Almost nobody wants to be called a prude and reactionary, a bluenose puritan and spoilsport. It would not be accurate to say that nobody wants to be perceived that way. Some, when they have been called reactionary once too often, embrace the epithet and exult in it. When he launched National Review thirty-five years ago, William E Buckley wrote that its purpose was to stand athwart history and yell Stop. As it turned out, National Review did not stop history or even slow it down. It has had a powerful influence on changing directions that our several establishments had declared to be inexorable. Nonetheless, most people do not share Mr. Buckley’s relish for a fight. They prefer to identify themselves as “moderates” safely situated between “the extremes.” Just as they would not be viewed as prudes or reactionaries, they definitely do not think of themselves as libertines or revolutionaries. The culture wars have everything to do with defining the extremes.
There is little doubt that recent decades have witnessed a distinctly conservative shift on many political and economic questions. Socialist bromides and the notion that human problems can be resolved by government programs are ideas that have been, at least for a time, discredited. Support for market incentives and the empowerment of people to control their own lives is no longer thought to be reactionary. On the contrary, it is generally recognized that those two components are at the heart of truly progressive thinking about society. To be sure, such progressive thinking is today often called conservative, but that only means that conservatism bas become “the smart party,” while its opponents seem to be mired in the failed programs and tired slogans of the past. Not for nothing bas liberalism become a term of opprobrium. One may have some sympathy for those who insist that their version of “authentic liberalism” bas not been tried yet, but their complaint is inescapably touched by a tone of desperation.
The political and the economic are important, and those who call themselves conservative can take considerable satisfaction from the trends of the last three decades. Of course their cause was mightily boosted by the Revolution of 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe, a revolution that exploded socialist utopianisms quite beyond the force of all the arguments, exposes, and polemics fired since 1917. Beyond the political and economic, however, is that comprehensive and often vaguely understood sphere that we call the cultural. Culture is conventionally discussed in the puffball terminology of “values.” More substantially, it has to do with shared convictions about what is right and what is wrong, what is noble and what is base, what is decent and what is obscene. Compared with politics and economics, culture is thought to be the “soft” dimension of public life. Quite the opposite is the case, however. Politicians appear to be engaged in gaseous abstractions and economists in the reading of entrails compared with the immediacy and consequentiality of questions cultural.
Culture is the way we live, and the way we live in argument with the way we think we ought to live. It has to do with what we eat, wear, watch, admire, and abhor. It has to do with dating, and marriage, and raising children, and trying to get a grasp on what it means to live a good life before our lives are over. These, as any sensible person knows, are the hard questions. A sensible person is here defined as one who immediately and without further explanation recognizes the truth of Dr. Johnson’s observation, “How small, of all that human hearts endure. That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”
For sensible people, whether the Fed raises the interest rate or there is a Democratic majority in the Senate pales in importance by comparison with whether Junior is on drugs or his father is seeing that other woman. This testifies to more than the truism that the personal is more important to most of us than the general. (Although many people have been convinced, apparently, that what is in the morning headlines somehow matters more than how they are living their own lives.) The point here is that the general reality called the cultural has a greater impact, for better and for worse, than the general realities called politics and economics. Admittedly, we are speaking in general. If the politicians stumble into world war or the economy nosedives into deepest recession, the impact upon the personal can be impressive indeed. Barring those extremities, however, how we live our lives and how we think we ought to live our lives—i.e., the cultural—is of premier importance.
Evidence of a Conservative Shift
Now a case can be made that also in the realm of the cultural there has been a conservative shift over the last three decades. The contrast with the 1960s is instructive and not altogether unencouraging. Most of the countercultural liberationisms of that time are now viewed as silly and destructive by all but the silly and destructive tenured professors who never tire of retelling the bliss it was to be alive and young in the Age of Aquarius. Consider the drug culture. Then the term was associated with the adventuresome and the chic. Now it denotes, almost without exception, the desperation of wasted lives in the urban underclass. The swingers, the singles bars, the open marriages—all are now consigned to a sordid past. For the most part.
In case after case, the counterculture has been effectively countered. Or so it would seem. Marriage is back, and it is by no means unfashionable to say a good word for fidelity. Women who were once persuaded that they could “have it all” are recognizing that choices must be made, and a growing number make no apology for choosing home and children. Making it in the male world increasingly seems less an achievement than a confinement. To be sure, at the margins the feminist battles are still pressed. There was a great fuss and flurry about the woman reporter demanding her right to hang out in the football locker room. “A woman’s place is any place,” the New York Times sententiously opined. More sensible people laughed and allowed as how it was best to leave the boys to their games.
