On election night, Tuesday, November 6, returns came in. There were wins and losses. My blood pressure rose and fell, exulting in victories and anguished in defeats. But morning came, and the evening’s ardor had drained away during the night’s sleep. More dispassionate, I mulled over a question that has become more prominent in my mind over the last two years: What are we struggling over?
That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve come up with a few thoughts. They’re muddy and impressionistic. But we have to start somewhere.
We need a rebalancing. Our society must now tilt strongly toward high-school-educated Americans. This has an obvious economic dimension. Over the last generation, our economy has shifted toward ever-greater integration into the global system. This has been the explicit goal of our leadership class. Economists argue over how to characterize the changes this has wrought, but it’s indisputable that this process has altered the social contract. The prospects for the moderately educated, middle-of-America workers have declined over the last generation, while globalization has worked out nicely for the well-educated, largely coastal elites.
A cultural dynamic has paralleled these economic changes. Looking back, one cannot help but be struck by the degree to which our society sings the praises of the successful—the “creative class”—while deriding those left behind. These days, the successful celebrate their superior virtue in matters as trivial as food and as consequential as social justice. Moreover, the successful match their self-praise with vigorous criticisms of the supposed vulgarity of those below them, often to the point of labeling them racists, homophobes, or some other kind of moral criminal.
Even when we avoid the most egregious punching down, we focus on the needs of the top end of society. Recently, Michael Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University. His gift will provide scholarships for students from low- and middle-income families. I admire Bloomberg’s generosity. But consider the choice he made. Johns Hopkins is an elite university, not a community college or trade school. Bloomberg’s gift will make it easier for talented young people from non-wealthy backgrounds to rise in the meritocracy. That’s great for them. But it does nothing for the middling Americans who are not heading to competitive academic institutions like Johns Hopkins, no matter how well-endowed its scholarship programs become.
I’m not criticizing Bloomberg. He wants to honor his alma mater. Instead, I’m pointing out a common mentality that we’re not even aware of most of the time. Our leadership class attends to itself, not to the country as a whole. Recent budgets show that the federal government spends around $160 billion in loans, tax credits, and grants that help pay for college—the province of the top third of society—while allocating $20 billion for vocational and job training. The supposedly progressive idea of “free college for all” is a give-away to that top third of society. This epitomizes our problem. Andrew Carnegie built libraries in small towns throughout the country. Today’s billionaires shovel their wealth into colleges and universities that serve those at the top. Whether measured in moral prestige, cultural status, or economic rewards, over the last two generations there has been a perverse fulfillment of Jesus’s words: To them that have, more shall be given.
A few years ago, I reviewed Our Kids, Robert Putnam’s book about the fraying social contract in America (“Success Is Not Dignity,” May 2015). I noted that our ruling class fixates on upward mobility, as if the deepest problem in our society is that a few super-talented kids from difficult backgrounds are being denied opportunities to go to places like Harvard. But that’s not the problem facing our country. We’re divided between those who win and those who lose, those whose talents are attractive to elite institutions, and those whose aren’t. This growing divide—again, I emphasize that it’s cultural as much as economic—is shredding the social contract.
So I hope for economic populism. To some degree, the Trump administration has pushed in this direction. Recent trade and tariff dust-ups aim to restore our manufacturing base. The 2017 tax bill included caps on deductions of state and local taxes, as well as mortgage interest deductions. These changes shift the federal tax burden toward the coastal cities that globalization has blessed with prosperity. Amazon chose New York City and suburban Washington, D.C., for its secondary headquarters. As the winners win ever-larger prizes, it’s fitting that they carry more of the tax burden for the country as a whole.
We must rebalance. In his newly published book, The Once and Future Worker, Oren Cass details the policy shifts needed to continue tilting the scales in the direction of median Americans. I hope his ideas are heeded.
We need cultural populism as well. Multiculturalism is an ideology for the globalized ruling class. (See Darel E. Paul, “Culture War as Class War,” August/September 2018.) Diversity is a shibboleth that shifts attention from the substantive question of whether our elites serve the nation’s interests to the cosmetic question of whether or not the rich and powerful “look like America.” It’s entirely possible to confect racial and other forms of diversity at elite universities and in C-suites while selling out Middle America.
