The war in Ukraine is passing the one-year mark as I write. In its early days, the determination with which the Ukrainians repulsed Russia’s attempt to overrun their country inspired and encouraged me. But as months have passed, I have begun to harbor misgivings. What’s the end game? What turn of events will allow for the cessation of hostilities? Little that I have read over the last year gives me confidence that those urging strong support for the courageous Ukrainians have a plausible answer.
One of Catholicism’s most important contributions to contemporary moral reflection is just war theory. This approach establishes jus ad bellum criteria, moral standards that must be met before hostilities are initiated. The justice of the cause of Ukrainian defense is without question. The Russian invasion aims to usurp the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people and ensure that their country accepts a supine role as a satellite state in a Moscow-dominated region. But just cause is not the only criterion. War, even in self-defense, must be undertaken as the last resort, in view of the probability of success, and with proportional means.
These standards apply to the war’s prosecution as well as its beginning. At every major juncture in a conflict, the principle of last resort holds. Governing authorities must ask: Should we continue the conflict, or has the larger situation changed to such a degree that we can attain our aims by diplomatic means? Probability of success likewise applies in an ongoing way. It may be gallant to fight what one knows will be a losing battle, but according to just war teaching, doing so reflects pagan vanity, not Christian moral judgment. A wise leader does not embark on unrealistic enterprises, especially when lives are at stake. Finally, as a war progresses, those in charge need to discern whether the advancing destruction outweighs the gains that will be made possible by further victories.
The principles of last resort, probability of success, and proportionality require leaders to make complex judgments that take a host of factors into account. Regarding the military situation in Ukraine, I’m not nearly as well informed as the leadership in Kyiv or the analysts in the Pentagon. But all of us can follow public statements about the war’s overall aims and objectives. Those statements are concerning.
In the first stages of the war, it was obvious that Ukraine was fighting to preserve its sovereignty. Since Russian forces have been driven out of most of Ukraine, and the conflict has settled into a largely static battle far from Kyiv, the situation has changed. The principles of last resort and proportionality became relevant and remain so. Can the long-term preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty be achieved if control of the easternmost provinces of Ukraine is ceded to the Russian aggressor?
It’s not obvious that the answer is “yes.” Perhaps ceding territory to Putin will embolden him, making it likely that he will try to invade again. But “no” is not the obvious answer, either. Russian forces have been severely damaged, and Moscow has been humbled by its failure to do more than make small gains in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the American-led support for Kyiv has swept aside earlier diplomatic ambivalence about the West’s commitment to support a sovereign Ukraine. Even if a peace settlement requires Ukraine to remain outside NATO, Putin is unlikely to put his hand back into the American-supplied hornet’s nest.
The notion of a peace settlement that falls short of restoring all territory to Ukraine may seem unjust, given Russia’s aggression. But just war theory does not warrant persistent conflict for the sake of righting past wrongs. It forces us to distinguish the good from the perfect. If the essential aim of defending Ukrainian sovereignty can be achieved without the reclamation of every piece of territory taken by the Russians since they swept into Crimea in 2014, then ongoing recourse to military means becomes unnecessary and violates the principle of last resort.
Just war doctrine insists that we limit our war efforts in accord with judgments about the probability of success. The question emerges: Is it reasonable to imagine that the Ukrainian military can expel Russian forces from its easternmost provinces, some parts of which have not been under Kyiv’s control for nearly a decade? Is it remotely possible to expel Russia from Crimea, where for more than two centuries Moscow has based its Black Sea fleet? If these strategic aims are unlikely to succeed, what good comes from the pursuit of them?
Proportionality likewise counsels restraint. Ukrainian sovereignty would certainly be secure if Russian forces were defeated in a decisive way. But at what cost in lives lost and cities destroyed? Just war theory is sensitive to the evils of war. Even just wars wreck lives, cities, and countries. This tradition of moral reasoning therefore warns against continuing military action for the sake of turning satisfactory outcomes into better ones, especially when the means necessary are out of proportion to the anticipated gains.
