Virginia governor Ralph Northam had a tough February. Soon after he made brutal remarks about the fate of children born alive after attempted abortions, his medical school yearbook page surfaced, showing one person in blackface and another in a KKK outfit. The Twitter mobs rushed in attack. Northam temporized, first issuing the obligatory apology for his youthful indiscretion. Then he reversed himself, claiming that it was someone else in the photo.
As Northam hovered on the edge of political oblivion, Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault. He responded with denials, claiming the sex was consensual. Then the Virginia attorney general admitted that he, too, had worn blackface. It was a “onetime occurrence,” Mark Herring said. “I accept full responsibility for my conduct.” He added with lachrymose regret, “The shame of that moment has haunted me for decades.”
Commentators assumed the whole situation in Virginia was a gigantic problem for the Democratic party. Northam must resign, and perhaps Fairfax and Herring as well. The lines of analysis varied, but a common thread united them. The argument goes like this: Donald Trump and the Republican party exploit racist, sexist, nativist, and homophobic sentiments. Against these rebarbative impulses (assumed to be rampant among conservative voters) and their cynical manipulation by Republican politicians, the Democratic party must stand for diversity, inclusion, and openness. Northam adopted this line himself. In his hotly contested campaign for governor, he cast himself as the “inclusive” candidate. He suggested (not subtly) that his Republican adversary, Ed Gillespie, appealed to racists in order to get votes. In his victory speech in November 2017, Northam said, “Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry.”
The revelations about Northam and Herring’s youthful pranks undermine this Manichean narrative: inclusive, diversity-loving liberals against racist, nativist conservatives. The accusations against Fairfax compound the problem. Here, too, liberals claim the moral high ground. Only last fall, many insisted we must “believe the victims” when accusations were made against Brett Kavanaugh. As a youthful commentator pushing the cultural politics of the left put it: “There is more at risk here than Northam’s political career.” He spoke more truly than he knew. Conservatives as “haters” is the preferred form of liberal propaganda today.
This is why the liberal establishment does little to temper political correctness. The most hysterical extremes—safe spaces, microaggression, intersectionality—serve its political interest. Today, the survival of the liberal establishment depends upon hyper-moralized political correctness and the relentless search for racist transgressions and “crimes of exclusion.” Over the last generation, rich voters have shifted to the Democratic party. After the 2018 midterms, the Democratic party holds the ten richest congressional districts and forty-one of the fifty richest. Whatever remains of the New Deal rationale for the Democratic party has evaporated. It used to be the party of the working man. Now it’s the party of Silicon Valley. This necessitates shifting political energy toward anti-discrimination imperatives, all of which require discrimination in order to maintain their salience.
Thus, if the people of Virginia will not accommodate the Democratic party by manifesting ugly racist sentiments (as, in fact, they don’t), more subtle transgressions need to be found, highlighted, and denounced—Confederate statues, for example, or a white guy dressing up like Michael Jackson. Aggressive, minute, and punitive political correctness is not sui generis. It serves a political need. The Democratic party is the party of the rich. That fact must be disguised, and thus the public square echoes with dog whistles warning of discrimination. White nationalism! Toxic masculinity! This serves to keep immigrants, women, and minorities in a state of constant fear, calling them to come under the protection of the liberal establishment.
In this climate, uproar over non-events such as the supposed “confrontation” in Washington, D.C., between a group of high school kids from Covington, Kentucky, and a Native American activist is predictable. The episode did little more than enact the logic of the non-controversy over the name of a residential college at Yale. If a sign saying “John C. Calhoun” rises to the level of a contemporary racist threat, then surely an ambiguous expression on a young man’s face does so as well.
The same climate makes Jussie Smollett’s charade predictable. He did little more than take the anti-gay mythology of Matthew Shepard’s 1998 murder near Laramie, Wyoming, a step further. Instead of inventing motives, he fabricated the event. He seems to have done so to gain attention as a high-profile “victim,” and thus to advance his career. But his scheme only makes sense in an environment thirsty for hate crimes. Seduction works on the willing.
