♦ Boys and girls are different. There, I’ve said it, a heresy of our time. We’re not supposed to suggest that a woman shouldn’t fight in combat, or that an athletic girl doesn’t have a right to play on the boys’ football team—or that a young woman doesn’t run a greater risk than a young man when binge drinking. We are not supposed to reject the conceit that the sexes are interchangeable, and therefore a man can become a “woman” and use the ladies’ bathroom.
Male and female God created us. I commend this heresy to readers. Remind people that boys in girls’ bathrooms put girls at risk, and that Obergefell is a grotesque distortion of the Constitution. True—and don’t miss the opportunity to say, in public, that men and women are different. This is the deepest reason why gender ideology is perverse. As Peter Hitchens observes in this issue (“The Fantasy of Addiction”), there’s a great liberation that comes when, against the spirit of the age, one blurts out what one knows to be true.
♦ Great Britain recently announced regulatory approval for scientists to introduce third-party DNA into the reproductive process. The technological innovation that allows for interventions into the most fundamental dimensions of reproduction and human identity is sure to accelerate. Which is a good reason for incoming President Trump to revive the President’s Council on Bioethics. (It existed under President Obama, but was told to do and say nothing.) We need sober reflection on the coming revolution in reproductive technology. Trump should appoint Princeton professor Robert P. George to head the Bioethics Commission. He has the expertise in legal and moral philosophy, and he knows what’s at stake. (See “Gnostic Liberalism,” December 2016.)
♦ On the strength of Adrian Vermeule’s review last month (“Liturgy of Liberalism,” January 2017), I picked up Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. Legutko sees many parallels between the communism that dominated the Poland of his youth and the political-social outlook now treated as obligatory by Eurocrats and dominant in America, which he calls “liberal democracy.”
One parallel struck me as especially important: “Communism and liberal democracy are related by a similarly paradoxical approach to politics: both promised to reduce the role of politics in human life, yet induced politicization on a scale unknown in previous history.” We’re aware of the totalitarian dimension of communism. But liberalism? Isn’t it supposed to be neutral with respect to substantive outlooks, endorsing only the constitutional and legal frameworks for free and fair political debate? Actually, no. Liberals always assert that liberalism is the view of politics, society, and morality “most adequate of and for modern times.”
This gives liberalism a partisan spirit all the more powerful because it is denied.
Although such words as “dialogue” and “pluralism” appear among its favorite motifs, as do “tolerance” and other similarly hospitable notions, this overtly generous rhetorical orchestration covers up something entirely different. In its essence, liberalism is unabashedly aggressive because it is determined to hunt down all nonliberal agents and ideas, which it treats as a threat to itself and to humanity.
Liberalism, Legutko points out, is committed to dualism, not pluralism. He gives the example of Isaiah Berlin, who made a great deal out of the importance of the pluralism of the liberal spirit. Yet “Berlin himself, a superbly educated man, knew very well and admitted quite frankly that the most important and most valuable fruits of Western philosophy were monistic in nature.” This means that liberalism, as Berlin defines it, must classify nearly the entire history of Western thought (and that of other cultures as well) as “nonliberal.” Thus, “the effect of this supposed liberal pluralism” is not a welcoming, open society in which a wide range of substantive thought flourishes, but “a gigantic purge of Western philosophy, bringing an inevitable degradation of the human mind.”
♦ The purge mentality has a political dimension. Since 1989, European politics has shifted away from a left vs. right framework toward “mainstream” vs. “extremist.” This is a telling feature of liberal democracy as an ideology. “The tricky side of ‘mainstream’ politics is that it does not tolerate any political ‘tributaries’ and denies that they should have any legitimate existence. Those outside the mainstream are believed to be either mavericks and as such not deserving to be treated seriously, or fascists who should be politically eliminated.”
♦ Karl Marx coined the term Lumpenproletariat. Lumpen means “rag” in German, and its colloquial meanings include someone who is down-and-out. According to Marx, this underclass has counter-revolutionary tendencies. These people can be riled up by demagogues and deployed in street gangs to stymie the efforts of the true proletariat to topple the dominant class.
Legutko speaks of “lumpenintellectuals.” These are the professors and journalists who buttress the status quo by rehearsing ideological catechisms and exposing heretics. We certainly have a lumpenintelligentsia, left and right: tenured professors, columnists, think tank apparatchiks, and human resources directors.
♦ I regularly read two lumpenintellectuals in order to understand the orthodoxies of our political mainstream: Tom Friedman over at the New York Times and Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal. The former is a cheerleader for today’s globalist orthodoxies, complete with ritual expressions of misgivings. The latter eagerly plays the role of Leninist enforcer of those orthodoxies.
♦ Bill Kristol recently stepped down as day-to-day editor at the Weekly Standard. Founded more than twenty years ago during the Clinton ascendancy, it’s the most well-written and well-argued magazine on the right. Bill has a nose for talent. No lumpen-intellectuals need apply. Andrew Ferguson has been writing funny and smart features for the Weekly Standard for years. Christopher Caldwell is a superb analyst of our globalist discontents. Jonathan Last and Matt Labash are fresh and penetrating. The latter can also be fall-off-the-couch funny. Philip Terzian runs an excellent book section. They and other folks on staff don’t all agree with Bill. I admire that kind of leadership.
Bill is not leaving. He’ll be editor at large, which is what magazines call the resident eminences. He was a vociferous critic of Donald Trump and active in organizing opposition to him. Perhaps Bill’s frustration with the direction of our politics led him to let go of the reins. As he put it with characteristic humor, “Here at The Weekly Standard, we’ve always been for regime change.”
