Populism is a threat to democracy.” “Trump is an authoritarian.” “Trump subverts constitutional norms.” Claims such as these puzzled me when I first heard them four years ago. Trump always struck me as a political freelancer and Twitter provocateur, not a potential dictator commanding ranks of uniformed followers. I chalked up the angst to the post-religious mentality that is so widespread among our elites (and affects us all). Without a transcendent horizon, we’re vulnerable to upsetting fears. But that is not the only explanation. I am beginning to see that our political culture is changing. This makes many of us susceptible to panicked concerns about the continuity and integrity of our basic institutions.
Populism is a politics of anger and frustration. In its explosive discontent, it threatens established arrangements. During his campaigns and his term in office, Trump has stoked populist anger and openly represented it. This phenomenon is new in recent American politics, which since the end of World War II has been anchored by a “responsible right.” Trump’s encouragement of a right-wing, populist anger-politics has inspired many nightmares.
Our liberal-progressive establishment is super-eminent. Its dominance flows, in large part, from the fact that it stymied left-wing revolutionary politics in the twentieth century. Franklin Roosevelt navigated the social crisis of the Great Depression by coopting some of the left’s issues. Although organized labor had political muscle in the postwar years, the ability of America’s liberal-progressive establishment to manage and temper class conflict ensured that no communist or socialist movement of any consequence emerged. When asked whether Roosevelt had carried out a socialist program, Socialist party leader Norman Thomas quipped, no, “unless he carried it out on a stretcher.”
In the 1960s, the liberal-progressive establishment successfully managed black anger, which became explosive in major cities, by accommodating demands for civil rights and allocating vast sums for economic uplift while preserving America’s existing hierarchies of wealth and power. (I wrote last month about Kingman Brewster, a good example of an establishment figure who preserved by accommodating.)
Ronald Reagan’s uncompromising clarity about the moral evil of the Soviet Empire helped bring the Cold War to a successful conclusion. Nonetheless, the end of communism strengthened the liberal-progressive establishment. In the cultural mythology of the twentieth century, the moderation of the volatile class resentments of the modern era is credited entirely to managerial liberalism. The same is assumed when it comes to racial resentments and other protests against exclusion, such as feminism and gay liberation.
Whether we believe these claims is not important. (Thomas Sowell has made powerful arguments that post-sixties liberalism has done great harm to working-class blacks.) Deservedly or not, the liberal-progressive establishment holds the position of senior partner in our political consensus. In this arrangement, it compliments itself for taming and channeling discontent that arises from the left, which is regarded as the only legitimate source of challenges to the status quo. In this issue, Katherine Kersten (“Adversary Culture in 2020”) notes a paradox: The “adversary culture” is now our dominant culture. This fact indicates the extraordinary power of the liberal-progressive establishment. It can turn the revolutionary aims of radical groups such as Black Lives Matter into talking points for CEOs and causes for wealthy suburbanites.
But the liberal-progressive establishment cannot neuter the left on its own. It relies on a conservative junior partner. The first job of the conservative is to play the villain’s role, allowing the liberal-progressive establishment to cast itself as protector of working people, the poor, and vulnerable minorities. This gives liberal-progressives moral prestige, as well as tactical advantages. “But for us,” this establishment warns those agitating to its left, “you would fall victim to the rapacious right, which is racist, bigoted, and armed.”
Establishment conservatives deny that they are evil, of course. But they support their liberal-progressive senior partners by accepting the salience of terms fashioned by the left, which herald crises of oppression and exclusion that liberal-progressives present themselves as expert in addressing. Conservatives will go to any length to avoid being seen by the left as racist, bigoted, authoritarian, or fascist.
One need not deny the reality of racism and other bigotries to see the role these accusations play. The liberal-progressive and conservative establishments share the goal common to all elites: to preserve and protect hierarchies of wealth and power. If we assume (as our governing consensus does) that the gravest threats to those hierarchies come from an anger-politics of the left, an anger arising from oppression and exclusion, then the moderate left will always enjoy preeminence. It will be regarded as the only force able to blunt the extreme demands of the extreme left and thus manage social conflicts. To some degree, Joe Biden was elected on this assumption.
