Nineteenth-century France was the scene of bitter cultural and political conflict. The German invasion in 1870 inflicted a humiliating defeat on the French army. As the Germans put Paris under siege, the Second Empire of Napoleon III collapsed. Radical anti-Catholic leftists took control of the capital city and established the short-lived Paris Commune. In May 1871, the Paris Commune was suppressed by the reorganized French army during a week of bloodshed in which hundreds were killed, including the archbishop of Paris, executed by the Communards in retaliation for the military’s summary executions of Parisian radicals. These events divided an already fractured France into two warring camps, left and right, which were to contend rancorously until the outbreak of World War I, when the exigencies of national defense demanded a truce.
A soupçon of historical perspective can help Americans today think more calmly about what we are experiencing. So I’ve been reading about this period in French history. Frederick Brown’s 2010 study, For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, has been particularly useful.
One feature of the French culture wars caught my attention: the hysterical anti-Semitism of the French right. In 1886, Édouard Drumont published La France juive, which purported to document the multifaceted Jewish assault on “the true France.” Drumont argued that Jews controlled France’s economy, and thereby dominated journalism, politics, and cultural affairs. He also advanced a “scientific” analysis of the Jewish “race,” which he thought intrinsically antithetical to the French people. His two-volume, 1,200-page tract was among the bestselling titles of the nineteenth century. It went through 140 printings in just two years.
The appetite for theories of Jewish conspiracies to “destroy France” stemmed at least in part from social developments. The political power of Republicans (the secular left of the era) grew in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Catholics were purged from the judiciary and government bureaucracy. Jesuits were expelled from the country. The “Marseillaise” became the national anthem and July 14 a national holiday. In the face of these setbacks, the French right cast about for explanations. Many settled on the conviction that their beloved country was being subverted by a Jewish conspiracy—to use the term of the day, a “Jewish syndicate.”
The Dreyfus Affair marked a defining moment in French cultural politics. Captain Albert Dreyfus was a Jewish officer whose family had left Alsace in order to avoid being absorbed into Germany after Alsace was transferred to German control at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. In 1894, he was accused of spying on behalf of the German government, convicted, and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. In the years that followed, evidence of his innocence emerged. In the meantime, officers at the highest levels of the French army, imbued with anti-Semitism and convinced that the military’s reputation must be defended, had been fabricating documents to buttress his conviction.
France divided into warring camps. Dreyfusards fought for his exoneration. (Émile Zola was among them, and his broadside against the dishonesty and injustice of Dreyfus’s conviction, J’Accuse, is among the most famous moments in modern journalism.) The Anti-Dreyfusards closed ranks to defend the army, which they took to be the guardian of French honor and the soul of the nation. In 1899, revelations forced a retrial. The generals who testified perjured themselves, and their stature swayed the jury to uphold the guilty verdict. The Republican-controlled government issued a pardon, and by 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as an army officer.
A student of history is struck by the intransigence of the Anti-Dreyfusards. The discovery of falsified evidence against Dreyfus had little effect on them. They refused to acknowledge his innocence, in large part because the Dreyfus case was entangled with powerful anti-Semitic convictions. The Anti-Dreyfusards were convinced that France was on the verge of destruction by the Jews, whom they regarded as preternaturally powerful. Jews were thought to have the ability to control events with an effectiveness all the greater for being invisible. One conservative legislator speculated that this “hidden power is strong enough to overwhelm the entire country.” At the height of the controversy, the Assumptionist priest and rabble-rouser Fr. Vincent de Paul Bailly warned: “Our society has already been punished, but its suffering is not at an end—our treasures, our banks, our papers, our railroads, and our army are caught in the spiderweb of Judaism.”
Nor were these sentiments limited to the French right. In the first stages of the Dreyfus Affair, Republican nationalist Maurice Barrès deemed Dreyfus’s Jewishness sufficient proof of his guilt. Few politicians wished to be known for defending a Jew. Over time, the mounting evidence of Dreyfus’s innocence fractured the consensus against him. But the French right was not deterred. Charles Maurras denounced the left-dominated legislature that would pardon Dreyfus as a “Jewish Republic.” For Anti-Dreyfusards, the guilt or innocence of an individual man (especially a Jew) was of little moment beside the urgent need to save the nation. French honor must be defended and the Jewish syndicate defeated!
