While “The Back Page” is usually my favorite part of First Things, I must object to David Bentley Hart’s characterization of Freudian psychotherapy as deterministic in “Roland on Free Will” (February). As a psychiatrist who has practiced and taught psychodynamic psychotherapy for years, I know that this type of therapy is actually one of the last vestiges of non-deterministic treatment in the cynical, superficial world of modern mental health care.
Freud can certainly be read as a determinist. He wrote a lot, and he changed his mind regularly about his own ideas. But the true practice of psychodynamic therapy involves helping people live honestly, morally, and with dignity. In the best Socratic tradition, it involves coming to know oneself.
Contemporary psychiatry should be the target of Hart’s attack on determinism, not psychoanalysis. Modern neuroscience, which is what he is actually describing in the second part of his column, is frighteningly deterministic, as are many cognitive and behavioral forms of therapy, which even describe themselves as “reprogramming.”
Psychoanalysis, whatever its weaknesses, definitely is not reprogramming. It involves gaining insight into one’s self and thus making better life choices. Contemporary psychiatry has marginalized psychoanalysis precisely because it does not fit the deterministic paradigm of modern neuroscience. Psychiatry does believe that people are robots, and robots don’t need psychoanalysis. Modern psychiatry, in league with Big Pharma, has devolved almost purely into prescribing medication for pseudo-medical illness, giving pills instead of compassion, and thus trivializing human suffering. Airwaves are filled with commercials for antidepressants; by sales, the antipsychotic medication aripiprazole, marketed for depression, is the number-one drug in the U.S., with sales of well over a billion dollars per year.
Roland might try to realize that Freud is a friend, not an enemy, and that darker and more powerful forces lurk in the shadows.
David Bentley Hart replies:
I thank Greg Mahr for his comments and, for what it is worth, I entirely agree with him that “The Back Page” is the most diverting part of First Things; I rarely find it disappointing.
On the matter at issue, however, I do not really feel entitled to speak for Roland; and just at the moment he is in St. Louis and I am in Rochester, Minnesota. I know that according to certain archaic and barbaric usages in our legal code, I am technically his “owner”; but that does not mean I enjoy ready access to his deepest thoughts.
I think he would agree that the old-fashioned “talking cure” is a more humane and humanistic approach to therapy than the mechanistic, neurobiological, pharmaco-centric psychiatric regime of our day. I did not understand him to be equating Freudian therapy with modern neuroscience; I thought, rather, that he took his own distaste for what he sees as certain mystifications in the former as a point de départ for reflections on a deterministic and mechanistic philosophy he finds even more distasteful.
Speaking only for myself, I have a fairly pronounced dislike for Freud himself, at least as a thinker (though I do find Beyond the Pleasure Principle a deeply thought-provoking work). But I also acknowledge that he still believed that his patients were rational agents rather than biochemical automata.
I might add, just for the sake of clarification, that there may be some small quantum of pardonable personal prejudice in Roland’s views. The lady psychiatrist at the SPCA establishment where he spent his earliest months was a fairly doctrinaire Freudian who kept trying to convince him that he was suffering from certain unresolved feelings about his mother, and who continually devised what Roland took to be ludicrous and even insulting interpretations of his dreams. I fear that Roland has allowed his experiences with her to color his opinion of the entire profession.
LOCKE & GOSPEL
“Go therefore and undertake a much more penetrating ontological engagement with the first principles of the Roman imperial order,” our Lord did not say to his disciples shortly before ascending to heaven. But in his essay on “The Civic Project of American Christianity” (February), Michael Hanby seems to encourage a form of Christian witness founded more on a double portion of critical thinking than on evangelism.
Hanby briefly mentions educating children, rebuilding parishes, and embracing a countercultural way of life as aspects of his proposed witness, but he covers those topics in but two sentences. His emphasis is on “ontological engagement,” “deeper assessment,” “com[ing] to grips with the depth of our predicament,” and “disciplined reflection.” Evangelization is not explicitly included in his solution. Similarly, while the responses of George Weigel and Rod Dreher show concern for preserving the faith of existing Christians and their children, they do not explicitly address evangelization.
