No theologian has exercised a greater influence on me than Karl Barth. I first encountered his work while I was a student at Haverford College. In those years, I was smitten with Carl Jung and Paul Tillich, who fed my growing interest in matters spiritual. But Barth did not traffic in the soft currency of “meaning.” His was the gold bullion of truth. I had to decide: Is Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God? There is no question of greater importance—and no question more scrupulously evaded by those seeking to discuss Christianity in “academic” terms. I owe my undergraduate teacher and mentor Ronald Thiemann a great spiritual debt: I came to read Barth because Thiemann assigned him.
So, it was with the pleasure of revisiting a favorite haunt that I read Christiane Tietz’s new biography of the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict. Tietz gives full treatment to Barth’s irregular domestic life, drawing on personal letters released by the Barth family in recent years (about which more below). But the biography does not dwell on titillating revelations. Tietz is a theologian by training, having studied under Eberhard Jüngel, who attended Barth’s seminars in the late 1950s. She is a reliable guide to her academic grandfather and the biography functions as a sound, accessible introduction to Barth’s thought.
Born in 1886 in Basel, Barth was the son of a theology professor and grandson of two pastors in the Swiss Reformed Church. The young Barth followed in their footsteps, beginning his theological studies at the seminary where his father taught. In the German-speaking world of Barth’s era, prominent Protestant theologians had star status, often because of their creative recasting of the Christian message. This was perhaps inevitable in traditions such as Lutheranism and Calvinism, which are named after the seminal thinkers who supply their theological Gestalts. Advanced students circulated in Germany’s universities, doing a semester here and a semester there to attend lectures and take seminars with the “hot” theologians. In Barth’s case, the first stop for advanced study was Berlin, where he worked under Adolf von Harnack, the most eminent church historian of the era and an influential liberal theologian.
The notion of “liberalism” in theology requires elucidation. In the nineteenth century, Christianity could not sustain its comprehensive authority in society and culture. Modern politics operated without regard to ecclesiastical authority. Art and literature asserted their own power of “genius,” which many deemed more revelatory than inherited dogmas. In the university, theology confronted a modern science that operated independently of Christian teaching. In German, the concept of science (Wissenschaft) encompasses all forms of disciplined, objective study, including historical study of the Christian tradition. When Barth was a student, therefore, a theologian was “liberal,” not in a political sense, but to the extent that he gave free reign to the modern methods of historical, social, and philosophical analysis, even if those methods produced results contrary to the inherited teachings of Christianity.
This liberalism produced many crises in Protestant churches, the most pressing of which concerned the authorship of the Bible and the trustworthiness of its claims. But in Barth’s development, the more important problems concerned God and revelation. In the eyes of great figures such as Harnack, modern philosophy (embodied by Immanuel Kant) had definitively shown that we cannot make credible claims about metaphysical realities, including about God, at least not in direct ways. According to this stricture, biblical statements about God and Christ could not be taken at face value. As the late-eighteenth-century German thinker Gotthold Ephraim Lessing put it, “Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.” On this view, conceptions of God and the supernatural must be “mediated,” giving rise to the “problem of revelation.” Liberal theologians took it as self-evident that “responsible” theologians must give an account of how timeless truths about God are “mediated” to men living in the ongoing stream of historical time.
There were two ways to go. Hegel theorized a process of temporal mediation that aligned historical change with the evolution of consciousness. His account was extraordinarily influential. Others framed less ambitious schemes, distinguishing between “myth” (which in its modern German usage bespeaks a higher truth) and history. These approaches allowed Harnack and others to portray Christianity in developmental terms. Christianity begins with revelation communicated in the primitive, miracle-laden worldview of antiquity and evolves toward the modern outlook. Theologians properly trained in our time have the task of discerning the mythic character of biblical revelation and drawing out its religious essence without appealing to the supernatural elements native to the earlier, more primitive mode of religious expression. Rudolf Bultmann’s program of “de-mythologization” traffics in this tradition of mediation.
The second mode of mediation operates within the human subject. Friedrich Schleiermacher was Hegel’s contemporary. Instead of emphasizing history’s unfolding as the vehicle for divine revelation, Schleiermacher identified “feeling” as the point of contact between the infinite and the finite. By his way of thinking, the purpose of biblical revelation is not to convey truths about God. Rather, religious language stimulates in us the feeling of “absolute dependence,” which is the essence of faith. Other liberal theologians focused on the capacity of religious language to stir up moral ardor; Christian teaching is “supernatural” because it sparks a desire to transcend our self-centered existence and live in service to others. Harnack combined both ideas, arguing that the essential message of Christianity proclaims the Fatherhood of God (absolute dependence) and the brotherhood of man (moral purpose).
Barth was not a “Harnackian” in a slavish sense. He studied with other famous theologians, and Wilhelm Herrmann was an influential teacher. But in his autobiographical accounts of his youthful outlook, Barth reports that he accepted the main outlines of the liberal understanding of theology and revelation. The truth about God must be mediated. Premodern Christians did so, but they were not aware of what they were doing. Modern science, however, has made us self-aware. Therefore, we cannot simply repeat the dogmas of the past. Theologians must distill and reformulate them so that modern man can hear again the truth of the gospel.
