The Public Square
Egalitarian protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, every functional society has a class composed of those who wield concentrated political and economic power and who set its manners, or lack thereof. Within that class, different people do different things, and the most important thing that is done is the minting and marketing of the ideas by which people try to make sense of their lives.
Ruling class is the old-fashioned term, and happy the society in which the members of the ruling class wrap their preeminence in the language of equality and the goal of universal self-governance. In his last book, the late Christopher Lasch depicted the unhappy circumstance of our last several decades as a “betrayal of the elites.” The elites, he said, have come to define democracy not in terms of self-governance but of upward mobility. In this view, the promise of democracy is the prospect of rising above the people to join the elites concentrated in government, the university, and the media.
We now have a quite new phenomenon in the history of the republic: two radically isolated sectors of the population, the underclass and the overclass. Both are in an adversarial posture toward the great majority of Americans, the overclass by virtue of ambition and unbounded self- esteem, the underclass by virtue of social incompetence and anomie. Between the two there is a fearful symmetry on many scores, but their service to each other is far from equal.
Although it goes back before the 1960s, the pattern then became more overt by which the overclass exploited the disadvantaged of the underclass to greatly expand their own rule. To be fair, they did not think they were exploiting the poor. And, in fact, the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956 through the rise of the black power movement in the early sixties was a rare instance in which elite advocacy on behalf of the disenfranchised and against entrenched custom enhanced the measure of justice in American life. That civil rights movement was, with considerable right, portrayed as a moment of moral luminosity, and the overclass has been basking in its afterglow for almost forty years. The principle seemed established for a time that the elites possessed their power, and were justly ambitious for more power, by virtue of their moral status as champions of the oppressed. The luminosity of that moment, however, was not sufficient to cast the light of moral legitimacy on all the causes that subsequently would be included in the great cause of all causes called Social Justice.
Upon consideration, most Americans declined the proposal that we should make permanent peace with communism (a.k.a. coexistence), were decidedly cool to the idea that marriage and motherhood are forms of slavery, deemed the drug culture a pathetic addiction, did not agree that religion in the classroom violated sacred rights, and persisted in viewing homosexuality as a perversion both pitiable and repugnant. They were unattracted by a cultural liberation that brought us crack houses, glory holes, and needle parks; and found themselves unable to follow the logic of replacing, by means of quotas, racial and sexual discrimination with racial and sexual discrimination. Most important, and despite the sustained barrage of decades of propaganda, Americans stubbornly refused to believe that the unlimited license to kill unborn children constituted a great leap forward in our understanding of human dignity. As if that were not enough, it had become evident by the 1970s that the social programs issuing from the civil rights movement had turned in very nasty ways upon the very people they were intended to help, resulting in an urban and chiefly black underclass of pathologies unbounded.
Clearly the moral mandate claimed from that now distant moment of luminosity had run out. The political notice that its date of expiration had passed was decisively given in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, although the notice was evident enough in the rejection of George McGovern eight years earlier. Mr. Clinton captured the White House, albeit with a minority of voters, because, like all successful presidential candidates after l964, he ran as a conservative, and because George Bush apparently stopped running when apprised of the probability that he was not to be reelected by acclamation. But let us not be distracted by politics.
The fact is that we now find ourselves with two alienated classes. It is alienation that distinguishes today’s overclass from the ruling classes of the past. A ruling class that discreetly disguised its role in deference to democratic sensibilities was by most Americans thought to be bearable and even admirable, especially as its privileges were thought to be derived from breeding and achievement. The overclass is something else. As the word suggests, it is marked by an overbearing quality; it presents itself as being over and against the American people but is quite unable to give any good reasons for its pretensions to superiority.
The encouraging thing is that an overclass cannot sustain itself as a ruling class because it offers no argument for its right to rule. Assumed superiority is not an argument. The overclass that emerged from the 1960s deconstructed the moral foundations of its current privilege by its relentless attack on all traditional justifications of privilege. Proponents of permanent revolution are hard put to call for a pause in the revolution in order to allow them to savor their triumph. They cannot recall from the political culture the passions and prejudices which they employed in overthrowing the establishment, and by which they are now being overthrown. Today’s moment of populist insurrection is commonly called traditionalist, but it is in large part a continuation of the revolution of the sixties, now directed against the revolutionaries of the overclass who seized the commanding heights of culture.
Their perch on the heights is most precarious. In ways beyond numbering, Americans are railing at the governmental, media, and university elites, declaring that they have had enough and are not going to take it anymore. Rather than perching on the heights, it may be more accurate to say that these elites have retreated to protective enclaves in search of refuge against an angry and ungrateful populace. There they find solace among their own kind. In undisturbed caucus they propound the true socialism that has been betrayed by every socialism tried; their network anchorpersons sound nightly alarums against the ascendant fascism of Christian conservatives; and they churn out unreadable academic deconstructions of elitism, turning a blind eye to the elite that they are. Or the elite that for one shining moment”a Camelot, so to speak”they thought themselves to be. But now the enclaves are shadowed by the suspicion that they are only talking to themselves. Outside, the barbarians are taking over.
The antielitist elite of the overclass finds itself in a galling quandary. It was no big news that Harvard hated America; the best and the brightest have always been prone to indulging a measure of contempt for the generality of mankind. The new twist is that America hates Harvard because Harvard despises what Harvard is supposed to represent”scholarship, honesty, and manners worthy of emulation. America is in rebellion against an overclass that has systematically trashed the values by which a ruling class can justly claim the right to rule. (Which, of course, does not stop many young Americans from wanting to join the overclass, also by way of Harvard.)
