♦ Justice Antonin Scalia’s death was a blow. Like so many others, I depended upon Scalia to speak up for me. He did so clearly, forcefully, and with wit. That counted for a lot, especially in recent years. History is against us, we’re told. We’re the mean-spirited judges, the Pharisaical scolds—the haters. Scalia took bullets for us. He had our backs. As Hadley Arkes observed in his moving remembrance at firstthings.com, “He had been in his own way the protector of us all.”
Elliot Milco, our editorial assistant, put it this way:
Antonin Scalia was a hero to me, as he was to thousands, perhaps millions of conservative Americans. He was brilliant. He was morally engaged. His prose sparkled. He was the great champion of the right, and he could not be silenced or voted out, no matter how much the press despised him. While his enemies pushed relentlessly to have their views enshrined as fundamental principles of a free society, Scalia fought to keep the moral question open for debate, to maintain the possibility of free dissent, because he believed that in a fair fight we could still prevail.
Now he’s gone. May he rest in peace.
♦ After Scalia’s death, a friend said to me with sadness, “It makes everything worse.” Yes, I’m afraid that’s true. Not only have we lost a champion and protector, but also his death is sure to unleash still greater conflicts. Scalia was a giant boulder in the stream of our political life. Behind him quiet eddies formed, allowing for a degree of repose and respite amid our otherwise intense cultural conflicts. Now the raw currents will flow even more freely, as the preliminary skirmishes over his replacement indicate. We may come to see Scalia’s death, like Robert Bork’s confirmation hearing a generation ago, as a turning point of sorts in our political and cultural history.
♦ T. S. Eliot on the perils of our time:
It is in fact in moments of moral and spiritual struggle . . . that men and women come nearest to being real. If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of the elite, to Art, the world will be as good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vapourous.
♦ And vaporous we are becoming. The International Olympic Committee announced that “transgender athletes” can compete as their sex of choice. That means men can compete as women, and women as men, even if they haven’t undergone sex reassignment surgery.However, there’s an interesting wrinkle that gives away the idea that a man can be a woman and a women a man as an illusion. Female-to-male transgender athletes can take part in men’s competitions “without restriction.” By contrast, male-to-female athletes have to show that their testosterone levels are below a certain threshold for at least one year prior to competition (something that requires hormone therapy). Hum. Why this difference? Could it be because there are pronounced biological differences between the sexes, and simply thinking you are male or female doesn’t make those differences any less real?
♦ The IOC decision brought to mind a Swiftian intervention Carl Trueman made on our website last summer:
It is time to abolish the anachronistic distinction in sport between men’s (sic) and women’s (sic) competitions. Given that this rests upon outdated cisgender and heteropatriarchal categories, the very existence of such would seem to go well beyond a mere microaggression and to be a rather hate-filled and oppressive phenomenon. Indeed, to coin a term, they are surely examples of hatesports, perpetuating stereotypes and the evils of institutional cissexism.
Are the panjandrums of sport unable to resist self-satire?
♦ If you’ve never read Rod Liddle, you really need to. He’s an addictively funny writer, funny in a rapier way, cutting through the, er, bull manure. I follow him in The Spectator. A recent column, “What fun it will be if Trump becomes president,” caused me to spit out my morning coffee in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. I’d quote some, but Liddle isn’t always fit for citation in a family magazine. The gist of it is that, bad as Trump might be for America, he’d outrage and offend the bien-pensant, quasi-Stalinist, faux lefties. The tears, the tears! It would be very gratifying, so much so that it’s terribly tempting to want it to happen.
♦ I recommend Liddle’s 2014 book, Selfish Whining Monkeys: How We Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy. He traverses a great deal of the ground I try to cover in my analysis of the way in which the post-sixties culture serves the rich and grinds down the poor—but with a lot more literary brio.
♦ Speaking of the ground I try to cover, I recently submitted a manuscript to my publisher, Regnery: Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. In this book, I describe the moral and spiritual problems we face, and what to do about them. You can pre-order it on Amazon.