Perhaps he would have continued in this way of thinking, but Barth was a member of the fin de siècle generation of Europeans foredoomed to disenchantment. He could not sustain his liberalism in theology, which, given the importance of this approach in German-speaking Protestantism, meant that he could not remain a “modern man.”
The Great War triggered Barth’s disenchantment (as it did that of many others). In the years immediately before the war, he had returned to Switzerland to assume a pastoral role, first in a German-speaking congregation in Geneva, then in Safenwil, a small industrial town west of Zurich. As Europe careened toward war in the summer of 1914, ninety-three German intellectuals published a manifesto endorsing Germany’s mobilization and affirming the righteousness of the German cause. This was for Barth a decisive moment. “Among those who undersigned,” he reports, “I had to discover with dismay the names of approximately all my German professors.” Their readiness to fall in line with German militarism “shook to the very foundation an entire world of theological exegesis, ethics, dogmatics, and preaching, that until then I had held to be credible in principle.” Liberalism in theology, Barth discovered, has no backbone. Its theories of mediation led to capitulation to the dark spirits of the age.
During the war years and immediately after, Barth embarked on a rethinking of theological first principles in the form of a commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The result was The Epistle to the Romans, published in 1919. (It was significantly revised for a second edition published in 1922.) The book evoked a storm of controversy. The Catholic theologian Karl Adam is reputed to have said that Barth’s commentary “fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.” Adolf von Harnack felt compelled to publish a series of critical questions meant to isolate Barth, his former student, as an intellectually irresponsible biblical literalist. Barth penned vigorous and unrepentant replies.
The Epistle to the Romans marked the beginning of what might be called “post-liberal” theology. Barth accepted modern biblical scholarship’s claims about the historical layers and complex authorship of the biblical text. But he denied that it mattered very much for the most important question facing a reader of the Bible: What is God saying to me? Yes, we live at a historical distance from the Apostle Paul, but Barth argued that this historical distance pales in comparison to the spiritual distance between our fallen humanity and the radical “otherness” of God. “If we rightly understand ourselves,” Barth wrote in the preface to the first edition of his commentary, “our problems are the problems of Paul.” In short, there is no “problem of revelation,” no need to formulate a theory of “mediation” in order to bring God’s message to “modern man.” Instead, there is a primordial problem of sin—how can we stand before the righteousness of God? This is a problem that requires a Mediator, not mediation.
Barth cured me of metaphysical or historical worries about the “accessibility” of God to “modern man.” If one believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Son of God, then one believes in the power of God to overcome all distances, whether framed in terms of the infinite and the finite or in terms of the first century and the twentieth. Barth showed that it is silly to worry that the complexities of authorship, editing, and canonization of the Old and New Testament might somehow impede the power of the Bible to reveal Christ. If God can use a young virgin to bring forth the Word made flesh, then surely he can use the historical processes that shaped the biblical texts we read today, just as God uses the humble bread and wine of the Eucharist to make himself present to us.
Barth showed me the core meaning of scriptural inerrancy: What the Bible says is exactly what we need to hear. This view is not “anti-historical.” It is open to the work of modern historians, aspects of which can enrich our reading of the Bible. (Ratzinger’s three-volume Jesus of Nazareth offers a good example.) But a proper view of inerrancy is “anti-historicist,” which is to say properly indifferent to academic claims that “history” throws up fundamental barriers to our hearing what God wishes to say in and through Scripture. Barth was a creative and insightful interpreter of Scripture, but he was not “hermeneutical.”
Over the years, Barth’s theology has also helped me become “anti-modern.” A conceit of liberal theology—widely shared among modern scholars in all disciplines—is that the modern era is unique. Bultmann famously claimed, “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.” That many people in our age do not believe is beyond question, but it is absurd to say that modern technology has so changed the human condition that we cannot think and live in accord with the New Testament’s confidence in the power of God.
Barth’s early work depicted God’s presence with metaphors of explosions, lightning flashes, and other images of the sudden and unaccountable intrusion of the “wholly other” into our finite frame of existence. His account of faith emphasized “crisis” and “decision,” notions that evoke sudden new possibilities that rupture the regular flow of human affairs. “Event” was a central concept, the hinge between the infinite and the finite, the new man in Christ and the old man in bondage to sin. These terms, and the sharp dichotomies they generated, gave rise to the term “dialectical theology” as a description of Barth’s challenge to the dominant liberal approach. As his theology developed, Barth was more influenced by his reading of Calvin and other pre-modern theologians, who emphasized the continuity of covenant, not the eruption of “event.” Nevertheless, the point was made and I’ve never forgotten it. The modern era is different from antiquity and the Middle Ages in many ways. But theologically speaking (and that’s the way of speaking that gets to the deepest truth of things), there is no difference between a first-century Roman who hears the gospel preached and a twenty-first-century American. Whether or not we say “yes” to God’s ever-present offer of friendship in Christ turns on the efficacy of divine grace and our response, not on “history.”
