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look at what came in the mail

By ayjay
This is a lovely and wise little book.

Monk’s specs

By ayjay
If you’re ever tempted to think you’re cool, just remember that Theolonious Sphere Monk was wearing those specs in 1947.

John Mitchell

By ayjay

David Steele:

Tide offensive lineman Jimmy Rosser recalled that before [Wilbur] Jackson enrolled and Mitchell was recruited, Bryant “told us that he was going to get the best athletes available to play for us and that included black players. He then proceeded to tell us that if any of you didn’t like that, then you could get the hell out of here, because that was the way it was going to be. None of the players left the meeting.”

Still, Mitchell knew what world he was entering because of the world he was raised in. He attended segregated schools in Mobile, and his Williamson High School team was barred from playing at Ladd Stadium, even though it was across the street. He only saw black players there when he sold sodas in the stands at the Senior Bowl, he recalled.

Having lived that life, what greeted him on campus was an adjustment: He had never had white teachers before, nor white classmates, and he was the only black student in each of his classes in Tuscaloosa. The black enrollment at the time — about 3% of 15,000 students — meant this for him: “You wouldn’t see an African American student for three or four days.”

I remember very well what I felt when John Mitchell — the first black football player at the University of Alabama, the first black captain of the team (elected by his teammates), the first black assistant coach (immediately after his graduation at age 20) — and other black players arrived on the scene. I was about twelve. I felt that a Dark Age had ended. I was sure that we in Alabama would soon put racism behind us. Finally, all that would be over.

By ayjay

I’m going to say something I never ever believed that I would say in earnest: I think Arsenal should sack Emery and replace him with Mourinho. It would be only a transitional move, because Mou never lasts more than three years without disaster, but if there is one thing he can do it’s organize a defense. Emery patently cannot do that. At all. And if Arsenal are going to make a change they need to do it soon, before the season slips away. Or slips away any further than it already has.

P.S. This assumes that Mourinho would take the job. I think he would, if only because the club is in London.

P.P.S. And no, the result against Villa doesn’t change my mind. The lads fought back bravely, but they were digging themselves out of a hole their manager’s tactical ineptitude and inexplicable personnel decisions put them in.

intellectuals and influencers

By ayjay

Both the public intellectual and the public influencer play an instrumental role in shaping cultural ideals and tying them to the individual’s sense of self. When the public intellectual was ascendant, cultural ideals revolved around the public good. Today, they revolve around the consumer good. The idea that the self emerges from the construction of a set of values and beliefs has faded. What the public influencer understands more sharply than most is that the path of self-definition now winds through the aisles of a cultural supermarket. We shop for our identity as we shop for our toothpaste, choosing from a wide selection of readymade products. The influencer displays the wares and links us to the purchase, always with the understanding that returns and exchanges will be easy and free.

This from Nick Carr is short and sharp and smart. Please read the whole thing, especially the last paragraph, which ends on a zinger. (I feel zinged, anyway.) Nick’s post is a useful contribution to the understanding of what I’ve been calling metaphysical capitalism, which is the transformation of the commodified self into a religion.

Also, this gives me the opportunity to answer a question some people have been asking me: What exactly is the narrative promoted by the reporting of New York Times that I dislike so much? The short answer is: metaphysical capitalism. For the reporters on the Times, those who tell me that “I am my own” are on the side of the angels, while those who cast doubt on that proposition are to be cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Thus genuinely Left movements get only marginally better treatment in the Times than religious conservatives.) That is the primary means by which Times reporters evaluate everything from political candidates to religious organizations to movies and books. There is not even the slightest attempt in those pages to be fair to people who question self-ownership, for what fellowship has light with darkness?

evangelicalism redux

By ayjay

Another topic I’ve written about frequently here — though with less pleasure than I’ve had writing about Ruskin — is what evangelicalism was and is and (perhaps) shall be. I have a new short essay at theatlantic.com that doesn’t add a lot that’s new, but does have the virtue of calling attention to my friend Tommy Kidd’s new book.

about Ruskin

By ayjay

There are many posts about John Ruskin on this blog — click on the relevant tag below — but let me add to that material links to two essays, one by me and one by Gene McCarraher. They’re very different but I think they complement each other.

