Avik Roy and John Hood recently launched what they hope will be a movement, Freedom Conservatism. In consultation with others of like mind, they drafted a statement of principles. It’s available on their website, freedomconservatism.org. One can debate the principles and their formulations. Quibbles aside, the deeper problem is this: Taken as a whole, the statement is irrelevant.
We do indeed have a liberty deficit in America. Our culture of freedom is eroding. But we won’t restore freedom by talking about it in a loud voice. We can’t insist upon freedom, we can’t demand freedom and refuse to kowtow and submit, unless we have a solid place to stand. Our loyalties and loves stiffen our spines. In my experience, it’s not lost on young people that those who are willing to venture public resistance to woke tactics of intimidation are often religious. They can see that fixing one’s eyes on God’s Word and harkening to his authority nurtures freedom. There are powerful natural loves as well: of a mother for her child, a soldier for his comrades, a patriot for his country. These loves motivate self-sacrifice, which is freedom’s highest expression. Greater love—and greater freedom—hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
So let me put my objection to Freedom Conservatism as directly as possible. The most fundamental problem in the United States in 2023 is not the lack of legal freedoms or even the tactics of intimidation used by cultural progressives. It rests in the sad fact that many once solid truths and anchoring institutions have been dissolved. If we do not address this growing deficit—and Freedom Conservatism does not—our protestations on behalf of freedom are in vain.
One of the Freedom Conservatism principles asserts, correctly, that we are happiest within loving families, and that parents should enjoy the freedom to raise and educate their children in accord with their values. I would add a further observation. We are freest when part of a strong family. Raised by a mother and a father, we’re more likely to embark on risky ventures and better able to resist social pressures.
Yet, as I write, a newborn child has only a 50 percent chance of being raised by both of his parents. The United States leads the world in the incidence of single-parent households. If we care about freedom—and we should—we can’t ignore these facts. We won’t get a vigorous culture of freedom without restoring marital stability. This restoration requires talking about commitment, covenant, and responsibility, first and foremost—not nattering on about notional freedoms that damaged, disoriented, and atomized people cannot exercise.
A strong culture of freedom requires substantive foundations. Even if we adopt a libertarian definition of freedom—in which freedom means the ability to do what one wants to do—we should recognize the need for solid foundations. The libertarian definition is not sufficient, but it’s not altogether wrong. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul reports that he does what he does not want to do and cannot do what he wants to do. He desires to become a free man, a man able to do what he wants, which becomes possible only when he anchors his soul in Christ.
It’s crucial for us to recognize that in today’s America, few seem to enjoy even a libertarian freedom. Consider marriage. How many people take wedding vows, whether in a church or before a civil authority, without wanting the bond to be permanent? Very few, I’d venture. Yet divorce is rampant. How is it that so many of those who get married cannot do what they have vowed to do?
Or consider the desire to get married in the first place. Polling suggests that most younger Americans hope to marry. But at the moment, we are heading toward a future in which a significant percentage of them never will. How can such a basic desire be thwarted? And if this basic good, desired by so many, isn’t attainable, even supposing we secure our constitutional rights and blunt the power of woke revolutionaries, can we say that we are living in a “free society”?
An even more glaring condition of bondage is widespread. Presently, more than 100,000 people die of drug overdose every year. It beggars belief that all those individuals want to die. Yet, in our “free society,” a stunning number of people fail to do what very nearly everyone wants to do: stay alive.
I can imagine a libertarian interrupting to point out that undisciplined and self-destructive people tend to get divorced, take drugs, and do other things that undermine their well-being. Divorce, deaths of despair, and other dysfunctions are signs of freedom misused, not a lack of freedom. True enough. But a “free society” that ushers so many toward such patent bondage gives freedom a bad name.