Mark Twain is reported to have said, “History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” True indeed, and the anti-Semitic writers and orators in fin-de-siècle France cannot but call to mind those who warn that America is caught in the spiderweb of “systemic racism.” They speak of “white privilege” in a language not unlike that in which Drumont, Bailly, Maurras, and others spoke of “Jewish power.” Just as the French right insisted on the hidden centrality of Jews, Charles W. Mills in The Racial Contract argues that white supremacy is the “unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.” The New York Times’s 1619 Project announces that America was founded on slavery. Rochelle Gutierrez, a professor of education, opines, “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness.” We may imagine that science, reason, democracy, and justice are our governing principles. But this is propaganda, created by what a critical race theorist might call the “white syndicate,” which conspires to mask and consolidate its power.
White Fragility, like La France juive, is a bestseller. Substitute “whiteness” for “the Jewish race,” and portions of Robin DiAngelo’s book read like turn-of-the-century anti-Semitic tracts, which combined ersatz race science with wild speculation. On DiAngelo’s account, racism “is hard to see and recognize.” Like the Jewish syndicate, it is hidden and all the more powerful for being invisible. Repudiating white supremacy—like Jewish denials of the existence of a Jewish “syndicate”—is a crucial element of white supremacy. DiAngelo is white, and this, too, rhymes with history, putting her in the same category as Otto Weininger, who speculated that Jews had made the West too “feminine,” and Arthur Trebitsch, the author of Geist und Judentum, who argued that Jewish influence was destroying the Aryan “spirit.”
In his foreword to White Fragility, Michael Eric Dyson adapts anti-Semitic tropes to the antiracist agenda. Dreyfus regarded himself first and foremost as French, not “Jewish.” Dyson notes that whites may wish to see themselves as Americans, not as “whites.” But this is an illusion. “Whiteness” is inescapable. And it “is most useful when its existence is denied. That’s its twisted genius.” One is reminded of Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and other European capitals in 1900. At that time, many secular Jews had assimilated and became “more German” (or Austrian or French) than their gentile counterparts. Some intermarried. Others converted to Christianity. For the anti-Semites, full of dread over hidden conspiracies and convinced that Jewish power was more dangerous when its existence was denied, these stories proved the pervasiveness of Jewish infiltration. For Drumont and others, “Jewishness” mattered above all. For Dyson, DiAngelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and others, “whiteness” is of transcendent significance. It is the all-explaining source of inequality, injustice, oppression, and suffering.
Some will object that racism, unlike the “Jewish syndicate,” is real. But anti-Semitic conspiracy theories also drew upon realities. Jews did play a large role in French financial markets. They were often strong supporters of politicians who opposed Catholic influence over education and civic life. Drumont and others used these facts to elaborate theories of Jewish power—which they infused with urgency and laced with denunciation. Today’s critical race theorists operate in much the same way.
I don’t wish to push the historical analogy too far, but the parallels are striking. Consider the case of Colonel Hubert Henry. He played a central role in the French army’s cover-up of false charges against Dreyfus. In 1898, after confessing that he had forged documents meant to incriminate the Jewish officer, Henry committed suicide. Declaring him a martyr and hero, French conservatives established a memorial fund for Henry. Charles Maurras explained that we should not mire ourselves in small-minded ideas of “legality and private morality.” Colonel Henry had seen that the fate of the nation was at stake, and thus he had responded to “a higher, more rigorous, more extensive sphere of morality.” In short: His lies and forgeries were in service of the truth—the truth that France is imperiled.
One is reminded of Jussie Smollett. He, too, concocted false evidence by paying Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo to stage an assault, which he reported to the police as a hate crime during which his assailants put a noose around his neck and shouted racist and anti-gay epithets. Public figures expressed their support for Smollett, warning about the ever-present peril faced by black and gay men. As evidence mounted that the assault had been faked, a few condemned Smollett’s lies, others retracted their statements, and still others went silent. Some, though, maintained their support. Jeffrey Wright, a fellow actor, defended Smollet on the grounds that the faked assault was small beer compared to “a Trump-radicalized white nationalist with a weapons cache drawing up a list of Americans to kill.” The Los Angeles LGBT Center allowed that the circumstances were “confusing” and “deeply unfortunate.” But it admonished us to keep our eyes on the larger truth: “Hate crimes, particularly against people of color and the LGBT community, are real and on the rise.” The logic is that of Maurras. Yes, Smollett lied, but he did so in the service of a higher and more important truth.
