor was thought by the Kennedys to have resigned from the Eisenhower administration when in fact he retired at the end of his term.

This is a book whose thesis is strong, original, and highly significant, and whose weaknesses in exposition and development have therefore been perhaps too readily excused. I don’t totally quarrel with that perspective. The great strength of the book is the same as that of Breaking Bad: it shows how you can get from one moral condition to another radically different moral condition without ever planning or even wanting to go there. Halberstam is especially good at character sketches: he shows how people of vastly different personality types – Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, JFK himself – can nevertheless all be caught up, in their different ways, in a situation that seems to have its own momentum, a momentum that could only be arrested by people of exceptional self-awareness and even more exceptional courage and decisiveness.

That’s a lesson worth learning, though, of course, no one in politics ever learns it. 

McGeorge Bundy John F Kennedy 1962

two quotations on culture wars

Ian Leslie:

I have long thought it’s a bit odd quite how much people on the left love to bemoan culture war discourse. They talk about it all the time, despite or perhaps because of the fact the left has made a lot of progress on the cultural battles of recent years and met surprisingly little resistance. But it’s always the other side which makes war, never ‘us’. Meanwhile, to most voters, it’s probably the other way around. The left comes across as more culturally aggressive than the right, the more likely to ‘call out’ incorrect language or behaviour. I don’t think trying to make or police cultural change is necessarily a bad thing, by the way — the left has changed society for the better that way in the past. I just think it’s a bad thing not to be honest about it. […] 

I think we should stop using culture war as an insult. After all, culture is very important to society and worth arguing over. I’ve written a whole book about how conflict can be productive. But for conflict to be healthy it has to happen out in the open rather than under the table or behind closed doors. It shouldn’t disguise itself as something else. If you think ‘decolonisation’, for example, is a meaningful and necessary activity, then recognise it as a contentious political goal, argue for it on that basis, and welcome counter-arguments. Instead, it gets presented as a neutral, merely bureaucratic term, and the pearl-clutching epithet of ‘culture war’ is wheeled out when anyone questions it. All of the actual arguments are thereby avoided. 


Yuval Levin

By allowing the chimeric ethos of the culture war to infiltrate every part of our lives, we have come to mistake the mores of cultural-political combat for all-purpose norms of social interaction. When we ignore them at work or in church, and just do our work without regard for party, we feel like we have made a sordid concession. If our entire common life is one big yes-or-no question, then we must always make sure to answer it correctly.

But that is not what our entire common life consists of, and acknowledging that fact need not mean cordoning off your conscience. There are core moral commitments that must apply to every part of our experience. We must always respect the equal dignity of others, and live by the truth and not by lies. We can never let economic imperatives or team spirit overwhelm our fundamental religious and ethical obligations. But such core matters of conscience leave a lot of room for legitimate differences and circumstantial norms. And they are broad enough to let us apply distinct standards to distinct circumstances. […] 

Such compartmentalization is not an alternative to an integrated moral framework for our lives but an embodiment of such a framework. Properly conceived, it is a grace given to our limited selves from beyond ourselves—a reminder that we are not fully merged with the world and defined by our society’s categories, but have our own dignity and agency, shaped and provoked by distinct invitations and circumstances. And it is a way to moderate our partisan passions and to recognize the multifaceted complexity of other human beings. No one is simply a partisan. Everyone has a more layered array of identities. That’s why we can respect people and engage with them in those domains that are not set out for cultural contention but for cooperation.

Thus a more inclusive definition of Nixonland: it is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans. The first group, enemies of Richard Nixon, are the spiritual heirs of Stevenson and Galbraith. They take it as an axiom that if Richard Nixon and the values associated with him triumph, America itself might end. The second group are the people who wrote those telegrams begging Dwight D. Eisenhower to keep their hero on the 1952 Republican ticket. They believe, as did Nixon, that if the enemies of Richard Nixon triumph — the Alger Hisses and Helen Gahagan Douglases, the Herblocks and hippies, the George McGoverns and all the rest — America might end. The DNC was right: an amazingly large segment of the population disliked and mistrusted Richard Nixon instinctively. What they did not acknowledge was that an amazingly large segment of the population also trusted him as their savior. “Nixonland” is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years. 