We need a winsome account of what it means for the cultural and demographic changes of the last generation to add up to a unified “we, the people.” Too many politicians buy the false notion of a “minority-majority nation” that’s supposedly around the corner. This is ridiculous. A super-majority of citizens are native-born Americans. This will remain the case for the foreseeable future. Only the narcotic of identity politics, a twenty-first-century version of an older racial essentialism, can make one think that Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and other hyphenated Americans aren’t first and foremost Americans.
The cultural problems we face arise, in part, because our leadership class has been corrupted. It has been indoctrinated into identity politics. This is the mentality of an oligarchy. With the population sliced into slivers of “identity,” citizens can be set against one another. A divided population suits the ruling class. It prevents the many from uniting to challenge the wealth and power of the few. Universities have always been factories of elite conceits about their superiority. That’s why the tower is called ivory. Not surprisingly, the universities are hotbeds of multicultural ideologies that smooth the way for oligarchy.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “Do what you may, there is no true power among men except in the free union of their will; and patriotism or religion are the only two motives in the world which can long urge all the people toward the same end.” Shared loyalties unify us, giving us the solidarity necessary to hold the rich and powerful accountable. Multiculturalism is an enemy of those shared loyalties and the solidarity they create, which is why it serves the interests of our globalized ruling class so nicely. The tax on enormous university endowments in the 2017 tax bill is an important first step in what needs to be a much larger and more aggressive counterattack on elite consolidation of cultural power.
Our leadership class is formed by an intensely competitive meritocratic system that creates distrust. Collective loyalties impede the mad climb up the ladder of success. Even marriage and children become inconvenient commitments for the super-talented, which is why they delay them, and even forgo them. Again and again, I see elite Americans projecting their status anxieties down onto ordinary people, presuming that they, too, are willing to sacrifice shared loves and loyalties for the sake of individual success. I recently heard a prominent commentator speak of ritual expressions of patriotism as “trivial,” though perhaps necessary for ordinary people who need to feel as though they belong to something. The implication? Patriotism offers psychological consolation for ordinary people. They are captive to the primitive impulses of the “tribal mind.” Meanwhile, the special, successful people know better.
I’m optimistic about the prospects for economic and cultural rebalancing. As election returns were being reported during the midterms, commentators noted that many swing districts went to Democratic candidates who have served in the military. Voters seem to want evidence that their representatives are committed to our shared future as a nation. This corresponds to my experience. The white, black, brown, and yellow skin of the bus drivers, electricians, and salesmen I encounter does not make them talk like university students or human resource functionaries at tech companies. They are proud of their work, and they express great pride in our country—even as they reserve well-deserved scorn for our ruling class. With good leadership, I’m confident we can reconsolidate around a winsome vision of who we are as a people.
Matthew Lee Anderson offered useful analysis of the religious landscape in a pre-election article, “Evangelicals and Catholics After Trump” (America, October 29, 2018). He notes a growing divide between “evangelicalism’s ‘elite,’ the middle- and upper-middle-class evangelicals” and the “traditional religious right” that operates “in a distinctively populist way.” The divide is personified in the clash between Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, a prominent anti-Trumper, and Jerry Falwell Jr., scion of the founder of the Moral Majority and one of the forty-fifth president’s most ardent supporters.
Moore delivered the 2016 Erasmus Lecture, “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” As Anderson accurately reports, “It was a bracing challenge to the ‘old guard’ religious right establishment” that had endorsed Trump in the run-up to the election. That establishment is too dependent on freelancing political entrepreneurship. What’s needed, Moore argued, is a thicker, more disciplined tradition of theological reflection on public life. This, he implied, would have forestalled some of the embarrassing endorsements of Trump by evangelical leaders.
As I listened to Moore’s lecture back in 2016, I found myself grateful for the Catholic tradition of social teaching. It provides Catholics with an intermediary language with which to address political issues and assess candidates. The great strength of evangelicalism is its profound biblical preaching. But when it comes to politics, this tradition often moves too quickly from the Bible to political judgments, as if the words of Jesus could be applied directly to presidential elections. Moore was certainly right. This approach can lead to simplistic portrayals of figures like Trump as attractive exemplars of biblical virtue.
