• One of the country’s flagship left-wing radio stations, where James Baldwin once debated Malcolm X and whose most popular host once grilled President Clinton on his failures to advance progressive causes (we regret not having heard this), New York City’s WBAI offered books by lefty favorites Howard Zinn and Robert Reich for its most recent pledge-week gifts. Ninety percent of the money came in, reports its former general manager, from people who wanted “the cancer-curing Double Helix water, the right-wing conspiracy film Zeitgeist , and the writings of David Icke, which promote the theory that reptilian shapeshifters control our world.”
• Okay, late, but we did want to flag this. Our beloved former executive editor James Nuechterlein offered an insightful essay titled “Getting Right With Niebuhr” in the May issue of the New Criterion .
Though Niebuhr was consciously and insistently a man of the left, his Christian realism and anti-utopianism will, Jim concludes, “inescapably” push politics to the right. This is why in the sixties, at the end of his long, distinguished career as a public intellectual”the last professional theologian to be such”the New Left ignored him and the neoconservatives embraced him.
Niebuhr’s realism required “recognizing that the imperfections of the world stemmed from fallen human nature, that the social implications of human selfishness had to be reckoned with, that to improve the world it would be necessary to work with human limitations and not dream of obliterating them. The perversities of fallen humanity could not entirely be overcome, but they could, with considerable effort and ingenuity, be manipulated in the direction of the common good. As Niebuhr put it, ‘The whole art of politics consists in directing rationally the irrationalities of men.’”
Jim commends for people of all political positions this “Niebuhrian temper.”
• “A moral conviction that never emerges out in the open when confronted by its negation can easily, perhaps inevitably, become spectral, inconsequential, and eventually lifeless,” the editor writes in this month’s “Public Square.” That can happen, but more likely, I think, is the reverse, as we encounter the negations so often: The conviction remains lively but switches subjects. As Alexander Pope wrote in his “Essay on Man,” and I wish more people knew this:
Vice is a monster of so frightful
As, to be hated, needs but to be
Yet seen too oft, familiar with
We first endure, then pity, then
• From Pierre Manent’s important book Democracy Without Nations? , just published in paperback by ISI: “As more and more populations are added to the immense ‘global middle class,’ each people is commanded to divorce itself from its culpable past”one said to be defined by intolerance and oppression. At the same time, the monuments of their crimes, whether cathedrals or pyramids, are enlisted as elements of a ‘global patrimony.’”
But how, Manent continues, “can one simultaneously condemn all pasts and recognize all cultures? Since every significant collective difference puts human unity in danger, one must render every difference insignificant . Thus, aspects of the most barbarous past become elements of an infinitely respectable ‘culture,’ since the only truly evil thing today is to think and act according to the idea that one form of life is better than another.”
Thus “the only blameworthy human conduct for us is what used to be called ‘conversion’ . . . because no one preference is more legitimate than any other. Under a flashing neon sign proclaiming ‘human unity,’ contemporary Europeans would have humanity arrest all intellectual or spiritual movement in order to conduct a continual, interminable liturgy of self-adoration.”
• Urbanist scholar Joel Kotkin, whom we quoted last month, wants a family-friendly city, but he recognizes that in many ways suburbs provide better conditions for an ideal family life. People like Jane Jacobs assumed that packing people together created a livelier community life and that the more spacious suburbs were necessarily alienating, but in the suburbs you have the space to be a family, which is also the space to be neighbors and active members of the community. That space isn’t just physical but psychological.
What Jacobs and her peers did not see is that crowding can make people more private, more defensive, more protective of the little space they have. Two scholars from the University of California, Kotkin reports, “found that for every 10 percent drop in population density, the likelihood of someone’s talking to his neighbor once a week went up 10 percent, regardless of race, income, education, marital status, or age.”
• “In this tight job market, young scholars are in a terrible bind. They have to cater to and flatter the academic establishment if they hope to survive. Furthermore, they have not been taught basic skills in historical investigation, weighing of evidence, and argumentation. There has been a collapse in basic academic standards during the theory era that will take universities decades to recover from.”
