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Choose Your Own Narrative

The main problem with George Weigel’s evaluation (“A Campaign of Narratives,” March 2009) of the recent presidential election”besides the blindness due to his own involvement in supporting and rationalizing Bush’s tragic, do-it-on-the-cheap war in Iraq and how that misdirected expenditure of American lives affected the morale of the nation”is that it offers no explanation for the eyebrow-raising fact reported by John Green elsewhere in the March edition: Conservative Catholics voted for Obama at an astounding 17 percent greater rate than they had for John Kerry. Nothing in Weigel’s narrative begins to explain that number.

I drive through rural Ohio every day, a land of conservative farmers whose contempt for the likes of Bill Ayers no doubt exceeds Weigel’s. But beginning with the senatorial and gubernatorial elections of 2006, it became abundantly clear that something had changed in these rural areas that had always served as a sharp political counterpoint to the urban areas of northeast Ohio. Not just a few of these Republicans helped vote the still well-liked moderate Mike DeWine out of office for the sake of left-wing Sherrod Brown and sent down to a resounding, embarrassing defeat the conservative gubernatorial candidate, Ken Blackwell. None of these folks who acted so ominously in 2006 fit anywhere into Weigel’s attempt to spin what happened in 2008.

I write as someone who voted for McCain, as I did twice for Bush, holding my nose, especially in 2004, for the sake of unborn children. I don’t expect Weigel will ever agree with me concerning Iraq, for too much of his reputation now depends on continuing to defend it, but I am rather surprised to see him put forward such a simplistic analysis of the past political year. No doubt the press and the academy are skewed in a liberal direction that greatly favored Obama, but that never kept Bush from victory despite his being perhaps the most inarticulate politician at any major level in recent decades. No, the reality of the Obama win lies instead in a loss of trust of moderate and even some conservative Americans in the Republican brand itself.

As Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson are two of my political heroes, I do not share Weigel’s hoity-toity aversion to populism. But beside that, McCain”with his zillionaire wife and cars and houses beyond easy numbering”is no populist, and his efforts in that direction were silly. A true populist like Mike Huckabee would not have had his campaign crippled when the economy went into collapse.

For that matter, one of the important stories of 2008 was how prominent social conservatives at first ­discounted Huckabee in favor of a rich Mormon mannequin with his finger in the wind and then dabbled with lukewarm others, embracing the only truly heartfelt pro-lifer on the slate only when it was too late. The key event and most fateful action during the Republican-primary season was when, despite Huckabee’s surging support and evident ability to win out-of-region votes in Iowa, the National Right to Life Committee instead backed the yawn-a-minute Fred Thompson in the South Carolina primary on the thesis that he was “electable.” Thompson promptly displayed how electable he was in the minds of actual voters by finishing far back, but he took just enough pro-life votes away from Huckabee to give South Carolina to McCain. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

What this adds up to is a far more credible story than the one Weigel presents: a party in deep crisis, and”to the extent that social conservatives have no one else to carry the ball right now”a movement with profound conviction and enduring commitment but no political or intellectual generals of much skill or wisdom. The crisis is further complicated by the too-little-discussed fact that many social conservatives do not share the economic conservatism of most of the movement’s intellectuals and political allies or many other aspects of the secular-right agenda. This means the alliance is a weak one, and weakened enough by an economic crisis and a bloody and dubious war to have given tw

o branches of government back to the Democrats.

Those Ohio farmers I spoke of are, by and large, strongly pro-life. Their thinking on issues of sexual morality bears little resemblance to that of the Democratic left, and it is humorous to attribute to them the “Bush Derangment Syndrome,” a centerpiece of Weigel’s article. But they also know people in their small towns who cannot get health insurance for their families, who have had pensions justly bargained for wiped out, who have had sons and husbands sent on multiple tours to the far side of the world by a president who spent the war of his own youth protecting the skies of Texas on occasional weekends. And they know that when something hasn’t worked, you don’t ask for more of it.

Mark Gronceski
Warren, Ohio

George Weigel laments that the electorate is unable to talk sensibly about such things as “lifetyle libertinism, moral relativism, and soft multilateralism.” He points out that “personal narrative has replaced the contest of issues and ideas as the driving force of electoral politics” and that “elections are substantively vacuous.” To illustrate, I offer these three examples of voters and lament that they are probably representative of countless others.