climate hope

By ayjay

At the end of this interview, the environmental historian Jason Moore says, “Capitalism … had its social legitimacy because in one way or another it could promise development. And I don’t think anyone takes that idea seriously anymore.” Which is a very strange thing to say indeed, because economic development is the one promise that capitalism has delivered on, and massively. (This is the chief burden of the books by Deirdre McCloskey that I wrote about here and here.) In fact, and quite obviously, economic development around the world is the chief reason we have a climate crisis, because that development has ravaged our environment — and the global nature of modern capitalism means that that ravaging has been dispersed over the entire globe.

Moore agrees with my friend Wen Stephenson that nothing serious can be done to avert the oncoming climate catastrophe except a world-wide political/economic revolution. Stephenson:

The sheer depth, scale, and speed of the changes required at this point are beyond anything a mere climate movement can possibly accomplish, because such a movement is inherently unsuited to the nature of the task we face: radically transforming the political-economic system that is driving us toward climate breakdown. Given the sclerotic system in which the Green New Deal — the only proposal ever put before Congress that confronts the true scale and urgency of the climate catastrophe — is dead on arrival, mocked even by the Democratic Speaker of the House, the pretense that anything less than revolutionary change is now required amounts to a form of denial.

I am skeptical about this proposal for two reasons:

  1. The revolution would have to be global, because if it happens only in Europe or North America, or both, then global capital will simply shift its attentions and energies to other parts of the world, East and South (which is already where most of the depredations of the environment are happening). But a single, ideologically unified, worldwide political revolution is simply unimaginable.
  2. I see absolutely no reason to believe that any socialist government, local or global, will implement the changes needed to slow climate change. Socialism has a uniformly terrible record in these matters, from the Soviet Union to Chavez’s Venezuela — totally dependent for its social stability on global petrocapitalism — to this little country you may have heard of called China. I strongly suspect that that pattern will continue: when socialist policies throw a spoke into the engine of commerce, and the economy starts to collapse so that there’s less and less wealth to distribute, then socialist governments, like all others, will not hesitate to exploit the environment to become more productive. (Or will become state-capitalists like the Chinese Communist Party.)

Where does that leave us? Well, you can offer a counsel of despair, as Jonathan Franzen does. Now, he says he doesn’t despair:

If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely? To borrow from the advice of financial planners, I might suggest a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter. It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically — a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble — and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.

But this is frankly to admit that all the victories are short-term and small-scale. Franzen tries not to think about what’s happening in the longer term and on the global scale.

Does anything remain? Possibly: technological fixes. Any potential fixes are fraught with uncertainty and danger, but more and more scientists are quietly hinting that they just may be our last resort. But why are those scientists being so quiet in their hinting? Largely because almost every climate activist I know of is absolutely and unremittingly hostile to any such proposals. Like my suspicions about global socialist revolution, their suspicions about technological fixes come in two varieties. The first is straightforward and reasonable: Why would we trust the very technocracy that got us into this mess to get us out?

The second one, though, is a little more complicated. I think that many climate activists hate the very idea of technological fixes because if they should happen to work that would mean that the bastards got away with it. That is, if the global capitalist elite that has soo cheerfully and brazenly and heedlessly destroyed the natural world should, at the last moment, pull a technological rabbit out of their technocratic hat that stops the worst from occurring, that would feel like the biggest miscarriage of justice ever, because a group of people who have a very strong claim to the title of Greatest Criminals in History would walk away scot-free and indeed might even be thought of as heroes. It offends one’s sense of justice so profoundly that it’s hard to root for such technological fixes to work, even if they could indeed avert the worst consequences of capitalist exploitation of the planet.

But a planet saved is better than a planet ruined. Even if in the saving the Greatest Criminals walk free.