♦ The New Chapel, a Unitarian chapel outside Manchester, England, plans to offer a form of baptism for transgender people that worship leader Jean Clements described as “very similar” to the ritual for adult baptism. Not knowing what Unitarians are up to on the baptism side of things, I’m not sure what that means. Clements also observed that her congregation’s decision is in no way binding on anyone. It’s up to other Unitarians “to decide for themselves whether they wish to offer similar services.” Exactly. God, doctrine, gender, nature? Answer as you wish. But there’s one truth above question: People get “to decide for themselves.”
♦ In 2015, Mount St. Mary’s University hired Gordon Gekko as president. Actually, his name is Simon Newman. Before assuming the office of president, he worked for thirty years in private equity and corporate consulting. As he got his hands around things last summer, Newman decided that the already admitted freshman class was not quite right: There were too many weak admits who were likely to drag down the undergraduate retention rate. Retention is a big factor in U.S. News & World Report rankings. Eager to advance Mount St. Mary’s, Newman arranged for the newly arrived freshmen to take a survey that was billed as diagnostic, given to help the university provide better academic counseling. But in fact, Newman’s plan was to use the survey to identify twenty to twenty-five weak students to usher out the door.
Faculty got wind of the plan. Some objected to the rank deception involved in Newman’s plan to disguise what is in fact a last-minute admissions test as a helpful, student-friendly diagnostic survey. In response, Newman said, “This is hard for you because you think of students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You have to drown the bunnies. . . . put a Glock to their heads.”
♦ Newman also applied his business acumen to faculty who were outspoken in their objections to his strategy for culling the herd. He fired some. “Glock to the head” seems to be his management philosophy. Professors Thane Naberhaus and Ed Egan lost their jobs because of their failure to fulfill their “duty of loyalty.” Dean Joshua Hochschild and Provost David Rehm were removed from their positions.
♦ Naberhaus and Egan were reinstated. There are calls for Newman to be removed. It’s a mess. And not just a mess, but a reminder of the challenges facing higher education, especially private institutions like Mount St. Mary’s that are not part of the charmed club of super-wealthy elite schools. Newman was brought in to steer Mount St. Mary’s toward a sustainable future. That has meant cuts in retirement benefits, as well as talk of “modernizing” the curriculum so students can pursue more marketable degrees without being sidetracked by too many courses in philosophy, theology, history, and literature. Not a happy course of action if one cares about the Catholic part of Catholic education.
♦ Many of us worry about the dilution of Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities. We’re right to do so. But that dilution isn’t likely to come from liberal Catholics bent on turning places like Mount St. Mary’s into heritage sites for guitar Masses and Rahnerian theology. Yes, there are those who want to institutionalize the sexual revolution at Catholic schools, as Mickey Mattox reports in this issue (“Marquette’s Gender Regime”). But the main threat, as Newman’s bunny-drowning language suggests, comes from the transformation of education into a service industry. Most private colleges and universities are financially vulnerable and sensitive to the competitive market for fee-paying students. Trustees anxious to ensure institutional survival are easily tempted to view substantive (and expensive) commitments to Catholic identity as one of Catholic higher education’s unaffordable luxuries. The board of Mount St. Mary’s is standing behind Newman.
♦ Scholars are puzzled. Death rates are rising for poorly educated white Americans, and not just a by little but by a lot. That’s not true for black Americans or Hispanics. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin puts forward an explanation in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. He draws on “reference group theory”—the notion that we rate our well-being by comparing ourselves to a reference group. When working-class white men compare themselves to their fathers’ generation, they see stagnation, even decline. This demoralizes. By contrast, because of the decline of racial barriers, African Americans have seen gains, making for a more optimistic view. Hispanics do better than their immigrant parents, again leading to optimism.
But this seems like an under-explanation. Why would economic stagnation lead to earlier death among whites with poor educations? Ah, it’s because there’s more to it. According to Cherlin, “White workers historically have compared themselves against black workers, taking some comfort in seeing a group that was doing worse than them. Now, however, the decline of racial restrictions in the labor market and the spread of affirmative action have changed that.”
In sum: Deprived of the compensatory superiority accorded them by their racism, poor whites now suffer declining life expectancies. Hokum as sociology, but reassuring to liberals who don’t want to face the implications of progressive cultural politics.
