Consistency is a basic principle of justice, and one important form of criticism is the exposure of hypocrisy. There are many occasions for exposing hypocrisy these days. In the aftermath of the FBI raid on Donald Trump’s Florida home, we can point to Hillary Clinton’s private server. Asked to denounce Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, we can cite Stacey Abrams, who never accepted her defeat in the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia.
In his Substack column, The Upheaval, N. S. Lyons mocks this approach. By his account, every political system has a dominant party, Team A, and a subordinate party, Team B. One perquisite of dominance is the right to enforce the rules when they are convenient—and suspend them when they are inconvenient. Although Team A insists on the sanctity of the rule of law, there exists no neutral arbiter to hold it accountable, “because Team A has consolidated all the power to decide the rules, and to enforce or not enforce those rules as they see fit.” So don’t waste your breath appealing to neutral standards. And stop whining about inconsistencies.
Lyons is right about our present moment. It is impossible to read a mainstream news story about the 2020 election without being subjected to public service announcements about Trump’s “false claims.” Moreover, in respectable company one is compelled to agree that these false claims represent a dire threat. Yet, for more than two years, the same authorities promoted false claims about Trump’s collusion with Russia in order to affect the 2016 election. Careers flourished; Pulitzer Prizes were distributed. Even as it became evident that this story was baseless, not a single member of Team A expressed contrition. Today, we’re all required to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. Even if false in fact, the Russian collusion story was true in spirit.
This lack of accountability did not prevail a generation ago. Which raises a question: Why have the double standards become so obvious? Why can Chuck Schumer encourage violence against Supreme Court justices with impunity, whereas failure to denounce the January 6 “insurrection” amounts to complicity in it? In his account, Lyons presumes that Team A wants to humiliate Team B, inducing feelings of inferiority and training Team B to accept the ascendancy of Team A. “‘Hypocrisy,’” he concludes, “is simply a display of power, so the more blatant it is the better.” Like a dictator who gets a kick out of seeing his arbitrary will carried out, Team A “has decided the greatest happiness in life is to crush its class enemies, see them driven before it, and hear the lamentations of their pundits.”
Count me skeptical. I’m not so pessimistic about the value of pointing out gross double standards. People have consciences. I’m confident that the editors at the Washington Post are quietly embarrassed about having flogged the Russian collusion hoax. To my mind, the true explanation for today’s blatant double standards rests in the weakness of Team A, not its superordinate strength. Our liberal establishment no longer feels it can afford the luxury of its liberal principles. “Our” democracy is at risk! They excuse their illiberalism because they’re convinced that much is at stake.
Dire sentiments among establishment elites are not entirely mistaken. We recently published Russell Berman’s warnings about a rising “rhetoric of emergency” (“State of Emergency,” June/July 2022). The persistent appeals to emergency need not be cynical, or at least not always and only cynical. Most of us have a sense that things are coming apart. Our country is less coherent and less governable, more factious and increasingly angry. Team A is aware of these facts, and far from imbuing its leaders with a sense of limitless power, the negative trends fill them with foreboding. Their fears draw them toward questionable measures. They slide toward what Pierre Manent has accurately called “the fanaticism of the center,” a fanaticism that tramples those who dissent or resist. It fuels a thirst for ever greater control. The more conservatives are removed from academia, the more the few who remain trigger outrage.
In a functional society, the dominant group does not govern by stomping on subordinate groups. It sets the tone and articulates a widely accepted consensus. After 1945, New Deal and Cold War liberals served that function. Except for aspects of the Reagan interim, this center-left configuration took and held the initiative. It was responsible for the political and cultural initiatives that have done so much to shape our society: Civil Rights, the Great Society programs, and the sexual revolution in the 1960s; environmentalism in the 1970s; laying the foundations for the global economy in the 1990s; making “diversity” our collective ideal in the 2000s; and more.
In my recent book, Return of the Strong Gods, I outline the rationale for these developments. I call it the postwar or “open society” consensus. In the book, I document the waning of that consensus, to which our elites have responded with panic, manifest in shrill warnings about fascism, bigotry, and endless accusations of racism. The panic is evident also in forebodings about climate catastrophe, the moral stain of Western imperialism, and a general sense that our way of life is corrupt and unsustainable.
