Friday, December 6, 2013, 5:33 PM
Fr. Ed Oakes died this morning. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last spring, his friends knew that they’d have to face this day. Still, it’s hard. Death always is.
Ed is best known for his work on Hans Urs von Balthasar. He wrote one of the first comprehensive studies published in English, The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He edited The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar and published many articles about the great Swiss theologian, including some in our pages.
But Ed was much more than a theological scholar—or more accurately, I suppose, he was what a theological scholar should be, which is broadly learned and capable of weighing in on lots of different topics. After all, theology is the queen of the sciences.
And weigh in he did. Ed could write with verve about pretty much anything. Homer, Shakespeare, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot—he had a broad knowledge of literature, as well as music, art, and drama. He read widely in science, history, and politics. And he had strong reactions and articulate opinions, which made him an excellent conversationalist. No doubt that’s one reason he became friends with Richard John Neuhaus, who liked people who actually knew things (Ed has a great memory) and had strong opinions forcefully expressed.
I saw him last month at the Jesuit infirmary at St. Louis University. He was a member of the Missouri province of the Society of Jesus. The cancer was overtaking him. He had to give up his teaching position at Mundelein Seminary and move back into his community to die.
He said leaving Mundelein was a painful ascesis. It meant giving up teaching, writing, students, colleagues, his personal library of books, which meant letting go of his long, productive life. He was dwindling down to a gray, end-of-life infancy: diminishment and dependency brought on by debilitation and decay.
I said nothing. What could I say? Death dissolves pieties. Then, after a few moments had passed, he asked me how things were going at First Things. We bantered as we often had in the past before he tired and I took my leave.
I’ll miss you, Ed. Rest in peace.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013, 11:25 AM
Christopher Lasch, where are we when we need you? Today’s Wall Street Journal has a good column by William Galston that lays out in clear terms what we all feel in our bones: The great middle-class consensus that once dominated our society is dissolving. The middle class is eroding down into the lower income cohort, as well as up into the educated, successful upper-middle class.
By Galston’s reckoning the once dominant middle class provided political and social ballast. I think he’s right about that. Today, the middle has become weakened, and our society is now dominated by an increasingly isolated and often arrogant elite.
More than anyone writing at the end of the twentieth century Lasch saw and tried to analyze the changing class structure of America, especially the emergence of a new social consensus that is tilted toward the interests of the new elite. A great deal of his large-scale analysis seems less convincing to me now. For example, I’m less taken by the Freudian categories in The Culture of Narcissism.
But many of his social observations remain arresting and relevant: “What does it profit the residents of the South Bronx to enforce speech codes at elite universities?” “Meritocracy has the effect of making elites more secure than ever in their privileges.” “Compassion has become the human face of contempt.” He despised the smug condescension of liberalism and its happy-clappy confidence that the social changes it endorses will be for the best.
Moreover, his deepest intuition was profound: Society is not a mechanism to deliver private goods such as wealth or self-esteem or lifestyle freedom. (This is what liberalism always assumes, seeking to reform the mechanism to more efficiently and equitably deliver private goods.) Instead, society is an end in itself. Solidarity is a human need that can’t be parceled out to individuals as private goods.
What he saw was the end of solidarity in working class America.
Monday, September 30, 2013, 11:35 AM
I’m on the Council on Casinos. a group sponsored by the Institute for American Values. Our purpose is to fight the spread of gambling in America. See our report, Why Casinos Matter. As David Mills noted earlier, the Institute’s director, David Blankenhorn, has penned a report that focuses on New York, New York’s Promise.
To a great extent our elite leadership takes a libertarian stance, one that sees no harm in relaxing older, more paternalistic limits on vice. Legalizing marijuana are loosening liquor laws are examples, as is tolerance of pornography, crude language, and vulgar dress. Gambling follows this pattern.
What’s the harm? For the most part the upper levels of society have a disciplined approach to hedonism. They—we—don’t tend to overdo it. But the lower levels? They end treading water in a degraded public culture, often unable to keep their heads above the polluted water.
I’m not satisfied that I understand the elite abandonment of responsibility for sustaining decency. But it’s a fact, of that I’m sure. And not an inconsequential fact. At the same time as economic sucess is more and more remote for the bottom half of society, moral dignity is also less accessible.
I have a dark thought about all this: Those of us at the top don’t like competition. Thus we’re happy with the toxic culture we can avoid and we endorse legal measure to ensure its spread. And why not? It debilitates the competition from below.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013, 8:00 AM
Commentators speak of Pope Francis as “pastoral,” and some juxtapose his approach to the previous two pontificates. I find this unpersuasive because it is too vague. To my mind a key difference between John Paul II and Benedict on the one hand and Francis on the other is their attitudes toward contemporary secular culture.
There was a flinty, determined, and courageous spirit of opposition in John Paul II, one doubtless encouraged by his youthful experiences with Nazi brutalities and his long adult struggle with communism. His image of what we’re up against, the culture of death, was powerful. We admired him so much in part because we sensed that he would give his all in the struggle against evil.