During the campaign, a woman in her mid-twenties told me she would not vote for Gov. Sarah Palin because “Palin is so stupid she doesn’t even know where Alaska is.” I asked what she meant, and she explained that in a TV interview Palin had referred to Alaska as “up North,” whereas everyone knows Alaska is “down there with Hawaii south of California.” I surmise that her knowledge of geography is based on seeing textbooks depicting the U.S. map with an insert for Alaska and Hawaii placed in the lower left-hand corner, underneath California. When I gently explained where Alaska is, she dismissed it with, “Well, Palin’s stupid anyway.” A second voter, a man about thirty, said he would vote for Obama rather than McCain because “Obama has young children so he probably cares more about the future than McCain does.” A Catholic nun was enthusiastically supporting Obama (as was most of her order), and, when I pointed out Obama’s positions on abortion issues, she refused to believe it was true on the grounds that such a wonderful man could not possibly support abortion.

Mary Theresa Anderson
Alameda, California

George Weigel replies:

Mark Gronceski’s concerns for my reputation would be welcome, were they not preceded and followed by various close encounters with calumny. Perhaps, prior to any future correspondence, Gronceski will avail himself of my actual arguments in defense of the use of force to remove the Saddam Hussein regime and my arguments in critique of the way the post““major combat” phase of the war was handled by the Bush administration, both of which appeared in these pages as well as in two books.

As for Gronceski’s Ohio farmers, small-town folks, and others who helped account for the pro-Obama swing in the “conservative” Catholic vote in 2008, I certainly understand and sympathize with many of their concerns, just as I understand that voting in America is often a far more visceral process than a rational one. Yet in the Catholic theory of these things, a vote is an act of moral judgment, not simply a means to scratch a political, economic, or personal itch. And the satisfactions of kicking the bastards out, however temporarily gratifying, can amount to no genuine moral satisfaction at all when the new regime is far worse. It may well be that the Republican party deserved the kind of chastisement the voters delivered in 2006 and 2008. But America does not deserve a government run by the likes of Chuck Schumer and Barney Frank. Moreover, does Gronceski propose that the public witness of the Catholic Church in the United States is advanced by the prominence in the administration and the Congress of Joe Biden, Kathleen Sebelius, Nancy Pelosi, and Chris Dodd?

Mary Theresa Anderson’s tales of woe are, alas, all too familiar”and likely to become more so, as the sound bite takes over as the coin of the realm in what is often ironically described as our “public discourse” and as the mainstream media continues to pac

kage the news according to its own political preferences. The democratization of the American political debate by the development of alternative media was a welcome break in the chokehold the mainstream media once asserted over news and opinion. That it’s raised the level of the conversation is, however, a rather difficult argument to make, at least so far.

Europe’s Nightmare

Jean Bethke Elshtain’s “While Eur­ope Slept” (May 2009) seems to embrace Leo Strauss’ insight that the secret of the vitality of the West is the irreducible tension between Athens and Jerusalem. The West, in this view, has two wellsprings: Greco-Roman philosophy and Judeo-Christian religion. More important, as long these two sources are open to the ongoing challenge each presents to the other, the project of European civilization has no reason to come to an end. In this understanding, the genius of the West is that the question of the world’s meaning is always kept open, precisely because it is neither answered in a definitive manner nor abandoned as unanswerable.

In contemporary Europe, Elshtain argues, the wellspring of Jerusalem has run dry and consequently the dialectic at the heart of European civilization is at an end. The specter of nihilism now haunts Europe. There is much to be said for this account, but some caveats need to be raised.

At points, Elshtain’s argument falls into the familiar conservative trap of framing an overly stark vision of the present with the aid of an idealized vision of the past. As to the present, a contemporary European might agree that in the United States, for example, the “window to transcendence” is not closed. In fact, there are multiple windows to transcendence that vigorously compete with one another. Yet, for all that, Western Europe has considerably less violent crime, lower rates of incarceration, poverty, infant mortality, and, for that matter, abortion than the United States. All of this might lead the typically liberal European to ask (unfairly, to be sure) what our windows to transcendence profit us.

