• When I started writing “While We’re At It,” using the anonymous corporate “we,” several friends told me they recognized the writing or the humor. Sitting on the couch one evening reading the latest issue of First Things, my wife looked up and said, “I really like the short items at the back. Who writes them?” This is something with which Fr. Neuhaus never had to deal.
• I’m still using the corporate or editorial “we” as the default voice, however, for reasons explained in the last issue.
• There’s a scene in one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in which a dangerous criminal begins to figure out who the disguised Lord Peter really is, and Lord Peter responds by insulting him. Peter’s companion Harriet Vane is terrified. The criminal gets angry and stops looking so closely at the detective, and Peter and Harriet get away. Later he explains to her that people are much less likely to look at you closely when you're insulting them.
Recently the leading “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins told a crowd of earnest atheists gathered for a “Reason Rally” in Washington, D.C., to “mock” religious people and “ridicule them in public.”
• The Economist reports that since 9/11, “Islam in America has flourished. The number of mosques has nearly doubled over the past decade, rising from 1209 in 2000 to 2106 in 2011, according to a new report from a multi-faith coalition.” Seems there is less hostility to American Muslims than is often claimed, and that Americans are more tolerant and more capable of making distinctions than all those elite commentators and politicians who worried about an “Islamophobic backlash” and the like.
• Some battles do get won. An ad emailed by Mother Jones magazine ended with the sales line: “Take a step that’s good for the planet, good for the economy, and good for your sanity!” Good, you’ll notice, for the economy. Just ten years ago, say, or no more than twenty, a company advertising its products to Mother Jones readers would no more have appealed to helping the economy than it would have appealed to the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
Similarly, The Village Voice, in an article about Mitt Romney titled “American Parasite” and subtitled “Mitt Romney’s years at Bain represent everything you hate about capitalism” (they’re not Romney fans), quoted economists who argued in his favor and for private-equity companies like Bain. Not too long ago an article on a rich Republican would not have bothered to find an opposing voice, because such a man was simply wrong, period, end of story.
But then The Village Voice is itself a thoroughly capitalist enterprise, fuss about capitalism on the cover as it may. And indeed, it’s one dependent on one of the most libertarian industries around. The issue in which Romney is attacked for the way he makes money includes six pages of ads for “escort agencies” and “spas.”
• From the English novelist Alice Thomas Ellis (a devout Catholic), a quote parents will understand: “There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don't love anyone.”
• It’s a conservative view of the life of the poor that may strike you as a little romantic. “For all that poverty,” reflects the writer, describing a marketplace in a poor city in the developing world, “there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the dirt. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [American housing projects] so desperate.”
The writer says that he took “such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things.” When he compared them with poor neighborhoods in America, he saw them “for what they were: fragile, precious things,” where very, very poor people “hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young.”
And then follows the sentences with which we began, and then: “It was the loss of that order that made [people in the projects] so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long would it take in this land of dollars? Longer than it took a culture to unravel, I suspected.”
Conservative, and a little romantic, and taken from Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father. Why are liberals like Obama so protective of the traditional life of people in the Third World but so intent on destroying the traditional life deeply rooted in their own countries? Why remember with sympathy the life of the Jakarta marketplace and be so contemptuous of the life of small-town America, with its ignorant people clinging to their guns and religion?
• “Good response, David, as far as it goes,” writes Richard Stith, a professor of law at Valparaiso and a leader in University Faculty for Life, responding to my reply to a critical letter from a reader who seems to have been arguing that intelligence should be considered in rationing health care. “But we should not leave unchallenged the common claim that the market system is a form of health care ‘rationing.’ The market is neutral on human value, whether it is setting prices for orange juice or for health care.”
He is responding, I think, to those who offload their moral and political decisions onto “the market” and pretend their hands are tied when faced with hard decisions. Some of these people who put their faith in the mystical qualities of the market are otherwise serious Christians. But the market only tells you what things cost, not what they mean, and more to the point whether and for whom and for what you ought to pay.
• Some metaphors need to be looked at again. We were warning a professor against writing the “nit-picking” academic type of review, otherwise known as the can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees review, and realized that though “nit-picking” is always used as an insult or criticism, it shouldn’t be. If you have nits, you want them picked.