This theological lesson was a great blessing. It delivered me from mucking about in “meaning”—a leading modern strategy for delaying the spiritual life by fending off a decision for or against Christ. And it liberated me intellectually. Our era is full of ersatz interdictions. We are said to have “discovered” history, class, race, and any number of other “critical insights,” as a result of which we can no longer read texts or understand reality in supposedly naïve ways. Modern science, we are told, has shown the futility of classical metaphysics. The Enlightenment and Age of Revolution have liberated us from tutelage to authority, and “you cannot turn back the clock.” Barth helped me recognize the inflated, self-important ego of modernity (which is sustained to this day by postmodernity’s humble-brag of endless critique). Barth did not reject historical-critical study of the Bible or any other aspect of modern intellectual life; rather, he refused to take them with the high seriousness modernity demands. Political liberalism, moral autonomy, democracy, and the latest theories of cosmology: By all means, think about them and other interesting and pertinent developments in our era. But don’t accept their claims to historical inevitability and final authority. In effect, Barth counseled me to remember that theology is the queen of the sciences.
Karl Barth is exciting to read. His recovery of theological confidence and boldness and independence in the face of modernity’s imperialism encouraged him to throw aside throat-clearing qualifications and academic hedging. Barth’s treatment of Rousseau at the outset of his lectures on nineteenth-century theology is comprehensive, insightful, and pointed. It’s the best account I’ve read. The same can be said for his discussions of Nietzsche and other important figures in the long small-print sections of his multi-volume work Church Dogmatics. In his polemic against Erasmus’s counsel of modesty in matters of truth, Luther insisted on assertions. Barth followed Luther’s lead. He was rarely succinct—his output was enormous—yet he could be lapidary in his pointed juxtapositions. (“No one can be saved—in virtue of what he can do. Everyone can be saved—in virtue of what God can do.”) Some sections of the Church Dogmatics are turgid, but in the main Barth’s prose is alive with an urgency in which confidence makes room for playfulness.
Barth bequeathed to us a witness of intellectual virtuosity in the service of God. But his spiritual inheritance will be more important. In an era in which too many theologians have anguished over the difficulties facing men and women of faith, Barth inverted Nietzsche’s term for the yea-saying wisdom of the free spirit who has broken free from the supposedly life-denying ethos of Christianity. He called theology that is faithful to the apostolic tradition fröhliche Wissenschaft, joyful science.
Karl Barth was far from perfect. As a theologian, his confidence tilted toward arrogance. The Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus rued that his Swiss colleague too often “confessionalized” theology by implying that his critics were rejecting Christianity if they criticized his theological positions. Barth rightly recognized that the Christian churches could make no compromises with Nazism. But in later years, he misjudged communism and other political challenges, in large part because he was wedded to all-or-nothing theological judgments, not allowing that a great deal of public life requires judgments of prudence, not applications of doctrine.
His influence on theology has not always been helpful. Matthew Rose has pointed out some deficiencies in our pages (“Karl Barth’s Failure,” June 2014). Barth contributed to the modern cult of the great theologian. As Bruce Marshall observed many years ago, Protestantism in Northern Europe was closely tied to civic life. As those societies secularized, the churches lost the clear outlines of their apostolic identities. Against this trend, Barth’s brilliant work sought to reestablish mainstream Protestantism through a heroic, theological narration of a Christ-defined world. But this is not the same as embodying the faith in the life of the Church. As I like to put it: Karl Barth said of his liberal nemesis, Friedrich Schleiermacher, that he talked about God by talking about man in a loud voice, but one cannot but wonder if Barth was guilty of a similar self-deception, talking about God by talking about theology in a loud voice.
The First Letter of John warns, “Let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.” Bruce Marshall’s reservations express the worry that Barth tempts us to imagine that theological virtuosity can stand in the place of the deed-laden affairs of the Church. The sacraments are a doing first, and in the doing a kind of saying, which is why theology is derivative, not generative. It is nourished by the salt and light of the gospel as manifest in the Body of Christ.
Karl Barth was an eloquent spokesman for orthodox Christian dogma, but Tietz’s new biography shows with clarity that in deed and truth he led a less-than-exemplary Christian life. In the 1980s, the Barth children decided to release their father’s private letters. After a period of time necessary for its editing and publication, this intimate correspondence made public the fact that the great theologian had maintained a household that included both his decades-long lover and his wife.
Charlotte von Kirschbaum was a young nurse and theology student when Karl Barth met her in 1924. Within a few years she was working as his full-time secretary and research assistant. They fell in love. Drawing on letters from the late 1920s, Tietz details the love affair between Barth and “Lollo,” as well as the painful negotiations Barth embarked upon with his wife, Nelly. Barth willfully insisted that his new love was a “necessity.” The married couple entertained the possibility of divorce, but for complicated reasons (not the least of which was Barth’s reputation as a heroic theologian) they remained married, even as Lollo became a permanent fixture in the household, with her bedroom door opening onto the office where she worked closely with Barth on every aspect of his theological output.