Of course, Elshtain would object that she is raising the question of the durability of European civilization in the absence of the Jerusalem side of the dialectic. Here we should raise warnings about overly idealizing the past. Elshtain rightly laments Europe’s abandonment of its religious heritage and the incipient nihilism that is the result. Any critical reading of the history of Christianity in Europe, however, would have to acknowledge that the faithful have contributed mightily to Europe’s current state. Set aside, for the moment, that modern Europeans were made receptive to the removal of religion from the public sphere by the ferocity with which Christians turned on one another during the Reformation and by the collective trauma this imposed on the continent. Let us also note that, despite all the nice things the Church has said recently about democracy, its attitude a little more than a hundred years ago was quite different. If we look to theology alone, it is easy enough to see how the nominalist and voluntarist strains in late-medieval thought were assimilated by modernity and shaped its rejection of Christianity.

If Christianity is to have a future in Europe, which I hope as earnestly as does Elshtain, more will have to be done than to lament that it is not mentioned in the European constitution.

Peter James Causton
Plymouth, Massachusetts

Jean Bethke Elshtain replies:

I appreciate Peter?James Causton’s thoughtful commentary. I must, however, demur on a few points.

First, I was not thinking of Leo Strauss at all as I wrote. Strauss was not a major figure at the institution where I studied political theory. He appeared on no syllabi, to the best of my knowledge. This may be a gap in my education”I am prepared to grant that”but Strauss is not, for me, a reference point. The interlocutor I most had in mind was Albert Camus, followed by Charles Taylor, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. (I should have thought the centrality of Camus was obvious, given how frequently I cite him. When I am indebted to a thinker, I acknowledge it.)

Second, I resist the suggestion that I fell into a “conservative trap” or any other, as I presented no idealized version of the past. I reread my piece and could detect no such thing. I was, instead, writing about a dynamic that helped to form Europe, to generate a Europe of the imagination as well as a force in history”here one could read profitably Camus’ “Letters to a German Friend” contrasting the Nazi attitude to a very different attitude shaped by a generous conception of European culture. It has been my experience more generally that, when people resist one’s analysis, one is accused of nostalgia for the past or of somehow believing that the past was a utopia. This is an evasion. One doesn’t need to idealize the past in order to lament features of the present!

Third, all the issues Causton cites”incarceration, poverty, etc.”are complex socio-political-economic questions that have been exhaustively studied. No direct one-to-one comparison works well because European societies, in contrast to America, are small, far more homogeneous, etc. It would be an entirely separate issue to engage in these comparisons, and it would require serious attention to empirical as well as historical data, and so on.

One would need to look at, for example, the importance of Catholic social thought in shaping European social policy”in other words, at the forms of Christianity central to consideration of these social issues. Finally, Causton is entirely correct in noting the nominalist and voluntarist strains in late-medieval theology. That is the central theme in my Gifford Lectures, now available as Sovereignty: God, State, and Self . I would especially recommend paying attention to the chapters on the migration of late-medieval theology over into early modern politics. The rest, as they say, is history.

Two Paths to Freedom

Bravo to Anthony Esolen (“The Freedom of Heaven & the Freedom of Hell,” March 2009). No one knows better than a translator that Dante was as transcendent a poet as he was a deeply learned theologian and metaphysician. It is sad to reflect on the experience of those whose college exposure to Dante is limited to glib and often facetious “deconstructions” of The Inferno (think of what that says!) and who never experience the soaring poetry and thought of The Purgatorio and The Paradiso . Certainly, Raphael got it when he (or one of Julius II’s theological advisors) included Dante twice in the famous Stanza della Segnatura ”the only person to be so honored. On the Parnassus wall, he stands at Homer’s right hand (Virgil is on his left). On the Disputa wall, Dante appears alongside Dominic, Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, Scotus, and Nicholas of Lyra. Esolen writes that “throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante’s beloved Beatrice has been preparing the pilgrim for the ultimate and yet infinite flight, to see the Beloved face to face.” Simply to imagine such a vision would be daunting enough. But to build the form and structure of that vision with the unruly materials of language and the mortar of disciplined reflective thought is an achievement that never ceases to inspire.

