Pandemic, lockdowns, shuttered churches, trillions spent, BLM protests turning violent, political rancor, hyper-partisan media, uproar after the election, a mob storming the Capitol: Strong tremors are shaking our society. If you’re like me, you’re feeling knocked off balance, and you’re casting about for explanations.
Those on the left spy resurgent racism, xenophobia, and other pathologies, which they assume are radicalizing a populist base. Those on the right worry about utopian dreams on the left, which fuel a new totalitarianism that monitors pronouns and cancels dissent. By my lights, these lines of analysis can tend toward hysteria (“Fascism!” “Socialism!”) rather than understanding. They are symptoms of our disorientation, not pathways toward a sure footing in this time of staggering and stumbling.
For help, I recently turned to the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. In a discussion of the doctrine of creation in the third part of the third volume of his Church Dogmatics, Barth identifies the deepest source of our unease.
God does not just create us and preserve us in existence. In his sovereign power, the Lord governs the world, and he does so in accord with his righteous and benevolent providence. Yet God’s providence meets resistance. There is a counterforce operating in the world. At the opening of the Bible, we are told of a cunning serpent. At the Bible’s close, we find opposition to God’s purposes depicted as a seven-headed beast. Barth interprets these images as agents of the mysterious shadow-side of creation, das Nichtige, the dark and formless void, the yawning abyss of nothingness.
Nothingness is not the same as evil. As St. Augustine observed, malum tendit ad non esse, “evil tends toward non-being.” But insofar as evil intentions, plans, choices, and deeds exist, they are contrary to the good, and thus they perversely reflect its structure, order, and beauty. As our baptismal renunciations acknowledge, evil has glamor. Satan’s ambitions are malign, but he exists, which means that part of his agony is his unwilling but ongoing participation in the divine gift of creation. The devil may seek the triumph of nothingness, but he cannot be nothing.
Nothingness is not good misprized and perverted. It is not existence misused and desecrated. Nothingness is more primitive. It is the dissolving edge of existence, the haunting specter of “that which is not.” Nothingness is related to sin as its real but impossible dead-end. The sinner who despairs in his guilt is lurching toward the embrace of nothingness. We can be overtaken by dread, captive to the fear that suffering has no meaning and death is final. In these moments, we flounder in the quicksand of nothingness. It overwhelms us when we fall under the sway of “the truth of falsehood, the power of impotence, the sense of non-sense.”
We cannot fend off nothingness by steeling our wills. Nor can we find stable ground by reasoning our way back to first principles or purifying our intentions. These are at best strategic retreats in the face of falsehood, impotence, and non-sense. We can and should renounce evil, but we cannot and should not “renounce” nothingness. Trying to do so is in fact contrary to our faith. As Barth observes, we pretend to a God-like power to create, sustain, and guide all things. By contrast, in the face of nothingness we must pray: “Defend us, O Lord.” The human alternative to the abyss of nothingness is trust in God’s providential care: “In thee, O Lord, do I seek refuge.”
A friend recently said, “Lack of trust is the acid eating everything.” He was not referring to trust in God. He was pointing to the decline of trust in many once-stable authorities. Nevertheless, Barth’s analysis can guide our thinking, not just about theology, but also about public life.
The mistrust is well-earned. To an extent that continues to shock me, prestige media have become indistinguishable from propaganda. BLM protests are “mostly peaceful,” whereas the mob in the Capitol amounts to an “insurrection.” Claims of electoral fraud are not unsubstantiated; they are immediately judged “false.” As Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins has noted on many occasions, reporting on the pandemic has been worse than inaccurate. And we noticed the shift from front-page gloom about the pandemic during the election season to less coverage and a less dire tone after Biden’s victory.
Science is also being discredited. Climate scientists pioneered the weaponization of expertise for political purposes. Other disciplines are following suit, encouraged by a university culture that deems “justice” more important than truth.