I knew about Barth’s relationship with Kirschbaum before reading Tietz’s new biography. In the 2010s, after the private letters were published, the theological world was abuzz over the revelations. But the revelations did not surprise me. I had suspected as much decades earlier. As an undergraduate, I had read Eberhard Busch’s biography of Barth. It contains pictures of Barth and his assistant that are suggestive. I had to chuckle when Ron Thiemann vigorously rejected my speculations that there was, perhaps, more going on than a “theological partnership.”
Barth’s moral failure was significant. He broke his marriage vows and imposed upon his wife an impossible burden. Moreover, he did so with an unrepentant spirit. In one of his letters he exculpates himself: “Love is love.” The assertion foreshadows our own time and its therapeutic insistence that emotions are self-authenticating. In other letters, we see his intellectual ability and verbal virtuosity put to the task of making convenient distinctions and inventing rationales that allowed him to have what he wanted. One curse of brilliance is its ready capacity to generate elaborate excuses for the inexcusable.
In view of his transgressions, we are well-advised to scrutinize Barth’s theology of marriage. I now see that his emphasis on friendship as the essence of the marital bond—an inversion of the classical scheme that accords greater weight to sacramental union and procreation—was in all likelihood self-serving. In his own mind, perhaps, the new, authentic “marriage” to Kirschbaum had superseded his purely “formal” marriage to Nelly. (Although Tietz does not say this, it seems that after he fell in love with Kirschbaum and integrated her into his household, Barth was sexually faithful to his lover to the exclusion of his wife.) And one is well-advised to cast a jaundiced eye on Barth’s summary rejections of natural law, which anchors moral reasoning in ways he may have found inconvenient. All that said, however, I see no reason to reject Barth’s theology as a whole. God puts treasure into earthen vessels.
Tietz’s biography reveals that Barth’s relatives and circle of friends, as well as many of his theological colleagues, were aware of his irregular domestic life. In the late 1920s, when Barth’s colleague at Göttingen, Erik Peterson, explained the situation to the legal philosopher Carl Schmitt, the latter pronounced it “disgusting.” No doubt others came to the same judgment, though some of Barth’s friends were supportive, as Tietz reports. But all kept the secret, and Barth’s reputation as an ardent spokesman for Christian orthodoxy remained unblemished.
When I finished Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict, I could understand more clearly the triumph of the sexual revolution. Many of those who represented the moral authority of Christianity in the last century, Barth among them, seem not to have believed in the fullness of the Bible’s teachings. It’s not that some transgressed. Who is without sin? But in Barth and his circle one encounters the distinctively modern style of exculpation, which amounts to saying that sins are not really sins. In the next generation, the exculpation became more open and less defensive, until at some point those who set the cultural tone decided it was silly to maintain the illusion. Private rationalizations became public affirmations: “Love is love.”
I have profited enormously from having read Karl Barth. His refusal of “meaning” and insistence on truth played an important role in my movement toward a deeper and more serious faith. His lectures on the history of modern theology are brilliant. The Church Dogmatics will be read, discussed, and debated by future generations. But reading Tietz’s biography and meditating on Barth’s personal failures drove home to me a truth every conceptually adept, academically talented, and book-smart Christian needs to keep before his eyes: Theology, however brilliant and inspiring, is no substitute for obedience to God’s commandments.
No society functions by plebiscite. The few are always in charge, held accountable by the many, one hopes, but largely entrusted with responsibility for making decisions, formulating policies, adjudicating cases, administering programs, and governing institutions. In the best circumstances, elites are seen as competent, fair-minded, and public-spirited, and their rule is endorsed by the general population. Today’s political earthquakes signal a withdrawal of that endorsement.
The decades following the Second World War were characterized by a high degree of public trust in leading institutions dominated by elites. Their legitimacy stemmed from America’s triumph in a global war and the subsequent economic expansion that made the hard years of the Great Depression a painful but increasingly distant memory. Trust frayed in the 1960s. In a recent issue (“Governance by Grandees,” January 2021), I reflected on The Guardians, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s history of Kingman Brewster and his circle of friends, which highlights the role of the WASP establishment in this unsettled period. Brewster’s set adopted a double-pronged strategy for renewing the legitimacy of America’s ruling class. They emphasized academic aptitude for admission to elite universities, the gateway to leadership roles in American society, and added a new emphasis on what we now call “diversity.”
I came of age under this regime. For a time, it succeeded in squaring the circle of our national culture. Its focus on merit and achievement vindicated American individualism, while the diversity element satisfied our ideal of equality. Those in positions of power and responsibility could be seen as having earned their spots—and as the elite comes to “look like America,” we can imagine that everyone has an equal shot at becoming one of the best and the brightest.