Norman Farmer
Austin, Texas

As Anthony Esolen persuasively demonstrates, anyone who chooses hell over heaven cannot truly be free. The freedom of hell necessarily reduces itself to unadorned autonomy”autonomy in its rawest form. But, as Esolen eloquently argues, radical autonomy destroys the genuine communion between us and our fellow human beings and between ourselves and God. Complete autonomy results in complete and utter loneliness”a radical separation from God and others that ushers in insuperable pain and despair. This gulf of prideful autonomy and eternal despair is the unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell described in Christ’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

Contrary to the error of our age, freedom and autonomy are not synonymous. Untempered, extreme autonomy is a necessary product of sinful pride. As St. Paul tells us, true freedom is borne of obedience to God, while sin produces slavery. Unfettered autonomy, therefore, is not a form of freedom but of slavery.

Or, to borrow from the gospels and the work of John Paul the Great in Veritatis Splendor and elsewhere, the truth shall set us free. Truth is an ally, not an enemy, of freedom. The truth about human nature is, as Esolen powerfully argues, that human beings are contingent and dependent. We are created by another being (God) to enter into relationship with that being and with other people. Our lives, our very beings, are eternally oriented (or ordered) toward entering more deeply into those relationships. True freedom is the journey each individual undertakes to search for and find the unique node within that web of relationships reserved specifically for him.

The heart of the modern error is to define freedom exclusively in terms of choice. Although the journey involves choice, freedom is the journey itself, not the choices made on the journey (or even the right to choose). Fortunately, our culture understood this distinction not too long ago and is fully capable of recovering it. Even the Supreme Court, an institution whose false notions of a right to privacy and autonomy have done more to advance this error than most, once consistently described freedom solely in terms of “ordered liberty.” This notion of ordered liberty, which Justice Brandeis first introduced to the Court’s jurisprudence in 1937, necessarily evokes the moral, legal, religious, and cultural milieu in which so many of our relationships germinate and grow. Although the Court continues to pay homage to the phrase ordered liberty , the Court’s opinions have more recently replaced it with the incoherent and dangerous proposition that “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If our society can recover our original understanding of true freedom as ordered liberty, we have the opportunity to reanchor our legal and cultural notions of freedom in a more secure foundation.

Joseph G. Cosby
Falls Church, Virginia

Jews and Gentlemen

It is astonishing to read, in a journal bearing the title First Things , Joel Schwartz’s “Israel’s Defense” (March 2009), which thinks of the moral implications of the Lebanon and Gaza invasions as if they were mere matters of relative failures in public relations.

How, moreover, could the editors of a journal purporting to engage in open dialogue allow any author to commence with the premise that attempts to characterize critics of Israel’s operations as “self-serving and despicable”? Its central thesis, that Israel’s behavior in these recent affairs should be welcomed as long overdue shows of “manliness,” traduces the meaning of words and passes by in thunderous silence an avalanche of contending historical evidence. At the very least, respect for the three hundred plus Palestinian children buried in the rubble of their homes and refugee camps should have counseled a temporary silence from a journal concerned with the consideration of ­serious religious ­values.

What cocoon of complacency accounts for its unctuous and self-congratulatory tone? Was Plan Dalat and the forcible expulsion of 750,000 non-Jewish Palestinians the work of honorable men? Are the inheritors of the fruits of the terror engendered by the massacre at Deir Yassin”­ethnic cleansing”engaging in “unworldliness”? Is it a mark of honor to deny the right of return to people expelled in 1948 while claiming the right of return to Jews whose ancestors had not lived in Palestine for two millennia? Is it honorable to pretend that attempts to recover stolen Palestinian properties are morally deniable on the unexamined premise of “Israel’s right to exist”? Is it honorable to condemn as “aggressors” and “terrorists” those who, after sixty years of fruitless pleading before international courts and fora, toss gestural rockets in the direction of those who squat on properties to which they have legal title and moral right? Is it a sign of “prophetic morality” to shell and bulldoze, without trial or evidence, the homes of relatives of those who might have protested in this desperate manner? Was it a show of manliness to pepper southern Lebanon in 2006 with cluster bombs or drop white phosphorous explosives at homes and schools in Gaza in 2009? By what fantastic calculation are the generations of impoverished and dispossessed Palestinians contained within the de facto concentration camp of Gaza expected to be grateful for what Schwartz calls “pax Israelitica”? Is the denial of equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens evidence that they are beneficiaries of Jewish “care about the welfare of all people, even their enemies”? Are the ever expanding settlements on expropriated West Bank lands evidence of the Jewish destiny “to incorporate the cooperative . . . interpretation of life”? Is the gradual but inexorable impoverishment, silencing, and disenfranchisement of the non-Jewish population of Palestine evidence that “the new Zionist man . . . is concerned about honor and the capacity to fight back against aggression”? Is it “manly” to threaten American public representatives with tags of anti-Semitism because they wish to spare America from the righteous reaction of world opinion against those who would euphemize, rationalize, or underwrite the crimes of Zionism?