Two weeks after the revelations in Virginia, Lashrecse Aird, Virginia House delegate and member of the Black Caucus, was involved in tense discussions in Richmond about whether or not to impeach Northam and Fairfax. When she went to church in her hometown of Petersburg, she discovered that black members were unanimous in their view that neither the governor nor attorney general should step down. They were not nearly as upset about the goings-on in Richmond as were the political class and media.
We can be grateful for the common sense of the people of Petersburg, Virginia. The present cultural regime is surreal, fantastical, and insane. Yale University is rich and rudderless. It can live in a dream world. But a state needs to be governed, which is difficult to do when everyone in public life is subject to ongoing PC proctological examinations.
I hope the sanity is contagious, but I’m not optimistic, at least not in the short term. The liberal establishment has dominated American public life, setting the cultural tone since the end of World War II. For the most part, postwar conservative elites have accepted this cultural dominance, resisting only its complacency with respect to communism during the Cold War. For reasons I don’t fully understand, in the last decade that dominance became both more complete and more brittle. Trump’s election in 2016 and the hysterical “Resistance” exposed its weakness and intensified its punitive zeal. This has ratcheted up the political need for “hate.”
Our ruling liberal elite needs racism, sexism, homophobia, and the rest. As a result, the institutions they dominate—mainstream media, universities, the art world, large corporations, and the Democratic party—devise theories, imagery, and rhetoric to ensure that bigotry and “hate” endure forever. If microaggressions falter, they’ll provide foundation grants for theorists who discover nanoaggressions. If twenty-first-century Southerners fail to burn crosses at night, they’ll hire young magazine editors who fixate on pictures from the twentieth century. If immigrants in New York get along reasonably well, they’ll give the microphone to radicals who insist that a statue of Christopher Columbus is an imperialist outrage and symbol of genocide.
Commentators often speak of Trump as “divisive,” stoking nativism or some other pathology in the body politic. I’ve come to see this as an absurd though inevitable reversal of the truth. The powerful force driving polarization in the United States is the liberal establishment. It is the patron of the industry of theorists, activists, and grifters that manufactures hate and bigots so it can pose as the only “responsible” alternative.
Last year, a good friend and I enjoyed a long afternoon conversation over drinks. The leaves of the trees in Rittenhouse Square were showing the first signs of fall. He told me that he was reading Ernst Jünger’s World War II memoir for spiritual guidance. This took me by surprise. Jünger was a significant cultural figure in twentieth-century German literature. But I never thought of him as “spiritual,” at least not in the conventional sense. After saying as much, my friend, a professor at a fancy university, took a sip of his beer and replied, “He helps me think about how to survive as a loyal academic in our collapsing university culture.”
At the time, I was sad that Jünger’s war writings were available only in the original German. When a translation appeared early this year, A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941-1945, I grabbed a copy immediately. Once I began, I could not put it down.
Jünger’s best-known book was his first, Storm of Steel, a memoir of his service in the trenches on the Western Front during World War I. He served in frontline combat for almost the entire conflict. Wounded many times, he possessed a fearlessness and spirit of initiative that won him many honors, culminating in the highest military decoration of the German Empire, Pour le Mérite. But his wartime remembrances are significant in their literary forms rather than in the stories he tells. Jünger evokes the otherworldliness of massive bombardments and the dreamlike existence of soldiers in the midst of disorienting battles. He describes the primitive character of combat unvarnished by sentimentality or moralism. The wrath of Achilles is timeless. But the warrior enters a new stage, one in which the technology of machines both magnifies his agency and diminishes him to nullity.
After World War I, Jünger became a noted writer. He was an unashamed nationalist and staunch critic of the Weimar Republic. He opposed liberalism and democracy, thinking them cancerous ideologies that would lead to an anti-heroic and thus inhuman social order. His 1932 book, The Worker, foretells the coming of a technological world order of total mobilization. All things, including human raw material, will be recruited into the productive process ordered toward world mastery.
