We’re all on edge. Only this morning, two of my neighbors were bickering in the lobby of our building. I was saddened but not surprised by the acrimony. The virus makes us anxious about our health and that of those we love. Public health measures put civic life on hold. Many of our cities are convulsed by street violence in the wake of angry protests and an upsurge in criminality.And of course an election looms, now all the more fraught since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The media bombard us with warnings of the outrages that will transpire should one or the other major candidate win.
Today’s malignant atmosphere sent me back to the Epistle to the Romans. In the first chapter, St. Paul outlines an account of the fall of man into sin’s self-defeating disorder. His account differs from that in Genesis 3, which is at once extraordinarily lifelike and timeless. Flesh-and-blood individuals engage in conversations with a mysterious serpent, and with God himself. The account is open-ended—“original,” not in the sense of being unique, but rather as the fount from which so much flows.
St. Paul’s brief account in Romans interprets Genesis 3 and lays out a genealogy of sin. It draws upon the Wisdom of Solomon, which emphasizes the primordial evil of idolatry, a common theme throughout the Old Testament. Creation is radiant with the power and glory of the Creator. But the peoples of the earth refuse to harken to these clear signs. They do not honor God, and they fail to render to him the worship that is his due. Instead, they elevate lifeless images “resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” and bow down before them. They live inverted lives, worshipping things fashioned from below rather than looking upward to the source of all reality.
The problem with idolatry is not “theological,” if by that term we mean simply false belief. St. Paul focuses on idolatry as a moral disaster. Concord between God and man is rooted in gratitude, a disposition that conforms our souls to the goodness of God present in all that he has created. This gratitude, expressed in worship, is the lynchpin of human flourishing. When we fail to express gratitude, our minds are darkened and everything we do is infected with disorder and dysfunction. Worshipping idols is like being on a journey and losing awareness of the destination. Decisions to turn left or right become pointless. Going north or south, fast or slow, makes no difference. We are not lost. When we know our destination but suspect we’ve gone astray, then we are lost. Idolatry is worse: We’re trapped in the futility of trying to get we know not where. Every plan, purpose, and destination is at odds with itself. The Old Testament evokes this futility in passages that mock idols as mute and lifeless. They give no directions.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine often speaks of his sin-dominated soul as enchained, unable to move. Elsewhere he depicts himself as turning over and over in the same place—an image of purposeless, directionless movement. Augustine exercised a powerful influence on Western culture when he described the sin of pride as fundamental. At first glance, pride suggests striving ambition. But on closer examination, pride is akin to idolatry. Pride seeks itself, embarking on a vain project of self-worship. Augustine framed this futility pungently: Pride produces homo incurvatus in se, man curved back upon himself. Like a frantic dog, we circle round and round, chasing our tails.
St. Paul describes the wheel-spinning of idol worship in terms of wrong-headed and sterile sexual relations: “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” This verse had obvious significance for sexual morality. But St. Paul is also thinking of the first chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1, God commands the original couple to be fruitful and multiply. This future of fecundity contrasts markedly with the lifelessness of idols. Genesis 2 ends with an evocation of the one-flesh union of a man and a woman in marriage. This concord contrasts with the division and disorder that flow from idol worship.
St. Paul ends his account with a list of evils: covetousness, malice, envy, murder, slander, and more. These vices destroy relationships and communities. Instead of the concord that comes from worship of God, idolatry brings discord. The situation is made all the worse by the fact that not only are these vices widespread, but our society calls them virtues.
In 2020, Americans do not set up gilded idols in the public square. We should not take too much consolation from this fact. The West has become increasingly de-Christianized (including within our churches). The upshot has not been “secularism,” if by that term we mean a culture of dispassionate reason that orders our common life in accord with timeless truths. On the contrary, we live in a time when our progressive neighbors post statements of faith in their front yards (“Science is real”; “No human is illegal”; “Love is love”; “Kindness is everything”). New idolatries proliferate as we prostrate ourselves before the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. Is it any wonder that our age is darkened by malice, strife, slander, recrimination, and ruthless campaigns to “cancel” people?