Again, I want to emphasize that just war analysis is not formulaic. It requires prudential judgments. A wise statesman knows that a nation’s honor is no small thing. National sovereignty has a spiritual dimension as well as a legal-diplomatic aspect. That said, against his own intentions, Putin has ensured Ukrainian sovereignty by uniting that country in opposition to his aggression. In all likelihood, diplomatic compromise will neither undermine that nation’s commitment to independence, nor weaken its resolve in self-defense.
In view of these considerations, were I functioning as moral counselor to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, I would advise him to give careful thought to this question: Can Ukraine survive, even thrive, in a post-war environment that includes territorial concessions to Moscow? Even more pointedly: Does the most realistic chance for thriving as a sovereign nation require concessions? If the answer is “yes,” then Zelenskyy has a moral duty to pursue a negotiated settlement.
But I am not Zelenskyy’s moral counselor. And, truth be told, he does not enjoy full freedom to govern Ukrainian affairs. To a far greater extent than was true before the war began, that country has become an American client state. As Christopher Caldwell observes, “The United States’ involvement in the war has always been greater than it appeared.” The Ukrainian military is able to stymie Russian advances because we provide them with precise and lethal tools. “Most of the new weapons’ destructive power comes from their being bound into an American information network,” which means that “the United States is participating in these military operations at the moment they happen.” Ukrainian soldiers are mercenaries, at least in part, fighting on behalf of America’s war aims.
What are America’s aims? We need to know if we are to think in a disciplined way about the moral justifications for American war-making, whether war is made directly or by proxy. This is not an easy question to answer, which is why my misgivings have grown. In late April of last year, when it was evident that the Ukrainian military would not be easily defeated, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that U.S. policy sought to help “Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country, able to protect its sovereign territory.” Then he hinted at a larger geopolitical ambition: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” In March 2022, President Biden made the off-the-cuff remark that Putin “cannot remain in power.”
Regime change, Russia weakened: These sound like good outcomes, but they are elements of America’s larger interest in sustaining our post–Cold War hegemony, rather than limited war-making objectives. The goal of sustaining American hegemony can justify an open-ended use of violence. As Nancy Pelosi put it last year, the war in Ukraine concerns the defense of “democracy writ large for the world.” She is not alone in seeing it this way. In the eyes of many foreign policy experts, the grinding war in eastern Ukraine is simply the current front in the millenarian battle of “liberal values” and the “open society” against authoritarian regimes. This way of thinking seems high-minded, but when it comes to war, it writes a blank check.
My reservations about the moral status of American involvement in Ukraine do not entail “isolationism” and disregard of our global responsibilities.During the Cold War, the United States adopted a policy of containment. Communist aggression was rightly countered, sometimes directly by U.S. forces (in Korea and Vietnam) and at other times by proxies (in Central America and Afghanistan). Yet, unlike “Russia weakened,” containment of the USSR and China functioned as a limited objective. This circumscribed goal allowed our leaders to harken to the principles of last resort, proportionality, and probability of success, principles that counseled them not to nurture conflict in Eastern Europe and to accept a great deal less than victory in Korea and Vietnam.
The collapse of the Soviet Union all but eliminated restraint from American foreign policy. The upshot: a moralistic imperialism that has been bipartisan. George W. Bush’s second inaugural address called Americans to take up the task “of ending tyranny in our world” by bringing liberty to all nations and peoples. Barack Obama’s administration emphasized human rights and expanded their scope, urging a progressive vision of the global triumph of the Rainbow Reich. But the end-of-history global victory of American “values,” whether defined by America’s center-right or its center-left, has not come to pass. As a consequence, in recent years we’ve seen a crisis mentality emerge. In 2022, Freedom House, a U.S. government–funded non-profit, issued a warning. “Global freedom faces a dire threat. Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy—a form of self-government in which human rights are recognized and every individual is entitled to equal treatment under law—are accelerating their attacks.”
