New York Times columnist Charles Blow fulminated recently that those who fail to cleave to late-model progressivism aim at “the subjugation of all who challenge the white racist patriarchy.” No surprise there. Blow has made a career out of outrage. Yet a prominent analogy in his column, “We’re Edging Closer to Civil War,” gave me pause.
His immediate topic is the Texas law that significantly curtails abortion while making legal challenges to the law’s constitutionality difficult to mount. Blow wrings his hands over the “astonishing reality” that a state law has evaded the strictures of Roe v. Wade. Citing Justice Sonia Sotomayor, he raises the specter of “nullification,” the notion that states have a right to veto federal law when they disagree with it.
Though states indeed have rights in our federal system, the notion of “states’ rights” has the bad odor of Southern intransigence in the years leading up to the Civil War, an intransigence reprised during the civil rights era. South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun was an articulate proponent of “nullification,” basing his argument on the concept of minority rights in a democratic polity. But this does not interest Blow. He fixes on Calhoun as “a raging racist who went further than the slave owners who saw slavery as a ‘necessary evil,’ seeing it instead as a positive good.”
I could not help but feel moral whiplash. Isn’t this what the abortion advocates often argue—that abortion is not a necessary evil but a positive good?
Many signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. Yet they regarded the Peculiar Institution as morally questionable. George Washington avoided public debates about slavery, but toward the end of his life he regretted that he had benefited from slave labor, and his will secured the freedom of his slaves after the death of his wife. Patrick Henry described slavery as “repugnant to humanity” and “destructive to liberty.” In the 1820s, even one of slavery’s prominent proponents, South Carolina senator William Smith, pronounced it a “necessary evil.”
During his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton expressed a similar sentiment about abortion, insisting that he would make abortions “safe, legal, and rare.” He was not about to challenge the legal regime made possible by Roe, which allows for the killing of the unborn throughout the nine months of pregnancy. But like Thomas Jefferson, who regretted the institution of slavery but could not live without it, Clinton wished to avoid championing abortion, even as he refused to limit it.
That’s changed. Over the last two decades, abortion proponents have adopted a more forthright approach. Far from an “unfortunate” necessity, abortion is presented as a positive good. The argument is straightforward. Activists Olivia Cappello and Kate Castle take as axiomatic that abortion is necessary if women are to enjoy the full freedom to realize their goals and aspirations. Easy access to abortion “is fundamental to women’s autonomy.” In these pages, Darel Paul has cited Paxton Smith, a high school valedictorian in Texas who used her graduation speech to denounce limits on abortion. Smith aspires to many wonderful things, which restrictions on abortion threaten: “I’m terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I’m terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and future will no longer matter.”
As Paul notes, that’s exactly Calhoun’s argument for the positive good of slavery: White men cannot achieve their aspirations of aristocratic refinement—the finest fruit of man’s freedom in Southern culture—without a right to enslave black men. Substitute “women” for “white men,” dilate on the aspirations of women to
chart their own paths and realize their talents, substitute “unborn children” for “black men,” and you have the argument that abortion is to be celebrated, not censored. “Shout your abortion!” urges the movement of that name.
Charles Blow seems oblivious to the link between our most ardent abortion proponents and the ideologues who once justified slavery. But that link has been plain to see for a long time. Amnesty International calls abortion a “basic healthcare need.” It’s “basic,” because on this view women cannot realize their full potential without having the right to kill their unborn children. Without abortion, they would be stuck with unwanted burdens and responsibilities. Which is exactly why Calhoun thought slaves were so necessary and engaged in the antebellum tactic of “Shout your mastery!” Without slaves, white men would be stuck with unwanted toil in fields and other menial tasks. Without slaves, white women would have to change diapers, nurse children, cook meals, and scrub floors.
Charles Blow is careless in his evocation of John C. Calhoun, and he is callous in his willingness to carry water for the pro-abortion crowd. Women are vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies, something that older social mores addressed by regulating sexual conduct and imposing strong expectations on men to marry the women they impregnate. Sadly, over the last fifty years that vulnerability has been stained with blood, not guarded by morality. Calhoun argued that white men and women could not be fully free unless black men and women could be enslaved. But he did not say that they had to be killed.
The Anti-Bourgeois Bourgeoisie
Bourgeois is a multipurpose term of abuse. The clichéd view, which retains currency though it is long outdated, mocks the bourgeoisie for insisting upon tablecloths and proper place settings. The bourgeoisie are tedious, uncreative bores who enforce dress codes and worry about their place in the Social Register. Wedded to luxury and keen to preserve their social status, they sacrifice their individuality and forsake authenticity in order to secure wealth. The bourgeois class is filled with complacent “sell-outs.”