• Saying no is a way of saying yes, and the more joyfully one says yes the more adamantly should one say no. This seems obvious, but is not always clear to those who treat a care for doctrinal limits as if it were a cover for arrogance, a desire for power, fear of change, etc.
Pope Benedict knows it, as did one of his greatest predecessors among German theologians. “Actually, by nature I’m not spoiling for a fight,” says Karl Barth, being interviewed late in his life for a documentary called Ja und Nein, Karl Barth zum Gedächtnis, which you can find on YouTube. People who knew him when young and becoming famous for his firm and needed “Nein!” to liberal Protestantism did not think him disputatious, he said.
But, he continued, “Someone who forcefully says ‘Yes’ also needs to say ‘No’ with the same vigor. And that is something I did all the time. . . . I said ‘Yes’ and thus also ‘No.’ I always took delight in the matter I presented, whether I argued for it with a ‘Yes” or with a ‘No.’”
Those who were once so quick to dismiss then-Cardinal Ratzinger as “God’s Rottweiler” and “the Panzer Cardinal” missed what seems to less biased minds so clear in his writings and especially in his preaching and teaching: He is a man who delights in God and in what God has done for man. As was, of course, Karl Barth.
• Two views of the Vatican’s correction of the Leadership Council for Women Religious, rather different.
Writing on the weblog of the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills: “Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has taken control of the Conference, writing new laws for it, supplanting its leadership, and banning ‘political’ activity (which is what Rome calls social work). Women are not capable, in the Vatican’s mind, of governing others or even themselves. Is it any wonder so many nuns have left the orders or avoided joining them? Who wants to be bullied?”
Writing on the website of National Review, George Weigel: The congregations are “dying. The years immediately following the Second Vatican Council saw a mass exodus from American convents; and in the four and a half decades since the Council concluded, American Catholic women’s religious life in the LCWR congregations has suffered various forms of theological, spiritual, and behavioral meltdown.” This being the case, he continues,
young Catholic women have quite sensibly decided that, if they wish to do good works or be political activists while dressing like middle-class professionals and living in apartments, there is little reason to bind themselves, even in an attenuated way, to the classic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—each of which has undergone a radical reinterpretation in the LCWR congregations. So the LCWR orders are becoming grayer and grayer, to the point where their demise is, from a demographic point of view, merely a matter of time: perhaps a few decades down the road, absent truly radical renewal. (Meanwhile, the congregations of religious women that have retained the habit, a regular prayer life, and a commitment to Catholic orthodoxy are growing.)
• When the Vatican announced the expected results of its investigation of women’s religious orders in the United States, the sisters of the LCWR and their supporters (Garry Wills clearly among them) reacted with shock, shock that anyone would think the sisters and the conference had any problems at all. It was all the Vatican’s imagination.
We would like to think they were right, having as much affection and respect for nuns as anyone, but this set of nuns gives us reason to wonder. Their annual assembly, for example.
This year’s, scheduled for August, and titled “Mystery Unfolding: Leading in the Evolutionary Now,” features as the keynote speaker a Barbara Marx Hubbard. As unknown to you as she was to us, Hubbard runs the Foundation for Conscious Evolution and offers courses for those who want to be “Agents of Conscious Evolution.” Her website features a poster of “the sacred story of creation” in which man moves from human life as it now is through “the wheel of co-creation” in which we “enter the cosmic mystery together” to something called “universal humanity” and on from there to “infinite potential.”
What exactly this means is, as so often with such enterprises, a little vague, though breathlessly described. And admittedly, the long description of “conscious evolution” on her website invokes Jesus and St. Paul in its defense.
This will give you an idea: “Although we may never know what really happened, we do know that the story told in the Gospels is that Jesus’ resurrection was a first demonstration of what I call the post-human universal person.” The story tells us Jesus didn’t die.
He made his transition, released his animal body, and reappeared in a new body at the next level of physicality to tell all of us that we would do what he did. The new person that he became had continuity of consciousness with his life as Jesus of Nazareth, an earthly life in which he had become fully human and fully divine. Jesus’ life stands as a model of the transition from Homo sapiens to Homo universalis.
One feels, reading this kind of cosmic dingbattery, that rather than evolving with these people one would rather hang out with the unevolving Yankees fans at the pub. (And I say that as a Red Sox fan.)
