In this issue, Oren Cass explodes the false dichotomy between cultural questions and economic ones (“The Problem with the Culture Problem”). Nowhere is the falsity more evident than in the question that will define the coming decade: Should we emphasize consumption or work? Our answer will have significant economic and cultural implications. In his 2018 book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, Cass makes the case for productive work. Through gainful employment, “people find purpose and satisfaction in providing for themselves and helping others.” Consumption nurtures a culture of individualism. Work encourages a culture of “strong families and communities.”
Giving priority to work requires a fundamental change, of course. As Cass details in his book, we’ve taken a consumption-oriented approach over the last few decades. The metaphor of “growing the economic pie” emphasizes the production of more stuff. It does not matter who does the producing. What’s important is how the resulting wealth is spread among the general public.
Not surprisingly, therefore, political debate fixes on two issues: distribution (the center-left priority) and GDP growth (the center-right emphasis). The Great Society programs prescribed government-subsidized consumption for those left behind. Food stamps, housing subsidies, and Medicaid ensure that the poor can buy food, shelter, and healthcare. New proposals bandied about in the race for the Democratic nomination—free college, universal government-provided health care, and other benefits—expand subsidies of consumption, extending them to the middle class.
The consumption-oriented politics of the right focus on expanding GDP. Deregulation seeks to reduce friction in the economy, unlocking more potential for growth. Tax cuts are meant to stimulate investment and productivity among the wealthiest and most talented members of society. This, trickle-down proponents of growth promise, will end up benefiting everybody.
Over the past decade, criticism of our economic status quo has intensified. In response, defenders of deregulation and lower taxes almost always make consumption-oriented arguments. When critics point out that wages for median workers have not increased in recent decades, the counter-argument is that wages don’t tell the whole story. Government transfer-payments to low-income Americans and cheaper consumer goods made available by globalization have raised standards of living even as wages have stagnated. Phil Gramm and John F. Early have made this argument in a series of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal. The title of a recent one, “The Myth of ‘Wage Stagnation,’” is self-explanatory. Even the poorest Americans have air conditioning, flat-screen TVs, and cell phones. Ordinary people never had it so good!
There has been bipartisan support for government subsidies that aim to prop up middle-class consumption. As Cass points out, in the last two generations, this consensus has allocated huge sums to subsidize the consumption of higher education. The same has been true for home ownership. Medicare and its various expansions subsidize middle-class consumption by decreasing the amount that needs to be saved for retirement. True, important voices on the American right have expressed worries that such subsidies are fiscally unsustainable and undermine the American work ethic. But as a practical matter, the governing consensus—center-right and center-left—has had no response to middle-class economic anxiety other than consumption subsidies. Work-oriented policies never cross their minds.
Given the general bias toward consumption, it’s foolish to call Elizabeth Warren a socialist. Many at the commanding heights of the global economy recognize the sound political logic behind Warren’s proposals. They see that populism causes dangerous political turmoil. And they assume, as has the last generation of political leaders, that government-subsidized consumption is the least disruptive way to address it (at least in the short or medium term). By this way of thinking, prudence dictates that those at the top, who have a powerful interest in sustaining the status quo, should accept higher taxes.
The prudential analysis works in the following way. A globalized economy has exposed high school–educated and median-skilled Americans to competition from low-cost workers abroad. High levels of immigration, another feature of globalization, have meant wage competition domestically as well. If we continue our current economic and trade policies, this trend will intensify. Median-skilled college graduates are likely to become vulnerable to wage competition from lower-cost university-educated workers in India and elsewhere. More and more university-educated foreigners will immigrate to the United States. They will either settle permanently or reside temporarily as part of the ever-growing pool of talented, mobile professionals who circulate in the global economy.
Globalization is likely to continue the expansion of the world economy. But for most Americans, that growth will reduce the relative advantage of being a U.S. citizen. Only the most talented and productive Americans will maintain their competitive advantage in the global system. As globalization expands, this advantage will become more lucrative. The income accruing to those who stand astride a six billion–person economy will be far greater than that accruing to those atop an economy of 300 million.
This development foretells a widening gap between the incomes of median earners and the incomes of those at the top. Especially in a nation that aspires to be democratic, this gap will spell trouble. Warren proposes a way forward. Her policies seem dramatic, for they entail massive increases in taxes and government spending. But that spending will be directed toward subsidizing middle-class consumption—an intensification rather than an alteration of the dominant policy agenda of the past generation. This approach promises to satisfy the populist voters who are disrupting our politics, while leaving the current economic system intact.