So argues academic provocateur Camille Paglia, lamenting the “turgid, pretentious theorizing, drawn from the slavishly idolized but hopelessly inaccurate and unreliable Michel Foucault,” whom she calls a “con artist.” She sounds like a typical conservative critic of modern academia, except that she’s complaining about this kind of thing in scholarly books on sexual “kink,” particularly bondage and sadomasochism. These scholars, she complains, don’t read Sade.
You laugh, but Paglia recognizes that whatever you want to be liberated from and to, whether the service of God or sexual license, it’s better to be well-trained in the classic ways and read the classic texts. And from our point of view, there’s always the chance that the person who as a scholar seriously reads Sade will seriously read his critics. The modern Foucauldian probably won’t, for the reasons Paglia notes.
• American Betrayal , a new book by a conservative writer named Diana West, is, Ronald Radosh concludes a long and careful review, a “misconceived and misleading book.” She argues that the Roosevelt administration was (this is West quoted by Radosh) “penetrated, fooled, subverted, in effect hijacked, by Soviet agents” and engaged in a “sell-out to Stalin.” This explains, she claims, why the Allies did not march into Eastern Europe at the end of the war and many other decisions.
If Radosh, a distinguished historian who has specialized in the Western engagement with Communism, is right about the book, and as far as one can tell he is”West’s response, referring to her conservative critics as “commissars” and “ossified totalitarians,” is suggestive, as is her later complaint that Radosh uses books “written by academics from Yale, Harvard, and Stanford””one has to ask why it has so appealed to some conservatives. Radosh argues that her “aggressive counter vision” to the old leftist narrative, in which witch-hunting McCarthyism was the real problem and the Soviet Union never sent spies, drew them approval, and understandably enough.
As did, I suspect, the deep desire to believe that if things go wrong someone must be at fault, because the alternative is to accept that sometimes things go wrong because in a fallen world things just go wrong, and that we are swept along in a history we cannot redirect very much. It is an oddly un-conservative way of thinking but one found a lot among the more ideologically engaged conservatives, who believe in the power of politics to change the world. The corollary is that if it doesn’t change in the right direction, someone must be at fault.
• I have, I hasten to say, no opinion on this matter, but it’s an interesting discussion. In his The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind , Mark Noll went with the flow and got it wrong, says Dale Coulter, by following Richard Hofstadter’s famous work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life .
For Hofstadter, “Evangelical revivalists were simply another brand of populism and therefore part of the problem rather than the solution. These revivalists were the obstacles of American pluralism with their sectarian identities and their use of apocalyptic imaginary.”
This, says Dale, a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together as well as co-editor of Pneuma , the Society of Pentecostal Studies’ journal, helped create “a new national myth.” Noll accepted that myth but tried to prove that it didn’t really describe Evangelicals. He “utilized Hoftstadter to foist blame for the scandal of the evangelical mind upon those belonging to the Holiness-Pentecostal movement.”
Not fair, says Dale. For more, see renewaldynamics.com .
• Even if one agrees with Mark Noll, who is perhaps the most distinguished Evangelical historian we have, Dale at least offers a helpful insight into the history and thought of a movement most other Christians in America tend to dismiss as rubes, fundamentalists, reactionaries, crazies (snake handling? really?), conmen, etc. Everyone wants someone to look down upon, and for much of American Christianity, as divided as it is, at least everyone can agree that they’re not those guys.
• “In a world where it’s possible to end a pregnancy safely and legally, it seems like rank brutality to force anyone to carry to term against her will.” Even if the woman’s only reason is that she doesn’t want a child of the sex she is carrying. So argues a freelance writer in the English newspaper the Guardian .
Sarah Ditum doesn’t care why a woman wants an abortion. “As the conscious and legally competent entity in the conception set-up, it’s the woman’s say that counts, and even the most terrible reason for having an abortion holds more sway than the best imaginable reason for compelling a woman to carry to term.”