The realities are plain to see. However we wish to characterize the governing consensus, it’s evident that the attitudes and priorities of Team A are neither apt nor effective. If you are born in 2022, you have barely more than a 50-percent chance of being raised by your mother and father. If you were born in 1992 and are now turning thirty, you have a less than 50-percent chance of making as much as your grandparents did at the same age. Put simply, the cultural and economic foundations of a prosperous, self-confident middle class—the stable anchor for a democracy—have eroded. This did not happen by accident. Nor was it the result of the preaching of evangelical pastors in Texas or the influence of any group or movement that the New York Times is so quick to identify as a threat to “our democracy.” The collapse of the American family and middle-class prosperity happened under the leadership of Team A.
Yes, African Americans enjoy opportunities that were denied to their grandparents, there is a great deal of cheerleading for sexual minorities, and many immigrants have arrived and bettered their lives and the lives of their children. The last fifty years have not been bad for everyone. But we can’t escape an iron law of political science: It is very difficult to govern a society in which a once prosperous majority is experiencing decline.
The difficulties facing Team A are compounded by the growing divide between the top end of society and everyone else. Charles Murray has documented the stunning self-isolation of American elites, shown not just in where they choose to live, but in where they attend school and whom they marry. Here, another law of political science comes into play: A democracy is hard to sustain when those who run important institutions and pull the levers of power are detached from those they govern and purport to serve. The fact that our ruling class responded to Trump’s electoral successes in 2016 with stunned disbelief speaks volumes about that class’s ignorance of the country they ostensibly lead. It’s more difficult still when elites express disdain for wide swaths of the electorate: Takers! Deplorables!
So I’m not surprised by the double standards, the censorship, and other violations of the liberal principles that Team A claims to champion while setting them aside. These are tactics born of desperation, not of a surfeit of power. Our country is not at risk of falling under the unchallenged dominance of liberal elites, although we are in danger of turning into a techno-police state as our failing elites turn to more explicit methods of coercion and control. Put simply, we are imperiled by the fact that those in positions of power are frightened, ill informed, and ineffectual. And their weakness is compounded by their arrogance, which makes them invincibly ignorant. In this regard, Lyons is correct: The way forward is to push aside Team A and renew our ruling class with leaders capable of leading.
Fear of Death
On August 19–20, we held our annual New York Intellectual Retreat. The theme was death and mourning. Reading assignments were circulated in advance, and we spent Saturday in seminar discussions. By my reckoning, the most arresting reading was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late medieval poem written by an unknown author. (Some argue that the same unknown author penned Pearl, another late medieval poem. I’ll leave it to the scholars to debate the question.)
The poem opens in King Arthur’s banquet hall. It’s Yuletide, and the famous king’s noble knights gather to enjoy the season’s feasting. Arthur stands before the men, pledging to refrain from eating until someone has told a tale sufficiently fantastic to entertain them all. But no one needs to take up the challenge, for at that moment a marvelous figure barges into the banquet hall. He’s an imposing knight mounted on a powerful steed, and he and the horse are colored green.
The poem has the atmosphere of realism, and there are no hints that we’re to read the tale as an allegory. But the greenness of the knight, which is much emphasized by the poet, even to the point of describing his golden spurs as green-tinged, suggests that he has symbolic significance. Perhaps he personifies nature’s indomitable power. Symbol or not, the Green Knight strides forward, challenging anyone present to take up his massive ax and strike him with one blow while he bares his neck, and to pledge to endure the same from him in one year’s time.
The challenge seems foolish. A swipe of the ax will sever the Green Knight’s head. But those gathered in Arthur’s grand hall know that they are not gazing on an ordinary man. A silence falls. As others hesitate, Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and a knight famous throughout the land, steps forward to take up the challenge.