Anyone reading The Worker today will cringe at the warmth with which Jünger celebrates “will,” “decision,” and “power.” Like many conservative, anti-liberal German intellectuals of the time, he felt acutely that the West, and especially Germany, had come to a dead end. He did not imagine a restoration of Prussian empire and recognized that World War I destroyed older political, cultural, and even spiritual forms. He desired new forms that would stamp modernity into firm and heroic shapes. Unable to envision what they might be—the new is always hidden on the other side of time’s wall—he and other interwar German conservatives gravitated to a rhetoric of strong hammer blows.
When Hitler came to power, Jünger was appalled. The Nazis wanted to draw him into their fold, but he rejected their offers of political and administrative positions. He parried overtures for a meeting with Hitler and refused to allow his writings to be published in the Nazi propaganda organs. He quit his regimental veterans organization when it expelled Jewish members. A famous war hero, Jünger was insulated from reprisals, though he tested the limits with his 1939 allegorical critique of the Nazi regime, On the Marble Cliffs.
Jünger returned to service in the German Army during World War II. There, too, his status as a war hero gained him protection. A circle of aristocratic Prussian generals who admired his writings and agreed with his anti-liberal and anti-Nazi politics became his patrons, attaching him to the general staff of military command in Paris after France was vanquished. He spent most of the war there, until advancing Allied troops forced the German evacuation in August 1944.
As Jünger observes, an army’s central command is the quiet center of a vast, turning wheel of men and machines. In combat it is difficult to maintain one’s humanity amid avalanches of fear, surges of violent passion, and fields of corpses. But this is not Jünger’s challenge in Paris. Aside from a short assignment to inspect the Eastern Front in Russia, he is out of harm’s way, all the more so because of the Allied decision not to bomb the City of Lights. He is a clerk in the Nazi war machine, not one of its lethal, steel-tipped edges.
The larger historical reality of the global conflict, not the battlefield, frames his experience. He is vulnerable to apocalyptic foreboding of Furies unleashed. Officers returning from the Eastern Front tell of death camps and the roundup of Jews. “Such reports extinguish the colors of the day.” The reign of convenient illusions demoralizes him. He often hears people say that the times are brutal, and so we must make do with crude, amoral leaders. “That’s the point of view of a traveler who has landed in a flophouse and hopes that downstairs they will all kill each other while he is asleep upstairs. It doesn’t always work out that way.” He can’t get over how people fail to see how much is being destroyed, not just physically, but culturally and spiritually as well. “Today people are fighting under the old banners for a new world; they still believe they are back where they began.” The Allies gain air superiority and bomb German cities to ruins. “Thus the days pass over us like the teeth of a saw.” He is Priam, not Achilles. “In World War I, I was alone and free; I am going through the second one with all my loved ones.”
Friendships offer safe harbor. Before the war, Jünger developed contacts with French writers and artists. Stationed in Paris, he cultivates their companionship and participates in their salons, sometimes arid, often cynical, but finely splined. He resents the plague of propaganda. It is a relief to converse with those immune to its infection. Precious, as well, are like-minded German officers. With them one can speak about “the situation.” Jünger maintains contact with old companions, especially his brother, the poet and writer Friedrich Georg, and Carl Schmitt.
Jünger also seeks solitary consolations. He visits graveyards. His journal records regular meditations on the reality of death. He browses the bookstalls along the Seine and goes to antique bookshops squirreled away throughout Paris. Civilization is accumulated wisdom laid up in old books like wine in cool cellars, waiting for the right moment to be uncorked. Reading is not an escape; it is an act of freedom. “Through study you can liberate yourself from the influence of bad teachers and from the prejudices of your age.”
The same is true for Europe’s cities, Paris especially. He hopes that Paris will be spared and that “like an ark, heavily laden to the gunwales with ancient treasure, she should reach a safe harbor after the flood has receded and be preserved for centuries to come.” He puts down in his journal the obscure commemorative plaques he notices. He notes the limestone steps and facades textured with small channels cut eons ago by prehistoric worms as they burrowed into the sediments. The testimony of an immovable past surrounds him and radiates from the very stone of the city to embrace him, even when everything seems to be dissolving.
