On October 7, more Jews were killed than on any single day since the Holocaust, many in brutal and sadistic ways. Rapes committed, hostages taken, concertgoers gunned down, corpses desecrated, small children murdered: The attack by Hamas militants on civilians unveiled the terrible darkness of the human heart and our capacity for evil.
It is necessary to mourn. Many were buried in the days after the attack. It is also necessary to support Israel’s right of self-defense, which in the aftermath of the targeting of civilians requires a decisive response. It is fitting, too, to lament the ongoing violence. We should petition God to bring a just peace as soon as possible. But there’s another dimension to these shocking events, one we must face. The atrocities committed by Hamas create a crisis in the proper biblical sense of that term.
“Crisis” transliterates the Greek krisis, which means a separation or sundering. It requires decision: Are we for or against? In the New Testament, the word is often translated “judgment,” as in “the day of judgment,” the appointed hour when God separates the sheep from the goats. The Latin root of “decide” is de + caedere, to cut off or cut away. The notions of judgment and decision are latent in our conventional use of the term. A crisis comes when built-up pressure explodes the status quo. It marks a moment when we can’t just keep on keeping on, when we must decide to go this way—or that.
No doubt, Hamas wished to create a crisis. Its incursion into Israel had no military objectives. The goal was to horrify, to rub the faces of Israelis and their Western supporters in blood-soaked images, which Hamas itself posted on social media for the world to see. These acts of wanton destruction were also meant to inspire Hamas’s allies. Those who seek to inspire terror recognize a truth well known in the ancient world: A man who can torture, humiliate, and kill innocent people with confident indifference becomes a kind of deity. As the Hamas marauders showed the world, they are spiritually free in the darkest sense, able to destroy without moral limits. We are foolish to underestimate the allure of this nihilistic freedom.
We’ve seen a number of people in the West choose to side with Hamas. I am not speaking of Arab immigrants marching in European capitals exulting in the deaths of Jews, a “multicultural” phenomenon that gives us insight into one of the implications of the rainbow flag. Rather, I’m referring to high-placed people in elite American institutions. After assuring a crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators that he “abhors violence,” Cornell history professor Russell Rickford celebrated Hamas’s barbarism for breaking the “monopoly of violence.” This achievement—killing more than one thousand—was, he continued, “exhilarating” and “energizing.” Columbia political scientist Joseph Massad pronounced the assault “awesome” and a “major achievement of the resistance.” On the day of the attack, Rivkah Brown, an editor of a left-wing media platform in England, tweeted: “Today should be a day of celebration for supporters of democracy and human rights worldwide, as Gazans break out of their open-air prison and Hamas fighters cross into their colonisers’ territory.” These individuals and others who made similar statements are not naive college students or marginal “extremists.” They are well placed, having been groomed and promoted by establishment institutions.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal (“Dostoevsky Knew: It Can Happen Here”), Gary Saul Morson warns that modern history shows that those whose political views transform atrocities into acts of liberation prepare themselves (and their listeners) to join in the slaughter, should circumstances allow. “It is a terrible mistake to imagine that thuggish deeds are performed only by thugs. Recalling his own early career as a revolutionist, Dostoevsky maintains that his group, which could readily have performed the most terrible acts, was composed of sophisticated people with the Russian equivalent of Ivy League educations.” True, in our time a great deal of outrage and extremism amounts to radical posturing and role-playing, especially on social media. But if we convince ourselves, as some have, that the wanton killing of innocent people can be justified, our moral universe becomes perverted. Morson ends with a warning: “We need to recognize that some of those who justify Hamas’s atrocities would be ready to perform them against their designated enemies.”