Mistrust runs through public life as well. Trumpian loyalists denounce some Republican senators as “traitors.” They are denounced in turn by respectable conservatives as an emerging “extreme right” that is captive to conspiracy theories.
We not only distrust one another. We also have lost confidence in institutions that in an earlier time easily won our loyalty. Students at my alma mater, Haverford College, went on strike to protest what they see as ongoing racial inequities on campus. Even in richly endowed precincts of elite higher education with exquisitely molded liberal norms, students are accusatory and mistrustful. As an alumnus, I was saddened by the administration’s craven appeasement. Like the striking students, I am increasingly alienated from an institution that has played an important role in my life.
Family and friendships ought to be the innermost circle of stability. Yet here as well, nothingness, with its dissolving edge, draws near. Marriage is in decline, and friendships have become increasingly utilitarian. A number of friends report that partisan politics has fractured once-close friendships, even families. Our most intimate relationships slide toward dissolution. We’re susceptible to a paralyzing dread that we won’t have a circle of friends we can talk to, even argue with. Will they cancel or “unfriend” us if we say something untoward or give vent to ill-considered rhetoric?
As people of faith, we need to return again and again to the Lord, putting our trust in his providential care. But the supernatural perfections of faith, hope, and love have natural analogues that likewise deserve our attention. We should seek people and institutions we can trust. Unlike faith, this trust needs to be partial, not complete. No worldly institution backs up its promises with the certainty of God’s power and righteousness. We are not called to be chumps. Yet we must beware the acids of mistrust and counter them with gestures of loyalty.
In society, as in relationships, trust is a two-way street. We need to give institutions the benefit of the doubt. Some have betrayed and will betray our trust. I cannot read the New York Times without mourning the demise of a once-important source of intelligently analyzed, well-reported news. In an earlier time, the Times was liberal. But I could trust that it shared my commitment to truth. That’s no longer the case, or at least it is much less clearly so. I feel the same way about higher education. Universities have become toxic. But we can’t wallow in cynical disdain, which is an ally of nothingness and ministers to its disintegrating power. It is incumbent on us to find people and institutions with whom and in which we can share the bonds of loyalty.
Over the last two years, I have spoken at a number of small Christian, classical schools. A few years earlier, I visited Augustine College in Ottawa, a remarkable and inspiring micro-institution. Some universities are launching admirable programs. There are noble holdouts and promising new initiatives. In my travels, I have discovered that many ROFTERS groups provide cherished opportunities for fellowship. There are other spheres for friendship and opportunities to make common cause. It is my hope First Things remains an institution readers can trust.
All of us feel the rising wind and see the dark clouds. A storm is coming that will destroy a great deal. I fear it already has. Our trust will be tested—our trust in God and our loyalty to one another. This testing reflects, perhaps, the wisdom of God’s providence. As long experience in marriage teaches, it is not intelligence or beauty or even principled conduct that undergirds a couple’s enduring life together. It is fidelity, not just of two people to each other, but to the institution of marriage itself, which we trust is noble enough and strong enough to survive our failings. Let us apply that trust as widely as we can. In the coming storm, we will need each other and the institutions that are worthy of our loyalty.
Whatever we think about the public health benefits of lockdowns and mandatory masks, we must be honest about the costs, which are by no means merely economic. Aaron Kheriaty has written about the psychological toll (“The Other Pandemic: The Lockdown Mental Health Crisis”). He reports a striking rise in suicidal thoughts among young people, as well as increased rates of anxiety disorders and depression. But the effects are not merely personal. Our approach to the pandemic has also put stress on the body politic.