Jünger was an accomplished entomologist. His father, a chemist, inculcated a scientific love of nature. His journals often report the joy he experiences when he sees a rare beetle. Its intricate, often absurd form becomes an emblem of the human condition. Bugs are everywhere, even in bombed-out cities. This is a consolation: Our powers of destruction are not infinite. Insects also deflate our pride. Jünger says that modern societies organize men and machines to exploit oil fields, coal mines, and other natural resources. “When viewed from the perspective of a distant astronomer, over the passage of time, such a spectacle looks like the activity of a swarm of flies that has picked up the scent of a huge cadaver.”
Flowers, too, are emblems of higher powers. The yellow balsam (impatiens noli tangere) has an elastic structure. “This casting of seed represents tumescence and high energy, the trigger-happy, buoyant, procreative force.” Other flowers have feminine valences; still others, maternal.
Jünger is famous for his surreal and sensuous images of warfare. During a series of bombing raids on rail yards on the outskirts of Paris, he ascends to a rooftop to watch. “When the second raid came at sunset, I was holding a glass of burgundy with strawberries floating in it. The city, with its red towers and domes, was a place of stupendous beauty, like a calyx that they fly over to accomplish their deadly act of pollination.” A plane hit by flak plummets to earth, “spinning to the ground like an autumn leaf.” As Allies are breaking out from their beachhead at Normandy, Jünger visits Monet’s garden at Giverny and contemplates the water lily pond made “more succulent, more suggestive, more colorful” by the great artist’s “intellectual and creative vitality.” Man’s destructiveness and demonic power can be humanized by nature’s beauty; man’s nobility can redouble it.
In 1941, Jünger made a resolution to read the entire Bible. The influence is evident. He discerns providential designs in the disaster facing Germany. These turn on sacrifice and suffering, which he hopes will “create an inner space” for something new that will “prevent the nation as a whole from falling into the horrifying depths of fate.” John 12:24 is not quoted but looms large: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” He hopes this is true, for under Hitler, triumph is despicable. He reads passages from Origen’s Exhortation to Martyrdom.
Reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, likely reinforced Jünger’s preference for nouns over verbs, for they are substantial, anchoring words. “‘Dying’ is thus weaker than ‘death’; ‘wound’ is more forceful than ‘cut.’” Like nouns, the God of the Old Testament acts forcefully. He takes territory. Over and over again, Jünger reminds himself that the moral universe remains constant. The battlefield is a scene of terrible struggle. But the soldier is consoled by the constellations visible at night. So, too, the officer serving the Nazi machine. He can contemplate that which does not change.
Decommissioned in fall 1944 when the Nazis purged those associated with the aristocratic officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler that summer, Jünger returns to his home near Hanover and is put in command of the local civilian defense corps. His son comes home after being released from military prison. He is assigned to a forward fighting unit in Italy rather than being executed for subversive conversations with fellow soldiers that criticized Hitler. Jünger studies entomology more intensely and looks for mushrooms on cow paths in the woods. He dreams of his recently deceased father and revises one of his writing projects, anguishing over whether or not to use the past perfect tense in one of the paragraphs. At this late stage of universal destruction, books are no longer published. “That makes my work more meaningful and more futile.” He reads Léon Bloy and regrets that the sound of church bells that “represents collective prayer” is replaced by “the wail of sirens” warning of bombing raids. He reflects on metaphysical principles while gardening.
In January 1945, Jünger has shifted to reading about shipwrecks. He marks the anniversary of his father’s death. Bomber squadrons fly overhead nearly every day. On January 11, he learns that his son has been killed in Italy near Carrara—the place of marble cliffs. “Anguish is like rain that runs off in torrents and is only gradually absorbed by the earth.”
