In the aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, the New York Times published an opinion essay that was strangely crude and sophisticated at the same time: “White Women, Come Get Your People.” On the surface it runs on raw invective. The author, Alexis Grenell, denounces the female Republican senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh as gender traitors, a PC cliché. “They’ve made standing by the patriarchy a full-time job.” Yet Grenell knows her audience. She speaks as the mouthpiece of progressive anguish and rage, throwing punches in the way university activists are now trained to discipline and punish.
The anguish comes “because my stupid uterus still holds out some insane hope of solidarity.” The rage is expressed in terms of racial and sexual politics. Kavanaugh’s confirmation was made possible by Trump’s election, which happened because 53 percent of white women voters “put their racial privilege ahead of their second-class gender status in 2016 by voting to uphold a system that values only their whiteness, just as they have for decades.” What’s more, “this blood pact between white men and white women is at issue in the November midterms.”
The explosive charge is not far from the surface: The tens of millions of white women who voted for Trump were motivated by a desire to secure the subordination of non-whites. Guided by an intersectionality of invective, she moves smoothly from racism to patriarchy. As the protesters did at the hearings, Grenell evokes the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The Kavanaugh hearings were not just a referendum on white privilege. They set a trajectory toward a future in which women will be forced into sexual slavery as breeders, a future for which Susan Collins voted.
“White Women, Come Get Your People” generated lots of commentary in the conservative media. Grenell’s “rivers of blood” (a weird echo of Enoch Powell’s famous speech about immigration in 1968), charges of racial animus, and The Handmaid’s Tale dystopia made her an easy target, an example of identity politics madness.
I found myself thinking along different lines. Alexis Grenell is a white woman who received her BA from the University of Chicago and her master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She worked on progressive campaigns and recently established a public relations firm, Pythia Public. This is the standard path for political activists, campaign operatives, and media personalities, on both the left and the right. They throw themselves into politics, and then, after gaining experience, they “monetize” their influence and contacts by working for a public relations or lobbying firm. Grenell shows herself a real go-getter, having founded a firm of her own.
At each stage on this career path, Grenell has had incentives to write in an extreme, slashing way. It enhances her image as a progressive firebrand, which is a species of the genus of no-holds-barred propagandist. That all-in mentality and unrelenting advocacy is what political and corporate clients want from a public relations firm, not nuanced judgment and calm analysis. This dynamic operates throughout our political and media environment, influencing what is written and said on the left and right. The New York Times, too, draws these entrepreneurial firebrands into its orbit.
As Andrew Breitbart demonstrated, the rage trade is where real money can be made these days. Rage causes Ivy League presidents to prostrate themselves, coughing up millions of dollars to address student grievances. Rage drives web traffic and makes media careers for the rising generation. Rage writing got Sarah Jeong appointed to the New York Times Editorial Board.
Rage on the right tends to be satisfied with attacks on liberals as inconsistent, stupid, or hypocritical. It often seems sated when ostentatious violations of political correctness arouse liberal responses. The tone of right-leaning flamethrowers turns more toward mockery than indignation. Progressive rage is more earnest, more serious. Attacking others as racists and “gender traitors” amounts to an assassination attempt—not in a literal sense of trying to kill them, but of killing their social standing and ruining their careers. Accusations of this sort are meant to disqualify someone from public life. A racist is not to be argued with. He needs to be cleansed from our body politic.
Christine Fair is a notorious professor in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, a known nutcase. So it was not surprising that after Kavanaugh’s confirmation she tweeted: “Look at [this] chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.” The Georgetown administration groaned when the tweet went viral. But Fair is not an outlier, at least not when it comes to the substance of her rage. She is an ill-tempered and undisciplined representative of the aggressive, angry sentiments that are widespread in higher education—which is why Georgetown will not discipline her, though it would of course immediately take administrative action to silence or fire a faculty member who got within spitting distance of white nationalist rhetoric.
A thirty-something progressive activist like Alexis Grenell is climbing the ladder in the political-media-corporate complex. As she does so, she can be confident that her rhetorical extremism will not cost her anything among the elite-educated people who call the shots, which is why the New York Times could publish her furious invective without worrying that a line was being crossed. The same is true for regular writers such as Paul Krugman and Charles Blow. They use extreme terms to target Republicans, and do so without worrying they are transgressing boundaries. I’m quite sure the editors at the New York Times would never allow Bruce Jenner to be referred to as, well, Bruce Jenner. Meanwhile, there’s no editorial hesitation when columnists and guest writers denounce half the country as racist. In a recent column penned to enflame Democratic voters to bolster turnout, Blow says of Trump, “Rather than ever using words like white supremacy and white nationalism, he uses proxies, like law and order, border walls and infestation.”