As the war in Ukraine grinds on, American leaders suffer from a potentially toxic combination of delusions. They imagine that they have a world-transforming mission—and that their enemies are growing stronger by the hour.This mentality encourages the moral recklessness of a protracted conflict that risks escalation. Because it is realistic to assume that Russia will do almost anything not to lose the war, American efforts to raise the stakes may fuel a wider conflict on the eastern margins of Europe. Moreover, using the admirable resolve of the Ukrainians to attain the goal of “Russia weakened” bleeds the Ukrainian nation for the sake of bleeding Russia.
Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper unwittingly participated in an interview set up by pro-Putin Russians pretending to be patriotic Ukrainians. In an unguarded moment, he said, “The brave Ukrainian people are doing the dirty work we never want to do here in the United States. Which is why we should do everything to continue to support you with everything we can, whether it’s munitions or arms or intelligence, you name it. So I think it’s vitally critical that we continue this fight till the end.” Esper served under Trump. He does not speak for the Biden administration. He is, however, a reliable voice of the American foreign policy establishment. Which makes one pause and wonder: What, exactly, is “the end” sought by the “dirty work” that “we” must continue?
I hope my foreboding about American overreach is misplaced. But of this I am confident: Russia bears responsibility for beginning the hostilities in Ukraine; Ukrainian patriots have fought with courage and determination that merit our admiration; American arms and technical support are deeply implicated—and just war doctrine assigns to all participants responsibility for reestablishing peace.
Progressive Moralism Misleads
Cardinal Robert McElroy sings from the old progressive hymnal. I lived and prayed my way through the Episcopal Church’s embrace of the sexual revolution during the 1990s, so I’m alive to the ways in which the cardinal from San Diego recycles old clichés in a recent America magazine essay, “Cardinal McElroy on ‘radical inclusion’ for L.G.B.T. people, women and others in the Catholic Church.”
Moral and doctrinal standards become “structures and cultures of exclusion.” Words such as “dialogue” and “inclusion” function as sacred incantations. There are commendations of unity and warnings of “polarization”—from the pen of someone utterly convinced that any resistance to the progressive agenda is motivated by racism, sexism, or some other pathology that rejects Jesus’s call for “radical inclusion.” Here’s McElroy’s characterization of my view that homosexual acts are immoral: “It is a demonic mystery of the human soul why so many men and women have a profound and visceral animus toward members of the L.G.B.T communities.” I’m accustomed to these kinds of denunciations. They invariably follow calls for “radical inclusion.”
It’s all tiresomely familiar. But one echo in particular caught my attention. While serving on various governing bodies and study committees as an Episcopalian, I was lectured on many occasions about the purportedly misguided emphasis that traditional morality places on sexual sins. McElroy takes up this talking point: “The effect of the tradition that all sexual acts outside of marriage constitute objectively grave sin has been to focus the Christian moral life disproportionately on sexual activity.” By his analysis, this undue focus is “at the very center of our structures of exclusion from the Eucharist.” In other words, we’re too fixated on what we do with our bodies, when we should be more concerned about racism, refugees, the homeless, and other issues of social justice.
This sounds very righteous—but it is not. It shifts our focus away from sins we actually commit and toward circumstances over which we have little or no control. McElroy is keen to emphasize “structures,” as in “structures of exclusion” and “structures of marginalization.” They must be eliminated. In the case of “exclusion” of women, the “structures” can be changed only through canonical and doctrinal changes that would allow women to assume positions of leadership, including ordination to the permanent diaconate. McElroy wants similar changes to allow divorced and remarried people and homosexual couples to be full participants in the Eucharistic community. Let’s leave aside the merits of these progressive proposals and focus on a simple fact: Revising canons and defining doctrines are the responsibility of ecclesiastical authorities, not of people in the pews. I can have an opinion about the ordination of women, perhaps a passionate one. (For the record, I am strongly opposed.) I can form or join a pressure group. But ruling on this question is not my responsibility.