In early April, a distant grinding sound announces an approaching American army. The sole remaining army officer commits suicide. “As so often in my life, I am the last man in the district who has the authority to give orders.” Which he did: “Guard the tank barrier, then open it as soon as the point unit comes into view.” From his window he watches as, “like a mirage, a gray tank with its gleaming white star glides slowly past.” After it follow hours and hours of mechanized machinery pressing forward. “I notice especially the radio antennae that sway above the tanks and their escort vehicles: they give the impression of an enchanted fishing expedition, perhaps out to catch the Leviathan.”
But he cannot remain the remote, cold observer, as he often is in other passages in this journal. What he is witnessing is necessary, even desired and welcomed. This he affirms, while at the same time “being overcome with intense anguish” over his country’s defeat and destruction. “What are birth pangs or pain of defeat in light of this drama?” he asks. The events of the first half of the twentieth century would seem to overwhelm the human heart. This, however, is not the final word. Perhaps the anguish and welcome are identical, “just as sunset is simultaneous with sunrise for new worlds.” In his final words, Jünger pivots away from darkness to light. He quotes from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, more in the spirit of resurrection than Platonic transcendence or Stoic detachment: “Defeated earth grants us the stars.”
We do not live in Nazi Germany. Our cities are not bombed-out ruins. But we, too, must find ways to survive morally and spiritually. Many of us are being slowly strangled, as is my academic friend. For some, it’s the politically correct HR department at their place of employment circulating pledges to “be inclusive” that all are supposed to sign, the equivalent of loyalty oaths to the Human Rights Campaign. We try to breathe in an atmosphere of misinformation, saddened by the degree to which once responsible newspapers have become propaganda sheets. Twitter mobs explode with punitive outrage. We hear about careers ended, the twenty-first-century version of political assassination that ensures a constant current of fear.
In our present circumstances, Jünger’s wartime reflections provide fruitful material for meditation. I must offer, however, a warning. As did so many who lived through the war’s terrible destruction and felt acutely the moral depravities, Jünger evokes a sense of complete loss, total destruction. But evil cannot be incarnate, for it is nothingness, the opposite of Being. Thus loss is never total. The gratuity of creation and the accumulated humanity of a civilization are never totally destroyed. A great deal can be broken, but there is always something precious to be preserved, always something solid upon which to build.
Politics as System
I was recently in Washington, D.C., with a free afternoon, which I spent in the Library of Congress rereading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s meditation from 1830 on the body politic, On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each. Coleridge was motivated to address the topic by debates about Catholic emancipation. These legislative measures were controversial in early-nineteenth-century England, because they unsettled the long-established conviction that political legitimacy must be grounded in a sacred order. With characteristic genius, Coleridge addressed this question in a novel way that continues to shed light on public life.
“Ideas,” Coleridge observes, are the “truth-power” of reason. They capture the ultimate aim or purpose of something. It is not his intention, therefore, to speak about the established Anglican Church or the British system of government. Instead, he seeks to establish the “idea” of church with respect to its social, this-worldly purpose.
Coleridge thinks in terms of essential definitions, and he stipulates that the constitution of a society is its animating form or “personality.” A healthy constitution of a polity, he says, must balance two opposite powers, that of permanence and that of progress. There must be stability; otherwise chaos ensues. But there also needs to be change, for without it society falls into stagnation and decline. Thus, public life needs to have two factions or interests, a Party of Permanency and a Party of Progression.
By his analysis, landed gentry, inherited titles, and primogeniture constitute the main elements of the Party of Permanency. Its power is supplemented by the peasantry and its aversion to change. Trade and commercial interests, by contrast, are mobile and brimming with ambition. Thus the merchants, professional classes, and clerks who fill the towns and cities make up the Party of Progression. In a well-balanced society, neither party is ascendant. They work together as thesis and antithesis, producing continuity amid change and innovation against a background of tradition.
With this dialectical picture of the constitution of society sketched, Coleridge proceeds to define the idea of the Church. Both the Party of Permanency and Party of Progression take their energy from the power of personal interest. Landed and titled interests tilt one way. Intelligence, expertise, and financial capital yearn for placement, preferment, and profit, which pull in the opposite direction. No nation can endure through private interests alone, however. Drawing from the Old Testament law of tithes, Coleridge stipulates that 10 percent of a society’s wealth needs to be held for common purposes. This, he says, is the Nationality.