The role of the conservative junior partner is to champion the status quo and defend America’s traditions and institutions. The last election cycle shows how this works. Representatives of the liberal-progressive establishment can talk of packing the Supreme Court and call for the elimination of the Electoral College, confident that their conservative junior partners will rally to defend our constitutional norms. The liberal-progressive establishment need not play the blocking role. It can say, “We’d love to achieve your goals, but the opposition is intransigent.”
A similar dynamic plays out in cultural politics. Liberal-progressive partners of Wall Street law firms do not savor the cancel culture, but they know they need not speak up. The task of defending free speech falls to conservatives, while the senior partner accommodates and manages radical demands from the left by “hearing” concerns and expressing support for the “spirit of protest.”
In sum: The senior partner is senior because he mediates radicalism on the left while enjoying the stability of the status quo upon which wealth and power depend. He can put a BLM sign on his front lawn and make $500,000 per year as a college president. The senior partner can also exploit rage and anger on the left for electoral advantage. Foundations and billionaires in the liberal-progressive establishment fund radical organizations that motivate voters with angry demands and send protesters into the streets. After decades of stretching leftward, and with a long history of managing radicalism, the liberal-progressive establishment can do this without worrying that anger-politics on the left will get out of control. There are always more MacArthur “genius” awards and Ford Foundation grants to distribute, university sinecures to endow, and diversity consultant jobs to dole out. Or so the liberal-progressives imagine. At this juncture, their concessions may have tipped into capitulation. This is a reason why populist voters are angry, and rightly so. They now see that the costs of the concessions were paid not by the elites but by the middle class that provides the ballast in American society.
The junior partner is junior because he has less room to move. He must devote himself to defending our traditions and institutions. He does not have permission to mediate anger-politics on the right, which the current system deems illegitimate (a judgment with which he perhaps agrees). His task is to ensure stability so that liberal-progressives can manage angry radicalism on the left, a radicalism always deemed legitimate, if at times “too extreme.” The establishment conservative must not encourage anger-politics on the right. He might use indirect means to motivate angry voters, under the guidance of political strategists like Lee Atwater. But open expressions of right-wing populism are censured.
This arrangement may have been necessary in the twentieth century. But it is becoming obsolete in the twenty-first. Revolutionary anger arises from experiences of oppression and exclusion. That anger dominated our politics for nearly a century. It persists, but the successes of the liberal-progressive establishment have largely domesticated anger-politics on the left. As soon as revolutionary anger flares up, it gets affirmed, funded, and coopted (although, as I note above, the cost of placating left-wing anger is increasingly steep, now contributing to cultural conflict rather than moderating it).
Counterrevolutionary anger also exists. This kind of anger arises from feelings of abandonment and betrayal. Counterrevolutionary fury surged in the early 1970s when Richard Nixon won a historic landslide. It is surging again today, and with greater intensity. As Mary Eberstadt has observed (“The Fury of the Fatherless,” January 2021), our post-religious society with broken families lacks a father at home and a Father in heaven. Our fatherlessness makes us vulnerable to political resentments and rage arising from abandonment and betrayal.
That rage is well founded, which means it will endure. Our country is plagued by deaths of despair, substance abuse, family breakdown, de-industrialization, futile foreign conflicts, a loss of transcendence, and a legitimate fear that our ruling elites are not loyal to their country. These are diseases of an economy that runs counter to middle-class interests—a trend not hard to interpret as betrayal. They are diseases of a disintegrating “bourgeois” moral and religious consensus—a consensus abandoned by our ruling elites. They are diseases of a society in which, as Charles Murray documents, the elites have separated themselves from ordinary people, whom they increasingly deride as boring, uncreative “takers” who don’t measure up to hard-working, recently arrived immigrants. In a word, they are diseases arising not from exclusion and oppression, but from the negligence, arrogance, and neglect of those who purport to lead us.
