♦ I’m grateful to Mary Ann Glendon for her generous response to my heretical rejections of dialogue and human rights (“Reclaim Human Rights”). She’s surely right that the wisest course of action will require witness and real dialogue rather than the “let’s talk until you capitulate” version, as well as criticism of human-rights ideologies and advocacy of genuine human rights. Glendon agrees, however, that our circumstances have changed over the last generation. Christianity was shouldered aside when the European Union set about to formulate a preamble to its constitution. That decision reflects a wider effort to reorient the Western consensus toward secular progressivism. As this shift gathers momentum, the civic virtue of dialogue and the moral imperative of human rights take on new, often ideological meanings that work against rather than in harmony with our deepest commitments. In “Amnesty International Betrays Women,” in this issue, Darren Geist reports on Amnesty International’s push to decriminalize prostitution—in the name of human rights. It’s a sign of how far things have gone. Our participation in public life is very likely to become more often critical than cooperative, at least as long as the secular world defines the terms of cooperation.
♦ The Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor proposed a large donation on the condition that George Mason University’s law school be renamed in honor of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The university trustees accepted. Outcry ensued. New York Times writer Nicholas Fandos breathlessly reported that this gift and name change “focused attention for the first time in a serious way on whether the administration and trustees at George Mason had allowed Virginia’s largest public university to become an ideological outpost.” Behold the first principle of academic life: Conservatism is ideological; progressivism is good people applying reason to solve society’s problems.
♦ Just in case you’re not sure what our progressive commissars have in mind, here’s a clear statement from Harvard Law School professor Mark Tushnet:
For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who—remember—defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)
♦ A couple issues back I took my stand against dialogue. In an address delivered after receiving the Charlemagne Prize, an award recognizing contributions to European unity, Pope Francis expressed the opposite sentiment. “If there is one word we should never tire of repeating, it is this: dialogue.”
♦ He went on to say, “Peace will be lasting in the measure that we arm our children with the weapons of dialogue, that we teach them to fight the good fight of encounter and negotiation.” As someone who has suffered attacks from those armed with the “weapons of dialogue,” I have reservations about just how much peace we’ll get with this approach. Francis goes on to champion “inclusion,” another weapon often used to condemn those who fail to agree with the progressive consensus.
♦ I’m willing to wager that Mark Tushnet is a great patron of “inclusion.” How does that square with the “hard-line approach” he recommends? The answer is simple: An inclusive society must exclude those who exclude. Which of course means those who don’t agree with the moral judgments of those who “include.”
♦ Jacobin is an unabashedly Marxist journal published in Brooklyn. On its website I recently came across a 2011 interview with Walter Benn Michaels, a leftist who criticizes the liberal use of diversity:
Multiculturalism and diversity . . . are . . . a legitimizing tool, because they suggest that the ultimate goal of social justice in a neoliberal economy is not that there should be less difference between the rich and the poor—indeed the rule in neoliberal economies is that the difference between the rich and the poor gets wider rather than shrinks—but that no culture should be treated invidiously and that it’s basically OK if economic differences widen as long as the increasingly successful elites come to look like the increasingly unsuccessful non-elites. So the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women.
Put succinctly, “Contemporary anti-racism . . . functions as a legitimization of capital rather than as resistance or even critique.” The use of “capital” is too sweeping. Michaels would be more accurate to say that contemporary anti-racism legitimates mostly white and generally rich liberal power, as I argue in this month’s Public Square.
♦ The relation of mostly white and generally rich liberal power to the classical Marxist concept of labor is complicated. In his new book, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, Branko Milanovic identifies a harmony of interests between a rising middle class in the developing economies of India and China and the top income-earners in the United States. Both have seen dramatic income increases in the post–Cold War era of globalization, while wages have been stagnant for American middle-class workers. So it’s not labor vs. capital. Instead, it’s capital in alliance with developing world labor—over and against developed world labor. (Christopher Caldwell spells this out in “The Migrants of Calais,” a splendid article in the March 7, 2016, issue of the Weekly Standard.)
In this conflict, rich people in the rich world avail themselves of a highly developed vocabulary of denunciation. We saw this in the run-up to the U.K.’s vote over leaving or remaining in the European Union, as well as in commentary on Donald Trump’s populist support. A working-class guy in Schenectady has a natural interest in restoring a nationalist economic policy that protects him from developing world labor. But his political preferences get redescribed as expressions of racism, xenophobia, and fear. I explain how that works here in my Public Square (“Bigot-Baiting”).
♦ As I wrote on firstthings.com (“Britain Votes on Brexit Today. Here’s What’s at Stake”), the leave-or-remain vote was the most important political moment in Europe since the fall of the Berlin wall a generation ago. The majority voting to leave rejected more than the European Union’s sometimes ham-handed and ineffective policies. They said “no” to a technocratic elite whom they no longer trust.