In this opening scene, the poem’s theme is set. The Green Knight’s sharp-edged ax bespeaks death’s always pressing peril. Death can come for us unawares, even if we have seen the best doctors, taken our medications, and eaten all the right foods. For this reason, it’s not unreasonable to fear death’s reach, even in the safest confines. Taking up the ax, Gawain shows himself to be the master of this fear. Better to rise gloriously to life’s challenges than make survival your number-one priority.
Sir Gawain gives the ax a mighty swing, and the Green Knight’s head rolls across the banquet hall floor. But the headless body does not become lifeless. It stands erect, and the Green Knight grasps his severed head by its long green hair. The shocked banquet hall then hears the decapitated Green Knight remind Gawain of his pledge. The young knight must bare his neck at the dawn of next New Year and receive the reciprocal blow. “You will find me in the Green Chapel,” he announces, as he turns his horse and gallops out the door.
Sir Gawain remains true to his pledge. Winter comes again, and he embarks on a long winter journey in search of the Green Chapel. He is beaten by the elements, and the quest functions in the poem as ascetical preparation, a taming of the body’s demands. But the bulk of the poem is given over to Sir Gawain’s repose in the castle of Bertilak. This mysterious nobleman recapitulates the logic of the Green Knight’s challenge, telling Sir Gawain that he will give him whatever he bags on his daily hunt, if Gawain will return the favor and give him what he gains during the day.
Bertilak hunts, while Sir Gawain is hunted, for during the daytime the wife of the castle’s lord visits Gawain in his bedroom. The poet is masterly in his evocation of the sensuous nature of their polite, courteous exchanges. (The accounts of the hunt and the skinning of animals are also extraordinary.) The first day ends with a kiss, which Sir Gawain gives to Bertilak when he returns from the hunt. The second ends with two kisses, which Gawain passes along. But on the third day, the flirtation takes a different turn. Sir Gawain parries the fair wife’s advances as best he can, but she bestows three kisses. More importantly, she convinces him to accept her charmed girdle, a green sash, which, she promises, will protect his life. When the lord of the castle returns from the hunt, he gets the three kisses from Sir Gawain. The sash, however, remains a secret.
The next day requires Sir Gawain to present himself at the Green Chapel, which is conveniently located near the lord’s castle. No fool, he girds himself with the charmed sash, hoping somehow to endure the fateful consequences of his pledge. The poem reaches its climax as Gawain confronts the Green Knight and submits his bare neck to the ax. On the first swing, Gawain shrinks away. The Green Knight mocks his cowardice. The noble prince’s blood rises, and he bares his neck again, this time without flinching. The Green Knight brings down the ax, but at the last second gives a glancing blow that merely slices Sir Gawain’s skin.
Marveling at his good fortune, our hero springs to his feet. “Enough swiping, sir,” he says, “you’ve swung your swing” The Green Knight responds with a hearty laugh. “Be a mite less feisty, fearless young fellow,” he warns, revealing himself to be Bertilak, whose wife had given Gawain the life-saving girdle. The Green Knight knows that his adversary withheld the gift, failing to keep his pledge to reciprocate at day’s end, not giving what he gained—just as Gawain failed to submit his neck, relying on the magical power of the green sash to save him. “Don’t be a fool,” the Green Knight says, in effect: “I know that you lacked the courage to keep up your end of the bargain. But I’ve let you off.”
Sir Gawain feels great shame. He heatedly curses the “cowardice and covetousness” that, he declares, has destroyed all virtue. But the Green Knight will have none of it. He does not blame the famous knight, for love of one’s life, he says, is the most forgivable vice.
Commentators have long argued about the meaning of this enigmatic exchange. What is the poet trying to say when he has the Green Knight avert the blade and impose a minor flesh wound rather than severing Gawain’s neck, as the young knight had done to him in King Arthur’s banquet hall? To my mind, the answer is simple. The medieval world held the classical view that there are higher and nobler loyalties than love of one’s life. In the code of chivalry, honor is to be prized far above survival. Therefore, the Green Knight has gained more in the exchange than has Sir Gawain. True, his head was severed, a symbol of death’s claim upon our fates. But Gawain has suffered a greater punishment: the humiliation of knowing that, when honor was on the line, he preferred life. And, indeed, in the poem Sir Gawain recoils from the Green Knights words “out of shame,” and pronounces “a curse upon cowardice and covetousness.” It is the cowardice that comes of coveting life rather than loving honor.