There are other positive indications. Having rediscovered the merits of marriage, an increasing number of very bright young people have bit upon the idea that marriage and children seem to go nicely together. We will not be surprised if very soon the statistics indicate that the “birth dearth” has bottomed out. In all our years in New York, we have never seen so many prams on the street, or so many women looking quite pleased about being expectant. (That is anecdotal information, admittedly, but then real life is mainly anecdotal.) For all the sadness attending the black underclass in our cities, the awareness of the phenomenon seems to have made it the conventional wisdom again that, without marriage, stable families, and regular work, life is likely to turn into an awful mess. That that wisdom was for a time unconventional is an indication of how determined some were to blind themselves to the obvious.
In addition, it seems that we are on the edge of being able to talk again in public about public decency. Oceans of ink have been spent on the controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts and its funding of what most sensible people think to be pornography, albeit sometimes very “artistic” pornography While the Congress will extend NEA for a time, the champions of its old ways can take little comfort from the legal restraints placed upon its libertine propensities. The cant and clamor about censorship and First Amendment rights notwithstanding, it has penetrated even most political minds that there is something not a little outrageous about expecting taxpayers to put up the money for “art” that is expressly intended to outrage them. If people insist upon taking pictures of men peeing into one another’s mouths, they should do it on their own dime, and preferably behind closed doors. Most Americans would rather not know about it. They are reluctant to send in the cops, but neither do they want to pay for activities that, try as they might, strike them as perverse. It is one of the happy failures of our educational system that it has not succeeded in persuading normal people that there is nothing abnormal.
And so it would seem that, on several cultural fronts, we are witnessing a veritable renascence of common sense. In addition to the evidences above, there is much discussion of how those who were dismissively called yuppies are now returning, or turning for the first time, to religion. On the most fevered of moral issues in public, namely abortion, there is an expanding consensus that the question is how and when the unborn should be protected by law, rather than whether they should be protected at all. Put it all together, and one can make an impressive case that there is underway a popular, and possibly long-term, shift toward cultural conservatism, or, as some might prefer, toward the perennial wisdom about how we ought to live together once the subordinate questions of politics and economics have been settled.
Just when you thought it was safe to go out again, enter developments to the contrary. Perhaps they are not so much to the contrary as they are simply complicating developments. The liberationisms of the sixties are thriving, and in fact becoming more aggressive, in some sectors of society Notably in the universities, more “progressive” church circles, and the communications media. These, as scholars have explained in great detail, are the chief dens of “knowledge class” iniquity. These are the kingdoms of the experts, the domains of people who are paid to know. And one thing they know for certain is that any opinion that is popular is almost sure to be wrong. Their calling is to take the unpopular side, and they boldly do so, especially when taking any other side is, within their little worlds, dangerously unpopular. That is why intellectuals and would-be intellectuals are described as a herd of independent minds.
For a while, and this was not without its embarrassments, it seemed that the knowledge class had prevailed. As with prophets of whom all speak well, there is an awkwardness when elitists are popularly acclaimed. But the rewards made up for the awkwardness, and we were for a decade and more presented with the declared triumph of “the greening of America,” the arrival of “Consciousness III,” and other cultural transformations of the bad, uptight (remember uptight?), oppressive way that—or so it was said—America used to be. The jargon of cultural revolution that now seems so quaint was very much preoccupied with sex. The protagonists of the counterculture had sex on the mind, which, as Chesterton observed, is a very unsatisfactory place to have it. They still do have sex on the mind.
The afterglow of the cultural revolution that failed is, as noted earlier, burning brightly in the little worlds of liberal religion. Those worlds are becoming littler year by year, but those in charge of them claim not to be fazed. This, they say, has always been the fate of prophets who keep the faith. A different dynamic is at work in the communications and entertainment media. They are, after all, commercial enterprises. ABC and CHS must remain at least within hailing distance of the popular mood if they are to sell the advertising that pays the bloated salaries of its so very progressive stars. The prospect of boycotts and sponsor cancellations bas a wonderful way of concentrating the mind. The universities, the third institutional refuge of radicalisms past, are not similarly inhibited. Buffered by endowments, tax funds, an inflexible tenure system, and the aura of academic freedom, they are free to impose the party line of yesteryear’s liberations until the retirement of the last professor who lives his life in nostalgic remembrance of being briefly alive at Woodstock. What were once cultural eruptions are now ossified in quotas, entitlements, and rules against free speech that violates politically correct opinion. Pondering the place of universities in our culture, Chester Finn aptly describes them as islands of repression in a sea of freedom.