Tax increases will fall on the current system’s winners. This will be painful for them, and it will create distorting incentives for them to avoid taxes. But these problems can be managed. What’s important is that the increased tax revenue will be used to subsidize the consumption of those whose productive roles in the economy are undercut by wage competition in a globalized labor market, the open competition that neoclassical economists view as necessary to a free and dynamic global economy.
Universal basic income is the logical end point of the consumption-oriented approach to populism. It guarantees that everyone in the rich countries of the West will participate in the global economy as consumers. This guarantee, it is assumed, will secure democratic support for the continued expansion of the global system, a system committed to the free movement of capital, goods, and labor.
The idea of universal basic income receives its most serious support from Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg commended the concept in his 2017 Harvard commencement address. This is not a coincidence. Zuckerberg’s company and other mammoth technology firms are creatures of the present economic regime, as are other globalized sectors of our economy, such as Hollywood and Wall Street. The moguls of these enterprises have every interest in sustaining our current arrangements, of course—low taxes for them and a global system backstopped by American financial power and defended by the U.S. military. But if the voters continue to rebel, the titans of global firms will fall in behind consumption subsidies of whatever size, even guaranteed income for the American middle class. They will accept these government expenditures, and even higher taxes to sustain them, if they are deemed necessary to sustain the current system.
Cass argues for the alternative: a work-oriented approach. In proposing “the Working Hypothesis,” The Once and Future Worker is an updated version of Thomas Jefferson’s claim that our democratic system requires a substantial body of yeoman farmers, men who provide for themselves and their families rather than living as dependents. Cass observes that the spirit of self-sufficiency flourishes when incomes are linked to jobs. The workplace is also a place of social interaction. Working shoulder to shoulder, we experience solidarity. Work builds virtues of cooperation and fortitude that spill over into neighborhoods and civic organizations. Communities built on work create a social environment in which young people are more likely to sustain a spirit of self-sufficiency and develop a good work ethic.
There are further, theological reasons to favor work. Paradise is not defined by consumption. In the Garden of Eden, God gives Adam a job—“till and keep”—not an income. The rabbinic tradition emphasizes man’s ability to put his stamp on things, giving material reality shape and purpose. In work we become co-creators with God. The manual labor John Paul II did as a young man gave him a strong sense of the spiritual dignity of work. In his encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, the Polish pope argues that purposeful work plays an integral role in human fulfillment.
Its intrinsic value gives work priority over consumption. Work is a school of political wisdom, as John Waters noted in “Back to Work” (August/September 2017). It is a source of salutary frustration. The material world resists our labor, reminding us of our finitude. Our fellow workers are difficult to organize and coordinate, reminding us that we live in the long shadow of Adam’s original fault. Work incubates aspirations—to strive to make something better, something new, something beautiful. It inculcates a fitting ambition and humility. Consumption, by contrast, satiates desires and stimulates dreams of a limitless, utopian “more,” as distinct from the concrete “better.”
A turn to work-oriented economic policy will not be easy. Cass judges our situation harshly: “Neglect and mismanagement of the labor market have been the central failures of American public policy for a generation.” Anti-discrimination laws and workplace safety regulations add regulatory burdens to employment relationships. Environmental regulations diminish industrial employment and crimp jobs in extractive industries. Little is spent on vocational training compared to the vast sums expended on the college track. Trade policies expose American workers to foreign competition. Immigration policies expose them to domestic competition.
The way forward requires careful policy analysis, which is what Cass provides in The Once and Future Worker. His chapters on environmental regulation, education, trade and immigration, unions, and the uses of tax and government subsidies to encourage work invite further discussion and debate. But his main thesis, the priority of work, points in the right direction. His approach “recognizes the free market as a powerful mechanism for fostering choice, promoting competition, and allocating resources. But it does not regard creation of the freest possible market as an end unto itself or the most efficient outcome at any moment as necessarily the best one for the long run.”
Our ambition in the twenty-first century should be to renew the promise of our great tradition of market freedom. This will require renewing a secure, productive place for a wide range of Americans within the economy—not just creating places for the talented and educated. A strong society requires work, not cheap stuff and checks from the government that make us dependent beneficiaries of the economy.
