Postmodern Conservatism

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

The Cultivated Excellence of Berry College


So the complaint has been made that at NRO my posts have become more strident and less humorous. Not to mention less personal.

The complaint has also been made that since I’ve taken an interest in higher education as a “critical national issue,” I’ve mentioned from time to time that Berry College is not perfect.

My apology is that I’ve never deviated from the truth is that Berry College is really good, and it has singular excellences worthy of the admiration of all. I actually have evidence that I may have made Berry seem more upscale that it really is.

A very thoughtful young man wrote on Facebook (where everybody who’s anybody meets — much like Waffle House or Panera Bread), against my polemic on student housing, that he had really enjoyed his experience living in the dorms at Gonzaga (of Spokane), and that the students in the dorms generally did better academically than the commuters. He added: ”Of course Gonzaga is not an elite college like Berry.” Well, his only knowledge of Berry is what I’ve written about it. On the elite meter, Gonzaga, a good Jesuit school, ranks about the same as — if not higher than — Berry.

So let me be clear that Berry, although ranked pretty high on the IQ meter, is not an elite school in the mode of Swarthmore or even Rhodes or Sewanee. We’re not preppy, don’t have frats or sororities, and almost every student works on campus for actual money. We’re even very short on Episcopalians.

 In the same mode, Berry doesn’t have a dominant liberal-arts tradition in the sense of preparing cultivated ladies and gentleman for positions of leadership through the leisurely reading of great books and stuff like that. Our teams do now play in a preppy D-3 league, a fact that has enhanced (studies show) our liberal-arts reputation. Given that so many liberal-arts traditions seem to have morphed into decadence, maybe it’s good that the more “traditional” majors here flourish with a kind of countercultural edge. And Berry students aren’t wounded that much by the kind of cyncial indifference or slacker libertinism that seems to be the most recalcitrant impediment to experiencing the mixture of wondering and wandering (including the anxiety that is the prelude to wonder about oneself) that is at the foundation of genuinely liberating or “transformational” education. That might be another way of saying most Berry students were raised well.

Berry is pretty insistently about — probably too much about — cultivating a work ethic in students. It’s true our students in general come to college ready to work — or at least more ready than most students at most colleges. Still, I always tell them that college should mainly be about picking up knowledge and experiences that you can’t pick up on the streets of the global competitive marketplace. If it’s not about that, then I agree with Peter Theiel: Skip college and get right down to entrepreneuring.

That’s not to say Berry isn’t classy. Berry is ranked by a leading lawn expert as the best landscaped campus in the South. If you look at the picture the expert provides, you can’t help but agree. That’s the area around our (Gothic) Ford buildings, which were actually funded by Henry Ford himself in a rare philanthropic moment. But some of that lush grass was donated to the college by the people (including Denzel Washington, who donated one of the first and really expensive versions of the flat-screened TV to our guest cottages, because he wanted to watch a game one afternoon) who came here to film part of Remember the Titans. They judged that our grass, in places, wasn’t green enough to sparkle on screen.

And the campus as a whole isn’t all that uniformly green–in most places the color of the grass varies some with the seasons. Berry’s charm is to be landscaped, but not too landscaped. It achieves the pleasingly imperfect Southern level of cultivation, thanks to the work of our legendary grounds crew (which always includes plenty of student workers). Berry is the South’s most beautiful campus, if you take every facet of the diversity — both natural and architectural — of the 26,000 acres into account.

One major source of blight on our campus that has a singularly human cause is the unkempt wasteland that is my office. (Picture not provided.)

ET and ME


Damon Linker, who’s taking an existentialist Straussian line, speculates that the discovery of life elsewhere in the cosmos would take out Christian belief. That belief depends on special creation. So decisive evidence that there’s nothing special about life on our planet would explode what are already our unreasonable pretensions about personal significance. Damon doesn’t believe the existence of such extraterrestrial life is particularly likely. Or, if it’s somewhere out there, we probably won’t discover it. We’re probably not even that special.

Well, I have no idea about the real existence of ETs, but the most likely outcome of our close encounter with them wouldn’t be dramatic ontological or theological transformations in our personal self-understanding.

If (as we learn in Men in Black) the intelligent life forms are screwed-up aliens (wanderers and wonderers lost in the cosmos like us), that would, if anything, strengthen our faith. (Especially if they had faith.)  Our discovery of them might confirm the superiority of Christian anthropology to its rivals.

If the ETs were pure, untroubled, benign intelligence, as Carl Sagan imagines, then there would be faith issues, I think. We might consider the possibility that they are as we would be if it weren’t for the Fall. But pure consciousness or pure minds might disconfirm the conclusion we can reach based on our experience so far. Being open to the truth about all things and technological exploration are only qualities of persons, who are neither minds nor bodies nor some simple combination of the two.

I don’t know of any “faith issue” that arises from the discovery of unconscious life somewhere else. In general, the Christian belief is that God cares for each of us persons in particular — special creation is on the personal level. That doesn’t even preclude the existence of said creatures in quite different biological forms elsewhere in the cosmos.

And we can’t forget the “personal issues” that arise in the absence of faith that cause so many scientists to hope without real evidence that there are ETs out there that can somehow save us from ourselves. If they’re out there, they’ll probably take us out to satisfy their own needs or as a security threat.

Then there’s the decisively personal view of Interstellar, which is something like if there are more advanced beings out there who can save us from our natural fate, they would have to be more evolved versions of ourselves. I think the concluding scientific details of that film are presented as a form of wish fulfillment that’s more reasonable than Sagan’s. But it’s a short hop from such musings about love and gravity to the conclusion that the logos that governs the cosmos is somehow personal.


Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 104, Pink Floyd, “Matilda Mother”


All through the late-19th century up through the mid-1960s one felt the cultural pull of it:  a celebration of techno-managerial progress, always with the promise of more to come.  The heroes were the architect, the in-charge social-scientist, the business, military, or government man applying scientific methods, and most of all the natural scientist himself.   There is still plenty of such techno-managerial optimism percolating in our society, but it has never quite felt as intense as it did in those pre-1965 times.  Any viewer of 50s movies, for example, and especially any reader of Walker Percy’s Moviegoer (1960), cannot but notice it. 

The high-tide of this confident expectation of Tomorrow-Land wonders coming from science was probably reached in the early 60s, and found an echo and expression in architecture’s international style.   All was to be angular, sleek, and silvery-grey—as orderly, if perhaps as jarring, as a physicist’s formula.  When the style was seriously executed it could have, as its most effective cinematic satirist Jacques Tati admitted and displayed, a certain undeniable beauty. 

The second of those images is of the famous 1958 Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe, and the first is a still from Tati’s ingenious, architecture-concerned, and I’d say quite postmodern-conservative film, Playtime, released in 1967, but conceptualized in the early 60s. 

What sort of men belonged to such a world?  Well, let’s go along with the notions popularized by the more critical 50s sociologists like David Riesman and William Whyte for a bit.  It belonged to “organization men,” men who would wear super-shiny black shoes like those Tom Wolfe so obsessively described when (The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test) he portrayed the FBI agents, men who would part their slicked hair like Robert McNamara’s as straight as any direct line plotted on a chart from point A to point B.  That is, men like this guy:



He’s an easy one to poke fun at, sure, but I can’t help but noting that there was a hipster-youth version of this same stylistic bent during those times, best expressed in the British rock cult of the Mod.  The now-happening future was apparently to be place of angular fast-paced living, broken up now and then by abstract curvature and other amusements.



As you surely know, there were various growing undercurrents of dissatisfaction.  States-side, there’s places in Moviegoer where Percy hints at the growing popularity of bohemian patterns and affectations, a popularity that would explode once folks like Dylan and The Merry Pranksters found the really winning formulas.  And in Britain, from the mid-50s a set of three books with weird runes on them had been passing from hand to hand, and spotted here and there in the subway graffiti one saw the announcement concerning them:  Frodo Lives! 

You see, religiously and poetically speaking, the later 60s wasn’t just the era of the pantheist guru and the tribal shaman, but was also the time when J.R.R. Tolkien’s poetic achievement became fully felt.   India beckoned to the imagination, as did the wild places the world over where one might find the ghosts and remnants of indigenous tribes, but the lure of Middle-Earth was felt just as strongly.

Rock-wise, you’ve probably picked up on the Tolkien references in various Led Zeppelin songs, but as far as I can tell, the first such rock-song reference comes in “The Gnome,” a whimsical piece from Pink Floyd’s first album, the 1967 landmark of psychedelic rock, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. 

He had a Big Adventure,

amidst the grass, fresh air at last.

There’s one or two allusions to the main character in The Hobbit in this, and it also delivers the most at-peace moment of the whole album, the chorus which sings Look at the sky, look at the river…isn’t, it, good?  Listening to that, we are miles away from any sky-scrapered world. 

“Matilda Mother” is on the same album.  Its reference to Tolkien is broader and more indirect, as it refers to the entire theory of Faërie-literature associated with him, C.S. Lewis, and some others.  It is a theory best expounded by Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.”  The scenario of the song is a reliving of what it was like as a child to hear your mother read storybooks about the mythical and fantastic—the verses deftly convey the typical elements of such tales, and then there’s this break of complaint:

Why’d'ya have to leave me there,

hanging in my infant air,


You only have to read the lines,

they’re scribbly black and everything shines.