In addition to the inherent incoherence of anti-elitist elitism, the overclass attempted something quite new that has not worked and almost certainly cannot work. Looking back on the ruins of the glory that was Rome (his Camelot, so to speak), Gibbon, with a grandiloquence equal to his prodigious bigotry, blamed “the barbarians and religion.” The same combination of barbarians and religion is blamed by today’s overclass for its decline and impending fall. Both history and common sense suggest that there is no sustainable rule without religion. Not necessarily this religion or that, but religion in the sense of religare , of ideas and traditions that bind people together, that evoke the communal adherence we call loyalty. Being itself loyal to nothing, the overclass cannot evoke loyalty.
One cannot hold the commanding heights without commanding truths, and it was by the rejection of commanding truths that the overclass seized the heights in the first place. In the absence of truths, or even of the possibility of truth, the overclass, led by such as Richard Rorty, wanly sings the praises of “ironic liberalism,” and tries not to notice that the choir gets smaller and smaller. They mint and try to market ideas that no sensible person would want to live by; their cultural coinage is rejected as being backed by nothing-literally nothing, as the debonair nihilists who issue it readily confess, indeed, as they incessantly boast.
So this is the new thing about the overclass: it does not so much want to rule as to be admired for having exposed the fraudulence of rule. At the same time, of course, it does want to rule. At least, if somebody must rule”and in the nature of things, somebody must”the members of the overclass, while denying in principle anything that might be called the nature of things, has a decided preference for ruling rather than being ruled. Especially if the alternative is the rule of barbarians and religion, meaning the American people.
Rulers of the past produced various warrants for their rule. There was, for instance, the divine right of kings. Gibbon and his philosophe friends contended that the religion of the Enlightenment provided a rationalist access to truth that superseded the dark ages before their arrival. More recently, Marxist masters were legitimated by putatively scientific appeal to the dialectic of history. Here in America, a ruling class that bore some similarities to the current overclass located its right to rule in its calling to reeducate the commoners. John Dewey and his acolytes recognized that Americans could not be weaned from religion except by a more attractive religion, and so Dewey proposed his Common Faith of Democracy, frankly presented as the religion of humanism, only to discover that Americans were incorrigibly attached to the antique truths of Sinai and Calvary. In bitter disillusionment, the heirs of Dewey resolved that, if they could not impose their religion, they would expunge religion altogether from our public life, and especially from the schools.
Whether called the knowledge class, the new class, or the overclass, today it is tottering, and it knows it. The campaign of liberation from the traditional meanings that give life meaning met with such popular hostility that some of the overclass had second thoughts. From out of one defensive enclave rode a paladin of high spiritual purpose proposing nothing less than a “politics of meaning.” A puzzled populace, not knowing what was meant by meaning but recognizing the politics, politely declined the proposal. The politics may be disguised for the nonce, and there may be another election or two to be won, but the rule of the overclass is drawing to a close.
A generation that was born, nursed, and reared by the overclass, that never knew anything but the overclass, must finally fall back upon sounding a final trumpet for the nostrum that first roused it to political consciousness: The American people want change! The American people warmly agree. And so it was, future historians will note, that the overclass rode off into the sunset astride the weary old charger named Change, the very horse on which it had arrived.
This year’s John Courtney Murray Lecture was delivered by John A. Coleman, S.J., of Berkeley. I have a fondness for that lectureship, since it provided the occasion for my first setting forth the thesis of “the naked public square.” Father Coleman impressively builds on that argument with his examination of religiously based activism in the public square. He looks at groups as diverse as Habitat for Humanity, Bread for the World, and Focus on the Family, noting that even secular analysts acknowledge that the preponderance of citizen action in this country is rooted in communities of religious faith.
Coleman’s reflection is somewhat weakened by a failure to note all the ways in which voluntary groups can undermine their own genius. He does mention the problem of business executives in Habitat for Humanity who urge that home building might be done more efficiently by depending less on volunteers. Neglected, however, is the way in which other activist groups become instruments of governmental expansion. Many years ago, Arthur Simon and I-both Lutheran pastors at the time”planned the launching of Bread for the World. During the years that Art was president and I was on the executive committee, I believe Bread did great good in alerting Christians to the problems of world hunger. Eventually, however, the organization became less an instrument of citizen action in response to human need than yet another liberal pressure group lobbying for increased government spending. While continuing to respect Art Simon and many others involved, I was reluctantly forced to the conclusion that, on both domestic and international policies, Bread had become a part of the problem. Fr. Coleman rightly notes the ways in which voluntarism can be undone by corporate entanglements, but his analysis would be strengthened by attention to the equal or even greater threat of entanglement with government.
The burden of Coleman’s lecture, however, is to underscore the continuing problems of the naked public square. He sharply criticizes theorists such as Harvard’s John Rawls who contend that religious discourse can have no legitimate place in public debate. Philosopher Robert Audi of the University of Nebraska has urged that religiously motivated citizens should practice “epistemic abstinence.” Respect for nonbelievers, he contends, requires that believers who address public policy questions should refrain from appealing to identifiably religious arguments. Coleman strongly objects to this “gag rule” on religion in public. He cites Sanford Levinson, law professor at the University of Texas: “Why doesn’t liberal philosophy give everyone an equal right, without engaging in any version of epistemic abstinence, to make his or her arguments, subject to the prerogative of listeners to reject the arguments, should they be unpersuasive-which will be the case, almost by definition, with arguments that are not widely accessible or are otherwise marginal.”
A critic who attended this year’s John Courtney Murray lecture complained that it offered no theoretical advance on arguments that are now familiar, but that strikes me as unfair. As Dr. Johnson observed, we have a greater need to be reminded than to be instructed. John A. Coleman renders an important service by reminding us of the perduring power of the bigotries that would exclude religion from public discourse, and by lifting up once again the importance of voluntarism and mediating institutions to the vitality of American democracy. It is not a valid complaint to say that it was said before, even in the forum of the John Courtney Murray lecture. One might as well complain that Tocqueville said most of it 160 years ago. The point is that it needs to be said again and again, and we should be grateful to Fr. Coleman for taking on that necessary, and necessarily modest, task.