They’re right to have their doubts. The E.U. reflects the ambition of many in the West to construct a global technocratic empire. In that empire, human beings are biological machines with instincts and interests that can be scientifically described and thus managed by experts. The empire’s moral legitimacy is provided by one part “diversity” (Walter Benn Michaels’s point about the role of anti-racism), one part liberation of personal desires (especially sexual liberation), and one part prosperity.
The “leave” vote took away some of the momentum behind the construction of that empire. “No” is not enough, however. We need to think about what kind of internationalism we want as an alternative.
♦ Writing for the New York Times, Amanda Taub offers a standard technocratic take on the Brexit vote: “Most research found that immigration has bolstered the British economy.” But leave voters ignored this fact (which is itself contested in the usual conflict of economic studies). Taub regards this as evidence that voters failed to consider their self-interest. “For many people, identity trumps economics. They will pay a high price (literally, in this case) to preserve a social order that makes them feel safe and powerful.” The notion that an Englishman might care deeply about his nation’s history, culture, and way of life gets translated into an irrational (or worse) psychological need to feel safe and powerful. And we’re surprised that ordinary people resent the therapeutic hauteur of their supposed betters?
♦ Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic and founder of the L’Arche communities that encourage solidarity between the disabled and fully abled. In a recent interview, he made muddled statements about assisted suicide. Asked later for clarification, he responded, “If the correct sedative or medication has not been found, one cannot oblige someone to live through unrelenting agony.” Catholic moral teaching to the contrary? Vanier appealed to authority. Pope Francis “continues to tell us that everything cannot be regulated by a law and there are always exceptions.”
♦ As I’ve noted before, Francis’s Jesuit formation makes him susceptible to transforming Christianity into bourgeois religion. How does one know when the exceptions are “spiritual” and “pure”? When they’re made by sensitive, moral, and spiritually centered people—like us.
♦ Cardinal Reinhard Marx offers further evidence of the Francis effect. Speaking in Dublin, he said the Church needs to apologize to the gay community and spoke of the Church’s treatment of homosexuals as “a scandal and terrible.” He followed up with what seems to be a fundamental principle of his moral theology: “We have to respect the decisions of people.” I imagine what Cardinal Marx, as a leading proponent of bourgeois Christianity, really means to say is that we need to respect the decisions of good, liberal people like him. I doubt he’s enthusiastic about the decision of people like me to treat moral choices as matters to be judged by moral principles and not as self-validating acts of freedom requiring “respect.”
♦ William Galston is an intelligent commentator on the current scene. He zeroes in on an interesting finding in a recent poll. Working-class white Americans are more likely than college-educated whites to believe their families will be victims of terrorism, a fear not based in any statistical trend. Here’s Galston’s analysis for the Brookings Institution:
The most plausible interpretation is that working-class whites are experiencing a pervasive sense of vulnerability. On every front—economic, cultural, personal security—they feel threatened and beleaguered. They seek protection against all the forces they perceive as hostile to their cherished way of life—foreign people, foreign food, foreign ideas, aided and abetted by a government they no longer believe cares about them. Perhaps this is why fully 60 percent of them are willing to endorse a proposition that in previous periods would be viewed as extreme: the country has gotten so far off track that we need a leader who is prepared to break some rules if that is what it takes to set things right.
Exactly. Our political moment is one in which the prevailing experience is of vulnerability and thus the political demand is for protection. That’s what drove voters to Trump and Sanders.
♦ Congratulations to Duncan Stroik. The architect and professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture recently received the 2016 Arthur Ross Award, the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art’s recognition of outstanding contributions to preserving and advancing the classical tradition. If you are on a church building committee, you need to visit Stroik’s beautiful chapel at Thomas Aquinas College. It’s an inspiring witness to what’s possible when we draw on the glories of the classical tradition.
♦ In the aftermath of the Orlando killings by Omar Mateen, LGBT activists saw an opportunity to redouble pressure on religious groups. Do we support LGBT rights, or are we on the side of Omar Mateen, the mass murderer? Published on muslimmatters.org, “An Open Letter to the Muslim Community in Light of the Orlando Shooting” by Daniel Haqiqatjou makes a number of important observations, all of which pertain to Christians who remain loyal to a biblically based sexual morality.
“Muslims cannot uncritically and unconditionally endorse the LGBT rights movement without simultaneously violating basic principles of Islam,” he writes. “It would be easy to portray this lack of endorsement as ‘homophobia’ or a callous indifference to people for who they are. But let me emphatically dispel such a simplistic and reductive portrayal.”
Islam (along with Christianity and Judaism) does not support the LGBT movement’s assumptions about nature, identity, and the moral meaning of sexual acts. Muslims (and I’d add Christians and Jews again) think that the LGBT movement “and the lifestyle it assumes and enables is harmful to the very people it purports to liberate—harmful in the physical and metaphysical senses.” For this reason, a Muslim (and Christian and Jew) who truly cares about LGBT people will speak against the LGBT agenda.