So I am thinking a lot about the various technological means of addressing climate change. I’m looking for actions less dangerous than the great big global fixes that some of the more imaginative technocrats propose, but that also would have, at least potentially, far greater effects than the strictly local actions that Franzen recommends. Ideas in this post seem to come in twos, so here are two very promising ideas:

The first involves making plants a little better at holding carbon dioxide:

Chory believes the key to fixing that imbalance is training plants to suck up just a little more CO2, and to keep it longer. She is working on engineering the world’s crop plants to have bigger, deeper roots made of a natural waxy substance called suberin — found in cork and cantaloupe rinds — which is an incredible carbon-capturer and is resistant to decomposition. By encouraging plants to have bigger, deeper, more suberin-rich roots, Chory can trick them into fighting climate change as they grow. The roots will store CO2, and when farmers harvest their crops in the fall, those deep-buried roots will stay in the soil and keep their carbon sequestered in the dirt, potentially for hundreds of years.

The second would turn air conditioners into carbon-capture machines:

A paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications proposes a partial remedy: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) systems move a lot of air. They can replace the entire air volume in an office building five or 10 times an hour. Machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — a developing fix for climate change — also depend on moving large volumes of air. So why not save energy by tacking the carbon capture machine onto the air conditioner?

Let a thousand such flowers bloom — a thousand ways to address our changing environment that are technologically feasible and highly scalable but do not require the complete transformation of the whole human order. Keep those ideas coming, scientist friends. We desperately need them.

excerpts from my Sent folder: localism

By ayjay

More broadly, you should understand that I am a deeply committed localist and doubt the legitimacy of all nation-states and all ecclesiastical structures larger than the diocese (and ideally the old city-sized diocese, not the hypertrophied things we have today). I don’t think there should be any polis larger than McClennan County, and within that local structure I advocate a fruitful hybrid of distributism and anarcho-syndicalism. And yes, I’m serious.

I have sometimes said that future generations will refer to this period of history as the Late Roman Era, because church and state alike have borrowed their understanding of political action and political legitimacy from the Roman model. When the church decided that the Roman administrative structure was what it should imitate, it drank from a poisoned chalice. (Hodie venenum effusum est in ecclesiam Christi.) The church should have seen the Roman way of organizing and disciplining people across great distances as the antithesis of the ecclesia, not something to imitate.

In the first 200 years or so of the Way, the church at Rome considered itself bound to offer other churches prayer, encouragement, and sometimes money. It was first not in power but in service. Then its bishops increasingly began to demand obedience from other dioceses. That was the Original Ecclesial Sin from which we have never recovered.

Or so I think.

after the platforms

By ayjay

Ross Douthat:

Yes, it’s understandable for conservatives to worry that if Silicon Valley censors the likes of Molyneux, it will end up censoring them. It’s sensible for them to join parts in the left in worrying about the concentrated power over information that the stewards of social-media platforms enjoy. And it’s necessary for them to recognize that the influence of redpillers and white-identitarians reflects their own failure, across the decades of movement-conservative institution building, to create something that seems more compelling to fugitives from liberalism than the Spirit of the Reddit Thread.

With all that said, though, a humane conservatism should still be able to thrive in a world where white nationalists have trouble monetizing their extremism, in which YouTube algorithms are built to maximize something other than addiction.

I’m not sure what Ross means in the last sentence I’ve quoted by “should.” Does he mean that “humane conservatism” is likely to thrive, or that if the system is fair it ought to be able to do so? I doubt the first and doubt the conditional of the second.

Here’s the situation as I see it. First, as Alexis Madrigal has recently written, the big social media companies will from now on find it less likely to take refuge in the claim that they are “merely platforms”:

These companies are continuing to make their platform arguments, but every day brings more conflicts that they seem unprepared to resolve. The platform defense used to shut down the why questions: Why should YouTube host conspiracy content? Why should Facebook host provably false information? Facebook, YouTube, and their kin keep trying to answer, We’re platforms! But activists and legislators are now saying, So what? “I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election,” Nancy Pelosi said in the wake of the altered-video fracas.

If you can’t plead platform neutrality, what do you do? Well, these companies being what they are, they’ll write algorithms to try to filter content. But the algorithms will often fail — after all, they can’t tell the difference between sites that promote hatred and sites that seek to combat it.