American evangelicalism has other, deeper problems, however. Anderson brings them to the surface, but only in part, perhaps because he’s not entirely willing to face today’s political realities. There’s a growing number of “respectable evangelicals”—my term for the mostly college-educated, prosperous cohort.Anderson calls them “middle-class, suburban evangelicals.” The respectable evangelicals are pro-life, to be sure, and they often reject same-sex marriage, though they work hard not to be seen as judgmental. More often than not, they vote for Republican candidates. But they’re also likely to give priority to racial justice. The respectable evangelicals are “less nationalistic and considerably less anxious about Islam and immigration than many leaders on the religious right.” As Anderson observes, they are “social-justice-oriented evangelicals.”
He goes on to depict, accurately, the alienation of the respectable evangelicals from the “old guard” leaders of the Religious Right during the 2016 campaign. “They have not changed their playbook or their theology,” which he derides as little more than a tool to gain “access to power they craved.” This playbook includes dramatic statements by prominent preachers about the urgency of the moment, often fusing evangelical fervor for Christ with nationalistic passions. Anderson suggests, as well, that the “old guard” plays on racial anxieties and stokes worries “about the purportedly Marxist underpinnings of social justice, about the tyranny of global governance and about the withering away of white American culture.”
All of this anguishes Anderson. In the 2016 election, the rank-and-file followed Jerry Falwell Jr. when they went to the polls, not Russell Moore. “The new crop of evangelicals,” Anderson among them, “has always been too eager to believe their own good press and too willing to believe that the hold of the religious right over evangelicalism’s inner life would be easier to break than it has been.”
That’s a frank admission. But Anderson and “the new crop” need to brave a fuller reckoning. In his account of the political landscape of evangelicalism, the rank-and-file are invisible. He talks only of the “old guard” leaders, neglecting the obvious fact that they’re leaders because so many people follow them. Anderson implicitly adopts a New York Times analysis of the great bulk of evangelical voters who voted for Trump. They are embittered white people who, if not actual racists, are anxious about their declining hegemony in the coming “minority-majority” nation. Or they’re Islamophobic. Or they’re xenophobic and anti-immigrant. One way or another, they’re “clingers.”
In the run-up to the 2016 election, I spoke at some evangelical churches. As Anderson correctly reports in his article, I supported Trump, though that was not the topic of my talks. I addressed the larger challenges facing our society, not whom to vote for. One talk was in New York. It was a church of respectable evangelicals. They were deeply troubled by the choice they were going to have to make in the polling booth. Another was in Tennessee, a church more unwashed than respectable, though it certainly had well-educated, sophisticated members. There, I was taken aback by populist urgency rippling through the congregation. These people were not going to vote for Trump grudgingly. They were going to vote for him with enthusiasm. And it seemed to me this enthusiasm was native, not something conjured up by Fox News or the “old guard” of the Religious Right.
When I returned to New York that fall, I reread Nathan Hatch’s classic article, “The Christian Movement and the Demand for a Theology of the People.” In twenty-two densely footnoted pages, Hatch lays out the populist roots of the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky and other foundational movements in American evangelicalism. They arose to fight the “ecclesiastical monarchy” of high-and-mighty, educated, and “respectable” pastors whom the populist religious insurgents accused of reserving for themselves the right to interpret the Word of God. Stone-Campbell revivalism was a rebellion against the Protestant establishment of the time, often violent in its rhetoric and radical in its populist theology, even to the point of rejecting Calvinist theology as a wicked invention designed to allow the educated elite to lord over ordinary believers, denying them unmediated access to the gospel.
As Hatch makes clear, the religious populism that swept through the young American nation had immediate political expressions that have become deeply embedded in the DNA of our demotic Protestant traditions, the ones we now call “evangelical.” The later streams that fed into Stone-Campbell revivalism of the early nineteenth century are no less populist. There wasn’t much respectable happening on Azusa Street in the early twentieth century. The unwashed, the “deplorables,” were the ones in the storefront holiness churches and at the revival meetings that came and went like a morning dew.