This logic has played out countless times in recent years. Protestors still say, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a chant that gained currency in 2014 after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The subsequent and definitive evidence that Brown had been assaulting the police officer, not surrendering to him, is of no moment. The same may hold true for George Floyd. There is evidence that his death may have been caused by a drug overdose, not police restraint. But few wish to consider this possibility. We are told we must honor the “larger truth” of police violence against black men. Social-scientific evidence suggests that there is no disproportionate use of lethal force against black men. This, too, is of no moment. Like anti-Semitism and its insistence on “Jewish power,” antiracism’s doctrine of “systemic racism” and the fell power of “whiteness” is immune to reason.
Anti-Semitism in fin-de-siècle France and elsewhere had many sources. No doubt the vexed social and political circumstances at the end of the nineteenth century contributed a great deal. The technological progress of the era was extraordinary, exemplified in the Eiffel Tower, the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair, which celebrated science and industry. Yet economic inequalities grew. Industrial workers were exploited. The fabric of traditional society frayed. People in all stations of life felt uncertain, adrift, and vulnerable, a psychological condition that the great sociologist of that era, Émile Durkheim, labeled “anomie.”
In these circumstances, many felt there had to be an explanation for their unrealized hopes and unfulfilled dreams. What could account for the wounds to the body politic, the persistent suffering, the intractable conflict? For many, the answer was “the spiderweb of Judaism.”
In America, the Great Society programs of the 1960s were launched with unbounded confidence as we embarked on unprecedented measures to achieve racial equality. The Reagan era brought optimism and economic growth. The West triumphed in the Cold War, and globalization promised new opportunities. The racial achievement gap in education narrowed in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet our mood in recent years has soured. Racial inequalities remain. Wealth inequality grows as working-class wages stagnate. The young are saddled with college debt. Rising home prices make middle-class life seem out of reach. A failed war in the Middle East and competition from China fuel the unsettling sense that America is a receding power.
Is it therefore surprising that we are in the grip of antiracist hysteria? “Systemic racism” is the hidden power that can explain our frustrations. The concept of “intersectionality” allows us to apply antiracist analysis widely. For DiAngelo and others, “whiteness” is the root of all our problems. Capitalism is “white”; meritocratic competition is “white”; standardized tests are “white.” I’m sure there are figures of Maurrasian cleverness at work at this very moment, preparing academic presentations for a conference at Kendi’s Center of Antiracist Research that will demonstrate that the Iraq war, the off-shoring of jobs to China, and mortgage-based derivatives are “white.”
By this way of thinking—so widespread today—we are caught in a spiderweb of cisgendered white maleness that is all the more powerful for being invisible. Too few black physicists? Not enough women on corporate boards? The fact that one finds no discrete instances of discrimination or even conscious racial sentiment is of no moment. A “system” is at work. As with the hysterical anti-Semitism of fin-de-siècle France, this conspiratorial way of thinking allows us to focus our frustrations on an evil enemy. It reassures us in the same way a medical diagnosis of a mysterious illness brings relief. That’s one reason why so many white people thrill to the anti-white rhetoric of DiAngelo, Kendi, and others.
At a campaign rally in 2016, Hillary Clinton asked the crowd, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow . . . would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?” For a long time, I thought Clinton was being cynical, using discrimination-talk to shift attention away from the Wall Street interests that had given so lavishly to the Clinton Foundation and her campaign. But I must revise my judgment. In all likelihood, her motives were more complex, just as anti-Dreyfusard anti-Semitism emerged for many reasons.
Conservative leaders in fin-de-siècle France faced an impossible situation. Their monarchism had become an anachronism. The cruel and competitive realities of modern economic life were making a mockery of their ideals of paternalistic authority. Even the moderate, center-right Republicans of that era, like their center-left counterparts, were unmanned by the social crisis precipitated by the industrial era, as the disaster of World War I so eloquently testified. Is it any surprise, therefore, that they were captivated by an all-explaining anti-Semitic hysteria?