I subscribe to Jacobin, the neo-Marxist quarterly that gained traction when Bernie Sanders unexpectedly threatened the Clintons’ grip on the Democratic party. Over the last two years, its already strident rhetoric has become more so. “Fight the Right,” a recent email urged. Conservatives are described as “the enemy.” We must be “fought in the streets.” Articles in Jacobin regularly feature face-smacking expletives and other elements of the rhetoric of rage.
I’m not sure how to interpret the intensity and implied violence of this way of thinking and talking. Jacobin founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara has become something of an establishment figure, interviewed by the New York Times and appearing on PBS and MSNBC. As is the case for Alexis Grenell, his fury seems heartfelt, yet also entirely in accord with the scripts taught young people these days. The rage in Jacobin seems real, but at the same time unreal, dangerous and yet domesticated. Perhaps Sunkara, too, will start a public relations firm.
Or maybe he’ll work as a special consultant for Pythia Public after Facebook hires Grenell’s firm to burnish its progressive image while attacking as racist, patriarchal, and homophobic the Republicans who call for congressional hearings to look into the social media giant’s suppression of conservative voices, abuse of private data, and clampdown on competition. That’s by no means an unlikely scenario. Progressive rage is paradoxical. It’s revolutionary and at the same time integral to the way that status quo legitimates and defends itself.
The first line of the Iliad opens with Homer pledging to sing of the rage of Achilles. The Greek word is menis, a multivalent notion with a religious meaning. It is wrath that rouses the gods out of their self-sufficient existence and into action. But for rage, everything would be placid, pacific, and unchanging. In the Homeric world, wrath and fury turn the wheel of history.
History, observed Hegel, is a slaughter bench. Changeless quietude seems a better way, but in fact it’s anti-human, a stultifying existence in which nothing changes. The Iliad suggests as much. It opens as the Greeks have reached a dead-end. They are in a military stalemate with the Trojans, whose walls are impregnable. Their venture has stagnated. But new energy emerges in their midst. The rage of Achilles, their greatest warrior, is triggered when Agamemnon wounds his pride. His rage becomes full when Hector kills his friend, Patroclus. Engorged by a god-like passion, Achilles dominates the battlefield, killing Hector, the Trojan champion, setting in motion a new sequence of events that will eventually favor the invading Greeks.
The notion of thumos is closely related to menis. In the Iliad, it is often translated as the “proud heart” of Achilles, the furious and spirited nature that Agamemnon offends and enflames. In the Phaedrus, Plato recounts the three-part, Socratic doctrine of the soul. We are captained by reason, the charioteer of our soul, which is drawn forward by two horses. One is bodily appetite, which seeks worldly satisfactions; the other horse is our otherworldly appetite, thumos, the urgent, yearning spiritedness that draws us toward higher things. In the Bible, we find thumos among the vices—violent anger. But it’s also used to describe God’s implacable determination to triumph over sin and death. The wrath of God shatters the power of Babylon, the false empire of worldly powers.
Rage is a game-changer. It breaks logjams and makes new things possible. It can drive us toward furious destruction and toward no good purpose, but it can also be the potent force of righteous anger and ardent passion that breaks open an ossified, corrupt status quo.
As the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk observes in his fascinating study of our end-of-history political culture in the West, Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, the liberal era has been one of suppressed rage. We tend to think of liberalism as engaged in expanding the scope of liberty, thus its name. But its origins can be found in the quest for a modus vivendi, a sustainable way of living after Europe was torn apart by the wars of religion. Thomas Hobbes proposed concentrating all power in the singular Leviathan, taming the passions of men in the same way that Sauron’s ring is the one ring that rules them all. John Locke’s solution was less dire. He sought to secularize political authority, basing it in the natural interests all men have to protect their life and property. This “lowering” rationale for social order directs our political attention away from the supernatural, sacred sources of social authority that rouse the hearts of men. Later figures such as Jeremy Bentham theorized public life in terms of pain and pleasure. This accords with Locke’s intuition. We’re most likely to achieve peace if we focus on the desires of the stodgy, worldly steed in Plato’s allegory of the soul, not the beautiful, spirited one.