♦ Those who read my op-ed in the New York Times, “How Both Parties Lost the White Middle Class,” know what I think of the all-too-common derogation of America’s working class, especially the white working class. In this month’s Public Square I quoted a paraphrase of Apple executives talking about American workers—“no longer a viable option.” Not very complimentary, to say the least. It even has a Glock-to-the-head subtext, suggesting as it does that America’s working class has no future. And people wonder why Trump succeeds.
♦ I’m fascinated by the way in which social scientists have been scrambling to explain declining life expectancies among poor whites, a trend known for years but only widely acknowledged after economics Nobel Prize–winner Angus Deaton and Anne Case wrote about it at the end of last year. One would think the explanation obvious. The upper end of society has given up on regulating pornography and glorified hedonism, turned public schools into cash machines for teachers’ unions, and otherwise spread Agent Orange over what used to be a strong moral consensus about sex, marriage, family, self-discipline, and decency—all the while isolating themselves in homogenous communities of the well-off where their children can be protected from the world they’ve created.
♦ Pope Francis’s visit to Mexico and the ensuing kerfuffle over walls, bridge-building, and Donald Trump’s status as a Christian (or not) sent me back to a little book by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation. It’s a thoughtful book that calls us to respect the dignity of immigrants, whether legal or illegal. Gomez reminds us to seek solidarity with the stranger and sojourner in our midst, a biblical injunction well worth remembering. He has a great deal to say about our immigrant history, as well as our Christian heritage in Spanish missions that pushed their way up from the South centuries ago. All for the best. But there’s another thread in the book that reflects a problem in the way many church leaders speak about immigration.
At one point Gomez observes, “The Church’s mission transcends boundaries of race, culture, and nation. Catholic means universal, in the sense of wholeness and totality. The Church’s calling is global.” Entirely correct. He goes on to say, “Catholics believe we are working with God to help create—from out of the world’s many peoples—one single family of God.” Again, quite true. But that unity is made in and through the supernatural mission of the Church, not nations, or even international structures. Our spiritual unity in Christ does not contradict the proper role of political prudence in determining whether or how to restrict immigration. It was an American Protestant error to treat America as its church. I fear Gomez makes the same mistake.
♦ Archbishop Gomez identifies a “natural right” to immigration. “If you and your family are unable to secure life’s necessities in your home country—due to political instability, economic distress, religious persecution, or other conditions that offend basic dignity—you must be free to seek these things in another country.” According to these criteria, one could make the case that half the world’s population has a right to immigrate, a natural right that trumps national laws.
I admire the global vision of the Catholic Church. As I point out in this month’s Public Square, however, an insouciance about the nation-state’s proper prerogatives is perilous. The upshot of mass immigration will not be global solidarity. Instead, it will accelerate trends already encouraging an unaccountable global technocracy, and reactions in the form of nationalistic populism. We’ll get an even more intense, grasping individualism—and politicized modes of ersatz solidarity.
♦ Our senior editor, Mark Bauerlein, is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. The book’s a must-read. Not surprisingly, Atlanta magazine asked him to weigh in on the rising generation. To which Mark responded, “Millennials in America today are the most socially conscious, hard-working, knowledgeable, skilled and savvy, globally aware, workforce-ready, and downright interesting generation in human history. Just ask them.”
♦ Our literary editor, Matthew Schmitz, makes an arresting observation in a recent opinion essay for the Washington Post. Pope Francis and Donald Trump have a lot in common. No, they don’t agree about much, if anything. But they have a similar anti-establishment rhetoric. And, as Matthew puts it, they share a penchant for “bold words and gestures at the expense of clear arguments and specific policies.” For example, “Francis’s claim that ‘the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’ is an arresting hyperbole not unlike Trump’s claims that ‘we are led by very, very stupid people.’”
♦ Until reading Matthew’s analysis, I had not thought of Francis and Trump as sharing a common style, and not just style, but common anti-establishment populism as well. But I think he’s on to something. Both are Peronists. Both promise to empower the marginalized against a spiritually dead (Francis) or politically compromised (Trump) elite. Both explode constraints. Francis has flouted papal conventions. Trump breaks rules of political protocol. Both are anti-institutional. Francis excoriates the curial bureaucrats. Is there a respected figure Donald Trump hasn’t insulted?