— Rick Perlstein, Nixonland 

weighing in, God help me

Weighing in, yes, but doing my usual trick of trying to separate matters that get entangled in The Discourse. Regarding yesterday’s SCOTUS decision, let’s keep these five questions distinct: 

1) All those decades ago, was Roe v. Wade rightly decided? I agree with Akhil Reed Amar — a pro-choice professor at Yale Law School — that it was not. Strictly in terms of legal reasoning, it was a remarkably bad decision. 

2) Should the current SCOTUS have overturned it? That’s actually a tougher question, because of a general sense that the longer a decision has stood the more powerful the voice of stare decisis becomes. It would have been far less socially disruptive if Roe had been overturned in the Reagan years. But it is so indefensible a ruling that I can’t justify keeping it on the books. 

3) Was it overturned on proper grounds? Legal scholars will be debating that for a long time, but for what it’s worth, Alito’s opinion does not strike me as an especially cogent one. It’s better-argued than Roe was, but that’s an exceptionally low bar.  

4) This is not something widely discussed, especially right now, but: Has it been wise for the pro-life movement to focus so much of their energies, for the past half-century, on the overturning of Roe? I think not, and I have always thought not. I believe that it would have been a better strategy to focus on non-legal means of reducing or eliminating abortion. The end of Roe, after all, does not mean the end of abortion in America, and may make things harder for the pro-life movement in pro-abortion states. (Related: I don’t know if Elizabeth Bruenig would still endorse what she wrote several years ago about being genuinely pro-life, but I still endorse it. See also my old manifesto on The Gospel of Life.) 

5) Finally: Is abortion a good or an evil? Note how distinct this core question is from the legal disputes: Roe could have been wrongly decided as a matter of Constitutional law even if abortion is salutary and necessary; Roe could have been rightly decided even if abortion is a great evil. One of the more frustrating elements of this particular battle in the culture war is the difficulty most people have in distinguishing “This is an outcome I like [or hate]” from “This is a good [or bad] decision.” (Indeed, the inability of the Justices to make this distinction in 1973 is precisely why the legal reasoning in Roe is so inept.) All that said: on this most essential matter, I agree with Ross Douthat

UPDATE: Please read Leah Libresco Sargeant

UPDATE 2: This should not need to be said, but: There is no correlation between the popularity of a SCOTUS decision and its correctness. Texas v. Johnson was wildly unpopular but correct; Korematsu v. United States was very popular indeed but possibly the worst decision ever reached by the supreme Court; Brown v. Board of Education was, like yesterday’s decision, deeply controversial — cheered by many, loathed by many — and was absolutely right. The idea that the popularity or unpopularity of a decision determines the Court’s “legitimacy” or lack thereof is a pernicious one. When members of the Court think that way, we get decisions like Korematsu

self-understanding and resistance

In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn says that whenever people in the Soviet Union were arrested they all said the same thing: “Me? What for?” When he was arrested that’s what he said too. Then, when he was brought before an official, preparatory to being stuffed into an interrogation cell, he had some papers thrust under his nose which he was told to sign. He signed them, he says, because “I didn’t know what else to do.”

When reading this passage I think about a couple of things. First, I remember James Scott’s book Seeing Like a State and its emphasis on all the ways that modern nation-states make us “legible” to its functions – and, perhaps even more important, teach us to believe that such legibility is necessary and vital. Second, I remember the comment that the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss makes in Tristes Tropiques that throughout history the primary function of writing has been to enable slavery.

So into the belly of the beast Solzhenitsyn goes, and remains for several miserable years – but then, at a certain point, he begins what he calls his “ascent.” And the beginning of the ascent is marked by one of the most famous passages in all of twentieth century writing:

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience; how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Bless you, prison, bless you for being in my life! For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.


If you want to know why Solzhenitsyn is truly great as a writer, you should take note of the very next sentence he writes: “(And from beyond the grave come replies: It is all very well for you to say that — you who came out of it alive!)”

It is after this that Solzhenitsyn begins to describe, not only the change in him, but the change in his relations with others. He no longer simply accepts the imposed and inflexible laws of the Gulag, he and his colleagues began to form strategies of resistance. When asked “Why did you put up with all that?” he answers that many of the prisoners did not – but it is absolutely essential, if you want to understand Solzhenitsyn, to realize that he was able to resist constructively only after he acknowledged his own personal guilt, only after he began a long process of repentance.