Anyway, this is the person our supposedly faithful Catholic nuns who only, according to Garry Wills, want to do good things like caring for the poor, if only that bullying, brutish, bad ol’ Vatican would let them, have invited to lead them in their annual meeting.
• Here are a pair of limericks by Ronald Knox, for the philosophers among you, in which Knox offers a summary of Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy (“to be is to be perceived,” as he famously put it):
There once was a man who said, “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad.”
Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.
• That more religious people tend to vote for conservatives and more secular people tend to vote for liberals is not exactly news, but the reason for this is worth pondering. “Politicos on the left and right like to explain religious voters’ proclivity purely in terms of values,” writes Richard Florida on The Atlantic Cities website. “But this misses a central point—that religion is inextricably bound up with the nation’s underlying economic and geographic class divide.”
Florida argues that religion “conforms to the faultiness of socio-economic class across U.S. states, hewing closely to its three key dimensions—income, education, and occupation.” Religiosity is highest in poorer states with high poverty levels, in less-educated states, and in states with more working-class jobs. (He’s careful to note that such correlations do not suggest that either causes the other.)
He’s undoubtedly right about religion and social class, though other data suggest that religiosity rises (at least church attendance does) with income and education. In any case, no one, religious or secular, conservative or liberal, likes to admit that he’s so enmeshed in his world that his thinking follows his economic interests, or that his social class affects how he sees the world. Other people, especially those who disagree with us, yes, certainly, but not us. The modern idea of the completely free intellect is precious to our self-understanding.
Jesus was more realistic, of course, with that remark about camels and needles’ eyes. Not to mention the test the rich young ruler failed. So is the Christian tradition. Gerhard Groote, with Thomas à Kempis one of the founders of the Devotia Moderna, is supposed to have said, “Labor is holy, but business is dangerous.”
• But it says something, we think, that so many religious people react a little nervously to claims like Florida’s that people who have more money, more education, and more status are also more secular, and that the correlation is uncomfortably high—or that they’re relieved to hear that the opposite is true.
We know the feeling. There’s a little voice inside, a typically American voice, that keeps saying that success equals truth, and another little voice, typically secular, that keeps saying that education equals truth. Even conservative people more than half believe it.
Objectively considered, it’s just as possible that both wealth and education make people less open to religious truth rather than better able to see through religious claims. The wealthy man feels no need for God because he gets everything he wants, and the educated man feels no need for God because he knows everything he needs to know, and the man who is both wealthy and educated, well, he has everything.
Or so he thinks.
• Sitting on our shelves is the English version of the first Evangelicals and Catholics Together book, titled Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and edited, it says across the top of the cover, by Charles Colson and Richard Neuhaus, S.J.
• Also writing on The Atlantic Cities website, Sarah Goodyear reports on a poll that shows Republicans less fond of cities than Democrats. It’s not exactly stop-the-presses news, but still maybe of interest.
The biggest difference, of forty points, on a particular city was over Washington, D.C., with 64 percent of Democrats liking it but only 24 percent of Republicans. This may have more to do with what goes on in Washington than the city itself. The spread was only 20 points (60 to 40) for New York City, a city conservatives once loved to hate, at least before Rudy Giuliani became mayor. Only four of the twenty-one cities included—Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake, and Phoenix—did Republicans like better than Democrats, and the difference was large in each case.
The six most popular cities for everyone were Seattle, Portland, Boston, Atlanta, Phoenix, and New York. The bottom five were (from the bottom up) Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Miami. Baltimore, the home of our editor, was sixth. Sixth, that is, from the bottom. The city where the editor grew up. Sixth. From the bottom.
• The editor claims that “Baltimore is no mean city,” and professes his loyalty so much that he has refused to watch a Colts game since 1984.
• “About twenty-five years ago,” writes our friend Mary Eberstadt, “I was working as an assistant editor at the Public Interest. One day Irving Kristol said something off-the-cuff that really surprised me. He said, in effect, that of all the institutions and individuals predicting what the world would be like as of the 1960s, the Vatican had gotten it most right—with the predictions of Humanae Vitae. I don’t think Irving ever wrote that notion into an essay anywhere, but I remember thinking that it was an observation worth pursuing some time (as were many of Irving’s thoughts, off-the-cuff or no).”