Benedict had a different personality and focus, but he also tended toward a pessimistic, oppositional stance over and against the post-Christian west. The dictatorship of relativism is the obvious example, but the Regensburg speech also indicated that he had dark misgivings about secular culture, fearing it will evolve in the direction of will-to-power. I share these misgivings.
Pope Francis undoubtedly wishes to resist evil and rejects the dictatorship of relativism. But he emphasizes that God is in all people, giving a great deal of what he says a sort of Gaudium et Spes feel. Obviously, the previous two popes also affirmed this optimism about the human condition. John Paul II was in fact a proponent of Gaudium et Spes during the Second Vatican Council against opposition that thought the Council should stick to strictly doctrinal teaching. But a God-in-all-things affirmation has been Francis’ main thrust, to the exclusion (so far) of critical negations of the post-Christian culture of the West.
This is a good corrective, at least for me. I’m a pugilist at times, and that makes me favor the sharp rhetorical blows like “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism.” But I’ve become more and more aware of the temptations of a falsely grim and global view of today’s world among social and religious conservatives. It’s not the case that New York is an unpleasant, dysfunctional city. On the contrary, it’s safe, civil, and at time positively warm and friendly.
The same is true of the university culture that conservatives like me love to bemoan. It’s ideologically monochromatic now and riddled with careerism among faculty (and of course students, but that’s to be expected). But it’s also an interesting place, full of good conversations and moments of illumination.
Pope Francis encourages a more balanced view of our present circumstances. Yes, some bad, very bad dimensions. But also some good, very good dimensions. We’re to navigate judiciously, neither condemning broadly, nor naively affirming the status quo.
This balance is needed. My motto at First Things: We know what we’re against, now tell me what we’re for. That seems to be the spirit of some of what the Pope is saying.
Read R. R. Reno’s column on Pope Francis’ interview here.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013, 9:51 AM
I’ve been weighing in against what seems to be a wide consensus that America must bomb Syria in order to “punish” or “send a message” or in some way tell the world that using chemical weapons “won’t be tolerated.” It’s a morally suspect way of thinking, one that mistakenly thinks Clausewitz was referring to speech-making or litigation when he said that war is politics by other means.
There is, however, something fundamental and substantial that this non-crisis has revealed, which is the strategic vision, not just of the Obama administration, but of large portions of our ruling elite. It assumes that nothing important is at stake in Syria.
In all questions of intervention and going to war one must ask oneself: Is the danger of inaction greater than action? This is true for those of us who adhere to just war thinking just as much as it holds for hard-boiled realists. (The principles of proportionality, likelihood of success, and last resort require us to ask that question along with others.) When it comes to Syria, the administration clearly thinks action is far more dangerous than inaction. Hence their desire for an operation that is merely symbolic.
This is a telling judgment. Most commentators point out that it reflects lessons learned in Iraq: Things can go very wrong. Very true. We’re living through a period of post traumatic stress disorder when it comes to substantial foreign interventions. But there’s another side to the question, the side of inaction. Here I think many, perhaps most of us think that aside from atrocities in Syria and countless deaths in the ongoing civil war, very little bad can happen.
Yes, Syria is a strategically important country in the Middle East, a strategically important region of the world. And, yes, this civil war has become a proxy war for powerful forces in that region that are vying to expand their spheres of influence and gain the upper hand. But the consensus is—and this holds true widely and not just in the White House—that no dominoes will fall. The disorder and conflict won’t spread. The global economic and political system is not a risk. China, Russia, even Iran? At end of the day they may angle for an advantage here and there, but they’ll support the global system, because it’s in their self-interest to do so.
That’s why this is being treated as a political carnival rather than a crisis that requires something more than postures, polling, and mock seriousness. The President’s off to St. Petersburg to do the real work of foreign policy, which is to keep up the endless litigation of diplomatic fine points in the global system we all believe in.
This is not a stupid way of thinking, but I worry that it reflects our parochial mentality. To a certain degree both American conservatives and liberals believe that we’re at what Francis Fukuyama called the End of History. Something like democratic capitalism broadly understood is the natural condition of humanity. Less advanced peoples and nations just need a bit of encouragement. The obvious benefits of our globalized economy, the human rights regime that justifies internationalism, and democracy will carry the day, and largely do so simply by virtue of their obvious rightness.
As I said, this assumption is very widespread, especially when it comes to the global economy, which many believe to be an irresistible force that now transcends politics and will bring about, if not the kingdom of God, then at least the kingdom of rational self-interest. And this assumption about the naturalness and inevitability of liberal democratic capitalism is crucial for judging inaction far less costly than action in places like Syria. As progressive prophets of modernity have always preached: History is on our side.
I am a firm believer in the moral advantages of a liberal democratic system of government, and I regard global capitalism as a profoundly dynamic and largely (although certainly not exclusively) benevolent force. But I think it’s naive to think they are natural or inevitable. Which is why I fear the Obama administration is miscalculating (as are many Republicans). Human beings have a remarkable and persistent desire to dominate and capacity to destroy.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Monday, September 2, 2013, 8:35 AM
I continue to be troubled by the President’s approach to military strikes against Syria. He speaks of making sure the chemical attacks in Syria are properly “punished.”