Assaults on “the bourgeois” were first formulated by the nineteenth-century French bohemians. Oscar Wilde adopted their approach. He styled himself a foppish court jester who both frightened and titillated the bourgeoisie with his transgressions, setting the pattern for twentieth-century artistic celebrity, which claimed (and still claims) to serve society by liberating us from stultifying conventions and ushering in a freer, more open, fuller way of living.
After World War II, an anti-bourgeois consensus spread widely. In the 1950s, the influence of French existentialism and the Beatnik counterculture made a growing number of American university students anxious to avoid the insult of being “conventional.” In the 1990s, the baby boomers who had become rich during the Reagan years worked overtime to cultivate paradoxically conventional bohemian habits and countercultural sensibilities, which they imagined would insulate them from the infamy of being what they so obviously were: bourgeois.
In Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks documents the amusing contradictions arising from the quest for bourgeois wealth married to a flight from bourgeois conventionality. It was funny back then, but over the last two decades, the contradictions have become grim and desperate. As the Bobos were buying Subzero refrigerators and cashmere sweaters knitted in fair trade co-ops, the universities educating their children began to inculcate an aggressive and accusatory progressivism. Marx-inspired attacks on the bourgeoisie gained in influence. Today they are supercharged, as elite life is stigmatized as “white.”
Today, “calling out privilege” encourages a desperate flight from respectability. Elite baby boomers living in Palo Alto may be satisfied with buying their vegetables at the farmer’s market and driving Teslas. But their children are coming of age in a time of cruel, zero-sum cultural politics. They know that Bobo role-playing and occasional radical gestures are not enough to ward off the shame of being rich and powerful. As Natalia Dashan observed in a 2019 article for Palladium (“The Real Problem at Yale is Not Free Speech”), Ivy Leaguers with super-wealthy parents and trust funds pass themselves off as cash-strapped scholarship kids. Today, the singular imperative for members of the bourgeoisie is to be against themselves. The only safe policy for retaining high status is to be thoroughly anti-bourgeois. The elite hang on to their privilege by being anti-elite.
In July 2020, I visited Minneapolis. At a café in Edina, I chatted with one of our regular contributors, Katherine Kersten. She noted that Black Lives Matter signs dot the lawns in her tony suburb. This is not unique to the Twin Cities. The higher up you go on the social scale in the United States, the more one sees “Hate Has No Home Here” announcements. No doubt some are motivated by sincere concerns about discrimination. But rich and powerful people in America have other motives as well. Like the young Ivy Leaguers Dashan profiles, they want the world to know that they are “checking their privilege.”
Kathy went on to write “Adversary Culture in 2020” for First Things (February 2021). She notes that people with wealth and power view their responsibilities in a paradoxical way. Instead of guarding and protecting mainstream norms and established habits of life—the usual function of an elite—the well-educated and well-to-do style themselves patrons of everything “countercultural.” Dominating the bourgeoisie is a powerful anti-bourgeois consensus, one that is unstable and harmful to the body politic. We need an anchoring elite, not a revolutionary one.
In On the Constitution of the Church and State, Samuel Taylor Coleridge identifies two elements of public life. One is the Party of Permanency, made up of the denizens of establishment institutions and upholders of cultural authority. On the other side stands the Party of Change: entrepreneurs undermining old businesses, the rising classes challenging entrenched interests, and activists agitating for new ways of doing things. By Coleridge’s estimation, a healthy society requires both poles. The Party of Permanency secures stability; the Party of Change provides the leaven of reform.
After eclipsing the aristocracy in the modern era, the bourgeoisie populated the Party of Permanency. But Kathy draws attention to the fact that its members now refuse the function Coleridge assigned to them. Paradoxically, they embrace the role of the Party of Change, adopting an “oppositional ethos.” This leads to strange paradoxes. Many who dominate the “system” conceive of themselves as opponents of the system. Those who staff the Establishment are eager to be seen as anti-Establishment. The Party of Permanency has become the Party of Permanent Revolution.