That is, Solzhenitsyn makes it quite clear that meaningful resistance begins with self-understanding. You can only make an intelligent attempt to alter your circumstances if you understand who you are, which means understanding that your own innate human nature is not different from that of your captors.

My friend and colleague David Corey:

I share Fukuyama’s hope that liberalism can be maintained. I hold this hope in part because (like Fukuyama) I see no better alternatives to liberalism for the pluralist, freedom-loving West; but I hold it too because I view liberalism not as an essence, but as a human practice that results from prudential choices people make; and I therefore think that liberalism can be made and remade in light of lessons that we learn in the doing. The chief lesson to be borne in mind today is that the alternative to liberalism is violence, whether that takes the form of physical violence or the coercive power of the state. And violence leads to grievous suffering, especially for the weak and powerless. Sober reflection on this fact should lead us to look at the possibilities of liberalism with renewed energy. It is, without doubt, an imperfect way of practicing politics. But Fukuyama is right that it is the best way we have for managing diversity in peace. 

I think David is right about this. And the refusal of our various illiberal movements to confront the violence they encourage is the primary sign of their essential frivolity. 

sauce, goose, gander

A typically and blessedly thoughtful reflection from Noah Millman:

On both sides of the aisle, there is increasing acceptance of the idea that our political institutions are illegitimate, which while it isn’t in itself a call to violence effectively disarms the strongest argument against violence. This is most obvious on the Republican side, something the ongoing January 6th hearings have provided a powerful reminder of. A huge percentage of the GOP rank and file believe that the last election was stolen and therefore that the current government is illegitimate, and while only a tiny minority participated in violence in response on that fatal day, it’s difficult in practice to convincingly disavow that response without forcefully rejecting the premise that justified it. Not only has the party leadership mostly failed to do that, but a substantial fraction — most especially the former president — have done precisely the opposite.

But the rhetoric on the left side of the aisle with regards to the courts specifically has been extremely cavalier in suggesting that the Supreme Court in particular is no longer legitimate, and that certain decisions it might make would be in some sense inherently counter-democratic. And while I’m not going to nut-pick and compare the occasional lone wolf lunatic to a mass movement, there’s far more widespread acceptance of things like picketing Supreme Court Justices’ homes, which in and of itself undermines the legitimacy of their decisions by suggesting that they ought to be influenced by such protests in making their decisions, which, if they are to do their jobs properly, they should not. And that, in turn, makes it harder to refute the case for violence. 

Let me add just one point: It’s become increasingly common, I think, for people to justify acts of intimidation, and sometimes actual violence, against their political enemies but not, of course, against their allies. (Threatening Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi is okay, but threatening Brett Kavanaugh is indefensible — or the other way around.) But when people whose politics differs from your own see you advocating intimidation against politicians or judges that you hate, they will definitely think they’re entitled to a piece of that action. You’re drawing up a set of instructions and handing it to them. So you can say that you want to allow the tactics of intimidation and threat and even violence only to those you believe to be right, but what you are actually doing, and can’t not do, is advocating a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man.” 

Rep. Liz Cheney:

Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain. 

What the West Got Wrong About China – Habi Zhang:

The reason why China would brazenly “disregard the international law” that many other nations voluntarily abide by is that the rule of law is not, and has never been, a moral principle in Chinese society. […] 

It was the rule of morality, not the rule of law, that defined Chinese politics. 

In The Classics of Filial Piety — primarily a moral code of conduct — Confucius teaches that “of all the actions of man there is none greater than filial piety. In filial piety, there is nothing greater than the reverential awe of one’s father. In the reverential awe shown to one’s father, there is nothing greater than the making him the correlate of Heaven.” We can therefore conclude that the Durkheimian sense of the sacred object — the source of moral authority — is the father in both the literal and metaphorical sense. With this understanding, Confucianism can be viewed as a religion as manifested in the ritual of ancestor worship. 

What the individual sovereignty is to liberalism, ancestor worship is to Confucianism. 

Fascinating. James Dominic Rooney offers a partial dissent here — though it’s not to my mind especially convincing. David K. Schneider weighs in on the debate and comes down more on Zhang’s side: “liberal government is antithetical to the Confucian ideal of benevolent government. In Mencius, the happiness of the people is the measure of good government. But the people are not sovereign. Only a king is sovereign and conformity with Heaven’s ritual order is the responsibility of an educated political and economic elite, which is charged with the duty of acting as parents to the people, who in turn are obliged to submit.” 