I recently visited my brother in a suburb of Chicago. His apartment is near a progressive Catholic parish, which is not surprising given that he lives in an upper-middle-class enclave dotted with “Hate Has No Home Here” lawn signs. On Sunday morning, fortified with a theological confidence in the efficacy of the sacraments, I walked the few blocks to the church to attend the main Mass.
The church building was reconfigured after Vatican II. An altar stands at the crossing of the nave and transept, creating a liturgical theater-in-the-round. The pews were filled to capacity. The atmosphere was convivial and casual. The service began with a long procession that traversed the entire church before entering the central sanctuary. During the procession, the congregation sang a contemporary song that had a more dignified tone than most.
The celebrant sported a sleek cordless microphone that wrapped around his ear and was barely noticeable from a distance. He led the liturgy in a warm, casual way, though not without elevating sincerity. The homily was apolitical, focusing on the Gospel passage. The presentation was extemporaneous, though his words had clearly been prepared in advance. He warmed to the theme of the tension between our desire for God and our bondage to sin.
The congregation sang “Amazing Grace” as the offertory anthem. The same familiar tune served as the setting for the Sanctus and memorial acclamation. It was a rare experience of a contemporary setting that lifted the Mass upward. Congregants with Down syndrome and other handicaps, singled out for special blessings earlier in the service, assisted as Eucharistic ministers in the administration of elements. As I returned to my pew after receiving, a small girl in a wheelchair who was visibly disabled grasped my hand, as she did all who passed. Surely, I thought, this is a firmly pro-life parish.
I have been to this progressive congregation a number of times over the last decade, satisfying my religious obligations on Sundays when I’m visiting my brother. In years past, the parish was run by an older priest, a veteran of the post–Vatican II years of revolution. Under his leadership, the liturgy was horizontal. His homilies favored social justice themes. But he retired a couple of years ago. The new priest-in-charge has restored the Nicene Creed, which as I recall had been replaced by an ersatz (and putatively “inclusive”) statement of faith. Although there was a good bit of ad-libbing during the Liturgy of the Word, the priest said the Eucharistic Prayers without deviation. At no point did irritating virtue-signaling intrude.
I walked back to my brother’s apartment with a cheerful countenance. The parish deserves its progressive reputation. During the announcements, all manner of opportunities for activism were put before the congregation. The physical configuration of the church with its central, unrailed altar spoke volumes about the community’s self-conception. But one sensed in this service, which went for a full seventy-five minutes, an upward-turned spiritual countenance that burned away the distracting conceits of post–Vatican II progressivism.
The following Sunday found me in Omaha, Nebraska. I attended a very different Novus Ordo Mass, at a parish known as a magnet for homeschoolers. The pews were filled with families, most of which had more children than the Chicago families’ one or two. The organ wheezed and the congregation sang a Ralph Vaughan Williams hymn as the priest, deacon, and half-dozen altar boys processed down the center aisle.
Pope Benedict urged the reintroduction of the Church’s sacred language into the liturgy, and here many portions of the Mass were acclaimed in Latin. A choir of young people chanted some of the responses in accord with ancient tropes. The homily focused on what it means to be children of the resurrection.
The Omaha church had a freestanding altar in the middle of the sanctuary, no doubt added after Vatican II. But this addition was ignored. The Mass was celebrated ad orientem at the high altar, and the people came forward to receive while kneeling at the altar rail. Nobody rushed out immediately after receiving, as one often sees done in parishes in New York (and which I also did not observe at the progressive parish outside Chicago). The congregation sang the concluding hymn with gusto. The organ postlude was played with remarkable expertise. People lingered after Mass (again, as was the case at the progressive parish). I whistled the familiar closing hymn as I walked to the home of the friend I was visiting in Omaha.
The Mass was celebrated in different ways in the two parishes. Yet both Masses were prayerful. Both encouraged a desire for communion with God. Both manifested the supernatural, reaching upward in different ways and in accord with different liturgical styles, no doubt reflecting different theological outlooks. The Novus Ordo impresses me with its flexibility. I prefer the Omaha church with its more formal rite. But the Chicago church made a claim on my heart. Our Father’s house has many mansions.