If Christians find themselves in a nation that is not Christian, then evangelization should be a top priority. And if, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, American Christians succeed in their work as fishers of American men and women, the ontological, metaphysical, and anthropological conversations will get a lot easier, considering the transforming renewal of the converted mind.
Christian history shows that the kind of Christian philosophizing Hanby calls for generally follows, not precedes, a society’s conversion. Large portions of the Roman Empire were already Christian by the time Augustine wrote City of God, and European Christendom was near its zenith when Aquinas began to bellow.
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Michael Hanby’s article seems far removed from the core of Christianity. It is, I think, significant that Jesus used stories and parables rather than theological argument to teach.
Consider the following story: A young woman, let us call her Beth, discovers that although she would like to be like her older sister and have a conventional marriage and family, she is attracted to and able to love only other women. She develops a relationship with another woman, and if she lives in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, they may choose to be married. Her family, like Beth, would have preferred otherwise, but come to accept that this is what she is capable of in terms of a loving, intimate relationship. Over time, Beth and her partner desire to raise a child and have the capability to do so. A male friend agrees to be a sperm donor and Beth has a child. Although she does not consider herself highly religious, Beth wants to have the child baptized, which leads to deep discussions between Beth and her partner. They eventually attend and join a church, which accepts them along with all the other imperfect members. The baby is baptized and raised within the Church.
Is this the end of Christianity, some sort of “existential/ontological” crisis? All this agonizing over same-sex relationships certainly gives rise to lots of philosophical and theological blustering, but to what end?
Although I agree with Michael Hanby’s withering and eloquent critique of modernity, I think he is entirely mistaken in making the American founding complicit in it. Hanby does this through guilt by (temporal) association. It is a kind of post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument. The philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was materialistic, mechanistic, nominalist, and voluntaristic, and so therefore was the founding—this adduced on the evidence of John Locke’s influence on the Declaration. Hanby provides almost no other evidence.
Elsewhere, Hanby has skewered conservatives for stressing the importance of the “founders’ intent” as perhaps “simply a secular echo of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura and the quest for a univocal meaning.” Yet it is Hanby who seeks a univocal meaning by superimposing his interpretation of modernity on everything. What’s more, this supposedly overwhelming Lockean influence is to be understood as Hanby understands Locke, not as Locke may have been understood by the founders. After all, what did they know?
However, it is best that Hanby looks away from the founders’ words and deeds because they were clearly not nominalists, materialists, or voluntarists. For Hanby’s critique to stand, he would have to prove that the founders held a non- or anti-teleological view of nature. Something like, say, the views of Machiavelli, or Hobbes, or perhaps Hume would do. But then why did the founders execrate Machiavelli, Hobbes, and, at least some of them, Hume (not Madison, but certainly Jefferson and Adams)? This is why Hanby has to stake everything on Locke as he understands him. What Hanby does is read historicism and relativism back into the founding, and then wonder why the founders did not see this “tragic flaw” and realize its implications. This is a giant anachronism.
In celebrating “The Jubilee of the Constitution,” John Quincy Adams gave a speech on April 30, 1839, in which he said: “There is the Declaration of Independence, and there is the Constitution of the United States—let them speak for themselves. The grossly immoral and dishonest doctrine of despotic state sovereignty, the exclusive judge of its own obligations, and responsible to no power on earth or in heaven, for the violation of them, is not there. The Declaration says it is not in me. The Constitution says it is not in me.” If Hanby looks harder, he will see it is not there. Meanwhile, his misdiagnosis frustrates, in fact eliminates, any hope of recovery.
Michael Hanby replies:
John Harmon accuses me of founding Christian witness “on critical thinking rather than evangelism.” Similarly, Gene Gall maintains that I depart from the heart of Christian thought and from the example of Christ himself, who taught using “parables and stories rather than theological argument.” Each juxtaposes philosophical and theological thinking to the “real business” of Christianity, though perhaps in differing degrees, be it evangelizing or showing mercy.