In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Joe Biden spoke of a battle of light against darkness. His rhetoric may be excusable as campaign hyperbole, but it feeds the apocalyptic mentality that is widespread these days. This mindset turns political give-and-take into a life-and-death struggle against “evil.” St. Paul did not foresee our circumstances in detail, but his analysis illuminates them. We are sliding toward disorder because our dominant culture is godless, leaving us vulnerable to the lure of idols.
Let me be clear. In the first chapter of Romans, St. Paul evokes natural religion and a generic orientation to the divine—not Mount Sinai and the Empty Tomb. A civic consensus that encourages religious sensibilities ordered to transcendence does not require the establishment of Christianity. It does, however, require solicitude for the essential tenets of monotheism, which affirm the existence of a Supreme Being and our duty to seek and serve him. Dwight Eisenhower is often mocked for remarking, “America makes no sense without a deeply held faith in God—and I don’t care what it is.” The fools are those who chuckle, not Ike.
Thomas Aquinas recognized that we have a general duty to orient ourselves to the Creator with gratitude. He called this disposition the virtue of religion, a settled habit of thankful recognition of God as the source of all being and the governor of history. This virtue has been lost, especially among our elites. Their worldviews are materialist, dominated by theories of utility maximization, self-interest, and will to power. Not surprisingly, our civic minds are darkened. We seek the meaning of life in brain science, racial and sexual identity, and wealth and power, rather than training our eyes on what is above.
Again, this is not a “spiritual” problem, any more than idolatry is merely a religious phenomenon. The downward turn is social and political as well. As Mary Eberstadt details in How the West Really Lost God and Primal Screams, the loss of religion is linked to broken homes and the destructive rise of identity politics. These phenomena feed on each other. It is as St. Paul describes: The first fruit of idolatry is the breakdown of male-female relations. Sex becomes sterile. Men and women abandon the hard work of sustaining the always delicate, always difficult male-female dance. The mating game becomes a joyless slog and, at times, brutal combat. Homosexuals are held up as exemplary—Creative! Progressive! Children become projects, burdens, afterthoughts. The number of childless adults in the West is unprecedented in human history. Efforts to champion transgenderism indicate how profound our confusion of male with female has become.
The disorder of such an essential element of human life unsettles the public square. The marketplace requires us to drive hard bargains. A healthy democratic culture thrives on sharp competition for power. Modern life is often mobile, leaving us little time to set down roots. In our circumstances, domestic life is for many the only reliable place of repose. In the home, we hope, the concord of love will prevail. As the fruitful, stable harmony between men and women breaks down, home and hearth lose their promise of peaceful repose. As the percentage of childless adults soars, so does the percentage of children born out of wedlock, which is likewise reaching levels unprecedented in human history.
I venture that Antifa thugs and Black Lives Matter activists are as likely to be unmarried as unchurched. The discords St. Paul recounts between God and man and between men and women bear bitter fruit. The relations among the generations are thrown off-kilter. The handoff of traditions, memories, and aspirations—essential for the peaceful continuity of social life—is imperiled. Statues are toppled, and our cultural inheritance is trashed as racist, imperialist, and damningly “white.” The children of our age (including us) are, as St. Paul predicts, “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity.” Looking not to things above, we are “gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
There is a great deal of ruin in twenty-first-century America. We suffer from the grave evil of abortion, the decline of marriage, and disorder in family life, all of which exacerbate the divide between the top of society and those in the bottom half, a social inequality more damaging than income inequality. Our nation suffers from deindustrialization, imperial overreach, a vulgar popular culture, deaths of despair, illegal immigration, arrogant elites, an over-dominant university culture that incubates the culture of self-negation, and more. These are serious problems, and none of them can be “solved.” As St. Paul makes clear, we cannot break the chains of sin on our own. We are utterly depraved, in the precise sense of being incapable of putting our souls aright by our own efforts. God’s grace is necessary.