By itself, populist anger can be impotent, even if it is widespread. To be a force in public life, rage needs targets to destroy and leaders who will identify enemies. Trump has disturbed our system by embracing counterrevolutionary rage. He has told the American people, often in very explicit terms, that they have been abandoned and betrayed by establishment leaders—the signature rallying cry of right-wing populism. He has stolen the weapon of the left by demonizing his adversaries as emblems of wickedness. He has named enemies and directed the anger of his supporters at particular people. He has refused to denounce right-wing extremists. He has presented himself as the “voice” of populist anger.
Whatever we think of Trump, it is wrongheaded to say that his embrace of counterrevolutionary fury has violated our constitutional norms. Nothing in our Constitution forbids right-wing populism. And it is a crude misreading of our political situation to say that right-wing populism signals authoritarian and “fascist” intentions. Still, populist anger-politics does pose a threat. I submit that this is not because of Trump. Our greatest peril lies in the fact that our political culture is stuck in the twentieth century.
Although communism collapsed decades ago, we still believe that legitimate and powerful anger, the kind that could threaten the status quo, comes from the left—from the excluded and oppressed. (Obama always spoke in this way.) But today the most potent anger comes from the right, from people who feel betrayed, not oppressed or excluded. And their rage is warranted. They have been misgoverned and misled. One need only look at the degraded condition of America’s working class—or to the many ways our elites have empowered China. The NBA is anxious not to criticize China; it is quick to take a knee and join the chorus accusing America of racism.
Our political-cultural consensus is unmanned before right-wing anger. Our governing mentality is dominated by the assumption that oppression and exclusion are the only sources of political rage. It cannot grasp the significance of counterrevolutionary anger. Notice that some now propose to admit more working-class students to elite universities—a strategy of inclusion that is irrelevant to right-wing populism, which wants not “uplift” but trustworthy leaders who will restore our way of life. In his 2015 book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam made a similar mistake, proposing to address working-class frustration with greater upward mobility.
To observe our vulnerability to anger-politics on the right, consider Bernie Sanders and the supposed peril of “socialism.” There are countless university professors to Sanders’s left. Ten thousand or more faculty contributed to his campaign. His competitor for leftist voters in 2020 was a former professor—at Harvard, no less. Had Sanders been elected president, our liberal-progressive establishment would have neutralized him. In the event, it engineered the nomination of Joe Biden. Conservatives often interpret this densely populated ecosystem on the left as stoking radicalism. Yes, but also no. The establishment left makes radicalism part of the status quo, which by definition makes it something other than radical. This radicalism can be destructive, but it’s unlikely to be destabilizing, which means the liberal-progressive establishment will stay on top. This is why BLM marches do not give elites nightmares.
By contrast, fewer than a dozen university professors were willing to endorse Trump publicly in 2020. It’s shocking to think that more than 70 million people voted for a person who represents an anger that is almost entirely unrepresented in establishment institutions in the United States. Not just shocking, but frightening, which is why we hear hysterical cries of “fascism.” Who will manage that rage? How can our system blunt the counterrevolutionary fury?
In the twentieth century, the liberal-progressive establishment neutralized left-wing and revolutionary radicalism by addressing many of its legitimate demands. The twenty-first century is different. Our problems arise from experiences of economic, cultural, and spiritual homelessness that now affect wide swaths of the American population. People are frustrated by the economic dislocations caused by globalization. But the anger runs deeper. Many are no longer sure they are allowed to say “Merry Christmas” or salute the flag. Their use of pronouns is monitored. They are subjected to “diversity training” and other rituals of self-abasement. In view of these experiences, a furious rage at real (and perceived) betrayals is certain to rock our society. We need an active and confident conservative-reactionary establishment that can accommodate right-wing anger-politics, just as the liberal-progressive establishment accommodated left-wing anger-politics in decades past.
We are heading into a time of counterrevolution—the return of the strong gods, as I have put it. We need the anchor of faith, yes, but we also need prudence. It is my hope that a conservative FDR will emerge who is as adept as that great president at blunting extremes—not by denouncing populist anger, resentment, and frustration, but by guiding populist rage so as to address its sources and preserve the continuity of our traditions and institutions.