Perhaps the old guard of the religious right whips up this populist tradition for cynical reasons, as Matthew Lee Anderson suggests. I don’t gainsay his frustration. Nor do I doubt that the public witness of evangelicalism would be more effective were better engaged with Catholic thought, as Anderson hopes. The long-term dialogue Evangelicals and Catholics Together is sponsored by First Things. Our purpose is to promote Christian unity. But we have a subsidiary goal: to marry the enviable urgency and biblical integrity of evangelical witness with the social doctrine found in the Catholic tradition.
I hope we succeed in deepening our unity in Christ and facing the challenges of our time with intelligence and biblical integrity. In so doing, however, I have no intention of opposing the inner dynamism of evangelism toward political populism—a deep suspicion of the high-and-mighty, an often embittered awareness that one is being looked down upon, the experience of having one’s half-articulated political anger interpreted by one’s “betters” as wicked (racism) or nostalgic (white America), and the passionate conviction that in spite of all these (and other) betrayals our country is worthy of our love. I share these sentiments. They go a long way in explaining why more than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, a lot further than jejune speculations about their concern for “the withering away of white American culture.”
Populism runs deep in American evangelicalism. It will prevent respectable evangelicals like Matthew Lee Anderson from assuming leadership over the unwashed. “Social justice” evangelicals cultivate the outlooks and habits of mind of our ruling class, all of which speak against populism, political or religious, which is by definition anti-elite. That’s why so many of them become evangelical Anglicans who can’t help but look down on those who populate the crazy-quilt of conservative Protestant churches in this country. Given the reality of this class divide, I’d lay odds that there will never come a time when the old guard leaves the scene.
I’m proud of Jonah Goldberg. He managed to get more than halfway through his response to my review of his recent book, Suicide of the West, before mentioning Hitler. That’s not to say he was restrained. He charged me with having written a review characterized by “distortion and dishonesty.” He thinks it unlikely I actually read the book, choosing instead to grind my own axes.
In my review of Suicide of the West, I spared Goldberg the consequences of a close reading, seeking instead to draw out the implications of his book for the future of the conservative movement. Let me adopt a more direct approach. Suicide of the West is full of embarrassing contradictions that make it difficult to take him or his book seriously.
The central contradiction concerns the role of reason. At the outset, Goldberg expresses his commitment to arguments based on “facts grounded in reason and decency.” His purpose is to defend capitalism, democracy, human rights, and more—the Reagan consensus of recent vintage. It’s an honorable ambition. But he immediately announces that all these features are “unnatural,” which is to say not based in first principles or basic premises concerning human dignity or what it means to flourish as a human being. On the contrary, “the truths we know we have figured out for ourselves—over a really, really, really long time. After thousands of generations of trial and error, we discovered ‘best practices’ out there in the world, like prizes in some eternal scavenger hunt.” We have stumbled upon “the Miracle.”
The contradiction is patent. He proclaims loyalty to reason—and then defines what he defends as beyond question or debate. “It is my contention,” he writes, “that all rebellions against the liberal order of the Miracle are not only fundamentally romantic in nature but reactionary.” If I say, “There must be a better way!” then I am deceived. There can be no better way, Goldberg insists. “Look around, everybody: You’re standing at the end of history.” Thinking otherwise cannot be a sign of rational reflection. It’s not thinking at all, but only the resurgence of the primitive impulses of the “tribal mind.”
Thus, if I argue that the liberal order as defined by Goldberg cannot sustain the loyalties to family and community that are essential for human happiness, his book says that I’m not actually using my reason. It’s my tribal mind talking. Tocqueville worried that the liberal order unleavened by moral and religious convictions would end up nurturing a self-chosen despotism more complete than anything before seen in human history. This, too, must be dismissed by Goldberg as reactionary muttering by a deluded ingrate who foolishly worries that the liberal order contains within itself defects that require us to apply our reason with ongoing vigilance to correct, adjust, and reform our way of life.So much for Goldberg’s commitment to “facts grounded in reason and decency.”