Even society’s “winners,” those who are disciplined and in command, lack freedom. As they run through the meritocratic gauntlet (made unpredictable and even more daunting by the funhouse mirrors of diversity, equity, and inclusion), talented young people are terrified of taking the wrong step. Gen X high achievers spend hours in the gym, anxious about their appearances. Baby Boomers are engaged in a desperate struggle not to get old. And in what world are gated communities and private security guards, unknown in my childhood, signs of freedom? Anything remotely carefree and adventuresome—having children, for example—seems impossibly remote to those who aim for success. If this mentality is commonplace, can we say that we live in a “free society”?
And then there is the atmosphere of fear. It affects us all. Some are convinced we’re on the brink of climate catastrophe, the return of Hitler, or the onslaught of white supremacy. Others warn of the Great Reset and an embrace of socialism. Hobbes understood that fear drives the engines of submission. College students wept when Trump was elected. Administrators rushed to assure them that they were “safe.” In the face of a novel coronavirus, fear of death caused the vast majority of Americans to cheer dire restrictions on our lives. These are not signs of a “free society,” nor of a citizenry that wants to be free.
How did this happen? How did the land of the free and the home of the brave become a country of disoriented, dysfunctional, anxious, and fearful people? The answer is simple: We have undermined the institutions and authorities that give people solid places to stand. This erosion makes freedom an empty promise.
There’s a hurdle we need to get over before we can enjoy the libertarian’s kind of freedom, the liberty to do as we desire. We must acquire the wherewithal to resist coercion. The promises of freedom are a dead letter if we cannot stand firm and say, “No, I will not do that, I will not be propagandized, intimidated, or suborned.”
The capacity to say “no” rests on the power of a deeply installed “yes”: an enduring affirmation, a fierce loyalty, a burning love. The “yes” anchors our souls to something more solid than the flux of passing wants, more powerful than the threats issued by worldly powers. The “yes” of faith makes us slaves of God, a condition of indomitability, as the martyrs make so evident. There are natural loves that, while lacking the supernatural power of faith, also rivet our souls. I’ve mentioned marriage and parental love. There’s a love of truth as well, and a love of beauty. These and other loves galvanize our souls and make us free.
For two generations, higher education has favored a pedagogy that aims to disenchant the objects of our love. This assault on love contributes to the erosion of freedom. It has not been conducted only by postmodernists in the humanities. Economistic theory and materialism in the natural sciences are pedagogies that promote reductive explanations at every turn. The same process has been at work in society. After abandoning the interests of the working class, progressive activism has worked to undermine institutions of authority that evoke, shape, and deepen our commitments. The marital bond, patriotic ardor, and religious faith: All three have been discredited as “oppressive,” derided as engines of patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia, and other purported pathologies.
Our economic system has contributed to cultural demolition. A great deal of life has been commodified. Consider dating. In my teenage and college years, churches, youth groups, and social organizations sponsored “mixers.” Boys and girls paired up in the ebb and flow of civil society. Now the dance between the sexes is mediated through dating apps. In the pursuit of profit, these enterprises organize one of the most basic functions of culture into a “rational market.” Only a willfully blind person can fail to see the unhappiness arising from this particular instantiation of what Max Weber called the “iron cage.”
What is to be done? A thousand things and more, no doubt. Our deepest political problem is that we’ve put off the search for answers for too long, often because we’re tempted to sing the freedom songs in the Reaganite hymnal rather than face up to today’s realities. Only now are people like Michael Toscano calling for blue laws by which to restrain the virtual world. Is our “freedom” compromised by requiring dating apps to suspend operations for one or even two days a week? I’d say the opposite is the case.
We desperately need creative policies to address the decline of marriage. I’ve proposed a divorce tax. Patriotic love? What about prohibiting those who hold more than a U.S. passport from holding public office or receiving government contracts? Religious observance? I favor reversing the wrongly decided school-prayer decisions made by the Supreme Court in the early 1960s.
Maybe my ideas are wrongheaded. I’m a sometime theology professor, not a policy wonk. But of this I’m sure: We will not restore the American culture of freedom by “defending freedom” after the fashion of Freedom Conservatism. In recent decades, the foundations of freedom have been severely damaged. When a field has eroded and its fertile soil drained away, one scatters seed in vain. The first step of remediation is to build dams and embankments that restrain the damaging currents. The same holds for human societies. If we care about freedom, then we must get about the work of renewing the restraints that allow love’s liberating power to take root and grow.