Yet Another Force
In addition to these three institutional homes for the refugees from radicalisms past—the churches, the media, the universities—there is another force that seems to be increasingly aggressive. Moving beyond the three enclaves of countercultural shelter, homosexual activism is a growing factor in our politics, especially in urban politics. In San Francisco and New York, of course, but not only there. In the view of many, the cause of “gay rights” is very much on the ascendancy. It is joined by radical feminism but, within the movement itself, it is recognized (and much lamented by the feminists) that the women are something of an appendage. Lest there be any misunderstanding, we are speaking of radical feminism; that is to say, women who make no secret of the fact that they do not like men, that they view the institution of marriage as a kind of incarceration, and that they consider heterosexual intercourse to be tantamount to rape. Such radical feminists are, as often as not, the admittedly lesbian adjunct to gay activism.
Movements for women’s rights, taking on various hues of radicality, are nothing new. They have been coming and going for at least two centuries. Women’s movements come on as a fundamental challenge to the gender-related institutions and habits of the ages, and then recede while consoling themselves that they have attained a greater measure of equality. Homosexual activism is something new. What started twenty years ago is unprecedented in our cultural history. The homosexual movement is inherently and of necessity fundamental in its challenge. Unlike feminism, it cannot settle for adjustments in the relationships between women and men within the institution of the family.
The organized homosexual cause bas no choice but to be at war with those relationships and with that institution. In the past, homosexuals, if they were known as such, hoped to be viewed with tolerance as a relatively harmless exception or even deviation from the norm. Today, to “come out of the closet” is to declare war on the norm. And those who refuse to come out on their own are increasingly being publicly exposed (it is called “outing”) by activists who declare war on their behalf. The challenge is unquestionably fundamental. It is a challenge both to the majority culture and to the previously discreet subculture of the “gay world,” the existence of which cosmopolitans have always taken for granted.
By the early seventies, homosexuality had hitched a ride with the civil rights cause. Now everybody was a victim, everybody claimed to be the “nigger” of societal oppression. Remarkably enough, the civil rights leadership welcomed gay activists as allies, thus endorsing the inevitable blurring of the specificity of race-based grievances. The gay activists no longer demanded tolerance or a tacit acknowledgment of their “lifestyle” in a pluralistic society. Everything must now be made explicit. Past habits of homosexual discretion were now condemned as betrayal. The wisdom of La Rouchefoucauld, that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, was repudiated. The cry went up. No more hypocrisy! Hypocrisy would be ended not simply by vice refusing to pay homage but by vice demanding to be accepted as virtue.
In the late seventies the push was on for “gay rights bills” around the country. Many communities resisted. In New York the resistance was led by the Roman Catholic archdiocese and Orthodox Jews, and a gay rights bill was not passed until 1986. Such bills focused on prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment and most Americans, being Americans, thought that fair enough. The late Paul Ramsey of Princeton was among the few in mainstream Protestantism who argued publicly that such gay rights bills were a ruse. They were not aimed, he contended, at remedying an injustice but at redefining justice. Justice, according to the proponents of such bills, requires that the society be prevented from publicly indicating its preference that people deal with their sexuality in a manner supportive of family and children. When accused of being anti-family, the gay activists and their allies protested vigorously, while at the same time engaging in an intensive campaign to “redefine” family out of existence. That campaign reached its apogee in the ill-fated White House Conference on Families under the auspices of Jimmy Carter.
The Critical Wedge
That Paul Ramsey and other critics were right is now evident to all who have eyes to see. Far from being the pathetic victims of discrimination, homosexuals in our major cities are among the most affluent and influential of citizens. This should come as no surprise. Well-educated professionals with no dependents have an extraordinary advantage in discretionary time and income. The reality has not been lost on politicians and businessmen in our urban centers. Were homosexuals the victims of discrimination, one would have expected an upsurge of housing and job complaints after the passage of gay rights bills. In fact, that has not happened. The gay rights bills were important for a quite different reason. They were a critically important wedge, opening the way to additional steps in relativizing the social and moral status of heterosexuality and the family.
The additional steps followed quickly. Some cities and university-dominated small towns have arranged for marriage-like registrations of homosexual partnerships. New York State has decreed that such partners are entitled to inherit rights to rent-controlled apartments. Employers are being successfully sued for death benefits coming to the “spouse” in a homosexual relationship. Mayor David Dinkins of New York boasts of the number of lesbians he bas appointed to family courts. Dinkins articulated the grand vision. Addressing the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination last spring, he noted that, “It’s the media that shapes the attitudes that prevail in our culture . . . . Where are the gay characters on TV sitcoms? Why are there not more lesbians on soap operas? When will there be an out-of-the-closet commentator or anchor on national television or on the local news?”