Oh, it’s just a single song, with an “orientalist”-like break that borders on the overdone, but I’d say it shines indeed, suffused with a yearning for the half-remembered belief in fairylands.



It ends with this:

And fairy stories held me high, on
clouds of sunlight floating by.
Oh-oh mother, tell me more.
Tell me more.

Now the adult fascination with fairy stories, always with us to some degree, seems to have reached an apex of articulation and achievement in the 20th-century work of Lewis and Tolkien.  “Matilda Mother’s” and “The Gnome’s” songwriter Syd Barrett may not have read their theoretical essays about such, but he seems to have had a solid notion of what they were up to.

Tolkien’s essay, available in various collections, displays his familiarity with early British literature and Norse saga, but also with children’s literature generally.  It contains some of his most direct attacks against modern technology, and most open defenses of so-called literary “escapism” from its ugliness.  I haven’t read all of it, but I have read a work that conveys some of its teaching, From Homer to Harry Potter:  A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy, a curious but worthwhile book, written by Tolkien expert Matthew Dickerson and my friend and philosophy scholar David O’ Hara.  They provide a learned and heavily Tolkien/Lewis-influenced account of how one properly distinguishes myth, Biblical myth, fairy story, allegory, etc.  We’ll use their quotations and interpretations of Tolkien, to get the gist of how he and Lewis felt fairy stories could hold us higher:

“He who would enter the Kingdom of Faërie,” Tolkien writes, “should have the heart of a little child.”  In choosing this language Tolkien is making a clear connection to… Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven[Luke 18:17].  He continues, “For that possession is necessary to all high adventure, into kingdoms both less and far greater than Faërie.”

Though Tolkien was rightly hesitant to give any single-sentence definition of fairy story, he did write that fantasy was not something to be embarrassed about in literature, but rather was one of the four most important values of fairy story (along with recovery, escape, and consolation):  “Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie.”

Here’s a final bit that’s all from Tolkien:

“Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons:  it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it:  tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”

One senses that for him, Faërie is a literary-imagistic realm that is inevitably called forth by an age-old desire.  It is.  He suggests that our desire for it rightly intensifies in modern times, to in some way resist modernity’s “disenchantment of the world.”  Lewis is even more emphatic on that last point.  The strongest sense of this comes from the first two Narnia books, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian, particularly the second of these. 

In it we are told the story of Caspian as a little boy.  He is growing up in Narnia, which the reader knows to be the magical place described in the first book, but in a later time when his race of men, the Telmarines, occupy the land, having centuries ago conquered it and driven out its previous occupants.  They now deny that these predecessors ever existed.   But some humans, such as Caspian’s nurse, keep knowledge of the old things alive in tales.  Caspian loves these forbidden tales, but innocently lets it out that the nurse is telling them by saying he wishes he lived in the “old days,” when “all the animals could talk” and there were “naiads and dryads…, lovely little fauns,” a “White Witch,” and a lion of awesome power named “Aslan.” The original inhabitants of Narnia, whose hidden descendants Caspian will soon meet, are essentially a menagerie of classical and medieval mythology:  centaurs, dwarves, satyrs, Maenads, giants, walking-trees, etc.  These, along with some human allies like Caspian, reconquer Narnia, but only ultimately with the help of Aslan.

Since Aslan is Lewis’s representation of Christ in the Narnia books, what the plot of Prince Caspian in essence does is to pit the mythology-denying Telmarines, the men who have long ruled the land, against all the creatures of pagan mythology and the Christian God also.  Not a fair fight!  But think of it in terms of Lewis’s literary effort in our world:  instead of the Renaissance-through-Enlightenment pattern of moderns employing certain attractions of pagan history, philosophy, and poetry against Christian belief the better to establish their own rule, here’s a 20th-century Christian using the attractions of the pagan, particularly those of the mythology, to rebel against the moderns’ well-established dominion. 

Like so many in the 60s, Syd Barrett wanted to re-employ the pagan, and in his case the things of Faërie especially, against the sterile and modern, but without this issuing in a rededication to the Christian.  But such “Tolkien-ism”-sans-Christ leads one where?  Perhaps back to a new kind of art-as-religion, perhaps to an effort to revive Celtic or some other European paganism, or perhaps, to the Occult.   


Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: rock , Pink Floyd , J.R.R. Tolkien , C.S. Lewis , Jacques Tati , Syd Barrett , fairy stories , Religion

Thoughts On The “Obama Coalition”


Several writers have questioned whether the results of 2014 indicate that it is much tougher to mobilize the Obama coalition of younger and nonwhite voters in elections where Obama is not on the ballot. Maybe, but maybe the main problem with the Obama coalition in 2014 was… Obama.

During the last weeks of the2014 campaign (and some weeks before that) Obama’s RCP average job approval rating bounced around between 41 percent and 43 percent. His disapproval rating bounced around between 52 percent and 54 percent. That left Democratic Senators in red (or even purple) states having to win over a large number of people who actively disapproved of Obama in order to win. I strongly suspect that if Obama’s national approval numbers had been like those in 2012 (approval ratings of 48 percent to 49 percent heading down the home stretch), Kay Hagan would have gotten a second term and Georgia would have gotten a run off. Would New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen have been better off if Obama (whose New Hampshire job approval almost exactly tracked his lousy national numbers) had been on the ballot? Maybe Obama would have mobilized some voters to go to the polls, but a president with such low numbers (and majority disapproval)seems at least as likely to mobilize from that larger group who think the incumbent is doing a lousy job.

So can the Democrats keep up their presidential election margins among African American, Latino, and younger voters when Obama is no longer on the ballot? Sure, I think they can continue to win around 93 percent of the African American vote and 70 percent of the Latino vote. Whether Democrats will continue to win those margins among those groups depends on whether Republicans can find away to get heard saying something intelligible and relevant to that fraction of Latino and African American voters who have right-of-center policy preferences, but who vote Democratic. The future health of the Obama  coalition will depend partly on the actions of Obama’s political opponents.

Saving the Humanities


Are the humanities doomed? It depends on who you ask. And what you consider “the humanities” to encompass. That definition has changed in the past few decades, says Mark Bauerlein in an important New Criterion article earlier this month. And it is this change, he claims, that has damned the field.  

As the wave of postmodernism washed across the humanities, the carefully developed technique and discipline of the historian or professor of literature were eroded piece by piece. And when the rigorous techniques of inquiry and the classic works on which they focused were exiled, scholars of the humanities made themselves comfortable in the space previously dominated by social sciences: identity and politics. This, he notes, was the explicit goal and project of critical theorists throughout the 1990s, and a massive mistake.

He goes on to attack the postmodern school and critical theory from many angles. Relativism, for instance, levels “Paradise Lost with The Joy Luck Club.” We’ve landed today at a sort of middle ground — he calls it “curricular liberalism” — the classics can stay, but they must make room for critical theory and identity-based examinations of art and literature. And all approaches must be given equal weight — regardless of rigor or importance. Bauerlein nods here to ACTA’s 2014–15 What Will They Learn? report, which tracks core-curricular requirements at nearly 1,100 schools and decries the “distribution requirement” model in which students are required to pick a series of classes from long lists rather than fulfill more-focused requirements that address core collegiate skills and knowledge.

Bauerlein takes great issue with this development, which he sees as the reason for the decline in the popularity and respect afforded the humanities, writing that “the minute professors started speaking of literary works as second to race and queerness, they set the fields on a path of material decline.” 

Humanists rather ought to concern themselves with questions of beauty and greatness, Bauerlein says. They ought to grapple with the “big ideas,” with territory of the mind and spirit that no other discipline can chart. Arthur Krystal, in a similar piece, blames neuroscience as well as critical theory, but the charge is the same: “Instead of grappling with the gods, we seem to be more interested in the topography of Mt. Olympus.”

Bauerlein and Krystal both take a pessimistic view of possible futures for the humanities. “Curricular liberalism,” as they see it, has won out; without requirements that one study the classics, students won’t. And, ironically, postmodernism itself has lost, for to jump into critical theory without an understanding of the thousands of years of the Western canon, of which that theory is critical, is to engage in a comically hollow pursuit. The mistake in allowing students to study Foucault without reading Kant or Nietzsche is that postmodern thought did not spring fully formed from academe. If the pursuit is to have any semblance of integrity, it must be an informed conversation with and about that canon.

Bauerlein reminds us that many critical theorists agreed with him: “Jacques Derrida himself scolded academics in a 1991 interview for downgrading the classics, stating, ‘If you’re not trained in the tradition, deconstruction means nothing.’” The terrible tragedy for the humanities is that its decline in funding and public support is a self-inflicted wound. Until it reclaims and nourishes its roots, its fruit will sustain nothing.

