I love the way the New York Times does parody. It’s so marvelously deadpan. Mark Bittman dishes up a particularly savory instance in the editorial pages: “Most of us can eat real and healthier food easily enough, and, as it happens, growing such food tends to be more sustainable. On a grand scale, we need societal changes and government support to make this more accessible to everyone. Butand this is the part I like bestmaking good food fair and affordable cannot be achieved without affecting the whole system. These are not just food questions; they are questions of justice and equality and rights, of enhancing rather than restricting democracy, of making a more rational, legitimate economy. In other words, working to make food fair and affordable is an opportunity for this country to live up to its founding principles.”
There’s no parody in transhumanist Zoltan Istvan’s enthusiastic predictions about reproductive technology. “In vitro fertilization (IVF), genetic engineering, and cytoplasm donation are changing the way we mate and build families, and it’s doing it for the betterment of society. Though hard to believe, the reality is simple: It’s likely going to be safer and easier for a 70-year-old woman to have healthy offspring in two decades time than it is for a 25-year-old to have offspring today. In 20 years, many babies in America will be designer children, with genetic traits, sex, and emotional tendencies picked out ahead of time. Ectogenesis, raising a fetus in an artificial womb outside the body, will also likely be available. In fact, even men will be able to give birth to children via surgically implanted uteruses if they want. But even more far out, different sexes may not even be needed at all, based on advancing cloning technologies.”
We can dispute the techno-confidence and the twenty-year timeline. But the basic thrust is accurate. We’re facing a future in which many people will be tempted to use reproductive technology to radically change “the way we mate and build families.” Our struggle against this supposed “betterment of society” will be of utmost importance.
It already is today. Pattaramon Chanbua was hired by an Australian couple to be a surrogate mother for their two fertilized eggs. An agency brokered the deal, promising her nearly $10,000. But all was not to the couple’s liking. One of the twin babies, a boy, had Down syndrome. They didn’t want that one. The agency pressed Chanbua to abort the defective child in her seventh month of pregnancy. But she wouldn’t, citing her moral beliefher civilized beliefthat both children in her womb were equally human. The Australian couple took the healthy newborn, a girl, refusing to take the Down syndrome child. He’s now being raised by Chanbua.
Surrogacy is becoming a big business. It’s estimated that more than 10,000 children a year are born to surrogate mothers in China, most contracted by the new Chinese elite. It’s illegal there, but an underground rent-a-womb market flourishes. The price for a deluxe package can be up to a quarter-million dollars. That buys a child with your DNA, gender of choice, and a bona fide Chinese surrogate rather than a cheaper Vietnamese or Thai woman.
It’s not going to be an easy struggle. For a long time we’ve had to resist the abortion license that goes under the name of “reproductive freedom.” As reproductive technology advances, the demands of this false freedom expand. It’s now coming to mean getting the children we want, when we want them, and in whatever fashion we choose to produce them. Writing about the recently proposed Kansas bill that criminalizes surrogacy, a feminist columnist put two and two together. “It’s important to debunk the idea that criminalizing surrogacy should be part of the feminist project. The assault on surrogacy, as well as fertility treatments in general, is yet another piece of the right’s battle against reproductive self-determination.” Being opposed to surrogacy is “anti-choice.”
Many have observed that slavery was, and in some way remains, America’s original sin, infecting the body politic for generations after its abolition. I fear something similar may become true of our abortion license. Wombs for rent. Genetic manipulation that turns children into products to be “harvested” in accord with consumer demand. All this and more will be defended in the name of “reproductive freedom”by people who should know better but are captive to the perverse moral logic of abortion.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, represents the latest expression of insanity in the Muslim world. Asked to comment on the apparent success of this militant group, a U.S. intelligence official said, “This is not a problem that can simply be dealt with by bringing out some of the counterterrorism tools we have used in the past.” ISIS won’t be defeated by targeted drone strikes. He continues with more realism: “The idea that the group can just be rooted out somehow is probably not the right way to think about it.” But he follows up with what I regard as one of our most implausible conceits: “It doesn’t go away unless some of the broader issues in the Arab world are addressed.”