Free Markets and Freedom
My thoughts above emphasize our anchoring loves. Nurturing these loves is a signal imperative, for they give us firm ground on which to stand. But there is also an economic dimension to restoring the American culture of freedom. A person who can earn a decent living, providing for his needs and those of his family while saving a bit of money, enjoys civic autonomy. It’s not just a matter of feeling self-sufficient. A man of means, even modest means, can stand against the powerful forces in society, even against the oligarchs who are ever eager to gather power to themselves. Thomas Jefferson sang the praises of the yeoman farmer. He recognized that a free society requires broad-based prosperity such as can sustain an independent middle class capable of saying “no.”
It was with that thought in mind that I read Erik Peinert’s recent article in American Affairs (Summer 2023), “Intellectual Property and the Fissured Economy.” The notion of fissure concerns a recent development in the American economy.
From the Gilded Age through the postwar years, the wealthiest individuals and most powerful corporations integrated capital, innovation, and large-scale employment. U.S. Steel was exemplary. In early 1901, J. P. Morgan created the company by merging the Carnegie Steel Company (then the largest steel maker) with other steel companies. U.S. Steel employed an army of men, peaking at more than 300,000 during World War II. The Ford Motor Company led automotive innovation, and it employed nearly 200,000 workers on the eve of the Great Depression.
Peinert notes how different are today’s leading corporations. Apple is the world’s most valuable company. In 2019 it had fewer than 100,000 employees, “many of whom were highly compensated design, software, and marketing professionals.” In nearly every instance, the company outsources the production of its products.
The example of Apple is telling. Over the last generation, the market has preferred companies that are expertise-intensive and employee-lean. This separation of corporate success from large ranks of employees is what Peinert means by “fissure.” It’s not simply a consequence of globalization, which allows companies to take advantage of lower-wage workers abroad while avoiding the costly benefits required for American workers, our thick net of labor regulations, and the danger of unionization. Rather, as Peinert shows, the fissure of corporate profitability from large-scale employment has been made possible by our laws protecting intellectual property and by the prevailing interpretation of our antitrust laws.
Peinert walks the reader through a series of court decisions, legislative acts, and international efforts that, beginning in the 1970s, expanded the value of intellectual property. He emphasizes the way in which the current legal regime, unlike earlier antitrust approaches, allows owners of intellectual property to impose very restrictive terms and conditions on those who license their IP. In consequence, a firm like Apple can build out contractor networks for production that are effectively under its control without assuming the liability of hiring employees or deploying capital to build the factories.
All of this can sound technical and abstract, and it is. Peinert’s discussion of the evolution of antitrust law will be best understood by legal experts. But the basic point is not difficult to grasp. Three factors go into economic success: innovation, capital, and labor. Someone must have a valuable idea, one that promises competitive advantage. Someone must build the physical infrastructure necessary to put the idea to use. And someone must hire, manage, and pay the workers to use the physical infrastructure to realize the idea as a product or service. The greater share of the profits will go to the person who does one or another of these functions at the lowest relative cost.
On its face, coming up with the idea seems like the winner, since new ideas are “free,” whereas capital is scarce, and managing and paying people is difficult and expensive. But the reality is otherwise. Ideas are vulnerable. They can be imitated, developed, and exploited by others. The signal purpose of establishing a law of patents was to protect the value of innovations.
Significant enhancements of IP protection have been undertaken in recent decades. These changes have dramatically lowered the costs of possessing valuable new ideas, as compared to the costs that obtained in earlier eras of capitalism. (Costs have fallen because the length of time in which one possesses the right of property and the opportunities to use it in exclusive and profitable ways have increased. Thus the sunk cost of coming up with the idea—paying scientists, for example, or building a laboratory—declines relative to the value of the innovation.) Therefore, Economics 101 tells us that profits will flow toward owners of valuable IP and, along with profits, investor capital. Thus Apple’s status as the world’s most valuable company, with tens of billions of dollars in cash reserves.