I flinch when someone calls me “Dr. Reno.” I can’t help but recall a true story told to me when I was a doctoral student. A recently minted PhD—let’s call him Jones—went out to dinner with some friends to celebrate the successful defense of his doctoral dissertation on Aristotle’s virtue theory. One of his friends, an inveterate practical joker, arranged for someone to call the restaurant and ask for “Dr. Jones.” The caller was instructed to say the matter was urgent, a “metaphysical emergency.” Upon receiving the call, the unwitting waiter dutifully approached their table, gravely calling “Dr. Jones” to the phone to attend to a “metaphysical emergency.” Jones cast a sharp glance at the group, which had broken out in laugher.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Joseph Epstein expresses a similar unease with the use of the title “Doctor” for people with PhDs. Epstein, an accomplished writer, has no advanced degrees. But he taught English literature at Northwestern for decades, where it was inevitable that, not wanting to appear disrespectful, certain persons would address him as “Dr. Epstein.” At which point his inner voice would crisply reply, “Read two chapters of Henry James and get into bed. I’ll be right over.”
The Twitterati anguished and fumed over the fact that Epstein not only spoofed non-doctors passing themselves off as doctors but also gently mocked Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, who in mid-life earned a doctorate in education and styles herself “Dr. Jill Biden.” Epstein is an equal-opportunity censor. He rapped the knuckles of those who append “PhD” to their signatures, and he disparaged anyone who imagines that being awarded an honorary degree is something to brag about.
Epstein is surely correct. Medical doctors are touchy about their title and universally insist upon it. But those with PhDs are—or should be—different. Few insist upon being called “Dr.” In my experience, those who demand that others use “Dr.” reveal their insecurity, not their status.
As Epstein notes, there are individuals who put “PhD” on their letterhead, just as lawyers used to append the abbreviation “Esq.” These are usually people without academic appointments or a similar institutional marker of status, or they are psychologists or social workers in private practice who wish to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and justify higher fees. The Sterling Professor of History at Yale wouldn’t dream of adding PhD to his signature.
Nor would the Sterling Professor of History be called “Dr.” by his students. In my experience, outside medical schools, one does not use “Dr.” at fancy universities. In our anxious age, students don’t say “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” because the latter is a minefield. They opt for “Professor” instead. The tradition of not using “Dr.” stems, in part, from the Oxbridge tradition in England. Until only recently, the main body of teachers at those ancient universities, the college fellows, had master’s degrees, and they were addressed as “Mr. So-and-So” or, as was often the case, “Rev. So-and-So.” I recall Robert Jenson telling me that when he served as a teaching fellow at Oxford in the mid-sixties, his colleagues dismissed his doctoral degree. “The PhD ruins a man,” they’d say, by which they meant his mind would be narrowed and his amour propre widened.
Elite institutions in the United States are also deeply influenced by New England’s Protestant culture, which historically has been skeptical of established hierarchies and promoted an egalitarian outlook. The taboo against ostentation in dress and consumption worked against peacock displays of academic status. Interestingly, the exception was among clergy, who were unrestrained in their announcements of DDs, Doctors of Divinity.
By contrast, institutions uncertain of their social status often refer to professors as “Dr. So-and So.” That was true when I taught at Creighton University—a fine institution with lots to be proud of, but one that looks up the food chain in higher education. The culture of Catholicism was also a contributing factor. Unlike Puritanism, Catholicism celebrates hierarchy and its proliferation of honorific titles: Monsignors, Excellencies, Eminences, and so forth.
A similar impulse to prove one’s worth is at work in the low-church forms of Protestantism that are at only one or two removes from revival tents. Congregations often take pride in preachers who carry the title “Dr.” Yet even here the honorific is receding, as the trend toward first-name informality eclipses an older, status-respecting ethos. Pastor Rick Warren (Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary) is wise enough not to style himself Dr. Rick Warren.
