I am not Charlie. I am not a trickster or prankster. I do not think freedom is based on mockery and transgression. I do not believe that a culture of freedom is nourished by the conceit that nothing is sacred.
Charlie Hebdo reflects a self-complimenting nihilism. It claims the purity of having no false pieties because it has no piety. I cannot see how this contributes anything to the future of France, the future of Europe, or the future of the West. Sustaining the freedoms for which the West is justly proudwhich are empty, if we’re not free from assassins’ bulletsrequires convictions about human dignity that are affirmed without irony. I am not Charlie, and Charlie can be Charlie only if most of us aren’t.
A French friend wrote recently, apologizing for having waited until the end of January. He conveyed the hope that I would have “a blessed 2015.” “I dare not say ‘happy,’” he continued, “because it is not precisely off to a ‘happy’ start. Tragedies make us more aware that the pursuit of happiness is not as fundamental as the pursuit of love.”
Newsweek published Kurt Eichenwald’s “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” It falls into a familiar genre, “proving” that Christianity has systematically misread and distorted the Bible. Think Bart Ehrman for dummies, if that’s possible.
Eichenwald engages in the usual move of condemning biblical literalismand then condemning Christians for not conforming to the literal sense of this or that verse of the Bible. Example: Rick Perry prayed in public at a large gathering of Christian conservatives. But Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that we are not to be like the hypocrites who love to stand in the synagogues and on the street corners to pray so that they may be seen by others. Gotcha.
Eichenwald emphasizes that the New Testament never actually uses the word homosexuality. This is not surprising, given that the New Testament was written in ancient Greekand that the word homosexuality is a nineteenth-century invention. Like I said, Bart Ehrman for dummies.
The premise of Eichenwald’s article is that Christian conservatives are “God’s frauds” and their biblical faith “engenders hate and condemnation.” It’s an ironic charge. Eichenwald’s prose drips with hatred of conservative Christians and is full of condemnations. Moreover, its claim to a scholarly basis is entirely fraudulent. It says something significantand disturbingthat a mainstream publication in America would publish something so trashy.
Anglican minister Andrew Foreshew-Cain is very upset with Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury. Apparently, the English primate and symbolic head of worldwide Anglicanism is insufficiently solicitous of the “LGBTi community” and kowtows to the “homophobic stance” of “many African churches.” This reinforces Foreshew-Cain’s conviction that Welby sides with the “institutional homophobia” that prevents Anglicanism from ascending to the bright uplands of “the radical and inclusive truth of the Gospel.” He himself has felt the sting of this homophobia! After marrying his (male) partner in June, something the Church of England does not affirm or accept as marriage, his bishop disciplined him by placing a “rebuke” in his file and putting his name among those who have married without Church approval. Foreshew-Cain is appalled. “I find myself in an organization I no longer recognize as just.” But worry not. “I am not going to quit; that would give too much pleasure to the bigots and leave the Church to those who want to make it into a sect which rejects and hurts, rather than brings healing and peace.” Make the “organization” into a sect? Last I checked, the universal Church taught that marriage was between a man and a women, with a very few sectarian outliers in America and elsewhere dissenting in a historically unprecedented way. But I’m being willfully obtuse. Sectarian means out of sync with progressive secular thinking, not outside the mainstream of the apostolic tradition.
A $500 tax credit for families with two working spouses. That’s what President Obama proposed in his State of the Union speech, along with other changes to the tax code. It’s been described as pro-family. But that’s not right. It discriminates against families in which one of the spouses, usually the mother, chooses child-rearing over career. Think what you wish about its merits, but by any ordinary meaning of the term, a policy that discriminates in this way is best described as pro-work, not pro-family.
California recently passed a law altering the birth certificate. The new version will allow pretty much whomever to sign a newborn’s birth certificate in whatever way he or she wishes: father, mother, or just “parent.” Same-sex couples who already have children can alter their children’s birth certificates retroactively as well. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, adoption activists applauded when Governor Christie signed a law giving them the right to gain access to original birth records, allowing them to know who their biological parents are. It’s a telling contradiction. We’re to pretend biology doesn’t matterand we’re to respect the basic human instinct that tells us that biology matters.
Augsburg College in Minneapolis is keeping up with the add-a-letter game. They provide support for LGBTQIA students through their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual Student Services. I can’t help but think that future generations will look back on our mania for itemizing sexual identities with derisive amusement: How many sexual identities can you put on the head of a pin?
Evangelical Pastor Ryan Meeks of Eastlake Community Church outside Seattle says, “I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from Communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community.” Let’s leave aside the fact that being gay has never excluded anyone from the Christian community. Pastor Meeks apparently thinks that the Bible, which is crystal clear on this point, wrongly limits a union to a man and a woman. But he’s not worried about that: “Every positive reforming movement in church history is first labeled a heresy.” Maybe, but there have been plenty of heresies that are just thatheresies, full stop. Saying our bodies are of no consequence in God’s covenant plan for humanity is a heresy called Gnosticism.