Addressed? The Muslim world seems to be undergoing a fundamental trauma that is creating a derangedand very dangerousmentality. How to explain this trauma? Perhaps it’s the fact that Islam’s dominant religious myth is one of victory and conquest, a view of the direction of history completely discordant with the Muslim experience in the Middle East over the last century. Perhaps it’s modernity, which traumatized Germany so severely more than a century ago that it too went insane and gave birth to movements organized around the redemptive promise of murder. Perhaps it’s democracy, a dream of self-determination that convulsed central Europe after the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and also led to terrible bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, and unspeakable brutalities, ending with a final spasm of violence following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
One of our dogmas is that all ills can be cured, which is why we imagine we can just “address” the “broader issues” with the right sorts of cultural experts or foreign policy strategists or conflict management gurus. This is a mistaken view of historyand of the human condition. Very mistaken. The Muslim world’s descent into a culture of perpetual warfare cannot be “addressed” any more than the social conditions that gave rise to Hitler could be “addressed.” Instead, it will require our resolve to resist its aggressions and our wisdom to mitigate its excesses. It will also call for compassion for the many innocent victims and solidarity with those in the Middle East who seek a different future. It’s not the case that we can or should do nothing. But we’ve got to do what we do with a sober sense of our limitations.
One of those limitations rests in the fact that we’re not global therapists or international diversity consultants, as our liberal culture tempts us to imagine. By any honest view of the global situation, we’re combatants in the battle ISIS is waging, as its leaders and Islamist revolutionaries elsewhere so clearly express in word and deed. We can’t “address” the “broader issues,” because the global reach of our culture is a broader issue roiling the Middle East.
A sense of our limitations does not mean pessimism. The “broader issues” of the Cold War were never “addressed.”
“Why is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East and Africa?” A good question that I’m grateful Ronald S. Lauder asks in the editorial pages of the New York Times. He’s president of the World Jewish Congress. He knows the deadly price of silence, which he refuses to pay. “Just as I will not be silent in the face of the growing threat of anti-Semitism in Europe and in the Middle East, I will not be indifferent to Christian suffering.”
I fear our political leaders are mostly silent about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East because they’re fearful that speaking up will stand in the way of “addressing” the “broader issues.” I can hear the State Department official saying, “We can’t be seen as defending Christians. It will undermine our efforts to build a pro-American coalition in the Muslim world and make it harder to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
There’s another, darker reason. In America today, a growing cohort of people regard Christianity as a malign force. For them, it’s a repressive moral system that subordinates women, oppresses gays and lesbians, and generally stands in the way of a “more inclusive” society. Only a few days ago I passed a young man on the street. He had a T-shirt done up in the style of a popular British poster designed to raise public morale at the outset of World War II. But what it said was this: “Keep Calm and Piss on the Cross.”
Pope Francis broke the silence recently, on his way back from South Korea, when reporters posed questions about the plight of Christians and others in the Middle East. He responded, “Where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor.” Francis equivocated about just what “stop” might entail, distancing himself from war-making. But other Vatican officials have been more forthright.
This tone is quite different from 2003, when the Vatican spoke against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But then again, the circumstances are different. Today, Pope Francis is like all of us. He reads about the brutalities perpetrated by the Islamic State. He sees images of Christians and others persecuted, killed, and driven from their homes. This is not a situation in which anyone imagines that economic sanctions or forceful diplomacy will be effective. So the Holy Father calls for action, and others in Rome call for military action. They know that the Gospel’s call for peace can’t mean standing on the sidelines as the innocent are slaughtered.
After one of the local football teams here in New York hired David Tyree as director of player development, there were cries of outrage. How can an “anti-gay” Christianthat’s the way the press now describes someone who holds traditional views on sexual morality and marriagebe trusted in a position of responsibility in the NFL? He has committed many sins: opposition to New York’s gay marriage law in 2011, support for conversion therapy, and more. For the ill-named Human Rights Campaign, such views disqualify a person for any jobanywhere. For them, it’s all war all the time. Defending the hire, Giants General Manager Jerry Reese made some simple, intelligent comments: “I’m not here to talk about social issues. I believe that everybody should be treated equally. I believe everyone should be treated fairly. I believe everybody should have an opinion, too. Most of all, I believe I should mind my own business and keep the plank out of my own eye.” Pretty good locker room principles.
Recently we published Robert Spaemann’s sharp criticism of new proposals to revise the Catholic practice of requiring divorced and remarried people whose first marriage has not been annulled to forgo receiving Communion (August/September). His arguments are reinforced and deepened by a succinct analysis of the historical, philosophical, and theological issues at stake. A series of very readable short papers on those issues was recently published in the indispensable theological journal Nova et Vetera:“Recent Proposals for the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried: A Theological Assessment” (Vol 12, No. 3, pp. 601630). Required reading for anyone who wants to get his mind around what looks to be one of the defining debates of Francis’s papacy.
In the Public Square (“The New New Left”), I observe that liberalism is migrating in a meritocratic direction that’s more comfortable with what used to be an exclusively conservative view: that poverty has something to do with vice, and wealth with virtue. To put it crudely, younger liberals see themselves as being different from poor people, not just because they make more money, but because they live different kinds of livesbetter, more virtuous lives. Not only are successful liberals successful, they compliment themselves for being more concerned about the environment, being more “inclusive,” being more “caring.”