For all the strangeness of green warriors, bizarre pledges, and girdles with magical powers, the poem ends with a profound realism about the human condition. The Green Knight dismisses Sir Gawain’s protestations. Perhaps because this strange figure is the personification of nature, and thus knows that winter’s grip is always broken by the shoots of new life, he accepts as normal an overriding love of life.
As if trying to make good on his pledges after it’s too late, Sir Gawain tries to return the green sash. The ax-wielding, green-tinged warrior refuses. Our loves cut grooves in our souls. A love of life cannot be cast off, even as we feel painful pangs of regret for sacrificing what is higher in order to fend off death. Sir Gawain proclaims that he will always wear the girdle. It will serve as a “sad reminder that the frailty of his flesh is man’s biggest fault.”
We should do likewise. To our shame, we covet life, even to the point of betraying nobler loves. But let’s not imagine ourselves invincible heroes, who can cast off our fear of death. To be human is to cling to life, even as we know that we are made for more than simply living another day. The best we can do is remind ourselves that this clinging can be a vice, not a virtue.
Harmony in Steel and Stone
In its literal sense, Beaux-Arts means “fine arts.” But with capital letters, the term refers to the classically informed style of monumental architecture that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Frank Lloyd Wright rebelled against this style, deeming it a shameful borrowing from European sources when Americans should be developing a new idiom of their own, one more forthright and unadorned, seeking beauty in form and attunement to nature’s simplicity, not in ornament and decoration.
When I was a young man, Wright’s designs thrilled me. As I’ve aged, my ardor has diminished. I came to realize that I would not enjoy living in Wright’s famous houses, which require residents to accommodate themselves to his ideas rather than vice versa. Living in New York, where there are many fine examples, I’ve come to cherish Beaux-Arts buildings.
Which makes Phillip James Dodd’s new book, An American Renaissance: Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York City, a tremendous pleasure to peruse. It’s a large-format book with stunning photographs that covers twenty architectural wonders, ranging from skyscrapers (the Woolworth Building) to funerary monuments (Woodlawn Cemetery). For each entry, Dodd provides a full account of the conception, design, financing, construction, use, and alterations of each building. Photographer Jonathan Wallen supplies arresting photographs, many of them voluptuous with architectural detail.
Some buildings, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grand Central Station, and the New York Public Library, are familiar to most who have visited New York. Others are hidden gems. The Williamsburgh Savings Bank, a rotunda-topped temple of finance, sits at the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Thousands ride past it every day, barely noticing its majestic existence.
The Stanford White–inspired (the final design involves a complicated story of egos) Gould Memorial Library is known by fewer still. It serves as the centerpiece of a building program begun in the 1890s by New York University in the Bronx, when that institution was planning to leave lower Manhattan and relocate to what was at the time dubbed (and remains) University Heights. The move turned out to be partial. On the brink of bankruptcy in 1973, NYU sold the Bronx campus to the city and reconsolidated operations in Greenwich Village. The Gould Memorial Library is now incorporated into the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, where, with other gracious buildings from the NYU era, it stands in sharp contrast to the usual faceless, shapeless academic warehouses that fill university landscapes.
Dodd does not include the Metropolitan Club, another Stanford White creation. I agree with his judgment. A Venetian palace scaled to Manhattan proportions, the club has an interior that is grand but uncomfortably so. Those who enter feel like dwarves, out of place in a club for giants. (Perhaps the club’s founding magnates, such as J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, had egos large enough to fill the vast spaces.)