Goldberg’s inconsistency becomes especially clear when he attempts to show that Franklin Roosevelt was a fascist. In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR set aside the principles of nineteenth-century economic liberalism, promising “bold, persistent experimentation” to solve the crisis. This is bad, according to Goldberg. “The very idea of experimentation presumes that there are no a priori dogmatic, principled constraints on the investigation.” Without principles, “all options are on the table—the very definition of the authoritarian method.” Then comes the clincher quote from John Patrick Diggins: “Fascism appealed, first of all, to the pragmatic ethos of experimentation.” QED: Roosevelt = Fascism.
But wait a minute. By Goldberg’s account, we’ve gotten to the Miracle by trial and error. It’s taken thousands of generations of experimentation. Thus, the Miracle, too, has been arrived at by “the very definition of the authoritarian method.” In other words, the liberal miracle is in the upshot of a crypto-fascist approach. This explains why Suicide of the West is full of denunciations of those who disagree with Goldberg. That’s what ideological authoritarians do. They don’t argue with reason and decency. They pillory, ridicule, and smear.
Indeed, Goldberg comes close to admitting that he’s an ideologue. As he draws himself to full height in his conclusion, he appears to recognize the dialectical consequences of the way he frames the political issues of our time. “The only solution to our woes,” he writes, “is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment.” There you have it. We’re to cultivate faith in the liberal creed—and we need to punish the heretics outside our tribe. Again, so much for “facts grounded in reason and decency.”
It would be tedious to detail the other contradictions that crop up regularly in Suicide of the West. They are inevitable. Goldberg uses a cheap debater’s trick. He defines what he is defending in a way that places it beyond rational analysis. It is the Miracle arrived at by thousands of generations of trial and error, and thus incapable of refutation. He conjures an ersatz psychosocial theory of reactionary politics, the “tribal mind.” This becomes his go-to tool for dismissing all criticisms. That’s fine for writing propaganda. But it’s incompatible with a commitment to rational debate.
Senior editor at National Review and Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at AEI, Jonah Goldberg is in the C-suite of Conservatism, Inc. He has a quick, sharp pen, which makes him a fine writer of zippy attack pieces that can bring a smile if they target people you don’t like. But his political analysis proceeds according to predictable, Reaganite recipes. His ascendancy shows how worthless so much of the political-ideological infrastructure on the American right has become.
while we’re at it
♦ I’ve argued that transgender ideology appeals because it promises freedom from our bodies, whispering a gospel of freedom from death. Apparently, Dutchman Emile Ratelband has been listening. He recently went to court to compel the government to change the date on his birth certificate to show that he was born in 1969, not 1949. His argument: “We can make our own decisions if we want to change our name, or if we want to change our gender. So I want to change my age. My feeling about my body and about my mind is that I’m about 40 or 45.”
Ratelband explained, “This is American thinking. Why can’t I change my age if I want to? You have to stretch yourself. If you think you can jump one meter, now I want to jump 20. If you earn 100 grand a month, now I want to earn 120 grand.” I can testify that Ratelband is correct about American thinking. For years I asked my students if a person can be whatever he wants to be. “Yes!” they insisted. “Can I jam the basketball?” I asked. “Yes, if you really want to and work hard enough,” they replied. “Can a five-foot person jam the basketball?” Against any reality, they would insist that, yes, we can be whatever we want to be. Transgender ideology falls upon very fertile soil in the United States.
♦ I recently contacted my bank to announce that I now identify as a billionaire and expect to have my accounts adjusted accordingly.
♦ Highly paid software engineers and tech executives aren’t stupid. Although they may not have read Patricia Snow’s profound analysis of the spiritual damage done by our addiction to smart phones (“Look At Me,” May 2016), they know that what they’re delivering to the world is harmful. For the last thirty years, educators have foolishly pressed for computers in classrooms and laptops or tablets for all children. Techno-activists call for high-speed Internet access for everyone. Meanwhile, those captaining the technology juggernaut send their kids to expensive private schools that have “no screen” policies. In Silicon Valley, it’s common for the rich to have nannies sign “no screen” clauses in their employment contracts. This is meant to prevent them from using their phones in front of the kids. Chamath Palihapitiya made hundreds of millions of dollars as an early Facebook executive. He has imposed a “no screen time whatsoever” rule on his three children, ages six through ten. By the way, Facebook recently launched the Messenger Kids app to increase usage by children.