The strategy of laundering privilege by repeating (and funding) polemics against privilege comes at a price, however. The Party of Permanency provides society with stabilizing ballast, and one way it does so is by arguing that those with power and privilege deserve their positions. Needless to say, justifying ascendancy is hard to do when the bourgeoisie mouths critiques of power and privilege. This contradiction is one cause of our present instability. The bourgeoisie defines the status quo. Its members cannot be both owners and dispossessors, at least not without self-deception and manipulative (sometimes cynical) public stances that combine self-critique with self-congratulation, a humble-brag gambit now routinely practiced by people in high places.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd protests and riots, Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber sent a letter to the university community in which he asserted that racism persists at Princeton and that “racist assumptions from the past” remain “embedded in the structures of the University itself.” This confession of sin and profession of penitence was one among thousands, maybe tens of thousands, issued in 2020.Perhaps these gestures bespeak an age-old willingness to accept reforms, a willingness the Party of Permanency may judge prudent in order to sustain the status quo. But the absence of the usual both/and (“great progress has been made”/“but there is more to be done”) suggests otherwise.
Instead of defending his institution, Eisgruber sides with those who attack it as racist. In fairness, he no doubt thought his condemnation of Princeton as racist was the best course of action. If we slip with Alice through the looking-glass, we enter a world in which this makes sense. The anti-bourgeois consensus now widespread among the bourgeoisie tells us that the only way to be securely elite is to be anti-elite. Patrick Deneen has noted a patent contradiction affirmed by Drew Gilpin. When she was president of Harvard, Gilpin condemned the school’s “final clubs” as manifesting an “elitism” that runs contrary to Harvard’s “values”— a claim worthy of The Onion. Although risible, such statements are commonplace. Holding up the Establishment requires being anti-Establishment. Defending privilege requires denouncing privilege.
Why have those running our country driven us into a ditch? That’s what a reader asked me. He read my indictment of the performance of our leadership class over the last thirty years (“Crisis of Legitimacy,” December 2021). It wasn’t the first time I have noted the failures of our leadership class in these pages. So the question is well merited.
Part of the answer rests in elite anti-elitism. America’s democratic ethos has always inculcated unease among those in high office. But no society can function without leaders, and those leaders need to present convincing rationales for their power and privilege. The remarkable phenomenon of rich white people engaging in ritual denunciations of “white privilege” suggests that the prevailing rationale involves debilitating contradictions.
Is elite status won by insisting that elitism is evil? Do the powerful gain legitimacy by ceremoniously announcing in their “land acknowledgements” that they have no moral right to rule?
Society is not an argument. It need not follow strict logic. Our Establishment may be able to continue for a long time in its contradictions, parrying charges of illegitimacy by affirming them, just as BLM protesters can assert that our legal system is “systemically racist” while demanding justice. We should never underestimate the plasticity of propaganda—and our capacity to believe our own spin. But contradictions are like fish bones in society’s throat. They can be swallowed, but only with difficulty.
Longtime science writer John Tierney offered a detailed assessment of the public health response to the COVID pandemic (“The Panic Pandemic,” City Journal, Summer 2021). It makes for bracing reading, especially as public health measures continue. The virus has killed many. But by Tierney’s reckoning, the more damaging wave of contagion has been social and spiritual. A great deal of harm was done by “a moral panic that swept the nation’s guiding institutions.”
The costs of the lockdowns cannot be measured only in the trillions spent to remediate the economic consequences. Children lost a year of schooling, with kids from lower-income families suffering the worst setbacks. Mental health deteriorated. Life-threatening conditions went untreated. Global poverty rates skyrocketed.
The damage was also political. Civil society went into a self-destructive frenzy. Social media policing cowed editors of medical journals, academic deans, and government officials. As Tierney documents, the scope and intensity of censorship was extraordinary. Google and Facebook suppressed citations from dissenting scientific studies. Journalists colluded with scientists to discredit theories of the virus’s origins in a Wuhan lab. Tierney’s judgment is damning:
Instead of keeping calm and carrying on, the American elite flouted norms of governance, journalism, academic freedom—and, worst of all, science. They misled the public about the origins of the virus and the true risk that it posed. Ignoring their own carefully prepared plans for a pandemic, they claimed unprecedented powers to impose untested strategies, with terrible collateral damage. As evidence of their mistakes mounted, they stifled debate by vilifying dissenters, censoring criticism, and suppressing scientific research.
Sadly, there is no end in sight: “The leaders responsible for these disasters continue to pretend that their policies worked and assume that they can keep fooling the public.” Any uptick in infection rates or news of new variants triggers talk of re-instituting mandates and restrictions.
As was the case during the Iraq War, the architects of our pandemic policies tell us that we must do ever more to meet the crisis at hand. They propose the public health equivalent of the vaunted “surge” in Iraq, urging mandatory vaccinations, ongoing mask requirements, and even renewed lockdowns to “defeat the virus” and master the proliferating variants. All of this comes at great cost to the body politic, often with little public health benefit. Resentments fester and every aspect of public health is politicized.