Which brings me back to Joseph Epstein. His advice to Jill Biden is nothing but sound. Drop the “Dr.” conceit. There are social situations that might require formality. Were Biden functioning as local school superintendent, it would make some sense for others to address her as “Dr. Biden” at a school board meeting. In other circumstances, a person with an EdD who runs around insisting upon “Dr.” advertises an inferiority complex, not achievement. Epstein does Jill Biden a favor by clueing her in to this well-known fact.
Twitter is a sandbox for the well educated. I am not surprised that its denizens have expressed outrage at Epstein’s correct social analysis of the use of “Dr.” by persons without medical degrees. Our country’s technocrats and “thought leaders” are very proud of their credentials, which they prize highly as signs of status. It galls them that Epstein should note the obvious: that credentials are the cellophane in which elites wrap themselves while lacking the real achievements and nobility of soul that win true respect.
I say, good for him.
The Great Reset
In Winds of Change, Harold Macmillan gives an account of the failed strategy of appeasement in the late 1930s. He regrets the complacency of British decision-making as Hitler gobbled up neighboring regions. “In our insularity,” Macmillan writes, “we neither read Hitler’s gospel, Mein Kampf, nor understood the nature of his movement, or the scale of his ambitions.” It was with the negligence in Macmillan and other European leaders in mind that, in the final month of 2020, I forced myself to read COVID-19: The Great Reset.
The book was thrown together late last spring as the pandemic was triggering unprecedented lockdowns. Authored by two members of the Davos class, it lacks the Führer’s fury. (One author, Klaus Schwab, founded the annual gathering at Davos; the other, Thierry Malleret, runs a firm that sells analyses of global trends to the sorts of people who attend Davos.) The book offers broad generalizations, some only tenuously tied to the pandemic. COVID-19: The Great Reset fits comfortably into the genre of “futurology” pioneered by Robert Naisbitt’s 1982 bestseller, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives.
Schwab and Malleret stipulate that we are at “a fundamental inflection point in our global trajectory.” Leaders have failed to appreciate the growing “interdependence, velocity and complexity” of human affairs. This negligence led to an accumulation of risk—manifest, for example, in the global economic vulnerability to COVID-19, and in the West’s political vulnerability to populism.
The authors frequently use the most potent curse word in the Davos lexicon: unsustainable. The concept of unsustainability plays an important role. It is the managerial-technocratic equivalent of the medical-therapeutic claim that certain attitudes and behaviors are “unhealthy.” On its face, “unsustainable” suggests an objective, dispassionate judgment about what will not work over the long run. But its true function is to redescribe moral judgments as expert analysis. Thus, growing inequalities of wealth in the West are not unjust; they are “unsustainable.” The persistent emphasis on national sovereignty is not a failure to embrace Kantian universalism; it is “unsustainable.”
This use of “unsustainable” allows Schwab and Malleret to toggle between assertion and exhortation. They need not argue against the present economic, political, and cultural arrangements they dislike. It is sufficient for them to note that these arrangements simply cannot continue—they are unsustainable. But the authors also exhort. In the face of populist-nationalist pressures, the global coordination needed to ensure economic, global, and migratory “sustainability” is under threat. “There is no time to waste,” they warn. “If we do not improve the functioning and legitimacy of our global institutions, the world will soon become unmanageable and very dangerous.” They adduce the lack of a globally coordinated response to the pandemic as evidence of the danger of an unmanaged world.
The “Great Reset” aims for a technocratic utopia. Sustainability requires a more thoroughly designed and managed approach to life. If we drain away the many details about trends and problems, the basic argument is quite simple: As experts have shown, the only way to escape present unsustainable trends is to rely on experts to bring things into equilibrium. We have no choice. When Schwab and Malleret discuss the political problems facing the West—economic inequality and populist unrest—they urge mitigation, or, to use a business term, “risk management.” Economic and political adjustments are necessary if we are to prevent “nasty surprises.” The “Great Reset” is the opposite of revolutionary. It aims to eliminate risk, or at least reduce it to the lowest possible level, thus ensuring that today’s technocratic elite can remain on top.