The same holds for the entire menu of progressive causes that are supposedly more important than the question of whom I have sex with and how. I do not decide homeless policy in New York City, nor do I decide refugee policy for the United States. I don’t set tax rates; I am not voting on laws that establish welfare benefits, regulate labor relations, or authorize the use of military force. As a citizen in a democracy, I have some responsibility, given my role as a voter or letter-writer to my representatives, but it is attenuated. Even full-time activists and lobbyists stand at a moral distance, as it were. They persuade, cajole, and exhort; they do not decide. By contrast, we are each directly responsible for our sexual sins. When I was younger, it was entirely within my power to sleep with my girlfriend. Today, it’s up to me whether I cheat on my wife. Sexual sins are not the only sins for which I bear direct responsibility. Lying, gossiping, and cheating on your taxes may be influenced by “structures of sin,” but they only happen insofar as the individual wills that which is wrong. Circumstances can make these sins more or less grave, but no one needs a degree in moral theology to recognize that they are personal sins; they are committed by me. These sins reflect my character.
Moreover, personal and intimate sexual acts affect our souls in direct and significant ways. This is why rape is a much greater assault on human dignity than robbery. It’s also why sexual sins play a prominent role in our moral imaginations. When police wrongfully kill, the moral gravity is certainly great, not only because a life has been taken without just cause, but also because injustices committed by officers of the law undermine the rule of law, which is the foundation of civilization. But the recent death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis is not my fault, and no amount of theorizing about “structures of sin” can make it so. Our consciences are lucid enough to recognize the difference between social evils and our own sins. That’s because our consciences have no difficulty in recognizing that sexual misconduct and other personal transgressions are our fault in a way that the existence of injustice in society is not.
Progressive moralists are aware that our consciences do not admit to complicity with remote evils. For this reason, McElroy and others invariably adopt a version of “silence is violence.” If I am to avoid the “sin” of complicity with “structures of exclusion,” then I must have the right progressive opinions and put the appropriate signs on my lawn. In other words, if I do not actively support the cardinal’s efforts, then I’m complicit with the unjust status quo. This complicity makes me the worst kind of sinner, captive to “a demonic mystery of the human soul,” and so forth.
Again, I don’t want to argue here the substantive questions of right and wrong when it comes to sex. My point is different. Our consciences tell us that, yes, our theological, moral, and political opinions are matters of moral significance. It is corrupting to advocate for things that are false and wrong. (I’ve written about the corrupting effects of ardent talk of “white privilege” and other antiracist tropes, in “Antiracist Hysteria,” December 2020.) But we know that our convictions, opinions, and ideas can be ephemeral, whereas our actions are all too real, which is why it is a graver sin to engage in sodomy than to believe that sodomy is not such a big deal, morally speaking. This is not to excuse McElroy. When those in positions of authority teach falsely, they encourage others to sin. See Jesus’s warning in Matthew 18:6.
Progressive moralism is a perversion of our present moment. It arises when people become too ardent about their general views of how things should be done. They take “silence is violence” with great seriousness, throwing themselves into causes and movements. In its most extreme form, this transposition of the moral life from the personal to the political regards denunciation of those who are insufficiently committed (to say nothing of those who disagree) as the highest moral calling. Thus the identifiable type, the social justice warrior and his zeal for cancellation: Hate has no home here.
Postconciliar Catholicism has incubated this perversion. It has given a privileged place to a progressive moralism that exploits powerful spiritual motivations: horror over injustice, a desire for moral heroism, intimations of the Kingdom of God. This moralism shifts our attention away from sin and toward “structures of sin.” Concern for the state of our souls is crowded out by concerns about the state of society. Priests would rather promote causes than hear confessions. Prayer and worship give way to advocacy and activism. Holding the right views and supporting the right movements (radical inclusion!) become the royal ways of righteousness. Among the faithful, a sense of sin diminishes, as the neglect of the sacrament of reconciliation indicates. And reasons to go to church diminish as well. The progressive moralism of leaders like McElroy is indistinguishable from the priorities and causes of secular progressives. Why not slice out the extraneous theology (which only burdens us with old-fashioned views about sex) and become a secular progressive? Occam’s razor used in this way is one explanation for the decline of mainline Protestantism.