Econ 101 likewise tells us that profits will decline for investors in the plants or other physical requirements for putting these valuable ideas into production. Profits will decline also for those tasked with managing and paying employees. With declining profits, it follows that investor capital will dry up for companies that fulfill these essential economic functions. Fewer factories will be built, and fewer ambitious business school graduates will go into the management of productive processes. In short, we get the last forty years: a Silicon Valley gold rush and Middle American rust belts.
Most commentators explain deindustrialization by pointing to trade deals and globalization. Peinert helps us to see that the availability of cheap labor abroad is only part of the story, and perhaps not the most significant part. Judges, regulators, and lawmakers made decisions in the 1980s and 1990s that altered the value of the key factors in our free-market economy, increasing profits for IP and lowering them for capital investments and large-scale employment. These changes inevitably affected our society. Manufacturing and other capital- and employee-intensive activities were as much driven abroad by market fundamentals in the United States—market fundamentals deliberately created by policy makers—as they were lured there by low-cost labor and mercantilist foreign governments willing to direct capital toward manufacturing. In a real sense, our rigorous IP laws and lax antitrust enforcement made China into the world’s factory.
Count me among those exasperated by many “free market” proponents. They cheer market principles while ignoring the ways in which those principles function in reality. Intellectual property, unlike real property, is entirely a creature of government policy. It has no basis in the common law (again, unlike real property). Our maximalist protections of intellectual property and lax interpretations of antitrust are the result of policy judgments. The last generation was persuaded by prudential arguments that our present arrangements are most likely to promote the common goods of technological innovation and material prosperity. Today’s IP laws and antitrust interpretations were not deduced from “market principles,” any more than were our trade deals, tax rates, and many other economic rules of the road.
It’s 2023, not 1980. It’s time to take the full measure of our deindustrialized economy and count the social costs it has imposed on the common man. These costs are not simply a matter of income inequality. They also concern the health of the body politic, which has been damaged by the erosion of middle-class prosperity, a crucial foundation for a free society. After we count the costs, we need to revisit the prudential arguments that brought us to this juncture. Perhaps the wisest way forward is to increase the cost of holding intellectual property by reducing its protection and tightening antitrust limits. This course of action, taken by legislators, judges, and regulators, will not entail “violations” of free-market principles, any more than raising or lowering capital gains taxes is a “violation” of free-market principles. Saying that it would is an ideological mystification.
Male and Female
In Galatians 3:28, St. Paul affirms our unity in Christ. As the Revised Standard Version translates: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Author of a fine commentary on St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians published as part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (for which I serve as general editor), Kathryn Greene-McCreight observes, “Contemporary interpreters of Gal. 3:28 sometimes read it as a resource for empowering a vision of justice, inclusivity, and diversity.” But St. Paul was not a liberation theologian or gender theorist.
As Greene-McCreight notes throughout her commentary, Paul writes to the Galatians because he has received reports that “another gospel” has taken hold. This “gospel” teaches that men must be circumcised in order to be followers of Christ. Paul does not reject the Jewish practice of circumcision across the board. He consistently endorses Peter’s ministry to the circumcised. Rather, Paul warns against its adoption by Gentiles. On his account, circumcision is not a requirement for membership in the household of God.
Greene-McCreight argues that St. Paul is not concerned about “legalism,” and she resists reading Reformation-era debates about justification by faith back into Galatians. Paul is concerned about idolatry. This form of false worship trades on the vain hope that by fashioning images in stone or wood we can propitiate God. Something similar happens when the Galatians fix on a man’s foreskin, thinking that “carving” the penis will propitiate God. Against this view, Paul teaches that, circumcised or uncircumcised, the followers of Christ receive their inheritance in baptism. Thus, “neither Jew nor Greek.”