Civic life is not a machine in perpetual motion: It requires constant renewal. This renewal occurs during public rituals such as elections, inaugurations, and Fourth of July parades. But a deeper and subtler renewal occurs every day. We greet strangers with a smile. We apologize when we bump into someone on a crowded train platform. Brief exchanges of pleasantries with store clerks bring smiles. These moments repair the bonds of civic life. They are small and nearly invisible, but they are real and, when added up, of great consequence. The ancient Greeks identified city life with civilization. When our days are spent successfully navigating manifold interactions—some friendly, some competitive, some potentially hostile—we come to trust that civic life will hold together. Given our fallen natures, this is a considerable consolation.
This fine web of everyday interactions has been suspended by lockdowns. Even where the lockdowns are lifted, white-collar workers often continue to work at home. As we near the one-year mark of COVID-19, Grand Central Station in New York remains largely empty. Subway ridership is low. Midtown Manhattan continues to be deserted.
It is important to recognize, however, that civic life has not been suspended—if by that word we wish to indicate a temporary cessation after which we will resume as if nothing had happened. We cannot put our society into a freezer and then thaw it out after a year of social distancing. Civilization is an accomplishment, one subject to the law of entropy. If social trust is not being renewed, it is decaying.
The political uproars of recent months are evidence of decay. In my experience, political hysteria rises as one goes up the social and income ladder. Throughout 2020, blue-collar workers have had to traverse the public square to get to work—and they are less suspicious and more trusting of others, even in this time of political polarization. By contrast, those who work at home are more susceptible to fears of social disruption and violence. It’s not just that they spend too much time on Twitter. To a great degree, they have forsaken civic life, confusing the daily practice of reading the news and being informed (and having sophisticated opinions) with the reality of participating in society.
The evening before the election in November, I took a taxi home. The driver could not afford to self-isolate. He spent his days driving people around, smoothing over rough spots when passengers were anxious, or even angry, and perhaps enjoying moments of improbable rapport. In his line of work, one has to trust in people’s basic decency; otherwise, the job of picking up strangers would be intolerably stressful. We talked about the looming election. I asked him whether he thought there might be violence. The driver, an immigrant from Egypt, shook his head and then gestured with disgust toward the freshly boarded-up businesses. “They don’t believe in their own country,” he said. I agreed. In the face of media partisanship, hyperbolic political rhetoric, and toxic social media, how could society’s decision-makers, self-isolated and confined to their “bubbles,” renew their trust in the decency of their fellow citizens?
Masks also impose costs on civic life. In Beyond Radical Secularism, Pierre Manent assesses the role of Muslims in France. He rejects secularist efforts to liberalize Islam. But on one issue he is adamant: The burqa, which covers a woman’s face, cannot be accepted in the West.
Covering the face “prevents the exchange of signs by which a human being recognizes another human being.” This exchange has a fundamental significance for the Western ideal of civic life. Society can be hierarchical. It certainly has been in the past and remains so today. But under normal circumstances, we “see” and acknowledge one another. This is the foundation of political life in the West, undergirding the rights and responsibilities that are the sinews of the social order. Covering the face marks a refusal to enter into the open exchanges of the public square. It asserts the priority of familial, tribal, and clan loyalties, for only in those realms is the face unveiled and “seen.”
The mask mandates imposed during the pandemic may be medically indicated. And, unlike the burqa, they are meant to be temporary. But we must be clear-minded about the costs. Manent recognizes that face coverings are not neutral symbols. Their use is an “ongoing aggression against human sociability.” Like self-isolation and other methods of minimizing social contact, masks impede the face-to-face encounters that renew sociability and restore the baseline of trust that every civic order needs in order to sustain itself during times of stress and conflict.
Much has been made about the work-at-home revolution, which many believe will last after the pandemic recedes. Perhaps, but I wonder whether the basic human need for social interaction will dictate otherwise. Of this I am sure: If the most well-to-do, well-educated, and powerful people work and live in relative isolation, interacting with others (nearly all of whom live and think as they do) largely through social media and on screens, then mistrust, recrimination, and partisan hysteria will increase, because they will not be tempered and corrected by the interactions of everyday life.