The same holds for Hillary Clinton and the liberal establishment (as well as the center-right establishment that is implicated in the status quo). Our leaders are unsettled by the scale and scope of our present distempers. How can we stem the tide of deaths of despair? How can we restore prosperity to deindustrialized regions? What can be done about the grotesque disparities of wealth in San Francisco, Manhattan, and elsewhere? Can we admit that the Iraq War was a failure? Can we escape the economic subservience China plans for us? And after fifty years and trillions of dollars, why has the misery of the black underclass gotten worse, not better? As I’ve noted in the past, there is a great deal of ruin in America. It’s a daunting time to be in a position of responsibility. I have no ready answer to these and other questions. Which is why I, too, feel the lure of antiracist fixations.
Human events rhyme; they do not repeat. Historical analogies break down. French anti-Semitism is different from our consensus about “systemic racism” and worries about the dire threat of “whiteness.” One difference is the distinctive political nostalgia that adheres to race-talk in our time. Black writers such as Coates and Kendi allow me to go back to the 1960s. In that decade, the claims for racial justice had real urgency and moral clarity, and our country still seemed young with promise.
This is a dangerous temptation. The hysteria of the present moment is destructive. BLM activists and their fellow travelers police speech and topple statues, and although they are not yet burning books, they cancel careers, censor publications, and terrorize those they deem agents of “white privilege.” Worse still, as foundations shovel money to antiracist organizations, universities launch antiracist initiatives, and corporations intensify “diversity training” and establish hiring quotas, the people running our country are able to compliment themselves on their commitment to defeating the chimera of “systemic racism” while ignoring our very real, evident, and pressing problems.
The encyclical Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”) addresses “fraternity and social friendship.” In it, Pope Francis draws attention to a variety of challenges: soulless consumerism, the “throwaway culture,” inequalities exacerbated by the globalized economy, mass migration, human trafficking, ongoing conflicts, and the current pandemic. He emphasizes our common humanity, asking us to move “beyond ourselves” so that we can “dream” together and “create a community of belonging and solidarity worthy of our time.”
The main thrust is welcome. We are by nature social animals.We find our deepest happiness in union with others. One reason our political culture churns with anger is that the postmodern West tends toward atomization, not union. We are in the midst of a crisis of solidarity, as I’ve argued many times in these pages. As we enter the third decade of the twentieth century, it is increasingly obvious that the signal need of our time is fraternity and renewed social friendship.
Some readers will fix on the passages in which Francis outlines substantive positions. At one point, he advocates for “a more efficient worldwide organization,” which will enforce a global “rule of law.” This call echoes Benedict XVI’s observation in Caritas in Veritate that a “true world political authority” is necessary for the fullest expression of the universality of Christian love in social and political life. Elsewhere, Francis reiterates John Paul II’s judgment that capital punishment is no longer legitimate. He drops some of the nuanced qualifications made in Evangelium Vitae and goes so far as to suggest that he is prepared to condemn life imprisonment as unjust. (“A life sentence is a secret death penalty.”)
Extending the tendency of post–Vatican II papal teaching to heighten the Christian presumption against lethal force, Francis announces: “We can no longer think of war as a solution.” In a footnote, he calls just war a concept “that we no longer uphold in our own day.” Just as he emphasizes a de facto abolitionism concerning the death penalty, he seems to wish to institute an all-things-considered pacifism for Catholics.
Elsewhere in Fratelli Tutti, Francis implies that the teaching that all material goods are ordered, finally, to the good of the entire body politic means that Catholics must be in favor of open borders. He writes: “We are obliged to respect the right of all individuals to find a place that meets their basic needs and those of their families, and where they can find personal fulfillment.” This and other statements lead to a presumptive right of the world’s poor (and those who feel in other ways thwarted) to avail themselves of the resources and opportunities of any country to which they wish to migrate.
The passages concerning the death penalty, war, and national borders will be discussed and debated. But they are not my concern. Francis is not a moral theologian aiming at conceptual clarity. He is a rhetorician—in his terms, a “social poet.” His goal is to shape our sensibilities with gestures and images. To my mind, it is the “poetry” of Fratelli Tutti that goes awry, more so than Francis’s efforts to apply and extend the modern tradition of Catholic social doctrine.