There’s another dynamic as well. Some do not ignore their consciences. They allow that Cardinal McElroy may be correct about some aspects of this or that “structure of sin.” And even if wrong, he’s certainly entitled to his opinions. But these people—and I count myself among them—recognize that what he is saying about the relative insignificance of personal sins and the supposedly more decisive “structures of sin” is not true. Our consciences tell us that what we do with our sexual organs matters a great deal, precisely because, as with our tongues (see the Epistle of James), we have direct control over them, and therefore unmediated responsibility. And our consciences tell us that, when it comes to church governance and secular politics, our responsibility is mediated and, in many cases, very attenuated. Insofar as McElroy says otherwise, as does this pontificate more generally, we withdraw our spiritual obedience, and rightly so. One cannot in good conscience obey those who one knows are teaching falsehoods.
Elite White Liberals Unleashed
Zach Goldberg documents the transformation of the Democratic Party into the home for the best-educated white Americans in his February 2023 Manhattan Institute report, “The Rise of College-Educated Democrats.” College-educated whites now make up a larger cohort in the Democratic Party (27.3 percent) than do non-college-educated whites (25.2 percent). Their rise stems in part from an increase in the number of Americans with a college degree. But there are still twice as many non-college-educated whites as there are college-educated, so the main factor driving the rise of college-educated Democrats has been the migration of non-college-educated whites into the Republican Party.
Goldberg observes that the college-educated are more socially liberal than the general population. By virtue of education and income, they exercise the most influence on the political process. As a consequence, the ideological tone of the Democratic Party is set by the growing cohort of socially liberal, college-educated white voters (and donors). The near majority of non-white Democrats are more socially conservative, but they have less say in their party’s politics.
The power of college-educated whites in the Democratic Party is magnified by the fact that non-white working-class Democrats are less politically engaged and thus less influential than white working-class voters. Put simply, non-college-educated whites are more effective in holding their leaders accountable to their interests. Thus, the migration of non-college-educated whites into the Republican Party over the last generation has allowed articulate, committed, and well-to-do white liberals to attain unprecedented dominance over the Democratic Party.
This phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining the increasing polarization of our politics. Goldberg’s analysis foretells an accelerating radicalism and still greater polarization in the future:
As college-educated whites—who have long been more cosmopolitan and socially liberal than their less educated counterparts—make up a larger share of the Democratic Party, party elites and candidates have less to lose and more to gain from taking positions that would have been electorally risky in years past. They could, for instance, champion amnesty for undocumented immigrants without worrying that doing so would occasion backlash on the part of socially and racially conservative white Democrats. Instead, the concern increasingly becomes whether they are pressing the right “buttons” to attract and/or maintain the support of white liberal activists and donors. And the resulting party’s priorities are only more attractive to college-educated whites.
In sum: College-educated white liberals enjoy great freedom to press their political agenda, and they now do so without counter-pressure from once influential white working-class voters in the Democratic Party.
These trends are reinforced at every turn. Because of the shift in party allegiance, college-educated whites have strong political incentives to denounce non-college-educated whites as racists, bigots, and “haters.” Divisive rhetoric rallies non-white working-class Democrats, whose votes replace those of working-class whites. Furthermore, charges of grave moral and civic defects, epitomized in epithets like “deplorable,” enable elites to cast working-class whites as threats to America’s future, enemies of “our democracy.” The populist demands made by this cohort are invariably characterized as one or another version of “white supremacy.” Democratic politicians and their propaganda ministry, the legacy media, insist upon a Manichean political choice: It’s the Rainbow promise of an inclusive society—or Jim Crow 2.0.