After the devastating conflagrations of World War I and World War II, the spirited, game-changing potential of rage was discredited and the deflationary imperative of liberalism gained the upper hand. John Rawls championed the “lowering” move in politics, restricting our debates to “public reason” and proscribing “comprehensive doctrines,” his term for the big-picture metaphysical issues that stir the soul. Rawls’s political liberalism was and continues to be debated. But as Sloterdijk points out, in the main we’ve settled upon a neo-liberal, technocratic, and therapeutic approach that domesticates rage.
Psychoanalysis gained popularity in the postwar era. It treats sex as the supereminent sphere of human activity, directing our attention to neurotic interior dramas and other instances of misdirected erotic energy. Freudianism has fallen by the wayside, but the therapeutic mentality remains powerful. It conceives of life’s anguish and rage as pathologies to be treated, emphasizing placid solutions such as self-acceptance and sensible, “healthy” indulgence of sensual desires. Insofar as rage emerges, the therapeutic mode directs it toward urgent demands that we must be “seen” and our voices “heard.” This rage-inspired insistence can feel like an assault, as Senator Jeff Flake no doubt discovered when a woman accosted him in an elevator, demanding, “Don’t look away from me!” But the therapeutic framework forestalls rage’s transformative potential. As politicians and CEOs have learned, the rage for recognition can be easily defused in orchestrated “listening sessions.”
At the same time as the therapeutic mode has been making us into patients, economic and socio-biological modes of analysis picture us as congeries of desires on the lookout for economic or genetic advantage. I gave a version of that analysis, suggesting that Alexis Grenell has incentives that will draw her into the progressive political-corporate establishment, neutering anything genuinely radical about her projects. Her rage will be marketed and consumed. She’ll play a scripted role as a “progressive voice” who gives legitimacy to the rich and powerful who “listen.”
Nevertheless, rage remains a distinct feature of the human condition. In all likelihood, Grenell will try to resist domestication. She does not want to live in an end-of-history condition where nothing new can happen. I sympathize. The blood of Abel cried out for vengeance, a rage-driven project.
But I’m also wary. Biblical religion secularizes the public realm, teaching us that our deepest and most intense passions should be directed toward service of God, not the victory of our causes. The West has become de-Christianized, however, which means that the progressive personality has no vertical axis along which rage can flow. It operates only along the horizontal axis, expressed as hot anger over injustices, bitter resentment about exclusions, and a keen sense of the need to fight “the enemy.”
In her opinion piece about Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Grenell reports being blinded by a “rage headache,” the condition of an overpowering desire to do something combined with an awareness that nothing can be done. She thinks the impotence comes from the Republican majority in the Senate. That’s myopic, which in view of actual realities is perhaps inevitable for a young progressive activist. The 1960s saw the rise of elite-driven revolutions. Young university students—the top 10 percent—marched in the streets in 1968, not factory workers. Civil rights for black Americans drew upon a rage from below, to be sure, but feminism and sexual liberation were largely elite projects.
As a consequence, progressive rage circulates within the ruling class. This is precisely the class most expert in the pacifying strategies of therapeutic consolation and the reductive, domesticating interest-based analysis. By this way of thinking, rage is just a strategy for enhancing status—or making money—or expressing repressed libido. Grenell’s alma mater, the University of Chicago, encourages progressive rage. At the same time, it trains future elites in how to coopt, domesticate, and explain it away. That’s why Grenell can both pen an angry, slashing op-ed for the New York Times and advise a Fortune 500 company on how best to incorporate progressive motifs into its image. The economy of progressive rage operates within the ruling class, produced by, paid for, and consumed by elites. This domestication of political radicalism, not the temporary setback of having a judge not to your liking appointed, is also probably why she gets rage headaches.
Establishment liberals are more vulnerable to the likes of Alexis Grenell than are readers of First Things. Grenell’s is the rage of identity politics, which only makes sense among university-educated voters from which the mostly white liberal establishment draws its supporting cadres. She and her generation can publish attacks on conservative men without effect. It’s an old game. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, by contrast, is more at risk.