If this record is false, then historians Illan Pappe and Benny Morris, a dozen UN resolutions, Amnesty International, political scientist Joel Koval, the United Methodist Church, and the international news media are engaged in a concerted campaign of lies. If these Zionist performances be manly, then the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary have deceived us. If the mindset that enables this record arises from “prophetic morality,” then Jeremiah has been grievously mistranslated.

I therefore conclude that, whether or not in theory “manliness and the quest for honor are traditional Jewish values [and that] they have been amalgamated rightly into Zionism,” the historical record bears overwhelming, emphatic, and unambiguous testimony to its antithesis.

Cóilín Owens
George Mason University

Alexandria, Virginia

Joel Schwartz asks, “Does Jewishness have no room for manliness?” The tension between manliness and Jewishness, Schwartz, tells us, arises from a traditional Jewish culture that “esteems piety and scholarship more than power and honor,” all of which are borne of a “belief in God.” Schwartz, of course, is not simply speaking of males per se but of the Israeli state and the degree to which it, like all nations, reflects the relative manliness of its men.

I found Schwartz’s piece, which is ultimately about Zionism’s attempt to reconcile and incorporate honor and manliness with traditional Jewish culture, rather interesting. His premise, however, raises an obvious question. Given the overwhelmingly secular state of Israeli culture today, to what does he attribute a lack of manliness now? Is this simply the fruits of more pious days being visited on the third and fourth generations?

Louie Verrecchio
Hampstead, Maryland

Joel Schwartz replies:

A detailed reply to Prof. Cóilín Owens’ intemperate screed would be far longer than his letter, so I will restrict myself to a few brief observations. My comments will address three points: Israel’s commitment to peace, its treatment of its Arab minority, and its conduct of war.

Israel has consistently been willing to accept a two-state solution to the Israeli“Palestinian conflict; the Palestinians have consistently been unwilling to do so. Thus in 2000 Israel agreed to the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, proposing to withdraw from 97 percent of the West Bank and from all of the Gaza Strip. Yasser Arafat responded by rejecting the proposed agreement; he did not even make a counteroffer. For its part, Hamas explicitly opposes a two-state solution, instead declaring in its charter that Israel will exist only “until Islam will obliterate it.” It would be nice to think that the obliteration of Israel would trouble Owens, but to judge from his letter, it wouldn’t.

Israel’s Arab citizens have more rights than do the subjects of any of the Arab-ruled countries in the Middle East; much as they dislike Israeli rule, very few Israeli Arabs would prefer to be ruled by the PLO or Hamas rather than Israel. For example, a 2008 poll of adult Israeli Arabs, conducted by the Arabic-language newspaper As-Sennara , found that 62 percent want to remain Israeli citizens, whereas only 14 percent want to join a future Palestinian state.

In fighting its wars, Israel’s army attempts”at considerable disadvantage to itself”to minimize civilian casualties; in fighting against Israel, Hamas strove to inflict civilian casualties upon Israel and made no effort to protect Palestinian civilians. Thus, before the start of Israel’s air campaign against Hamas, the Israeli army telephoned residents of Gaza and dropped leaflets for them to read, warning those who lived in close proximity to Hamas facilities to avoid harm by fleeing their homes. In short, Israel was willing to forgo the element of surprise in order to limit civilian casualties. Furthermore, during the Gaza war, Israel sent convoys of food, ambulances, medical supplies, and fuel into Gaza, whereas Hamas blocked injured and wounded Palestinians from fleeing Gaza. The moral contrast between the two forces was nicely captured by Colonel Richard Kemp of the British army: “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF [Israel Defense Force] is doing today in Gaza.” By contrast, “Hamas . . . has been trained extensively . . . to . . . use the civilian population in Gaza as a human shield.”