But our depravity does not leave us morally disarmed. The law is written upon the heart of every man (Rom. 2:15). Our judgment is impaired by sin, but we can see, at least in part, what is wrong in our society. And we can devise, as best we can, prudent efforts of remediation. The ruin need not paralyze. It should not lead us to a despair that counsels quietistic withdrawal from public life. As St. Paul urges later in the Epistle to the Romans, the faithful must respect the legitimate demands of civil life, which in a democracy include responsible participation in the political process.
Men and women of goodwill naturally disagree about which problems in our common life should have the highest priority. And even where we agree on the problems, we will debate how to address them. For this reason, our politics rightly divides into political camps. The ambition to secure a one-party future suggests the mistaken (and dangerous) belief that one’s own motives are immaculate and comprehension perfect.
My judgments put me on the “religious-populist-nationalist” right, broadly speaking. These judgments will guide my vote in November. As I note above, our deepest malignancy is the loss of religion, which means our greatest need is to create conditions for its restoration. The first imperative is to do no further harm. This means protecting religious liberty, to be sure. But we must reflect more deeply on the virtue of piety, which is not simply a matter of worship and religious practice, as James Hankins explains in this issue (“Pietas”). Piety requires gratitude for and devotion to the sources of our existence and happiness. This means honoring our heritage, which has personal aspects (family, friends, school, and so on) as well as larger, shared dimensions (nation, language, cultural history, and so on).
The general decline of support for piety in our educational and civic institutions is one reason we have lost the virtue of religion. For decades, we have not just tolerated rebellion but honored and rewarded it. Education is dominated by pedagogies of contempt (which often fly the false flag of “critical thinking”). We do not train young people to be grateful. Is it any wonder that more and more people, educated in impiety toward Western culture, inherited traditions, and national identity, fail to honor the Author of their existence? Are we surprised that the institution of marriage as the union between a man and a woman is not honored? Or that we fail to respect the sanctity of life, and that we allow the abortion industry to kill unborn children? Or that we respond to a decade of drug overdose deaths numbering in the hundreds of thousands by legalizing marijuana?
My patriotic sentiments are distinct from my religious commitments, true, but they dovetail. We must preserve First Amendment freedoms so that the religious life of the American people can flourish. But we also need to restore a culture of piety.
Piety is nurtured in the home, among friends who share a common love, in schools, and at civic events. Some of these spheres are beyond the competence of government. But the proper limits of government do not add up to impotence. Our political leaders are culpable if they fail to use the power of government to encourage piety and stymie the pedagogy of contempt where possible and appropriate.
The New York Times is a private enterprise. It is fully within its rights to promote The 1619 Project, which condemns our national heritage. But there is no reason why American taxpayers must subsidize the use or production of this kind of material in our educational institutions. Government expenditure is a properly political matter. One never knows for sure whether candidates will do as they say, nor whether they have the competence to do so, even if they try. That said, I plan to vote for the candidates who are most likely to end government support for pedagogies of contempt.
Those who have read this column over the years know that I do not hold the American ruling class in high regard. As a friend recently noted, “Ivy League” is one of my favorite derogatory epithets. I’ve analyzed the ignorance, arrogance, and self-serving conceits of the Best and the Brightest many times. Put simply, I’m a “populist” because I believe a fish rots from the head down. The ruin in our society—the “carnage”—did not just happen. We took a gamble in Iraq—and we lost. We gambled that bringing China into the America-sponsored (and America-subsidized) global economy would work out to our advantage—and we lost. We imagined that a less judgmental and more affirming moral culture would allow people to flourish in their “difference”—and we got family instability, a decline in marriage, coarse and often politicized entertainment, and deaths of despair.
Twice in the last decade, presidential candidates identified half the country as the source of our problems (“takers” and “deplorables”). These stunning descriptions were transparent attempts to shift the blame. “It’s not the good, smart, well-educated people who are running things that have caused the ruin. It’s them.” The blame-shifting continues. In the editorial pages of the New York Times, writers regularly ascribe racist and other vicious motives to the people who vote against their favored political candidates. I have my disagreements with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, but at least they disparage the policies of the American left, not liberal voters, and warn that a hard-left, socialist ideology is gaining the upper hand. I’m perfectly willing to support candidates who attack their political adversaries and their apparatus of support (activists, media, the universities, and other institutions). But I won’t support candidates and political establishments that target large swaths of the American public. Beware those who talk as if the problem with America is Americans.