Where does that leave you? As Will Oremus points out, it leaves you with mob rule:

What should be clear to both sides, by now, is the extent to which these massive corporations are making up the rules of online speech as they go along. In the absence of any independent standards or accountability, public opinion has become an essential part of the process by which their moderation policies evolve.

Sure, online platforms have policies and terms of service that run thousands of words, which they enforce on a mass scale via software and a bureaucratic review process. But those rules have been stitched together piecemeal and ad hoc over the years to serve the companies’ own needs — which is why they tend to collapse as soon as a high-profile controversy subjects them to public scrutiny. Caving to pressure is a bad look, but it’s an inevitable feature of a system with policies that weren’t designed to withstand pressure in the first place.

Whatever should happen to humane conservatism on the internet, I don’t know what will, but as a person who is somewhat conservative and who would like to be humane, I wish I knew. In light of all the above, one thing seems nearly certain to me: If I were on a major social media service and a vocal group of that site’s users started calling me homophobic or transphobic or a white supremacist and demanded that I be banned, I would be banned.

trying

By ayjay

A little less than a year ago I wrote a post about cultivating my blog as a kind of garden. I made reference there to something I heard about from Robin Sloan, the game designer Gunpei Yokoi’s idea of “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” — taking established and perhaps unsexy technologies and finding unexpected new uses for them.

Since I wrote that post I have started a newsletter, because a email newsletter is also a seasoned technology, and I wondered if I might be able to do some things with it that I can’t do with this blog. I’m still experimenting, still learning, still looking for what will make that project sing — but I am really enjoying it so far, and getting some lovely responses from people, and this morning I realized that one of the reasons I like doing the newsletter so much is that I have (quite unconsciously) understood it as a place not to do analysis or critique but to share things that give me delight.

What brought about that realization was reading the most recent edition of Warren Ellis’s newsletter, in which he writes this:

Here’s a thing that came up in an email conversation the other week, that I don’t think I’ve ever made explicit to you: herein, I only talk about the things I like.

This was an important decision for me, made some years ago. It is great fun to annihilate something in a storm of arch Menckenesque hail, and I’ve done it in the past. But I came to the place where I questioned its utility here. If I’m spending time and space on something that is bad, then that is time and space not used to boost the awareness of something good. And that is a poor trade-off, these days.

A thousand times yes.

I mentioned earlier that I learned about “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” (LTST) from Robin Sloan, and Robin with his Year of the Meteor project is doing just that, employing Risograph printing, the U.S. Postal Service, a print-and-mail service called Lob that’s typically used by businesses for mass mailings, and who knows what else in the future.

Similarly, for his Ridgeline project, Craig Mod, while on a long-distance walk in Japan, tried sending brief messages and photos to subscribers all over the world by plain old SMS. The project ended up having some bugs, but the idea is enormously generative. As Robin wrote about Craig’s project, “Craig is always making new tools, trying new things, like the SMS experiment. Like he is really TRYING. What if 10X more people were TRYING?” I want to be one of those people who is trying, too. Trying to share things I like in unexpected ways.

excerpts from my Sent folder: civility

By ayjay

I think the question [of whether civility is a Christian virtue] hinges on whether “civility” is a useful shorthand proxy for a series of traits that certainly are Christian virtues: patience, forbearance, kindness, generosity, turning the other cheek, blessing those who spitefully use you, etc.

responsible scholarship and the growth of Christianity

By ayjay

I’ve talked a bit lately about what Christians today might be able to learn from the early church. Let’s do that again.

Celsus was a second-century Greek philosopher who, around 175 A.D., wrote an extremely thorough critique of Christianity, which he believed to be a philosophical and moral abomination. Alas, no copies of it have survived. And yet we know in detail not just what Celsus argued but also the specific words in which he argued it. How?

Because 75 years later, when a Christian theologian named Origen wrote a book called Against Celsus, he quoted his opponent often and at great length — and in such a way that we can see that Celsus knew Jewish and Christian writings and history pretty thoroughly. That is, thanks to Origen’s scholarly integrity, it is possible for readers to follow the dispute and decide that Celsus got the better of it.