This way of talking is morally sloppy. Yes, people can be punished, and should be when they do wicked things. But nations cannot be, and should not be. (Nor, I will add, should races or ethnic groups or any other kind of collective identity be targeted for “punishment.”) When it comes to war-making, what makes sense morally is to restrain, contain, or defeat. These are actual military and on-the-ground political goals, not deadly moral gestures.
Perhaps, however, my worries are misplaced and the White House won’t do anything. The administration’s plan may be to draw out the drama for as long as possible, sabre-rattling while constitutional lawyers and diplomats work to come up with complications, road blocks, and alternatives (Geneva II negotiations!). This generates day-after-day of headlines and pictures of the President looking serious. He’s ready to act—but his great respect for international law and our constitutional principles forces him to be deliberate. All this creates among voters the impression of resolve, without requiring any action.
This is a cynical view, but I must admit that I think Barack Obama and his team focus on what they do best, which is winning elections, and that they conduct foreign policy accordingly. Thus my despair over the moral cogency of any action in Syria: it will be motivated, planned, and carried out almost solely in accord with and for the sake of domestic political calculations.
I fear that the President is being counseled (and seeks counsel) about when, how, and under what circumstances to kill people in Damascus—for that’s what “punishment” means—largely with the following question in mind: How can Democrats look strong without risking the disasters that befell the Bush administration and continue to be a political liability for Republicans?
When it comes to war-making, political calculations are always part of the mix, especially in a democracy. But “part of” is not the same as “dominate,” which I think may be happening. What other conclusion is reasonable? The President has said over and over again that he does not think it wise to intervene in Syria, which strongly suggests that he has reasons other than strategic ones to be pushing forward with this notion of “limited” action. Those other reasons are to “send a message” and look strong. That’s suspiciously close to what political consultants advise candidates to do.
It could be, indeed probably is, the case that the President is surrounded by advisers who think of foreign policy as American political campaigns writ large, and they earnestly believe that we can somehow transcend power politics with electoral theatrics, as if America was engaged in something akin to a televised debate with Iran moderated by Jim Lehrer, showing resolve and “sending messages” in a way that will sway “global opinion.”
If this is so, then my cynicism is not misplaced—it is much too mild.
Thursday, August 29, 2013, 4:43 PM
I find myself more and more disturbed by the moral implications of President’s Obama’s approach to Syria. He speaks of “sending a message” and firing a “shot across the bow.” This is a dangerous way of thinking about war.
There are times when military force can and should be used. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime may well be one of those times. But a just occasion does not automatically make a war just. One of the principles of just war teaching is probability of success. Another principle is proportionate use of force. Both principles require clarity about what goal we seek when going to war. Probability of success in achieving what? Proportional use of force to achieve what?
Here the Obama administration comes up short, for it has offered no cogent, realistic plan to achieve a just goal. Claims that military action is necessary to deter future uses of chemical weapons are empty. This goal–and indeed any just outcome in Syria at this juncture–requires decisively defeating the Assad regime. Yet the Obama administration seems unwilling to say it’s committed to achieving this goal. In fact, the administration seems unwilling to commit itself to any substantive, on-the-ground goal in Syria. Without a substantive goal, killing people there would be unjust, because purposeless. We would be killing them so that. . . . Try to complete that sentence. The best I can come up with is this: So that the world will know that the United States is serious about the fact that using chemical weapons is a bad thing.
Put simply: Just war-making requires clearly articulated and substantive goals. Launching cruise missiles or air strikes simply to “show resolve” or “send a message” cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.
There is something about American liberalism that makes it think irresponsibly about war. Perhaps that stems from its optimism about humanity. Unable to see sin for what it is, liberals don’t discipline themselves to think through the hard truths about fighting and deterring evil. Then, as events force them to resort to lethal force, they are so confident in their good intentions that they neglect careful moral analysis of their actions. Or perhaps it’s the utilitarian mentality that provides the functional morality of American liberalism, as if killing a few hundred people in Syria for symbolic purposes is by definition more just than substantive military action toward a clearly articulated goal that is sure to cause thousands of fatalities.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013, 4:57 PM
Something must be done. Or so we’re hearing from many quarters, including now the White House. Count me skeptical.
The first thing to say concerns the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. This is being treated as a bright-line violation of global norms that in itself requires retaliation. Requires? One of the principles of just-war thinking is probability of success. It does no good—and would be morally culpable—to launch strikes that are unlikely to achieve a good outcome, which in this case means the thorough defeat of the Assad regime. For only that outcome would create a deterrent for the future use of banned weapons.
I think that outcome very unlikely. The Obama administration’s approach to Syria—indeed, the entire Middle East—has been like police departments in major cities in the 1970s. Sure, officers patrolled neighborhoods, but they stayed in their cars because, well, because it was pretty darn scary on the mean streets. I see no reason to believe that the administration will do more than fire a few shots out the police cruiser window, so to speak, which means symbolic rather than real action that has actual consequences for the conflict in Syria.