Fifty years after Winston Churchill gave his famous “iron curtain” speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Lady Thatcher addressed the state of the world on the same spot. (She noted that the earlier speech was not well received at the time. “To judge by the critics you would have imagined that it was not Stalin but Churchill who had drawn down the iron curtain.”) Curiously, the Thatcher speech received almost no attention in the national press, so here are some important pieces of it.
She compares 1946 and 1996: “Today we are at what could be a similar watershed. The long twilight struggle of the Cold War ended five years ago with complete victory for the West and for the subject peoples of the Communist empire-and I very much include the Russian people in that description. It ended amid high hopes of a New World Order. But those hopes have been grievously disappointed. Somalia, Bosnia, and the rise of Islamic militancy all point to instability and conflict rather than cooperation and harmony.”
The aftermath of communism’s collapse is, to put it gently, problematic: “Like a giant refrigerator that had finally broken down after years of poor maintenance, the Soviet empire in its collapse released all the ills of ethnic, social, and political backwardness which it had frozen in suspended animation for so long . . . . The moral vacuum created by communism in everyday life was filled for some by a revived Orthodox Church, but for others by the rise in crime, corruption, gambling, and drug addiction”all contributing to a spreading ethic of luck, a belief that economic life is a zero-sum game, and an irrational nostalgia for a totalitarian order without totalitarian methods.”
Much of Lady Thatcher’s concern was aimed at nuclear proliferation: “The Soviet collapse has also aggravated the single most awesome threat of modern times: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These weapons”and the ability to develop and deliver them”are today acquired by middle-income countries with modest populations such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria”acquired sometimes from other powers like China and North Korea, but most ominously from former Soviet arsenals, or unemployed scientists, or from organized criminal rings, all via a growing international black market.” She held up the prospect that, by the end of this decade, we may see twenty countries with ballistic missiles, nine with nuclear weapons, ten with biological weapons, and up to thirty with chemical weapons of mass destruction.
Her view of the Islamic insurgency is grim: “Within the Islamic world the Soviet collapse undermined the legitimacy of radical secular regimes and gave an impetus to the rise of radical Islam. Radical Islamist movements now constitute a major revolutionary threat not only to the Saddams and Assads but also to conservative Arab regimes, who are allies of the West. Indeed they challenge the very idea of a Western economic presence. Hence, the random acts of violence designed to drive American companies and tourists out of the Islamic world.”
With the end of the automatic Soviet veto, some thought the UN (“multilateralism”) would be the way to order the world. “Of course, there was always a fair amount of hypocrisy embedded in multilateralist doctrine. The Haiti intervention by U.S. forces acting under a United Nations mandate, for instance, was defended as an exercise in restoring a Haitian democracy that had never existed; but it might be better described in the language of Clausewitz as the continuation of American immigration control by other means. But honest multilateralism without the spur of national interest has led to intervention without clear aims.”
One reasonable response to the new world disorder, she suggests, is an effective ballistic missile defense (Reagan’s much scorned “star wars”), which is receiving more respectful attention these days. The contribution of such a defense is at least five-fold: “First and most obviously it promises the possibility of protection if deterrence fails; or if there is a limited and unauthorized use of nuclear missiles. Second, it would also preserve the capability of the West to project its power overseas. Third, it would diminish the dangers of one country overturning the regional balance of power by acquiring these weapons. Fourth, it would strengthen our existing deterrent against a hostile nuclear superpower by preserving the West’s powers of retaliation. And fifth, it would enhance diplomacy’s power to restrain proliferation by diminishing the utility of offensive systems.” Without that and other constructive measures, the next century may see a repeat of “1914 played on a somewhat larger stage.”
“That need not come to pass if the Atlantic Alliance remains as it is today: in essence, America as the dominant power surrounded by allies which generally follow its lead. Such are the realities of population, resources, technology, and capital that if America remains the dominant partner in a united West, and militarily engaged in Europe, then the West can continue to be the dominant power in the world as a whole.” NATO, she believes, should be expanded to include Poland, Hungary, and other Central European countries, and a new “Atlantic initiative” should bind Europe and the U.S. diplomatically, militarily, and economically.
On transatlantic economics she says: “I realize that this may not seem the most propitious moment in American politics to advocate a new trade agreement. But the arguments against free trade between advanced industrial countries and poor Third World ones”even if I accepted them, which I do not”certainly do not apply to a transatlantic free trade deal. Such a trade bloc would unite countries with similar incomes and levels of regulation. It would therefore involve much less disruption and temporary job loss”while still bringing significant gains in efficiency and prosperity. . . . And it would create a trade bloc of unparalleled wealth (and therefore influence) in world trade negotiations.” Harking back to the days when people spoke more easily about a “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S., Lady Thatcher declared: “But it is the West”above all perhaps, the English-speaking peoples of the West”that has formed that system of liberal democracy which is politically dominant and which we all know offers the best hope of global peace and prosperity. In order to uphold these things, the Atlantic political relationship must be constantly nurtured and renewed.”
Of course not everyone will be persuaded by Lady Thatcher’s diagnosis and prescription for world affairs, but she is one of the most lucid and cant-free political figures on the world stage today, and what she said at Fulton deserves much more attention than it received. Particularly refreshing is her unabashed belief that the cause of freedom is, above all, a moral enterprise.
In politics it matters a lot who gets described as “mainstream” and who as “extreme.” And, of course, the media do the describing. Politicians who “defend a woman’s right to choose” are mainstream. Those who would “ban abortion” are extreme. A new national survey by the Tarrance Group shows that only 13 percent of Americans favor unrestricted access to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. That is the “mainstream” position. Fifty-two percent of Americans favor the outlawing of all abortions, or all abortions except the 1 percent (according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute) performed for rape/incest/life of mother. That is the “extreme” position. Go figure.