The Nationality, in turn, finances the National Church, which he deems the third estate of the realm, standing above the Parties of Permanency and Progression. Coleridge does not mean ecclesiastical institutions alone. For him, the National Church is a term of sociology, not theology. It includes “fountainheads of the humanities” and those “of physical and moral science.” It is responsible for cultivating the nation. “The object of the National Church,” he observes of ancient Israel, “was to secure and improve that civilization, without which the nation could be neither permanent nor progressive.” In modern times, the National Church is staffed by jurists, lawyers, scientists, musicians, and literary figures, as well as theologians and village vicars. They are the national “clerisy,” as Coleridge calls them—a word of his own invention derived from the German Klerisei, itself derived from kleros, Greek for “heritage.” Those responsible for sustaining and transmitting the civilizational inheritance of a nation constitute its clerisy. Their job is to spread the “vital warmth” of cultural literacy among the many, and a deep inculcation among the few.
With this picture of the social constitution sketched, the rest of his short treatise shows that Catholicism cannot be relied on to participate in the National Church, and thus does not deserve a claim upon the Nationality and the preferment properly accorded to a nation’s clerisy. Although he makes many interesting observations, including perceptive remarks about the dangers clerical celibacy pose to national loyalty, they are of a different character from the initial inquiry into “ideas.” The second half of On the Constitution of the Church and State offers a series of nuanced observations and judgments about the particular issues at stake in the legislation being debated at the time.
Coleridge was one of the few English intellectuals of his generation who could read German. He had drunk deeply of German Idealism, which analyzed reality as a dynamic system rather than a static hierarchy of being or array of individual substances. Hegel famously interpreted history in terms of a creative process of thesis, antithesis, and resulting synthesis. Coleridge adapts this dynamic anlysis for his own purposes, applying it to modern political life, allowing him (and us) to participate in public life as partisans (Permanency for some, Progression for others) while seeing our political agency as part of a larger system that needs to be maintained in proper working order. This doubleness is an essential feature of theoria, as Coleridge understood it—reflection under the illumination of ideas.
The applications of Coleridge’s theory of Church and state are fascinating. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Republican party was the Party of Progression: Industrialists, Financiers, and Moral Reformers. Agricultural interests made up the Party of Permanency, exemplified in the anti–Wall Street populism of William Jennings Bryan. The roles switched after World War II, with Republicans representing stolid Main Street business interests and moral restoration, while Democrats became “forward-thinking.” Our clerisy and National Church (universities, media, foundations) do not function as a third estate that leavens the body politic with civilizing knowledge. Instead, they have become a propaganda machine for the Party of Progression, sometimes championing cultural revolution, at other times devising the technocratic transformation of all things into dynamic utility functions.
Coleridge was a true Platonist. Theoria saturates the mind with a larger vision of reality. Ideas, properly understood, do not provide premises for practical syllogisms or road maps for public activism, as Karl Marx and so many other progressive theorists have imagined. Coleridge, like Matthew Arnold—who no doubt drew upon the former’s genius for arresting monikers (Parties of Permanency and Progression, clerisy) as inspiration for his own cultural criticism (the Barbarians, the Philistines, and the Populace)—knew that he was contemplating forms that can be seen, not used. He was not articulating laws of history, society, or economics, as if outlining principles for technocratic governance. In this respect, Coleridge teaches an important lesson. Political and social theory should be cultivated. It saturates prudential judgment with a larger vision of things. But it does not substitute for wisdom, experience, a keen awareness of the contingency of human affairs, and the courage to use our freedom.
while we’re at it
♦ A transgendered man, Nikki Joly, campaigned to have her hometown, Jackson, Michigan, adopt an anti-discrimination law. The local paper declared her “Citizen of the Year.” Then an arsonist burned down her home. Police now suspect that she did it. Why? According to reports, she was upset that the legislative success had taken her out of the news. Entirely believable. Transgenderism is a sign of mental illness. That our establishment kowtows to transgender activists and celebrates them (Citizen of the Year!) indicates the depth of misrule today.