There are times when public heath emergencies require antisocial actions, just as personal illnesses often require hospitalization, which halts everyday life and suspends activity. But when we suspend everyday interactions on a mass scale, social entropy degrades the body politic, just as the human body weakens during long periods of idleness when we are confined to a hospital bed. Self-isolation, restrictions on gatherings, and mask mandates—these may be necessary to guard our health and the health of others. But such measures, if pursued over a long period of time, weaken the fabric of civic life. Coming out of the pandemic, we will not only need to revive the economy. We will also need to renew civic life and combat social entropy.
On December 12, a small rally was held in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the event, dubbed the “Jericho March” by its organizers, was to “Save the Republic.” Given the ardent convictions of those gathered, this meant supporting Donald Trump and challenging the fairness of the recent election. General Michael Flynn discoursed passionately on the Constitution, which he portrayed as under assault. Dennis Prager joined by video, detailing some of the antinomian consequences of secular leftism. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó (also piped in by video) assured listeners that prayer triumphs over the “evil” of the “deep state.” He appealed to the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe to guard and protect the United States. A series of speakers, some imbued with a fire familiar to Pentecostal churchgoers, exhorted the crowd to “fight for this country” and “never apologize for the greatness of this country.”
Westminster Seminary professor Michael Horton was appalled. Writing for the Gospel Coalition, he deemed the event “disgraceful,” a “blasphemy,” and tantamount to “heresy.” In Horton’s eyes, the rally amounted to “rank spiritual adultery.” Those participating had bowed before the “cult of Christian Trumpism” rather than honoring the Triune God.
On the basis of these observations, Horton appears to reject the notion that America (or any other country) should be animated by Christian conviction. “On biblical grounds alone . . . this ideal—of a ‘Christian nation’ other than the universal church; of the gospel as a social, moral, or political agenda; and of a saving faith as something that can be legislated and enforced—must be rejected.”
I fear Horton has created a straw man. The Jericho March (like other Trump rallies over the last five years) reflects a long American tradition of religiously inspired populism. The heated rhetoric, political and religious, is alien to my sensibilities. Like my martinis, I prefer my politics and religion dry. But on the whole, it’s a good thing for religiously motivated Americans to engage in civic life—and to do so with religious passion and in a biblical idiom.
In my experience, the sorts of folks who cite Scripture or invoke the Virgin Mary at political rallies do not aim to legislate a saving faith. And, though the gospel transcends any social or political agenda, it surely has social and political implications, which can rightly be expressed at certain times and in certain circumstances as an “agenda.” After all, the abolition of slavery was an “agenda,” one often framed in biblical terms.
Horton is overreacting, and he risks placing himself among proponents of the naked public square. To avoid this misalliance, we need to separate our theological and political judgments (which may run counter to those of Jericho March organizers) from our overall assessment of the role of religion in public life. In 2016, a number of Trump-supporting pastors searched the Scriptures for texts that would support their political judgments. In order to reconcile themselves to Trump’s tawdry reputation, some drew attention to King David, the sinner turned penitent. Others, concerned by Trump’s apparent lack of genuine Christian faith, portrayed him as a latter-day King Cyrus, a pagan patron of the righteous.
We can criticize these uses of the Bible on theological and exegetical grounds. But we should affirm them as efforts to frame public life in biblical terms. As my teacher George Lindbeck observed, a vital, living, Christian community sees the biblical text as the master-code of reality. For the faithful, it “absorbs the world, rather than the world the text.” Politics is part of the world. It, too, must be absorbed into the Bible’s language. This can be done well. And it can be done poorly. But we should beware those who say it should not be done at all.
The same holds for the introjection of religious symbols, pious rhetoric, and prayer into the fray of electoral politics, which in a democracy is always (and often rightly) riven with urgency, passion, and party spirit. Bringing faith into public life can be done crudely and cynically. Faith can become captive to politically correct absurdities, as was the case when Representative and United Methodist pastor Emmanuel Cleaver ended his opening prayer for the 117th Congress by saying, “Amen, and Awomen.” It can become subservient to bad theology, bad political judgment, and bad manners. None of this is good, but all of it is better than bare secularity.