In short, Celsus was scrupulously fair to the person whose ideas he wanted desperately to refute. He did not take refuge in the kinds of phrases we see so often today, from Christian and non-Christian alike: “In other words, Celsus believes…” or “In effect, Celsus is saying….” Nor does he take up the evasive strategy of “some critics have claimed” — evasive, but tempting, because you can’t be accused of misreading someone when you won’t say who you’re responding to. Origen wasn’t trying to dunk on his enemies on social media. Instead, he said: (a) Here are Celsus’s words, (b) Here’s why I think he’s wrong.

A surprising large amount of the Christian theology and philosophy produced in the period between, say, Tertullian and Augustine was extremely vigorous: responsible but also bold and imaginative, and considerably more of all of that than the pagan thought of the period. Eric Osborn, in his book The Emergence of Christian Theology, claims that the power of Christian intellectual life was a kind of secret ingredient in the faith’s phenomenal growth throughout the third century. A word to the wise — and especially to the not-yet-wise.

the theater of concurrence

By ayjay

Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House was one of the sensations of the nineteenth century because of its portrayal of Nora Helmer, a wife and mother who ultimately finds the confines of bourgeois life unbearable and leaves her family. Even the suggestion that Nora might be right to do so was outrageous at the time — so much so that one of Ibsen’s contemporaries said that the play “pronounced a death sentence on accepted social ethics.”

Indeed, when the play was first performed in Germany the famous actress playing Nora refused to perform the final scene: “I would never leave my children!” Since Ibsen had no copyright laws to protect his play, and anyone could change it in anyway they wished, he, with gritted teeth, wrote an alternative ending in which Nora, on the verge of departing her home, is forced to look into her children’s bedroom, whereupon she sinks to the floor in mute acknowledgment that she could never leave her children. Fade to black. Ibsen called this ending a “barbaric outrage” upon his play, but figured that changes made by other hands would have been even worse.

In 2017, a new play reached Broadway: A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath, which revisits Nora and her family fifteen years after she walked out of the “doll’s house” in which she had been kept by her husband, slamming the door behind her. And in Hnath’s sequel Nora is very glad that she left her husband and children all those years ago.

To which the shrewd critic Terry Teachout said: Well of course. Can you imagine a play on Broadway in 2017 suggesting that Nora perhaps should have swallowed her frustrations and remained to raise her children?

The favorable reception of A Doll’s House, Part 2 was as much a foregone conclusion as is its ending, which is a quintessential example of what I call the “theater of concurrence,” a genre whose practitioners take for granted that their liberal audiences already agree with them about everything. The success of such plays is contingent on the exactitude with which the author tells his audience what it wants to hear, and Hnath obliges in every particular. Above all, the viewer is never allowed to doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own fulfillment.

I haven’t seen the play, but I have read it, and I don’t think Teachout is right about Hnath — though he might be right about the performance he saw. Reading Hnath’s play I found myself disliking Nora very much, especially the way she recasts her abandonment of her family in terms of heroic sacrifice. For instance, she tells the family’s servant Anne Marie about the great personal “discipline” she had to exercise in order to prevent herself from sending Christmas presents to the three children she left without a mother. How brave of you, Nora! (Later, whern Anne Marie tells Nora it was terrible for her to leave her children, Nora replies that it’s not a big deal, men leave their families all the time.)

And there’s a powerful moment when Nora meets her daughter Emmy — the daughter who doesn’t remember her because she was so young when Nora left. Emmy knows that Nora has written books denouncing the institution of marriage, and so is reluctant to tell Nora that she herself is engaged. “You think no one should get married,” she says, which Nora at first denies, but then goes into a lecture about how “Marriage is this binding contract, and love is — love has to be the opposite of a contract — love needs to be free.” And when Emmy resists this (I’m adjusting Hnath’s eccentric punctuation):

NORA: How much do you even know about marriage?
EMMY: Nothing.
NORA: Exactly.
EMMY: Because you left, I know nothing about what a marriage is and what it looks like. But I do know what the absence of it looks like, and what I want is the opposite of that.

And ultimately Emmy forces Nora to admit that the only reason Nora is speaking to her is to enlist her help in getting Torvald to give Nora a formal divorce.