Barack Obama was a beneficiary of this new system. His election in 2008 was perhaps the time when the merit-and-diversity approach won its greatest acclaim. But the warm feelings of that year were short-lived. Our society had already changed a great deal since Kingman Brewster worked his magic and reformed the mechanisms that produce elites. By the end of Obama’s presidency, our politics had taken a decidedly populist turn, which meant a turn against America’s ruling class.
As Patrick Deneen notes in an insightful review of Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (American Affairs, Spring 2021), when an eminent political philosopher at Harvard deems today’s meritocracy a form of tyranny, we know we are at a turning point, and “it is time to pay attention.”
Deneen catalogues the warning signs: “Liberal and center-left political parties—once the champions of the working class—have become the home of the meritocrats, and hence the party of the new aristocracy.” The meritocrats live in exclusive suburbs and put “Hate Has No Home Here” signs on their front lawns in a not-so-subtle derogation of nearly half the country. Perhaps this would be tolerable for the unwashed if the ruling class delivered good results for the average American. But as Deneen observes, the opposite is the case. The last thirty years have been very good for elites. They have prospered. By contrast, those they rule have suffered many setbacks:
Among the noncredentialed, life spans are declining, deaths of despair increasing, material circumstances have worsened, social stability and moral formation have cratered. By their own admission, meritocratic elites have failed to improve race relations in America. The meritocrats’ claims to beneficence might once have been widely believed before this accumulating evidence, but now they largely function as a form of self-deceit among the rulers.
And the self-deceit is becoming more transparent. Elite universities champion their commitments to “diversity and inclusion” while walling themselves off from the rest of society and ratcheting up the selectivity of their institutions, becoming “more ruthlessly efficient in its sifting of winners from losers.” Deneen notes a telling episode:
Harvard’s previous president, Drew Gilpin Faust, called for the elimination of single-sex social clubs on campus due to their role in “enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values”—a claim that should have made her blush [the institution has a $40 billion endowment and admits fewer than 5 percent of applicants], but instead evoked hearty assent from the egalitarians at Harvard.
The circle is no longer being squared. Identity politics pressures institutions to establish outright quotas based on race, sex, and sexuality. This undermines the meritocracy’s claim to honor America’s tradition of individualism. Moreover, it is increasingly obvious that “diversity” has little to do with our egalitarian sentiments. It is the cleansing agent that launders privilege, adding to our ruling classes’ increasingly smug self-conception as the paragon of “who we are.” But the self-acclaim is not working. Today, ordinary Americans recognize that elites preserve their power by dismissing challengers as “lacking diversity,” a condition taken to be supremely disqualifying.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. But as we find our way forward, we would do well to learn from Kingman Brewster. Unlike many grandees, he listened to those challenging “the system” and took the measure of the grievances (many of them exaggerated, most of them rudely and aggressively stated), rather than dismissing them or retreating into self-enclosed isolation. He took to heart Martin Luther King’s observation: “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?”
As our ruling class closes ranks around a consensus that an unruly mob overrunning the Capitol amounts to an insurrection, and as Twitter mobs cancel anyone who seeks to discern the language of the unheard whose seething anger boils near the surface of our society, I worry that—unlike the WASP ruling class that reformed its institutions and righted the ship of state fifty years ago—today’s meritocrats will stop their ears and cover their eyes. Such a response would indeed be a recipe for tyranny.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ In mid-March, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specified that it is not licit for clergy to “impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex.” This reaffirmation of the Church’s strong stance against the destructive consequences of the sexual revolution is heartening.
♦ Elton John is married to a man. He took to Twitter to reprimand the Catholic Church: “How can the Vatican refuse to bless gay marriages because they ‘are sin,’ yet happily make a profit from investing millions in ‘Rocketman’—a film which celebrates my finding happiness from my marriage to David?? #hypocrisy.”
♦ In a book-length interview, Pope Francis expresses the hope that “one day, in the not-too-distant future, conditions [will be] in place for every person to invest according to ethical and responsible principles.” One wonders what conditions are required to keep the Vatican out of media investments that celebrate homosexuality.
♦ In March 2019, Vladimir Putin signed laws that impose fines on websites that spread “fake news.” The same punishments are levied on websites featuring material exhibiting “blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.” Websites that refuse to take down offending material will be blocked. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov defended the law:
One can hardly agree with the opinion that this is some sort of censorship. What’s more, this sphere of fake news, insulting and so on, is regulated fairly harshly in many countries of the world, including Europe. It is therefore of course necessary to do it in our country, too.
♦ And not just in Europe. Read Molly Ball (“The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election”) as she describes last fall’s coordinated efforts by left-wing activists, CEOs, media, and establishment politicians:
Bad actors spreading false information is nothing new. For decades, campaigns have grappled with everything from anonymous calls claiming the election has been rescheduled to fliers spreading nasty smears about candidates’ families. But Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories, the viral force of social media and the involvement of foreign meddlers made disinformation a broader, deeper threat to the 2020 vote.