Tags: Higher Education , humanities , critical theory


Rome and the Dynamic of Freedom and Virtue (Conclusion)


 With the rise of Rome there is a decisive shift from what might be called “vertical” to “horizontal” figures of transcendence.  Every political form, as well as every adequate philosophy, articulates human transcendence in some way because it necessarily addresses a human openness to some purpose, some goodness, some “divine” meaning that is not fully grasped or securely possessed by mortals.  Classical transcendence, that is, the transcendence articulated in classical political philosophy as it addressed the classical polis, is clearly vertical in orientation.  This is to say simply that the good beyond our imperfect moral condition is understood hierarchically or aristocratically by reference to the concrete and visible virtues of character that rule in the city.  The complete and happy life is modeled, for example, by the man most honored by the city, the great-souled man.  Classical philosophy completes this picture by ranking the divine activity of philosophy still higher than practical magnanimity:  the philosopher must be supposed to possess the rare and self-sufficient goodness and enjoy the most honorable pleasures that the man of practical virtue only claims to possess and to enjoy.  Classical transcendence is vertical because the human openness to some extraordinary meaning is interpreted concretely and aristocratically:  the highest good is thought to be like what is in fact most honored in an actual city, only higher still.

It is this prejudice in favor of a concretely vertical or aristocratic transcendence that is overcome (for better and for worse, no doubt) in the new political form that is Rome.   Roman transcendence is more open-ended, more restless and more expansive precisely because it is not limited by a stable and concrete virtuous common good.  The spirit of undefined freedom, the common human longing for some condition beyond the limiting claim of some definite and honored way of life, begins to overpower any stable moral and political hierarchy.    This is not to say that morality loses its rigor; indeed, as we saw in the case of Stoic philosophy, the emphasis upon sheer duty as the principle of morality is enhanced when a concrete sense of the inherent goodness of a shared way of life subsides. 

In the ethic of sacrifice is much more pronounced and in a way radicalized in Roman morality than in the classical ethic portrayed by Aristotle.  Montesquieu, the great 18th century political thinker, in fact saw the willingness to sacrifice, to die willingly for some cause beyond oneself, as a great clue to the power and the tragedy of Rome.  Rome strove restlessly for something beyond present goods and known limits; a certain ethic of duty, sacrifice and even suicide is thus linked with Rome’s penchant for expansion.  This limitless striving that first manifest itself in the Roman Republic issued into the boundless and disordered ambition of the tyrannical Empire.

There is thus a certain fit between Stoicism and Rome, and the Roman ethic is indeed understood as the prime example of an ethic of duty. But when virtue loses its innate loveliness as embodied in a stable and shared way of life, in a ruling ethic represented in the rule of a definite human type, then the context of moral obligation, the implicit rationale of duty shifts to what I am calling the horizontal plane.  The sacrifice of individual desires and ordinary goods can no longer be understood as directed towards some concrete “higher” or nobler Good, and so now must point towards some other kind of justification.  Now of course the most obvious justification for sacrifice is the power and glory of Rome itself: duty is understood as duty to one’s country, one’s fatherland (republic or empire).  In this sense morality retains some connection with what is given, what is inherited from the fathers.  But the more the fatherland expands to include various peoples and ways of life, the more detached the glory of Rome becomes from any concrete inheritance.  As Roman duty and Roman power become more and more abstracted from a definite and shared way of life, Roman transcendence assumes features that strikingly anticipate modern understandings of man and society.  On the one hand, the emulation of shared virtues gives way to the administrative protection of private rights.  Even death for the fatherland, as Montesquieu noticed, becomes more an expression of individual striving for an unnamed transcendence than a testimony to the common good.  On the other hand, the declining relevance of the old ways produces an openness to innovation and an orientation towards the future as promising some unprecedented spiritual possibility.  The alternative to the verticality of the classical common good is horizontal in (1) its movement toward abstract universal rights and individual expression, and (2) in its openness to a future not limited by the “nature” of the past.  Such considerations lead Pierre Manent to conclude that a “passage from Ancients to Moderns had already come about in Rome at the end of the Republican period.” (Metamorphoses of the City)

A final point on the emergence of the horizontal dimension of transcendence:  the first determination (private rights and individual expression) is finally conditioned by and thus in a way subordinate to the second, that is, the projection of human meaning upon some indefinite future.  The shared sense of the purpose of rights and the meaning of individual expression depend finally on a faith in some future dispensation of spiritual meaning.  The horizon of a larger meaning has not been abolished, but is drifting from a concrete-vertical (aristocratic) to an open-horizontal (democratic-progressive) dimension.  The turn away from the stable ancestral good, the good situated in the past in the popular mind and captured by philosophers in the concept of a higher “nature,” can only be a turn towards the good of some as yet undisclosed future.  Christian revelation will situate this ultimate good, a good transcending all human hierarchies, in another world beyond the scope of human action and thus beyond politics.   Exploiting impatience with this otherworldly strategy, modern political philosophy promise a new world to be brought about by very human means, thus translating the horizontal inflection of transcendence into the spirit of “progress.”  The restless and expansive spirit of Rome thus must appear in retrospect as a kind of half-way house; it can be understood either as a transition to Christian Rome or (as we find in Machiavelli and Montesquieu) as a foreshadowing of the modern project of secular human progress.  Or as both. 


Tags: Rome , freedom , virtue , Pierre Manent , Christianity , Modernoity , Transcendence

Libertarian Securitarianism on Campus


Reading Rolling Stone and then Carl about the gang rape at the frat house at the University of Virginia has caused me to wonder whether many or most colleges and universities should get out of the housing business. Many or most residential colleges should stop being, strictly speaking, residential. Students can move to Charlottesville to go to UVA, but they, as free and equal adults, should live unsupervised off campus. The supervision they actually do receive on campus seems to make their lives worse – and even more precarious — than they would be if they lived on their own.

Many of our colleges and universities are officially more permissive than ever when it comes to student behavior. When it comes to sex, anything goes — is not only tolerated by affirmed — as long as it’s safe and consensual. This libertarian policy is about treating students as fully autonomous adults. But with this increasing freedom comes an increasing concern with security. That means that policies that should make student-affairs staffs less intrusive actually make them more so. Yet the intrusiveness is ineffective. It was rather ridiculous when the “womynists” in the underrated film PCU prattled on about phallocentric oppression and “the culture of rape.” Now the worry that young women are less protected from sexual assault on campus than they are in society at large seems more reasonable.

The only sexual behavior, on many campuses (such as UVA), that is a violation of the student code is nonconsensual — sexual assault and rape. Well, those are crimes. Virginia’s board of visitors, in the wake of the present scandal, has proclaimed a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. Well, that’s the policy the law already had. The scary thing is the university had a policy less tough than the one the Commonwealth of Virginia thinks is necessary to effectively protect individual rights.

Surely it’s obvious that crimes should be reported to the police, to the government’s law-enforcement officers who don’t work for the university and only have law and order in mind. Young women are often reluctant to go the police about being assaulted or raped. But it seems to me that many, at least, would be less willing to talk to student-affairs staffs implementing a less-than-zero-tolerance policy for what happened to them.

Our institutions of higher learning, partly at the insistence of the federal government, have tried to handle allegations of sexual assault and rape internally. One result is that the penalties they can impose — suspension or expulsion — hardly fit the crime. Another is various efforts to cover up or minimize incidents in the service of public relations or institutional image. Still another is that young men accused of sexual assault — sometimes falsely or vindictively or with a dearth of real evidence — are expelled without the protections our legal system affords the accused, such as being guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, being able to cross-examine one’s accuser, and the other accepted features of legal due process. So both accused and accuser feel vulnerable to being victimized by what amounts to an insufficiently lawful environment.

It’s sometimes said that the right our autonomy freaks want protected is to engage in safe, consensual sex with strangers while drunk. That actually is a right, after all, but it is a pretty impossible one to enforce. And all the efforts to diagram out the steps of “affirmative consent” in a particular sexual encounter really don’t help out much. It seems to have now occurred to UVA’s board of visitors that there’s a close connection between being very drunk (especially in a place full of people you barely know and certainly have little reason to trust) and nonconsensual sex. It’s occurred to others that there’s a connection between a “hookup” culture and a culture of rape.

It turns out the university has not been enforcing the legal drinking age at fraternities. So freshmen students hop from house to house on fraternity row, searching successfully for cheap liquor that they are forbidden by law to consume. They can’t get served at the bars downtown or buy beer at the corner, and so where else can they go? One solution proposed is to drop the drinking age to 18, breaking the frat monopoly and incentivizing off-campus options for student alcohol consumption. That probably would make campus life somewhat more safe.

The real issue is that the law is not being enforced on campus, making it a less “safe space” for young women than society at large. Only now is the board of visitors open to the possibility of the police sweeping the frat houses and checking IDs. And we can’t help but wonder whether they’re trying to handle a public-relations fiasco or humbling acknowledging their complicity in facilitating a criminal environment.

I rush to add that it’s the extent to which any of our campuses is a culture of rape is often exaggerated — sometimes wildly — for ideological reasons. At UVA, for example, most undergraduates really do live in apartments off campus, the police force of Charlottesville functions well, and life is far from the state of nature. Living on one’s own as an adult is surely better for one’s character, these days, than living on most campuses. Nobody living on his or her own really believes you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as you don’t rape or sexually assault someone.