This does not, to me, look like a situation in which “the viewer is never allowed to doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own fulfillment.” You could perhaps play it that way. You could do something to make Emmy unattractive — in fact, perhaps the only way to make Nora seem unquestionably right is to make every other character in the play seem unquestionably awful — but Hnath’s writing is not handing you that interpretation on a platter. (Very much the same is true of his earlier play The Christians.) If the director and cast of the performance Teachout saw managed to make the play’s meaning unambiguous, then that’s a sign of how desperately the performers as well as the viewers of plays can feel the need for a “theater of concurrence” — even when the playwright wants to deny them that comfort.

Realpolitik

By ayjay

The Epistle to Diognetus is a second-century letter, a brief work of Christian apologetics. In the fifth section of the letter, the author talks about what sets Christians apart from other peoples in the Roman world. Christians are peculiar, he admits that. To be sure, they live with everyone else, and in many ways they live like everyone else: they work in the same kinds of jobs, they wear the same kinds of clothes.

But they are also different in significant ways: they are sexually chaste, they don’t kill unwanted children, they are generous and committed to sharing both within their churches and with people outside those churches; and, above all, they refuse to worship the Roman gods. For these differences they are hated, and hated the more the kinder they are.

And there’s one more thing that sets the Christians apart: when they are attacked, when they are persecuted, they don’t reply in kind. Others say to the Christians, “You are my enemy”; Christians say to the others, “You are my neighbor.”

Were they wrong to live this way?

The best scholarly estimates we have — I’ve seen these numbers in several places but most recently in Larry Hurtado’s book Destroyer of the Gods — suggest the following:

  • In 40 A.D. there were about a thousand Christians
  • In 100 A.D. no more than ten thousand
  • In 200 A.D. around two hundred thousand
  • In 300 A.D. around six million

Note that the stratospheric growth occurs before Constantine, and in a period of intermittent persecution.


Here’s a passage from an essay by the theologian Brad East:

In Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, Paul Griffiths imagines what it might mean for the final rest (quies) of heaven to be enacted by the church in via. His proposal is a particular kind of quietism: a quietism, that is, “with respect to political interest, not with respect to politics simpliciter.” It is a quietism “of consequentialist interest in the consequences of political advocacy, a cultivation of a sancta indifferentia” regarding the narrowly measurable and altogether unknowable effects of political advocacy — advocacy that Christians should continue, note, but because of the intrinsic rightness of the cause, or because of a policy’s beauty or fittingness, or because the Lord wills it. Not because “studies show …” Such “quietist ascesis of political interest in the consequences of what we advocate in the sphere of politics” is one pole of a continuum. The other pole is Vox.

In a follow-up blog post, East writes:

The martyrs teach us, at a minimum, that sometimes letting go is more faithful than fighting, dying more faithful than continuing to live. The first three centuries of the church’s life attest to the vitality of this witness precisely in the arena of politics, as does the church’s experience across the globe at present and in recent centuries.

The martyrs were not doormats, and martyrdom is not despair or acquiescence before evil or persecution. It is the power of the cross made manifest in the world. Surely that power has a word to speak to our moment, and to the dispute alluded to above. If we listened, what might it say?

Ahmari revisited

By ayjay

This morning I have a post up at the Atlantic website on the scuffle Sohrab Amari kicked off with his recent attacks on David French. I want to add some cars to that train in the form of two sets of questions, and then a caboose.

First, though, I want to emphasize something that I said in passing in that post: that I basically share Ahmari’s view that the liberal order has become the Bad Liberalism — “tyrannical liberalism” — Neuhaus feared, and I agree that proceduralism is dying, is mostly dead maybe. Here’s one post, on matters closely related to the ones I’m dealing with today; and here’s the logic of Bad Liberalism in brief summary; and here’s a moment in which I grow nostalgic for a Proceduralism Lost. My critique does not concern Ahmari’s diagnosis, but rather some elements of his prescription. So, on to the questions.

First: Ahmari’s essay isn’t just a critique of David French – it contains a positive program as well:

Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.

And when you recognize your moral duty, you will realize that your job is “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

Nothing about this is clear.