♦ Perhaps both men reflect our cultural moment. Since the 1960s, being anti-establishment has been the great imperative, so much so that today’s establishment will almost certainly protest that it, too, is anti-establishment. I suppose that’s why they’re so vulnerable.
♦ As long as I’m on Trump and the establishment, I can’t resist reflecting on the latter’s complicity with his rise. How could a master of comic mockery like Stephen Colbert object to Trump’s political style? Or Jon Stewart, who concludes his regular rants with a crude obscenity? Rush Limbaugh has made his career by denouncing people (including Pope Francis, whom he described as teaching “pure Marxism”). Fox News, MSNBC, and other networks broadcast political shout shows. Talking heads bluster, interrupt, and otherwise perform in rude ways. Viewers rejoice in the spectacle. Money is made. It’s all very Trumpian.
♦ There’s another source of Trump’s rise. The always reliable New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof bears unwitting witness. Anyone who reads the New York Times regularly knows what Kristof will say: The evil and perverse politics of the Republican party are to blame for the rise of Trump, just as conservatives are to blame for all that is wrong in the world. And Kristof says just that. For a long time, he writes, the right has promoted “a toxic politics of fear and resentment, sometimes brewed with a tinge of racial animus.” Is it any surprise, therefore, that the man leading in the polls for the Republican nomination “is an ill-informed, inexperienced, bigoted, sexist xenophobe”? Now that’s some serious name-calling, reputation-smearing, and political body-slamming. Very Trumpian! And all the more because of the way Kristof rolls up half the nation into his denunciation. After all, why did the Republican party grandees rely on “a toxic politics”? It must be because they could excite the animal passions of those Republican voters who are motivated by fear, resentment, and racial animus.
♦ Readers may detect a sharp, even angry tone in my comments above. Yes, I want to hit somebody, if only to awaken him. The current election cycle is revealing a blindness in our ruling class and an incapacity for self-criticism. Donald Trump is made in their image. The Monica Lewinsky affair, followed by the fire hose directing money toward him after his presidency, shows that there is, quite frankly, nothing Bill Clinton can do that will discredit him among liberal elites. Why, then, should Donald Trump be held accountable for his many excesses?
♦ Headline: “Ted Cruz Recounts the Night He Met Jesus.” Comment by Fr. George Rutler, “Who picked up the cheque?”
♦ A friend’s son bought a Trump “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. The tag on the inside reads: “100% Cotton. Made in China.”
♦ James David in Dexter, Michigan, would like to start a ROFTERs group in and around the Ann Arbor, Dexter, Chelsea, and Saline area. If you’d like to get together with smart, engaged First Things readers to talk about each issue, drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ Sergey Dezhnyuk of Tulsa, Oklahoma, would like to relaunch the ROFTERs group in that fair city. To participate, contact him at Dezhnyuk@gmail.com. Many thanks to Robert Bearer for serving as convener for this group in years past.
Associated with Duke University or live in the Durham area? Edward Dixon would like to gather faithful First Things readers to form a ROFTERs group there. His contact: Edward@christianityandscholarship.org.
♦ I’m pleased to announce that our managing editor, Lauren Wilson, recently married Darren Geist. It was a beautiful wedding. Lauren goes forward with us under her married name, Lauren Geist.
♦ We recently worked with a First Things supporter to set up a charitable gift annuity. This charitable instrument allows you to receive a stream of income while at the same time providing First Things with substantial support. Please get in touch if you’d like information about this way of supporting America’s most influential journal of religion and public life.
while we’re at it sources: Antonin Scalia: firstthings.com, February 15, 2016; firstthings.com, February 14, 2016. Transgender athletes: media.wix.com, November 2015. Unitarian baptism: bbc.com, January 30, 2016. Mount St. Mary’s: msmecho.com, January 19, 2016. Death rates: nytimes.com, February 22, 2016. Losing the middle class: nytimes.com, February 1, 2016. Millenials: atlantamagazine.com, February 1, 2016. Pope Francis and Donald Trump: washingtonpost.com, February 19, 2016. Toxic politics: nytimes.com, February 11, 2016.