Carl suggests the transformation of our fraternities into classy establishments that have real dances, encourage a culture of courting, and prepare young men and women for marriage and parenthood and being responsible leaders of their communities. The result would be lifelong friendships based in shared virtues. That kind of reform is way too judgmental and implicitly sexist and allegedly infantilizing to be embraced by our student-affairs staffs. But it would, after all, be about treating students as grownups with real relational responsibilities. It’s because fraternities do, in some cases, facilitate this kind of friendship that I’d be against using the recent scandals as an excuse to shut them down, at least at some places. I immediately think of the student defending the Deltas in Animal House by saying something like not letting a few bad apples spoiling things for everyone. (He also admits that they take liberties with their female party guests at their toga parties, though — a part of the movie that not only feminists should find creepy.) You do have to wonder if even fraternities would be at least not worse if the universities would wash their hands of them and let them function on their own, under the law. (At UVA, I’m told, the fraternities are, under the law, private houses, which frees the university from liability, but they are still are under some umbrella of protection and the university can regulate fraternity activites, as it has done by suspending them in the wake of the scandal.) I’m wondering here; I’m not sure at all.

I  recently visited a religious college in the hills of Virginia that required that students to dress professionally (coats and ties and dresses) for class, had separate dorms for men and women with very limited visitation hours,  and flat-out prohibited sex outside marriage. One student bragged to me they could sneak into some basement to make out — a prospect thrillingly but safely transgressive. How childish all that seems! But really, really safe! And with no criminal behavior that does or should involve the police. The thing that impressed me the most was that the students freely accepted those limitations on their personal behavior as an indispensable condition for pursuing the goods they shared in common. Who can deny that there’s a lot more “adult behavior” on that campus than in some dorm or frat at a more typical college or university? Obviously, I’m not recommending that living arrangement for everyone; I’m just saying they know what they’re doing at that place.

Most private residential colleges — especially those with some genuine attention to character formation — are somewhere between state-of-nature dorms and frats and the college I just described. In most cases, they should give a close look to scuttling the residential part of their mission. At Berry College, the dorms aren’t that libertarian and so they aren’t that securitarian, and there is a serious effort to make campus life about character formation. But even here, I can see why a student would regard life in the dorms as very overrated in terms of “value added” and would prefer the security and responsibility (not to mention savings) of living on one’s own off campus.

It’s pretty obvious to me that anyone starting up a liberal-arts college today wouldn’t choose fraternities or dorms or many other of the amenities (including intercollegiate sports, perhaps) that most campuses are saddled with. I’d choose a small, cheap, safe town where students could live just around the corner from the academic center.

UVA, Hire Dance-Instructors, Not Lawyers


2014 has had many of them, but what a depressing week.  On Ferguson, all I can say is:  a) the controversy should have remained a local one and is a function most of all of corrupt black leadership and its allies in the Legacy Media, and b), even if you disagree with that, you have to admit (to my mind like with Obama’s “Big Amnesty” Constitution violation) that everyone saw the bad outcome that has now occurred–riots–coming from miles away, slowly and surely, and no-one prepared measures adequate to prevent it, nor will anyone who counts now do or say anything that will prevent the next one.  It’s just a matter of time before another “Ferguson” happens, and before a good number of people get killed over one.  

Our leaders stink.  Our media leaders especially.  

The recent report of alleged gang-rapes at UVA shows another instance of long-standing American leadership failure.  On the NRO main-page, the esteemed conservative-leaning UVA sociologist Bradford Wilcox provides the links and a number of recommendations in response.  I’m not expert enough about the legal ramifications to fully judge his first one, which is that colleges shouldn’t take a “neutral” stance towards such cases, and I don’t think his recommendation there is clear enough to fully judge anyhow.  The legal aspects of the whole “campus rape-culture” or “campus hook-up culture” issue are tricky ones, and ones that good people can disagree upon, beginning with the proper definitions of rape and of consent, but extending into a number of other issues.  In general, I’m for erring on the side of due process, and on the side of keeping colleges from setting up parallel justice systems.  But all this gets very difficult in the details–at UVA, for example, one complication is that you already have a parallel student-run Honor system that some think should have a role in some of these cases.

Still, most of what I’ve learned about the newer “Affirmative Consent” laws adopted by some states makes me oppose them as after-the-fact pretexts for lawyerly action that will create as many opportunities for false-accusation abuse as they will deter actual rapes, and which are in many ways ridiculous on their face.  Ditto for the a good deal of the content of the Obama administration’s “guidelines” issued to colleges.

But let’s get away from the damn lawyers.  The most interesting pair of things Wilcox says is seen here:

Administrators must also rein in and redirect the party, so to speak, both in the fraternities and in college dorms. …UVA, and other institutions of higher education, should require proctors at these [fraternity] parties whose job it is to watch out for and step in to stop abusive behavior. They should also provide more non-fraternal social outlets for students looking to have fun so as to reduce the social power of fraternities.

To Wilcox’s credit, he’s able to see that UVA inevitably has a measure of responsibility for the social life, and the sexual morays that shape it, which spreads out from its official educational and degree-granting activity.  Now elsewhere he says he wants UVA to do more to encourage the reporting of rapes, but I think he’d agree with me that if the University is going to do official “advice on sexual morays” stuff, that sure ought to involve more than all this lawyer-talk about how to increase the report and conviction rates.  If there’s going to be mandatory readings of the usual feminist literature, then side-by-side there should be mandatory readings of the best social-conservative literature on courting and sexuality generally.  Perhaps some readings from Wilcox himself, or from Elizabeth Kantor’s The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, or from Leon and Amy Kass’s Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar:  Readings on Courting and Marrying would fit the bill.   No law-talk without ethics-talk.  And no ethics-talk only in the key of modern liberalism.

And as long as we’re open to having our colleges mandate or “nudge” education on such matters, what we should really push is social dancing.  I’m flat-out serious about this recommendation.  Dance instructors are inexpensive, don’t have to be tenured or admitted to the bar, and don’t have to teach a sexual-ethics curriculum that we’d have to get the typical faculty of 90-98% non-conservative members to agree to. They really would provide a habituation that shapes sexual and social inclinations in ways more positive than not, and which could culminate in youth-culture patterns that diminish the hold of the worst Greek houses and the general expectations of hook-ups and binge-drinking.  

The place I really made the case for this idea was in an Postmodern Conservative essay a couple years ago:  “Swingin’ Tips for Youth Group Leaders, Courtesy of Whit Stillman and Jane Austen.”  This post is mainly just a platform for saying that you ought to read that.  Sociologists like Bradford Wilcox can only teach you so much–you also need humanities-guided concern with pop-culture, which in many ways is concern with how we actually train young people to live these days. 

In any case, I salute Wilcox for pushing UVA to do more to shape its social scene.  Good.  But I confess I’m surprised he let his justified outrage take him into making that other recommendation, the one about requiring Greek parties to have proctors present.  A moment’s thought suggests that the real parties, the proctor-less ones, would just go underground.  

And, hey, there’s an exciting new career field:  frat-party proctoring.  “Tired of monitoring the TSA nudie-scan machines?  Become a frat-party proctor! Enjoy bumpin’ music!  Be around beautiful high-status young men and women as they get blasted!  Watch out for ‘abusive behavior’ and be ready to ’step in and stop it,’ both in the main-room and upstairs! Attend training sessions run by feminists and lawyers!  Stay on the cutting-edge of ever-developing Affirmative Consent language!”     

Wilcox is a good guy, but he’s up against the typical college’s resistance to doing anything minimally serious in the way of ethical formation.  So you can see how even he could get pushed back into mandating “awareness” and “monitoring” dictated by lawyers and the most lawyer-ly of feminists.   While such mandated hectoring might cause some (hard-to-document) improvement on the margins, the rapes will continue so long as drinking and hooking-up are the accepted center-points of college social life.  The logic of all this is going lead colleges to either to ban fraternities, or enter more and more into their governance, via measures like Wilcox’s ”proctor” idea.  Both will come into conflict with the spirit and letter of American associational liberty, and likely will be unable to prevent the rise of a shadow system.

Hey, who’s up for another “debate” wherein you are either against all Greeks or all feminists?  Who’s up for some ”outrage expression” that can only issue in a) the writing of more detailed rules, and then b) the hiring of more lawyer-ly administrators?  

Let’s teach the kids the joys of playing with dance steps and Jane Austen sentences instead.  

UPDATE:  I wrote the above without having read more than a summary of the seed Rolling Stone story.  A very dumb move on my part, and I apologize.  The tone of the above would be different, particularly about lawyers. First, UVA’s administration has really screwed up, big-time, to some extent for complicated reasons having to due with Title IX, “best practices” for encouraging reporting, and other factors, but it seems also for low, and long-standing, PR-reasons.  Insofar as lawyerly action can punish them for it, I’m all for lawyers and such.  Second, the rape-culture at UVA is much more real and much worse than I knew.  I taught there a couple of years on a ”pre-doc” fellowship, and while I thus obviously interacted with the under-grads there, I just didn’t have any idea of how bad this problem was.  I knew the drinking culture there was very bad news, but I just wasn’t as tuned to undergrad life as when I later worked at WLU, a school with similar problems.  I am shocked by the Rolling Stone story and certainly hope that one quite that bad couldn’t be written about any other college I’ve worked at.  But who knows?  Secrecy is at the heart of a lot of this.  I do, however, stand by the basic content of this essay and the older one.  When the standard expectation, accepted really by almost everyone, the administrations and faculty included, is that an elementary aspect of the college’s life is socializing centered around hook-ups and getting blasted, no amount of law or lawyers is going to do more than slightly improve the situation.  You have to go after the culture itself.  At a place like UVA, you let the law and the lawyers blast those who deserve it, but in all places, you do not put your faith in lawyer-ly quasi-feminist “awareness.” 