Paul’s polemic against the requirement of circumcision for Gentiles provides the leitmotif for Galatians. As Greene-McCreight notes, this ritual argument concerns men, making Galatians a highly “gendered” text—a fact that runs against any reading of Galatians 3:28 that says Christianity urges us to transcend the male–female difference.
Paul emphasizes the male–female difference. In Ephesians, he ascribes sacramental significance to the marital bond. In marriage, the headship of the husband and obedience of the wife follows the pattern of the church’s subjection to Christ as its head. The “mystery” of their one-flesh union refers, Paul says, “to Christ and the church.”
How can we square Paul’s emphasis on the distinction between male and female with the formulation “neither male nor female,” found in Galatians 3:28? Greene-McCreight begins by noting that this translation strikes a false note. In the Greek, the first two pairings—Jews/Gentile, slave/free—are hinged by oude (neither), whereas male is linked to female with kai (and). The New International Version offers a more accurate translation: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The kai is significant. In Genesis 17, God commands Abraham to have all his male children and slaves circumcised. Under this arrangement, there is a uniquely male way of entering into the household of God, the way of circumcision. This is not true for the female. She enters in a different way.
In Christ, a new pattern obtains. God creates male and female, and his redemptive plan does not change this primordial fact. Yet when it comes to receiving God’s inheritance in Christ, circumcision is not required for men. Men enter into the household of God by the sacrament of baptism, and women enter in exactly the same way. Echoing Galatians 3:28, there are not male and female ways of becoming Christian, one by circumcision and the other not. There is only one way: through baptism. Greene-McCreight writes: “Baptism brings humanity as male and female created in the image of God into the heavenly dwelling, the Jerusalem above, the church (2 Cor. 5:1–5, Gal. 4:26).” Properly read, Galatians 3:28 cannot serve as a proof-text for those who hanker for “radical inclusion.” It’s a scriptural passage that illuminates the significance of the sacrament of baptism.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Pope Francis generates pronouncements—and, more often than not, denunciations—like a verbal semi-automatic weapon. Years ago I learned to cleave to the spiritual discipline of Ignatian indifference, which urges us to take up only those things that help us to praise, reverence, and serve God, while setting aside that which tends the other way. In practice this has meant ignoring most of what the Holy Father says. There are moments, however, for detached amusement. One arose when a friend sent me a portion of the transcript of Pope Francis’s discussion with the Portuguese Jesuits after World Youth Day in Lisbon. The topic of the American church came up. Pope Francis allows that in our troublesome country, “the situation is not easy: there is a very strong reactionary attitude.” Too many American Catholics are indietrismo (“backward-looking”), and this leads to “a climate of closure” in which “ideology replaces faith.” A mentality that is “all rigid and contorted” destroys the faith. It’s nice to hear from the pope how wicked I am.
♦ Recent testing produced depressing results in Baltimore City public schools. In a number of schools, not a single student was doing math at grade level. In the system overall, only 7 percent of third through eighth graders were proficient. Meanwhile, at the July convention of the National Education Association, delegates committed the organization to working against legislation that limits LGBT propaganda in school. The kids can’t do long division, but rest assured, they’re fully catechized in the finer points of sexual liberation, learning to say “birthing parent” and “non-birthing parent” rather than “mother” and “father.”
♦ The foundations of our political consensus are eroding. The establishment is noticing. Writing in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood dwells on the influence of Bronze Age Pervert, a transgressive internet personality. For a moment, though, Wood surveys a wider scene. He recognizes that Bronze Age Pervert’s antics can so transfix us that we fail to see something real happening among bright and normal young people. Here’s what Wood observes on the basis of an exchange between Yale professor Bryan Garsten and First Things contributor Matthew Rose:
Last year, at a conference of political philosophers at Michigan State University, a Yale professor named Bryan Garsten told his colleagues [in response to a paper by Rose, later published in First Things as “Leo Strauss and the Closed Society,” December 2022] that they were in trouble. The topic of the conference was liberalism—not Ted Kennedy liberalism, but the classical version that predates the modern Democratic Party and indeed America itself. Liberalism is the view that individuals have rights and beliefs, and that politics involves safeguarding rights and making compromises when beliefs conflict. It has existed for only a few centuries and is by some measures the most successful idea in history. Just look where people want to live: the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, all liberal places that people will risk their life to reach.