This argument sheds an interesting light on my recent essay on “Recovering Piety.” 

keeping things on my chest

Perhaps the key theme in C. S. Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man is his emphasis on the importance, in much classical and almost all medieval thought, of the chest as the seat, the location, of our moral intuitions and convictions. Our mind cognizes and analyzes, the rest of our body simmers with passionate humors, but the chest synthesizes thought and impulse and converts that synthesis into meaningful moral action. 

One of the chief appeals of social media, for many of us, is the ease with which we can “get something off our chest.” But maybe there are feelings and convictions that ought to remain on our chest, even if their presence burns us. 

I should put my cards on the table here: In the past week we have, in multiple ways, seen the pervasive moral corruption of the socially-conservative and at-least-nominally-Christian world of which I have been a part (though an often discontented and uncomfortable part) most of my life. It is impossible for any fair-minded person to deny that that world has surrounded itself with a vast fortress of lies within which it hopes to take refuge: lies about the 2020 election, lies about immigrants to the USA, lies about its own commitments to “traditional morality,” lies about its adherence to biblical authority, lies about its embodiment of genuine masculinity. From within that fortress the cry continually comes forth, The woke libtards are trying to destroy us! — to which the most reasonable reply is: You’re destroying yourselves faster than any external enemies ever could.  

And that’s as far as I’m going to go by way of getting anything off my chest. I could certainly continue the denunciations, and continue at great length — there’s no shortage of material. But I don’t want to consume my anger and pain by shoveling them into a red-hot social-media furnace. Denunciations do no good. 

I want to keep my anger and pain close to me, inside me, even though it hurts, and find some proper outlet for them — as I say, to synthesize my thoughts and my feelings into meaningful moral action. 

On this blog I will continue to focus my attention on praising the praiseworthy and celebrating the good, the true, and the beautiful, because that’s my calling, that’s my lane. As Bob Dylan once said, “There’s a lot of things I’d like to do. I’d like to drive a race car on the Indianapolis track. I’d like to kick a field goal in an NFL football game. I’d like to be able to hit a hundred-mile-an-hour baseball. But you have to know your place.” And my place, vocationally speaking, is not to be a politician or a pundit. It is, rather, to invite my readers to join with me in a quest to repair the world — from the inside of us out, as it were. To change hearts; to heal and strengthen the seat of our affections.  

But that doesn’t mean that I can take no political or social action in response to the pervasive corruption I see and lament. I am asking myself some questions that I think all of us would do well to ask in these times: If there were no social media — no Twitter, no Facebook, no blogs even — what would I do? Whom would I seek to address and how would I address them? Would I use words only, or would I take action? And if the latter, what would proper action be? Imagine that all the familiar means of “getting things off my chest” were denied to me — what would I do then? 

In the coming days I will be pondering those questions. And meanwhile, on this blog, regular service will resume next week. 

my business

That said, I’m not sure that this is an issue we need to spend too much time on. The genuinely Christian view is, it seems to me, both longer and narrower. And maybe it’s not just Christians who need to think this way. I like to remind myself of this passage from Voltaire’s Candide

In the neighborhood there was a very famous dervish who was considered the best philosopher in Turkey; they went to consult him; Pangloss was the spokesman and said to him: “Master, we have come to ask you to tell us why such a strange animal as man was ever created.” 

“What are you meddling in?” said the dervish. “Is that your business?” 

“But, Reverend Father,” said Candide, “there is a horrible amount of evil on earth.” 

“What does it matter,” said the dervish, “whether there is evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, is he bothered about whether the mice in the ship or comfortable or not?” 

“Then what should we do?” said Pangloss.

“Hold your tongue,” said the dervish.

I’m pretty much with the dervish about this, but because as far as I can tell, Christ’s call upon my life is essentially the same regardless of whether I think that current conditions are propitious or not. You people can keep debating these things if you want, but I have a couple of gardens to tend. 

a story

In my first years at Wheaton College I had a colleague named Julius Scott. (He retired in 2000 and died in 2020. R.I.P.) Julius was a New Testament scholar, but earlier in life, in the 1960s, had been a Presbyterian pastor in Mississippi. He was raised in rural Georgia and loved the South, but he knew a good deal about our native region’s habitual sins also, and as the Civil Rights movement grew stronger and stronger, he understand that he had a reckoning to make. So he did. 