America’s combat credibility is not in question and rising powers could only threaten U.S. leadership if American power is weakened on an absolute basis,” write three officers and veterans, Jahara Matisek, Travis Robison, and Buddhika Jayamaha. Their article, “Extending the American Century: Revisiting the Social Contract” (Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Fall 2019), explains today’s limitations on American power. “The true challenge to continuing 21st-century American leadership,” they argue, “comes from within.” As I wrote last month, our leadership class has misled our nation for a generation. This failure, not foreign threats, weakens our capacity to exercise global leadership.
Matisek, Robison, and Jayamaha do not mince words. “Americans today resent seemingly endless military deployments across the globe with no discernible security benefits, feel abandoned by the supposed economic benefits of globalization that have not accrued to a majority, and are suspicious of laissez-faire capitalism.” They observe that voters are “electing representatives that espouse once fringe views that fundamentally undermine American economic and military global leadership.” They warn against the typical response among foreign-policy elites. The temptation is to write off these “fringe views” as symptoms of a temporary fever—the “populist anomaly.” They propose a more accurate interpretation: Populism is “a democratic response to failed foreign and domestic policies and an indictment of policy elites.”
Ignoring this democratic response will only add to the failures of the Washington establishment. “US foreign engagements historically depended on the government’s ability to maintain an implicit and explicit social contract with the American public that guaranteed domestic prosperity in exchange for supporting foreign policy goals.” After World War I, the liberal idealism of Woodrow Wilson outran public opinion. American voters could not see good reasons to enter the League of Nations, an international institution created to deal with the problem of perennial war in Europe. Why should the American taxpayer bear the costs of playing the role of international policeman?
In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American public recognized the existential threat posed by the Axis Powers and was willing to make sacrifices to fight a global war. After 1945, the intransigence and aggression of the Soviet Union presented a clear and present danger. By the time the Soviets tested their own nuclear weapon and North Korea invaded its neighbor to the south, the calculus had shifted. Voters were willing to support a global strategy of containment. These also were times of widespread prosperity, remembered today as a period of solidarity and common purpose.
Cold War foreign policy required sacrifices not just in military service, but in economic affairs. Military expenditure in the 1950s was high as a percentage of GDP. American diplomacy established financial and trade relations that favored our allies. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947) created an architecture of American economic leadership whereby “American allies and partners were subsidized, in the form of preferential access to the U.S. economy, and in exchange these countries engaged in export-led growth that advanced their economies and undercut the appeal of communism.” American car manufacturers were up in arms by the late 1970s when Japanese production threatened to unseat them from their dominant position. But this outcome, though not intended in 1947, was the natural result of American foreign policy, which required a revitalized and economically successful Japan. The same was true for European industry. “Manufacturing in Europe and Japan were allowed to prosper at the expense of the average blue-collar American jobs because it supported the grand strategic aims of an American-led liberal world order.”
These trade-offs were wise and well designed. The grand strategy succeeded. “The US emerged victorious from the Cold War with the world’s most powerful military, largest economy, and strongest network of allies.” The authors argue that the 1990s were characterized by “a sense of discretion” that was eager to harvest the peace dividend. “After the September 11 attacks,” however, “an improbable coalition of liberal interventionists and conservative hawks supplanted a grand strategy that balanced objectives and resources with an unbridled belief in the benefits of globalization, vigorous promotion of democracy and human rights, and a conceited view of the utility of force.”
The authors advance a damning judgment of the last twenty years. The “improbable coalition” ran on dogmas, not prudent policies. One dogma held that economic globalization would bring countries like China into conformity with the American “liberal democratic ideal.” Another asserted that it is always in the interest of the United States to defend the present global order. These dogmas turned the U.S. military into a “global discount security shop.” Our allies (and supposed allies) can count on American foreign-policy elites to argue for projection of American power to sustain the status quo—even when those allies (and supposed allies) are acting in ways contrary to American interests. Although the authors do not mention NATO, the fracas over Trump’s criticisms of European free riding illustrates their point. Europeans know that the American establishment will sustain the “global discount security shop” against Trump’s efforts to secure more equitable arrangements.
“The US Armed Forces were deployed to fulfill security tasks, like Iraq and Libya, that had no direct strategic security interests and had little return on the strategic investment.” Some might say a negative return. “These foreign military interventions, however eloquently justified, entrenched the reality that the US military was being used to subsidize global security regardless of the costs borne by American citizens.” These costs were hidden, both by reliance on an all-volunteer military and by defense budgets financed with treasury bonds rather than higher taxes. At the same time, wage stagnation affected the median American worker—stagnation caused by the global economic system that depends upon the “rule-based international order” our military is sent abroad to protect.