When I was a graduate student, Richard John Neuhaus wrote The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. I thrilled to his bold assertions. The biblical message has a public meaning! “The American Experiment,” Neuhaus wrote, “is severely and unnaturally crippled if the religiously grounded values of the American people are ruled out of order in public discourse.” He defended Jerry Falwell against claims that religion ought to be kept out of politics. Neuhaus did not agree with elements of Falwell’s politics, and at times he criticized his theology and other “fundamentalist vulgarizations of religion.” But he appreciated that Falwell was unashamed to address issues of public significance as a Christian, and in a Christian way.
Neuhaus drew attention to the obvious fact that one of America’s secular saints, Martin Luther King Jr., did exactly the same thing. King preached to the American public, drawing upon the Hebrew prophets and casting the journey of African-Americans in terms of the Exodus. As King appealed to the Bible, he interwove phrases from America’s canonical texts and verses from our nation’s patriotic songs. We can marvel at his rhetorical mastery. We can honor the righteousness of his cause. We can note that lesser men weave these materials more crudely than King did. We can observe that their causes are less noble and their witness marred by venality. But this is reason to ask them to do better. It is not reason to denounce the very idea of a Christian politics.
During Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister, he prepared a speech that ended, “God bless Britain.” His aides convinced him to take God out, arguing, “This is not America.” Fair enough, but this is America. In his inaugural address, Joe Biden quoted St. Augustine and invoked God. I reject many elements of Biden’s politics. I fear he’ll dress up his party’s progressive agenda in false theological garb, using simplistic, pseudo-theological slogans coined by progressive Christians. (I recall one from my Episcopalian years, meant to justify gay sex: “God does not make mistakes.”) But we are far better off with a public square tinctured with biblical language, however ill-conceived, consecrated by prayers, however insincerely offered, and animated by theological assertions, however misguided, than we are with a naked public square.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ “The ballast once provided by Mainline Protestantism is largely gone,” observes Stephen P. White, “and our current predicament is partly the result of the inadequacy of ‘mere politics’ to function well in a metaphysical vacuum.” White notes that the incoming president, the Chief Justice, and the Speaker of the House are all Catholics. The hope that Catholicism could step into the role of Mainline Protestantism was “articulated by a then-Lutheran pastor, Richard John Neuhaus, later a convert to Rome,” who hoped that Catholicism would provide, as Neuhaus put it, a “religiously informed, public moral philosophy.” As White notes, Neuhaus envisioned a future in which the Catholic Church “could help define and expound the fundamental things we agree upon, which are prior to the political things we don’t agree on.”
In White’s judgment, “That vision of a Catholic Moment has, I think, manifestly failed. At the very least, it has failed thus far and there are few who still see much hope for its revival.” The striking presence of Catholics in high positions “means next to nothing. . . . We have achieved something of the appearance of the Catholic Moment Neuhaus hoped for, but none of the substance.” But I wonder whether White undersells Catholicism’s influence, even in its weakened twenty-first-century condition. He writes: “For our nation to flourish, it must first begin to heal; for it to heal, we will have to find some deep source of unity which is stronger [than] the politics that divide us.” I remain convinced that the Catholic Church, along with faithful Protestants and Jews, can contribute to that “deep source.” The “deep source” will always be ad hoc and theologically inadequate, not just because our society is pluralist, but because political life is corrupted by sin, and this affects every level of our civic consensus. But count me hopeful. The biblical worldview is part of the DNA of our society. It makes a difference that our leaders have a religious background, even if it is lightly carried and only half-remembered.