After much prayer and study of Scripture, he decided that nothing could be more clear in Scripture, and nothing more foundational to Christian anthropology, than the belief that each and every human being is made in the image of God; that every human being is my neighbor; and that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is required of us all. Julius could not, therefore, avoid the conclusion that the Jim Crow laws common to the Southern states were incompatible with the Christian understanding of what human beings are and who our neighbors are; but even if those laws proved impossible to dislodge, and even if his pastoral colleagues thought them defensible, it was surely, certainly, indubitably necessary for all churches to welcome every one of God’s children who entered their doors, and to welcome them with open arms, making no distinction on the basis of race. When his presbytery — gathering of pastors in his region — next met, Julius felt that he had to speak up and say what he believed about these matters. 

He did; and thus he entered into a lengthy season of hellish misery. He was prepared for the condemnation and shunning he received from almost every other member of the presbytery; what he wasn’t prepared for was what happened when word of his speech got out to the general public, I believe through a newspaper article: an ongoing barrage of threats against his life and the lives of his wife and children. For years, he told me, he had to sleep — and sleep came hard — with a loaded gun under his bed; the fear for his family didn’t wholly abate until he left Mississippi. (“I was afraid for my babies,” Julius said, and with those words the tears filled his eyes.) Of course he remained a pariah to most of his colleagues — and even the ones who respected him told him so in private, expressing their agreement with his theological conclusions only on condition that Julius never share their views with anyone else. 

Think about that story for a while. Please understand that it’s not an uncommon one; and please understand, further, that Julius escaped with no worse than shunning and terror because he was white. (If you want to know more about Christians in Mississippi in that era, the persecuted and the persecutors alike, I recommend Charles Marsh’s book God’s Long Summer. And if you want to know what life in that era was like in Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up, read Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home.) 

Now: the next time you’re tempted to say that American Christians today experience hostility unprecedented in our nation’s history, and can escape condemnation only if they bow their knee to the dominant cultural norms; that it didn’t used to be like that, that decades ago no American Christian had to be hesitant about affirming the most elementary truths of the Christian faith — the next time you’re tempted to say all that, please, before you speak, remember Julius Scott. 


I want to connect a post of mine from five years ago — 

There are always questions. Which ones arise — that’s not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the questions that are presented to us. My one consistent position in all these matters is to resist taking the nuclear option of excommunication. It is the strongest censure we have, and therefore one not to be invoked except with the greatest reluctance. Further, I don’t think the patience that St. Paul commands is to be exhausted in a few years, or even a few decades. We need to learn to think in larger chunks of time, and to consider the worldwide, not just the local American and Western European, context. Many of us tend to think that, if we haven’t convinced someone after a few tweets and blog posts, we can be done with them and the questions they bring. But the time-frame of social media is not the time-frame of Christ’s Church.

— with a post of mine from ten days ago

So it turns out that “the economic way of looking at life” – which is pretty much the American way of looking at life, and certainly the Silicon Valley way – means that you think of time as a scarce consumable resource. Which is indeed how most of us, it seems, think about time, and that, in turn, is why we might experience the idea of traveling at the speed of God as not just wrong but, more, offensive – a failure to maximize consumption.

Breaking that habit of thought, and imagining how to move at the speed of God – these are real and vital challenges. Maybe the first thing we need to learn how to repair is our disordered sense of time — time is not a scarce resource but rather a gift. 

Increasingly I am convinced that we can’t make the changes we need to make — and I’m thinking not just of Christians, but also of all members of our current social order — until we reset our understanding and experience of time.

I even wonder whether the problem I posted about earlier today — what seems to me our increasing reluctance to pursue common rules for the social order, our disdain for proceduralism — is an outgrowth of a diseased experience of time. If we knew, if we really knew, that the people we despise are going to be our neighbors for the rest of our lives, then maybe we’d see the value in coming to some sort of procedural agreement with them before the shooting begins

But then the shooting has already begun, hasn’t it? 

points that don’t need to be belabored

We know — we all know

  • That people impose standards on their Outgroup that they never impose on their Ingroup.
  • That politicians do 180º turns on any and every issue, depending on which party controls Congress or the Presidency, or on what direction the Supreme Court seems to be leaning. (A quarter-century ago, when SCOTUS was left-dominated, the right complained about “the judicial usurpation of politics”; now that the composition of the court has changed, it’s the left making precisely the same complaint.) 
  • That people forgive politicians or actors or writers they approve of for sins that they vociferously condemn when committed by their cultural enemies.
  • That people denounce “cancel culture” when someone they approve of is being hounded but call precisely the same behavior “accountability culture” when they’re hounding someone they hate. 
  • That the most inconsistent people in earth will furiously denounce their political enemies for inconsistency. 