We can be grateful that outright endorsement has been infrequent. More widespread has been the call for evenhandedness, which amounts to a refusal to make a judgment. Wendy Raymond, the president of my alma mater, Haverford College, issued a statement a few days after October 7. Referring to internal tensions at the college, she spoke of “common ground” and the need “to bridge differences through dialogue.” These clichés mask a refusal to make a moral judgment that might upset students who endorse the Hamas killings. Raymond assured alumni that students of all backgrounds will receive affirmation and support, and she reminded students that Haverford stands at the ready to provide counselors to those who need emotional assistance. Raymond ended with hortatory words about the ways in which Haverford “prepares students for bold engagement and ethical leadership.” Apparently, that leadership does not require denouncing atrocities. That would be a sin against “inclusion” and a violation of the therapeutic imperative not to take sides.
I’m in favor of “common ground” and negotiated settlements. May the good Lord guide events in the Middle East toward such an outcome. As I write, the Biden administration seems to be charting the proper course. It is supporting Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas, while advising restraint and the use of proportionate means to attain realistic objectives. When he visited Israel after the attack, Biden urged the Israelis to learn from the American experience after 9/11. After that attack on innocent civilians, the American military response was legitimate, indeed necessary. But we employed disproportionate means toward unattainable ends.
In the just war tradition, warfare must aim at establishing the conditions for peace. Those conditions are always complex, all the more so in the face of an enemy that has shown itself to be without scruple. What is to be done? How should Israel’s war against Hamas be conducted? These are difficult moral and military questions that invite criticism, debate, and disagreement.
But we must not deceive ourselves. The wanton killing conducted by Hamas violated every principle of the just conduct of hostilities. The atrocities cannot be justified as the regrettable, unintended deaths of noncombatants in pursuit of legitimate military objectives. They were planned and sought—and then celebrated by Palestinians who danced in the streets, even more “exhilarated” and “energized” by the murder of more than one thousand innocent Jews than was Russell Rickford. Those who cannot call such acts and their celebration evil—and not off the record but in public—have lost their moral compass.
Shipwrecked by Our Betters
Holman W. Jenkins Jr. is a sober observer of America’s dysfunctional political culture. In his regular column for the Wall Street Journal, he often comments on the blatant corruption of mainstream media, which is now fused to the “deep state,” a cabal of high- and mid-level public officials, especially in our intelligence services, the FBI and CIA. The media and deep state worked together to legitimate and promote the Russian collusion hoax—the demonstrably false claim, fabricated by Democratic Party operatives, that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 had received Russian support. A similar campaign of disinformation was repeated in 2020, when more than forty former intelligence officials signed a letter attesting that Hunter Biden’s laptop, which contained evidence of corruption on the part of his father, was probably a Russian hoax. The signatories knew that this claim was false, and the media used the disinformation to justify ignoring the story during the final months of Joe Biden’s campaign to defeat Trump.
Our betters are gearing up for another round of efforts to control political outcomes. This time, however, they are announcing their intentions beforehand. In a recent column, Jenkins notes:
For those whose concern about the Constitution isn’t a put-on, the dangerous refrain now, from Bill Kristol and James Carville to Hillary Clinton and every MSNBC pundit, is that a legal, legitimate Trump election would be the “end of democracy.” The alleged spirit of “democratic resistance” is in serious danger of becoming, if it hasn’t already, the monster against which it rages.
Faced with election results not to its liking, establishment power is talking itself into the use of extra-constitutional means to “save our democracy.” This surreal situation reminds me of the Vietnam War adage that it is necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.
It’s not just the United States. In recent German regional elections, the conservative upstart party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) surged to second and third place. The response of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was to call for the “defense of democracy.” He told a journalist, “The votes that have gone to a right-wing populist party in Germany must worry us.” The AfD has been hobbled by infighting. It is not an entirely coherent party. But voters correctly see that voting for its candidates amounts to a vote of no confidence in the German ruling class and its priorities, especially on matters of immigration and European integration. Apparently, expressions of dissent in the polling booth are not permitted in “our democracy.”
The German establishment has a very powerful tool for controlling elections. When the country was reconstituted under Allied supervision, it established the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. This government agency has opened an investigation of the AfD as a “suspected case,” and it has the power to dissolve the party by declaring it illegal. This prospect is not remote. In August, German president (a largely ceremonial position) Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, “We all have it in our hands to put those who despise our democracy in their place.” The next day, a leading German newspaper ran an editorial titled “Verfassungsfeinde verbieten!” (“Ban the enemies of the constitution!”). These pious calls to nullify elections when they don’t produce the desired outcomes are ironic, given that leading AfD politicians are routinely harassed by left-wing activists, even to the point of death threats and physical attacks during election events.