I’m no pacifist, not even close, but I’m opposed to symbolic killing. I’m opposed to launching cruise missiles in order to “show resolve” or “send a message.” If we’re going to do something in Syria, then it needs to be part of a plan that aims at consequences that makes sense as part of a larger strategy of imposing at least the negative peace of an end to conflict in Syria.
It’s this larger strategy that I don’t see in the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East. Maybe I’m too cynical, but the best sense I can make of the administrations decisions requires me to presuppose the predominance of (1) dreamy human rights internationalism, and (2) cynical efforts to keep the Middle East out of domestic politics by doing whatever it takes to kick the various cans down the road.
Without an Obama administration strategy for achieving some sort of order in the Middle East—I’m open to lots of different options on that score—I can’t see how the use of force in Syria by the administration can be justified. The President is the commander-in-chief. He and not his proxies needs to explain that vision of order, the strategy for getting there, and how sending in cruise missiles or flying bombing sorties fits into that strategy.
Monday, August 19, 2013, 3:05 PM
What makes a man a man or a woman or a woman? For a long time–forever to be exact–it was nature and its serendipitous allocations of chromosomes. A tiny, tiny, tiny number of newborns emerged with scrambled codes, but the rest of us fall to one side or the other: “Male and female he created them.”
That’s now changing. Australia recently adopted a system of self-selected gender: male, female, and, well, whatever. On all personal documents individuals can self-select one way or the other–or not at all. And they can do this irrespective of whether or not they have undergone sex-change operations or hormonal therapy. The will–what we want to be–triumphs over nature.
Germany is going the same direction, Spiegel reports. As of November, birth certificates will allow parents to select gender “X,” neither male nor female. The same new right goes to adults as well.
It’s fitting that Germany passed this legislation. It reflects our postmodern version of the will’s triumph over given realities. Nazism was an earlier version of this triumph, very different in countless ways, of course, but sharing a basic, underlying similarity. Hitler believed in the priority of the deed over truth, the will over fact, strength over established affairs. He wanted to forge a New Germany in accord with new myths, and part of his appeal rested in the fact that he affirmed the priority of this desire over all else. It’s intoxicating to believe that we can make our own destiny by the strength of our self-choosing.
This priority of the will made Nazism a hyper-modern phenomenon. It was not reactionary in any sense. The old regime was built on metaphysical claims about authority that were fixed and immobile. Hitler wanted no truck with a sacred order that limited the will. Force shapes destiny, and concepts of right and wrong must be made plastic to serve this new future.
A similar triumph of the will—or perhaps more accurately a triumph of desire—animates the gay rights movement. How our bodies function biologically can’t limit what we can and should do. This triumph of the will has been obscured by the fact that contraception has largely made sex sterile in the West, as I’ve pointed out on many occasions. But with this new approach to gender–assigned rather than recognized, chosen rather than given–makes the logic quite clear. Who we are—even our maleness or femaleness—depends on what we want, and nothing more.
This postmodern triumph of the will can seem benign. Very few people want there children to be “X”, and only slightly more are confused as adults. Moreover, unlike Nazism, which valorized violence and energized the will by identifying an enemy, our new triumph of the will focuses on individual empowerment, not communal assertion. But there is a common view of reality: What we regard as true gets redefined in terms of what we want.
This trend is bound to spread into reproduction, children, and family life. What a child is is defined by the will of the parents. We already do this in our abortion regime. The child in the womb is a child when the mother chooses it to be so. It’s not when the mother says otherwise. Why not say the same of new-born infants, as current proponents of infanticide suggest. The mentally disabled or senile?
The German gender law involves self-selection, which seems innocent of harm to others. But history shows that the harm principle is a wax nose. We easily slide from letting people go their own ways to “encouraging” them to “freely” make the decisions that we’ve already determined are the rational ones. Imagine what will happen when Michael Bloomberg turns to end-of-life decisions and embarks on a campaign to ensure that people make “healthy” decisions.
Our postmodern triumph of the will may differ profoundly from the twentieth century version—and for that we should be thankful—but one fact remains. It always privileges the strong. That’s why gay rights and its agenda of radically enhanced sexual freedom has had such stunning success in the West. Social democracy and the protection of the weak is declining in Europe–that’s what “austerity” means. As this occurs, social life gets reorganized around the needs and interests of the powerful, which is what we see in the magnified scope and rights of the will. Those who have a strong basis for self-definition win. Those who are vulnerable–those who need strong norms and clear guidance—become disoriented.
Thursday, August 15, 2013, 3:41 PM
We’re about to enter into a bio-technological revolution that will fundamentally change how children are conceived, gestated, born—and understood. The science is advancing rapidly. Of equal important are social attitudes. A recent Pew study shows that the American public is largely accepting of this revolution. Few object to stem cell research (22 percent). Even fewer object to in vitro fertilization (12 percent).