Almost any Republican who is “pro-choice” is described as a “moderate.” The new thing is that it is now very widely recognized that, on abortion and much else, the mainstream media are far from the mainstream. “Moderate” and “mainstream” have become synonyms for the L-word that very few practicing politicians dare to use these days. In the last couple of months a number of books by academics have announced the revival of liberalism, but these volumes have about them a sweated tone of desperation. Of course such a revival will almost certainly happen at some point, but not for some years, I expect, and then liberalism redux may bear slight resemblance to the liberalism we have known.
Meanwhile, the increasingly marginal mainstream media will continue to depict as marginal the positions embraced by a majority of Americans. The consoling thing in all this is that the establishment media are not anywhere near so powerful as they, and their critics, claim. The next time you come across inflated claims about the omnipotence of communications in this “media age,” prick the balloon with one word: Abortion. Twenty-three years ago, the establishment media, joined by almost every major institution in the country, unanimously declared that Roe had “settled” the abortion question. In fact, when the history of this period is rightly written, it will tell that Roe , more than any other single factor, radically destabilized our politics, with the result that a surprised and uncomprehending establishment frantically insists that the views of a small and declining minority really do, all appearances and election returns to the contrary, represent “the mainstream.”
Maybe, they think, saying it often enough will make it so. That, combined with vesting their hopes in politicians of the left who campaign as conservatives, may restore the world that was before the “extremists” took over. What choice do such people have, except to admit that, just maybe, they got things wrong. Before doing that, the oracles who anchor the establishment networks and newsrooms will solemnly announce to the world that the American people have simply gone crazy. Not surprisingly, we are already getting books and articles reviving the contention that our constitutional order is in need of a major overhaul. The present system is simply ungovernable. And of course they’re right: It is ungovernable, by them.
Was it Aristotle who said that friendships are formed by shared delights? Or maybe our circulation manager was just making it up. In any event, he has this great idea that you might share your delight in FT by sending us names of family members, friends, and associates to whom we can send a sample issue. Mentioning that it was your idea of course. Reading FT might turn associates into friends, or at least into better-informed associates. Do send us that list soon. Like maybe today?
There is a good deal of talk these days about America’s possibly being in the midst of a fourth Great Awakening”and about the social and political implications of that possibility. Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation recently addressed the 1994 congressional class on this theme, noting that the possible meaning of this historical moment “demands not only public pronouncement, but careful cultivation of our private character and prayerful attention to our personal spiritual lives, as well.” Then an admonition that might well be inscribed on the walls of every congressional office, and other offices, too. “This is not to be undertaken lightly, nor in the spirit of partisanship. We stand in the presence of a power that is not to be trifled with. We invoke a name not to be taken in vain.”
Mother Jones and National Review have in common that they both run ads, including classifieds. Tom Kuntz, a New York Times reporter, did a comparison of ads in “the leading glossy magazines of the two camps,” left and right. In the mean-spirited gag category, NR offers “The Slick Willie Golf Ball”a good lie guaranteed!” MJ proposes, “Wipe that smile off Jesse Helms’ face with high quality toilet tissue.” In help for the lovelorn, NR has an “Ivy League of dating” to meet conservatives from prestige colleges, while MJ has “Le Erotica,” a lesbian network. In the smoking department, NR pushes Rothschilds cigars and MJ has, “The Whole Hemp Catalog of legal cannabis products to stimulate your mind and body.” With respect to hobbies, NR promotes a program to learn to read music and play the piano, while MJ invites readers to order “The Humpback Whale Adoption Kit.” As for higher education, NR offers a Hillsdale College program in free market economics, and MJ touts the John F. Kennedy University Graduate School for Holistic Studies that specializes in “interdisciplinary consciousness studies.” I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to compare Mother Jones and National Review . Is National Review to the right what Mother Jones is to the left? Those on the left might well think so. And I’m not sure that Mr. Kuntz is entirely fair in the ads he selects, but the picture he presents is plausible. It does suggest that the left–right divide is near unbridgeable, and I expect that most Americans are decidedly on the right of it.
Don’t hold it against Stanley Crouch that he got a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. In his case, there really are signs of genius. Crouch, who recently published All-American Skin Game , has an essay in a book of many bright essays, Reinventing the American People , edited by Robert Royal (Eerdmans, 304 pp., $17 paper). He is holding forth in high style against the multiculturalists and their “inclusivism,” which is, Crouch knows, just the old separatist arguments shoddily retreaded. Multiculturalism, of course, is premised upon our all being victims. “The politics of resentment is based most deeply on a denial of individual responsibility. The history of groups, or as the vastly over-estimated W. E. B. DuBois would have it, the history of races, is all. In this regard, the politics of resentment that lies directly behind multiculturalism’ is built on the sense of having been had by some larger external force or by society’ in general. If the resentful one is from a racial minority, the culprit is white racism’; if female, one may blame political testosterone poisoning.’ All of these are variations on the child abuse defense”a dysfunctional family as the root of all wrong. As the comedian Dennis Miller recently observed on his cable show, Thanks to the notion of dysfunction, every zipperhead in this country can tap himself with a Freudian wand and go from failed frog to misunderstood prince.’“ Crouch’s advice is that we not panic in the face of this madness. “Just why has already been laid down by our best writers, musicians, and filmmakers”by people like Constance Rourke, John A. Kouwenhoven, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray. Here is the reality, straight, no chaser: The American is an incontestable mix of blood, style, and tradition. Part Yankee, part frontiersman, part Indian, part Negro, part Hispanic, part Asian, part Christian, part Jew. We hear this in our talk, we see it in the way we walk and the way we laugh, the gestures we use, the facial expressions we pass over ethnic fences, the foods we eat, and even the dreams we have. We will continue to reinterpret our interrelationships, regularly stretching the heroic into the angelic and turning the vile into the demonic. Yet we will continue to respond to each other’s stylization of sensibility. Some narrative will come our way that allows us to be lyrically touched to the quick by an individual superficially unlike us. We will continue to reinvent our diets and make spiritual searches. We are hopeless experimenters and improvisers, just as we are hopeless suckers”never given an even break by those who wish to manipulate us through our curiosity and our willingness to engage in that good old American self-criticism. Not for very long will we be able to accept the visions of the separatists because our history, public and private, has proven to us over and over that we were made for each other. We will sometimes be knocked down to one knee. But we are too shot through with shared personal and historical resonances to separate. We are now and forever Americans, which means that we are in some very specific ways parts of all other peoples. Our culture and our bloodlines are cosmopolitan. No matter how hard we might try, we can’t have it any other way.”