In Gall’s case, this juxtaposition not only reduces philosophy and theology to mere “bluster,” thereby liberating us to act without thinking seriously; it suggests that none of the consequences that follow from, for example, the codification of same-sex marriage—the redefinition of kinship, the irrevocable technologizing of human “reproduction,” further expansion of the “new eugenics,” deliberate creation of three-parent households, and least of all, the fate of children conceived in this brave new world—even provoke questions of human import worth thinking seriously about. What, then, are we left with? Stories of real human suffering to which Christianity offers not even a word of insight, much less truth, hope, or consolation, but mere sentimental confirmation of the spirit of the age.
Gall’s example thus serves to demonstrate one of the main points of contention in my essay and suffices as my answer to Harmon. No Christian could fail to support evangelism and remain Christian. But unless and until we overcome the dichotomies presupposed in these objections and see that thinking about the truth of things is intrinsic to evangelism and mercy, then all the evangelical zeal in the world will not amount to much, and our mercy will be as empty as it is sincere.
Reilly apparently declines my invitation to set aside the quarrel over the American founding in view of present circumstances, though I wish he had taken more care to understand my side of that argument. He insists that I anachronistically impose a tendentious reading of Locke on all the founders, ignoring my insistence, repeated “elsewhere,” that one need not regard the founding as a purely Lockean event.
Now it would not be difficult to find a Lockean conception of property and other Lockean influences throughout Jefferson’s corpus—many other scholars have done it—and Madison’s account of property, expanded to “embrace every thing to which a man may attach a value and have the right,” appears to be more Lockean than Locke’s. And surely Jefferson’s praise of Bacon, Locke, and Newton as “the three greatest men who ever lived, without any exception,” for “having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences” suggests that he is not so immaculately preserved from the stain of his age as Reilly would have us believe. Jefferson’s claim that man’s innate moral sense refers simply to the fact that he was “destined for society” and not “the to kalon, truth, etc., as fanciful writers have imagined,” would lend further support to this view.
But all of this would be largely beside the point, and anyway, I readily concede that the founders were a diverse lot, some of whom could combine Ciceronian republicanism, Lockean political theory, Hooker’s laws, Hutchesonian moral theory, Newtonian physics, and Baconian empiricism in one subjectivity.
But this, too, is largely beside the point. I do not elsewhere “skewer” conservatives for their devotion to the founders’ intentions because of its resemblance to the principle of sola scriptura—I note this mostly as a bemused observation—but because, apparently unlike Reilly, I do not subscribe to a “Great Man” view of historical agency and historiography in which the mens auctoris provides the definitive key to the meaning of texts or historical events.
As with Murray and those who insist that the founders “built better than they knew,” what the founders may have meant is less significant than what they actually gave us and how that gift was destined to be received in an emerging culture infused with voluntaristic, nominalist, and mechanistic assumptions about God and nature. What they gave us, Reilly is right to say, are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, expressed in what J. G. A. Pocock called “quasi-Lockean rhetoric.”
Of course “the grossly immoral and dishonest doctrine of despotic state sovereignty, the exclusive judge of its own obligations, and responsible to no other power on earth or in heaven” is not there. Rather I suggested that this is the unintended consequence of the sort of logic one finds in, say, Federalist no. 51.
But do you know what else is not there? Any specification of the responsibilities that accompany our basic rights, any articulation of the content of the “laws of nature,” any acknowledgement that the Church might be necessary for the state to judge and fulfill its obligations to the “power in heaven,” or any specification of the meaning of “nature and nature’s God”—though article 1, sec. 8 of the Constitution may provide a clue when it empowers Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts.” I find it odd that so many of those who otherwise set such store by the founders’ intentions are so unbothered by the fact that they left these notions blank. It’s too bad, really. They sure would come in handy about now.
I am quite often in agreement with George Weigel, but I take issue with his recent response to Michael Hanby’s “The Civic Project of American Christianity.” Just as Hanby’s piece is an attempt to demonstrate that liberalism (small “l”—and is there really a difference?) is at odds with an authentically Christian vision of civic engagement, Weigel’s response, “To See Things As TheyAre” (February) is, as I take it, a short, cogent apology for American classical liberalism as advancing Catholic teaching.