  • Who are the “we” implied in “our order and our orthodoxy”? Social conservatives? Religious social conservatives? Christian social conservatives? Catholic social conservatives? What about Muslim social conservatives? What about faithful Catholics who aren’t social conservatives? Who, in short, gets access to the control room?
  • Who is “the enemy”? This would be determined, I guess, by how you answer the questions above, but I wonder if David French — and any other Christian who defends the liberal social order — belongs to the enemy. (Probably not? Probably French is just an unreliable ally, like Mussolini to Hitler?)
  • How, specifically, would “we” “enforce our orthodoxy”? Would atheists be denied citizenship, or have their civil rights abridged in some way? And by what means would this enforcement be achieved? “Weakening or destroying their institutions” presumably means, for instance, something more dramatic than, say, removing federal funding from Planned Parenthood — so, maybe, finding legal means to punish systemically left-wing companies like those in Hollywood and Silicon Valley? But even that doesn’t seem nearly enough….

Unpacking that last bullet point: I’m going to assume that Ahmari is not counting on an angelic army to descend and impose the reordering of the public square to the Highest Good; I’m also going to assume that he’s not advocating a coup by the American armed forces. I think that leaves winning a great many elections and winning them by large majorities. (I mean, reordering the public square to the Highest Good is not something that could possibly be accomplished without amendments to the Constitution.) And that leads me to my …

Second question: If you believe that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives” arising from the dominance of a tyrannical liberalism, and you want to defeat those enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentations of their (trans) women, how, exactly, do you further that goal by attacking … David French? What precisely is the strategic benefit of that? If you’re Ahmari, don’t you need people like French on your side? Or do you think you’re such a massive movement that you can do without people like French? Or do you think that French will be abashed by the incisiveness of your attack, your mockery of “Pastor French,” and will come over to your side, ultimately meekly submitting to the claims of the Catholic Magisterium? Or do you think that other people will read your attack and think “Wow, just look at how Ahmari dealt with that pathetic loser French, I want to be on his side”? Seriously: How’s this supposed to work?


And now the caboose — something I said in my essay that I want to re-emphasize here. I noted earlier that I largely agree with Ahmari that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives.” But I dissent from his claim that Christians should let the urgency of the situation determine their behavior. (“It is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of [French’s] that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.”) If David French is right that civility and decency are commanded to Christians, then they are always commanded to us. We don’t get to set aside the commandments of God when we find them “unsuitable” to the demands of the present moment. That way tyranny lies, and a tyranny that clothes itself in (misdirected) obedience.

In these contexts, and especially when I am feeling discouraged about the course of events, I often think of a passage from the Lord of the Rings, the moment when Eomer of Rohan meets Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas. Eomer:

‘It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’

‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’


P.S. For a further exposition of the two liberalisms that Father Neuhaus discussed — “political liberalism” and “hegemonic liberalism” — see this essay by my friend and colleague Frank Beckwith.

on David French

By ayjay

I admire David French because he tries to live out his Christian convictions as consistently as possible. Those convictions led him and his wife Nancy, who are white, to adopt a girl from Ethiopia, which resulted in many people on the left denouncing them for practicing some kind of familial colonialism. I’m sure the term “white supremacy” was deployed as well. But when French opposed the nomination of Donald Trump, the vitriol from the Trumpist right came to exceed what had come from the left, as French explains in this sobering essay.

For French, the decision to adopt a girl from Ethiopia and the decision to reject Donald Trump’s dishonesty and general moral turpitude arose from the same source: a determination to live as a faithful Christian, as a follower of Jesus. And if you think that such an attempt at moral and spiritual consistency is going to gain any respect in our current political climate, you have not been paying attention.

A person who tries to live the way David French lives is certainly not going to win any points from the left — his long-term commitment to a pro-life agenda and his work as a lawyer in favor of religious liberty ensure that — and from the Trumpist right? He’ll get mocked as “Pastor French” — I wonder where the idea of giving sneering nicknames to your political opponents, or insufficiently supine allies, came from — and people who say they believe that we’re in a take-no-prisoners Culture War Death Match will decide that one of the top items on their military agenda is to attack him.