Giving the lie to the notion that homosexuals are denied access to housing or employment, Dinkins goes on: “Gays and lesbians serve in government, as teachers, as police officers, as corporate executives, and they ought to stand prominently and proudly in the media spotlight as well. Only then will the fact of homosexuality become an accepted part of the reality of America, a real land of liberty in which you ought to be able to hold hands without fear of assault, or kiss your lover goodbye without worrying about who is watching.” What must become “an accepted part of the reality of America” is that discretion is no longer required in departing from the assumed normality of male-female relationships. In that ideal world, presumably, there would be no Greenwich Village, for the dominant “lifestyle” of the Village would be the at least equally accepted lifestyle everywhere. Probably closer to the reality, the goal is to somehow force the working class boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn to publicly approve of Greenwich Village.
That goal is not easy to achieve. Perhaps because they recognize that, gay activists have become ever more desperately aggressive. Act-Up, among the most strident organizations, has regularly disrupted services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in one notorious instance breaking up a mass and desecrating the consecrated elements. Queer Nation is the name of a militant group that aims to force the majority to accept homosexuality by reverse epithet, much as some militant blacks call themselves “bad niggers.” A few years ago it was declared a great victory when the city went along with reverse discrimination, opening a high school just for more aggressively homosexual students.
Of course readers may think, with some justice, that New York bas always been more than a little crazy. With respect to homosexuality and other “alternative lifestyles,” New York and San Francisco constitute a two-ring circus that the rest of the nation watches more with amusement than alarm. True, New York remains, for better and definitely for worse, the cultural and media center of the nation, indeed of the world. Its influence on Duluth and Dubuque cannot be dismissed lightly. That said, however, homosexual activism here may have gone as far as it can go. In this connection. New York may be more the backwater than the avant garde. Most cities cannot muster the “critical mass” of homosexualism that makes this circus possible. New York may well reduce the homosexual influence in Duluth and Dubuque by serving as a magnet that draws gays who want to act up in the big time. And political clout, as represented by David Dinkins, could be shakier than it appears. His administration is in a hopeless shambles and it seems likely that be is a one-term mayor. So maybe this most publicized assault on the family by homosexuals and radical feminists should be no great cause for concern within the national context of a culture sobering up after an extended liberationist binge.
Paying the Price
Nonetheless, serious damage is being done. As usual, the price is being paid by those least able to pay it. In New York City, that means the black and Hispanic children caught in the financially bloated and educationally decrepit public school system. The school bureaucracy, cheered on by gay activists, has announced its intention to distribute free condoms in the high schools, and maybe in the junior highs. This is advertised as a campaign to reduce the incidence of AIDS by encouraging “safe sex.” The message could not be clearer. It is that teenagers among the poor are incorrigibly rutting animals incapable of taking charge of their lives. The message is also that the schools must be “value free” with respect to sexuality. There must be no hint of censure, nor the slightest suggestion that one way is better than another. Fornication, adultery, and, of course, homosexuality are but different ways of seeking the sexual satisfaction to which we are all entitled. Each has its own way of “bonding,” and results in its own kind of “family.” And, needless to say, we “value” family very highly indeed.
These programs are sold under the label of public health. This despite the fact that study after study over the last fifteen years has shown that value-free sex education, combined with access to contraceptives, results in an increase rather than a decrease of adolescent sexual activity, venereal disease, and teenage pregnancy. Nonetheless, educational authorities keep a straight face while declaring, among other things, that the way to reduce AIDS is to teach children that homosexuality is an equally “viable” form of sexual expression. Critics say that homosexual activists press for the promotion of homosexuality in the schools in order to bend young people of an impressionable age toward their “lifestyle.” We might hesitate to judge motives, but one reality is beyond reasonable doubt. The same programs and propaganda would not be tolerated in the schools of the middle class and affluent. The children of the underclass are a captive audience, in the fullest sense of “captive.”
They have no choice. They have to go to the schools that everybody else has abandoned. They are the ones who are left. They are the guinea pigs of the cultural revolutionaries who have been rejected by the larger culture. In communities of the black underclass, where over the last quarter century the institution of the family has for all practical purposes disappeared, children are taught about the oppressive nature of the “nuclear family” that they have never known. Their teachers and textbooks sneer at the “Ozzie and Harriet” families that will, just as the teachers and textbooks say, remain for these children always a “myth.” It is an unspeakably cruel thing to do to little children.