Laura Quinn, a veteran progressive operative who co-founded Catalist, began studying this problem a few years ago. She piloted a nameless, secret project, which she has never before publicly discussed, that tracked disinformation online and tried to figure out how to combat it. One component was tracking dangerous lies that might otherwise spread unnoticed. Researchers then provided information to campaigners or the media to track down the sources and expose them.
The most important takeaway from Quinn’s research, however, was that engaging with toxic content only made it worse. “When you get attacked, the instinct is to push back, call it out, say, ‘This isn’t true,’” Quinn says. “But the more engagement something gets, the more the platforms boost it. The algorithm reads that as, ‘Oh, this is popular; people want more of it.’”
The solution, she concluded, was to pressure platforms to enforce their rules, both by removing content or accounts that spread disinformation and by more aggressively policing it in the first place. “The platforms have policies against certain types of malign behavior, but they haven’t been enforcing them,” she says.
Quinn’s research gave ammunition to advocates pushing social media platforms to take a harder line. In November 2019, Mark Zuckerberg invited nine civil rights leaders to dinner at his home, where they warned him about the danger of the election-related falsehoods that were already spreading unchecked. “It took pushing, urging, conversations, brainstorming, all of that to get to a place where we ended up with more rigorous rules and enforcement,” says Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who attended the dinner and also met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and others. (Gupta has been nominated for Associate Attorney General by President Biden.) “It was a struggle, but we got to the point where they understood the problem. Was it enough? Probably not. Was it later than we wanted? Yes. But it was really important, given the level of official disinformation, that they had those rules in place and were tagging things and taking them down.”
I’m sure Quinn (“a veteran progressive operative”) and Gupta (a Biden appointee) would agree to applying Dimitry Peskov’s statement to America. “One can hardly agree” that the mobilization of Big Tech “is some sort of censorship.”
♦ Jacob Howland is not bullish on universities. Writing in City Journal (“The Campus as Factory: Corporatist progressivism and the crisis of American higher education”), he foresees a fusion of managerial capitalism and woke social control:
In brief: an illiberal alliance of technological corporatism and progressivism is rapidly turning universities into a “talent pipeline” for the digital age. When fully constructed, this pipeline will deliver a large and steady flow of human capital, packaged in certifiable skill sets and monetized in social-impact or “pay-for-success” bonds. But the strongly particular or eccentric shapes of mind, character, and taste that make human beings, as John Stuart Mill says, “a noble and beautiful object of contemplation” would clog the talent pipeline. Uninterrupted flow requires a standardized product: individuals ground down smooth into workers and managers, who will fit interchangeably into a globalized and digitalized system of production. The emotional infantilization and ideological indoctrination found at almost all colleges and universities today are, among other things, forms of behavioral conditioning driven by corporatist imperatives.
♦ The convergence of business interests and woke revolution was on display in South Dakota. On March 8, the state’s governor, Kristi Noem, tweeted that she was enthusiastic about signing House Bill 1217, a measure preventing males from participating in female sports. On March 19, Noem reversed herself and announced her intention to issue a procedural veto. What happened? In the intervening two weeks, the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce, South Dakota’s university system, the state’s sports authority (perhaps responding to pressure from the NCAA), and Amazon (which plans to bring a fulfillment center to Sioux Falls) put pressure on the governor. For the definitive analysis of the corporate, university, and media establishment’s now implacable hostility to social conservatism, see Patrick Deneen, “The Power Elite” (June 2015).
♦ As a sometime professor, I have many friends in academia. I can’t count how many conversations I’ve had recently in which my friends have confided their despair over the future of liberal education. Those who are retired emphasize their good fortune. Those who are still teaching tell me they hope to make it to retirement, somehow, or are looking for the exits. As a young academic friend put it, “I’m exhausted by the lies—and by the cowardice.”
♦ Higher education seems bent on suicide. Princeton classics professor Dan-el Padilla thinks his discipline is so captive to “whiteness” that he’d rather see it destroyed than perpetuated. As Bruno Chaouat reports (“Colorblind and Tone-Deaf,” December 2020), musicology is being overrun by political correctness. Literature and history suffer similar assaults. It increasingly falls upon the faithful to sustain the best of the Western tradition. This cultural responsibility should not surprise us. As Pope Benedict has observed, God’s providence linked revelation to the Greco-Roman world in which the gospel was first proclaimed. Homer, Plato, and Virgil; Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante: In this time of self-willed forgetfulness, men and women of faith must sustain the pleasures of memory—and its duties.
♦ As I write, the Jewish holiday of Passover approaches. The liturgy for the festive meal elaborates on the opening verses of Deuteronomy 16. Emphasis falls on the commandment to refrain from leaven. Verse 3 explains the importance of unleavened bread. It is the “bread of affliction,” and the lack of leaven is implicitly explained as a symbol of the urgency of deliverance—“for you came out of the land of Egypt in hurried flight.” The verse continues with a further explanation. Every generation must eat the unleavened bread, “that all the days of your life you may remember that day when you came out of the land of Egypt.” As Shalom Carmy observed last month (“Bread of Poverty”), the rabbinic tradition hosts an interesting argument about how the bread that reminds Jews of the gift of freedom can be a “bread of affliction.” In the context of that ongoing dispute, Carmy offers a persuasive meditation on the freedom that comes from shedding life’s often heavy and unnecessary luggage. I propose another harmonization of the tension between bread of freedom and bread of affliction, one turning on the blessing of memory. The meanness of the unleavened bread stimulates the memory of affliction by the evils of this world, and this in turn sweetens the memory of liberation by God’s power and glory. Intensified and made more precious, the memory of deliverance overcomes the shadows of our present afflictions, making the divine “yes” alive and active in our lives.