Regime change aside, I hope there’s no change of spirit. Under Bill’s leadership, the Weekly Standard has been the only major conservative political publication that has not compromised on the social issues that First Things readers care about. The magazine is pro-life and, unlike National Review, Commentary, and the Republican Party in general (including Donald Trump), under Bill’s leadership it never genuflected before the high priests of gay rights. Bill has a reputation as a neoconservative, and rightly so. But he’s a neoconservative who recognizes that a free society needs religious communities and the moral disciplines they instill. That’s not something we can take for granted, even among conservative activists, politicians, and commentators who eschew and even denounce the “neo” modifier.
♦ Ross Douthat on San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy’s interpretation of Pope Francis’s urging of a “pastoral” approach to the divorced and remarried:
This is a teaching on marriage that might be summarized as follows: Divorce is unfortunate, second marriages are not always ideal, and so the path back to communion runs through a mature weighing-out of everyone’s feelings—the feelings of your former spouse and any kids you may have had together, the feelings of your new spouse and possible children, and your own subjective sense of what God thinks about it all. The objective aspects of Catholic teaching on marriage—the supernatural reality of the first marriage, the metaphysical reality of sin and absolution, the sacramental reality of the Eucharist itself—do not just recede; they essentially disappear.
He goes on,
Which means that is not at all a vision under which a small group of remarried Catholics in psychologically difficult situations might receive communion discreetly while they seek to sort those situations out. It is, in fact, by implication almost the reverse: The only people who might feel unready for communion under Bishop McElroy’s vision of spiritual maturation are Catholics whose lives are particularly chaotic and messed-up, who don’t feel sure at all about where they stand with God, to say nothing of their kids and ex-spouses or lovers or boyfriends or whomever. Is Sonia the prostitute from Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” ready for communion in the diocese of San Diego? Maybe not; maybe she should wait a while. But the respectable divorced father of three who gets along well enough with his ex-wife and has worked through all his issues in therapy can feel comfortable receiving ahead of her. This is not communion for the weak; it is communion for the stable and solid and respectable.
Douthat’s column is exactly right. All the talk of “accompaniment” and “peripheries” ends up weakening the objective character of the Catholic way of life and clearing the way for the dominant form of Christianity in the West, which is bourgeois religion. In this “faith,” good, well-meaning people from respectable backgrounds define truth; they are not defined and limited by truth.
♦ For my own criticism of the triumph of the pastoral, see “Chaplains of Death” on firstthings.com.
♦ I’m guilty of “staggering hypocrisy.” So lament Jennifer Bryson and Gabriel Schoenfeld in a New York Daily News op-ed. My sin? After the election I wrote a short squib for BreakPoint, a program for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. In it I observed that Trump’s “victory makes it very likely that the immediate threats to religious liberty will recede.” This strikes Bryson and Schoenfeld as “an Orwellian inversion of reality.” Sifting through Trump’s ill-tempered statements about how to prevent domestic Islamic terrorism, they insist that Trump’s election means “we might well be facing what can only be described as the biggest assault on religious freedom in America since the signing of the Bill of Rights in 1791.”
The biggest assault since 1791? Bryson and Schoenfeld need to talk to some Mormons. The Idaho Territory adopted a test oath in 1885 that effectively banned all Mormons from voting. The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 dissolved the Mormon Church and directed federal marshals to confiscate church property. In 1890, the Idaho voting restriction and Edmunds-Tucker Act were upheld by the Supreme Court.
I stand by my statement. There are good reasons to believe Trump’s appointees to positions of responsibility in his administration will reverse efforts by the Obama administration to require us to participate in and affirm the sexual revolution. There are, of course, other threats to religious freedom, as there always have been and always will be. A Trump administration may give too much leeway to the anti-Muslim sentiment that can block the issuing of building permits for mosques and otherwise unjustly limit their religious freedom. That’s something we have a responsibility to fight against. But those who insist he’ll unleash an “assault” suffer from Trump derangement syndrome.
♦ Tom Oden passed away on December 8. He was a First Things regular from day one. Not unlike our founder, Tom went through the 1960s as an enthusiast for radicalisms of various sorts, only to wake up to the true radicalism of orthodoxy. Tom wrote a three-volume systematic theology in the 1980s and 90s that served as a declaration of independence from liberal Protestantism. Then he embarked on an ambitious project of bringing early Christian biblical interpretation to a wide audience, launching the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. I knew Tom as a relentless advocate of historic Christianity and a loyal son of the Methodist Church. Given his clarity about the failures of liberal Protestantism, this was not always an easy combination, especially not for then-Methodists who were less than loyal to the historic faith. He was a happy warrior, and I’m grateful for his witness. He helped me during my own struggles with liberal Protestantism. May he rest in peace.
♦ A ROFTERS group meets on the first Friday of the month at Duke University’s Bostock Library. They’d like to invite readers to join them. For more information, contact the leaders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ Three new ROFTERS groups are trying to form.
La Connor, Washington: Richard Doerflinger will convene, email@example.com or 240-893-1434.
Glen Head, New York: The group will be headed up by Carol Travis, firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-460-4017.
Logan, Utah: Isaiah Jones will convene, email@example.com or 478-361-0259.
while we’re at it sources: Three-parent babies: theguardian.com, December 15, 2016. Vermeule reviews Legutko: firstthings.com, January 1, 2017. Democracy’s demons: encounterbooks.com, April 19, 2016. Kristol steps down: money.cnn.com, December 12, 2016. Douthat takes a stand: nytimes.com, December 1, 2016. Chaplains of death: firstthings.com, December 14, 2016. Staggering hypocrisy: nydailynews.com, December 2, 2016. Post-election squib: breakpoint.org, November 10, 2016. Remembering Oden: firstthings.com, December 13, 2016.