Charles Murray charts these differences in detail in Coming Apart. He also worries about the frayed bonds of social solidarity.
Murray isn’t the only one worrying. Aside from African Americans, the liberal base of the Democratic party is made up of the wealthiest Americans, people whose lives are increasingly detached from the rest of society. Today’s liberals don’t think of themselves as sharing much of anything with the poor, or even the struggling middle class. Largely secular, they don’t share a common faith. Influenced by their anti-Western educations, they don’t share a common patriotism. Focused on the education of their children, they’ve systematically segregated their families from anyone or anything associated with failure. To a great extent, therefore, we should interpret the polarizing strategy of the Obama wing of the Democratic party as an attempt to obscure the new social and economic location of liberalism. There needs to be a state of constant crisis“war on women!”to keep inconvenient truths from coming to consciousness.
Reading a draft of that same piece, a friend wondered why I thought the new new left would reshape the future of American politics. Aren’t the young conservatives in love with libertarianism, a view more consistently individualistic than what we find among the Next Generation Left? Yes, but I don’t think that trend will be decisive. American conservatism has a long tradition of uneasy (and, to my mind, fruitful) tension between economic commitments that emphasize individual liberty and patriotic and religious ideals that emphasize sacrifice, solidarity, and transcendent authority. As a result, the libertarian tendencies among young conservatives assume an already familiar place and meet already well-developed counter-tendencies and counter-arguments in the conservative movement. That’s not true on the left, where it’s precisely the old economic forms of solidarity that are giving way to the new, more individualistic and meritocratic view.
At times I fear I’m too hard on our secular liberal establishment, exaggerating its hauteur while ignoring its better qualities. Then I read the New Yorker. In the aftermath of the Hobby Lobby decision, the magazine published a piece that confirmed all my prejudices of their prejudices. Written to mock what it means to have a religiously informed conscience, “Hobby Lobbyist,” by Paul Rudnick, puts itself forward as a letter to the Supreme Court by a devoted crafter who “would like to express how thoroughly crafting is intertwined with my deepest religious convictions.” For example: “I like to think that Moses wanted to include an Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Use Condoms or Real Stained Glass, Not When the Acrylic Colors Are Even More Vibrant and Easier to Keep Clean!” The page-length parody continues in that vein. The meaning is clear. Thinking that religious convictions might prevent one from providing abortion-inducing drugsthe issue at stake in Hobby Lobbyis a clear sign of a doltish and tasteless sensibility.
A few months ago, I went on Twitter. (Okay, enough tittering there in the back!) I now “tweet”irregularly. Usually I’m sending out a link to something I wrote that’s being published on firstthings.com. (Our site should be your homepage if it’s not already!) Occasionally I emit a thought or observation. If you’d like to follow me, I can be found under the moniker @rr_reno. My always-ahead-of-me daughter, Rachel Ruth Reno, got to @rrreno before I was even aware that people could “tweet.”
Paypal founder Peter Thiel has written a thoroughly readable business book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. It also sneaks in quite a bit of philosophy and social theory. Thiel’s big worry is that we won’t build a better future (that’s what’s at stake for him in the overused word “innovation”). The problem isn’t with R & D policy or inadequate educational institutions. Instead, the problem is existential. We can’tor perhaps don’t want toimagine the future as something different than today. When people talk about the “developed world,” they’re betraying a perhaps unconscious view that we’ve arrived and all that’s left for history is for the rest of the world to catch up.
Thiel sees certain ideas and political trends reinforcing this inability to see a future worth working toward. For example, natural selection makes a claim about the future. What’s best fit for survival will survive. But that’s what Thiel calls an indefinite future: We don’t know what will survive until it survives. Something like this view prevails widely. Consider most elite university students. They work hard so that . . . so that they can succeed. We don’t have any definite goal other than to make sure we have great credentials that will afford us the best opportunitieswhatever they might be. Thiel points out that the two dominant political theories in America are also agnostic about the future. The liberal John Rawls designed what he thought to be an ideal system of justice that is purely formal. It guarantees a just outcomewhatever it might be. The same goes for libertarian, free-market thinking: Get the right system of freedom, and the future will take care of itself.
In these ways, some of the dominant scientific and political theories today discourage us from trying to create a different future. The same goes for a powerful contemporary buzzword, “sustainability.” As a concept, it encourages us to see the future as, at best, today extended into tomorrow, precisely the view that worries Thiel. By his way of thinking, stasis and equilibrium are not metaphysically or existentially or socially possible. We’re either striving or dying, seeking something or slumping into nothing.