♦ More evidence of misrule. The city of Fort Collins has a city ordinance prohibiting women from baring their breasts in public, but not men their chests. Concerned citizens formed Free the Nipple Fort Collins to challenge the ordinance. The federal district court judge struck down the restriction, observing that it “perpetuates a stereotype engrained in our society that female breasts are primarily objects of sexual desire whereas male breasts are not.” The Tenth Circuit recently upheld the judgment. Judge Gregory A. Phillips opined that the city’s concerns about bare bosoms “derives not from morphological differences between men’s and women’s breasts but from negative stereotypes depicting women’s breasts, but not men’s breasts, as sex objects.” It’s hard to know which is worse: the willful, self-imposed ignorance of human nature or the sexless, de-eroticized Puritanical progressivism.
♦ In December, an English woman was arrested. Her crime? In a tweet, she referred to a transgender man as, well, a man. She was released after fingerprinting and remains under investigation for the crime of misgendering.
♦ In England, the government announced mandatory instruction on gay and transgender relationships for grade-school children. Three hundred parents in Birmingham protested, many of them Muslim. School officials reiterated their commitment to “British values,” which they say warrant the “No Outsiders” curriculum. This way of thinking frames the future of the West as a choice between the Prophet Muhammad and drag queens. And people wonder that the political establishment in Europe is failing?
♦ My Uber driver in New York City was a young black man. I steered our conversation toward politics. Trump? Mixed views. Immigration? “They come and take our jobs.” Abortion? “This idea of abortion in the ninth month is just crazy!” Men and women? “It’s all messed up.” The future of our country? “There’s a lot of potential. People in America can start things. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit.” When I got to my destination, I was cheered.
♦ Recent polling suggests that my Uber driver is not an outlier, at least not when it comes to abortion. Before the radical bills were passed in New York and Virginia, a Marist Poll showed 55 percent identifying as pro-choice and 38 percent pro-life. After the bills passed and made the news, opinion shifted, with 47 percent on each side. May the trend continue!
♦ Spines seem to be stiffening among our political representatives. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley expressed reservations about D.C. Circuit Court nominee Neomi Rao, stating that he is “only going to support nominees who have a strong record on life.” He elaborated:
To me, that means . . . someone whose record indicates that they have respect for what the Supreme Court itself has called the interests of the unborn child; someone whose record indicates they will protect the ability of states and local governments to protect the interests of the unborn child to the maximum extent . . . and number three somebody who will not extend the doctrines of Roe v. Wade and Casey, which I believe are deeply incompatible with the Constitution.
♦ The late-night tweets of our president may have met their match in the Instagram videos of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While preparing dinner, she mused about the coming ecological apocalypse:
Our planet is going to hit a disaster if we don’t turn this ship around and so it’s basically, like, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question, you know, “Is it okay to still have children?”
Under the circumstances, one wonders why free college is necessary.
♦ California State Senator Jerry Hill has sponsored a bill to punish priests who refuse to break the seal of the confessional in order to report the abuse of children. Interesting irony: Ten years ago, Hill urged the adoption of the birthday of Harvey Milk as a state holiday. Milk had a long-term relationship with a sixteen-year-old runaway male during the 1960s. Further irony: The bill that Hill is sponsoring promises absolute confidentiality for priests who break the seal of confession. “No agency or person listed in this subdivision shall disclose the identity of any person who reports under this article to that person’s employer, except with the employee’s consent or by court order.”