Pierre Manent has rued what he calls “the fanaticism of the center.” Jenkins is right to warn that this fanaticism—not populism—poses a clear and present danger. The Great and the Good have abused their institutional authority so blatantly that a growing number of voters are rebelling. The lies designed to justify the Covid lockdowns and to cover up the virus’s origin in an American-funded lab in Wuhan have been documented. Climate science, too, is perverted by political manipulation. Medical journals kowtow to critical race theory. Writing for Tablet magazine (“A Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century”), Jacob Siegel details how the post-9/11 counterterrorism apparatus was reengineered to wage a “war on disinformation.” The upshot is a close partnership between government officials and technology companies that has erected a censorship regime. Again, echoes of Vietnam: violating democratic norms to save democratic norms.
Polarization is a problem. But we need to be clear about its origins. Our betters have manipulated and politicized institutions that should be reliable and trustworthy anchors of society. The universities offer an obvious instance. The solemn 2020 pronouncement by public health officials that racism is a “public health emergency” and the adoption of BLM talking points by nearly every professional association discredited what was left of those intuitions’ authority. Does anyone still imagine that the American Bar Association is anything other than a fully owned asset of the Democratic Party? The decision of voters to support populist politicians reflects frustration over these betrayals.
As I have said on numerous occasions, a figure like Trump is a symptom, not the cause of our polarized society. Jenkins observes: “For years, although it goes denied, this temptation [to use institutional authority for partisan purposes] has been rampant in the media, the universities, the CIA and the FBI. The corruption of institutions, not the corruption of one man, is the real menace to our democracy.”
Notes on the Sexual Revolution
We often think that the guiding principle of the sexual revolution was sexual freedom. This view is not false, but it’s not the full picture. I don’t deny that the sexual revolution aimed to reduce censure and expand freedom. When it comes to sex, our society is far more permissive than it was two generations ago. My point is that the revolution went far deeper, to implicate and alter our relation to our bodies. It sought to overturn the authority of nature.
Freedom from fertility, symbolized by the Pill, was always more fundamental than freedom from censure. Freedom from fertility detaches sexual intercourse from the responsibility for new life. This severing allows progressives to reframe sexual morality in terms of personal choice and fulfillment. If there are no consequences, who can object to what people do with their bodies, as long as partners provide consent?
The technological ability to detach sexual intercourse from fertility was never fail-safe. Abortion was and remains a necessity for the sexual revolution. It functions as the backstop for the revolution’s promise that sex can be consequence-free. (In recent years, abortion rights have been rebranded as reproductive freedom.) In spite of this limited recognition of the natural reality of sexual relations, over the last two generations, the West has adopted the remarkable view that sex is “naturally” infertile. As we hear over and over again, sex is an expression of love and source of pleasure. In the revolutionized world, children are a choice.
In this view, sex has nothing to do with its evolutionary (if you are thinking scientifically) or created (if you are thinking biblically) origins—unless we decide on rare occasions to reap the fruit of the self-evident truth that procreation is the central purpose and consequence of sexual intercourse. This technological inversion of reality underwrites the normalization of masturbation and other sexual acts, such as sodomy. When I was active in the debates about sexual morality in the Episcopal Church, I came to see that homosexuality plays a central symbolic role in the sexual revolution. Homosexual relations are to be celebrated, because their intrinsic sterility realizes the most fundamental form of sexual freedom: freedom from our embodiment.
But there’s a great deal more to the sexual revolution. Our bodies are fertile. We have within us the potential for new life. The sexual revolution promises to free us from this natural fact. Our bodies are also imperfect and fragile. Some people’s bodies suffer from defects that render them infertile. Others inherit DNA that burdens them with disabilities and makes them vulnerable to diseases. Most of us wish that we were taller or skinnier or more attractive or more intelligent. Nature is often generous, yes, but at times she can be parsimonious, even cruel. Our embodiment carries the curse of mortality. From dust we have come, and to dust we shall return. The sexual revolution promises freedom in these realms as well.