♦ Northwestern University enjoys the presence of NU Community Not Cops, a group committed to defunding the police. Some months ago the group issued demands. The Northwestern administration temporized. Recently, top brass at the school set up a meeting with the group’s leadership. Speaking for the group, organizer Liz Curtis clarified the ground rules: “We understand that you would like for this meeting to be a dialogue. However we would like for all of you to understand that you lost that privilege months ago.”
♦ I urge readers to purchase print subscriptions. The censorship of recent months indicates that we could at any time be shut down on the internet and kicked off Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iPad. At this juncture, print journalism still has the protection of the United States Constitution. Unlike Big Tech, the U.S. Postal Service is not allowed to choose whose ideas and opinions it will deliver.
♦ In Tablet, Alana Newhouse meditates on the curse of “flatness,” the dominant condition of life that squishes us into ideologically safe pancakes. Her essay, “Everything is Broken,” is worth a close read. She is certainly correct in her judgment that most of what has become obligatory, from resumé “curating” to gender ideology, is not embraced with enthusiasm, but rather accepted as “what one has to do.” This fact suggests widespread dissatisfaction, a hungering that arises from something, well, sane. I was particularly taken by her concluding exhortation:
[The] disconnect between culturally mandated politics and the actual demonstrated preferences of most Americans has created an enormous reserve of unmet needs—and a generational opportunity. Build new things! Create great art! Understand and accept that sensory information is the brain’s food, and that Silicon Valley is systematically starving us of it. Avoid going entirely tree-blind. Make a friend and don’t talk politics with them. Do things that generate love and attention from three people you actually know instead of hundreds you don’t. Abandon the blighted Ivy League, please, I beg of you. Start a publishing house that puts out books that anger, surprise and delight people and which make them want to read. Be brave enough to make film and TV that appeals to actual audiences and not 14 people on Twitter. Establish a newspaper, one people can see themselves in and hold in their hands. Go back to a house of worship—every week. Give up on our current institutions; they already gave up on us.
It is my hope that First Things lives up to some of these imperatives.
♦ Yuval Levin argues that we need hard-backed pews, not soft-seated ones, which is to say we need religious communities with clear and rigorous expectations rather than fuzzy, ambiguous standards. He writes:
This is the ironic truth at the heart of America’s social crisis: We have become disillusioned and alienated from our institutions not because they are too demanding but because they are not demanding enough. We want to be called to acts of devotion, not just affirmed in acts of expression.
♦ Levin’s assessment of our present distempers and the need for strong (and demanding) institutions, “The Case for Wooden Pews,” can be found in the inaugural issue of Deseret Magazine, a new publication of Deseret News, the more than 170-year-old newspaper of record in Utah.
♦ In the February issue, I noted that the Minnesota Council of Churches had urged its members to make reparations pledges to African-American and Native American communities in order to compensate for the legacy of “White supremacy.” I observed that I doubted congregations were going to sell off their properties to make reparations payments. The Council’s program and communications director directed my attention to the statements of Director of Racial Justice Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, who does not propose dissolution but rather hopes that congregations will support Native American communities with “a line in their budget, like they do for building maintenance.” Duly noted. But I remain opposed to reparations. One of the perversions of our present historical moment has been the return of a Jim Crow mentality that insists upon making racial identity supreme. We have a duty to widows and orphans, the sick and the outcast, those hungry, homeless, and imprisoned. If anything, the history of racism in America ought to caution us against parsing these gospel obligations in racial terms.
♦ I also reject appeals to racism as the single, all-encompassing explanation of society’s ills. Rev. Curtiss DeYoung, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches, offers an example: “Minnesota has some of the highest racial disparities in the country—in health, wealth, housing, how police treat folks. Those disparities all come from a deep history of racism.” Racism—one ring to rule them all.