I am a “populist” in more than the negative sense of wishing to give our ruling class a punch in the nose. We need to reconsolidate and restore solidarity. Over the last fifty years, our country has absorbed a record number of immigrants. These immigrants add to the strength of our country, but the influx strains our shared culture. Prudence dictates reducing immigration for a generation to allow the country a period of time to renew our shared American identity. Those whose parents and grandparents came in recent years will no doubt make a very important contribution to that renewal, but they can’t do so if demographic change intensifies.
The same holds for economic globalization. Much of what has been accomplished since the fall of the Soviet Union is commendable. But some of the gains have come at a high cost for American workers. At this moment, a prudent leader should pursue trade and economic policies that rebuild American manufacturing, shift emphasis from college education to vocational training, and provide tax and investment incentives to ensure that the benefits of the global economy are more widely distributed in the United States.
American diplomacy plays a crucial role in sustaining the global system. Our military might backs up that diplomacy. We remain the indispensible nation. But here again, prudence urges reconsolidation. The use of American power needs to be tied more scrupulously to America’s interests. This requires a careful, hard-nosed examination of how we have construed our interests since the end of the Cold War. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street are important pillars of our prosperity, but we need to avoid confusing their interests with those of our country as a whole. And we need to assess America’s interests not just in economic terms, but politically and culturally as well. Our representative democracy and traditions of freedom are fruits of Western civilization, which must be championed without apology.
The coming weeks are sure to be trying. Lacking the virtue of religion, the body politic will quiver with feverish anxiety as the election approaches. Our political loyalties will be subject to outrageous accusations. Anger will ripple through society. The outcome on November 3 is not likely to usher in an era of good feelings and bipartisan bonhomie. The post–World War II era is over. We are living through the agony of its final days as it battles to hold onto power. Many once-wise priorities, which we wrongly thought timeless truths, are losing their salience. But I do not despair. The American people are strong enough to endure this season of disorientation as we grope toward a new consensus.
In the meantime, I’ll be casting my vote for the imperfect paladin of the religious-populist-nationalist sentiments that so outrage the postwar consensus. Friends and readers who think prudence dictates another course should take consolation from the fact that my wife agrees with them. Her vote will cancel mine.
Vatican II in Context
Was Vatican II a “mistake,” or was it a singular triumph? Did it cast overboard the ballast of centuries of tradition, or did it establish the foundations for modern Christian witness? Were the Council’s documents too heavily influenced by secular conceits, or did they reinvigorate the Church’s biblical and theological inheritance? Did the Council “fail,” as the turmoil that followed suggests, or did the remarkable pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI show that it succeeded? A pair of suggestive essays by Roberto Pertici, “Historicizing Vatican II” and “The Expectations of the Council Contradicted by History,” helped me understand why I’m inclined to answer with “yes” to all these questions.
The Council was called in order to “throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through.” So said John XXIII, the pope who convened Vatican II. No doubt the Spirit was at work in Rome when more than two thousand bishops gathered between 1962 and 1965. But just as surely, the historical realities of the early 1960s played roles as well. Pertici, professor of contemporary history at the University of Bergamo, sketches those realities: the demise of the “conservative paradigm,” an ascendant democratic ethos, and the seemingly vigorous communist system.
“For decades, 1945 marked the eclipse of the ‘conservative paradigm,’ an eclipse that fully emerges especially after 1960,” writes Pertici. Hitler’s most effective European adversaries were almost all men of the right: Churchill was a romantic English Tory and de Gaulle a French patriot who read Charles Maurras; the men who conspired to assassinate Hitler were aristocratic army officers; the theologians most fiercely opposed to Nazism appealed to the transcendent authority of revelation. But this mattered little after 1945: “In the postwar period the thesis prevailed that right-wing forms of totalitarianism had essentially been the development and the complete unfolding of conservative culture, and that therefore this deserved to disappear with them.”