The leitmotif of the encyclical is openness, with companion themes of dialogue and encounter. All are presented as indispensable to social friendship. We must overcome our self-enclosed fears, consumerist self-regard, and petty nationalist pride. If we cultivate “respect for diversity” and take up the “weapons of dialogue,” we will “break down walls” and build a “culture of encounter.”
This way of talking combines modern therapeutic language (“a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles”) with the standard tropes of diversity seminars. In a sentence that sounds like it was penned by an effusive HR consultant, Francis writes, “By its very nature, love calls for growth in openness and the ability to accept others as part of a continuing adventure that makes every periphery converge in a greater sense of mutual belonging.”
Francis and his advisers do not seem to grasp the divisive role this rhetoric plays in civic life. Sharp contrasts run throughout the encyclical—“local narcissism” versus “healthy openness.” Francis calls for dialogue, and yet when discussing populism and critics of the European Union, he tends toward denunciation, not engagement. “Instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise,” he warns, and they create “new forms of selfishness.” Too much of Fratelli Tutti relies on contrasts between a spirit of “creative openness to others” and “closed and intolerant attitudes towards others.” These contrasts are reinforced by moralistic judgments of “new forms of selfishness” and fears that lead us to “raise walls, walls in the heart, walls on the land.” This “social poetry” reminds me of the lawn signs one sees in wealthy, progressive enclaves: “Hate has no home here.” The implication is that dissenters from progressivism do not disagree about policies. They are moral monsters—haters.
This “social poetry” can easily impede civic discussion. Those invested in the rhetoric of open versus closed have difficulty acknowledging that Viktor Orbán and Christine Lagarde agree on the shared duty to promote the common good but disagree about how to do so. If we define social friendship and fraternity as “openness,” then we’re tempted to recast different visions for the future of the West as a contest between the “good people” who “respect diversity” and the “bad people” with their fearful, nostalgic closed-mindedness.
Francis is correct: We live in a time of isolation, indifference, and atomization. But Fratelli Tutti is a missed opportunity. St. Augustine (following Cicero and other classical writers) understood social friendship as union in shared loves. Husband and wife love their familial heritage, which they hope to pass on to their children. Citizens love their native land, which they hope to preserve, and their country’s traditions and customs, which they strive to sustain and perfect through loyal criticism. The communion of saints shares a love of God and seeks to share that love with all nations and peoples. In each instance, fraternity does not grow through face-to-face encounter. As C. S. Lewis observed, romantic love looks into the eyes of the other, whereas fraternal love is expressed shoulder to shoulder. It thrives as men work toward common goals.
Public life, properly understood, involves debate and deliberation. What should we love, and how should we best serve our shared loves? The notion of a “closed society” is useful. It describes the condition of civic life in which we are prohibited from raising questions about our shared loves. Dialogue and encounter are also useful. There can be no debate when only one side talks (and never listens). And working shoulder to shoulder requires us to invite others into civic life. But openness, dialogue, and encounter do not in themselves produce social friendship. Fraternity arises as we stand together, our eyes trained on common ends. For this reason, worship is the highest form of friendship, a fraternity perfected in the unceasing praise of the Most High offered by the heavenly hosts.
Fratelli Tutti tries to articulate common goals—global peace, universal prosperity, the unity of the human race. But these are nebulous, remote objectives that are better understood as ideals (a uniquely modern notion) than as particular ends. I, too, would like economic development to become more widespread among impoverished peoples. Famine relief, the protection of refugees, the prevention of wars of aggression, and the establishment of a global rule of law were among the noble ambitions of those who founded the United Nations. These and other projects, many of them endorsed in Fratelli Tutti, are perhaps worthy of our support. But they cannot be love’s living objects. Francis seems to sense this, which is why the encyclical constantly returns to the “poetry” of openness, diversity, and “welcoming differences.” Yet this will not do. These notions are therapies, not passions; techniques, not loves.
At root, the limitations of Fratelli Tutti are theological. In a crucial meditation on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Francis provides an account of what he takes to be the historical development of love in biblical history. “Earlier Jewish traditions,” he observes, understood the commandment of neighborly love to apply only to fellow Jews. On his account, later Jewish thinkers understood the universal scope of love, which is made explicit in the New Testament.