A Philosopher’s Fall


The record of the forays by philosophers into practical politics is less than stellar. Plato made no headway in his efforts to moderate the tyrant Dionysius and put his liberty at risk; Machiavelli was expelled from Florence by the Medici and sent into exile; Richard Rorty visited President Clinton at the White House and (according to Benjamin Barber) ineffectually “held forth as if he were addressing a graduate seminar in political theory.” He was compelled to return to Charlottesville. And the list of philosophic failures could go on and on.

All this must have been in the back of President Obama’s mind when he summarily dismissed Charles Hagel, the well-known thinker of German origin. True, Hagel had not displayed all of his brilliance at the time of his confirmation hearing. But it was already well known at the time that Hagel’s lectures and speeches could sometimes be notoriously difficult to follow. Famous for his dialectical perspective on reality, Hagel nevertheless proved unable to overcome or sublate (aufheben) Obama’s conflicting demands to be known as the President who ended all wars and the President who by kinetic action succeeded in degrading and destroying ISIL. In Hagel’s defense, as Peter Spiliakos has pointed out, he was perhaps being asked to reconcile the irreconcilable. Chalk it up as a Dialectic too far.

Never mind. In the end, in the master counselor conflict, it is the counselor who must yield. Hagel will no doubt now return to his native Nebraska to contemplate these and other matters of greater moment. Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug. (The owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall.)

On Chuck Hagel


Given my low initial expectations, Hagel was, on the whole, a pleasant surprise. He produced no public embarrassments (to the extent he publicly differed from Obama, he was in the right). I’ve never seen any evidence that Hagel pushed Obama into any mistakes that Obama might have otherwise been inclined to avoid. Obama is worse than his not-very-good second term senior foreign and defense policy team and has less reason to fear public opinion than in his first term.

This would seem like a good time for another reminder to avoid despair. Some blues would be OK.   

The Case for Rage and Despair


 One of our most witty and savvy threaders, Dave in Georgia, gently criticizes my last message to you by observing that nobody actually comes out for rage and despair.

Well, good point, to a point. We “public intellectuals” have to work hard to keep from patting ourselves on the back for “courageously” taking stands that nobody in his or her right mind would disagree with. Like coming out against slavery or racism or for truth or love or beauty. Not so long ago it would have been courageous for a professor in the South to come out for same-sex marriage. But, of course, not now. To say something courageous in public — in class, on TV, on a blog someone actually reads — would be knowing that you’re going to provoke scary rage from your audience by genuinely taking your readers or listeners outside their complacent comfort zones.

No, I’m not going to say something that outrageous right now. After all, as I explained before, we live in very touchy times, because all that rage is bottled up just beneath the surface.

But there is quite a respectable — if not uncontroversial — case for rage given by that great poet Dylan Thomas: ”Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I was reminded of that poem by hearing those words more than once in Interstellar. There, from one point of view, rage is an evolutionary survival mechanism that causes each of us to rebel against our natural destiny.

One point the movie makes is that our species properly uses technology to rebel against nature’s randomly but relentlessly aiming at both personal and species extinction. The problem, of course, is that rage, as the poet describes it, is only existential or personal. My bleepin’ light is dying! That’s the real issue here.

That personal rage, Peter Thiel explains, provokes us to transform nature into a secure environment for me. It’s  the rage that’s at the foundation of the modern progress toward rational control. And so far it seems to be working for us, he wants us to believe. And it will continue to work if we focus our hope on a definite techno-plan.

Is it really possible to transform the personal concern of self-conscious animals into rage to save the species? Even the movie suggests maybe not. The species is saved, so to speak, by intimate love. Love is reserved for those you really know, beginning with your kids. The movie, of course, is more relational than Thielism. It pushes the indispensability of ”belonging,” which is more in accord with what Mr. Darwin actually says than excessively privileging autonomy or self-sufficiency.

Raging at the dying of the species is not impossible, but it will never become common. That’s why the insight that the point of science is to save the species — not particular persons around right now — has to remain secret or esoteric in the movie. From a certain view, the film’s concluding baloney about saving particular persons (who end up dying later anyway) is a romantic fantasy that allows people to leave the theater without absorbing for themselves the secret insight.

Why does the scientist care about the species?  Well, Carl Sagan (who lurks in the text and subtext of Interstellar) explains why.  Science has discredited every other form of human devotion, as well as the very idea of personal significance.  And the only way to avoid nihilism–the only way to know what to do–is to affirm the indefinite perpetuation of our species as a sacred cause.  That means, for one thing, not going down with the planet.

From the poet’s (and the Thielist’s — but not the scientist’s) view, it’s perfectly human to rage against the dying of one’s own light. It’s noble to fight against personal extinction, against total and permanent darkness. And there’s something inhuman in surrendering that spirit of resistance by being gentled by “philosophy is learning how to die” or the hopelessly incoherent hope in salvation by a God so personal that he’s about keeping the light on for me.

The poet’s admonition is not, of course, just for himself, but for us all.  Thomas’s poem is addressed to his father, and it’s about living in the invincible personal truth until it is swallowed up by the invincible darknesss of nature.  Poetry is both more relational and more realistic than technology, and the truth it defends is often or even usually unrealistically denied by science.

There may not be a case for despair, which is, after all, very whiny. But there is a case for living without hope, which the Epicureans across the ages give. More on that soon.

Does this view of rage contradict the one I expressed before?  Not at all, insofar I haven’t yet been outrageous enough to point out my view.

Against Rage and Despair


So I just finished reading the most recent contributions to Postmodern Conservative. The quality is high, and the depth and breadth of insight is real. And I wish I could say something to show I’m anywhere near their pay grade when it comes to classical or contemporary events.

I agree with Pete that the Republicans in Congress and the president should both avoid rage and despair. That’s good advice in almost every situation. It is, of course, typically Tocquevillian advice. 

To tell the truth, however, when I read the words “rage” and “despair,” I mainly remembered some stuff the theologian Stanley Hauerwas said at dinner when he was at Berry College last week. He said some relatively discouraging things about the future of both the (orthodox and Christian) church and liberal education. Someone asked Stanley: Do you despair? His Christian response: Despair is a sin, a vice. And, someone could add, to be hopeless is to blind to the most fundamental truth.

But without bringing who God is and what God does into the picture, the reasonable short-term institutional hope is that both the church and liberal education will become, as Stanley said, “leaner and meaner.” The truth, a truth that might start becoming more clear again, is that we can’t live well without both of them.

The truth is, as I say too often, that, just beneath the surface of our happy-talk pragmatism, it’s easy to hear, as Solzhenitsyn did, the howl of existentialism. And that our howling is a kind of rage that causes us not to be able succumb gently to the fatalism of despair, even in the Epicurean form of “serenity now.” Maybe the big, most unacknowledged threat to liberal education is its deformation through oscillation between the extremes of rage (over-the-top anger) and despair (or theoretical cynicism untouched by joy).

The technical response is let’s get our minds on what we can do, even if we can’t touch — much less change — anything fundamental. The busy, productive person has no time for rage or despair, and even in his free time he sensibly diverts himself from those counterproductive moods. With screens everywhere, nobody any longer ever has to fear being alone with himself again. As Tyler Cowen happily predicts, the future, for hyper-productive men and women, will mostly be about losing ourselves in challenging games (such as chess or fleshing out theories about everything). For marginally productive people, they’ll be less-challenging games and porn. If the screens were really enough, however, it would not be the case that so many of our mega-technophiles believe they can effectively “rage against the machine” (that is, their hopelessly ephemeral bodies) by working on behalf of the foolish hope of  the (transhumanist) coming of the Singularity. 

As Peter Thiel points out, it’s the existentialist insight about the irreducibility of one’s own singularity — one’s conscious refusal to be nothing, or a “zero” — that causes one to techno-rage against the nature that’s all about random and inevitable personal extinction and to reject hopeless fatalism when it comes to one’s own biological demise.

Someone asked Stanley whether, given the huge technical challenges facing higher education today, the joyful sharing of the truth about who we are as more than technical beings should be given over completely to the church. His response was that the job belongs both to our colleges and to our churches. Surely, after all, their future is somewhat interdependent. And it couldn’t really be the case that higher educators have nothing to say to students about who they are and what they’re supposed to do, that it can deny or abstract from the insistently personal “truth claims” of philosophy, theology, poetry, and so forth. 

In any case, here is Stanley’s idea for the foundation of liberal education: All freshmen should read Plato’s Republic, and then all seniors should read it again. I said that was obviously the correct way to go, but the problem is convincing college presidents (with Berry’s president sitting right next to our guest). Our president responded, cleverly and with sincerity, that he would have no objection to that, but the problem is that the faculty would never recommend it. He didn’t say the buck stops with him.

So the problems might be that too few (among both the administrators and the faculty) are thinking “holistically” — or not technically — about the formation of relational persons. Still, the theory of liberal education is that the college has, in some fundamental sense, that very mission. And that mission is only accidentally connected to the acquisition of seemingly (but far from really) precise competencies such as critical thinking and analytical reasoning, which are allegedly so prized in the competitive marketplace. That is not the only mission of higher education, of course, but surely it is the one that all students should share in common. Not everyone is going to be a philosopher or physicist or doctor or teacher or lawyer or journalist or accountant or preacher or president, but all of us still share certain privileges and responsibilities given to each member of our singular species.