The biblical tradition endorses uses of human intelligence to remedy the defects of our bodily condition, guard against disease, and restore health when possible. But these measures—technology in the broad sense—operate within a substantive conception of what it means to flourish as an embodied creature, to live in accord with nature. The sexual revolution departs from the biblical tradition. It seeks to escape from the limits of nature.
In other words, the sexual revolution is (and has always been) about far more than sex. In the alphabet soup of gay rights, the L, G, B, and even Q would seem to concern whom one has sex with and how. But today’s inclusion of transgenderism shows otherwise. “Gender-affirming care” for pre-adolescent children has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the most fundamental ambition of the sexual revolution: to liberate us from our bodies and the limits they impose. (Some argue that I misjudge the sexual component, because allowing children to “consent” to transition lays the legal groundwork for allowing children to “consent” to sex with adults.)
Viewed in this way, we can see that the sexual revolution promotes the ideals that underwrite eugenic abortion. Medical technology has advanced a great deal since the heyday of eugenics in the early twentieth century. In that phase, those who wished to free humanity from our bodily vulnerability to imperfection had to adopt the crude technique of sterilizing those who were most likely to pass along defective DNA. Today the medical-industrial complex employs prenatal testing, and eugenics are practiced under the sign of choice. Eugenic abortion is so widespread in Europe that in many countries almost no children with Down syndrome are born.
Doctor-assisted suicide is another aspect of the sexual revolution. It does to mortality what artificial contraception does to fertility. The Pill makes fertility a choice; gay rights make the sex of our partners our choice; “gender-affirming care” purports to make the sex of my body a choice. Doctor-assisted suicide follows the same pattern: The hour and means of our deaths are matters of choice.
Eugenic abortion and doctor-assisted suicide are on track to converge. In Belgium, young people with advanced terminal illness may receive the “medical therapy” of “assisted dying.” Canada has made similar provisions, expanding this “right” to young people. I foresee further expansions of the practice of killing for the sake of freedom from afflictions of the body. Afflictions of the soul are next. Already in Canada, depression and other forms of mental distress qualify one for “assistance in dying.”
Sexual freedom, gay rights, abortion, transgenderism, eugenics, and euthanasia are major elements of the Rainbow Reich, the regime that is ascendant in the West. Other aspects include reproductive technologies that make all the bodily elements of fertility—egg, sperm, and womb—matters of choice, as well as nontherapeutic cosmetic surgery and techniques of bodily enhancement. True, these phenomena seem quite different. In ethical reflection, sexual acts are analyzed quite differently from killing, which in turn is different from nontherapeutic medical treatment. But all aspects of the Rainbow Reich reject the limits imposed by our bodies, and together they amount to a rejection of the authority of nature. Progressives may not articulate this principle, but they sense an underlying unity, hence the political convergence of these issues into a united front, a manifestation of the “intersectionality” represented by the symbol of the rainbow. I’m quite sure that the vast majority of those who endorse LGBTQ rights also support abortion, euthanasia, assisted reproductive technologies, and other measures. At every turn, these practices overturn the authority of nature, making our bodies into sites of personal choice.
The sexual revolution has erected the Rainbow Reich. Its ambition is to restructure culture and morality so that our lives may be conducted in nearly complete freedom from our bodies. The allure should be self-evident. The Rainbow Reich preaches a gospel of sorts, for in its most fundamental form, freedom from our bodies evokes the possibility of everlasting life, freedom from death’s final word. Like so much of progressive politics, this ambition is a perversion of the biblical tradition. What God has created is good, and his ambition is to redeem us as embodied creatures. In the true gospel, the crucial choice runs in the opposite direction than does choice in the false gospel of the Rainbow Reich. God chooses to be incarnate, to take on our flesh, so that we might be freed from our bondage to sin and death, freed to say “yes” to his promise of eternal life with him, a promise made good in the final resurrection of our bodies.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ After surveying the support for Hamas at elite universities and the fecklessness of academic leaders, Dan Hitchens reminded me of Roger Scruton’s comment two decades ago that if Osama bin Laden were to come out of hiding, “he would surely be given a chair at some prestigious American university.”