This is a commonplace of modern biblical scholarship, and it is bad theology. In the full sweep of Scripture, love’s trajectory is otherwise. In Christ, the people of Israel are further concentrated, not universalized. The Christian, therefore, does not love humanity. He loves God in Christ, and in so doing he is incorporated into the divine love that brings sun and rain upon the just and the unjust. (See Ephraim Radner’s observations on this biblical passage in “Down to Earth.”) Our love does not aim at the world—a vainglorious ambition that has shipwrecked many whose philanthropy withers into a hectoring moralism. The love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things seeks union with the Son of God. It has universal reach because it is concentrated, not dispersed. Its generative power comes from its focus. For the beloved Son asks the Father “that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26).
This supernatural truth—the more we love the person of Christ, the more we enter into his love for the world—perfects a natural truth about fraternal love and social friendship. The more we love our spouses, our children, our neighbors down the street, our co-workers, and our fellow citizens, the better prepared will our hearts be to love the stranger and sojourner. The Good Samaritan was not a social worker. He had not volunteered to join Doctors Without Borders. He was going about his business, doing his job, discharging his ordinary obligations, and providing for his family. Just so, he was disposed to be a loving neighbor to a stranger in need.
The secular rhetoric of an “open society” in a magisterial document is careless. Perhaps we can confect a global system that is more equitable than the current one in the distribution of material goods, better able to manage the environmental implications of advanced economic development, more tolerant and accepting, more adept at defusing violent conflict. But such a world is a technocratic utopia. And it has no need for love.
Love concentrates. It inflames our hearts and rejoices in union with the beloved. Fraternity arises when we stand shoulder to shoulder. The bonds of social friendship are established and renewed as we share our loves. Openness, encounter, and other concepts favored in the encyclical can play a role. They can help us discern our shared loves. But they cannot be love’s objects; they cannot be the basis for social friendship. That Fratelli Tutti suggests they can marks its failure.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ In a Brookings study, liberal respondents were more likely than conservatives to say that, in general, girls face greater hurdles than boys do. Yet when asked about their daughters and sons, they doubted the prospects of their boys to become “successful adults” more than those of their girls, and to a greater degree than conservatives do.
How to explain this reversal of woke doctrine, which requires liberals to maintain that males enjoy a “structural advantage” over females? Perhaps liberals see that primary and secondary education have become hostile toward boys. In any event, put this down—next to opposing charter schools while self-segregating in suburban enclaves—under the heading of “liberal hypocrisy.”
♦ Writing in Tablet, Bari Weiss, a victim of woke Jacobins at the New York Times, warns her fellow Jews that the Democratic party is no longer liberal (“Stop Being Shocked”). She enumerates the virtues of the liberal outlook: equality, rule of law, tolerance, and so forth. One virtue especially caught my eye. Call it “political modesty”: “The liberal worldview was one that recognized that there were things—indeed, the most important things—in life that were located outside of the realm of politics: friendships, art, music, family, love.” I would add civic pride, intellectual inquiry, and, of course, worship. First Things is without question committed to political modesty. Not only are politics not everything; they are decidedly not the most important thing.
♦ In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, a reflection on the perils of a culture of “total work,” Josef Pieper notes the danger, ever-present in modernity, of being conscripted into a work-only world. According to the “woke” version of social justice, every aspect of our lives, even our use of pronouns, must be bent toward political ends. Nothing can be enjoyed for its own sake. We cannot study literature to gain enjoyment, or conduct research simply in order to know. Everything must be mobilized. As Pieper notes, this “total mobilization” is the essence of totalitarianism. To resist it, we need anchoring loves, activities, and attachments, which we enjoy and refuse to “use.” In a recent issue, Russell Berman recounted the ways in which Ernst Jünger anchored himself amid the surging storm of Nazism: honest language, love of place, and minute observation of nature. In Pieper’s account, worship is the most enduring bulwark against modern politics and its totalizing search for “final solutions” that will “eliminate” injustice, oppression, and other evils, imagined or real.