Such, then, are notes on the culture wars. In the economic and political spheres, there are heartening signs of something like a turn toward sanity. Similar signs are evident in the culture. Sinecured silliness holds broad sway in the mainstream churches, in the universities, and in the media. What used to be the mainstream churches are drying up; the media, however reluctantly and erratically, adjust to their markets; and tenured professors will one day die, making room for a generation that is not prepared to spend its years living in the afterglow of youthful radicalisms. There is reason to be hopeful about the future. Except for the captive children of the underclass. They will continue to be the victims of the cultural revolutionaries from whom the larger society has turned away in disgust.
One Morning’s Orthodoxies
It’s a rule of thumb you can count on. The most entrenched orthodoxies are the ones that are least in need of articulation. They are the taken-for-granted assumptions, they float in the ideational air that we breathe. It has been observed that, if you wanted an intelligent opinion on water, the last parties you would go to would be the fish who swim in it. They have never had occasion to think about water—until they are rudely deprived of it. That is why, at our house, we begin the day with the office of Morning Prayer before being reimmersed for another day in the world according to the New York Times. Morning Prayer posits a counter-orthodoxy that alerts one to the orthodoxies in which he might otherwise thoughtlessly swim.
Almost any day of Times-reading will serve to illustrate the point. Today, for example. We choose three orthodoxies more or less at random. Here is a story about those independent conservative (ugh) newspapers that are springing up on college campuses around the country. The determined investigative reporter exposes the sinister finding that, wouldn’t you know it, the papers are being supported by conservatives. We are told that the official student papers receive no such outside funding. We are not told that the papers of Politically Correct Opinion (PCO) live off hundreds of thousands of dollars taken, involuntarily, from student fees at state and private schools. The independent papers are, by their very existence, violating the established way of doing things. Even worse, they push opinion outrageously nonsubservient to what we are all supposed to take for granted. For instance, the Campus Review at the University of Iowa has preposterously editorialized that there is a connection between AIDS and homosexual coupling. This in a time when enlightened opinion has established that AIDS, in a manner ever so complex, is the fault of homophobic bigots who disapprove of homosexual coupling.
For another example, there are two stories this morning about the “crisis” of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church. Some mornings there is only one. Deemed worthy of sixteen column inches this morning is a report of a rumor that a Vatican official wrote an American bishop inquiring why be had met with a group of priests who had married and now want to be restored to their ministries. The reporter admits he has not seen the letter, but he talked to some unnamed informants who said they had. Here we have two orthodoxies offended. The first is that any inquiry by the Vatican into what is going on in the American Catholic Church—as distinct from the Roman Catholic Church—is deeply menacing. (Alternatively, the Times complains that Rome does not make an effort to understand Catholicism in this country.) The second orthodoxy offended is that regular genital exercise is essential to healthy living. In this view, chastity is deprivation, celibacy is perversion, and virginity is simply risible.
But among this morning’s passel of orthodoxies, the prize must go to another story. It seems that Scientific American denied a job to the gifted science writer, Forrest M. Mims III. Mr. Mims had been doing a column for the magazine, titled “Amateur Scientist.” But then his awful secret was discovered. According to Armand Schwab, who was managing editor when the decision was made, Mr. Mims “was a nonbeliever in evolution.” Mims, it turns out, is one of those Christians who believes the world was created. Apparently be goes so far as to think the creation involved a Creator. Ever vigilant against extremisms, editor Jonathan Piel determined that hiring Mims would compromise the magazine’s integrity The Times reports: “Mr. Piel denied in a recent telephone interview that Mr. Mims had been the victim of religious discrimination. ‘Scientific American has never discriminated against anyone on the basis of their religious beliefs and it never will,’ be said. He declined to elaborate or answer other questions.”
To the credit of our culture’s chief purveyor of parochial orthodoxies, the Times editor in charge of the story apparently thought this a bit much, as indicated by the headline: “Hire a Creationist? A Nonbeliever in Darwin? Not at a Proud Science journal.” On second thought, maybe the story was considered a bit much because it challenged another orthodoxy, one more deeply entrenched even than evolutionary theory. “The case of Mr. Mims,” we are told, “raises the difficult questions of whether and when a potential employer can take a job candidate’s private beliefs into account.” The orthodoxy asserted here, of course, is that religion is an entirely private matter that must not be permitted to impinge upon the real world where important things like jobs are at stake.