Schwab and Malleret discuss the “individual reset.” Taking a page from Pope Francis, they exhort us to “abandon the posture of self-interest that pollutes so many of our social interactions” so that we can “pay more attention to issues like inclusiveness and fairness.” But fairness concerns justice, and when people are animated by political passions for equity, there can be instability and risk. So, here, too, the emphasis falls on sustainability, or what our therapeutic age calls “self-care.” The authors advise healthy diets and regular exercise. These behaviors will help us live longer (sustainability!) and reduce the risk of unpleasant debilities in old age.
There’s been lots of talk about the “Great Reset.” After reading Davos-man’s manifesto for the future, I can assure you that the Great and the Good have no new plans for our societies. Their goal is to entrench and sustain the secular, post-Christian culture that dominates Western elites. We must be sure to forswear transcendent aims (too many nasty surprises!). And we should not aspire to freedom and self-government (too much uncertainty and risk!). Better to turn over the task of ordering public life to “sustainability experts,” so that we can focus on not dying and not getting sick. Schwab and Malleret aim for a more thoroughly utilitarian world. It’s not a future I’m working toward. And it’s not a reset, just more of the same technocratic nihilism.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Joseph Weiler, an eminent Jewish professor of law, has criticized European “Christophobia,” which, he argues, prevents the contemporary West from drawing on the full richness of its inheritance. In a 2011 case before the European Court of Human Rights, Weiler successfully defended the right of the Italian government to place crucifixes in government school classrooms. In 2017, Belgium outlawed kosher methods of slaughtering animals, citing national standards prohibiting animal cruelty. Weiler authored the brief asking the Court of Justice of the European Union to strike down the Belgian law, citing an E.U. law that specifies a right to use methods of slaughter required for religious observance. In December that court handed down its decision, which unfortunately rejected Weiler’s arguments. Crucifixes are protected in the E.U., but in Belgium, kosher practice, which is central to the Jewish observance, may be prohibited. This decision opens the way for similar laws elsewhere, which will have the effect of criminalizing Torah-observant Judaism. It seems “Judeophobia,” which sadly has a long history in Europe, is more potent than its Christophobia.
♦ While reading Ephraim Radner’s Back Page (“Seeing the Whole”), I recalled a passage from Josef Pieper:
I really do not know how an incorruptible mind, faced with evil in the world, could keep from utter despair were it not for the logically tenable conviction that there is a divinely guaranteed Goodness of being, which no amount of mischief can undermine.
♦ Anglicans refer to the last Sunday before Advent as “Stir Up” Sunday. This puzzled me as a child, for it suggested cooking instructions. I later learned that in the old Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the day begins, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” The collect for the same Sunday in the Tridentine Mass is the same (although, of course, in Latin). The shared collect is an evocation of the Church Militant. On the last Sunday before Advent, we ask to be called to arms (and to be armed) by the King who is coming. Compare to the Novus Ordo. In 1970, the Feast of Christ the King was moved to the final Sunday before Advent. But the collect in the new rite does not evoke the Church Militant. Instead, it evokes a cosmic “Christogenesis” of the sort theorized by Teilhard de Chardin: “Almighty ever-living God, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of the universe, grant, we pray, that the whole creation, set free from slavery, may render your majesty service and cleaselessly proclaim your praise.” The faithful are not encouraged to see themselves as soldiers gravely wounded by sin, begging their Commander to heal them, asking him to rouse their ardor, to excite in them the strength of the divine, so they may march with their Lord to victory.
♦ Joe Biden has named Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services. The California attorney general’s main expertise in health care involves the creative use of the law to prosecute pro-life activists. Sr. Mary Haddad, head of the Catholic Health Association, praised Biden for his selection of Becerra.
♦ Writing in National Review’s 65th Anniversary issue, Matthew Continetti surveys the successes and failures of the conservative movement. One of Continetti’s citations of William F. Buckley caught my attention. In 1970, the NR founder wrote:
I see it as the continuing challenge of National Review to argue the advantages to everyone of the rediscovery of America, the amiability of its people, the flexibility of its institutions, of the great latitude that is still left to the individual, the delights of spontaneity, and, above all, the need for superordinating the private vision over the public vision.