One can challenge the authors’ assessment of recent decades, especially their broad claim that foreign-policy elites cynically used social issues such as abortion and gay marriage to motivate voters to support the status quo. Nevertheless, the conclusion the authors draw about public opinion in 2019 is irrefutable: “Today, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum look suspiciously at US foreign military and economic policies that seemingly only benefit elites.” This suspicion has political implications that limit the scope of American power. “An increasingly vocal minority of Americans oppose US global engagement and seek to dismantle American-built global institutions.” This minority, unlike isolationists during the Cold War, gets a hearing from the uncertain majority.
Foreign-policy elites can dream up all manner of global strategies. But they can implement only what the public is willing to support. A sustainable foreign-policy consensus requires a stable political consensus. Matisek, Robison, and Jayamaha suggest that 9/11 supercharged our foreign policy with a combination of liberal idealism and confidence in the transformative power of war-making. Since then, global economic interests have added fuel to the engine of American internationalism. The result has been a foreign-policy consensus at odds with populist discontent. The proper approach, the authors argue, is careful retrenchment and reduction in U.S. global commitments. We need to free up tax dollars for domestic investment in order to rebalance the American economy in the direction of the median worker. This requires foreign-policy discipline, with military action taken only when American security interests are clear and can be explained to the public.
The critical spirit one finds in “Extending the American Century” is encouraging. Matisek and Jayamaha have appointments at the United States Air Force Academy. Robison commands a battalion in the U.S. Army. They do not want America to retreat from global leadership. Instead, they want to renew the political basis for our leadership in the twenty-first century. This, they correctly see, means changing course and repairing the social contract.
In early November I visited a friend in Kansas City. He invited me to an evening discussion over dinner. We gathered with a dozen or more fellow conservatives, many of whom are readers of First Things. My job was to prepare opening remarks. “Give us some provocations,” he said. I came up with a set of questions.
•Should there be limits to globalization? If so, then set by whom and toward what end?
•Can we make the global economy work for high school–educated Americans?
•How should we respond to mass migration?
•What is the future of American global leadership?
•What is the role of the nation-state in the twenty-first century?
•Can we restore a shared moral community that protects the weak from predation by the strong? Abortion is the obvious example. Another is the career of Jeffrey Epstein, whose exploitation of young girls was tolerated, perhaps rewarded, by our elites.
•Can we endorse moral norms that protect the weak from self-destructive vices? Who will define this moral community? Who will enforce its norms?
•Can religious voices be heard in today’s public square?
•Can we repair the broken trust between the leaders and the led?
We did not discuss all these questions. That would have required a forced march over impossibly broad territory. In any event, my object in formulating this daunting list was to display the nature of our cultural-political moment.
As I argued last month in this column, as the third decade of the twenty-first century begins, we face a time of what a friend calls “axial change.” Above, I discuss the change Oren Cass advocates. It does not mean tossing out free-market principles, as some worry every time I question Reagan-era pieties. Instead, recognizing the political importance of work requires us to shift away from policies that privilege consumption. The same holds for the assessment of American global leadership by Jahara Matisek, Travis Robison, and Buddhika Jayamaha. They are not reincarnations of the arch-isolationist Sen. William Borah. Instead, they urge a pivot to domestic reconsolidation in order to shore up the basis on which the United States can exercise global leadership over the long term.
Moral renewal and the restoration of religious voices to the public square likewise require changing course. The Supreme Court extended First Amendment protections to pornographers in the 1970s. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Court laid down the principles of today’s extreme anti-Establishment jurisprudence. It is the opposite of conservative to join progressives in the Whiggish presumption that Supreme Court precedent set down over the last two generations establishes a definitive interpretation of the Constitution. Calling for a modest re-moralization of our legal regime and the judicious affirmation of our religious heritage does not mean repealing the First Amendment.
Political movements operate at three levels. The first is that of specific policies and legislation. The second is that of operational priorities. Core principles constitute the third and deepest level. Over the last two generations, the American right consolidated around operational priorities, as do all successful movements.
We are living at a time when operational priorities have become dysfunctional and are too often confused with first principles. Thus, the Reagan-era emphasis on economic deregulation and other market-friendly policies makes it disorienting to consider whether and how we should limit globalization. Isn’t it a central claim of conservatism that any attempt to limit markets will put us on the “road to serfdom”? Another example: Won’t efforts to restore a shared moral community amount to “conservative social engineering,” another way down the road to serfdom?