♦ In “Stop Being Shocked,” Weiss recounts the chilling observations of a Jewish undergraduate at George Washington University: “The hatred we experience on campus has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s because Jews defy anti-racist ideology simply by existing. So it’s not so much that Zionism is racism. It’s that Jewishness is.” Jon Levenson foresaw the anti-Jewish trajectory of progressive cultural politics nearly three decades ago. See “The God of Abraham and the Enemies of ‘Eurocentrism,’” First Things, October 1991.
♦ One of my misgivings about Fratelli Tutti arises from its anti-Jewish valences. Needless to say, Pope Francis is eager to promote interreligious harmony, especially between Catholics and Jews. But the treatment of love in the encyclical turns on overcoming “particularity” in order to attain an all-encompassing “universality.” This aspiration can lead to a moral and spiritual outlook hostile to Jewish particularity. The animus was evident in nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberal Protestantism. Adolf von Harnack’s religion of the universal Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man had no place for a chosen people any more than for an Incarnate Son. By contrast, a proper understanding of Christian universalism understands that the singular man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the source of love’s unrestricted and all-encompassing reach. The doctrine of the Incarnation marks a profound theological difference from Jewish accounts of the consummation of God’s love for all humanity. But the triumph of love in the person of Christ embraces the scandal of particularity rather than transcending it, and in this regard Jews and Christians stand together.
♦ Daniel Mahoney details the perils of a too-easy universalism in his most recent book, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity. You can listen to Mahoney talking about his book on Conversations with Mark Bauerlein, on the First Things media channel.
♦ Fall 2020 has not been edifying. But it has been revealing. Twitter blocked a New York Post article alleging insider machinations by Hunter Biden that implicated his father. Facebook rejected ads from pro-life groups. In each instance, the censors at these companies asserted that the material blocked and declined made claims that might be factually incorrect or potentially harmful. Apparently, that standard was not applied to the Steele dossier, nor to the more than two years of 24/7 media coverage of a “Russian collusion” story that was factually inaccurate from the start.
♦ Given the untrustworthiness of tech giants, I’d like to urge readers to subscribe in print. I have no confidence that we won’t be blocked online, or in some more subtle way impeded by woke censors in cyberspace.
♦ After the death of George Floyd, fifteen thousand people gathered in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza to protest. Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked why this large gathering was permissible at a time when churches and synagogues were ordered to remain closed. His answer: BLM protests touch upon sacred civic matters. As for worship, well, that’s something else. Fast forward to mid-October. COVID-19 testing shows flare-ups in some New York neighborhoods, including those with large numbers of Haredim (a name for ardently devout Jews, derived from Isaiah 66:5—“those who tremble at his word”). Gov. Cuomo reinstituted draconian measures in those areas, restricting worship to no more than ten. Haredi leaders protested to government officials. And the black-hatted youth, who seemed to have learned from BLM, took to the streets in one of their Brooklyn neighborhoods, Borough Park.
Writing in Tablet, Liel Leibovitz praises the Haredi steadfastness:
The Haredim pointed out what should’ve been obvious to everyone, namely that the freedom to practice religion is a fundamental American guarantee—if not the most fundamental of them all—and that no one who cares about America should remain silent when the government chooses to suppress this freedom while allowing other forms of political congregation of which it approves to proceed without interruption.
At issue is more than religious liberty. By Leibovitz’s reckoning, the street protests in Borough Park are part of a battle to preserve the full scope of American freedom. “It’s of little surprise, then, that the main flag on view during the Haredi protests last week was the Gadsden flag. Don’t Tread on Me, that quintessentially American cri de Coeur, is, these days, primarily the domain of the Haredi community.”
The hypocrisy demonstrated by public health officials in early June was astounding. We can hardly live in a free society if we cannot trust those in positions of authority to be even-handed in times of crisis. Leibovitz is right: The Haredim of New York did all of us a service by refusing to abide by double standards that cheer progressive protests while shutting down houses of worship. And I dare say First Things has long been right as well. For our thirty years of existence we have insisted that religious devotion, far from undermining a culture of freedom (as Enlightenment dogmatists insisted, and still insist), provides its surest foundation.