Recent events support this judgment. No editor of a conservative publication has been cattle-prodded into submission or defenestrated by progressive rage. But the university-educated mobs with pitchforks forced David Remnick to disinvite Steve Bannon from a New Yorker–sponsored event, strong-armed The Atlantic’s editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg into unhiring Kevin Williamson, and secured the firing of Ian Buruma as editor of the New York Review of Books. Ivy League presidents are easily brought to heel by gangs of progressive student activists. I’m told that the Baby Boomer liberals who run the New York Times live in fear of denunciations by interns and junior editors. In the final weeks of the campaign this fall, Grenell-aged staffers for billionaire liberal J. B. Pritzker, Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois, filed a $7.5 million lawsuit. Minority campaign workers charged that he “herded” them into less desirable positions and asked them to perform “racist” tasks such as rounding up blacks to attend campaign events so as to project the right image.
In The Bacchae, the god Dionysus enflames Agave, the daughter of the former King of Thebes. Captive to the power of rage, she takes her son, Pentheus, to be a mountain lion. Aided by the women who accompany her, who are also filled with wrath, they tear him limb from limb. Agave then carries her son’s severed head to show to her father, who recoils in horror. As the tragedy concludes, she regains her calm and realizes what she has done. Her rage-induced act reverberates through Thebes, tearing apart the royal family and opening the way for barbarian hordes to plunder the cities of Greece.
Trump has disrupted our political culture. Of that there can be no doubt. One leading consequence has been the dramatic rise of progressive rage, encouraged by Democratic Party grandees who think it useful, much as Republicans did among their own base in years past. For decades, Republican Party grandees stoked conservative rage, confident they could harvest votes while limiting the influence of religious conservatives, containing Tea Party ardor, and otherwise managing the passions driving people to the polls. That right-wing establishment was swept aside by Trump, who intuited the potential of the inchoate, leaderless rage on the right.
Something similar is likely to happen in the Democratic Party with its talk of “resistance,” though it will happen more rapidly. Progressive rage is “closer” to the vulnerable liberal establishment than conservative rage has ever been to the conservative establishment, which in any event has always been an artificial political establishment, not one with deep cultural and institutional roots. Alexis Grenell has the rage of an elite-educated woman with impeccable establishment credentials. Her knife is much closer to Dianne Feinstein’s neck than Milo Yiannopoulos’s rhetorical sabers ever have been to Republican powerbrokers.
Red Hat Report
Some concerned American laymen recently founded Better Church Governance. Its main initiative is to produce a report on all the members of the College of Cardinals, the men with the red hats. This will involve hiring researchers and investigators. Their purpose will be to determine the financial, moral, and theological integrity of the Church’s princes. The results will be compiled and presented in an accessible fashion.
News of this project has raised eyebrows. Some anguish over the possibility that “conservative Catholics” will hijack the Church to defend “capitalism” and block the supposedly salutary changes being promoted by the current pontificate. Others worry the integrity of the Church’s governance will be compromised by external pressure groups. Fr. Bill McCormick, S.J., makes the astute observation that the very notion of a report on all the cardinals tells us something important about the crisis facing the Catholic Church. The loss of trust is so profound that “no one is above suspicion.”
The idea of a Red Hat Report is a good one, though, of course, it can be done in a tendentious, unhelpful way. Fr. McCormick is right. The loss of trust is profound. As a Catholic, I find myself suspecting that the perverse incentives, dysfunctional bureaucracies, and endless machinations of Vatican politician-prelates shipwreck many of the best intentions of the best church leaders. I would be reassured if I had a better sense of the trustworthiness of the men who run the Church—those who will elect the next pope.
Better Church Governance no doubt responds to more than the present problems of sexual abuse and cover-ups. In the 1990s, an informal group of cardinals schemed about how to move the Church away from John Paul II’s agenda and back to the initiatives of the 1970s. That faction, known as the St. Gallen group, included Cardinals Murphy-O’Connor, Martini, Danneels, Kasper, Lehmann, and others. This group was unable to congeal around a candidate at the 2005 conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger. According to Francis biographer and Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s former assistant Austen Ivereigh, the St. Gallen group was determined to secure a better outcome (by their lights) after Pope Benedict resigned. They recruited Jorge Mario Bergoglio as their candidate and worked the conclave in a coordinated fashion to ensure his election.
It’s naive to think the St. Gallen group represents the first agenda-driven effort to influence a papal election. As the Church has become more global, however, the old interlocking networks of mostly European cardinals have become less decisive. Those networks allowed for an “open secret” process of politicking. Those who needed to know knew. By contrast, in 2013, when Pope Francis was elected, it seems a few well-connected (and determined) cardinals were able to exercise undue influence.