The next stage of reproductive innovation may run into a “yuck” response that slows it down. Most people don’t like the idea of rented wombs. The idea of cloning gives many the creeps. But such responses won’t be decisive. Many are opting out of the traditional mode for having children, which is relatively early marriage. The men who opt out retain the option of marrying at age fifty to someone young enough to have children. This is not true for women. As a consequence, the argument will be made—is being made—that advances in reproductive technology are necessary for gender equality. And of course the same holds true for gay couples. Still further, why should a single woman or single man be denied children just because of their singleness?
Our society is committed to relationship and family “diversity,” and that will mean a commitment to allowing technical solutions to the sorts of limitations facing those who opt for non-traditional relationships and families. This is very likely to fundamentally change the origins, meaning, and status of children. Or perhaps more accurately it will accelerate the trend already in place that treats children as luxury goods that ornament the complete life of high achieving professionals.
Christian teaching stands against this trend toward radical technical interventions into reproduction. The polling data suggests that we need to do a better job explaining why.
Monday, August 12, 2013, 2:48 PM
Jean Bethke Elshtain delivering the 2012 Erasmus Lecture, “On Loyalty.”
She died yesterday. It was not a surprise. Jean was suffering from a debilitating heart condition. But it was nonetheless a shock, as the sharp blow of death so often is, even when we see it coming.
Jean was one of the indispensable voices of cultural and political sanity in the post-sixties. She cared deeply about the common good, and she recognized that faith, family, and patriotic solidarity ennobled the lives of ordinary people. So she found herself defending those loves, often setting herself against the academic establishment and its dissolving ideologies. It required determination and courage, both of which Jean had in large, very large, measures.
It’s impossible to sum up a person’s scholarly career, especially someone with as varied interests as Jean’s. She had a sense of what needed to be said–and said it. But I’d venture this summation, one based on her comments while being interviewed a couple of years ago. Jean grew up in a small town in Colorado, and from that experience she drew a basic truth: Society flourishes only insofar as people share something of their lives with each other. Put differently: Justice is a virtue, not a system.
Jean was a presence. Small in stature, she filled a room. We’ll miss her moral passion and gift for speaking in a direct way about first things.
May she rest in peace.
Friday, June 28, 2013, 3:04 PM
The U.K. is gearing up to legalize reproductive technology that manipulates genes. It’s the beginning of a technological revolution that will have a transformative influence over culture ten times greater than the invention of the Pill.
This revolution will begin as a therapeutic imperative to forestall dire medical problems, as this initiative seeks to do. But as we know with abortion (health of the mother) and contraception (reproductive health), what begin as imperatives of health broaden into lifestyle imperatives. In this case the upshot will be designer babies for the rich who are preoccupied with the perfection of their children.
Thursday, June 6, 2013, 12:16 PM
Some months ago Fathers Thomas Joseph White and Austin Litke, O.P., played bluegrass music at the World Youth Alliance headquarters here in New York. They’re good, and to be frank they also look kinda out-there. It’s not often that you see two guys in white habits playing guitar and mandolin and singing bluegrass classics (love, murder, God, etc). With tight harmonies, mind you. No, definitely not often. Even in New York.
Well it seems they’re not the only ones! Check out this trailer for “The History of Future Folk.”
(Choose the longer one that runs 3:36 minutes.) Okay, they’re wearing red, not white. And they’re not Dominican priests. But otherwise it’s almost too true (in the “perfect fit” sense of the word) to White and Litke to be true.
P.S. I especially like the line about having sixteen livers. That would be handy.
Monday, June 3, 2013, 11:47 AM
For a number of years I’ve been checking Jewish Ideas Daily, a site that featured writers I’d like to publish in First Things (and in fact often have). It’s now morphed into something new: Mosaic Magazine.
This new web offering is the ultimate anti-Twitter. It’s goal is to publish a long form essay each month, adding invited commentary at intervals. It’s a website for someone who wants to settle down and read something substantive, something, well, akin to a good First Things essay.
The inaugural essay, “The Ten Commandments: Why the Decalogue Matters,” is by Leon Kass. He does a particularly good job illuminating the exhortation to keep the Sabbath holy. Sabbath-keeping is an imitatio dei. The exposition of the commandment to honor your mother and father is also well done. “Beware the universalist,” Kass writes, “who has contempt fo the particulars; beware the lover of humanity, or of holiness, who does not honor his own father and mothers.”
It’s a fine essay, one I wish we could have had for First Things.
Friday, May 10, 2013, 4:28 PM
From R.R. Reno’s “Public Square” in the May issue of First Things. Support First Things by subscribing here.
First Things has been updated for the iPad. It has the same elegant style as the print magazine, but we’ve changed the formatting in significant ways to make the articles more readable for electronic subscribers, and easier to navigate. You can buy individual issues or sign up for regular monthly delivery. Check it out in Apple’s iTunes store, or on our website (which I hope you’ve made your homepage).
We can thank Austin Stone for the iPad update. He steps into a new role at First Things, that of e-publisher responsible for “pushing out” our content on “multiple platforms.” (That’s a sentence I never imagined myself writing.) First Things remains committed to old-fashioned print. That’s my preferred way to read serious articles and essays. But we also want to give our electronic readers formats as easy and pleasurable to read as the crisp, clean pages of America’s finest journal of religion and public life.