But Garsten said liberalism had some of his best students hopping into rafts and paddling in other intellectual directions. He said they had been “captured” by the belief “that to be morally serious, one faces a choice.” The choice, he said, is not between liberalism and illiberalism. Liberalism had already lost. Its greatest champion, the United States, had run aground after pointless wars, terminal decadence, and bureaucratic takeover by activists and special interests. Garsten said his best students were choosing between the protofascism of Nietzsche and a neomedieval, quasi-theocratic version of Catholicism opposed to Enlightenment liberalism. These students considered liberal democracy an exhausted joke, and they hinted—and sometimes did more than hint—that the past few centuries had been a mistake, and that the mistake should now be corrected.
In my experience, the choices are not so stark. Most young people whom I meet are not interested in protofascist or quasi-theocratic options. But they do express doubts about the present regime. This is because they are not stupid. They can see that the regime is quick to speak of “our democracy,” but works to censor and control our lives, even our use of pronouns. I regard Bronze Age Pervert as a symptom (a minor one), not a cause. The source of growing dissent from our illiberal liberal regime rests in its failures, which are masked by self-serving propaganda and tactics of intimidation.
♦ There’s good reason to applaud the recent Supreme Court decision concerning racial discrimination in college admissions. Yet for all the worries about “illiberalism” and grave talk of the “rule of law” emanating from our establishment, does anyone think elite universities won’t move heaven and earth to avoid compliance with new strictures concerning race-based admissions—and that they’ll succeed? After all, it’s what our regime wants.
♦ Les Murray’s “An Era” (1990):
The poor were fat and the rich were lean.
Nearly all could preach, very few could sing.
The fashionable were all one age, and to them
a church picnic was the very worst thing.
♦ On a number of occasions I’ve lamented that our leaders have done nothing to stem the surging tide of pornography on the web. A friend recently told me that I’m behind the times. In 2022 Louisiana State Representative Laurie Schlegel introduced legislation requiring websites that host pornography to “perform reasonable age verification methods.” In effect, those wishing to access pornography need to show government-issued ID in one or another electronic form. The bill passed the Louisiana House by a vote of 96–1 and the State Senate by a vote of 34–0. Similar legislation has been enacted in Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi, Utah, Virginia, and Texas. The effects have been dramatic, and not only where underage users are concerned. Not surprisingly, adults who are legally entitled to view pornography aren’t keen to upload screenshots of their driver’s licenses onto pornography websites. One source reports that Pornhub, the biggest global company in the porn industry, has suffered an 80-percent drop in traffic in Louisiana. Pornhub has stopped operating in Utah, Mississippi, and Virginia. As an industry representative observed, age verification requirements are “business-killing.” More states have legislation pending.
♦ Katherine Stewart is ringing alarm bells in the New Republic, a zombie publication that specializes in the slightly upscale propaganda of the sort I’ve come to associate with Timothy Snyder (who indeed has written for the New Republic). Her target is the “fascist enthusiasts” at the Claremont Institute. Among many others, Stewart lines up First Things contributor Nathan Pinkoski for reputational assassination. His crime: “He published a review in First Things of a key text in the white supremacist canon: Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints.” Why write about Raspail? One might observe that Raspail is a major figure in postwar French literature. Why publish such an essay? One might further observe that the suicide of the West, the central theme of The Camp of the Saints, has been a much-discussed topic in our pages. But according to Stewart, the essay and its publication can only be for the purpose of reviving white supremacy.