♦ Patricia Snow’s “Look At Me” is available in booklet form for $5.95. It’s an ideal way to prompt discussion about how to respond to the all-devouring screen. Highly recommended.
♦ I’d like to propose a 5 percent tax on all Internet revenue above $1 billion for a company. It will slow the decline of face-to-face commerce, and it will also throw a weight or two around the necks of the companies currently rewiring the brains of children—companies selling an addiction their own executives want to keep away from their children.
♦ George Weigel does not mince words: “Mainstream media reporting on the bishops’ recent Baltimore meeting generally got it right: The U.S. bishops tried to do the right thing and got bushwhacked by Rome, which Just Doesn’t Get It on sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance.” The Vatican’s sudden intervention prevented the American bishops from taking appropriate action against sexual abuse in their own ranks. It was motivated, in part, by “an anti-American atmosphere worse than anything I’d experienced in 30 years of work in and around the Vatican.” Francis and his team buy the conspiracy theory that “wealthy Catholics in league with extreme right-wing bishops have hijacked the Church” in the U.S. That’s a grotesque misjudgment of reality. American Catholics across a wide theological and political spectrum are furious at their church leaders. And they’re increasingly frustrated by a papacy that seems indifferent to its alliance with the worst malefactors in the sexual abuse crisis (McCarrick!)—and that to this day stonewalls and deflects responsibility.
♦ Along with strictures governing their own behavior, the bishops gathered in Baltimore wanted to set up a commission to investigate who knew what about McCarrick, and when. This commission was to have lay members. When Pope Francis shut down votes on proposals for action, that plan was sidelined as well. This is unacceptable. In view of Rome’s castration of the American bishops, lay leaders need to take initiative on their own to establish a committee to undertake an investigation, with or without the cooperation of Rome.
♦ Powerful forces within the Catholic Church are desperate to sign a concordat with the sexual revolution, convinced that the faithful need to get on the “right side of history.” Consider a recent message from the Twitter account for the Catholic Church in England and Wales: “Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance and we pray for all people who are ill at ease with their gender, seek to change it, suffer for it and have been persecuted, and also killed. All people are loved by God and valued in their inherent God-given dignity.”
Here’s how it works. An unobjectionable spiritual sentiment (concern for those who suffer and are persecuted) and a moral platitude (human dignity) are fused to the blatantly political agenda of secular organizations whose goals are inimical to the Church’s mission. Such is this case for the “Transgender Day of Remembrance.” The spiritual deception begins with establishing transgenderism as a “difficult issue” for which we need to have compassion. Soon enough, anyone expressing the correct view that transgenderism is a sign of severe mental disorder becomes “hateful.” The way is clear to censure coherent moral positions grounded in orthodox theologies of the creation. Instead of engaging them, “progressive” churchmen can dismiss traditional arguments as “attacks” on the “inherent God-given dignity” of those “ill at ease with their gender” and who “seek to change it.”
♦ A widely reported Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey shows that young people are having sex less often. Jean M. Twenge’s recent book, iGen, plots a trajectory of decline in sexual intercourse among twenty-somethings. They have fewer sexual partners than the previous two generations and are more likely not to have sex at all. And, in fact, as compared to still earlier generations at their age, sex is declining among Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. What’s going on? We live in a time of plenary affirmation of sexual experimentation of any sort. Even Pope Francis echoes the non-judgmental consensus. Experts scratch their heads.
Atlantic senior editor Kate Julian reports,
I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity.
And, oh, there’s the phenomenon anthropologist Helen Fisher observes: “a decline in couplehood among young people.” Translated: “A decline in couplehood” means the loss of courtship, fewer long-term romantic relationships, and fewer marriages.
Put simply, progressives have made a mess of the male-female dance. The sexual revolution is failing on its own terms. And the Francis pontificate wants to midwife a concordat?