♦ Charges of “fascism,” or, if one is trying to be subtle, “semi-fascism”: I marvel at how, for those on the left(and not a few center-right folks who find populism threatening), it is always 1939. For insight into this phenomenon, I recommend an essay by Renaud Camus, “La seconde carrière d’Adolf Hitler” (The Second Career of Adolf Hitler), now translated in Enemy of the Disaster: Selected Political Writings of Renaud Camus, published by a new venture, Vauban Books.
♦ We tweeted a line from Louise Perry’s remarkable essay, “We Are Repaganizing” (October 2023): “Abortion is not just ‘healthcare’; it is not at all like getting a tooth or a tonsil removed.” When we turned to promote the tweet as part of an X Ads campaign, the Ministry of Truth at X (formerly known as Twitter) informed us that the ad would not run. Its communication specified a violation of a policy that prohibits the promotion of health and pharmaceutical products and services. But the thrust of Louise’s observation is analytical, not promotional. It concerns what abortion is. Welcome to the Free Society™, brought to you by Silicon Valley.
♦ The Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania celebrated its tenth anniversary in late October. Headed by Daniel Cheely, Collegium operates in the tradition of Lumen Christi at the University of Chicago. It’s an independent institute with its own funding and governance that engages contemporary academic culture with the resources of the Catholic intellectual tradition. The tenth anniversary was marked by a symposium on October 20–21: “The Future of the Christian Intellectual Tradition in the (Secular) University.” The two days of panels and presentations culminated with a gala dinner honoring Jim and Molly Perry, founding (and generous) supporters of the Collegium Institute. In his remarks to the dinner guests, Jim (a First Things board member) drew upon Robert Wilken’s essay “Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools” (First Things, January 2008). Wilken notes that, in today’s America, well-educated Catholics may be pious, but “they often lack the capacity to defend or express their beliefs—even to themselves—and are ill equipped to give an account of their moral convictions in our relativistic culture.” Collegium, Lumen Christi, and other new institutes and programs were founded to remedy this defect. Their mission is to provide the faithful (and the curious—not a few participants in these endeavors are unbelievers who crave moral and metaphysical substance) with intellectual formation. Wilken writes, “Mature faith is nurtured by thinking, and the renewal of Christian culture will happen only with vigorous and imaginative intellectual leadership.” My wife and I attended the gala dinner. It was a marvelous occasion to honor Jim, Molly, and others who have provided financial support, and to thank the leadership and staff of Collegium Institute (and Lumen Christi and others) for nurturing thought and training the rising generation of Catholic intellectual leaders.
♦ Ross Douthat also spoke at the Collegium Gala. He sketched an account of the transformation of educational culture at elite universities over the last generation. The most important change has been the return of moralizing ambition, a reaction against soulless (and often soul-crushing) careerism and meritocratic competition. Wokeness, he argued, functions as an advanced (and debased) version of the Social Gospel and other urgent programs sponsored by the liberal Protestantism that was once a powerful force in elite higher education. As a consequence, organizations such as the Collegium Institute face a dilemma. As important as free speech may be, it lacks the moral substance and vision of the good life that can check the rampant careerism that makes four years at Harvard a scramble to get the right credentials and network for success. But the prevailing alternative is woke ideology, the main thrusts of which run counter to the biblical tradition. As a consequence, Christian intellectuals lack a home in present-day academia. Douthat suggested that we ought to heed Jesus’s counsel and be like children. Our task, at present, is simply to teach the moral, metaphysical, and theological content of the Christian tradition in its fullness.