♦ Matthew Crawford pens a superb analysis of America’s political culture. His three-part series of essays in his Substack newsletter, Archedelia, begins:
We are watching an ongoing transformation of our political regime, in which sovereignty (that is, the authority to decide) has gradually been relocated from its constitutionally prescribed setting, which granted a presumptive deference to the majority, to a set of mutually supporting technical and moral clerisies. These staff a state-like entity that expands its dominion on two fronts: the “woke” revolution and the colonization of ordinary life by technical expertise.
The rest is required reading for anyone who wants a reality-based understanding of our increasingly post-democratic regime. Here’s a taste of his analysis:
The premise of white supremacism underwrites an ESG-enforced system of DEI rents that are the price of gaining access to capital in the United States. Diversity really is an asset for firms operating in the U.S. corporate-state nexus, in the same way that being Party-aligned is a strength for Chinese firms.
♦ Gigantic foundations and university endowments funded by trillions of dollars of private wealth play an important role in the “state-like entity” that is superseding the old regime of elected officials as the governing power in the West. If we want to reverse the trend toward a post-democratic system, we need to restrain the power and scope of the super-sized foundations and NGOs that have erected a para-government of experts and activists. To that end, I propose a lifetime limit on charitable deductions pegged at $250 million. Crawford’s analysis highlights the urgency of limiting the ability of America’s oligarchs to translate their vast wealth into unaccountable political power.
♦ Crawford’s Archedelia is one of three Substack newsletters I read regularly. The others are N. S. Lyons’s The Upheaval and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Abbey of Misrule. These voices of dissent help us think rather than blindly rage; they bring us back to what is enduringly human.
♦ I’m not the sort of person who’s up on popular culture. But even I became aware of Oliver Anthony, a YouTube phenomenon whose song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” received a staggering number of views over the course of just a few days. Anthony’s voice is resonant in its anger, and his litany of accusation fits nicely into the American tradition of working-class protest songs. Left-wing commentators rushed to explain away the song’s popularity, arguing that its rise had been cleverly engineered by right-wing dark money. Others tut-tutted that the song’s message is confused, or worse, that it thinly veils racism. Or is it fascism? It can be hard to keep up. This listener found “Rich Men North of Richmond” a moving cri de coeur. And the cultural critic in me marveled that the spirit of Woody Guthrie now moves on the populist right. (Oliver Anthony describes himself as neither left nor right, but the left’s hostility to the song speaks volumes.) The American left, now tenured, funded, and corporate-sponsored, is creatively kaput.
♦ I’m happy to report that the trustees of New College of Florida (one of whom is my colleague, Mark Bauerlein) voted to abolish that school’s gender studies program. No calls for dialogue, no faculty committee to study the matter, no consultants consulted on “best practices”—just simple elimination. Which is what we need. When you are going in the wrong direction, it’s essential to stop, turn around, and go back the way you came.
♦ The scene in late August: White folks were at a standoff in Nevada. One cohort occupied a line of cars trying to get to Burning Man. The other had erected a “climate blockade” on the roadway, stopping traffic. In stormed Rangers from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Police. (The blockade was on tribal land.) A video on Twitter (I meant to say X) shows the Rangers’ pickup smashing through the blockade and officers jumping out to arrest the protesters. As a Twitter wag put it, these days we need Native Americans to enforce the rule of law when white tribes are at loggerheads.
♦ ROFTERS stands for Readers of First Things, who band together for monthly discussions of their favorite journal of religion and public life. I’m delighted to report that four noble souls wish to expand our network by establishing new ROFTERS groups:
Douglas Mock is in the Morehead-Ashland, Kentucky, area. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Herb Guyton is in Little Rock, Arkansas. His contact is email@example.com.
Kathi Lehr is in Bellevue, Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rich Trzupek wishes to gather folks from the Lincoln and Omaha areas in Nebraska. Contact him at email@example.com.
♦ In early August, we welcomed Jacob Adams to our staff as a junior fellow. A graduate of Georgetown University, Jacob is an outstanding addition to a long line of dedicated and talented young people who have done a great deal over the years to maintain the excellence of this publication.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.