Good news from the editorial page of the New York Times: “The start of 2015 finds no letup in the attacks on a woman’s constitutionally protected right to make her own childbearing decisions [translation: abortion].” They tick off the laws recently passed that limit access to abortion. “Defenders of abortion rights have had their hands full trying to block or at least minimize new restrictive laws, totaling 231, according to the Guttmacher Institute, exceeding the total for the entire previous decade.”
The editors also harrumph about “the deceptively named Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, sponsored by Trent Franks, Republican of Arizona,” a rich irony given the euphemism of “a woman’s constitutionally protected right to make her own childbearing decisions.” The proposed law prohibits abortion after twenty weeks. The editors then go on to criticize the lack of an exception for the woman’s “health,” the open-ended phraseology in Roe that underwrites abortion on demand all the way through the final trimester of pregnancy.
Having spent twenty fine years living in Omaha, I read with interest an op-ed in the New York Times, “Nebraska’s Lonely Progressives.” It was Mary Pipher’s cry of despair. Once the home of William Jennings Bryan and a hotbed of American populism, the Cornhusker state is now conservative. Progressives like her aren’t running things. How could those fine Democratic candidates for governor and Senate have lost? She laments “our broken political system.” And how do we know it’s broken? Easy answer: because it allows Republicans to win elections.
I doubt Mary Pipher holds the moral or religious views the Great Commoner defended in the Scopes trial. Which makes me think it’s not Nebraska that has changed nearly as much as progressivism, which now has much more in common with Margaret Sanger than with William Jennings Bryan.
I have a mixed marriage. My wife votes for Democrats. Which is why some years ago we were invited to the annual Truman dinner, a Nebraska Democratic-party tradition. The ceremonies started with a local singer belting out Lee Greenwood’s country music classic, “God Bless the USA.” The folks at our table grimaced. I thought to myself, how can you possibly win elections in Nebraska if you’re too sophisticated to be unselfconsciously patriotic?
“Architecture is suffering a crisis of confidence,” writes Justin Shubow for Forbes online. He points to the design competition for homes to replace those in New Orleans that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The results were “weird, sometimes discomforting houses of non-native motley futurist design that have virtually no relation to each other or the beloved historic architecture of the city.” Ordinary New Orleans residents asked, “What’s with the flat roofsyou know it rains a lot here, right?”
It’s typical of today’s architectural establishment to volunteer other people to endure their experiments. There’s a deconstructed look to some of the New Orleans designs. Architecture mandarin Aaron Betsky wrote in their defense: “Buildings under decay are much sexier than finished ones, perhaps because they remind us of our own mortality.” His response to critics who say that most people find hyper-modernist and experimental designs off-putting: “The truth is that architecture is not made by or for ‘a wide spectrum of the population.’ It is made for those who have the means to commission it, and reflects their values and priorities.” Hum. Cutting-edge architecture is “progressive” because it serves the values and priorities of the rich and powerful?
I don’t think there’s a contradiction here. Postmodern progressivism in culture and politics tends toward the nihilistic, and, as Nietzsche recognized, nihilism sweeps away the old-fashioned, Christian-inspired moral impediments to the will to power.
It would be a useful exercise for someone to put together a good set of images of the homes of today’s cutting-edge architects. I suspect a comparison between their primary residences and their attention-getting famous buildings would make for some telling contradictions. Frank Gehry lives in a house he designed, but in 2006 Rem Koolhaus admitted (only when pressed) that he lived in a lovely Victorian apartment building in London. Is it the case that on the whole and for the first time in architectural history the leading practioners don’t want to live in environments they design? If so, it tells us something about the cynicism of today’s architectural establishment.
No doubt students entering room 102 in Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University were brought up short. On the blackboard was a cryptic note: “Death has moved to LC 211.” Unless of course they were enrolled in Shelly Kagan’s philosophy course, titled “Death,” in which case they headed upstairs for class.
Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk recently wrote about her experiences teaching about rape law. Some students object to the topic being raised at all, because it causes them to experience emotional discomfort. Columbia Law School allowed some students to delay taking their final exams because of the grand-jury decisions not to indict the police officers in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. This is part of a larger trend. At many schools, teachers are asked to provide “trigger warnings” in advance of classes that introduce topics that might cause students discomfort.
Elite institutions are supposed to prepare students to assume positions of leadership, and surely leadership requires facing unpleasant facts and ideas. That doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, places like Harvard are becoming emotional gated communities where the future super-elite are trained to believe that they can opt out of difficult situations.