Without a doubt, freedom should be a first principle. It is integral to human dignity. But a wise citizen recognizes that there are many threats to freedom, not just those that emanate from an overbearing government. A culture of dependency brought about by an economic system that does not allow a place to high school–educated workers can pose a danger to freedom, as critics of populism who worry about demagogues often warn. The same holds for a morally disintegrated society in which many, perhaps most, are slaves to their own vices.
I was heartened by the discussion in Kansas City. We solved no problems and forged no platforms. But there was recognition that fresh thinking is needed. The challenges facing our fathers and grandfathers are not the same as those we face today.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ I’m sometimes charmed by the earthy, off-the-cuff remarks Pope Francis makes in airplanes. But his extemporaneous approach has limits, and dangers too. (The Vatican has had to walk back many papal comments made at 30,000 feet.) Diego Fares, S.J., thinks otherwise. Writing in La Civiltà Cattolica, he casts the Argentine pontiff’s verbal sorties as signs of unmatched rhetorical genius, even divine inspiration. Some say the Holy Father is ambiguous, perhaps contradictory. But they are blind Pharisees. What seem like half-baked thoughts and confused utterances are theological profundities, Fares argues.
The fragility of his proposals must not be confused with relativism or ambiguity. If the living word is stripped of the tough bark of irrefutable abstraction and becomes fragile, it is to imitate the Lord, who took on the fragility of our flesh in order to be capable of speaking with us in such a way that we could understand him and allow him to enter into our lives and into our hearts.
By not teaching with authority, Francis paradoxically attains a higher authority. “This control of language, so that it may suggest everything and impose nothing, must not be interpreted only as a manifestation of the pope’s personal humility, but must be understood as the full exercise of magisterial power at a level and with a precision to which many are not accustomed.” Sadly, those with a dogmatic mentality (“the tough bark of irrefutable abstraction”) are unable to rise to this higher and nobler plain of communication. Count me among the whited sepulchers who, though I am occasionally won over by Pope Francis’s turns of phrase, think he’s too often theologically sloppy and relies on clichés that date from the 1970s.
♦ A common fallacy: A prophet is not loved in his own country. I am not loved in my own country. Therefore, I am a prophet. Another fallacy: Divine truths come out of the mouths of babes. I talk in babe-like, half-baked ways. Therefore, I speak divine truths.
♦ A fallacy attractive to Christian leaders: Christ came to us in weakness. I am a weak, ineffectual leader. Therefore, I am Christ-like.
♦ The decision by Chick-fil-A to discontinue charitable giving to the Salvation Army and Fellowship of Christian Athletes is demoralizing. Ever since Dan Cathy, the company’s CEO, affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman, progressive activists have targeted the chain. The company has been denied contracts at airports because it is deemed “anti-gay.” Efforts to open a Chick-fil-A in England were stymied when activists pressured the landlord not to extend a lease agreement. Now gay-advocacy organizations have succeeded in dictating which charitable organizations the company may support.
The shame game is playing out at every level of society. Organizations are deemed to be “anti-gay,” and then the activist culture swings into action, smearing as “haters” those who support them. Chick-fil-A’s capitulation shows how powerful this dynamic has become. I am not surprised. As a group, gay men make up the richest and most powerful “identity” in contemporary society. They use that power to punish anyone whom they consider objectionable. As gay power is married to anti-discrimination law—a supercharged bulldozer of legal coercion—we will witness the establishment of a cultural-legal regime of vast scope and punitive fury.
♦ In his 2004 collection of essays, Bound to Be Free, Reinhard Hütter observes the paradox of our time:
We find ourselves as late moderns caught on a manic-depressive roller-coaster ride between the ghost of the Promethean daydream of freedom, by now turned desperate and therefore dreaming of autocreativity—that is, of designing our bodies, of choosing our gender, our values, and our destinies freely according to our idiosyncratic likings and longings—and the Hades-like nightmare of endless victimization by “the system”—by anonymous economic, political, and cultural power structures, by our own genetic makeup, and by the will to power of everyone else around us.
♦ This odd combination of self-assertion and vulnerability characterizes our elite, especially the younger set. They combine an arrogance born of the conviction that they’re the best and the brightest, certified by the top universities and internships, with a fragility that shrinks from criticism and demands safe spaces. The conceits of privilege are joined to an inability to endure the hard work of leadership. Not a promising combination.