When she finally read the document for herself, she found out that Paul VI had been right. She was, she says, “floored.” Mary has just published her book Adam and Eve After the Pill, in which she addresses what she calls “an enormous paradox”: that “Christian teaching in these intensely controversial matters is actually being vindicated by secular social science and secular evidence from elsewhere, including the popular culture.”
She insists that Adam and Eve After the Pill shouldn’t be controversial. “It’s just a book of evidence that hasn’t been gathered in one spot before,” and it could have been written by an atheist. Five of the chapters first appeared as articles in these pages. The book is, of course, very highly recommended.
• Our good friend and advisory council member Robert P. George was recently sworn in, by Justice Elena Kagan, as a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Speaker of the House appointed him. (Good call, Speaker!) For information on the Commission, please see uscirf.gov.
• A couple of weeks ago, the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice gave one of our evening talks, on his new book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party (reviewed in this issue). The book has vexed many conservatives who take it as an attack on ideologically serious and coherent conservatism.
Which it is, kind of, though it is not thereby a liberal book. Kabaservice did note, by the way, that he had wanted “transformation” in the subtitle rather than “destruction,” but the boys in his publisher’s PR department wanted something more dramatic.
The week before, he’d written something for the New Republic’s website responding to John Derbyshire’s now-famous rant on “The Talk” white parents allegedly give their children about dealing with black people—a talk, I’d like to say, never given by the two parents here at the magazine (the editor and me) to their children. We have just, he points out, passed the fiftieth anniversary of William F. Buckley’s first public move in reading Robert Welch and the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement.
Buckley risked the loss of financial and personal support, not to mention making the liberals happy. (“I wish to hell,” said Buckley, “I could attack them without pleasing people I can’t stand to please.”) But he believed that “outlandish stances,” Kabaservice writes, “discredited conservatism by making it seem ‘ridiculous and pathological,’ as he wrote to a supporter who had criticized his editorial.”
They allowed the media to tar all conservatives as extremists, and turned off young people. He insisted that conservatism had to expand “by bringing into our ranks those people who are, at the moment, on our immediate left—the moderate, wishy-washy conservatives” who comprised the majority of the Republican Party. “If they think they are being asked to join a movement whose leadership believes the drivel of Robert Welch,” he warned, “they will pass by crackpot alley, and will not pause until they feel the embrace of those way over on the other side, the Liberals.” Buckley consistently maintained that conservatism was the “politics of reality.”
It is an important precedent, though one that can’t be followed too promiscuously. An extremist is often “Everyone to the right of me” or “Everyone whose guiding concerns are not mine.” There are those, among libertarians especially, who would read out of the conservative movement all social conservatives and with roughly the same arguments as Buckley. That won’t do.
• It is a problem, this problem with the eccentrics, that afflicts everyone. One of George Orwell’s most famous and entertaining passages relays his own despair about the people attracted to socialism. In The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, he writes that “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”
He then tells the story of riding on a bus through a village in which a socialist summer camp was being held—there were, once, such things—“when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it.”
They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-colored shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured “Socialists,” as who should say, “Red Indians.”
• The editor was clearly not on the Pulitzer committee. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern was awarded this year’s prize in general nonfiction. It was, as Rusty wrote in the January “Public Square,” a collection of “clichés masquerading as history” and “an upscale version of The da Vinci Code.” And worse, he thought, it is a book that fails to understand and engage the real insights of its author’s heroes, like Lucretius and Epicurus, raised. You may want to go back and read it (Reno, not Greenblatt) again.
The board’s twenty members, as you’d guess, include several liberal luminaries, like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, the president of Columbia and the dean and an administrator of its journalism school, the head of the website Politico, and the executive editor of the Associated Press. Not a group, by and large, likely to listen to First Things—and pick a better book.
• Among the specialized but still interesting journals is Catholic Southwest, an annual published by the Texas Catholic Historical Society. The two issues to hand, for example, include essays on the Pueblo Indians’ reaction to Catholic Christianity in the early seventeenth century; the translation of a Spanish friar’s trip into the southwest to establish missions in 1716; a study of “Mexican Ethno-Catholicism” in El Paso at the beginning of the twentieth century; and, a little surprisingly, a study of Texas’ role in the issuing of Anglicanoram Coetibus. And book reviews, of course.