The role of the College of Cardinals makes a great deal of sense. They constitute a fitting body of electors for selecting the head of the Church. They may remain disproportionately European but are now more widely representative of the global Church. I have no reason to doubt their commitment to the faith, and to the Church’s mission. But I’d be more confident still if I could be sure the gathered cardinals at the next conclave were fully informed about the character and convictions of the person whom they elect as our next pope, not seduced by a cabal of well-organized, influential cardinals.
Greater transparency about the men who lead the Church and what they stand for is exactly what we need right now. In the aftermath of the revelations about McCarrick, a number of eminent figures in Rome, some cardinals, are trading accusations. As I write, the Synod on the Youth is winding down. Its conduct suggests ongoing manipulation of established processes and ecclesial norms in order to press forward a revisionist agenda that is not, in fact, what most bishops want. The Holy Father is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, shooting from the hip, often firing hollow-tip bullets of denunciation. Rome, it seems, is not a happy place. Very little that has happened over the last year inspires confidence among those of us who desire constancy in teaching and integrity in office.
I wish Better Church Governance success. We need a responsible lay organization to create instruments by which we can hold the leaders of our Church accountable. Something like the Red Hat Report is a good start.
Transgenderism in the Elite
Thomas Donnelly was a member of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C., holding a position most recently at the American Enterprise Institute. He is no more, however, having been recently “reborn” as Giselle Donnelly. Josh Rogin profiled the new Donnelly in a Washington Post column, “a story of suffering, struggle, loss and love.”
According to Donnelly, “the whole thing is based on honesty.” Giselle adopts a demure posture: “I ask for people’s indulgence. That line of gender and sexuality is deeply personal for everybody.” But the posture is dishonest. When a man ostentatiously changes his name and goes to work dressed as a woman, he’s not asking for indulgence. He’s certainly not respecting the deeply personal beliefs of others. On the contrary, he’s demanding a public and sustained complicity with his fantasies.
Compelled participation in private fantasy is disastrous for the morale of any organization. It forces coworkers to play assigned roles in the dreamworld of the transgendered person. Those around Donnelly must mouth lies to sustain his pretend female identity. To some degree or another, most of us have experienced the frustration of having lost hours on the job as we had to pretend to be interested in our boss’s personal drama. Coworkers can be taken prisoner by someone who can’t not “share.” The imprisonment becomes acute with transgenderism, which now enjoys moral prestige and thus insists upon its right to compel us. Men like Donnelly are feted as heroic examples of liberation and “honesty.” They are empowered to strut like princesses, demanding the fawning use of “she.”
AEI President Arthur Brooks and Vice President for Foreign Policy Danielle Pletka say they “support” Donnelly. “We’re proud that she is part of the AEI family.” There you have it: An old-line, establishment Republican institution is “proud” to join the side of affirmation, as if there are not costs. It’s emblematic of our establishment, left and right. They’re so rich and powerful that they imagine themselves immune to any reality, even the reality of the difference between men and women and the consequences of pretending it’s a social construction and not a reality at all.
This small episode shows us that our country is run by people who would accommodate themselves to Nero’s Rome. Donnelly is exhibitionist. He stars in a documentary film with his new wife, someone named Elizabeth Taylor, a make-up artist whom he met while “exploring” his femininity after divorcing his wife. They’re made for each other, it seems, sharing “a love of national security, wine, gender fluidity and BDSM,” as Rogin puts it in his Washington Post love letter. Donnelly may say that the line of gender and sexuality is deeply personal, but he likes to strut it in public, immortalizing his “journey” in video for the world to see. The film includes a scene where he reads the letter he wrote to his son.
From the beginning I adopted a skeptical attitude toward the elite outrage over our crude and demotic president. The Great and the Good deride him as beneath the office and unworthy of the role for which they imagine one of their rank better suited. The warm embrace AEI has given to the newly born Giselle Donnelly, transgender exhibitionist with a taste for BDSM sex, shows how ridiculous that line has always been. Our leadership class accommodates itself to mental illness and allows itself to be conscripted into private fantasies. They’re the ones unfit to rule.
while we’re at it
♦ Robert Mariani makes an astute observation about political correctness as a marker of social class. “We learn at college that ‘people of color’ is the proper designation for non-whites and that ‘LGBTQA+’ is the proper acronym for the broader gay community. This is the twenty-first-century version of knowing which fork to use when navigating a multi-course meal.” He continues, “Pride Month, which comes every June, is a new sort of Eastertide, complete with passion-plays about LGBT history. Trillion-dollar corporations trip over each other to indicate adherence to the queer, borderless creed. Their otherwise shameful power is sanitized.”