♦ A scriptural passage we need to keep in mind during the current season of ecclesiastical misrule: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).
♦ A Texas high school invited a drag queen performer to help students learn how to apply makeup in a cosmetology class. Some parents objected. One of the school’s English teachers posted an angry riposte on Facebook: “I believe that raising a child is the responsibility of the community, and that parents should not have the final say. Let’s be honest, some of you don’t know what is best for your kids.” He continued, “Parents believe they should be able to storm the school in the name of political and religious beliefs if something happens in the school that they are morally opposed to.” This interference in the education of the children cannot be tolerated! Parents “forget that we make a promise to prepare their children to live in a diverse world. We are not required to protect the misguided, bigoted views of their parents.”
♦ In 1997, Benjamin Schreiber was convicted of murder by an Iowa court and sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 2015, he had a medical emergency and was on the brink of death. Although he had signed a “do not resuscitate” order years earlier, the medical staff took action to save his life. In 2018, he petitioned for release from prison. His argument: Because he had “died” in the hospital, only to be restored to life by the intervention of the medical staff, he had served his sentence of life imprisonment. A district court judge denied his request for release. The Iowa Court of Appeals upheld the decision. Judge Amanda Potterfield reasoned, “Schreiber is either still alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is actually dead, in which case this appeal is moot.”
♦ Last summer, presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg released his “Douglass Plan,” named after abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. In it, Buttigieg lays out his vision of a “comprehensive investment in the empowerment of Black America.” African Americans have not rallied to support him, however. His campaign organized focus groups in South Carolina last summer, a state with an important early primary. An internal campaign memo identified Buttigieg’s “sexuality” (he is homosexual) as a “barrier.” The memo was leaked in late October, some think by the campaign itself. The effect was to paint opposition to Buttigieg as bigoted. After the leak, convoluted Twitter threads involving Mayor Pete’s campaign spokesman, Lis Smith, implied that Black Americans harbor anti-gay prejudice. This in turn evoked charges of racial prejudice from a black political commentator. The episode is an unedifying instance of bigot-baiting, one of the electoral tactics that now characterizes the left’s internal contests for power. For an analysis of this dynamic, see “Bigot-Baiting” (August/September 2016).
♦ George Weigel tells the story of recent church history with aplomb in The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His account of John Paul II’s role in Vatican II and the significance of John Paul’s pontificate is particularly rich, and it brings to mind Shalom Carmy’s column in this issue (“Sincerity Is Not Self-Knowledge”). Weigel notes that the young Karol Wojtyła studied the philosophy of Max Scheler, a German thinker who argued that true perception of the world requires a disposition of love that impels us toward a deeper participation in reality. Although not a slavish disciple of Scheler, John Paul II again and again followed Scheler by reasoning “from the anthropological bottom up,” as Weigel puts it. The move is not unlike that which Carmy identifies in some of the rabbinic teachers of the twentieth century. Those teachers linked a turn toward God to authentic self-knowledge. This seems like a contradiction. How can “bottom up” thinking bootstrap its way to God? Saving knowledge requires the “top down” act of divine revelation. But that’s not the point. What John Paul II wanted to highlight is the eccentric quality of human flourishing. We can’t live for ourselves—“the pleasure principle and human choosing with mere willfulness.” We must go outside ourselves in search of that which deserves our love and devotion, which is to say we search for objective truth rather than self-crafted “meaning.” Affirming this dynamic does not produce saving knowledge of God in Christ, which always exceeds that which we seek. But it does lay the foundations for a truly human way of life.
♦ Sen. Marco Rubio delivered a much-talked-about speech at the Catholic University of America in early November. Drawing upon Catholic social teaching and its emphasis on solidarity, Rubio affirms our free-market tradition but criticizes its current incarnation, deeming it insufficiently ordered toward “the creation and availability of dignified work.” He calls for an economy that serves “the broader national interest.” Drawing on the same insights that guide Oren Cass’s analysis in The Once and Future Worker, Rubio warns that “when an economy stops providing dignified work for millions of people, families and communities begin to erode.” He points to the ways in which our globalized economy has divided America into regions of prosperous winners and regions of losers who have no productive roles. How to restore an economy that works for a broad range of Americans “must be the core question of our national politics.” Rubio rejects socialism but insists that “the old ways simply will not do.” He calls for “common-good capitalism,” which begins with axial change. “Our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market. The market exists to serve our nation and our people.” I’m pleased to say that Rubio’s speech drew upon an article he first published on our website (“What Economics Is For”).