Philip Jenkins, author of Pedophiles and Priests (Oxford University Press), has explained in these pages the various ends to which media sensationalism can be”and, in the case of clergy scandal, has been”employed (“The Uses of Clerical Scandal,” February 1996). Mark Silk reviews Jenkins’ book in the New York Times Book Review and asks if there is something “we can learn from this cultural episode to help keep future panics under control.” More particularly, Silk asks why the news media were so ready to accept the ridiculously exaggerated estimates of clerical misconduct fed them by some experts. His answer: “These days, nothing is more seductive to reporters than the suggestion of a trend, pathological or otherwise. Call it the sociology disease; from the daily newspapers to the newsweeklies to the daytime television talk shows, the search for the trend du jour has become all-consuming. A good social problem’ does provide moral cover for telling lurid stories, but it would be better for journalists to stick to the stories and take the experts with a grain of salt. They too have axes to grind, and there are fewer new things under the sun than are dreamed up in their philosophies.”
“The dissolution of the modern world has come down to the core of the Church.” When the noted historian John Lukacs wakes up in the middle of the night, that’s the kind of thought he thinks. In his powerful memoir Confessions of an Original Sinner , he goes on to reflect that there is a kind of logic, both divine and human, to the corruptio optimi pessima . It would be puzzling to Lukacs if the best were not embroiled in the general decay. “Had the Church remained largely unaffected by the awful crisis of the modern world, this would have meant: a) that the crisis was not really that profound, or b) that the Church would have become ossified, superficially powerful, but only like the ancient monarchies before their fall.” Those of a disposition different from that of Professor Lukacs might welcome evidence that the crisis is not really that profound. But then he discerns something that appears almost hopeful in the midst of the encroaching disaster. The great nineteenth-century historian Jakob Burckhardt, he says, “was probably quite right when he wrote that the Christian feelings of sinfulness and humility were feelings of which the ancient world had not been capable. This was a mutation of consciousness more important, and more profound, than the two great changes of the Modern Age: the development of the scientific method and the evolution of historical consciousness. I often feel that we are on the threshold of another great mutation, for all superficial and dreadful evidences to the contrary notwithstanding, sentiments of sinfulness and humility have not disappeared from the Western world. What has happened is that they have come far from being the near-monopoly of Christians. There exist many animae naturaliter christianae in this world now”whether they are aware of this or not. Perhaps that does not matter. What matters is that they are part and parcel of the evolving Christianization of the world, which includes the movement of mankind toward the end of the world.” That prospect, however, is one of apocalypse more than consummation, for at the end of history, at the Second Coming, “mankind will again be divided between the camps of the Antichrist and the minority belonging to Christ.” All this Professor Lukacs thinks when he wakes up in the middle of the night. Maybe it is what wakes him up. His is a vision of corruption and apocalypse shared by many Christians. He is also a Catholic, and his sense of things rings true to much that John Paul II, for instance, says in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae and elsewhere about the reign of “the culture of death.” But the Lukacs view of history seems incapable of accommodating what John Paul says about “the culture of life,” about the Third Millennium as a “springtime of hope,” about why we should live by the injunction, “Be not afraid.” So is the Pope a cockeyed optimist? I think not. Few people alive have looked so unblinkingly into the face of evil, of all that this century has thrown up in defiance of hope. It is that irrepressible hope, grounded not in personal disposition but in divine promise, that protects against the disposition of world-weariness that wants the crisis to be as irredeemably profound as in our nightmares it appears to be.
From the Revelations Department. According to Catholic Trends , Father Joseph Fitzmyer of St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, gave a paper listing the great benefits the Church has reaped from modern biblical studies. “Third,” he said, “we learn that God’s word did not drop from heaven, in King James English to boot, but that it has come to us from a venerable Jewish and Christian heritage.” I hope you’re ready for that.
I did that little whimsical (I thought) comment on plagiarism, “He Who Steals My Words . . . ,” and the letters are still pouring in. One reader accused me of whining. Several clergy wrote guilt-ridden admissions that they had been “stealing” from the magazine without citing the source, and promised never to do it again. At least two readers sent gotcha missives, noting that I violated my own rules by not giving Shakespeare credit for the title. My response to that is that anybody who didn’t immediately recognize the reference to Shakespeare shouldn’t be reading First Things . That’s a category I failed to mention: citations so familiar that to cite the source is to insult the reader. And one reader supplied this pertinent bon mot from Pascal, for which you might find a use: “Words are like tennis balls”not only were they made to be volleyed back and forth, but the return is often defter than the serve.” And now I promise never to mention plagiarism again, unless unduly provoked.