Mr. Mims, one gathers, goes along with that, for he is “adamant in asserting that he has never allowed his religious beliefs to influence his scientific writing.” Maybe he should. In any event, Mims is still hoping that Scientific American might someday change its mind. “I even told them I could be their token Christian, but they didn’t smile at that.” Also unsmiling were the scientific experts consulted by the Times. Said a Dr. Olson of the University of California: “If it were known that Mims was a creationist, it would give quite a boost to those pushing creation science, which I take to be an oxymoron. I would be against having such a person writing a column because at the base this philosophy could enter everything one does in science.”
A biologist at the University of Texas observed: “I certainly understand Scientific American’s point of view. It’s difficult for biologists when people who have studied science come forward with this view. It doesn’t make it true, but it does attract attention” (emphasis added). Apparently there is no problem when the idea of creation is espoused by Bible-thumping ignoramuses. But when somebody who has been initiated into the sacred mysteries of science takes that view, things have clearly gotten out of hand. Another professor of biology notes that Mim is a physicist and says “a surprising number” of physicists believe in creation. “The physical sciences do not require a working knowledge of evolution,” he explained, “which the life sciences, by any reasonable account, do.” Readers of this journal, recalling Philip Johnson’s splendid “Evolution as Dogma” (October 1990), will not be surprised by the nervousness of the cognition cops patrolling the borders of Scientific American.
These, then, are but three of the more notable orthodoxies propounded in today’s edition of our most respectable local newspaper. That is why it is so important to do Morning Prayer before reading the Times, so that you are aware of the ideational waters in which this unhappy world swims. After a full day of immersion, it is a very good idea to clear mind and soul with Evening Prayer as well.
Jews and Liberalism
Here is an important study by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, done for the American Jewish Committee. The Dimensions of American Jewish Liberalism examines why Jews tend to be ever so much more liberal on social and political questions than do other Americans. Cohen looks at the survey research data on the standard issues that are usually taken to distinguish right from left: affirmative action, social welfare programs, taxing and spending, church and state, abortion, gay rights, pornography, capital punishment, and views of the news media. On issue after issue, Jews are more liberal, often dramatically so, than others.
Not always, however. On capital punishment, for instance: three-quarters of Jews and three-quarters of white gentiles oppose abolishing it. (Fifty percent of blacks favor abolition.) Why do Jews break with the liberal stereotype on this issue? Cohen suggests it may have to do with most Jews living in or near urban areas with high crime rates. “Another clue,” he writes, “may lie in the fact that, according to previous surveys, Jews connect social disorder and violence with anti-Semitism. A certain historically informed Jewish consciousness suggests that the breakdown of public order is a harbinger of pogroms. Thus Jews may feel more keenly the need to ‘crack down’ on murderers by maintaining the death penalty.”
But capital punishment is the exception. On abortion, for example, a mere one percent of Jews favor a complete ban. Eighty-seven percent—twice as many as among non-Jews—say that abortion should be “legal as it is now.” The disparity between Jews and others is evident also when the question is asked whether one would support an unmarried teenage daughter’s decision to procure an abortion. “In other words,” Cohen remarks, “Jews may not only be more civil libertarian in public policy, but also more ‘libertine’ in private morality.” On matters of homosexuality and pornography, Jews are similarly more “accepting” than other Americans. (Cohen’s research, like many others, shows that, on social and moral issues, black Americans tend to be more conservative than most.)
How, then, does Cohen explain the liberal propensities of American Jews? “Jews are more liberal than other Americans because they had more liberal parents; more of them went to college and more obtained graduate degrees; and fewer are religious.” Also important is a pervasive “sense of marginality” in American life. “Moreover, feeling threatened by anti-Semitism and tending to identify their antagonists as clustering more on the right than on the left, many Jews feel impelled to support liberals and Democrats.” Although the shift has been underway for more than a quarter century, most Jews seem not to have noticed that anti-Semitism has Anti-Israeli agitation in liberal church and political circles, sympathy for black groups expressly hostile to Jews, and the anti-Jewish effusions of such as Gore Vidal in The Nation are all leftist phenomena. Yet much more public criticism is directed at the allegedly anti-Semitic statements of conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Joe Sobran, thus reinforcing a Jewish perception that the enemy is on the right. Habits of perception die hard.
Cohen concludes: “Jewish liberalism, then, arises out of social factors that happen to characterize many American Jews. Other Americans with the same education, with the same religiosity (or lack thereof), and with parents of the same political stripe would be almost as liberal as comparable Jews. But Jewish liberalism has a peculiarly Jewish dimension. It is the sense of being a minority, of not quite belonging, that lies at the heart of American Jewish identity.”