Conservatism, in its European sense, was a cultural system as much as a political outlook. It required upholding “the ascendancy of supra-individual principles” such as tradition, the nation, family, and moral order, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Indeed, the conservative mindset often celebrates sacrifice as the surest sign of loyalty to higher truths. The conservative paradigm affirms hierarchies of just and unjust, noble and base, sacred and profane. It gives priority to duties, not rights. It prizes honor over utility, even over life. As a consequence, the conservative paradigm is often militant, campaigning against self-serving vices and the forces of disorder.
The Christian faith entails deference to God’s authority, and Catholicism offers a profoundly incarnate expression of that deference. It ascribes to the Church’s leaders the ability to speak with divinely bestowed authority. Catholic culture emphasizes obligation and celebrates ascetic traditions that require heroic sacrifice. It is militant, urging combat against sins within and evils without.
After 1945, these qualities became increasingly difficult to sustain. Traditional Catholicism, which had played a central role in Europe’s modern conservative culture, was subjected to tremendous pressure. According to the postwar consensus, a culture of authority had given rise to fascism. As Carl Schmitt observed, the Church possesses the “pathos of authority in its full purity.” Thus, if Europe was to prevent the return of fascism, the Church, too, had to “disappear.”
Worries about authority as the seedbed of authoritarianism worked in concert with a new emphasis on democracy. Hierarchy became suspect; equality was prized. Here, as well, the Church was wrong-footed. The papal tiara and other symbols came to seem out of place. Not surprisingly, Lumen Gentium, the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, gave special place to “the people of God,” a phrase congenial to the democratic ethos.
The word “dialogue” epitomized the anti-authoritarian spirit of the postwar era. It began to appear in church-talk in the 1950s, then rose to ascendancy. As Pertici notes, “dialogue” appears fifty-seven times in Ecclesiam Suam, Paul VI’s first encyclical, which was published in 1964.
The bishops gathered in Rome for the Council could not revitalize the conservative paradigm or dismiss the democratic ethos. It is not within the power of the Church to resurrect social forms, which is why I do not dismiss Vatican II’s efforts as misguided. We must find our way in the world into which we are thrown. But Vatican II misjudged its circumstances (as we no doubt often misjudge our own).
The third historical feature of the postwar situation in Europe was communism. It was not only in Eastern Europe that communism was in power. Communist parties were strong in France and Italy, and for the most part Marxist doctrine defined the intellectual left. Pertici charts the Vatican’s shift from intransigent anti-communism to a strategy of détente. He has interesting things to say about the illusions many Vatican officials harbored, not the least of which was that the Soviet Union was a permanent reality. (In fairness, very nearly the entire American foreign policy establishment made the same assumption.) But I found one observation particularly helpful. Pertici notes that the social-political imagination of the postwar West became binary: “Once the fascist national state was defeated, the protagonists and antagonists remained Anglo-American liberal democracy and Soviet communism.”
This binary arose because the conservative paradigm was discredited by fascism and became the object of moral censure. Over time, political power was directed toward demolishing some of the conservative paradigm’s core tenets: government protection of the Sabbath, hierarchy between the sexes, sexual discipline, marriage, and more. This unbalanced Europe—and to a certain extent the United States, though our country sustains strong constitutional piety and other features of what might be called a liberal conservatism, which complicate the story. The creative tension between authority and freedom that characterized European culture from the French Revolution through the mid-twentieth century was disrupted.
One consequence of this imbalance was the perverse allure of communism, even among theologians. Authority is the engine of solidarity, and without the conservative paradigm Western culture tended toward individualism. In this context, only Marxism promised solidarity, which is why so many embarked on the quest for a “Marxism with a human face.”
Another consequence was the emergence of what Pertici dubs “the radicalsociety,” characterized by “permanent revolution.” This ethos entered into the Church, often under the aegis of “the Spirit of Vatican II.” As Pertici notes, the central significance of the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI rests in their roles as voices of authority who put a stop to permanent revolution in the Church and warned against its effects on society. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II fought against the eclipse of the authority of moral truth. Benedict XVI’s signature phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism,” aimed at the same target.