♦ As I’ve noted many times, our institutions are being damaged by an increasingly politicized liberal establishment. Case in point: the newly acknowledged falsehood of early January stories about Trump’s phone call to a Georgia election official in which, media said, he urged her to “find the fraud.” This supposed incident was often cited as an egregious example of Trump’s efforts to subvert the democratic process. But tapes of the call surfaced in March showing that Trump said no such thing. The Washington Post issued a correction. Cornell law professor William A. Jacobson observes, “This ‘correction’ is more than a correction, it calls into question the pervasive reliance of the liberal media on anonymous sources in order to attack and undermine Republicans.” Jacobson goes on to note, “Almost the entirety of the Russian collusion media effort was based on anonymous sources which turned out to be overblown at best, false at worst, after the Mueller Report was released.” With media bias so blatant, it is little wonder that our country is polarized. We have no trusted authorities to establish a shared ground of facts and truths. And we have no trusted authorities because they have betrayed our trust.
♦ I do not believe that the decline of media trustworthiness leaves us adrift and unable to make informed judgments about public matters. A person of wide experience in the practical affairs of life can arrive at a general outlook that allows him to discount media hysteria and sift through news reports. I never took the Russian collusion narrative seriously. It was too transparently useful as a way to exculpate the Democratic establishment, which had failed to put forward a candidate who could defeat an inexperienced and improbable Republican candidate. When things are too good to be true (and too conveniently and urgently asserted as false), one ought to adopt a skeptical attitude.
♦ Drag Queen Story Hour is designed to encourage children to see “glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.” Its adoption at local libraries was among the issues that triggered a vigorous debate about the future of conservatism. What does a culture of freedom look like in a society so decadent that drag queens reading to six-year-olds is celebrated as widening our horizons and imparting to the young an open and capacious attitude toward “difference”? The question remains open. But recent news sheds light on the less-than-upstanding character of sexual progressives. From 2017 to 2020, Brett Blomme served as the president of Cream City LGBTQ+ Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the sponsor of the local Drag Queen Story Hour program. In March, he was arrested for possession of child pornography.
♦ At the time of his arrest, Blomme was serving as a Milwaukee County Children’s Court Judge. Is it any wonder that populist voters don’t trust our ruling class?
♦ 2020 data indicate that death rates rose more sharply for those aged fifteen to fifty-four than for older Americans. Writing for City Journal (“Death and Lockdowns”), John Tierney explains why. Declines in ER visits meant more untreated heart attacks. Cancer screenings were suspended last spring. But the pathologies associated with unemployment and social isolation likely played a more significant role in these trends:
The number of excess deaths not involving Covid-19 has been especially high in U.S. counties with more low-income households and minority residents, who were disproportionately affected by lockdowns. Nearly 40 percent of workers in low-income households lost their jobs during the spring, triple the rate in high-income households. . . . Martin Kulldorf, a professor at Harvard Medical School, summarized the impact: “Lockdowns have protected the laptop class of young, low-risk journalists, scientists, teachers, politicians and lawyers, while throwing children, the working class and high-risk older people under the bus.”
Tierney warns of ongoing harms arising from last year’s policies:
The deadly impact of the lockdowns will grow in future years, due to the lasting economic and educational consequences. The United States will experience more than 1 million excess deaths . . . during the next two decades as a result of the massive “unemployment shock” last year, according to a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins and Duke, who analyzed the effects of past recessions on mortality. Other researchers, noting how educational levels affect income and life expectancy, have projected that the “learning loss” from school closures will ultimately cost this generation of students more years of life than have been lost by all the victims of the coronavirus.
California embraced rigorous measures; yet, while its COVID death rate is slightly below the national average, the state’s excess mortality rate is well above the national average, perhaps a function of the economic damage and social isolation caused by the lockdowns. “In Florida, by contrast, the rate of excess mortality is below the national average and significantly below California’s, especially among younger adults.” Sweden, Norway, and Finland offer another comparison:
The three Nordic countries have all done much better than the United States in preventing excess deaths, and there’s one especially troubling difference: the rate of excess mortality among younger people. That rate soared last year among Americans in lockdown, but not among the Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns, who kept going to school, working, and socializing without masks during the pandemic. In fact, among people aged 15 to 64 in each of the Nordic countries, there have been fewer deaths than normal since the pandemic began.