What went wrong? Tierney ventures some answers: “The first is what I have called the Crisis Crisis, the incessant state of alarm fomented by journalists and politicians.” There’s money to be made in yelling “fire,” which is what media now unfailingly do. The “population crisis” and “energy crisis” of earlier decades were child’s play in comparison to COVID hysteria. Now, as if addicted, we seem headed toward a 24/7 panic about the “climate crisis” and the “crisis of democracy.” Tierney is not optimistic about this trend: “To keep audiences frightened around the clock, journalists seek out Cassandras with their own incentives for fearmongering: politicians, bureaucrats, activists, academics, and assorted experts who gain publicity, prestige, funding, and power during a crisis.”
By my reckoning, more than incentives are at work. As Ephraim Radner argues in A Profound Ignorance, the modern age has regularly been shaken by “theodical” horror, a terror in the face of suffering and death. Our social vulnerability to being overwhelmed by life’s tragic realities has only increased as elites have become secularized. As I noted early on in the pandemic, our response was over-determined by our collective conviction that death is the greatest evil that can befall us. The notion that someone might die induces moral terror. We’re beset by an afflicting sense of powerlessness in the face of suffering. This is what Radner means by theodical horror.
Members of our ruling class (which includes journalists) are attracted to crisis-talk. They gain power in times of emergency, whether real or fabricated by propaganda.
“The politicization of research” is another reason Tierney gives for our vulnerability to pandemics of panic. Universities have become “political monocultures.” As a result, progressives have “more power than ever to enforce groupthink and suppress debates,” which is exactly what happened in 2020. Tierney notes that many progressives now talk openly about the successful imposition of lockdowns as a “paradigm shift.” The lockdowns can serve as a “blueprint” for using extensive social control to address climate change, which requires making the state of emergency permanent.
Can we avoid this fate? Tierney is concerned that the Best and Brightest will draw the wrong conclusions. Some hold that the lockdowns are “proof that Americans can sacrifice for the common good when directed by wise scientists and benevolent autocrats.” This is a dangerous falsehood. As Tierney notes, the common good was not served: “The sacrifice did far more harm than good, and the burden was not shared equally.” The laptop class sacrificed little and benefited greatly, while working-class people lost their jobs. “Children everywhere spent a year wearing masks solely to assuage the neurotic fears of adults.” By Tierney’s reckoning, the public health policies of what now approaches two years have been a disaster: “When the panic infected the nation’s elite—the modern gentry who profess such concern for the downtrodden—it turned out they weren’t so different from the aristocrats of the past. They were in it for themselves.” A harsh judgment that sadly rings true.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ The elite presumption that Robert E. Lee statues must be removed from public parks is naive. That Lee fought on the wrong side of a war over a defining moral issue is a given. His views on race, relatively progressive for a slaveholding Virginian of his age, are unacceptably retrograde by our standards. Segregationists used his noble image to cast a sacred aura over their racial politics. So, yes, let us by all means acknowledge his failings and those of his devotees. But the zeal for erasure bespeaks moral immaturity. Have we ascended to such high moral standing that we can pass summary judgment on the sin-soaked past? When we think of the man who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, or when we reflect on the white citizens of Richmond who erected his statue to oversee their segregated city, let’s also meditate on our own times. We live in a legal regime that permits the brutal destruction of innocent life in the womb. Some in public office even celebrate these killings. In view of the realities, it is wise to heed Abraham Lincoln’s words in the Second Inaugural Address, which echo those of Jesus: “Let us judge not, that we be not judged.” This is not a counsel of moral disarmament. It is a warning against moral hubris.
♦ On Sunday, November 21, 2021, Darrell Brooks killed six people and injured sixty as he drove an SUV through a parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin. After months of describing Kyle Rittenhouse as a “white supremacist” and otherwise playing up race as the determining factor in a shooting that a jury finally decided was in self-defense, the media have been concerned to downplay the fact that Brooks is black and his victims were white. Notice how delicately the Washington Post put the matter: “Here’s what we know so far about the sequences of events that led to the Waukesha tragedy caused by an SUV.” A tragedy, not murder. Caused by an SUV, not by a man who left evidence on social media of his anti-white views.
♦ Officials appear to have settled on a radical transformation of the interior of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, which is being restored after the devastating 2019 fire. The plan turns the Gothic masterpiece into a cross between a big-splash art exhibition and a Christian-inspired theme park. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Lewis notes that the historic structure has suffered many indignities in the modern era. It was consecrated to the Cult of Reason during the French Revolution. But why would the French Church’s own officials be party to “cloying contemporary interventions,” as Lewis puts it, that obscure and deaden the transcendent architecture so beautifully perfected during the Middle Ages? Victim of a fire, it seems Notre-Dame will suffer the spiritual stupidity of our era as well. “Is that lovely victim, saved in the nick of time and made whole again, now to be whisked, still groggy, straight from the hospital into the tattoo parlor of contemporary art?”