Polarization is rightly lamented. But we need to be clear about its cause. Polarization is not driven by evangelical preachers in Texas. Nor should we blame Donald Trump, who sensed the growing anger among non-college-educated whites. Trump capitalized on the frustration of the working class over their ideological abandonment by college-educated whites, an abandonment that was ripening into an aggressive hostility and rhetorical assault not infrequently echoed by the Republican establishment. Rather, our political culture has become toxic because of demographic changes in the Democratic Party, which dominates most of the cultural institutions in America. College-educated white Democrats have shed constituencies that formerly held them accountable, and they superintend a diverse constituency that allows them to indulge their most extreme ideological ambitions.
Democrats in Rhode Island, as elsewhere, have introduced a bill to allow illegal immigrants to vote. This is entirely predictable: It reinforces college-educated-white dominance. There is no population more abjectly incapable of political agency than people who are here illegally. For a long time, I have suspected that white elites embrace multiculturalism because it preserves their power. A coalition of “the excluded” is far more dependent upon patrons who “empower” them than are mainstream, working-class Americans who have a long history of bringing elites to heel. Identity politics operates in ways similar to the Ottoman Empire’s millet system. It’s a marvelous way to undermine democratic accountability.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ In the West today, secularism draws Jews and Christians together. We face what amounts to a totalizing supersessionism, the conceit that modern science and progressive politics possess the full and final truth about human nature and our destiny, and that the religions of the West must be renounced. In view of this threat, First Things has formed a study group, Jews and Christians Engaging Word and World. Our goal will be to clarify and outline our commonalities (as well as differences), especially as they inform our approaches to pressing moral and social issues. The present situation calls for us to stand together against the perversions of a post-religious world. We are pleased to have Mark Gottlieb, senior director of the Tikvah Fund, and Bruce Marshall, Lehman Professor of Christian Doctrine at Southern Methodist University, as leaders of this important new initiative.
♦ According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, 57 percent of high school girls say they persistently feel sad or hopeless. That’s up from 36 percent a decade ago. For boys, what might be called the nihilism index went up from 21 percent to 29 percent. Not surprisingly, the number of teenagers reporting that they have seriously considered suicide has also increased, reaching 30 percent for girls. Researchers make lame speculations about causes. That’s because today’s cultural propaganda forbids our acknowledging the obvious fact that the last decade has seen the imposition of gay marriage, “shout your abortion,” transgender ideology, and lots of Rainbow flag-waving. During the same ten years, marijuana has been legalized and “white privilege” has been demonized. Black Lives Matter announces that our country is hopelessly racist; environmental activists tell us we’re on the brink of extinction. In short, we’ve created a toxic culture.
♦ The nihilism index should include more than the percentage of teens reporting despair and contemplating suicide. Marriage and fertility rates belong as well, as do drug overdose deaths, murder rates, and mass shootings. Other factors are relevant, too: workforce participation, civic involvement, religious attendance. I invite social scientists to give rigorous formulation to a nihilism index, a much-needed measure of how bad secular progressivism has made life for so many people.
♦ Over the last fifteen years, the United States has gone from hosting no pediatric gender clinics that facilitate “transitions” to hosting more than one hundred. Over the same period of time, mental health for young people has declined and the rate of teen suicide has increased. We have gone from no pot shops to thousands of them—and from 27,000 drug overdose deaths per year to more than 100,000. Correlation does not prove causation, but it demands investigation.