Charles Silberman (A Certain People) and other students of American Judaism argue that there is something almost surreal about Jewish feelings of insecurity. Never, not anywhere, have Jews been so secure as they are in America. Beyond security, the evidence of the stunning success of Jews in America is overwhelming. But human beings are not usually argued into their anxieties, and therefore cannot be argued out of them. Jews constitute roughly 2 percent of the population. That most Jews are inclined to think in terms of “us” and “them” is perhaps inevitable. To the extent that Jews are encouraged to overcome that way of thinking—at least in its more anxiety-ridden forms—there may be a movement toward more centrist positions on social and political issues that touch upon the common good. One thing is clear: The surest way to entrench Jewish thinking in terms of “us” and “them” is for non-Jews to think and talk in terms of “us” and “them.” (The Cohen study is available for $5 from the American Jewish Committee, Institute of Human Relations, 165 East 56 St., New York, NY 10022.)
Our friend Richard Brookhiser takes Allan Bloom to task at precisely the point where he needs to be taken to task. More than one commentator on Bloom’s immensely successful The Closing of the American Mind noted his blindness to some aspects of American life and thought that are overwhelmingly obvious to most observers. Religion, for example. Before getting to Brookhiser, we should note in Bloom’s defense that he is a student of philosopher Leo Strauss (d. 1973). Now Straussians are a strange and wondrous lot. Spend any time with them and it quickly becomes evident that there were two or three or maybe more Leo Strausses—especially on the subject of the connections between Athens and Jerusalem. We have been pleased to know Straussians who learned from the Master that the life of the mind and the life of the spirit are inherently antithetical. Others inform us that he so revered religion that he paid it the tribute of his silence. Yet others knew a Strauss who deemed religion to be a useful lie for keeping the great unwashed in line. And we have run into a Straussian or two who assure us that The Great One was a deeply religious soul who did not live long enough to get his final thinking about the ultimate truths of Jerusalem on record.
However many Strausses there were, there is only one Allan Bloom, and to him Rick Brookhiser attends in reviewing his recent book of essays, Giants and Dwarfs. “Bloom’s most striking failing is his inattention to religion. The flyover from Aristotle to Machiavelli is typical. The only medieval philosophers Bloom discusses in any detail are Maimonides and the Arab Alfarabi, and be discusses them only as secret believers in the irreconcilability of philosophy and revelation.
“If he scants the Catholic centuries, he ignores Protestantism. This leads to odd misjudgments of America. Religion has been ‘totally transformed’ here, he writes, under the influence of contract theorists and the society they created. Bloom does not know or does not consider that Jefferson described his ‘wall of separation’ in a letter to a group of Baptists; or that the dismantling of theocracy in New England a century earlier was as much the result of theological conundrums—how could the authorities tell who was a saint?—as of the need to accommodate non-Puritans. The religions of America created American religious liberty, not the other way around.
“Bloom takes his dim view of religions because, as he says over and over, theology is the only possible rival to philosophy as a guide to truth, and it’s obvious which side of that quarrel be comes down on. But if be had approached religions as serious alternatives, he would have had a folder of wiser essays to choose from.”
He died October 22, on the eve of his seventy-ninth birthday. He was, quite simply, a hero. As a young man at Jan Hus Protestant Theological Seminary in Prague, Blaho Hruby witnessed the rise of Nazism and received his vocation to a life of resistance. Ministering to refugees in Paris, he escaped just moments before the Nazi takeover and went to Marseilles where he helped Jews and others flee to safety. In 1945 he returned to his native’ Czechoslovakia with Patton’s Third Army. It was soon evident to Blaho that the terror of Nazism was being succeeded by another of at least equal dimensions.
In Prague be met and married Olga, a student activist who shared his understanding that the world was divided anew between free and unfree. After several of their close friends had been arrested and executed, the Hrubys fled to America where, in 1962 under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, they launched a new publication, RCDA—Religion in Communist Dominated Areas. By 1971 it was no longer thought to be in good taste to draw attention to the victims of Communism’s ruthless violations of religious and other human rights. The National Council of Churches withdrew its sponsorship of RCDA, and the Hrubys, with the help of a few friends, established the independent Research Center for Religion and Human Rights in Closed Societies. Throughout the Cold War, RCDA was one of the few reliable sources of information about religious and human rights developments behind the iron curtain.
Numerous dissidents have generously acknowledged their debt to RCDA for bringing their plight to the attention of the West. They include Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Ginzburg, Rev. Georgi Vins, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vaclav Havel, and victims of persecution among Ukrainian and Lithuanian Catholics, Soviet Evangelicals and Jews, Crimean Tatars, and Bulgarian Turks. In July of 1990, Blaho Hruby was able to return to a liberated Czechoslovakia. His contribution was recognized by now-President Vaclav Havel: “You were among the few who paid attention to the oppressed at a time when it was not at all lucrative. For that you deserve most heartfelt thanks.”