On the other hand, if you want a handbook on the skill or competency of “collaborative learning,” literally nothing ever written beats one of Plato’s dialogues. Apart from its relevance to “team-building” in the marketplace, there might be no more intrinsically valuable skill for “lifelong learning” than being able to have a leisurely conversation that goes beyond networking and in the direction of enduring and endlessly enjoyable friendship based on the shared discovery of common goods. It goes without saying that any such real conversation is risky business that takes each participant way out of his or her “comfort zone.” One danger is that it can even ruin very capable young people for being satisfied with being productive members of a free society. Another is that it’s challenged, especially early on, by the possibility of devolving violently into inarticulate rage or passively into self-indulgent fatalism.    

Stanley actually said he was an Aristotelian. And that the most important ethical teaching of Aristotle is about friendship. Friendship is even higher than justice. For Christians, our relationship to God is much more friendly than judgmental, although, like any true friend, he is both. Aristotle said that God or the gods are too distant from us to be our friends, but that’s not what the Christians believe.

Rage and despair, studies show, are often characteristics of people who are too wounded to trust their friends as much as they should. It’s possible to have friendships rooted in shared rage or shared despair (the friendships many Republicans and Democrats seem to have with like-minded members of their own party), but they’re obviously inferior to those rooted in shared loves.

 In order to avoid a specifically Christian conclusion, let’s not forget that Aristotle’s view of friendship (a view that includes the friendship between husband and wife, contrary to some famous classical prejudices) has nothing to do with belief in some personal god.  He, in some large measure, turns our eyes away from “the city” and the gods and toward the shared pleasures and responsibilities of at least relatively intimate personal life. Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s apparent effort to reduce friendship to merely civic friendship is his way of showing us that liberal education is about a lot more than civic literacy and civic deliberation, although it’s always about civilization. A society fit for real people leaves a lot of “safe space” for friendship, which means it educates people to be virtuous enough to be able to see and act upon the good in themselves and others.

Book Notes, James Ceaser Edition


Incidentally, Levin’s talk of our Jim Ceaser, and the man’s own funny post below reminds me, since Christmas and Hanukah approach, you need start your strategic books-I-want hint-dropping with friends and family, and a lot of you new to Postmodern Conservative might want to angle for books from our best writers, such as Jim.  There are several books by him that really are classic for understanding America’s constitutional republic.  I’ll first give you the one that’s been more on my mind recently, Nature and History in American Political Development.  In a 90-page essay he gives you one of the quickest explorations of how Straussian thought applies to understanding America.  Perhaps I shouldn’t begin this with Strauss, as no previous knowledge of him is needed to understand what the book lays out, and Strauss is only very briefly discussed.  Figures like John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, the Progressives, and Richard Rorty, are the ones more prominently discussed.  His exploration of how liberal thinkers of the last seventy years have abandoned recourse to what he calls foundational principles is not to be missed.  If some conservative parents were to ask for a single book recommendation for their smart son or daughter frustrated by the typical college treatment of America, this might well be the one that comes to mind first.  Reading it alongside Michael Zuckert’s The Natural Rights Republic is another thing I would recommend.

Another must-read is Political Science and Liberal Democracy.  This is a wider-ranging feast.  Classic explanations for why we have to understand America’s regime by way of compound-terms, for how to read the Federalist on morals, for how to read Tocqueville, for how to compare the classic approach to political science exemplified by Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville with the empiricist sort the rules the roost today, and for why Robert Dahl’s socialistic understanding of democracy is so preposterous.  You’ll see how it all holds together.  

Yuval Levin on the OLC, and the Appearance of Constitutional Corruption


So far, the best analysis of the half-hearted Democratic defense of the constitutionality of President Obama’s Big Amnesty executive order comes unsurprisingly, from Yuval Levin.  Obama himself ducked the issue in his speech, never letting the word “Constitution” pass his lips; he left all discussion of constitutionality to his Office of Legal Counsel(OLC), which issued a 30-page defense the day of the order.  Levin provides a link to that, and and he gives you a summary of its argument.   He shows you that from a certain perspective, it has a strained plausibility.  But the best thing he does is remind us, by quoting our Jim Ceaser, that the Constitution cannot simply be read as legalistic document, but must be also read as defending a certain structure and tone to government.  I won’t try to improve upon Levin’s words and those he quotes from Ceaser, so go RTWT.

Most of the sentences in Levin’s piece correctly suggest that the order is obviously unconstitutional.  The furthest he goes towards admitting that “if we strain our eyes very hard” the OLC report might be technically correct, is here:

If the Constitution is merely a technical legal document, it might (perhaps) be possible to defend this action as somehow within the bounds of the president’s enforcement discretion. But because the constitution creates a political order—a structure for the political life of an actual society—it is very difficult to sustain such a defense in the real world. 

This connects with a point I made below that I want to amplify here.  Obama knew the case for this is strained.  He knew that up against the elementary understanding of the Constitution that emphasizes the Separation of Powers, i.e., up against the “real world” of Americans’ basic understanding of their Constitution, this would be seen by most of them as a brazen violation, and as a frontal denial of its classic understanding.  But he didn’t and doesn’t care about that.  

Posit, if you will, that he cares about the technical legality of what he has done.  I don’t think he does:  in my judgment his previous “promise” to progressives generally, and to Latino organizations specifically, that he would “resolve this,” matters twenty times more to him than the legality. But again, just posit that he does care.  Posit that he is sincere about this being just within the constitutional bounds.  That does nothing to change the fact that he clearly does not care about the appearance of constitutional corruption here.

A basic doctrine of our campaign-finance laws is that, with respect to our fear that big contributors are “buying votes” or  otherwise controlling our representatives, the appearance of such corruption matters as much as its actually happening.  Now, perhaps you think that principle has no place in interpreting the mandate for free speech in the First Amendment, or perhaps you feel, as the majority did in Citizens United, that it has to be balanced with other principles, but in and of itself, as a principle about how a citizenry should feel about its elections, it makes a lot of sense.  If you at least agree with that, would not a sister principle, about how a citizenry should feel about its Constitution, also apply?

What Obama has just done, and worse, what most of our Democrat Leaders have chosen to defend, has given many American the impression that their Constitution is no longer the real law of the land.  Even the principle central to its structure, the Separation of Powers, now appears to be up for grabs. Every liberal is obliged to admit that the technical arguments about prosecutorial discretion endorsed by some liberal legal scholars, or the strained comparisons with far smaller Congress-supported distantly similar actions by Reagan and Clinton, do nothing to change the basic impression most Americans will take.   Why liberals think the grievous wrong of making so many Americans feel that in truth the Constitution no longer applies is somehow outweighed by helping Latinos and allowing Obama to keep a promise he never should have made, is a mystery to me. 

Apparently, allowing things that give their fellow citizens the impression that our constitutional democracy is in fact run by plutocrats is terrible, but allowing ones that give them impression that it is in fact no longer bound by the Separation of Powers, is fine and dandy.  Felix Frankfurter would not be impressed.


How many such Days of Infamy like November 20, 2014, how many such liberal-endorsed disheartenings of their fellow citizens’ faith in the very basis of our society’s union, can our republic take?  Well, while I meantime call upon my brothers and sisters to repent of their hatefully cavalier treatment of things I and so many Americans hold dear, the truth is no-one will know until it becomes one too many.  


The Real Debates


In the short-term, conservatives can’t do much about Obama’s amnesty. But we shouldn’t give in to either rage or despair. Conservatives will have a chance to make major changes to immigration and health care policy. We don’t know when those chances will come. It could be two years. It could be six or ten. But it is going to happen.

They key is to be ready for those chances whose timing and form we cannot predict. That means having some kind of positive agenda that can command sufficient support to be enacted. For us regular, old conservatives, we can try to create a political market that encourages center-right politicians to offer something better than pro wrestling-type fake anger or establishment complacence.

A candidate who spends most of their time on health talking about how much they hate Obamacare, and want to repeal Obamacare, and how they will spend their first day signing executive orders repealing Obamacare, is wasting your time and playing you for a sucker. Being serious about getting rid Obamacare means having taken the time to understand and invest in explaining the replacement for Obamacare.

Same thing with immigration policy. A candidate that tries to get by with talk of “sealing the border” thinks you are too stupid to know how much of our illegal immigration problem is caused by overstaying of visas and the lack of internal employment enforcement. They are probably trying to avoid immigration that might be unpleasant to the Republican lobbyist classes. Don’t let them Gruber you.

Just something to think about as the 2016 presidential election cycle begins.  

A Wikipedia Entry for “Gruberism”


“Gruberism” is the eponymous doctrine first enunciated by MIT economics Professor Jonathan Gruber (1965–) that holds that the mass of people in advanced democratic societies are functionally incapable of ascertaining their own interest, and that the public good is accordingly best achieved by a process in which a credentialed elite devises the best policies and then seeks to achieve public support for them by deception and lies. Since the accepted standard of legitimacy in modern democracy rests on the view that major decisions should be undertaken in conjunction with open debate (see “public reason” and “Jürgen Habermas”), Gruberism has been seen as challenging that system’s foundation by its political counsel to deploy a “lack of transparency” while apparently publicly professing the opposite.