♦ I was a lay deputy at the 1997 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. One item of legislation committed the Episcopal Church to repentance for the sin of anti-Semitism, which had led to the Holocaust. I recall attending the committee meeting that discussed the resolution. I marveled at the arrogance of people who took it upon themselves to repent of other people’s sins rather than their own. It was at the same convention that I heard many advocates of gay affirmation inveigh against moralistic “Pharisees” and mock the notion that anyone would take the book of Leviticus seriously, which of course is exactly what Orthodox Jews do. I recoil in a similar way from the spiritual conceit behind race-based reparations. In November 2019, the Episcopal diocese of New York committed $1.1 million to endow a reparations fund. Bishop Andrew Dietsche said, “It’s time to address and reckon with the wrongs and evils of our past.” “We have a great deal to answer for,” he went on to say. “We are complicit.” Only someone mired in the most rebarbative theories of race and identity could imagine that there exists a morally coherent “we” about whom such moral claims regarding complicity and collective guilt can be made.
♦ Let me put this bluntly: Reparations politics is the humble-brag mirror image of white supremacy. By all means, give aid to those in need, and give generously. But don’t turn it into yet another racial performance. In 2021, these performances are geared more to the psychological and spiritual needs of those at the top of society than to the material needs of the poor.
♦ Boundaries of Eden is Glenn Arbery’s second novel. Like his first, Bearings and Distances (also published by Wiseblood Books), it is set in Gallatin, an imaginary small town in Georgia. One part Faulkner, Boundaries of Eden creates a multi-generational world of past-haunted Southerners, black and white, who struggle with the legacy of slavery. But Arbery’s novel is not overburdened with Faulknerian doom. Events tumble forward, and the novel is full of vivid images of the twenty-first-century South: ex-urban housing developments, football mania, women in yoga pants drinking white wine in cafés that serve organic food. The astute social observation would make Tom Wolfe proud. And Arbery’s Dickensian characters won me over. Arbery clearly has affection for them, as Dickens did for his characters (and Tom Wolfe did not for his). They live, suffer, and love rather than symbolize.
Boundaries of Eden is no more an apology for the South than Fitzgerald’s Love of the Last Tycoon was a defense of Hollywood. Nor is it “about” race, though it is wiser on that topic than many treatises, for the novel presents life under the sign of race rather than issuing moralizing claptrap about it. One of the characters, Braxton Forrest, carries the name of the Confederacy’s great cavalry general who played a key role in founding the first Ku Klux Klan. In a late-night, bourbon-aided conversation with his long-time friend Walter Peach, Forrest waves aside political correctness: “You know, it’s a consolation . . . to have a history of actual wrong. A heritage of real injustice instead of all the bullshit whining about gender identity and microaggression.”
♦ In mid-January, Mark Bauerlein put into my hands a copy of Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life, saying, “You’re gonna like this.” The volume collects a number of Dana Gioia’s essays about famous writers he knew as an aspiring poet and a student of literature in the early 1970s. I chuckled over Gioia’s recounting of his youthful amazement when, in conversations with eminent figures such as Robert Fitzgerald, the great translator of Homer and Virgil, he would hear famous contemporaries referred to by their first names. Gioia’s account of meeting James Dickey shines amusing light on the vanity of authors, as well as the perverse combination of intense competition and shameless log-rolling in the literary world. His essay on John Cheever brought back memories of my own youthful romance with that writer’s short stories—and my disappointment when I read his “comeback” novel, Falconer, which I found dark in ways that left behind the shadow-dappled suburban world I knew. Mark was right about Studying with Miss Bishop. I enjoyed every page.
♦ The Bostock decision found in favor of transgender plaintiffs, arguing that the civil rights protections against employment discrimination applied to them. In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch strenuously rejected the notion that the reasoning behind his decision to apply LGBT ideology to employment discrimination law would spill over into contested issues such as locker rooms and bathrooms. The legal minds in the Biden administration think otherwise. Within twenty-four hours of his inauguration, Biden signed an executive order that claims to “build on” Bostock. It directs federal agencies to incorporate LGBT categories into prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex, in all areas covered by the Civil Rights Act: education, housing, healthcare, and many other aspects of our lives, including high school locker rooms. We are now where Justice Alito warned we would be in his Bostock dissent: LGBT ideology is being entrenched in every aspect of our civil rights law.