We know all that now, we don’t need to keep pointing it out. We also know that pointing it out won’t change anyone’s behavior. So what’s next? What’s the next step, socially and politically, if a common standard for all is no longer on the table? 

The coming food catastrophe | The Economist:

By invading ukraine, Vladimir Putin will destroy the lives of people far from the battlefield — and on a scale even he may regret. The war is battering a global food system weakened by covid-19, climate change and an energy shock. Ukraine’s exports of grain and oilseeds have mostly stopped and Russia’s are threatened. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories. Wheat prices, up 53% since the start of the year, jumped a further 6% on May 16th, after India said it would suspend exports because of an alarming heatwave.

The widely accepted idea of a cost-of-living crisis does not begin to capture the gravity of what may lie ahead. António Guterres, the un secretary general, warned on May 18th that the coming months threaten “the spectre of a global food shortage” that could last for years. The high cost of staple foods has already raised the number of people who cannot be sure of getting enough to eat by 440m, to 1.6bn. Nearly 250m are on the brink of famine. If, as is likely, the war drags on and supplies from Russia and Ukraine are limited, hundreds of millions more people could fall into poverty. Political unrest will spread, children will be stunted and people will starve.

Mr Putin must not use food as a weapon. Shortages are not the inevitable outcome of war. World leaders should see hunger as a global problem urgently requiring a global solution. 

It’s hard to imagine anything more important for the world’s governments to focus on. I doubt that they will; I pray that they will. 

The Incapable States of America? – Helen Dale:

State capacity is a term drawn from economic history and development economics. It refers to a government’s ability to achieve policy goals in reference to specific aims, collect taxes, uphold law and order, and provide public goods. Its absence at the extremes is terrifying, and often used to illustrate things like “fragile states” or “failed states.” However, denoting calamitous governance in the developing world is not its only value. State capacity allows one to draw distinctions at varying levels of granularity between developed countries, and is especially salient when it comes to healthcare, policing, and immigration. It has a knock-on effect in the private sector, too, as business responds to government in administrative kind.

Think, for example, of Covid-19. The most reliable metric — if you wish to compare different countries’ responses to the pandemic — is excess deaths per 100,000 people over the relevant period. […] 

The US has the worst excess death rate in the developed world (140 per 100,000). Australia has the best: -28 per 100,000. Yes, you read that right. Australia increased its life expectancy and general population health during the pandemic. So did Japan, albeit less dramatically. The rest of the developed world falls in between those two extremes: Italy and Germany are on 133 and 116 per 100,000 respectively, with the UK (109 per 100,000) doing a bit better. France and Sweden knocked it out of the park (63 and 56 per 100,000 excess deaths). 

Dale’s takeaway: “Americans are individually charming and pleasant people who deploy their wits to get around a state that doesn’t work.” 

pandemic and biopower

“Permanent Pandemic,” by Justin E. H. Smith:

When I say the regime, I do not mean the French government or the U.S. government or any particular government or organization. I mean the global order that has emerged over the past, say, fifteen years, for which COVID-19 served more as the great leap forward than as the revolution itself. The new regime is as much a technological regime as it is a pandemic regime. It has as much to do with apps and trackers, and governmental and corporate interests in controlling them, as it does with viruses and aerosols and nasal swabs. Fluids and microbes combined with touchscreens and lithium batteries to form a vast apparatus of control, which will almost certainly survive beyond the end date of any epidemiological rationale for the state of exception that began in early 2020.

The last great regime change happened after September 11, 2001, when terrorism and the pretext of its prevention began to reshape the contours of our public life. Of course, terrorism really does happen, yet the complex system of shoe removal, carry-on liquid rules, and all the other practices of twenty-first-century air travel long ago took on a reality of its own, sustaining itself quite apart from its efficacy in deterring attacks in the form of a massive jobs program for TSA agents and a gold mine of new entrepreneurial opportunities for vendors of travel-size toothpaste and antacids. The new regime might appropriately be imagined as an echo of the state of emergency that became permanent after 9/11, but now extended to the entirety of our social lives, rather than simply airports and other targets of potential terrorist interest. 