Weigel contends that the Church needs a new marketing strategy. “Appeals to ‘metaphysics’ and ‘anthropology’ are likely to fail, save with a very small remnant,” he correctly notes. This is his response to Hanby’s contention that classical liberalism (which is the bedrock of both American conservatism and liberalism) is inconsistent with Christianity. And yet, Weigel apparently believes that appeals to the conjugal view of marriage will not fail. Why is this? Why is our American culture less likely to accept extra ecclesiam nulla salus and more likely to accept that marriage is a sacrament or that abortion is an infernal sacrament?
Weigel must either believe that some propositions are properly subjects for moral judgment, and others not (this truly is a form of Gnosticism), or that some propositions are more easily held and accepted by current society, and that the Church as a matter of pragmatism ought to prioritize low-hanging fruit.
To be charitable, I shall take the latter as his position. Yet there is little reason to believe that society is going to be more tolerant of truth as regards marriage, and less tolerant of truth as regards other issues, such as concern for the poor. Furthermore, there is value in teaching the hard truths of Christianity, and trusting in God that our efforts will not be in vain.
I believe that Weigel’s list of priorities represents a generational divide. The rising generation of American Catholics, on every rubric, is more traditional than Weigel’s own. And the rising generation of secular Americans fails to share Weigel’s commitment to “self-evident” truths, especially on some of the so-called “social” issues. This portends disaster as the vestigial remains of cultural Catholicism die out and are replaced by those who accept all of Weigel’s major premises (“religious liberty is good”) and none of his minor ones (“protecting the seal of the confessional is a part of religious liberty”).
The younger generation can see this looming conflict, and we also can see that appeals to the “messy pluralism of liberal democracy” are futile. Liberalism is a jealous god, a complicated bundle of first-order moral claims masquerading as decision procedures. This comprehensive picture of the good might, just might, be inconsistent with Christianity, and we have to be prepared to debate that point.
Ignoring Hanby’s “fundamental, ontological critique” threatens what our Holy Father has called the collapse of the “moral edifice of the Church . . . like a house of cards.” Pace Pope Francis: “The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” Yet this is precisely Weigel’s prescription, and, I would argue, this is liberalism. I would not begrudge Weigel his continued evangelization to a certain subset of the American Church, but I cannot agree with his prioritization scheme.
George Weigel calls for the Church to “discipline itself” into a narrow public witness addressing religious freedom and life issues only, what he sees as “the points of maximum confrontation with the dictatorship of relativism.” A similar paradigm was advocated a few years back when the Manhattan Declaration was rolled out, an effort that gave an additional place at the top to marriage.
All of these topics are vitally important, but approaches to the Christian public witness that declare of policy issues that there can be only three (or two or one) seem to spring more from a deified vision of limited resource economics than from the God of the sparrow, the mustard seed, and the widow’s mite. Instead of a public voice that grows weaker with use and must be saved for the important topics, maybe the better analogy is a muscle like the heart that gets stronger when frequently exercised.
Further, if only the areas of “maximum confrontation” are amplified, Christianity risks becoming associated solely with dissonant tones in the ears of the world, even as there are still potential areas of harmony. While creation care is a frequent target for the issue exclusionists, this is a domain full of potential common ground.
Interestingly, Weigel highlights N. T. Wright’s admonition to “think within the biblical narrative.” In his essay “Jesus is Coming, Plant a Tree,” Wright looks to Romans 8 and argues that “the ultimate point” of “Paul’s doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ” is that “when humans are put right, creation will be put right.” Putting creation right includes matters of life and liberty, to be sure, but there’s more to the story than that, and telling it all well may be more effective than just rerunning the fight scenes.
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George Weigel urges the Church to focus its “primary attention on two key issues: the life issues and religious freedom [because] these are the points of maximum confrontation with the dictatorship of relativism.” I agree with him, but the struggle for religious freedom must be done with care, or else it will actually contribute to the dictatorship of relativism. A demand simply for freedom to act upon subjective religious feelings is a claim (though not a strong one) that can easily be seen to validate a relativist worldview.
Instead, the Church’s demand must be for freedom to act upon what religious people have judged to be true. This claim challenges relativism to admit that religion can be taken by reasonable people to be a source of truth. And it is actually more likely to be successful: A request by religious employers to adhere to their personal feelings instead of the law is not hard to deny. A request not to be made complicit in what they, as faithful people, judge to be the wrongful taking of a child’s life is harder to refuse.