“St. Mugg” they called him. I met Malcolm Muggeridge only once, shortly after the appearance of the second volume of his magnificent memoirs, Chronicles of Wasted Time . He was as completely charming as his reputation led one to believe. I told him how much I was looking forward to the third volume, and he assured me it was in the works, which is what he told everyone, but it never appeared. According to Richard Ingrams’ Muggeridge (HarperCollins, 264 pp., $27.95
), he never did seriously work on the third volume, and that may be just as well. Ingrams was a friend of Muggeridge, but his biography does not disguise his dislike of the memoir, which, he says, gives the false impression of great continuity in Muggeridge’s thinking over the years. From the early years on, says Ingrams, there was only one very big idea that Muggeridge got right and stayed with”the horror of communism and the hypocrisy of its Western apologists. When, later in life, Muggeridge became a Christian and entered the Catholic Church, he was much celebrated as an apologist for the faith. Some even claimed he was a greater apologist than C. S. Lewis. In a manner friendly but firm, Ingrams insists that Muggeridge was essentially a publicist who lived on his inexhaustible charm, frequently and deliberately giving the impression that he had read and thought about matters a great deal more than was the case. Only those who knew Muggeridge intimately (he died November 14, 1990) can judge the merits of Ingrams’ claim. The undeniable fact is that Muggeridge wrote like an angel, and he had a divine gift for eliciting from others second thoughts about the things that matter most. Now I see that another and much larger biography by Gregory Wolfe is out in England. It will undoubtedly be published here soon, and I will undoubtedly be turning my mind again to the irresistible “St. Mugg.” We old contrarians have to stick together, and those of us blessed with less charm and talent will long be drawing on the master, remembering his maxim that “Only dead fish swim with the tide.”
The baroque period in Catholicism is past. That announcement, however belated, is made by Father Thomas O’Meara of the University of Notre Dame in America , the Jesuit magazine. “Protestant discerners of a Catholic moment,’“ says O’Meara, do not have “much idea about where the Catholic Church stands now in history.” Later on he criticizes “a Lutheran convert who admires the trappings and autocracy of the Vatican bureaucracy of the late nineteenth century.” I wonder who he could be talking about. Just in case, and for the record, I despise autocracy of any century and have a very selective admiration for trappings. Fr. O’Meara begins his article with the wise observation of C. S. Lewis that the period people consider to be full of antiquity is usually the one just before their own. He might have balanced that with the observation that the period people consider to be full of novelty is usually the one that is in its death throes. For instance, Fr. O’Meara’s claim: “A journey from the immediate past alongside modernity into what is new”that is the Catholic destiny.” One may be permitted to suggest that discerners of a “Catholic destiny” that is linked to the fate of modernity do not “have much idea about where the Catholic Church (or the world) stands now in history.”
Christians have been wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount for almost two millennia and nobody’s likely to get the definitive resolution of its moral challenges any time soon. Some proposed resolutions are less believable than others, however. The writer of the homily helper in America , for instance, is a strong opponent of capital punishment and of Christians who support even what he calls “just wars.” He says he was made uneasy about his “facile arguments against capital punishment” when the daughter of a friend of his was murdered in a particularly terrible manner. Great was his relief when his friend told him the family was “trying to convince the prosecutors that we want life imprisonment without parole and not the death penalty. He doesn’t understand that we follow Christ in all this.” The America writer comments that his friend “really aspired to a love made perfect in the Crucified who asked forgiveness for enemies.” As Jesus presumably said on the mount, “If anyone kills your daughter, put him in prison and keep him there for the rest of his life, even if he begs to be killed rather than to suffer such a fate.” There are good arguments against capital punishment. Among them is not the claim that sentencing someone to life imprisonment without parole is the fulfillment of what the Sermon on the Mount says about forgiving enemies.
I haven’t had a chance to get to Walter Wangerin’s The Book of God: The Bible as a Novel (Zondervan), but was struck by the brief review in Publishers Weekly . It said some people will really like what Wangerin has done; “for others, however, the novel will feel like an ornate but pale imitation of a great book.” Envision a Bible publisher putting the blurb on the cover: “A great book” Publishers Weekly .”
“It is perfectly legitimate and even admirable for Americans to promote their personal beliefs through either religious or political processes.” That generous sentiment is offered by former President Jimmy Carter in a column in the Atlanta Journal”Constitution . But Mr. Carter does insist that we must draw the line somewhere, and he thinks he knows just where. “I have in mind more emotional issues: abortion and homosexuality.” Mr. Carter says that “leaders of the highly organized Christian right have injected into America’s political debate some divisive religious questions.” Divisive questions, it seems, tend to generate controversy. “The most vivid examples,” the former President continues, “involve sexual preferences, which obviously have highly personal and emotional overtones.” Obviously. Carter says, “Pressures from the more extreme religious activists have pushed almost every candidate to demagoguery, emphasizing vicious attacks on gay men and women, ostensibly based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.” If we understand him, almost every candidate in this political season”or just Republican candidates? or just Republican presidential candidates?”have advocated vicious attacks on gays in the name of Jesus Christ. We try to stay informed, but clearly we’ve missed something. “We must make it clear,” concludes Mr. Carter, “that a platform of I hate gay men and women’ is not a way to become President of the United States of America.” It is good to have that cleared up, as it is good to be reminded of the apt fit between Mr. Carter’s insightfulness and the office of former President.
But would you want to live with one? Gallup asked teenagers getting ready for college what kind of person they might want to room with. Asked about people belonging to various groups, most teenagers said it would make no difference to them. But 3 percent say they would not want to room with a Christian, 9 percent don’t want a Jewish roommate, 10 percent nix a born-again Christian, 14 percent would be uncomfortable with a member of the religious right, 19 percent say no to a Muslim, and 29 percent prefer not to live with an atheist or agnostic. You figure it out, we just report these things. The teens were also asked, “Have you heard or read anything about the religious right,’ which is sometimes called the Christian right’?” Then they were asked whether they themselves are members of the religious right. It turns out that 42 percent are aware of the religious right and 16 percent say they are members. Now we would like to know whether the 14 percent who would not want to room with a member of the religious right are drawn from the 42 percent who are aware of the religious right. If 16 percent belong to the religious right, that would seem to account for the 12 percent who would like a religious right roommate. And are to we to infer that 4 percent of the religious right do not really like religious righters? Another interesting twist: 16 percent of teenagers who identify themselves as Republican say they are members of the religious right, compared with 24 percent of Democrats. In the same numbers bundle from Gallup, it is noted that church attendance continues to edge upwards. In 1995, 43 percent of adults said they attended church or synagogue in the last seven days. That’s up from 40 percent in 1993. The high, since such figures were kept, was 49 percent in 1958, and the low was 37 percent in 1940. So now you know.