Claims of the originality of Gruberism have been disputed. Some trace its roots back to the classical idea of the noble lie, originally presented by Plato in his Republic, under which the many are governed by myths fashioned for them by the philosophic few, who alone are capable of seeing the truth. While similarities between Platonism and Gruberism cannot be dismissed, the main purpose of the former was to protect the philosophic enterprise, whereas the latter aims at assisting the many by a grubristic ambition to transform of society.

Others see in Gruberism little more than a version of sophistry that offers to supply to aspiring politicians the techniques by which they can achieve power and build for themselves an enduring legacy. Sophistry in our day will necessarily combine the technical expertise for devising elaborate social policies and the knowledge of how to persuade people to adopt them. Gruberism uniquely offers instruction in both of these sciences. As with the first sophists, the rewards for the teacher or consultant are prestige, especially with one’s academic peers, and wealth, to be achieved without openly appearing as a money-gruber.

The most recent interpretations of Gruberism adopt a slightly different approach and set the challenge of persuasion in the context of late progressivism. The original progressive project at the beginning of the twentieth century envisaged a relationship between social science experts and the public that was fully compatible with genuine democracy. Experts would be empowered to engage in social planning, enjoying a vast playground for practicing their skills, but only under the direction of a leader chosen for his ability to win over the public by high-minded argument and upright inspiration. Governing would take place without ruse or deception. While retaining the same vast goals of original progressivism, Gruberism has broken with it by insisting that there is an unbridgeable gap between its means and its ends. Progressivism can triumph only by a form of enlightened despotism that governs by means of rhetorical fraud. This understanding represents the effective truth of contemporary progressivism.

There is a final interpretation of the meaning of Gruberism that ignores the official doctrine and focuses instead on the events surrounding its presentation. By this account the essence of Gruberism is associated with the foolishness of its originator, Jonathan Gruber. If Gruberism was to make the inroads that Grubber hoped for, its teachings should only have been revealed in secret. Yet whether from ignorance of the first lessons of politics or from the vanity of soliciting adulation from academic audiences, Gruber publicly spelled out every aspect of the doctrine. The inevitable result was that all of the followers of the doctrine, including the Gruber in chief, were compelled to disown it.

He Did It


Alas.  The sin is committed.  

Had it been a speech urging the passage of a law, everyone would have to admit it was a very good one, at least by the attention-deficit standards of our day.  No, he didn’t mention any of the reasons opponents of the earlier bills had for opposing them, such as inadequate border controls, scant provision for employer sanctions, little reason to think enforcement of it wouldn’t be watered down to near-absence, and yes, his entire “deportation” scenario poses a false choice that very few conservatives are for.  But you have to give him this:  anyone unfamiliar with the policy p’s and q’s would have left the speech feeling that Obama is on the side of justice. 

But it was not a speech asking us or our representatives, to deliberate, and then to vote.  No, at the heart of this speech-act was an order.  We had no say in it.

What else was missing besides our say?  He spoke many times of “immigration” and “immigrants.”  He quoted the Bible.  But not once did he say the word “Constitution.” 

It is hard to know whether to again lament his refusal to speak to us in a manner that assumes we are adults at least slightly interested in constitutional matters, or to thank him for not pretending to revere that which he was in the process of desecrating.  

The following sentence, uttered by Abraham Lincoln in his “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” speech, was not one Barack Obama could have said to us tonight without mutual embarrassment:

As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;—let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.

In case you’re coming to this late, Obama’s order is unconstitutional.  The latest defenses of it, some of which have to do with previous orders done by Reagan and Clinton, were demolished recently on the NRO main page by Mark Krikorian and Andrew McCarthy.  Indeed, as an ABC reporter helped underline this week, Obama knows it

At the very least he knows this:  trying to lay out the legal rationale he himself had not thought possible a year ago to the American public would be a stretch of the first order.  That is, even if he really believes the rationale Holder’s guys have cooked up for him, he knows it is counterintuitive and pushes plausible interpretation to the limit.  He has known all along he could never get even 45% of America to believe that this is constitutional.   His concern, then, for what we might call the “appearance of corruption” in matters constitutional?  For a massive divide in public opinion, about the fundamental legality of a major policy?  He has none. 

I hope in a separate post to explain how conservatives should strategically assess the situation, including consideration of what this tells us about what Obama remains capable of, and of how they should restrain their tendency to speak of Obama’s action in hyperbolic terms, such as “post-constitutional regime,” “Late Roman Republic,” “dictator,” etc.  Heart-felt denunciations are one thing, and certainly are merited, but analysis of the gravity of the situation is another. 

This post will linger more in the first mode, weighing the emotional, psychological, and politics-of-the-heart ramifications.  Coldly analyzed, Obama is not a Caesar, a Cataline, nor a Benedict Arnold, and much of the constitutional architecture of our republic remains solidly in place.  But nonetheless, words like treason, profanation, wound, hubris, tyrannical, fratricide, and madness are entirely appropriate for the metaphorical and emotional mode of human speech that inevitably comes into play upon such an event. 

We will read in the days and weeks to come, plenty of hyperbolic fulminating from conservatives.  Calls for impeachment, and perhaps for a national strike or protest–both of which I will be likely to support, incidentally–will be heard.  For the liberal, and for certain centrists, it will be easy to mock a good deal of this, to dismiss it as some melt-down of the conservative mind. 

To them I say the following:  what won’t be so easy to dismiss is the lasting sense of hurt, betrayal, and despair this will implant in so many of your fellow citizens’ hearts.  To them, November 20, 2014 will go down as a Day of Infamy, and like it or not, you may be hearing about it for a long time.  Why?

First, there is the simple issue of democratic say.  Who were those representatives who did not agree to any of the earlier immigration bills?  They were standing for the opinion and judgment of your fellow citizens.  The rules for the game were set.  And year after year, immigration reform came up for debate, and for complex reasons, which you can say were bad ones or good, the desired bill never made it through.  Such is democracy.  But now your fellow citizens are told the rules are not set.  They are told to accept your victories when you win by the rules, but that you don’t always have to accept their victories when they so win. 

Second, there is the closely related issue of polarization.  What could polarize us more?  Now, we conservatives will be having our internal debates about how to fight Obama’s order, or at least, to retaliate.  It is far beyond the personal offense–we feel bound by our loyalty to the Constitution to do so.  The options?  Selective defunding.  Blanket defunding. Blocking of nominations.  Impeachment.  Retaliation with one similar order by the next Republican president.  Likely, the more vigorous ones won’t be chosen by the Republican leadership.  But what will the base do, and particularly if they feel all regular channels of political recourse have been closed to them?  Will they try to hold big protests?  (I hope so.) Will they advocate some kind of mass law-breaking?   (I hope not.)  What sort of activists might be brought forward on the coming waves of passion?  We don’t know.  So every sincere lamenter of polarization cannot but wince at what Obama did tonight.

Third, there’s the issue of limitless expansion of executive power.  If you read one my earlier posts on this, such as “Scary Stuff,” you’ll see what I mean.  Ask yourself, if this action is constitutional by the new theory, is there any part of our immigration law that it would be unconstitutional for Obama, or the next president, to suspend or alter?  Any part of the health-care law?  Any law whatsoever?  Are we sliding towards letting the Separation of Powers go?  Or at least, into a situation where no future president should accept that anyone besides his staff knows where the line really is?   

Fourth, there’s the broader ramifications of a president overtly defying the Constitution, and with one of the major parties complicit.  Everyone is learning the lesson:  if you can violate the law from a position of power, it is okay.  What you can get away with, i.e., that which your opponents cannot check without the risk of political set-backs or without getting entangled in endless complications, is what is actually legal and constitutional.  Power’s duty to the cause, or simply to oneself, drives one to get away with as much as one can.  So the constitutional damage here isn’t simply that if Obama gets away with this, he will likely issue other such unconstitutional orders, and that the next president will try to do the same and so on and so on.  We also have to worry about the example the courts will take from this, the example Congress will take from this, the states, the municipalities, the sheriffs, etc.  Unlawful executive supremacy may be the immediate threat, but the wider one is of a general lawlessness.

Finally, there’s the desecration.  I leave it to you–what images does that word draw up in your mind?  Well, that is how many conservatives feel about this, and for us, no well-delivered 14-minute speech pulls any sort of veil over the appalling sight.  

Well, that’s where we are.  I hope everyone can understand why some dramatic language is going to get employed.  It’s no ordinary moment in our history.  Perhaps good can come from it.  Perhaps real moderates can begin to face the fundamental problems with Barack Obama’s manner of leadership, and its close relation to longstanding patterns of Democratic Party behavior that have got to be changed if we are going to make it as a nation.  It’s a moment for everyone to take stock.  And for those who can, to pray.

Try Reaching The People Who (Sorta) Agree With You


Have you ever seen birds flying in what looked like a disorganized flying mob, and then the birds all simultaneously and perfectly changed direction in formation. It seemed as if the birds were all controlled by the same mind. It seems to me that much of the conversation regarding the political right making gains among African Americans seems to based on the assumption that the African American voters are all part of a hive mind rather than individuals within a community.

This assumption mars the Elbert Guillory ads. Take the part where he says “you scrounge together food stamps to buy Kool-Aid.” Or take the part where he talks about liberals being “our new overseers” on a “plantation”.