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George Weigel replies:
I thank my readers for their comments. I do hope the younger generation of which Andrew Kloster speaks reads texts a little more carefully, and with a little less of a gimlet-eyed commitment to excavating creeping liberalism, than is sometimes the case today. Just for the record, though, and to repeat what I wrote in my response to Michael Hanby, I quite agree with Hanby that we are in a time when a defense of the deep truths inscribed in the human condition is imperative.
My question was whether the language of “metaphysics” and “ontology” can be “heard” when mounting that defense in today’s confused culture; my suggestion was that the language of biblical realism might have a better chance of providing an effective response to the regnant Gnosticism. If Kloster wishes to enter the lists of the culture wars flying the guidon of metaphysics on his rhetorical lance, well, good luck to him. He’s likely to need it.
As for the “narrow public witness” against which John Murdock rightly cautions, I really don’t think “prioritizing” equals “ignoring,” such that to prioritize the defense of religious freedom and the right to life excludes other issues from the Church’s social witness and public policy advocacy. It simply means prioritizing, which involves the allotment of more resources and personnel and energy to some issues than to others. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any others. I do doubt, however, that there is much “common ground” to be found with “creation care” folks who implicitly worship Gaia rather than the God of the Bible. Gaia worship, as Hanby (and, I suspect, Andrew Kloster) and I would all agree, carries with it an anthropology that treats the human person as a kind of anthropollutant, which leads in short order to a eugenic “morality.”
As for the defense of religious freedom in the American context, Richard Stith is quite right to remind us that sentiment is a weak pillar on which to lean. For my part, I would be willing to accept a robust implementation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But I fear that that is going to be made much more difficult, in the wake of the aggression that is sure to follow the Supreme Court’s likely discovery that James Madison secretly embedded a “right” to so-called gay marriage in the Constitution. This piece of wizardry (hidden for ages but revealed in our enlightened times) was then reaffirmed by the Congress and the several states when they adopted and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
Mark Bauerlein does not reproduce any of N. M. Gwynne’s arguments for the claim that the rules of Standard English grammar, unlike those of the many non-standard English dialects, possess “a rationality that runs deeper than cultural context and historical circumstance” (“Grammar Rules,” February). Readers are left to wonder what deep rationality this might be and how professional linguists could have been so blind as to miss it.
Fortunately, a single example presented by Bauerlein suffices both to show what sort of “rationality” is meant and to falsify his claim: “I can’t get no satisfaction” is not nonsense; on the contrary, its sense is unmistakable.
Those who have studied English syntax, and for that matter, those familiar with the poetic works of Robert Burns and Nasir Jones, know that it is possible to write and speak with order, wit, and clarity in any dialect. This is not to say that students should not be instructed in the rules of Standard English. Precisely because it is the standard dialect, it is a particularly useful one to know. And in general, familiarity with multiple dialects, like a broader vocabulary, supports clear and beautiful communication. Bauerlein’s deeply unhistorical and unliterary attitude, on the other hand, proposes to make clarity the enemy of beauty.
Mark Bauerlein replies:
Here is one argument I mentioned for the transhistorical nature of correct usage: Changes in English grammar since Shakespeare’s time “have been remarkably small.” Technology, politics, geography, and social relations have changed drastically, but grammar not much at all.
David Schaengold refutes my citation of the Rolling Stones line as a specimen of nonsense, stating, “its sense is unmistakable.” Well, of course, we know what it means. But I was specifically talking about logical structure and the non-sense of a double negative. It should be discouraged. Let’s not base standards on a few brilliant poets over the decades who play creatively with syntax, not to mention on crude pop culture voices.
Finally, students should master Standard English not simply because “it is a particularly useful one to know.” That is to reduce the legitimacy of Standard English to historical and political circumstance. No, we ask students to practice proper usage because solecisms and violations of logic such as the politically correct pronoun “they” (when it follows a singular antecedent) are vulgar and pernicious. To cast them as simply unsanctioned conventions is to judge Standard English as but the sanctioned system of the moment. This is an assumption that runs deep in the education world and helps explain why complaints about the writing and speaking of students and workers grow every day, and the data to back up those gripes steadily accumulates.