While welcoming Austin Stone to the team, I’d also like to acknowledge the departure of Joe Carter, our former web editor. He is now senior editor of the Acton Institute and an editor at the Gospel Coalition. Joe is an important voice among religious conservatives, and a man whose faith, integrity, and intelligence I admire a great deal. In his five years with the magazine, Joe was an adept tech guy, an insightful writer for our website, a faithful Christian, and a good friend. Thanks, Joe.
Thursday, May 9, 2013, 12:09 PM
Samuel Gregg offers a thoughtful assessment of my debate with Robert Miller about economic freedom: its effects and prospects.
Gregg is certainly right to point out that we need a moral argument for capitalism, not just a utilitarian one. The fact that it produces wealth is a good thing. But economic freedom also opens up space for human creativity, agency, and productive cooperation. Quite right, and important.
I would go a step further and simply say that productive work brings with it as sense of dignity. Workers can sense a make-work situation, and they take less satisfaction in that kind of work. A poorly organized workplace, one that impedes productive cooperation, also demoralizes. One of the good consequences of creative destruction is that it puts a great deal of pressure on unproductive enterprises. We want our labor to “make a difference,” and capitalism, however frivolous some of its aspects, increases the changes that what I do from 9 to 5 adds up to something.
However, I do want to take issue with Gregg’s claim that a negative view of capitalism is the “prevailing wisdom.”
That was true when I was a college student, but I don’t think it’s true any longer. I’m struck by how easily the Zuckerberg generation fuses idealism (change the world!) with capitalism.
I would say that today’s “prevailing wisdom” is that capitalism is—inevitable. Most people take it for granted. That’s why our economic arguments take place in such a narrow range. I don’t think anyone in 1970 could have imagined that right would be defined as a 35% top marginal tax rate and left as 39%!
Meanwhile, the left has adopted all sorts of free market principles. The Obama administration recently announced an initiative to expand experimental programs in public housing that limit long-term dependency. Since the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, most liberals have come to see precisely what Gregg thinks important: It’s morally good for people to work and play a productive role in a free economy. They’re more fulfilled when they can contribute and take responsibility for themselves.
This scrambling of old ideological distinctions is part of the challenge we face. What’s conservatism going to look like for the Zuckerberg generation? I’m not sure.
Thursday, May 2, 2013, 12:35 PM
Pamela Fox makes really cool stuff. So says Tessa Miller on Life Hacker, a website the “curates [web-speak for exercising editorial judgment] tips, tricks, and technology for living better in the digital age.”
I’m sure that’s true, about Pamela I mean. But she’s more than someone making really cool stuff. She’s a window on our twenty-first century culture and our seamless garment of money-making and idealism.
Pamela’s someone who, like the rest of us, sees herself as unique. She’s got a bleached swath of hair and doesn’t “believe in” alarm clocks. “I’m not your typical engineer,” she says. Apple products all the way, of course. Asked about her favorite time saving device (remember, this is lifehacker.com), she replies, “the IUD.” Think of all the time saved not worrying about birth control pills!
But the ways in which Pamela is unique are pretty conventional. Americans have been individuals in the same way for a long time. It’s her job that’s telling. She’s a product engineer at Coursera, a for-profit company that “partners” with dozens of big-name universities to provide free on-line courses, so-called MOOCs, massive open online courses. With them you can take Stanford University’s Larry Diamond’s course on democratic development, or a Cal Tech professor’s course on galaxies and cosmology.
This is new frontier stuff in education. Thus the Coursera website: “We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.” Without limits! “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” Everyone! Pamela’s very excited too: “I joined Coursera because I love their mission, and also because there is so much more experimentation to be done in the world of online education.”
I don’t doubt that Pamela, the founders of Coursera, and the venture capitalists who have put many millions into the company believe in their product—believe in their roles in the Great Educational Revolution. But I also don’t doubt that they would very much like to get rich (or in the case of the venture capitalists, to get richer still). I have no brief against moneymaking, but this is Amway on steroids. And it’s typical today. We want to believe: Anyone around the world can learn without limits. And we want to win, win, win in the great race for wealth. Thus Pamela. Every few months she re-reads Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. (I am not making this up.)
I don’t think Pamela realizes how strange and new this seems to me. The ad men on Mad Men would blush at the hype masquerading as idealism. I can’t understand a mind that can so easily fuse feel-good, sentimental moralism—breaking down barriers to elite education!—with a job as a technical cog in what some very rich people in Silicon Valley hope will be a profitable business with a big payout.
First, I strongly believe Pamela represents our age: IUDs, for-profit companies proposing to save the world (without limits!), insistent assertions of individuality, and Dale Carnegie. It’s not a wicked age (though Kermit Gosnell suggests otherwise). In many respects is sensible, functional, and appealing. Pamela would probably make a good neighbor. But I can’t see how it makes much sense.