This hypersensitivity is undoubtedly caused, at least in part, by hyper-protective well-to-do parents whose children populate the top institutions. They work hard to create an impregnable zone of safety around their progeny. Life is made germ-free, gluten-free, and risk-free. Teachers or coaches who make the mistake of threatening self-esteem get rough treatment. The children of today’s elite are bubble-wrapped.
Meanwhile, these same super-protected, high-achieving children are subjected to super-high expectations. A Goldman Sachs father and McKinsey mother feel like a failure when their (only) child gets into Boston University rather than Harvard or MIT. It’s a competitive feeling they pass on to their children. The psychological juxtaposition may seem odd, but it’s widespread. Privileged and encouraged to feel a sense of entitlement, high-achieving children regard failure as a real and terrible prospect. The rising generation of talented young people who come from advantaged backgrounds is at once the most protected generation in human historyand the most anxious.
I recently participated in a Trinity Institute conference at Trinity Church Wall Street, a prominent Episcopal church here in New York. The topic was inequality. It’s something well worth discussing. But at the conference I found myself pondering the dangers of fixating on inequality, as if equality were the primary attribute of a just society. Ideologies of equality were extraordinarily destructive in the twentieth century. Pol Pot and Mao’s cultural revolutions are obvious examples. That need not be so. At its best, the rhetoric of equality unites us. Nobody’s born to lord over us. Nobody’s born to toil beneath us. We’re in an important sense equal, sharing the same human condition, standing before the same God.
But an emphasis on equality can easily tip into a me-against-you political value, one that encourages a comparative mentality that’s always sizing up where we stand over and against others. This is easy to see in children. Emphasize equality in a family or classroom and very quickly children will fix on what other children have. This isn’t to say that concerns about inequality ought not be raised. In a democratic society, significant inequalities rightly cause concern. Yet the larger good we need to promote is solidarity, not equality. If we all have equal incomes but live in a state of isolation and mutual suspicion, our society will be unhealthy.
At the conference, discussion often turned to the so-called One Percent. Many announced themselves concerned that a small number of people control vast amounts of wealth. I’m skeptical, not about the concentration of wealth but about whether it’s politically and culturally significant. By my reckoning, the real problem in America concerns the growing divide between the top 20 percent, for whom the new global economy works very well, thank you, and the bottom third that is falling behindwith the once confident middle class deeply anxious they’ll end up like the bottom third rather than the top 20 percent.
In this larger political context, concerns about the One Percent strike me as a preoccupation of the top 20 percent. The working-class people I know don’t think much about the super-rich. Instead, it’s the well-off-but-not-super-rich who do. An electrician friend (who makes a very good but by no means grand income) has never expressed to me dismay that a few people have vast wealth. I’ve lost count of how many of my professor friends have. This is not an argument that very high wages at the very top of the income curve aren’t a social problem. Perhaps they are. It’s an argument that the very high wages of a few do not agitate our society today. Instead, the social reality driving politics today is the fear of decline that haunts the middle class. It’s not something that higher taxes on the One Percent are likely to solve.
Vatican spokesman Archbishop Giovanni Becciu did some day-after damage control. Pope Francis made some offhand remarks to reporters on a flight back from the Philippines, saying at one point that Catholics need not breed “like rabbits.” Becciu explained, “The pope is truly sorry that [his comment] created such disorientation. He absolutely did not want to disregard the beauty and the value of large families.” The comment came in the context of remarks about responsible parenting, and “seeing the headlines, the Holy Father, with whom I spoke yesterday, smiled and was a bit surprised that his words were not fully contextualized with regards to a very clear passage of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenting.” In other words, no, the pope was not signaling a reversal of Catholic teaching on the use of artificial means of contraception.
The “Who am I to judge?” comment was also made during an airplane trip. That too “created disorientation,” to say the least. Perhaps there’s something in the air at 30,000 feet (or maybe not in the air, as the case may be). The Holy Father might consider limiting repartee with reporters to encounters on terra firma.
Randy Boyagoda has written a fine biography of Richard John Neuhaus. It’s now out from Image. Randy is an accomplished novelist, and Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square is a well-told story of a varied and interesting life. We’ll be hosting a book talk with Randy on the evening of Monday, February 23, here at the First Things office. He’ll be joined by Sam Tanenhaus, the biographer of Whittaker Chambers, for a discussion of Neuhaus and his legacy.
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While We’re At It sources: Misreading the Bible: newsweek.com, December 23, 2014. Anglican LGBT: ibtimes.com, December 22, 2014. Evangelical LGBT: time.com, January 15, 2014. Abortion Times: nytimes.com, January 20, 2015. Nebraska’s progressives: nytimes.com, December 26, 2014. Architecture: forbes.com, January 5, 2015. Deconstruction defended: architecturemagazine.com, December 23, 2014. Death: yalealumnimagazine.com, January 23, 2015.