And: “Ultimately, if you believe strongly that girls have as much right to be born as boys, then you should also believe that women have the right to decide what happens within the bounds of their own bodies.” Sex-selective abortion is “a symptom of brute misogyny. And the answer to such misogyny is never to deny women power over their own bodies.”
Writing on the website Spiked , Ann Furedi, the head of BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a euphemism similar to “Planned Parenthood”), notes that “most people who think of themselves as liberal and modern-thinking believe that rape, incest, youth, poverty or even general ‘unwantedness’ are ‘good reasons’ for doctors to approve abortion; and they think ‘sex selection’ is a bad reason, which should be stopped.”
But English law doesn’t exclude that as a reason for getting abortion, because the law only requires two doctors to certify that the woman will be harmed mentally or physically by having the child. There is, for example, no rape or incest exception in English law. So sex-selective abortions are, indirectly, legal, if the woman’s doctors feel”as one suspects they nearly always will”that having a child of a sex she doesn’t want will cause her mental harm.
“Those of us who support women’s choice,” Furedi concludes, “ . . . either support women’s capacity to decide, or we don’t. You can’t be pro-choice except when you don’t like the choice, because that’s not pro-choice at all.”
Years ago, people who defended life argued that the excuse for any abortion was logically the excuse for any other one. Pro-choicers scoffed. Now even the most openly misogynist reason for aborting a child (for it will be girls who usually suffer being aborted because of their sex) has found its defenders among the progressive and enlightened.
• A recent issue of the New Republic includes a long review of a new book, FDR and the Jews , examining FDR’s handling of Germany and the Holocaust, and finding that he did not do as well as he could have done but did well in difficult circumstances, “motivated primarily by a wish to address the great problems of the day in a manner that would sustain him and his party politically.” FDR was working, notes the reviewer, Ira Katznelson of Columbia, “in light of the order of his priorities, his perception of the political climate, and his navigation of conditions not of his choosing,” including the political impossibility of changing American immigration policy.
The reviewer’s judgment, more critical of Roosevelt than the book’s authors’, is probably fair. Men in such times and places have to make difficult choices, and not every good thing is possible.
Which is, of course, one of the points we have to keep making about Pius XII, who had to make excruciating decisions about what to say and what not to say, because people would suffer and die if he said the wrong thing, but who receives from his critics no such understanding as Roosevelt receives here.
• In his item on gambling in “The Public Square,” the editor neglects to mention that he is one of the thirty-three scholars who as the Council on Casinos issued the report. It can be found at americanvalues.org/pdfs/Why-Casinos-Matter.pdf .
• At the press lunch launching the report, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead mentioned that the gambling machines, especially “the slots,” have been designed to manipulate the gambler “by messing with your brain.” She recommends Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design , which (this is taken from the publisher’s description) describes how the casino industry “pulls players into a trancelike state they call the ‘machine zone.’”
Once they’re in this zone, “gambling addicts play not to win but simply to keep playing, for as long as possible”even at the cost of physical and economic exhaustion . . . . Schüll describes the strategic calculations behind game algorithms and machine ergonomics, casino architecture and ‘ambience management,’ player tracking and cash access systems”all designed to meet the market’s desire for maximum ‘time on device.’”
They do, in other words, what the drug dealer at the playground does when he hands the kids freebies. Why this is not more widely seen as genuinely evil escapes me.
• “The Family Leader challenges the establishment and spread of gambling due to its destructive impact on individuals, families, and communities,” says an Iowa pro-family group in a list of seven “issues we care about.” Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink includes on its website articles like “Nation’s Foundations Weakened by Gambling.” And, as readers of Why Casinos Matter or Addiction by Design will say, bravo.
Imagine our surprise upon seeing a press release from the first group announcing that “world-renowned businessman Donald Trump” would be speaking at a “Family Leadership Summit” these two groups and others sponsored this summer. There is just no excuse for this.