As I said, it’s a business book that sneaks in more than a little in the way of big ideas.
Pierre Ryckmans died in August. He was a Belgian trained in law who lived in Taiwan, where he studied Chinese language, culture, and literature. He then made an academic career in Australia. In 1971, he published The Chairman’s New Clothesa book that spoke honestly about the brutalities of Mao’s cultural revolution. Concerned to maintain his contacts in China, he wrote under the pseudonym Simon Leys. I only recently discovered his pungent essays on religion, French literature, Chinese culture, and academic life, collected in The Hall of Uselessness, also published under his pseudonym, perhaps because he felt his literary alter ego provided him with a certain freedom from the confining pieties of academic culture. The essays are remarkable expressions of intellectual clarity, literary grace, and real wisdom about the human condition. A man of faith, he was an exemplary Catholic intellectual. He had the confidence to affirm truth where he found itand the courage to denounce convenient falsehoods that so often pass for truth.
Just last month I asked an Australian friend if he knew how to contact Ryckmans. I had hopes of publishing him in First Things. Too late. May he rest in peace.
Wanna take the pulse of American Christianity? Read church newsletters! “Prosaic, mundane, and, well, dull,” allows Russell Saltzman, but they’re the best “source for checking up on the ordinary pulse and rhythm of Christian congregations’ life.” Russ should know. A longtime Lutheran pastor, he’s written many a column for church newsletters where he has servedthe pastor’s page, as the space in parish newsletters is often called. A selection is presented in The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays, now out from the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. Some moving, some funny, some very funny, it’s a good read. My favorite is one carefully specifying annual allotments of cantankerousness and Lutheran crankiness to parish leaders and staff, including, of course, himself.
Do you have the good fortune to live amid or near the extraordinary beauty of the Great Smokey Mountains in North Carolina? If so, you can add to nature’s bounty the intellectual companionship of First Things readers. David Sweatt of Highland, North Carolina, is forming a ROFTERS group. To join, please contact him at email@example.com.
In July, I visited the ROFTERS group in Denver, Colorado. It was a spirited evening of discussion and warm fellowship that reminded me that I’m a very lucky man to have the opportunity to run First Things. I’d like to thank my host, Dennis Floyd, for the invitation. If you’d like to join this fine group, drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’ll let you know the date of the next meeting.
Tom Slakey would like to start a ROFTERS group in Sacramento, California. If you’d like to join, get in touch: email@example.com.
The same goes for Lily Alvarez Rabadan. She would like to start a ROFTERS group in Aguascalientes, Mexico. If you’re a First Things devotee in her area, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some folks at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, want to form a ROFTERS group. If you’re interested in joining, please contact Samuel Jennings: email@example.com.
Still another ROFTERS group has formed in Minneapolis. It meets on the second Wednesday of every month at 8:30 p.m. at The Blue Door in South Minneapolis (Longfellow neighborhood). For more information contact David Hoffner (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Paul Calvin (email@example.com).
We’ve recently launched the Richard John Neuhaus Society. It’s a way to honor those who have designated the Institute on Religion and Public Life (the 503(c)(b) that publishes First Things) in their wills or estate plans. Neuhaus founded the journal in 1990 to be a voice for faith in the public square, and our mission is as important today as it ever was. If you plan to support that work with a bequest, please let us know and we’ll recognize you as a member of the Richard John Neuhaus Society.
A subscriber recently sent me a copy of a very nice letter he received. “On behalf of the Board of Trustees of the Abington Township Public Libraries, please accept our grateful thanks for your generous contribution. We will use this donation to purchase a year’s subscription to the magazine, First Things.” Good idea. Worth imitating.
First Things is launching an annual lecture in the Washington, D.C., area. Our inaugural lecturer will be Mary Eberstadt; her topic, “The New Intolerance.” The lecture is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 11, in the President’s Hall at the Washington Golf & Country Club in Alexandria, Virginia. Please register if you plan to attend by emailing us at thenewintolerance@?firstthings.com.
while we’re at it sources: Food principles: nytimes.com, June 24, 2014. Transhumanism: huffingtonpost.com, July 2, 2014. Thai surrogate: theglobeandmail.com, August 3, 2014. Chinese surrogacy: nytimes.com, August 3, 2104. Surrogacy criminalization: rhrealitycheck.org, April 11, 2014. ISIS addressed: online.wsj.com, August 15, 2014. Christians slaughtered: nytimes.com, August 20, 2014. Tasteless parody: newyorker.com, July 21, 2014.