Second, I’ve been writing recently about the triumph of capitalism, chiding conservatives for misguided worries about socialism. Pamela, Coursera.org, and lifehacker.com provide powerful evidence that whatever our secular liberal culture wants, it doesn’t want anything other than capitalism. Perhaps it can’t even envision anything else, so easily does its moralism and chipper idealism serve moneymaking purposes.
Thursday, April 25, 2013, 10:15 AM
Poet George Green isn’t somebody I’d want to meet in the Muse’s dark alley. If his wonderful new book of poetry, Lord Byron’s Foot, is any indication, he swings a mean verbal broadsword.
Here’s a short poem. It’s part of a series titled “Warhol’s Portraits.” This one takes up Warhol’s portrait of Mick Jagger:
He is in my opinion past his prime
already in this print, and he and Keith
are fast becoming tacky little shanks
and sherry-slurping, chicken-headed whores.
They shake their butts and sweat in leather pants,
like ancient drag queens high on Angel dust.
There’s a longer poem about Ana Mendieta and the New York art scene that’s particularly pungent.
Lord Byron’s Foot. It’s a fine book of poetry, winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize. Great observations about American popular culture. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 1:26 PM
We live with interesting dissonances.
For example, it’s fascinating that young people now accept economic discipline with little protest. That’s something I wouldn’t have predicted when I was in college when people still worried about being imprisoned in what Weber called the “iron cage.” But at the same time our age rejects sexual discipline as inhumane.
Another example: Most Ivy League students are likely to admit that many Americans aren’t able to participate in the lucrative global economy. They just don’t have what it takes, as it were. But mention gay marriage and they suddenly become proponents of a strict equality, viewing with great dismay my belief that two men “just don’t have what it takes” to get married.
In both cases our era believes very sincerely and deeply in the supposedly inviolable laws of economics, while rejecting as absurd the natural law. We’re docile to the marketplace and in rebellion against our bodies.
It’s unsurprising, I suppose. As Pascal recognized, it’s our fate to work at cross purposes and live against ourselves.
Monday, April 15, 2013, 6:00 AM
We’re in the midst of a big shift, no doubt. Check out this report from the Nation: “NHL Takes ‘Historic Step’ for LGBT Equality.”
The piece speaks of sports as a bulwark of “heteronormative socialization,” with the implicit suggestion that this, like homophobia, has to go. What would a society look like that doesn’t involve “heteronormative socialization”? My view: It’s a society in which the vast majority of people are disoriented in life, while the elites navigate rather well in a culture of bespoke identity formation.
Capitalism works best when all our desires are free, because then they can be reconfigured and redirected toward the needs of the market. That’s pretty much what the Nation wants, it seems.
When I was a young person I could imagine the success of the LGBT agenda. Sexual freedom was in full swing when I came of age in the late 1970s. What I couldn’t have imagined is the present complicity of the left with the dissolving, atomizing effects of global capitalism. Whether it’s legalizing marijuana, permitting pornography, or ending “heteronormative socialization,” the left today is all about getting morality out of the way. The marketplace, therapy, and bureaucratic management fill the void.
Friday, April 12, 2013, 12:55 PM
In a very fine article in the American Conservative, “Sex After Christianity,” Rod Dreher explains how the growing support for gay marriage reflect deep and profound changes in our moral imaginations.
He writes, correctly I think, that “gay-marriage proponents succeeded so quickly because they showed the public that what they were fighting for was consonant with what most post-1960s Americans already believed about the meaning of sex and marriage.”
What do Americans believe? Dreher says it’s a post-Christian individualism that reigns. For traditional Christianity (and for all traditional religions) moral rights and wrongs reflect cosmic truths. We thus accept moral discipline, because in so doing we participate in the dignity and truth of reality itself. (This is the spiritual pay-off of natural law arguments, which are meant to help us live in accord with our true natures. They’re not about policing behavior.)
The secular moral imagination thinks otherwise. At the end of the day there are no cosmic truths, and so we default to the immediacy of desire, unless practical or utilitarian concerns limit us. For such a view life is most “noble” when most “free,” which means unimpeded by moral constraints that are increasingly seen as meaningless.
Dreher is surely right that religious faith is at odds with this view of freedom. For freedom Christ has made us free. St. Paul meant by that a freedom from bondage to sin that allows us to enter into a more perfect obedience to God’s law. He’s also surely right that the success of gay marriage suggests that increasing numbers of Americans find this religious view of human freedom unintelligible, and thus aren’t likely to be all that enthusiastic about Christianity. In that sense, support for gay marriage is a tell-tale. As it rises, the churches fall.
Societies are complicated, and our moral imaginations aren’t always consistent. As Dreher knows, there’s no simple formula at work here. But he’s right about what gay marriage means for our society, our moral imaginations, and our attitudes toward religious authority.
Thursday, March 28, 2013, 11:28 AM
During his oral argument before the Supreme Court, Ted Olson observed that marriage is a “fundamental right.” This is a confused statement.
It’s true that marriage is very important, fundamental, in fact. It’s part of the DNA of society, and for most people the path in life most likely to bring stability and happiness. And so government should not have an unlimited capacity to muck around with marriage. It’s too important for politics, too fundamental for us to turn it into a policy that might or might not be implemented.