• Readers interested in an examination of Mr. Trump will want to read a column David Bentley Hart wrote for the “On the Square” section of our website. “A Person You Flee at Parties” includes this on the man David describes as “developer, speculator, television personality, hotelier, political dilettante, conspiracy theorist, and grand croupier”:
. . . back in 1993, when Trump decided he wanted to build special limousine parking lots around his Atlantic City casino and hotel, he had used all his influence to get the state of New Jersey to steal the home of an elderly widow named Vera Coking by declaring “eminent domain” over her property, as well as over a nearby pawn shop and a small family-run Italian restaurant.
She had declined to sell, having lived there for thirty-five years. Moreover, the state offered her only one-fourth what she had been offered for the same house some years before, and Trump could then buy it at a bargain rate.
• “We are closing 7:30 on the dot and we will reopen saturday 8:15 so if u need anything you have 45 mins to get what you want,” a group of small businessmen in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn texted their clients. They were closing to observe Shabbat, which we think admirable, and we mean that, even if when raiding their apartment the police found 900 glassines of heroin, 335 oxycodone pills (of an estimated 23,000 they allegedly acquired using prescription sheets stolen from local doctors), as well as cocaine, Xanax, Suboxone, Klonopin, and a sawed-off shotgun.
• One theme running through World War Z , a book that describes the world after a zombie apocalypse and is (don’t laugh) surprisingly good, is that the old ways of doing things continue even in an unprecedented and extreme crisis. Original sin remains in effect, against the usual optimistic story told in most popular books and movies that, to save the world, everyone puts aside their old battles, their self-interest, their maneuvering for the future, their pursuit of power and status.
They don’t. This makes the book even scarier.
• I wrote the foreword for the book, but that should only cement my commendation of David Fagerberg’s Chesterton is Everywhere . David, who teaches theology at Notre Dame, here collects fifty-six of his columns from Gilbert Magazine . A lot of writing on Chesterton is painful to read because the writers apparently want to be Chesterton Jr., but this book is written by a man who has read a lot of Chesterton and a lot of other people, and has thought carefully about the world, and therefore offers insights to the reader who doesn’t care about Chesterton at all as well as the one who does.
Chesterton is Everywhere is published by Emmaus Books and available from the usual sources.
• Mary Ellen Kelly, who served the magazine from 2009 to 2010 as associate editor, died on September 15th. A rigorous grammarian, and a serious and intimidatingly well-read Catholic, Mary Ellen had wide and unusual interests, such as the great ocean liners of the past, and was part of a reading group that included Isaac Asimov. She was also a cheerful presence in an office that could be, at times, particularly near press day, a little saturnine.
She was a long-time parishioner of the Church of Our Saviour in midtown, at which her funeral Mass was celebrated on September 19. Please remember her in your prayers.
• “I think I finally figured out why religious publications like the New Oxford Review , Commonweal , and First Things both bore and irritate me,” said a man writing a letter to the editor of the first. “All discussion of how to live the Christian life is otiose,” he explained, because the Bible “does not really tell us how to live, but how to avoid living the evil life of the world and how to await redemption in the next life.” Satan “rules this world and we cannot really do much about it except to escape it through faith in Christ and His redeeming power.”
Gosh, this is wrong. Precisely as believers, there are goods we must defend and good we must do. We’d appreciate your help in doing so. If you know people who ought to get the magazine, please send their names and addresses to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send them a copy.
while we’re at it sources : Great gifts: Village Voice , September 4-10, 2013. Nuechterlein’s Niebuhr: New Criterion , May 2013. Neighborly suburbs: geography.com , August 6, 2013. Reading Sade: salon.com , August 21, 2013. Radosh v. West: frontpagemag.com , August 7, 2013. Aborting girls: theguardian.com , September 19, 2013, & spiked-online.com , September 23, 2013. FDR not Pius: ibid. Gambling with Trump: thefamilyleader.com , n.d. Drug-free Shabbat: nydailynews.com , September 10, 2013 & nyc.gov , September 10, 2013. Boring magazines: New Oxford Review , September 2013.
wwai tips: Mark Barrett, Anne Conlon, Judy Warner.