Catholic Southwest is, unfortunately, a little hard to track down. Searching the web for “Catholic Southwest” in quotes should bring up the website and order form.
• Writing in discussion with William Saletan in one of Slate.com’s useful exchanges, Ross Douthat explains the Christian rejection of homosexual practice in a concise and irenic way that readers may find useful: “The Christian view of gay sex is bound up in the Christian view of straight sex, which is rooted in the entirety of the biblical narrative, from the creation story in Genesis down through Jesus’ words in the New Testament. It’s a narrative in which human sexuality has a clear teleology—the reunification of the two equal-but-different halves of humanity . . . and the begetting of children within a context that’s intended be a kind of microcosm of humanity as a whole.”
He continues by noting that “gay relationships may be unitive in some sense, but they are not unitive in the male-female, difference-reunited sense that the biblical narrative strongly suggests that God intended sex to be.”
Gay people can bear and rear children, but they cannot bear and rear them in accordance with what the biblical narrative suggests is God’s original intention for the reproduction of the human race. Homosexuality may be innate, but recall that one of the core doctrines of Christianity is that sin itself is innate—that our innermost being is in some sense broken and fallen and turned from God’s desires for us. What a traditional Christian morality asks of gay people seems impossibly difficult, but the Jesus of the New Testament asks the near impossible of people quite frequently.
• A reader sends us a clothing company’s magazine he picked up, in which one of the two employees featured lists as his current reading . . . First Things. An admirable man, James Michel, who is not surprisingly very nicely dressed, and lists as the thing he is passionate about “my faith” and the most influential people “my parents.”
• Readers in Spokane and northeastern Washington state interested in a ROFTERs (Readers of First Things) group should contact Dan Peterson (home phone (509) 447-5103 and email email@example.com). Those interested in helping start one in the Florida panhandle should contact Rev. John B. Erthein, the pastor of Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church in DeFuniak Springs, which is east of Pensacola (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
• In this month’s “Public Square,” the editor praises our managing editor, Meghan Duke, who is leaving us for graduate school. As someone who has been in this business a long time, I’d like to add my own encomium.
Being managing editor is one of those behind-the-scenes jobs upon which the world depends, but who rarely, being behind-the-scenes, get the credit they deserve. In our world, it’s the editorial equivalent of a juggling act in which the juggler must keep going twenty balls, ten bowling pins, ten plates, five flaming torches, two bowling balls, and a working chain saw, while negotiating with the stage manager and writing a sonnet due in five minutes.
And Meghan did it superbly well, except for the occasional broken plate and that incident with the chain saw and the stagehand, but no one’s completely perfect. We will miss her, and not just for her gifts but for herself.
• At the end of Geoffrey Kabaservice’s essay quoted above, he writes that “Buckley wanted conservatism to be a responsible and effective governing philosophy.” That is a term the editor has used for the mission of First Things and the broader movement it represents. Analyzing the mistakes of our moral, philosophical, and cultural innovators is necessary, but also only the first step. (And a bit, at times, like shooting fish in six-inch deep barrel.) The next is to offer a conservative alternative.
That is, by the way, one of the reasons we sponsored the symposium “After Liberalism” and are publishing the papers here. (Patrick Deneen’s paper and the responses by Paul Griffiths and Daniel Mahoney will appear in the next issue.)
If you would like to help with this project of articulating a conservative governing philosophy, please send us the names and addresses of someone you think might be interested in the magazine and we’ll send them a copy (write email@example.com or 35 East 21st Street, Sixth Floor, New York, NY 10010). Your financial support of the magazine will also be gratefully received.
while we’re at it sources: Toobin’s Constitution: The New Yorker, February 24, 2011 and March 26, 2012. Wimsey on Dawkins: crisismagazine.com, March 27, 2012. Tolerant Americans: The Economist, March 10, 2012. Capitalist anti-capitalists: The Village Voice, April 18, 2012. Wills v. Weigel: nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog, April 24, 2012, and nationalreview.com, April 23, 2012. The sisters’ cosmic keynoter: barbaramarxhubbard.com. Religion and class: theatlanticcities.com, March 29, 2012. Popular cities: theatlanticcities.com, April 23, 2012. Excluding Buckley: tnr.com, April 2, 2012. Douthat explains: slate.com, April 18, 2012.
wwai tips: Gregory Laughlin and Robert Wilken.