An absolutely brilliant, disturbing, essential essay — to be considered in light of certain reflections by Giorgio Agamben. From later in the essay: 

There is no question that changes of norms in Western countries since the beginning of the pandemic have given rise to a form of life plainly convergent with the Chinese model. Again, it might take more time to get there, and when we arrive, we might find that a subset of people are still enjoying themselves in a way they take to be an expression of freedom. But all this is spin, and what is occurring in both cases, the liberal-democratic and the overtly authoritarian alike, is the same: a transition to digitally and al- gorithmically calculated social credit, and the demise of most forms of community life outside the lens of the state and its corporate subcontractors.

I’m annotating this in detail — and by the by, there ought to be a better way for me to share my annotations. You can do some cool stuff with Hypothesis, but not all the things I want and need. Maybe more on those wants and needs in another post, but for now, back to my PDF of Smith’s terrific essay. 


Ft 2021 08 20 viewsofinstitutions 02a png

Story here. See also my essay on the need to recover the virtue of piety in order to restore institutions. But we have a really bad feedback loop here: as our institutions become more explicitly committed to leftish values, or what pass for leftish values these days, then Republicans and conservatives grow more alienated from them; but it’s also true that those institutions became more committed to leftish values because Republicans and conservatives were already disinclined to invest trust and energy in them. So we’re in a kind of death spiral here and I don’t see a way out of it.

Also: the fact that Republicans have a positive opinion of churches doesn’t mean that they are willing to serve and strengthen churches. Opinions are cheap, service is costly.

Michael L. Budde

This book is not an attempt to convince people that Jesus would prefer his followers not to use lethal force, even for a good cause. Instead, in many of the chapters that follow, I aim to give Christians a taste of what they’re buying when they affirm the legitimacy of even a little bit of lethal force, even in the most reasonable of cases. They want a Christ that allows them to kill, so I’m giving them especially that, especially when they think they’re affirming something else. 


Ross’s prediction and mine

Ross Douthat:

I will make a prediction: Within not too short a span of time, not only conservatives but most liberals will recognize that we have been running an experiment on trans-identifying youth without good or certain evidence, inspired by ideological motives rather than scientific rigor, in a way that future generations will regard as a grave medical-political scandal.

I think this prediction will partly, but not wholly, come true. I do believe that there will be a change of direction, but for the most part it will be a silent one, an unspoken course correction; and on the rare occasions that anyone is called to account for their recklessness, they’ll say, as a different group of enthusiasts did some decades ago, “We only did what we thought was best. We only believed the children.” But they won’t have to say it often, because the Ministry of Amnesia will perform its usual erasures; and even the children who have been sacrificed on the altar of their parents’ religion, metaphysical capitalism, may not recognize or remember what was done to them.

The same will be true of those who suffer the various derangements in what passes for the Right today. People will later briefly wonder at “all that happened to us, around us, and by us” — but then a notification will hit their phone and the wondering will cease. And the demonic realm will persist in its sleepless labor.

I’ll be back after Easter.

waiting for persuasion

Leon Wieseltier’s long essay on postliberal Catholic integralists, or whatever we should call them, is a mixture of the insightful and the dismissive. (When he writes, “The difference between theology and philosophy is that philosophy inspects the foundations, whereas theology merely builds on them,” that just tells you how little theology he has read.) Mainly Wieseltier demonstrates how different the integralists’ core commitments are from his — but then we knew that already, didn’t we? 

In “Vespers,” the fifth of Auden’s “Horae Canonicae,” the poet imagines a brief crossing-of-paths in the city, at dusk: he, the nostalgic Arcadian, passes his “antitype,” the Utopian. “When lights burn late in the Citadel,” the poet thinks, “Were the city as free as they say, after sundown all her bureaus would be huge black stones”; but the Utopian thinks, “One fine night our boys will be working up there.” The integralists are in this sense Utopian: they think of power chiefly to long for it. 

They tell us what they’ll do when their boys occupy the Citadel; but what they never tell us, as far as I have been able to discover, is how they plan to get there. It’s perhaps understandable that they’re not trying to persuade Leon Wieseltier; but they’re not even trying to persuade me. They’re just talking to one another. Were they ever to begin seeking allies I might well pay close attention; but not until.