♦ At present, very few children are produced by gestational surrogacy, the process by which an already fertilized egg is introduced for gestation into the womb of a woman other than the mother, often for a fee. But political, cultural, and demographic trends indicate that the number will grow. The political drive toward defining the “right” to children comes from gay activists. Why should two men who are married to each other be deprived of children? Surrogacy is also likely to grow among professional women who want to avoid the disruptions of pregnancy and who wish to have their embryos screened for any defect or imperfection—or merely undesirable traits, such as the wrong eye color. Factor in demographic trends, which predict dramatic declines in fertility, and the cultural conditions are in place for a concentration of resources to develop artificial wombs and streamline the production of children. What begins under the sign of choice (“If you don’t want to avail yourself of the new methods of child production, then don’t”) will evolve in the direction of coercion. I predict that by 2070, progressives will be arguing that women who give birth “the old-fashioned way” are irresponsible, just as a woman in the Netherlands today who keeps a child with Down syndrome is chastised. Political measures akin to today’s rigorous anti-smoking regulations will be proposed. People must not burden society with their irresponsible decisions!
♦ Writing on MercatorNet, Richard Stith draws out aspects of the Dobbs decision that affirm the personhood of the unborn child. He goes on to say,
Perhaps its greatest gift to pro-life people, however, is Dobbs’s complete lack of interest in the subject of religion. None of the opinions treats as even worthy of debate that common suggestion in the media that abortion involves a war between religious theocrats and secular democrats.
♦ Michael Lind in Tablet, on the politics of gender ideology:
To date, sensible Democrats have been shamefully silent. Although few have spoken up to reject the crackpot crusade to “defund the police,” no prominent Democrat has dared to criticize unnecessary surgical castrations or hormone therapy and mastectomies for patients who suffer from gender dysphoria.
♦ Joseph Ratzinger:
The loss of transcendence evokes the flight into utopia. I am convinced that the destruction of transcendence is actually the mutilation of man from which all other sicknesses spring. Robbed of his real greatness, he can only resort to illusory hopes.
♦ The late Paul Johnson often framed his wisdom in well-chiseled statements. Here are two, courtesy of Roger Kimball, from Johnson’s 1983 book, Modern Times: “Utopianism is never far from gangsterism,” and “The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.”
♦ Auguste Comte was the first to outline a technocratic tyranny devoted to the perfection of the human condition by scientific reason. “Man,” he wrote, “must be more and more subordinated to humanity.”
♦ In Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, Kenneth Minogue provides a useful definition of the tyranny of ideas. Ideological politics promises to perfect the world. It encourages the powerful conviction that the one key has been found that unlocks the mystery of suffering and injustice, making politics into an activist theodicy. “Yes,” we hear the ideologue saying, “suffering is real. But I am working to uproot its cause.” As Minogue notes, ideology’s “simplest formulation is that all evils are caused by an oppressive system.” This leads to a battle for liberation in which “there are no civilians.” After all, decent people oppose evil. We now know the social causes of evil. Therefore, only those who love evil—those in love with their “privilege” and consumed by “hate”—will shrink from the fight against the social causes. Here is Karl Marx’s account of the use of criticism: “Its essential sentiment is indignation; its essential activity is denunciation.” Cancel culture is not a strange and new phenomenon. It’s a direct expression of the modern mind’s determination to “solve” the problem of evil. This usurpation is by no means restricted to Marxism. It’s a feature of every technocratic enterprise. Lockdowns and vaccine mandates, for instance: Advocates were well oiled with indignation and quick in denunciation.
♦ Michael Oakeshott: “To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise.”
♦ Andrew Sullivan:
It’s possible, it must be possible, both to enforce and embrace traditional understandings of the world, which are often, by the way, also largely true, while accommodating those of us who are different—a gay person—but without overturning the entire bloody order.
The word “accommodate” is equivocal. Gay rights require much more than such modest aims. They demand affirmation in law and custom. Sullivan’s faith that our society can affirm homosexuality and sustain traditional understandings of the world has little basis in reality. One cannot deny the first chapters of Genesis without overturning the entire order.