Given what we have endured over the last twelve months, Tierney’s analysis makes for depressing reading. Stanford Medical School professor Jay Bhattacharya: “Lockdowns are the single worst public health mistake in the last 100 years.” Count me skeptical that our ruling class will correct course. We’re governed by people who believe that men can become women. What hope can we have that they will pay attention to reality?
♦ A Canadian friend involved in government affairs reports attending a Zoom conference in which some Canadian law professors argued that we should mandate a permanent Zoom society. Doing so will “break up the old boys clubs and empower persons of color.”
♦ Brown University’s Title IX Office has issued guidelines that allow students anonymously to report sexual harassment and “gender-based discrimination.” Anonymity in accusation: What could possibly go wrong?
♦ Crabapple First Baptist Church voted to expel Robert Aaron Long, the man who killed eight people in a murder spree outside Atlanta. The church issued a statement saying, “We can no longer affirm that he truly is a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 5).” I am not qualified to pronounce on Baptist theology. But by my reading, St. Paul counsels the expulsion of unrepentant sinners, not sinners, full stop. The latter is a recipe for a church of the pure, which is really a church of the hypocritical and self-deceived.
Crabapple First Baptist Church went on to “distance” itself (if I may be permitted the language of PR consultants) from Long:
No blame can be placed upon the victims. He alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires. The women that he solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders. These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible.
Completely responsible, to be sure. But solely responsible? Have the deep currents of pornography on the internet, which we have allowed to flow unchecked, played no role in these murders? Is our toleration of prostitution innocent? What about our complicity in the moral deregulation of American society?
♦ Elite higher education continues to racialize and fragment American society. This year, after the university-wide graduation ceremony for undergraduates, Columbia University will offer “Multicultural Graduation Celebrations.” The designated categories are Native, Asian, Latinx, Black, Lavender, and FLI. “Latinx” is used by those destined to fly business class, while Lavender and FLI are mysterious code words known only to those blessed to be among the most “advanced.” (Lavender denotes LGBTQ, while FLI is an acronym for first-generation, low-income students.) There is a seventh celebration for those honored for their “outstanding commitment to inclusion, global diversity, social justice and multiculturalism.”
♦ Columbia runs with the herd. Our leadership class has insisted upon (or acquiesced in activist insistence upon) racial categories for a generation. The insistence has become urgent in recent years, especially last year. The effects are not innocent. Six of the eight people Robert Long killed were Asian. Although he has denied targeting them for racial reasons, the media insist on emphasizing the racial identities of his victims. The weekend after the murders, some cities saw marches by Asian groups. This is a harbinger of what is to come. Every tragedy, setback, and evil deed will be interpreted in racial terms: as racial aggression, racial grievance, racial backlash, racial victimization, or racial discrimination. Whites will join this blame and accusation game, insisting upon their own victimization. We can hope that the upshot will not be open conflict. But the relentless endorsement of identity politics by our establishment is sure to bring woe. Is there a CEO or university president who has taken a public stand against it? It is by no means farfetched to foresee that when it comes to woke ideology, the toxic combination of conviction, complicity, and cowardice at the top of society will so rend our civic unity that we end up in a Southern Poverty Law Center dystopia of endless race-based political vituperation and a Hobbesian litigation of all against all.
♦ There is a better way. The National Association of Scholars has launched The Civics Alliance, a coalition that seeks to save civics education from capture by the progressive left. The Alliance is concerned to revitalize civics education, the goal of which should be to teach students about the American system of government: rule of law, Bill of Rights, elections, checks and balances, equality under the law, trial by jury, civil rights, and a civilian-controlled military. The Alliance calls for the rejection of “New Civics,” which focuses on activism rather than learning, identity politics rather than the shared responsibilities of citizenship, environmental activism, and the dubious notion of global citizenship. The Alliance has drafted a Civics Curriculum Statement that lays down sound principles.
You can support the The Civics Alliance by signing its Open Letter. To do so, go to NAS.org. And don’t just sign. Get involved in your local school and lobby for the goals of The Civic Alliance. Better still, run for a position on your local school board. The rising generation of school-age Americans deserves to be educated in the particular genius of our nation’s system of government, not indoctrinated into the progressive ideologies that divide the country.
♦ Our 2020 Annual Report has been published. To download a copy and learn about what we accomplished last year, go to firstthings.com/annualreport. If you’d like us to send you a hard copy, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put one in the mail.
♦ Frank and Molly DeVito would like to start a ROFTERS group in in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania (Allentown area). If you would like to join, contact them at email@example.com.
Phil Strauch seeks to form a ROFTERS group in San Antonio, Texas. To join, get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For readers in London, England, David Sergeant is proposing to inaugurate a ROFTERS group. He can be reached at email@example.com.
♦ I’d like to extend my thanks to the readers who are starting ROFTERS groups and those who continue to head groups around the country (and the world). Today, some who hold to “first things” find their jobs threatened and careers cancelled. Twitter mobs mount cyber-lynchings, casting the pall of censorship and intimidation. In such times, it becomes urgent that we find and support each other. I’m grateful for the leadership of our readers.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.