As he concludes his pair of essays, Pertici suggests that these two great men were, at best, temporizing. They bought time for the dogmatic integrity of Vatican II to exert itself and re-ballast the Church with her apostolic inheritance. I think that is a correct judgment, both about the Council’s potential and about our historical circumstances.
Pertici hints that more than temporizing is now required. Here again I think he is correct. Catholicism’s historical task in the twenty-first-century West is to renew the conservative paradigm, which means renewing the “pathos” of authority. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have outlined this renewal. The former’s emphasis on self-gift chimes with an older language of heroic sacrifice. The latter’s reminder that our civilization rests on the authority of truth evokes the older language of obedience and hierarchy. Those strong claims need to be elaborated, not just philosophically and theologically, but politically and culturally. Only then can the West recover the creative tension between authority and freedom—and only then can Vatican II be fully realized.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Anthony Daniels writing in the New Criterion about antiracist entrepreneur Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility:
After thirty years of constant work of supposedly anti-racist training, she confesses—like the tearful Jimmy Swaggart—to being still guilty of racism herself, promising to reform, although reform is ex hypothesi impossible because racism is in her society’s DNA, as it were. One is reminded of the type of psychoanalysis which after thirty years of hourly sessions four times a week fails to get to the root of the analysand’s problem, let alone solve it, because it doesn’t even know what the problem is. But failure is also opportunity, because, like psychoanalysis, the more anti-racist training fails, the more it is needed. DiAngelo, all credit to her, has found an economic niche for herself for the rest of her life. One has a sneaking admiration for such entrepreneurs. They are the asset-strippers of the soul.
♦ Fr. Paul Mankowski passed away in early September. His sharp wit graced our pages on many occasions, beginning in the early 1990s. His account of the goings-on at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (an organization that makes satire nearly impossible) is a First Things classic. I’m pleased to report that those who mourned his passing can honor his memory. The Lumen Christi Institute, where Fr. Mankowski served as longtime scholar-in-residence, and his Midwest Jesuit Province have established the Fr. Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., Memorial Fund for Jesuit Scholarship at the Lumen Christi Institute.
♦ Christopher Rufo collected material documenting “diversity, equity, and inclusion” training sessions at a Department of Energy laboratory. Tucker Carlson picked up the story, and Sen. Josh Hawley wrote to the Department of Energy, asking for an investigation of training sessions sponsored by various government agencies that propagate “critical race theory.” As Darel Paul detailed in the last issue, this ideology promotes “racialism,” a twenty-first-century Jim Crow. In early September, the White House ordered all federal agencies to “cease and desist” training programs that depend upon “critical race theory” or the concept of “white privilege.” The lesson: We need not meekly submit to racialist indoctrination.
♦ Late Saturday night, September 12, a gunman attempted to assassinate two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officers sitting in a parked police car. As the critically wounded officers were rushed to the hospital, Black Lives Matter protesters mobilized to block entry, shouting, “I hope they f*****g die.” The Monday following was the first day for newspapers to publish hard-copy reports. Interesting fact: The print edition of the New York Times devoted no space to the story. On the front page, however, it did report on something else in California. The headline: “In Visiting a Charred California, Trump Confronts a Scientific Reality He Denies.”
♦ In July, the University of Chicago Department of English put out a faculty statement. It begins with a statement of faith: “The English department at the University of Chicago believes that Black Lives Matter.” A litany follows: “The lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks matter, as do thousands of others named and unnamed who have been subject to police violence.” And then a pledge: “We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality.”
So far, so Goldman Sachs. But the professors take a further step: “For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies.” Quotas are apparently insufficient. Everybody must do Black Studies. No doubt some will laud this diktat as promoting “intellectual diversity.” Does the leadership of the University of Chicago think otherwise? A week after being posted, the sentence requiring graduate applicants to designate Black Studies as their interest was removed from the English Department’s faculty statement. Yet, as of this writing, it remains on the departmental graduate admissions page.
♦ John Stuart Mill, writing in Utilitarianism: “Most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable.” This assertion is itself among the greatest evils. It is the nucleus of totalitarianism. Given the fallenness of human nature, the evil Mill promotes, like other great evils, is not removable.