In times of sickness, sometimes almost alone, with slight financial support, shunned by many as “cold warriors,” Blaho and Olga Hruby sought out the persecuted and told their stories to a world and a church that often did not want to bear. When the account of the great terror that was Communism is finally rendered, their work and witness will shine brightly against the dark background of the indifference of most Christians in the West. Olga is determined that the Research Center will continue, helping Christians and Jews in Eastern Europe to work through the ethnic and religious conflicts erupting in the wake of the evil empire’s collapse. There is no doubt that Blabo, now commended to the Light that lighted his life, would approve. By his time among us, we have all been ennobled, and heartened in the vocation to resistance.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Humorist Russell Baker, in a column titled “Ethicizationism,” notes that in the old days David Susskind’s Sunday night show “always had a band of clerics, professors, and columnists trying to sort the right from the wrong in the issue of the week, but it seemed mere amateur’s sport.” It is different today. “The development of modern ethicism has changed all that. Nowadays when the host summons the panel to the big, big question, and the camera moves in on a cool professional countenance, and you see the word ‘ETHICIST’ spelled out under his picture, you feel safe and assured.” Baker is well aware that “breakthroughs” in medical technology—embryo transplants and all that—have created questions that, we are incessantly instructed, the ancients never gave a thought to. “It is laughable to think of the old Susskind panelists trying to solve such questions,” says Baker. “Those amateurs could agonize, and they could sympathize. They could even empathize, but they could not ethicize.” As it happens, your editor appeared from time to time on that old Susskind show, so he may be a bit touchy on the subject. Not, mind you, because he has been shoved aside by the ubiquitous new breed called ethicist. He is, in fact, frequently referred to as an ethicist—by others, never by himself. Ethicist is a title easily earned by anyone of credibly furrowed brow who regularly writes, speaks, and is otherwise publicly ponderous about the big, big questions. What Baker is getting at, if we understand him aright, is that “ethicizationism” is an instance of pseudo-professionalism. The rise of ethics as a profession is in tandem with the decline of morality as a practice. Business, medicine, government, and sundry sciences avail themselves of ethicists-for-hire when they want permission to do what used to be morally forbidden. The results, unlike Russell Baker’s column, are not funny.
♦ Garry Wills’ new book is out, Under God: Religion and American Politics. This journal will be paying it attention in the review section. Your editor reviewed it early for the Boston Globe, and has since followed with interest what other reviewers are making of it. Our judgment was that it is, all in all, a pretty good book. It is refreshing to have a left-of-center author demonstrate so effectively the blindness of cultural elites to the power and pervasiveness of religion in American life. Admittedly, one is disappointed that Wills refuses to step out of the liberal line by drawing appropriate conclusions. For instance, he quite demolishes Mario Cuomo’s position on abortion (“Personally opposed, but . . . ”) while being no more willing than Cuomo to lift a finger in protecting the unborn and other endangered members of the human species. Nonetheless, we thought it a book well worth reading. Not so with the reviewer chosen by the New York Times Book Review—Hugh Brogan of Essex University in England. Mr. Brogan writes this: “It is true that the secularization of the American mind is not proceeding rapidly, if at all.” But he deplores Wills’ failure to deal with those “who have faced up to the universe revealed by science.” “Doubt,” he counsels us, “can be as strengthening and comforting a condition as faith, and is much more congenial to the modern mind. Mr. Wills does not have to succumb to its assault, but a book on religion that shirks this, the greatest challenge that the churches have to face, is indeed evasive.” Note that the reviewer’s post-religious sensibility piously appeals to what is “revealed” by science. Note his belief that the thinking of the vast majority of Americans has not caught up with “the modern mind.” Mr. Brogan concludes his review with a complaint that Wills spends some time discussing views of when human life begins. “Anyone who apparently cannot see that such a discussion is, in the strictest possible sense of the word, nonsense,” writes Brogan, “is either unqualified for his task or up to no good.” Note that Mr. Brogan is, in a manner most egregiously exemplified by English dons opining on things American, a supercilious ass.
David Dinkins quote in Catholic New York, October 1, 1990. On orthodoxies, the New York Times October 24, 1990. Brookhiser on Bloom in National Review, October 15, 1990. Russell Baker in the New York Times, October 27, 1990. Hugh Brogan on Garry Wills in the New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1990.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?