♦ Some friends invited me to see Free Solo, the documentary film about Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan without the security of a rope. The film offered me a wonderful opportunity for nostalgia, as I spent many days dangling from the side of El Capitan in my youth. It was also gripping, even though I knew he would make it without mishap. Afterward, we talked over drinks, wondering about the fundamental nature of extreme sports. One friend made an astute observation: “Honnold understands that human beings are made for perfection, and that we feel most free when we seek it.” As a climber, Honnold aims high in a literal sense, but what’s universal in his story is the fact that the human heart thrills to the idea of human excellence. We can misprize the finite good of athletic excellence or some other achievement as the highest good, which is the union with God rather than the perfect climb or flawless sonata. But the impulse is ennobling. “In comparison,” my friend notes, “it’s tragic that the Church these days tries to convince us that we should be satisfied with spiritual mediocrity.”
♦ Mediocrity was not in the liturgy I attended in London last month. On the advice of a friend, I went to the Sunday High Mass at the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the church of the Brompton Oratory. The Oratorians use the Latin version of the Novus Ordo, celebrated in a non-fussy but dignified fashion and accompanied by an angelic choir. The experience reinforced my sentiments about worship. I don’t go to church to be confirmed in my spiritual mediocrity. A priest needs to lead a service of worship that aims high so that we can too.
♦ After Mass, my friend and I walked the neighborhood and selected a nice-looking restaurant in which to enjoy a festive meal to celebrate the Lord’s Day. We shocked the London bourgeoisie by saying grace in audible tones, after which we crossed ourselves. “Very countercultural,” clucked my friend as we turned to our meal.
♦ I was delighted to learn that President Trump appointed Justin Shubow to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The Commission is made up of seven appointees charged with responsibility for guarding the aesthetic integrity of Washington, D.C.—architecture, parks, monuments, memorials, and public art. Shubow is head of the National Civic Art Society. Under his leadership, the Society has become a powerful voice against the fashionable postmodernism that, if unchecked, will wreck our civic landscape, just as it has wrecked our educational institutions. Shubow led the charge against the arrogant (and ridiculous) Eisenhower memorial designed by Frank Gehry. He supports efforts to rebuild the historic Penn Station in New York.
♦ Government buildings, parks, and public memorials and monuments articulate a vision of civic life. These days it seems that every effort to achieve grandeur in public buildings ends up looking like an airport terminal. There are occasional exceptions, but they tend toward eccentric, individualistic expressions of the latest preoccupations of celebrity architects that refuse to communicate with the existing architectural and aesthetic environments in which they are built. (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum was an early example.) The classicism that predominates in Washington, D.C., evokes republican virtue, as well as Enlightenment ideals of a reason-governed social order. The height restriction on commercial buildings conveys the judgment that our civic covenant has priority over the private transactions of the marketplace. These and other elements of the Washington, D.C., urban environment frame the context in which our generation needs to make its contribution to the capital city. This does not entail stultifying imitation. Instead, it guides our creativity toward ideals of continuity, unity, and public purpose—an aesthetic e pluribus unum.
♦ The Papal Foundation is a charitable organization cofounded by Theodore McCarrick. It gathers substantial donations from well-to-do American Catholics to meet the needs of the worldwide Church. In 2017, the foundation board, led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, at his urging approved an unprecedentedly large grant of $25 million to the Vatican for a hospital in Rome that had been driven into bankruptcy by corruption. In February 2018, the outrage this caused among lay members of the board became public. Matthew O’Brien published a detailed account of the irregularities of that grant—indeed, the potential legal malfeasance—on our site (“The Papal Foundation & McCarrick’s Conflict of Interest”).
In response, the cardinals who control the Papal Foundation temporized. The Papal Foundation’s bylaws accord ex officio board seats to all the American cardinals. They have sole power to appoint the bishops and laymen who serve as subordinate trustees in a three-tiered board. Last winter, to placate critics, Wuerl wrote a letter to the lay trustees promising reforms in the governing structure of the foundation that would allow for more lay control.
Then McCarrick’s sexual crimes were exposed. Wuerl was implicated in the cover-up. His ship began to sink. Nevertheless, in September, he orchestrated a change in the Papal Foundation’s bylaws, something the cardinals can do on their own authority. The change reduced lay terms on the board from three years to one. This has great significance. The term change allows the cardinals to get rid of nettlesome board members who don’t kowtow to their wishes. So much for more lay control.