It is too bad because those ads have the occasionally powerful moment like the part where he says:

But who among us have they [the Democrats] saved?

It is a good question, but treating the intended audience as a collection of racial stereotypes gets in the way, and so does the absurdly overheated rhetoric. The bad elements in the ads seem designed to win over no persuadable African Americans in particular.

There is a spectrum of opinion among those who identify as African American. From public opinion polls, about 30 percent of African Americans have moderately conservative opinions on economic and social policy. Between five percent and ten percent of African Americans vote Republican in federal elections.

These kinds of discontinuities between ideology and partisan voting behavior are not new in American politics. In the past, you saw similar voting patterns with urban working-class whites and white Southerners. Republicans did not win every urban working-class white. Some of those urban working-class whites were liberal in their policy preferences. But Republicans did manage to convince many right-leaning working-class whites that that the GOP was not their natural enemy.

This was not an easy process. For one thing, many of these right-leaning white voters were not conservatives in the same way that the right-wing of the Republican party was conservative. You could not appeal to them by attacking the New Deal as the beginning of the end of American freedom. Conservatives had to craft a version of the right that could appeal to partisans of Silent Cal while not insulting voters who thought highly of FDR (which didn’t mean that they were all about wage and price controls). Finding that policy and rhetorical common ground was a halting and frustrating process – as you can learn from reading National Review writers like James Burnham and William Rusher in the 1970s.

In the medium-term, aligning African American voting patterns with the expressed policy preferences of African Americans should be the goal. One can hope to make converts to conservative policy preferences, but let’s learn to walk before we run.

There are several things to keep in mind. The first is that many of those African Americans who express conservative policy preferences are probably moderately conservative as to both economic and social policy. Picture a white tea partier, an establishment Republican and a moderately conservative African American. They are probably going to have three different ideas of what a relatively smaller government is going to look like – as well as different priorities. You can probably craft a politics where those three people have more in common with each other than with the median Democratic member of the House of Representatives, but it will take more than rewording a Chamber of Commerce wish list or repeating rhetorical tropes about freedom and the Constitution. It should also go without saying that these three people might have different ideas about the progress of freedom in American history – once again, not a new problem for the center-right.

It isn’t impossible. Republican governors have gotten 20 percent or more of the African American vote in their reelection campaigns. That included a conservative reformist like Mitch Daniels (who got 20 percent of the African American vote while running in a toxic environment for Republicans). But it isn’t going to just happen.     

On Obama’s Amnesty, Work Permits, Etc.


I got nothing. That doesn’t mean I think conservatives should do nothing. It is just that I have zero ideas of my own. Ramesh Ponnuru, Peter Kirsanow, and Sean Trende have some ideas.

I do think that it is time for some quiet conversations within the Republican congressional membership that, given the erosion of norms regarding use of executive authority and the privileges of the legislative minority (regarding the filibuster), it is better to jump out two steps ahead whenever you have the chance, rather than forever staying one step behind. Just a thought for the next time the GOP has the presidency and control (however narrowly) of both houses of Congress.

Traditionalists and Libertarians


I still have quite an impressive cold. But life goes on. The next stop on my fall tour is next Friday morning at the University of Virginia, with our own Jim Ceaser.

I’m giving two talks. One, as part of a class on the American political tradition, is during the week on conservatism. I’m speaking as a conservative. The reading for the week is from Russell Kirk and Milton Friedman.

The next is as part of a class on political economy. I’m speaking on Southern agrarianism or anti-industrialism. The reading is from the poets John Crowe Ransom and Wendell Berry. Well, Berry doesn’t write in a specifically Southern voice, and he is from a border state. I don’t think I’m supposed to speak as an agrarian, but maybe as a Southerner. Ransom actually calls himself a conservative, as opposed to a (techno-) progressive. Berry doesn’t do that, I would guess, because in our time conservatism is too readily identified with industrial oligarchs.

Mr. Ceaser, in his classic article about the many hearts functioning under the one head that is American conservatism (and that has to be one big, giant head), says that traditionalists (Kirk) and libertarians (Friedman) both should be called conservatives because they opposed collectivism, or progressivism defined as bigger and better government facilitating a great national community.

Well, that’s true, although that alliance was easier to hold together when the enemy was the radical collectivism called Communism. It’s possible to argue that nobody is a collectivist in the strong sense anymore, just as nobody is a progressivist in the confident FDR sense anymore.

We can also say that that Kirk and Friedman emphasized the indispensable place of personal property in securing liberty. So they weren’t only opposed to the cruel and monstrous tyrannies of the Soviet Union and China. They were (unlike Plato?) deeply theoretical anti-Communists. For Kirk, the bottom line is the dignity of the human person (which is why he understood himself as a theoretical Catholic); for Friedman, it’s the individual freedom to choose in every respect how to cooperate with other individuals.

The difference between individual and person was a big deal for Kirk. Although he knew he was in many respects allied with libertarians, he made a point of having some contempt for them. They were, he claimed, sectarians typically deformed by “relational issues” that caused them not to be able to think clearly about who they are or should be as parents, children, creatures, friends, and (for him last and least, perhaps) citizens.

It is true that when libertarians say “collectivist” they often mean being a sucker by thinking of oneself as part of a whole greater than oneself. From that view, “citizens” are either in the thrall of collectivist illusions that turn them into country fodder or cynical rent-seekers demanding preferential treatment over non-citizens.

And a libertarian has trouble distinguishing between a citizen and a statist and between a country or nation and a state. So, as I’ve said before, libertarian economists will often admit, after a couple of drinks, that this world would be a better place if we tore down all the political walls as nothing but arbitrary constructs and allowed voluntarily cooperating individuals to interact freely or contractually in the global marketplace.

For Kirk, a person becomes who she is within the relational confines of a particular culture and tradition, the foundation of which is somewhat mysterious or religious. Ordered liberty can’t be achieved mainly through calculation but mostly relies on shared customs, common religious observances, and habitual affection.

For a libertarian (say, Tyler Cowen), a free individual uses the money earned through his her productivity to consume the products of particular cultures without actually being immersed in or enslaved by any particular culture. The free or cosmopolitan individual orbits the world of cultures — achieving multicultural diversity.

Actually, Kirk and Friedman both agree that a key goal is to minimize the place of political coercion in life. Kirk’s vision is the small community where people are clear on both their rights and their duties and know their places. Friedman’s is through deploying all means necessary to replace coercion with contract, which is why is he for legalizing drugs, same-sex marriage, school choice and then the abolition of public education altogether, an all-volunteer army, and so forth. It’s telling how many of Friedman’s ideas that were regarded as hopelessly radical at the time he expressed them now seem reasonable or even mainstream. America is drifting in an individualistic or libertarian direction. It is, as I’ve explained before, a kind of libertarian securitarianism — a somewhat oxymoronic combo that reaches its extreme form in tranhumanism (especially in the singular form of Thielism).

Kirk’s concerns about natural and social ecology, “localism,” and excessive dependence on technology have gained traction, but mostly not very effectively. There are countercultural pockets of crunchy, traditionalist conservatism. And Kirk, given his own inability to hold a job, wouldn’t regard being effectual as a vice. He was a “bohemian Tory,” which is a lot more authentic than “bourgeois bohemian.” It’s also a lot more self-indulgent, some bourgeois fella might say.

Kirk and Friedman, opposed as they were to state coercion, agreed in their opposition to American imperialism, or the garrison state. So we see a mixture of traditionalist and libertarian isolationism on the pages of The American Conservative today.

We can say that Kirk and Berry aren’t very Southern in their lack of admiration of or at least interest in the American “citizen soldier” — and in their tone deafness to country music.

The radical difference between Kirk (and, of course Berry and Ransom) is over technology.  Kirk isn’t as “reactionary” or agrarian as Berry or Ransom, but he insists that economic choices be humane or attentive to properly human scale and to conserving the unbought goodness of leisurely, neighborly, natural, worshiping life. Berry refused to move beyond the pre-electric typewriter. And Kirk didn’t learn to drive the “mechanical Jacobin,” or automobile.

So the least we conservatives must learn from those traditionalists is to work hard to keep all education from being reduced to technical competencies and to preserve leisurely pursuits as humanly worthy educational activities.

When libertarians talk about techno-progress today, they begin first with the medical technology that benefits us all. Then they turn to the screen, which shows all the same wonderful stuff to billionaires and welfare recipients alike. Traditionalists begin by wondering what the virtual reality that is that screen does to divert us from the unbought goodness that is personal or relational life.

On the Founders: Kirk understands our written Constitution to be dependent on a providential constitution or our polymorphous inheritance of traditions of liberty. So he does what he can to minimize the contribution of the innovating and philosophizing Mr. Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence, from this view, has to be understood as a way of sucking up to those atheistic and “enlightened” intellectuals who dominated our potential ally France.

The libertarians (this is clear in both Hayek and Ayn Rand), by contrast,  understand that the Founders, being “classical liberals,” are important resources for advancing the cause of individual liberation. So libertarian “originalism” is very theoretical, with a big role for the Court in enforcing libertarian theory against a recalcitrant democracy.

So someone might say that the traditionalists and the libertarians both distort our constitutional foundation for their own purposes. Not, maybe, that there’s anything wrong with that. They both, after all, have their hands on part of the truth.


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