♦ During the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, He Gets Us, a 501(c)(3) committed to gentle evangelization, ran a sixty-second ad. It featured arresting black-and-white photos of conflict, anger, and enmity in our society, ending with the tag line, “Jesus loved the people we hate.” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s response to the basic Christian message that we must love our enemies? “Something tells me Jesus would not spend millions of dollars on Super Bowl ads that make fascism look benign.”
♦ In June 2022, CompassCare crisis pregnancy center in Buffalo was firebombed. “Jane was here” was written on the center’s wall, a likely reference to the militant abortion rights group Jane’s Revenge. In view of the sustained efforts by federal law enforcement to address domestic terrorism, one would expect the perpetrators to have been brought to justice. To date, authorities have not indicted anyone. This failure is part of a larger pattern. The Thomas More Society, a legal nonprofit committed to pro-life and other worthy causes, has cataloged 161 attacks on pro-lifers since the leak of the Dobbs draft opinion in May 2022, including an attack on the home of the organization’s president, Thomas Brejcha.
♦ It’s not that the Justice Department has been sitting on its hands. In October 2021, anti-abortion activist Mark Houck tangled with an abortion supporter outside an abortion clinic. After local officials deemed the encounter unactionable, the Feds took up the case, and last September armed agents arrived at Houck’s home to arrest him. Fortunately, in late January a jury found Houck not guilty of any violations of the law. But one wonders about the government’s zeal for prosecution.
♦ Speaking of which, a leaked FBI document from the agency’s Richmond Division outlines a plan to infiltrate traditionalist Catholic communities, which are deemed sources of “white supremacy.” The document apparently relies on threat assessments made by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a radical-left organization that routinely describes conservative political views as “extremist.” It labels the Alliance Defending Freedom a “hate group.” The FBI subsequently retracted the leaked memo. But its existence—and the plan to spy on Americans whose religious and moral views are deemed “extremist”—says something disturbing about our governing consensus.
♦ Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso on the border crisis:
From experience, I can tell you it won’t be solved with policies that deny asylum to more people, or with walls, deportation, detention, or more money for immigration enforcement. Immigration is a long-term challenge that’s only going to be solved with long-term thinking. We need to pivot to a more humanitarian approach that respects the rights and dignity of people who need to migrate.
I’m all for long-term thinking and humanitarian approaches. But we must face reality, which includes massive violations of our immigration laws. Is the good bishop opposed to any effort to limit illegal border crossings?
♦ Writing in Dominicana, the annual journal of the Dominican student brothers of the Province of St. Joseph, Brother Pius Mary Henry, O.P., reviews The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life. As a broken-down old climber, I naturally read it through. Honnold’s famous free solo ascent of El Capitan in 2017 was captured in the gripping documentary Free Solo. (The term “free solo” means climbing the sheer cliff without the safety of a rope to catch a fall.) There’s no doubt that Honnold is an athlete at the top of his game. Henry notes, “Everyone knows excellence when he sees it, and Honnold’s arresting achievements, like the mountains he climbs, unquestionably manifest God’s glory.” But Henry concludes by noting that, when natural beauty and extraordinary feats strike us with awe, we need to recognize “with St. Thomas . . . that the good of grace in one soul exceeds the good of nature—including scaling El Cap—in the entire created universe.” As someone who has enjoyed the beauty of nature while climbing El Capitan, I’ll add my “amen.”
♦ I’m pleased to announce that our annual New York Intellectual Retreat will be held on August 11 and 12. For those who have never attended a First Things Intellectual Retreat, we begin with a Friday evening lecture. On Saturday we break into small groups for seminar discussions of reading material circulated to participants in advance, and we end the day with cocktails, dinner, and entertainment. This year’s theme will be Creation and Fall. We’ll give close attention to the first three chapters of Genesis and look at some literary classics that interpret this foundational scriptural text.
♦ Have you been a subscriber for five or more years? If so, you can sign up for a free book (The End of Interpretation, my recent reflections on reading the Bible) and First Things swag. Go to firstthings.com/faithfulsubscriber. It’s our way of saying thank you.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.