America, our institutions, individual freedom, and spontaneity—they win my warm approval. But superordinating private interests over the common good? To my mind, Buckley’s final affirmation reflects one of the greatest mistakes of postwar American conservatism. True, we need a public vision that gives ample liberty to personal visions. That’s the genius of our Bill of Rights. But a free society is only free insofar as it remains a society, which requires a superordinate public vision.
♦ The Human Rights Campaign is an LGBT powerhouse. The organization issued a Blueprint for Positive Change 2020. Among the list of priorities for the Biden administration’s Department of Education is to require religious schools to conform to transgender ideology by allowing transgender students access to single-sex locker rooms and bathrooms of their choice. This is part of HRC’s call for “consistent administrative implementation” of the Bostock decision. In his majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch dismissed concerns raised by Justice Alito in his dissent about the consequences of Bostock. He claimed to be unable to see what many predicted would follow.
♦ During the eight days of Hanukkah, my wife lights candles in the Menorah. This simple ritual lifts the heart in the dark days of the approaching winter solstice. The light of the candles dancing in our hallway mirror has been all the more precious this December, as New York City’s pulse beats at a weakened pace amid lockdowns and social distancing.
♦ The crowds on Fifth Avenue are much lighter this year than during the usual Christmas crush. But there are crowds. Pedestrians carry shopping bags in the early evening darkness. One sees no smiles on mask-covered faces. But cheer is nonetheless in the air. To those who say Christmas has been conquered by consumerism, I say, “Bah, humbug.” The opposite is more likely true: Christmas conquers consumerism. At least that’s the way it feels in New York, even this year, dimmed as the Christmas spirit has been by the pandemic.
♦ The Minnesota Council of Churches pledges to tell the truth: “The genocide of and stealing of land from the Indigenous population combined with the arrival of enslaved Africans as uncompensated labor made racism and White supremacy core to the way of life in what would become the United States of America.” In addition to signaling a commitment to clotted syntax, the organization calls for “reparations.” Are Minnesota Lutherans and other denominations going to sell their church properties to give the money to black and Native Americans? No. Christian repentance, in their eyes, means lobbying the government to tax other people to fund reparations.
♦ York University is a Canadian institution outside Toronto. Its Department of Politics seeks to hire a new professor to teach Black Politics. The job advertisement is very specific: “This selection will be limited to individuals who self-identify as Black.”
Section 5 of the Ontario Code of Human Rights (Toronto is located in the province of Ontario) stipulates: “Every person in Ontario has a right to be free from discrimination in employment based on race, ancestry, colour, place of origin and ethnic origin.” Words don’t always mean what they seem to mean, however. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has issued guidelines stipulating that “special interest organizations” aiming to provide services to those protected against discrimination can discriminate. For example, a legal clinic dedicated to defending the rights of a “specific racialized community” can “give preference in employment to persons similarly identified.”
Apparently, the administrators at York University claim to be establishing a program (Black Politics) that will not aim to serve the entire population of students, but instead will be set up primarily for black students, thus meeting the criteria for the legal loophole that allows for discrimination on the basis of race.
In the United States, this was the functional but unspoken truth about Black Studies programs set up on the 1970s. But there was never a publically stated intention to discriminate against non-black job applicants. In part, this reticence stems from the fact that the American Civil Rights Act prohibits job discrimination on the basis of race—and we don’t have human rights commissions to explain to us when the law does not apply. It also reflects basic decency and self-respect on the part of those doing the hiring. To advertise a job that specifies “black applicants only” would be too shameful for most Americans to abide—though apparently not for Canadians.
♦ Canada seems to have weak antibodies against our politically correct diseases. At the end of November, British Columbia officials once again banned in-person religious worship. Three Protestant churches defied the order. Police intervened. One church was fined. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry chastised “high profile people” in the Christian community for trying to stir up “consternation.” She quoted from Pope Francis’s recent op-ed, which urged Christians to be exemplary in their cooperation with public health officials. The Most Rev. J. Michael Miller, archbishop of Vancouver, observed that AA meetings are permitted in church basements, while worship services above are prohibited.