♦ Over the last decade, I’ve lost patience with conservatives who denounce the headless hedonism of university student culture. Yale famously hosts Sex Week in order to promote “sex positive” attitudes. But the reality is quite different, as the CDC report indicates. Places such as Yale are petri dishes for an emotionally diseased culture that tends to encourage students to adopt self-protective, defensive postures toward everything from career to relationships. I don’t dispute that the sexual culture is more morally disordered than ever. But it’s not more hedonistic, perhaps because the disorder gives sex a bitter taste.
♦ Heather Mac Donald has been an indispensable voice of sanity in the frenzied debates about sex on campus. She recently commented on the hysterical reaction of feminist organizations to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s revisions of the Obama-era rule for campus tribunals adjudicating charges of rape and sexual abuse (“Feminists’ Undue Process”). The new guidelines tilt in the direction of a stronger commitment to due process. Mac Donald notes that a fierce regulatory approach to sex among college students is not at odds with sexual liberation. It is in fact a predictable concomitant.
The solution to what is called campus rape is a change of culture from one of entitled promiscuity to one of personal responsibility. In the absence of such norms as prudence, restraint, and respect, the bureaucracy, extending all the way up to the federal government, has happily rushed in to fill the void. The weirdest aspect of the campus sex scene is this bureaucratization of coitus, which once nominally rebellious students now self-righteously demand.
Mac Donald describes what Alexis de Tocqueville feared might become the trajectory of the democratic age. Shorn of traditional cultural norms, atomized men and women are unable to organize their lives in sustainable ways. In their vulnerability, they beg for interventions by “an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate.”
♦ A friend in central Tennessee reports that over the last half-dozen years he’s seen more “Don’t Tread on Me!” flags and bumper stickers. They seem to have replaced Confederate flags, which he claims are much less prevalent. That’s a welcome development. I’ve always believed the Confederate flag signaled a populist refusal to be cowed by relentless claims of Northern superiority. It’s a declaration of independence: “I am who I am, and I ain’t changin’.” But of course the Confederate flag also symbolizes racial oppression. I sympathize with the impulse to give the finger to the Man, especially to liberal elites who claim moral superiority. But a symbol from our revolutionary era is much better than one used by slave states to defend their “peculiar institution.”
♦ I guess I’m out of touch. I only recently found out that Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Stephen Hayes decamped to Spain last summer. Mind you, the Weekly Standard is thought to be an important conservative magazine. And one assumes a significant organ of the right plays an important role in shaping public opinion, all the more so as the current occupant of the White House disrupts the political landscape. By any measure, these are important times. During which the editor-in-chief takes a yearlong Wanderjahr with his family? And people think me impolitic for pointing out the obvious—the decadence of what we once thought was the leadership of the American Right? This is a time of testing, and Hayes is AWOL.
♦ George Will was fully present at the Buckley Program at Yale’s recent annual conference in New Haven honoring the 100th anniversary of Russell Kirk’s birth. It took place just a few days before the midterms. Will’s after-dinner speech was a formal lecture delivered with forceful urgency. Its main thrust was a denunciation of the role of religion in American public life. George Will, too, seems to have gone AWOL, though in a different way. He vigorously polices First Things readers to keep them on the margins of our political debates. In truth, I was heartened by the vigor, even anger, of Will’s lecture. He has lots of fight in him. I saw no evidence of a man eager to retire from the scene. Too bad his rage is directed against those who vote for Republicans. He’s a leading conservative intellectual without followers, which means, I suppose, that he’s not a leader at all.
♦ Our founder, Richard John Neuhaus, died on January 8, 2009. There will be a special Mass on January 8, 2019, to mark the tenth anniversary of his birth in the Lord. The Mass will be celebrated at 5:30 p.m. at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, 414 East 14th Street, New York, NY. Fr. Neuhaus often said Mass at Immaculate Conception, which was near his home and where he served as an assisting priest. Please come if you’d like to honor his memory and send up prayers for the repose of his soul and the flourishing of First Things. We will host a festive reception after the Mass at the First Things office, 35 East 21st Street. All are welcome.
♦ David Simpson and George Grove of Beaufort, South Carolina would like to launch a ROFTERS group. If you want to meet monthly to discuss articles in the latest issue, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.