Why not? Some things are unthinkable until much public attention and chatter make them almost commonplace. For instance, suicide was on the decrease from the 1940s until 1980. Then “death with dignity” became a hot topic and suicides increased. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicides among elderly Americans jumped 9 percent from 1980 to 1992. Of course there are more elderly Americans now, but we’re talking about the rate of suicide. Barbara Haight, an expert on elderly suicide, says the rise of the right-to-die movement and people such as Jack Kevorkian has made suicide acceptable to many: “They see it as a solution to their problems.” The rise in suicides also affects young people. Oregon’s state health division reports an all-time record number of suicides since 1994, the year the Hemlock Society successfully lobbied for an assisted-suicide initiative. The increase, boosted by a 26 percent increase in suicides among 15- to 24-year-olds, gave Oregon a suicide rate 37 percent higher than the national average. Some things are unthinkable until, on second thought and many thoughts after that, we are led to ask, Why not?
Herds of independent academic minds congregate at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA), and we thought you might be interested in some of the offerings at the 1996 assembly of the faithful in Washington. There is a panel on “Queering the Renaissance: Comparative Continental Perspectives,” and three panels on “Victorian Sexual Dissidence,” which will address “male–male sexual dissidence,” “female–feminist aestheticism,” and then a subject of particular interest to those who are weary of the conventional, “revisionary decadence.” The thousands of MLA believers will be treated to the usual fare, such as “The Novel, Queer Theory, and Narrativity,” plus “Androgyny and Absolutism: The figure of the androgyne, especially in courtly society, as well as theories of same-sex gender paradigms and their relations to forms of power.” There are hundreds of such items on the program, covering all the things that parents send their children to college to learn. One panel reflects a candor bordering on incorrectness and might be real fun: “Famous Books You Have Not Read. Famous texts you have discussed, evaluated, cited, taught, or bought but have not read. Blurb, acknowledgments, or bibliography scanning as reading. Strong versus weak not reading. General theories, dissimulation strategies, confessions.” Confessions yet. The mandarins of the MLA would be well advised to nip such honesty in the bud before it panics the herd. Dissimulation strategies, once exposed, lose much of their utility, and the idea that teachers should read the texts they teach would put a serious dent in time available for academic conventions. Such radical ideas have no place in an academic association famously devoted to radical ideas.
The Chinese, and Asians more generally, are widely criticized for the overtness of their preference for boy babies over girl babies. But one wonders if that’s so unusual. If, God forbid, we like China had a one-baby-per-couple law, I expect there would be a steep rise in female infanticide. Already, abortion for sex selection in this country results in many more girls than boys being killed in the womb. Long-term readers know that I keep my feminist sympathies in close check, but for years I’ve been following reports on the names people give their children. With the new reports from New York City, San Francisco, Texas, and Florida, the pattern continues. As reflected by the names chosen, people obviously take boys more seriously than girls. In all four places, people give boys-white, black, and Hispanic-names of clear biblical or religious significance. For instance, Michael, Christopher, Anthony, Jonathan, Daniel, John, Joseph, Matthew, David, and Joshua. (In Florida”and oddly enough not in Texas”Tyler and Austin make the top ten.) Girls, on the other hand, get cute, toy-like names, names of jewelry stores and soap stars: Ashley, Jessica, Samantha, Amanda, Nicole, Tiffany, Taylor, Jennifer, and Brittany. Sarah and Rachel make the top ten for white girls. Black girls have it worst, with names such as Jasmine, Brianna, Diamond, Crystal, Amber, and Chelsea (the last is big in Texas). Maria makes the top ten for Hispanic girls, although not in New York City, and not at the very top anywhere, which seems surprising given the Marian devotion in Spanish culture. Think of the great names not chosen: Naomi, Rebecca, Ruth, Anne, Elizabeth, Judith, Teresa, Faith, Hope, and on and on. One need not be a raving feminist to get the message: girls are cute, boys are for real. Of course it is true, girls are cute. But in bestowing a name on a child we say something about heritage and aspiration. We say something about what we hope the child will grow up to be. What is a child to think her parents thought of her when she has to go through life with the name of Crystal, Amber, or Tiffany? So all right, maybe it’s not among the top ten problems in American society, but I can’t squelch the suspicion that it’s not unimportant.
A couple of issues back I wrote this item, “Against Christian Politics,” which touched on the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. A reader of Mennonite persuasion complains that I “postpone the demands of the Sermon until the eschaton.” That’s not quite right, but I do think the eschatological dimension is essential to understanding the Sermon on the Mount, in both its Matthew and Luke versions. In the Christian Century , Garrett E. Paul of Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota comes up with a typology of readings of these endlessly discussed texts. There are four categories of interpretation: “1) The demands are attainable by some and required only of those who can attain them (the Roman Catholic interpretation). 2) The demands are attainable by none but required of all (the Lutheran interpretation). 3) The demands are attainable by and required of all believers (the sectarian interpretation). 4) The demands are identical with the best in all cultures and attainable by the best people in all cultures (the cultural-liberal interpretation).” That’s both interesting and helpful, although he’s wrong to say that the Catholic view is that the demands are “attainable only by priests, monks, and nuns.” Were that the case, there would be no lay saints, when in fact there are thousands officially recognized and innumerable others not recognized. What he calls the Lutheran interpretation, of course, underscores the foundation of Christian existence in the sola fides . Another Catholic way of putting it is that the Sermon presents a way of life that is to be aspired to by all, that by divine grace is attained by some within the limits of a fallen creation, and that will be fully realized in the Kingdom of God. This view takes into account those who aspire to whatever of the good, true, and beautiful is available to them, thus including an aspect of what Garrett Paul calls the “cultural-liberal interpretation.” For all the usefulness of typologies and models in helping us to get alternatives fixed in our minds, they almost inevitably cut corners on the complexity of things. In any event, when Christians stop arguing with one another over the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, we will be in worse trouble than we are.