I’m pleased that Louie Verrecchio found my article interesting. I’m not sure, though, why he thinks that Israel suffers from “a lack of manliness now.” I don’t believe that it does. My sense is that manliness”defined in my essay as the willingness to protect others who are in need of protection”is much more prevalent in Israel than it is in most of the rest of the Western world. That is because manliness, like theism, tends to flourish in foxholes, and for both better and worse Israel is and always has been in a foxhole.

Deep Down Things

Many thanks to Richard Mouw (“Surprised by Calvin,” March 2009) for correcting impressions of a dour Reformed tradition. With his supporting citations from Catholic sources, I could not help but think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “the dearest freshness deep down things.” But then, too, of another Calvinist, Roger Mehl, writing on marriage in a day when it seemed, and still seems, to be in crisis everywhere and needs such ubi amor, ibi oculus eyes:

“If Scripture accords to marriage, among other human institutions, an exclusive privilege, if it compares the love of a man for his wife to the love of Christ for his Church, it is because it well perceives that mysterious bond between conjugal union and the Kingdom, that prefiguration of reconciliation and the final recapitulation, in this very humble, very banal, and very impure encounter of a man and a woman.”

Gabriel Fackre
West Hyannisport, Massachusetts

On Thorns and?Yoghs

When I saw the words “Joseph Bottum on Chaucer” on the cover of my recent issue of First Things , I tore open the plastic wrap to read his review of Burton Raffel’s Canterbury Tales translation (March 2009). I fully agree with Bottum’s assessment of Chaucer’s “cruel and gentle” genius and the general silliness of translating his English into English. Raffel’s translation is easy to skewer, and Bottum skewers it well. Frankly, I’m not sure why he finds Nevill Coghill’s version much of an improvement. Chaucer is manifestly better in his own messy, sing-songy, archaic Middle English, and no mere literature professor can hope to compete. These translations do have their uses in the classroom, though”for students with little or no experience in foreign languages, they can serve as a dramatic illustration of just how flawed any translation of great literature will inevitably be.

One minor fact that Bottum gets wrong is his observation that the thorn (þ) disappeared in the transition from Beowulf ’s Anglo-Saxon to Chaucer’s Middle English. That letter, along with the yogh (3), was still very much alive in the fourteenth century and would not fully disappear until the transition from Middle to Modern English was complete, more than a century later. Modern editions of Chaucer generally replace his thorns”which are inconsistently applied in any case”with “th” and the yogs with “y” or “gh,” for ease of reading. In other words, the edition of The Canterbury Tales that Bottum quotes from is already a translation of sorts, with a modernized alphabet and punctuation. Medieval scribes used a marking similar to the modern comma but certainly no semicolons or em dashes, such as appear in Bottum’s text. Even the spelling of certain words requires the intrusion of an editor, since various manuscripts offer multiple alternatives. For example, Bottum’s edition says the drought of March has been pierced to the “rote,” an option that prompts the modern reader to pronounce the word the same way Chaucer would have. The Riverside Chaucer , on the other hand, spells it “roote,” which guides the sight-reader more easily to the modern word root .

After comparing a handwritten, scribally abbreviated Middle English manuscript to a modern printed edition and seeing how much work an editor does just to make the text intelligible, one might get the sense that translations like Raffel’s are simply the next logical step in the editorial process. Like every other step, they make the text less intimidating to potential readers. In the end, I feel the same way about Chaucer translations that I do about children’s versions of Pilgrim’s Progress , movies based on Jane Austen novels, or Dickens-themed musicals: They pale next to the originals, but they all, in their own way, introduce those original works to new audiences. If they lead even a small number of curious souls to experiment with the real thing, they’ve done a service.

Ethan Campbell
The King’s College
New York, New York