♦ In a thoughtful roundup of what we have learned since 2016 (“Trump and the Failure of the Expert Class”), Barton Swaim notes the contribution of media to our political dysfunction:
Reporters treated every turn of events as evidence of Mr. Trump’s unique evil. They regarded every preposterous accusation put forward by his political foes as reasonable and likely true. The repeal of “net neutrality,” an Obama-era regulation on internet service providers, heralded the end of the open internet (it didn’t). The administration built “cages” in which to cram children of illegal border crossers (it didn’t). The president praised neo-Nazis as “very fine people” (he didn’t). His postmaster general was removing mailboxes to steal the election (an obvious lie). In retrospect, it was hardly surprising that so many Americans believed Mr. Trump’s fictitious claims about the election. Reports of his defeat, accurate though they were, meant little coming from news organizations that cared so much about discrediting him and so little about factual truth.
♦ Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election to decide whether to unionize as a chapter of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The NLRB authorized a mail-in vote. Amazon filed a motion to reverse that decision, asking the NLRB to require in-person voting. Seeking a “valid, fair and successful election,” the company expressed concerns that mail-in voting can lead to fraud and coercion.
♦ Writing for City Journal, Martin Gurri offers a comprehensive survey of the pivot toward left-wing advocacy in news reporting (“Slouching Toward Post-Journalism”). What began as a moral panic over Trump turned into a tremendously powerful financial incentive to foment the most hysterical political passions, produce “angry citizens,” and deepen polarization:
The intent of post-journalism was never to represent reality or inform the public but to arouse enough political fervor in readers that they wished to enter the paywall in support of the cause. This was ideology by the numbers—and the numbers were striking. Digital subscriptions to the New York Times, which had been stagnant, nearly doubled in the first year of Trump’s presidency. By August 2020, the paper had 6 million digital subscribers—six times the number on Election Day 2016 and the most in the world for any newspaper. The Russian collusion story, though refuted objectively, had been validated subjectively, by the growth in the congregation of the paying faithful.
Gurri shows how, after the Russian collusion story was shown to be a hoax, the Times pivoted to racism as the all-pervasive evil that explains Trump. Today, prestige media fan racial resentments and conflict, and they do so in order to make money. To a great extent, the New York Times and others have adopted the business model of 1990s conservative talk radio hosts like Michael Savage.
♦ Angela Franks’s illuminating exposition of Michel Foucault’s inversion of classical views of the body and soul (“Foucault’s Principalities & Powers”) helps me to understand the much-noted fragility of today’s elite university students. They are told that their souls (called “identities” in today’s parlance) are “socially constructed.” By this way of thinking, we are male or female only because people use certain pronouns when they refer to us. If we are truly vulnerable to others in this radical way—what others say is soul-defining!—then speech codes and demands for “safe spaces” make a great deal of sense.
♦ The First Things Junior Fellows program is open for applications. Junior Fellows play integral roles and assume a great deal of responsibility in our day-to-day operations. It’s a great opportunity to hone your skills as an editor and learn the ropes of publishing. To apply, send our managing editor, Lauren Geist (firstname.lastname@example.org), a resume, a 250-word description of what you hope to learn from the fellowship, a writing sample (no more than two thousand words), and contact information for three references. The application deadline is March 15.
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♦ I am pleased to report that our year-end campaign for financial support was a smashing success. We exceeded our goal, raising more than $1,000,000. Over the course of 2020, more than 2,100 people contributed to First Things, and more than three hundred did so as members of our Editor’s Circle, donating $1,000 or more. On behalf of the staff and all the members of the First Things community, I would like to thank you for your generous support.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.