♦ Ed Whelan on the uproar over the possibility of a rapid nomination and confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death:
Back in March 2016, when the vacancy resulting from Justice Scalia’s death was pending, a group of more than 350 law professors signed a letter declaring that the Senate had a “constitutional duty to give President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a prompt and fair hearing and a timely vote.”
Whelan goes on to observe that he trusts that in October 2020, these 350-plus law professors, who described themselves in 2016 as “deeply committed” to “upholding the rule of law,” will reiterate their urgent call for prompt Senate action upon President Trump’s nominee.
♦ “Upholding constitutional norms” has become a hackneyed liberal trope. It predictably means promoting liberal outcomes and advancing liberal causes. Anyone who objects to the progressive juggernaut is deemed a threat to “constitutional norms.” The designation of a person or action as “racist” has a similar meaning. To oppose a progressive goal is “racist,” whereas the relentless classification of people by race draws no criticism, as long as it aims at progressive goals.
♦ Curzio Malaparte was an ideologically mobile narcissist. But his depthless cynicism saved him from pious self-deceptions, making him an astute observer at times. Writing in Paris shortly after the end of World War II: “Paris, like a larger part of Europe, is now undergoing the crisis that the Orient underwent in its time, that of passing from the living and acting world of history to the bleak, passive, resigned world of historical fatalism.”
♦ New Polity: A Journal of Postliberal Thought was launched earlier in 2020. It is a publication of The Institute for Political Philosophy and Theology, which also sponsors a website (newpolity.com), podcasts, and video courses (topics include a Catholic critique of queer theory and the history of the conversion of Europe). New Polity seeks to be true to its name. Politics is the art of ordering common life. The journal’s premise is that secularism, liberalism, and materialism have constrained that art unduly. Its ambition is to throw off these constraints and experiment with unapologetically Christian ways of thinking about how to order our common life—envisioning a new polity. A worthwhile ambition indeed.
♦ On September 2, Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber published an open letter that outlines a range of program changes to correct what he explicitly describes as “systemic racism” at Princeton. Eisgruber’s statement got the notice of the United States Department of Education, which is charged with ensuring that educational institutions that receive federal grants and assistance do not engage in discriminatory practices. The Department has launched an investigation to see whether Princeton, which has received a great deal of federal funding, has violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The Department’s letter notifying Princeton of its investigation and requesting documents states: “Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education (‘Department’) is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false.” The letter goes on to say:
The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made. Finally, the Department is further concerned Princeton’s many nondiscrimination and equal opportunity claims to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates may have been false, misleading, and actionable substantial misrepresentations.
Can the Department of Education do otherwise? Princeton’s own president has announced that the school’s culture has been racist in an invidious and ongoing fashion. If the investigation discovers that the charges Eisgruber has leveled against his own institution are true, then punitive and remedial action must be taken. It is obvious that if Princeton is imbued with “systemic racism,” then the institution cannot reform itself. “Systemic racism” is, after all, systemic. There is strong precedent for judicial oversight of Princeton, as was required in the Kansas City School district for decades. At the very least, Princeton’s budgets, curricula, faculty appointments, and admissions protocols should be reviewed each year by the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office, subject to veto or revision by the Department’s legal team.
♦ I was not one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fans. But her service to the country was notable, and she played a significant role in public life. If a group of citizens were to raise money to erect a statue in her honor, and if New York allocated space in a city park, I would not protest in the streets, even though her views on abortion were as barbaric as Andrew Jackson’s on slavery. You won’t find me contributing to a Ginsburg memorial. But I’m aware that good is mixed with evil in the city of man, and I am willing to share the public square with people whose beliefs are wrong-headed, sometimes profoundly so. And if Ginsburg’s statue were erected, I’d be outraged if New York’s politicians sat idly by as anti-abortion activists toppled it.
♦ First Things assistant editor Moriah Speciale has assumed the position of Program Manager of the Augustine Collective, a network of student-produced Christian journals published on college campuses. We regret losing such a capable young editor. But we’re grateful that something of what she has learned at First Things can be shared with the talented students in the Augustine Collective.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.