In other words, people have a “right” to live in a society in which marriage is a widely accessible, stable, functional institution.
But that’s not really what Olson and other proponents of “marriage equality” mean. They’re saying it’s more individualistic: each individual has a “right” to whatever definition of marriage suits him, which isn’t the same as our right to marriage as a stable, functional institution, and may in fact be at odds with it. That’s because to secure Olson’s sense of “fundamental right,” government must in fact muck around with marriage to make it plastic enough to guarantee that everyone can have the kind of marriage that suits him. In so doing, marriage changes. It’s no longer a pre-political institution the state protects and advances so as to secure our fundamental right to the possibility of marriage as a stable, functional institution. Instead marriage becomes a creature of politics, which means vulnerable to definition and re-definition (and therefore instability) as political circumstances vary.
Thursday, March 21, 2013, 2:51 PM
A friend sent me a recent piece in the New York Times about super-athlete Kilian Jornet Burgada. He leaps tall buildings in a single bound, etc.
Super-extreme sport, the athletic hero, the perfected body . . . are we seeing signs that our post-Christian culture is reverting to classical ideals? That’s the question my friend asked.
Plausible, at least for the upper middle class. We live in a time that worships the perfectly sculpted body, and the masters of the universe see an ascent of Mount Everest as a way to crown their professional success as lawyers, doctors, and investment bankers. In these and other ways, our secular culture adopts old (often modified) ideals. It’s evidence that the trajectory of our time is not toward nihilism but to new cultural norms or revitalized pagan ones that may end up being reasonably functional. Functional, that is, for elites. In ancient Greece the winners weren’t anxious about their dominance.
That worries me. Our new meritocracy tends to see itself as natural rulers, which is of course the same way the ancient Greeks on top saw themselves.
Monday, March 18, 2013, 4:39 PM
I continue to be fascinated by the Argentine reactions to the election of Cardinal Bergoglio. Jorge Fernández Díaz titled his recent column “El papa peronista.”
Juan Domingo Perón is the defining personality in modern Argentine history. He was a protean figure, hard to categorize. Some regard him as a proto-fascist, others as a proto-socialist. But all agree that he smashed the old oligarchies that dominated Argentina, setting in motion the many convulsions of populist and anti-populist movements that have roiled Argentine society. To this day a wide range of politicians claim the title “Peronist.” It’s akin to saying you’re in solidarity with “the people,” which has a very real but ill-defined meaning.
There are leftist Peronists and rightist Peronists. In the current scene in Argentina, Pope Francis is on the right. He was notably and sometimes sharply opposed to the Kirchneristas, the government of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner that has ruled for the last decade. Fernández notes the joke that God seems to be playing, having elevated a conservative Peronist to the papacy from a country ruled by a progressive one.
Fernández thinks that by and large the political establishment in Argentina will find ways to claim Pope Francis as their patron. Cristina Kirchner is off to Rome to commune with the new pope, and this in spite of refusing to meet with him on many occasions in recent years. But there are true believers on the left, “setentistas” formed by resistance to the dictatorship in the 1970s. They will continue to “abominate Francis.”
But it’s not going to be easy. “It will be difficult by any means to respond to a simple comparison. Who is more progressive? Someone who lives in Puerto Madero or Palermo Hollywood, who owns several properties, travels in planes and helicopters with armies of guards and wears gold Rolexes and designer clothes? Or a priest who lives in a completely austere environment, wears worn down shoes and a weathered coat, travels by bus and subway, eats in soup kitchens, and regularly visits the slums?”
For those not familiar with Argentina, it’s Cristina Kirchner who wears the gold watches and designer clothes. She enjoys the support of the “setentistas,” because she’s the progressive. Supposedly.
Friday, March 15, 2013, 1:29 PM
Older Posts »
News flash: The revolutionary left does not like the new Pope. An interview with Brazilian sociologist and Marxist philosopher Michael Lowy offers a particularly pure example of the reasoning behind the Latin American Left’s efforts to discredit the new pope.
His reasoning is as follows: Anyone not a thoroughgoing Marxist revolutionary is de facto complicit with the status quo. Bergoglio is clearly not a thoroughgoing Marxist. Therefore, he was complicit with the junta during their dirty war in Argentina during the 1970s. Details to follow as needed.
The Peronists in Argentina are rather less theoretical. Then Cardinal Bergoglio crossed swords with Cristina Kirchner. She’s not a fan. Meanwhile, other Peronists are lauding the new Pope as one of their own. Columnist Ricardo Roa titled his piece: “Argentine miracle: A Peronist on Saint Peter’s throne.”
It says something about American politics that our Democratic party is less likely than Argentina’s Peronists to have a divided opinion of Pope Francis. Is that because today’s Democratic party isn’t all that concerned about the poor, other than to manage and palliate? Say what you want about Peronists in Argentina (and there’s a great deal negative to say), they’re actual populists.
The Peronist reactions have helped me see that Pope Francis is very likely to represent something the secular world may find hard to fathom: conservative populism.
I like the sound of that.