♦ Headline from the Babylon Bee: “Unborn Babies Disguise Selves As Death Row Inmates So Liberals Will Defend Their Right To Live.”
♦ Writing for Boston Review, Judith Levine insists that feminists must fight for the reproductive rights of “pregnant people.” She reiterates the John C. Calhoun argument for why some need to dominate others: “The right and ability to terminate a pregnancy without cost, bias, or stigma is a guarantor (if not the only one) of the existential quality and human flourishing of all uterus-bearing people.”
♦ Fermilab is a government-sponsored particle physics lab that runs a big nuclear accelerator. It recently launched a new Gates Fellowship for post-doctoral work (in honor of black physicist Sylvester James Gates Jr.). The announcement specifies: “The Gates Fellowship at Fermilab prioritizes the inclusion of first-generation college graduates, and the representation of historically and contemporarily minoritized individuals underrepresented in theoretical physics.” Contemporarily minoritized? Journalist Wesley Yang speculates that this contorted formulation is a way of saying “not Asians.”
♦ Fermilab carefully says “prioritize,” knowing that it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of race. Spanx and financial firm Blackstone, which recently purchased a majority stake in the shapewear company, are not so careful. Spanx CEO Sara Blakely and Blackstone managing director Ann Chung announced that they plan to “create a 100% female board of directors.” I urge aspiring male MBAs to apply for positions at Spanx. If you don’t get the job, you’ll be able to file a lawsuit claiming discrimination. It will be easy to gain a lucrative settlement, given this announced intention by the firm’s leaders and backers to discriminate on the basis of sex.
♦ In an interview on ABC News, Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked whether a time will come when we’re not required to wear masks on airplanes. Our health commissar answered, “I don’t think so. I think when you’re dealing with a closed space, even though filtration is good, that you want to go that extra step.” I pray that it is only masks on airplanes that will continue in perpetuity, although I fear that is naive optimism to think so. The “extra step” rationale (“in the abundance of caution . . .”) underwrites perpetual social control.
♦ Ivan Illich: “Compulsory survival is a planned and engineered hell.”
♦ Canadian defense minister Anita Anand has been overseeing a thorough investigation of the Canadian armed forces, pledging to protect all military personnel from sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. Of the effort, she insisted: “It is our most basic responsibility, our most important task.” Most basic responsibility? Most important task? One wonders about the small matter of defending the country and winning battles.
♦ The classical education revolution continues. In Columbus, Ohio, plans are being made to open two schools in fall of 2023. One will be Heart of Ohio Classical Academy, a public community (charter) school that is part of the Hillsdale network. The other will be the Columbus Classical Academy. If you would like to put your shoulder to these noble causes, please get in touch with Daniel Gibson: email@example.com.
♦ Rebecca Enkin in Toronto, Ontario, would like to from a ROFTERS group. If you’d care to join her, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Mount Pleasant, Texas, Drew Nelson and Mike Schutt have joined forces to launch a ROFTERS group. The contact is email@example.com.
Fr. Scott Francis Binet of Kingstree, North Carolina, plans to form a ROFTERS group in the Charlotte area. To join, drop him a line at SFBRome2@hotmail.com.
♦ Newcomers to our pages may not know that the acronym ROFTERS stands for “Readers of First Things.” During the 1990s, devoted readers formed groups that met to discuss the latest issue, establishing a tradition of grassroots, reader-initiated organization that would have made William Jennings Bryan proud. I’ve met with some of these groups over the years, admiring the remarkable intelligence of our readership and relishing the warm fellowship. If you want to get a group going, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ At year’s end I sent out a letter soliciting donations to support our cause. In that letter I reminded readers of the threats posed by progressive ideologies: critical race theory, transgenderism, and climate change apocalypticism. I then summed up these views as those of the “atheistic left.” Some subscribers have written to take exception to this characterization. They’re believing proponents of one or another version of some of these notions, not atheists. Point well taken. Our shared faith is far more important than our political disagreements.
♦ As we go to press, it’s mid-December, and we’re still receiving donations. I’ll report results next month. In the meantime, please accept my gratitude for your support. And please know that, as the days of Advent are ending and we prepare this issue, we at First Things are wishing all of our readers a merry Christmas.