An American Renaissance does, however, include the University Club, which, in my estimation, is the best building in New York. Designed by White’s partner, Charles McKim, it, too, evokes an Italian palazzo. The exterior is so perfectly done, however, that the eye reads the building as three stories rather than its true size, which reaches ten stories. The interior of the first floor is grand, yes, but welcoming. Pilasters and doorways are scaled in ways that draw down the ceilings while preserving the magnificence of the space. The effect is of a grandeur that ennobles, rather than humiliates, mere mortals. Entering the first-floor reading lounge, one feels like a duke on his way to see the queen. The second-floor library is more perfect still. As Dobbs allows, it is perhaps the best room in the city of New York. Rich decoration can overwhelm. But McKim creates such a harmony of alcoves, arches, and vaulted ceilings that everything seems in its proper place. The great chorus of gold medallions, carvings, and frescos sings in one accord. To read a book in this place is to have a foretaste of heavenly rest.
The Samuel Tilden House (now the National Arts Club), the Morgan Library, the Frick Collection: I could go on. New York City contains multitudes, not the least a great trove of architectural treasures. I’m grateful to Phillip Dodd. An American Renaissance has deepened my knowledge of beautiful buildings I already knew. And this marvelous and lavishly illustrated love letter to Beaux-Arts New York has given me a wish list of interiors to see for the first time. I’m panting for a tour of the New York Life Building!
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Jacob Seitz reporting for the Daily Dot: “Starbucks recently announced a new abortion policy to help employees seek out healthcare—unless they are part of a unionized store.” This policy speaks volumes about the meaning of “progressive” in the early twenty-first century.
♦ The editors at Ius et Iustitium drew my attention to a recent article in Slate about an abortion clinic after Dobbs. The substance is an extended paraphrase of comments by a nurse who works in Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, which is across the river from St. Louis, where Missouri law now limits abortion. The nurse reports an upsurge in women seeking abortions, many now coming from Missouri. The thrust of her remarks underlines the role of the law as a teacher:
In the wake of Roe falling, discussions with patients have gotten more difficult. Patients are more strongly voicing feelings like they are doing something that’s wrong or illegal. Or they’re experiencing a larger amount of confusion about their decision to terminate because there’s this bigger overarching idea of “Well, if the Supreme Court or the government says that this isn’t legal, then I’m clearly doing something wrong.” We’ve started to see patients in absolute crisis. At the clinic, we hear over and over, “Oh, it’s illegal in my state. Oh, I can’t do that.”
Patients are also dealing with a larger amount of indecision and internalized stigma. They’re saying, “Oh, I don’t want to murder my baby,” or statements that reference this larger discussion that we’ve all been hearing.
By my reading, the feelings of her patients are more trustworthy than the nurse’s condescension, and more illuminating as well. Politics is not downstream from culture. On the contrary, politics is an important cultural practice, and it can affect social norms in profound ways, especially when political institutions such as courts, which are invested with the law’s prestige, rule on matters of moral significance.
♦ On August 7, Arizona governor Doug Ducey signed H.B. 2853. This landmark legislation will provide an “empowerment scholarship account” for every family in the state—and every year the government will deposit $6,500 per child. These funds can be used to pay for private schools, religious schools, and homeschool programs. Put simply, Arizona has instituted universal school choice, breaking the monopoly of government schools, beneficiaries of many decades of over-funded, failed progressive educational fads and purveyors of woke ideology. In recent months, many readers have asked me what we can do to overcome the bitter divisions in our country. Ducey’s achievement takes an important step toward repairing our social contract. By funding school choice, it allows parents to disengage from battles over ideology in their children’s education. As temperatures go down, we can focus on building new institutions, and we can find ways to talk to our neighbors, who, unlike the arrogant educational establishment, share a great deal with us, even if they have different religious, moral, and political convictions.
♦ During the same week, Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin criticized proposals by the state’s department of education to strike from state curricula the titles of George Washington as “Father of our Country” and James Madison as “Father of the Constitution.” The educational bureaucrats backtracked. Good for Youngkin. But a whack-a-mole approach is both exhausting and, over the long term, ineffective. The systemic solution to woke control over public education is to defund the beast. Youngkin should follow Ducey’s lead and build a coalition in Virginia to establish universal school choice.