♦ The Dalton School in New York is a tony operation. It charges more than $50,000 per year. In response to COVID-19, the school went online in the fall. Under pressure from parents, school leaders began to plan to reopen in person. Teachers went into full protest mode. Reopening is “racist,” a faculty group argued. They have issued a list of demands that must be met before they will return to the classroom, including paying off student loan debt for black teachers and reducing tuition for black students whose images appear in school promotional material.
Apparently the Dalton teachers are taking their cues from up north, unashamedly specifying race-based preferences. I find this call for restoring the Jim Crow mentality repulsive. (How many drops of black blood will be necessary to qualify for loan forgiveness?) But I understand the sentiment behind such demands. Securing “diversity” plays a crucial role in sustaining rich, white liberal power. As a consequence, black teachers at elite schools like Dalton are many times more valuable than white teachers. This is not the case at Bronx public schools, which do not buttress the legitimacy of our ruling class. The same holds for black students. They are crucial for “diversity.” The demands being made at Dalton reflect accurate assessments of the “market value” of black representation in all elite institutions, not just educational establishments. Nobody is urging quotas to apportion seats at the American Legion hall. What matters is the composition of corporate boards and other instruments by which the One Percent consolidates its wealth and power. Without “diversity,” the hierarchies in our society would be threatened by popular discontent. The stakes are very high, which is why I predict that elite law professors and others will theorize explanations for why doing what the Civil Rights Act prohibits can be seen as fulfilling rather than contradicting its purpose. In practice, that’s already being done.
♦ I’ve done some reading recently that sheds light on the fracas at Dalton. In the fall, a friend recommended a historical monograph by Walter Struve, published in 1973, Elites Against Democracy: Leadership Ideals in Bourgeois Political Thought in Germany, 1890–1933. Struve considers a number of important figures who were united in their doubts about mass democracy, but who recognized that the old, aristocratic order lacked legitimacy in the modern era. Their solution was an “open-yet-authoritarian elite.” Elite membership would be available to talented individuals from diverse backgrounds. This, they thought, would make elite power legitimate in the eyes of the people, allowing a vigorous, capable ruling class to govern without being hindered by the mediocrity of the masses, to which, they worried, democracy gives too much power.
While researching German theories of an open elite at the helm of an authoritarian system, Struve found himself thinking about Western democracies:
I came to realize that German uniqueness made as little sense as the belief in American exceptionalism. The very sort of elitism I had studied in a German context describes the realities of the political order in the United States or Britain or France better than dogmas of political democracy, and much better than the contradictory publications of social scientists acting in a dual role as cheerleaders for the American Century and analysts for the ruling class.
Struve goes on to make a direct connection to the then-nascent ideology of diversity that was taking hold in the United States while he was writing in the early seventies:
After hearing for so long that the people should and can rule, we are frequently being told that they should not and cannot, that we ought to accept the rule of an elite over which we have little or no control, and that all will be for the best if only the members of the elite are qualified for its tasks or “representative” of the racial and ethnic composition of the nation. We are asked to accept equality of opportunity—on the basis of “merit”—to dominate and exploit others.
♦ On Tuesday evening, December 8, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik delivered the thirty-third annual Erasmus Lecture: “Lincoln’s Almost Chosen People: Hebraism, Nationalism, and the American Future.” Rabbi Soloveichik gave his lecture in the Lincoln Room at the Union League Club in New York, which is presided over by a large portrait of the Civil War president. Pandemic restrictions limited the audience to fifty, but the spirit of the small group was large. All of us cherished the opportunity to gather, a blessing in this time of isolation and the Zoomification of community.
We have had many fine and eminent speakers over the years. Rabbi Soloveichik was among the most eloquent and moving. We have printed his lecture in this issue. But I urge readers to view the video as well as read the text. The video is available at firstthings.com/media.
♦ I’d like to thank the Hertog Foundation and Towne family for their support of Rabbi Soloveichik’s lecture.
♦ As I write, we are in the midst of our year-end campaign. The entire staff of First Things is grateful to all who donated. Your generosity allows us to continue as a strong and undaunted voice for religious people who care about the future of our society.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.