David French’s critics on the Trumpist side of things tend to be proud of their commitment to Realpolitik. They’re all about winning. For them, it appears, French’s commitment to be Christlike in all circumstances is a contemptible form of weakness. I don’t think God shares their contempt. And even if they end up achieving so much winning that we’ll be sick of all the winning, I wonder whether they might lose something in the process. A figure of some authority has suggested that they are courting danger.

I disagree with David French about a lot of things — especially what I believe to be his sometimes uncritical support for American military action — but I admire him because he’s trying. He’s trying to “take every thought captive to Christ.” I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly. Among Christians invested in the political arena, that kind of integrity is dismayingly rare.

Middle-Aged Moralists

By ayjay

When C. S. Lewis gave the Memorial Address at King’s College, London in 1944 — the occasion being very like an American university commencement — he began by commenting, “When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising. I shall do my best to gratify it.”

It was a shrewd move. Lewis himself always loathed the pompous didacticism he had found endemic to the English educational system, and expected that his audience would too. “Everyone knows what a middle-aged moralist of my type warns his juniors against. He warns them against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.” But with a smile on his face, he declared that he would play to type: “I shall, in fact, give you advice about the world in which you are going to live.”

Let’s fast-forward about sixty years, to a commencement address at Stanford University. The speaker this time is not a professor but rather a businessman named Steve Jobs, and he makes it clear from the outset that he’ll not be doing any “middle-aged moralising.” Rather, he says, “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”

And yet it’s not clear, when you think about it, that Jobs’s message is any less moralistic than Lewis’s. It just bears a different moral.

Lewis warns his listeners against the power of what he calls the “Inner Ring” — the desire to belong to a certain admirable group, to be allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table — because he believes that, among all our desires, that one is the most likely to make un-wicked people do wicked things.

Jobs also warns his listeners, but warns them not to allow Death, when he knocks on their door, to find them “living someone else’s life.” Lewis points to the dangers of letting the desire to belong make you a “scoundrel,” and while Jobs too thinks others can endanger us, he frames that danger very differently: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

This is the permissible moralism of 2005: College graduates can be exhorted, but not to the old-fashioned virtues that Lewis implicitly appeals to, but rather to self-fulfillment: For Jobs, what is “most important” is this: “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

This makes a neat story, once which can be read either as emancipation from constricting rules or as a decline into egotism. But the story gets slightly more complex if we look at one more middle-aged moralist: David Foster Wallace.

Wallace was, I’d say, barely middle-aged when he delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College just a few weeks before Jobs spoke at Stanford: he was 43. (Jobs was 50, and when Lewis gave his “Inner Ring” address he was 45.) If Lewis acknowledges that the genre invites moralism and cheerfully accepts the invitation, and Jobs disavows moralism but delivers it anyway, in a new form, Wallace seems almost desperate to avoid any such thing.

Having begun with a little story about fish, he continues, “If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish.” Then: “But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called ‘virtues.’” And: “Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re ‘supposed to’ think this way.” Finally: “Obviously, you can think of [this talk] whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon.” Please.

Yet for all those disavowals, Wallace’s speech may be the most passionately moralistic of them all, though in a complex way. He tells us to be suspicious of that inner inner voice that Jobs wants us to listen to, because that voice always says the same thing: “There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.” Consequently, our “natural, hard-wired default setting … is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

And why should we want to think otherwise? Why should we turn outward? Not in order to avoid becoming scoundrels, Wallace says, but because such other-directedness can bring us freedom. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”

Substantively, it seems to me, Wallace’s ethic is far closer to that of Lewis than to that of Jobs, though he and Jobs were near-contemporaries and formed by much the same culture. (Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters was one of Wallace’s favorite books.) But he could not, and knew he could not, speak as Lewis spoke — even with an ironic nod towards the inevitable clichés of the commencement-speech genre.

Universities still invite middle-aged moralists (professors rarely, writers and business leaders more often) to give speeches to their graduating students, even though those students are generally inoculated against middle-aged moralism — the moralism of self-fulfillment always excepted. What’s remarkable about Wallace’s speech, which has become the great canonical example of the genre, is that he found a way to rescue the occasion; and that he rescued it by pretending to refuse it.

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