When my February issue of First Things arrived, I began my usual routine of enthusiastically opening the cover and perusing the pages. But when my eyes fell upon the bold-printed “Ferguson” title on the first page, my heart sank. As a Christian police officer, this topic has haunted me for months.
With concentrated effort, I could theoretically avoid the endless interviews and articles in which confident journalists, talking heads, and activists bemoan our inherently racist criminal justice system, militarized police, and over-aggressive policing tactics. Still, someone would inevitably hunt me down at the next family gathering, at church coffee hour, or at my children’s schools. It’s difficult to hide in a full police uniform from a society that increasingly views you as a violent, racist thug.
So I hope R. R. Reno can understand my consternation when I saw that Ferguson had now invaded the sacred space of my favorite periodical. Before beginning, I took a deep breath and reassured myself that Reno had repeatedly proven his brilliance and sound reasoning. But Ross Douthat, equally brilliant and reasonable, had already proven himself unable to resist the siren song of the narrative being pushed by agenda-driven journalists, activists, and politicians. I hoped Reno would be different.
Thankfully, Reno’s tone is much more reserved. After expressing sympathy for the protest movement, he rightfully identifies it as “a call for change without a plan for change.” I also agree with his assessment that reforms, whatever they may entail, will not change “the basic dynamics that put young black men at risk.” In a journalistic milieu that prizes sensationalist rhetoric over sound reason, I was relieved to see Reno emphasize “root causes” rather than vilify law enforcement as bigoted stooges.
However, Reno is quick to add, “Police can do a better job.” He does not specify what we are doing wrong or how we can improve. If he is making a theological statement about how cops, along with doctors, editors, teachers, and all humans, can improve by striving to attain to the “fullness of the measure of Christ,” then I wholeheartedly agree. But I fear he is appealing to the unsupported assumption that there are systemic and pervasive flaws in our criminal justice system that must be rectified.
After glossing over “stop and frisk,” he declares, “Undoubtedly there are other changes in police tactics that can reduce the likelihood of police violence.” He never says what these changes would entail or what exactly is wrong with current police tactics. I suspect this ambiguity is rooted in his lack of knowledge of police tactics. I don’t expect most citizens, or even most editors or journalists, to be experts in police tactics. But I would hope that published writers, especially Christian ones, would have a little more humility than to speak with such certainty about topics of which they have limited knowledge and experience. Just as the silliness of the mainstream media’s coverage of religion is readily apparent to any seriously religious person, so the media’s staggering ignorance of police tactics and relevant case law baffles law enforcement professionals.
Unfortunately, our voice is underrepresented in the public square. From day one, we are told never to talk to the media. There are serious disciplinary and civil repercussions for doing so. Also, in the face of overwhelming animosity from the media and society in general, we circle the wagons. We are tight-lipped about our profession and our views because our experiences are so unique that we tell ourselves, “They have no idea what it’s like and they’ll never understand.” I can’t blame cops for thinking this way; I have thought so myself for a while. But if we don’t give people the slightest opportunity to understand, then we can’t complain about their ignorance.
I know committed ideologues will never change their minds, but I’m convinced that there are plenty of people who don’t know what to think. These people may want to believe that cops are good people trying to do their best in difficult situations, but all they hear is a homogeneous narrative from both sides of the aisle that the police are unaccountable, racist thugs.
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R. R. Reno replies:
Frank Hagg is entirely correct when he speculates that I’m no expert on police tactics. But I don’t think it takes detailed knowledge to recognize that in recent years the NYPD was using “stop and frisk” as a way to impose their authority in the black community. When he took over last year, Police Commissioner William Bratton tightened up the standards for the use of this tactic. Stops and frisks went down. Crime did not go up. This led me to formulate an assumption, perhaps false but surely plausible, that police tactics require regular review and rethinking.
I agree with him that pundits like me need to know more about the important work the police are doing, which in the overwhelming majority of cases is done very well indeed. We should all be grateful for the public service provided by Mr. Hagg and other policemen.