♦ I have spoken to many First Things readers who are frustrated by the ways in which their alma maters kowtow to woke ideologies. They no longer trust university leaders (and they should not). If you are such a person, I strongly suggest that you reconsider your donation pledges and commitments of financial support. The desire to honor your alma mater and provide support for the education of the next generation of America’s leaders is fitting. But it is irresponsible to finance institutions that propagandize and miseducate the young. Organizations such as Collegium and Lumen Christi provide an alternative, as does the Thomas Merton Institute for Catholic Life at Columbia University. There’s also a secular network of institutes, such as the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton and the Abigail Adams Institute at Harvard. If your alma mater does not have an independent institute—it’s crucial to avoid allowing our corrupt academic leaders to have any control—contact Mr. Cheely at Collegium Institute. He’d be happy to advise you about how to set up an alternative beneficiary for your philanthropy.
♦ Bad news (and there’s lots of it) often makes it difficult to see that good things are happening in higher education. More than fifty students are enrolled in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the pathway to baptism and confirmation in the Catholic Church) at the Harvard Catholic Center. This fact does not foretell a revival sweeping through the Harvard student body, but the large cohort follows a pattern established after the pandemic. Other college chaplaincies report increased participation, interest, and conversion. It’s past time to stop throwing money at the already bloated endowments of Harvard & Co. We need to support the shoots of new life sprouting in the spiritual desert of elite higher education.
♦ Reflecting on events in Israel and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, a friend lamented: “I can’t believe we don’t have world peace after changing the names on pancake boxes and syrup bottles.”
♦ Above I noted the shameful failure of many presidents of elite colleges to make clear statements condemning Hamas’s atrocities. Not so Fr. Dave Pivonka, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. In response to “the horrific Hamas terrorist attack,” which an official university statement describes as encompassing “unspeakable evils,” Pivonka announced an expedited transfer program for Jewish students who fear anti-Semitic discrimination and violence at their current institutions.
♦ As we go to press, Franciscan University is hosting a conference (co-sponsored by the Philos Project) titled “Nostra Aetate and the Future of Catholic–Jewish Relations at a Time of Rising Antisemitism.” It was originally planned to mark the fifth anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shootings in nearby Pittsburgh, but the timing is providential. At the conference, the Coalition of Catholics Against Antisemitism will release a statement. It opens: “We, the Coalition of Catholics Against Antisemitism, hereby commit ourselves to combatting resurgent hatred of the Jewish people today—in our country and around the world.” I was happy to add my name to those endorsing the statement.
♦ I was in Boston in late October. One afternoon I strolled along Commonwealth Avenue, which has a narrow park in its center that stretches many blocks west of Boston’s Public Garden. It features statues honoring famous Bostonians, one of whom is William Lloyd Garrison, the ardent abolitionist and inconsistent Christian pacifist. (He championed Lincoln’s war effort from the very beginning of armed conflict.) After the Civil War, Garrison became a leading advocate of women’s suffrage. In a word, he was a full-spectrum progressive. As I gazed at his seated image, my eyes went to an inscription on the granite pediment. The quotation from Garrison reads: “My country is the world; my countrymen are all mankind.” It is always good to remember that the yard signs declaring faith in progressive pieties (“No human is illegal” and so forth) do not reflect the invasion of foreign ideologies into a once pure America. Quite the contrary—some of the most destructive political fantasies abroad today have deep roots in the American tradition.
♦ First Things readers continue to band together to meet and discuss the content of this fine publication.
The Phoenix, Arizona ROFTers group welcomes new members. To find out when and where the group meets, contact Andy Halaby at email@example.com.
Atlanta, Georgia ROFTers also welcome new members. Contact Kirk Susong: firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Hartnett of Bethany, Connecticut (the New Haven area) would like to form a ROFTers group. If you’re interested, you can reach him at email@example.com.
♦ Leaves are changing color and the days are shortening. It’s the time of year in which we gear up for our year-end fundraising campaign. The support that comes from generous readers like you is indispensable. First Things wins nearly 30,000 subscribers. But subscription and advertisement revenue cover less than half the expense of producing this excellent publication. Please consider making a donation. If you are already a regular contributor, please consider an increase.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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