When Nathan Glazer wrote American Judaism in 1957, he did not invoke the term “Holocaust” even once. One of the great surprises of recent years, says Elliott Abrams, who is soon to publish his own book on the state of American Jewry, is that the Holocaust has become more important to Jewish identity than the Torah, God, or the state of Israel. Abrams, who has succeeded George Weigel as president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., is reviewing a book by Michael Goldberg, Why Should Jews Survive? (Oxford University Press) in which Goldberg deplores the fact that community after community is investing in Holocaust museums and monuments, “flagrantly disregarding the Jewish tradition of avoiding shrines to the dead.” (In his own forthcoming book, Abrams notes some ironies of assimilationism in the monument-building business. For instance, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., is open on Yom Kippur but closed on Christmas Day.) According to Goldberg, the linchpin of Jewish identity must be the covenant with the God of Israel “who sees to the survival of His people.” Why does He do so? Because Jews “are the linchpin in His redemption of the world.” Abrams has considerable sympathy for this more theological understanding of Judaism, and one notes that Goldberg’s essential point has been powerfully made by others, including Michael Wyschogrod, David Novak, and Jacob Neusner. Abrams has little or no sympathy, however, for Goldberg’s anti-Zionism and his suggestion that Jews have forfeited their right to the land of Israel because they have failed to observe the laws of Leviticus regarding the proper treatment of strangers, meaning the Palestinians. American Jewry is in numerical and moral decline, according to Abrams and others, because Jews in America have so largely abandoned any distinctively Jewish reason for being. To the extent that most Jews have anything like a “faith,” it is faith in survivalism and secularism. Goldberg, says Abrams, addresses “questions of some importance that provide material for a wise and thoughtful book.” He reluctantly concludes, “This is not it.”
A great favorite of journalists who do not like the Catholic Church is Bishop Jacques Gaillot, formerly of the French diocese of Evreux. Formerly, because the Pope finally removed him after a long career of highly publicized dissent from Catholic teaching. So here’s a story about him in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik. The bishop got in trouble, we are told, because he took an interest in helping homeless people in Paris. Of course. “Bishop Gaillot is an extraordinarily low-key and gentle man whose parishioners find it hard to picture him in a mitre. He often dresses in mufti-black turtleneck and suit”with a small silver cross in his lapel the only sign of his vocation.” Of course again. But the only reason he is a celebrity among French anticlericalists, and the only reason he is profiled in the New Yorker , is that he is a bishop of the Catholic Church who properly wears a mitre. Otherwise, he would be just another low-key and gentle man who is sorry for poor people, and of no conceivable interest to the likes of Adam Gopnik. His interest is entirely derivative from the office that he appears to scorn and that those who celebrate him make no secret of scorning. This is sometimes called the sterility of dissent, although it has a wondrous way of reproducing itself, and probably always will so long as there is the foil of faithfulness on which it parasitically feeds. I don’t know Bishop Gaillot, and he may be a fine man. But this profile is simply another in a long and tedious succession of confirmations that, to a certain media mindset, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.
Across the political spectrum, there is increasing discontent with an “imperial court””meaning the Supreme Court but also the judiciary more generally”that short circuits the democratic process by arrogating to itself the moral judgments that are the appropriate province of the legislature. Following the maxim that the best defense is an offense, Ronald Dworkin, mandarin of law at Oxford and New York University, says that the Court is the final political arbiter. That truth is now entrenched in “unchallengeable precedent” and alternatives to it “long excluded” by history. So we had better just get used to it. In a new book, Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the Constitution (Harvard University Press), Dworkin challenges those who say that the Court is operating in an “absolutist” or dictatorial fashion, noting that there are social, political, and legal limits on what it can do”at least for the time being. And he is again dismissive of the “originalists,” such as Judge Robert Bork, who say judges are to stick with what the Constitution actually says, and is equally dismissive of revered figures such as Judge Learned Hand who contend that judges should not negate legislative acts with their own reading of “moral principles” they find in the Constitution. Dworkin’s own view is that judges are, quite literally, making it up as they go along, and that is the way it should be. As he puts it, “Judges are like authors jointly creating a chain novel in which each writes a chapter that makes sense as part of the story as a whole.” What is the moral authority of such “moral readings” of the Constitution? What is the constitutional authority for such readings? Isn’t this an antidemocratic denial of “majoritarian political processes”? Those are all very interesting questions, says Dworkin, but quite beside the point. “There is no genuine alternative” to the judge as novelist, he says. Or, if there are alternatives, they have been excluded by “unchallengeable precedent” and “history.” In so boldly throwing down the gauntlet against the foundational presuppositions of democratic governance and republican legitimacy, Ronald Dworkin may elicit a more effective challenge against the imperial judiciary. It is not the service that he intended to render, but it is a service nonetheless.
The superiority of human beings over other animal life is much exaggerated, according to those on the cutting edge, so to speak, of environmental philosophy. Curtis Hancock, professor of philosophy at Rockhurst College, discovered this when invited to participate in a panel at a distinguished university. He soon found himself isolated and besieged. In desperation, he tried an illustration he had learned from Russell Hittinger. “Suppose you’re walking down the street and you discover a house on fire. You rush inside to rescue the inhabitants. You discover there a