Arrogance and unaccountable power tend to induce blindness. It’s hard for us to believe, but after a long summer of outrage about the misdeeds of church leaders, Wuerl and his brother cardinals want to edge out uppity laymen and tighten their control over a big pot of money that was already embroiled in a controversy over clerical misuse of funds. Astounding. Our ecclesiastical eminences are going to require a firm kick in the keister, perhaps many firm kicks.
♦ On Friday, October 19, The New Criterion hosted a one-day colloquium to discuss the achievements of Russell Kirk, who would have turned one hundred on that day. Your editor spoke about Kirk and the politics of the imagination. Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age (a journal founded by Kirk), addressed the “worldliness” of Kirk’s engagement with political questions. In the course of his remarks, McCarthy observed the tendency of today’s conservative intellectuals to tilt in an “unworldly” direction. By his reckoning, this happens in four ways: (1) The truth that politics is downstream from culture seduces us into thinking politics doesn’t matter, a conclusion Maggie Gallagher and Frank Cannon contested in our pages last year (“Culture is Downstream of Politics,” December 2017). (2) We convince ourselves that we must stand on “high principle,” not soiling ourselves by association with the less-than-virtuous men who mud-wrestle in electoral politics. (3) The same “high principle” mentality tends toward an elitist disdain for populism and popular politics. (4) We adopt a “lost cause” mentality, convincing ourselves that the American project rests on fatally flawed foundations. This can add up to an intellectual retreat in which covens of true believers congratulate themselves for knowing that the rot set in with Ockham, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Locke, or Emerson—take your pick.
Modern American conservatism arose as a protest movement against liberal dominance after World War II. This gives the movement a spirit of critique, which is needed. But for decades we’ve been slotted into position as the junior partner in a liberal-dominated regime. We are allowed to moderate its excesses, perhaps, but never to contest its first principles. Too often, we’re tempted to theorize that impotence as a way of reconciling ourselves to it. This makes the four forms of “unworldliness” attractive. Indeed, to McCarthy’s fourth I’d add a fifth: the principle of limited government. This gets used as a reason to beg off the perilous (but increasingly necessary) political imperative of using electoral victories to challenge the cultural ascendancy of the left.
The conservative establishment in Washington has gotten used to its role as junior partner. In fact, it can be quite lucrative. “Unworldliness” too often serves the convenient purpose of turning back conservative populism, a job the senior partner assigns to the junior partner to keep things the way they are.
♦ Aristotle from the Nicomachean Ethics: “It is natural for what is just to increase with friendship.” That’s our problem in a nutshell. Our age is one of dissolution. The bonds of solidarity in marriage, nation, and religion have weakened. We are less and less bound together in domestic and civic friendships, to say nothing of friendship with God. In an atomized, individualistic era such as ours, it is natural for what is just to decrease.
♦ I was recently writing something about Martin Heidegger, a small part of a book I’m working on, The Return of the Strong Gods. To refine my sense of Heidegger’s project, I reread J. Glenn Gray’s profound meditations on his experiences as a soldier in World War II, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. (Gray read Heidegger closely and translated some of his work.) This in turn led me back to a more recent wartime book, Nightcap at Dawn: American Soldiers’ Counterinsurgency in Iraq, which I first read when it came out in 2012. It’s a vivid account of ways in which combat brings the soldier to an existential zero hour.
♦ On October 12 and 13, First Things hosted an Intellectual Retreat in Philadelphia. Our topic: economics and the human person. Theologian and economist Mary Hirschfeld established a framework for our discussion groups in a Friday evening lecture. She drew upon material from her new book, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy. Our discussion groups were led by teachers from the Villanova Humanities Program and the Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. Mary and her Villanova colleague Mark Shiffman put together a superb set of readings for the retreat. Dan Cheely and his colleagues at Collegium helped us with planning. I’d like to thank the Connelly Foundation for providing financial support, allowing us to offer scholarships to seminarians, undergraduates, and high school teachers who otherwise would not have been able to attend.
♦ First Things enjoys strong support from readers. Among the most devoted are the members of the Richard John Neuhaus Society, those who have put First Things in their wills or estate plans. I’m pleased to welcome Arnold Conrad to the RJN Society. He joins many others who want to ensure that the voices of religious people are heard in the public square.
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