♦ A reader wrote to express dismay that I suggested St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises contribute to the dysfunctions of the Francis pontificate (“A Failing Papacy,” February). He points out, quite correctly, that the Exercises have an honored place in the Catholic tradition. It was not my intention to impugn the orthodoxy of St. Ignatius or his methods of spiritual formation and discernment. My goal was to point out tendencies those methods can encourage: subordination of all things as means to the singular end of fulfilling God’s particular call, intensification of spiritual purpose to the point of neglect or even rejection of constraining norms, and vivid assurance of vocation that can make one into a spiritual steamroller. These are defects of the good St. Ignatius sought—redoubled faith in Christ. They are to be expected. Religious orders carry distinct charisms. These spiritual gifts can breed distinct vices, however. Franciscan zeal underlies the order’s notorious fractiousness. The Dominican commitment to doctrinal precision can make them quarrelsome. The Benedictine virtue of stability can become self-satisfied complacency. And a Jesuit’s interior depth can become willfulness, arrogance, and insouciance.
A decade ago, I made an eight-day silent retreat guided by a Jesuit director in accord with the Spiritual Exercises. It was the most powerful spiritual experience of my life, impressing upon me the living reality of Christ, who speaks to us if we will but listen. I also sensed the danger. When God speaks in an interior way, there’s always the risk that we blend our voice into his, disguising our self-will as his particular call. St. Ignatius recognized this danger, which is why he established a system of spiritual direction and imposed a rigorous ethic of obedience to superiors.
♦ Polling shows that black Virginians are less likely to want Governor Ralph Northam to resign than white Virginians. This follows a pattern Jesse Singal sees elsewhere. Commenting on his blog, Singal-Minded, he notes that only 9 percent of Native Americans object to the name of the Washington Redskins. He points to a New York Times story written after the election of Donald Trump. The reporter visited a poor black section of Milwaukee. She found that residents were not in a state of panic about Trump, unlike the “Resistance.” Trump’s supposed misogyny? White women without college degrees voted for him by a 2–1 margin. It was upper-class women who were wearing the silly hats at the Women’s March. This leads Singal to ask some penetrating questions:
If you’re a progressive who is calling for the Washington football team to change its name, or for Ralph Northam to resign, because of the harm that football team name and that governor did to marginalized people, it should feel very weird that the actual groups most affected mostly disagree with you, no? Or if it doesn’t feel weird, why doesn’t it feel weird? What does it mean to say you hold an opinion out of a desire to protect a given group when members of that group say, in polling, they don’t require your protection on that particular issue?
I venture an answer above (“Manufacturing Hate”). Liberal elites hold on to power with the rhetoric of oppression, which is why they don’t care what “the actual groups” say, think, or experience.
♦ Arizona State Representative Michelle Udall, a Republican, put forward a resolution declaring that “pornography is a crisis leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts.” Udall’s committee approved the resolution on narrow party lines. It goes to the Arizona House. Democrat Representative Pamela Powers Hannley opposes the resolution, arguing that it distracts from the real issue, which is “medically accurate sex education.” That’s our political moment in a nutshell. Liberals believe that our problems can be solved by still more liberation. Drug legalization. Transgender bathrooms. More explicit sex education. We haven’t gone far enough!
♦ Count me among the New York residents happy with State Senator Michael Gianaris. He led the charge against the subsidy package of nearly $3 billion to bring Amazon’s HQ2 to the Big Apple. Why, I wonder, do we need to subsidize the largest, most profitable companies in the world, while we require the guy with a modest-sized business employing a hundred people to pay full freight?
♦ Definition of an oligarchy: when the rich few privatize public goods and capture them for themselves.
♦ Georges Clemenceau was prime minister of France during World War I. Sharp of tongue, at the Versailles Conference after the cessation of hostilities, he remarked, “Mr. Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only Ten!” On the rising rule of experts: “The technocrats know everything, but nothing else.”
♦ On the evening of February 6, a large crowd gathered in the First Things office for an art opening featuring the oil paintings and drawings of Edmond Rochat. The show will remain up for the next month. Visitors are welcome during working hours.
♦ Readers will have noticed the caricatures of Julius Caesar and Charles de Gaulle in this issue. They come to us from the pen of Pat Cross. You can see his cartoons on patcrosscartoons.com. We’re happy to welcome him onto our pages. More to come in the months ahead.