♦ It is a false truism that modern science has disproved the tenets of Christianity. Recent social-scientific studies suggest that this canard is among the leading reasons why young people lose their faith. Enter The Society of Catholic Scientists, an organization established in 2016 to bear witness to the harmony between science and faith. Its motto: “Knowledge with devotion, research with wonder.” One of the cofounders, Stephen Barr, is a long-time contributor to First Things and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, a lucid account of the ways in which the latest scientific discoveries do not run counter to faith, but rather reinforce classical Christian claims. The Society promotes discussion among its members (scholars with doctorates in natural science, including mathematics, computer science, and engineering fields closely related to core scientific disciplines). Recently, it has expanded its website (catholicscientists.org) to include essays and reflections suited for a general audience. The website addresses common questions about faith and science, biographies of important Catholic scientists, monthly articles on science and religion, and video presentations. These are valuable resources for Christian educators. Highly recommended.
The Society plans to found College Chapters in the coming academic years. The Chapters will sponsor on-campus lectures and discussions. Students and faculty interested in forming a Chapter should contact Stephen Barr at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ The National Civic Art Society sponsored a survey conducted by The Harris Poll that asked people to rank pictures of government buildings. It shows that an overwhelming majority—young and old, Democrat and Republican—prefer classical architecture for civic buildings. The preference makes good sense. Modern and postmodern architecture have no visual vocabulary for distinguishing civic from commercial life, which is why during the last two decades every attempt at grandeur has ended up looking like an airport terminal. In the classical world, grand buildings were consecrated to public use. During the Renaissance, the classical idiom was recovered and came to define city centers throughout Europe, conveying in their design the civic ideal that those who live and work there are citizens first and foremost, not merely working drones and consumers. Modern architecture of the International style can be elegant and pleasing. Its blank walls of glass are the perfect idiom for faceless modern corporations. Postmodern architecture can be ironic and clever, which is why our disenchanted elite like it so much. But these styles cannot speak a civic language, and this is why the public disfavors them and wishes our government would return to older ways of building.
It’s worth looking at the buildings contrasted in the National Civic Art Survey. They can be viewed in the report, “Americans’ Preferred Architecture for Federal Buildings,” available on the NCAS website.
♦ Thomas Howard passed to his reward on October 15. He came from a family of evangelical missionaries. A gifted writer, Howard was an early interpreter of C. S. Lewis and fellow Inkling Charles Williams. In his twenties, he became an Anglican of the high church party. In the 1980s, at the age of fifty, he entered the Catholic Church, a decision that cost him his job as an English professor at Gordon College. David Mills, then a colleague at First Things, set up a meeting with Tom nearly a decade ago. I spent a delightful hour over coffee with what an earlier age called a true Christian gentleman. May he rest in peace.
♦ Pierre de Marivaux was a writer and dramatist who flourished in the first half of the eighteenth century, a time of rationalist fantasies. Against the dreams of reason he noted: “Le plus l’homme se prefectionne, le plus il se dégrade.” The more man perfects himself, the more he degrades himself. Transhumanists, take note.
♦ On October 1, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with the faculty and lay leadership of Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, Pennsylvania, a northeastern suburb of Philadelphia. I came at the invitation of Deacon Christopher Roberts, a longtime friend, who is president of the board and teaches theology at Martin Saints. The discussion was lively, a sign of the vitality and promise of the classical school movement. In the 1990s, homeschooling gained momentum and leavened our churches and society. If the enthusiasm and dedication of the faithful educators I met at Martin Saints are representative, I can understand why enrollments in classical education have shot up in the last few years.
♦ In the last issue we mistakenly described Anthony Esolen as a professor at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. He is Writer-in-Residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. We apologize to Tony and the folks at Magdalen.
♦ This seems to be the season for regrets. I’d like to extend my apology to Dana Gioia. His poem in the previous issue, “Psalm to Our Lady Queen of the Angels,” was misprinted, obscuring the meaning of the third stanza. We’ve run the correct version in this issue.
♦ First Things enthusiasts in Birmingham, Alabama, are in the early stages of forming a ROFTERS group. If you are interested, please get in touch: email@example.com.
♦ As these words reach you, First Things will be launching its year-end fundraising campaign. We are only as strong as the support we receive, which I’m happy to report has been very generous. Please donate in December and help us end this tumultuous year in strength.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?