Haqiqatjou goes on to observe that “secular humanism,” as he denominates it, is not neutral. Under its auspices, “one specific, idiosyncratic kind of sexual morality is the dominant view, a view that is increasingly being established in federal and state law.” This view conflicts with Islamic sexual morality (and biblically informed sexual morality as well). The political question is whether the view with access to political power—which is to say, the LGBT view—can tolerate dissent.
It seems that, no, it can’t. Which is a crisis for secular democracy and its claim to promote a genuinely liberal culture—not a crisis for Islam (or Christianity or Judaism). “Do Muslims have a right to their beliefs, or will they be bullied and silenced into a position that is fundamentally opposed to their deepest ethical and theological commitments?” Liberals claim to be committed to diversity and pluralism—except when they’re not.
Haqiqatjou drives his point home. “If liberal secular states, like the U.S., force Muslims to accept something antithetical to their religion, then this proves that the liberal secular vision of universal tolerance, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc., [is] a mirage and that such states are not unlike any other authoritarian or theocratic regime that imposes beliefs on its populace by force of law.” Exactly right, and a nice statement of what is at stake in the left’s jihad to compel everyone to participate in the sexual revolution.
♦ In “Death of God Fifty Years On,” Matthew Rose explains the particular genius of Death of God theology. This theological movement purported to show how unbelief serves Christianity more truly and nobly than belief. Anti-Christian sentiments are in fact the fulfillment of the spiritual project of Christianity. I’d add that Rose’s analysis also illuminates anti-Americanism. Post-sixties, post-Protestant Americans came to think anti-Americanism best fulfills what is noble and true about America. We’re the universal nation, which of course means we must repudiate patriotic narrowness. Just as the Death of God theology says a true Christian rejects Christianity, so a true American patriot must reject America.
♦ The same article reminded my colleague deputy editor Elliot Milco of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Three Versions of Judas.” Borges muses about the writings of Nils Runeberg, a Swedish theologian (of Borges’s fertile imagination) who argued in a 1904 book that Judas was the exemplary apostle. The betrayal of Jesus represented a self-conscious acceptance of damnation for the sake of the salvation of others. The real follower of Christ is the one who appears to be the opposite.
♦ First Things sponsored a day-long Dulles Colloquium on Monday, May 9, at the Carlton Club in London. The topic of discussion was the role and significance of the nation, both in today’s increasingly globalized political and economic systems and in Christian thinking about public life. At the end of the day, I was struck by the enduring appeal of the ancient notion of peoplehood—and the difficulty our postmodern moral and political categories have in accounting for, guiding, and purifying that appeal.
♦ The Tablet, a Catholic weekly based in England, ran a short notice of the colloquium in its gossip page that included catty remarks about one participant, Judith Wolfe, professor at the University of St Andrews. The Tablet fashions itself progressive, and so couldn’t resist the point-scoring observation that Wolfe “was the only woman present.” The correspondent went on to say, “When a Carlton Club functionary slipped in to pass on instructions about the fire drill, he made a bee-line for Dr. Wolfe. She must, he confidently assumed, be the group’s secretary.”
So there it is, the voice of progressive Catholicism zeroes in on service employees, who at the Carlton are almost all immigrants, and implies, rather directly, that one of them is unenlightened and patriarchal. Perhaps the editors of The Tablet should provide a complimentary subscription so that the benighted people who provide service at the Carlton Club (it’s excellent, I can report) can benefit from progressive Catholic uplift.
♦ I’d like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Bianca Czaderna, our assistant editor, as she prepares to leave us after two years in the Junior Fellows program. I’d also like to welcome Connor Grubaugh, our incoming junior fellow. A recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked on projects at the Berkeley Institute, run by Matthew Rose, a legendary junior fellow from the Neuhaus era.
♦ Junior fellow Alexi Sargeant directed St. John Paul II’s play The Jeweler’s Shop, performed at the First Things office before an audience of fifty on two nights in early June. This work of experimental theater is philosophical and didactic, yet under Alexi’s direction the cast brought it alive as an engaging drama. Congratulations!
♦ In May, Julia Yost joined the staff as associate editor with special responsibilities for firstthings.com. A graduate of Penn State who did graduate study in English literature at Yale, Julia recently completed an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis. She’s an editor with exacting standards, and we’re fortunate to have her on staff.
First Things reader Alan Hurst in Salt Lake City would like to form a Readers of First Things group (ROFTERS) to meet once a month and discuss articles in the most recent issue. If you’d like to be part of this group, get in touch with Alan: firstname.lastname@example.org.
while we’re at it sources: GMU law: nytimes.com, April 28, 2016. Culture wars: illinoisreview.typepad.com, June 27, 2016. Charlemagne Prize: w2.vatican.va, May 6, 2016. Multiculturalism and diversity: jacobinmag.com, 2011. Migrants of Calais: weeklystandard.com, March 7, 2016. Reno on Brexit: firstthings.com, June 23, 2016. Times on Brexit: nytimes.com, June 26, 2016. Cardinal Reinhard Marx: irishtimes.com, June 23, 2016. Galston’s analysis: brookings.edu, June 23, 2016.