♦ Pierre d’Alancaisez writing in Compact: “As with HIV, monkeypox has spread first among men who have sex with men. Despite this fact, the idea that healthcare messaging and interventions should be directed at gay men has been denounced as homophobic.” He goes on to ask pertinent questions:
But is it homophobic to ask whether the group currently most affected by and most likely to propagate the virus should think about its role in spreading the infection? After the closures of pools, theaters, and restaurants in the name of Covid, wouldn’t closing sex clubs be an equally justified response to the threat of monkeypox?
♦ David Mamet writing in UnHerd about the invincible appeal of woke platitudes:
Our lives, yours and mine, are full of sanctimony; in fact, a grand tool of self-diagnosis is recognition of the warm joy we take in sententiousness, and its big brother, righteousness.
♦ Writing in the New York Times (“I Still Believe in the Power of Sexual Freedom”), Nona Willis Aronowitz makes a statement of blind faith:
I do believe that reaching for more sexual freedom, not less—the freedom to have whatever kind of sex you want, including, yes, casual sex and choking sex and porny sex—is still the only way we can hope to solve the problems of our current sexual landscape.
It’s the progressive dogma in its purest form: The wreckage caused by cultural deregulation is a sign that we have not gone far enough.
♦ After ten years at the helm of the venerable Jesuit magazine America, Fr. Matt Malone has stepped down. During his tenure, Fr. Malone not only oversaw a successful redesign of the magazine and a dramatic expansion of online offerings, but also shepherded America away from a strident and predictable progressivism in theology and politics. Don’t get me wrong. America (and Fr. Malone) remained “liberal.” Nevertheless, he commissioned pieces by those commonly placed on the other side of the spectrum, such as Scott Hahn—and even this wretched scribbler. His ambition as editor in chief was to run a magazine for the whole Church. Truth be told, his fellow Jesuit on the throne of St. Peter, who often makes sweeping denunciations, has made that goal more difficult to achieve. And the emergence of Donald Trump amped up secular partisanship, affecting every aspect of journalism today. I do not always agree with what I read in America, and First Things cuts a different profile. But under Fr. Malone’s leadership, I came to see America as an ally, not an adversary—wayward and distant at times, but pulling in the same direction against the destructive trends of our secular age. Congratulations, Fr. Matt. And best wishes to his successor, Fr. Sam Sawyer.
♦ The particular occasion was an observation by Simon Leys about Jean-Paul Sartre’s inane but influential dismissal of Orson Welles’s masterpiece, Citizen Kane. But the truth is universal: “The cultivated public always follows the directives of a few propaganda commissars; there is more conformity among intellectuals than among plumbers and mechanics.”
♦ I’d like to welcome Justin Lee to our editorial staff. We lured him away from the University of California, Irvine, where he was teaching rhetoric and composition. Justin has also served as an editor for Arc Digital. At First Things, he assumes the position of associate editor.
♦ On the evening of Monday, October 3, I’ll sit down with Ross Douthat to discuss the relation between Christian faith and political power. With debates raging about the future of liberalism, and given the growing number of proponents of Catholic theories of integralism, it’s a timely topic. The event will take place at Chicago’s Athenaeum Center, 2936 N. Southport Avenue. Register on our events page at firstthings.com.
♦ Calling all readers: Join us for a readers’ summit at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, October 14–15. The theme will be friendship in an age of polarization. We’ll kick off with a lecture on Friday (5 p.m.), delivered by your humble scribe. On Saturday morning (9 a.m.–12 p.m.), small groups will discuss readings circulated in advance. Go to our events page to register.
♦ And of course, come to the 35th annual Erasmus Lecture in New York City on Monday evening, October 24. This year’s lecture, “The West: Post-Christian or Pre-Christian?,” will be delivered by Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia. As always, the event will take place at the Union League Club of New York. You can register online. It’s always a big crowd, and we want to make sure you get a seat!
♦ Jason Sutton of Oklahoma City would like to form a ROFTERS group. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ Please know that we maintain a list of active ROFTERS groups on our website: firstthings.com/rofters. If you’d like to meet with First Things readers on a regular basis, join your local group. And if there is not an active group in your area, start one!