♦ Sen. Josh Hawley took up some of the same themes at the American Principles Project gala in mid-November. He addressed the elite betrayals of the common good that I detailed last month (“Failed Leaders,” December 2019). He has his own way of describing axial change, calling for “a new politics of family and neighborhood, a new politics of love and belonging, a new politics of home.” It is encouraging to see U.S. senators taking up the theme of restoring solidarity.
♦ Many diagnose identity politics as a consequence of “cultural Marxism,” an invasion of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Mary Eberstadt takes a more sympathetic and persuasive view. In her latest book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, she interprets today’s feverish insistence on race, sex, and sexual orientation as so many desperate attempts by atomized, disoriented people to figure out their places in the world. “The Great Scattering,” the weakening and fracturing of family life by the sexual revolution, brings disorientation. It has deprived two generations of the “natural habitat of the human animal,” the stable context in which we see ourselves as sons and daughters carrying forward an intact family legacy. As a consequence, the profound question Who am I? becomes more and more difficult to answer. We’re left with the “clamor over identity.” Our current fixation on issues of race and sex is incoherent, but it is an authentic primal scream born of the need to belong.
Primal Screams continues Eberstadt’s analysis of the cultural revolutions that came to a head during the 1960s, especially the sexual revolution and its disintegration of the family. Her 2014 book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, demonstrated the connection between the decline in family stability and decreased religiosity. Taken together, these trends strip away the strong, identity-defining institutions that formerly provided people with a stable, multifaceted sense of self. Today, with neither a Father in heaven nor a father at home, young people cast about for sources of belonging, turning to the ersatz paternity of identity politics, a view that unites people around DNA, sexual practices, and shared grievances.
And it’s not just children without fathers. We are witnessing a sharp increase in the percentage of adults who have no children, or only one. The bonds linking generations and siblings have weakened. Cast into the world alone—often as a consequence of contraceptive technologies and our own choices—we nevertheless seek a collective identity. Feminism is one coping strategy, Eberstadt argues; androgyny and the blurring of male-female differences is another.
“Whom do I love? is another way of answering Who am I?” writes Eberstadt. By my reading of St. Augustine, answering the question of love is the fundamental way to answer the question Who am I? The Great Scattering has loosened the bonds of love. This was not the intention of the sexual revolution, perhaps, but it has been its effect. We now live in a love-impoverished culture, which means we have a difficult time knowing who we are. As Eberstadt observes,
Anyone who has ever heard a coyote in the desert, separated at night from its pack, knows the sound. The otherwise unexplained hysteria of today’s identity politics is nothing more, or less, than just that: the collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures trying desperately to identify their own.
♦ Writing for National Review, Madeleine Kearns provides a detailed and painful account of James Younger, a “gender-confused” kid in Texas. His mother wants to affirm his transgender identity and get going with hormone treatments to facilitate the “transition.” His father does not. Their battle over their son eventually leads to the courtroom. One anecdote does not establish trends, but neither does it undermine the thesis of Primal Screams to know that the parents of this poor child are divorced.
♦ According to Catholic social doctrine, in addition to Church and family there is a third “necessary society”: the political community. Multicultural pedagogy seeks to poison our shared political and cultural inheritance in the West, depriving us of a home just as surely as does a fractured family or lack of religion. Here, perhaps, Mary Eberstadt can find material for a third book. As a healthy patriotism declines, people turn to surrogate (and perverse) affirmations of how we belong together. Deliberate attempts by progressives to undermine positive identification with America’s history and the heritage of the West more broadly is undoubtedly a further source of the lonely howl of identity politics.
♦ We have a strong group of First Things activists who want to start Readers of First Things (ROFTERS) groups.
London, England: David Sergeant is forming a group. Contact him at email@example.com.
Iowa City, Iowa: Kevin Roiseland is organizing a group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ave Maria, Florida: Thomas Schroder is starting a group. Contact him at email@example.com.
Chicago, Illinois: There is a vibrant group already active in Chicago. I visited them not long ago. Andrey Drozd is taking over as the organizer. If you want to join, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.