Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Jeb Bush and the View from the Chamber of Commerce


This Marc Ambinder column on Jeb Bush strikes me as basically correct. Bush isn’t a moderate Republican. He is a candidate of the business lobby consensus (a consensus he seem to entirely believe in). I have a few things to add:

1. Ambinder is a little harsh on the Tea Party populist conservatives. Tea-partiers aren’t against governing. They don’t trust the Washington political elites and they are frustrated. Rank-and-file Tea Partiers lack a clear and plausible alternative governing agenda, but that is because they are normal human beings and that is not how normal people relate to politics. They can be won over by a positive agenda that speaks to their values and priorities. To the extent there is not a realistic Tea Party agenda, it is an indictment of the various pols (some of them outright charlatans) who have sought the support of Tea Partiers.

2. Ambinder argues that Bush needs a middle-class agenda. Part of his column could have been written by Yuval Levin or Reihan Salam. But what if Bush actually believes that the Chamber of Commerce agenda is the middle-class agenda that people need? My sense is that the GOP K Street complex has been getting more confident and more insular lately.

3. The key for Bush is to become the consensus establishment candidate by Iowa at the latest. Bush could probably beat Ted Cruz and Rand Paul (and various other right-populist characters) if it is Bush against a bunch of candidates bidding for the support of the Tea Party. As Ramesh Ponnuru wrote, the nightmare scenario is one where Christie and/or Romney get enough establishment money that the establishment candidates empty their bank accounts in the course of destroying each other’s approval ratings. A very lucky Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, or Marco Rubio might slip through under those circumstances .

4. I wouldn’t count Bush out in a general election even if he doesn’t adopt a middle-class agenda. Bush is a smart, principled, likeable guy. If the 2016 Republican nominee is going to run using a Made On K Street strategy, Bush would run that strategy about as well Chris Christie or Scott Walker.

Tags: Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush Is Not The Biggest Problem With Jeb Bush


It is too late in the day, and I’m too tired to mock the dynastic implications of a general election in which Jeb Bush faces off against Hillary Clinton. It creeps me out a little, but what is more disturbing is how Jeb Bush seems to have completely bought into the K Street interpretation of why Republicans lost in 2012 (too much social conservatism, not enough Obama-supported immigration reform).

My suspicion that Chris Christie and Scott Walker basically share Bush’ views (even if they might be more reticent about voicing those views and are perhaps more willing to compromise with dissident elements of the center-right).

Like in 2012, I think that the climate of opinion among Republican elites is more of a problem than the idiosyncrasies of any particular candidate.


Book Notes, “Post-Christian America” Edition


No, I don’t think the adjective “post-Christian” is a good adjective for describing American society.  It’s too categorical, too… decisive.  But people are using it these days, and more in the spirit of description than in one of just-around-the-bend warning.  For example, at the Anglican church I attend, where a dwindling of membership has prompted us to have a number of meetings about “re-visioning” our overall approach, a church-growth consultant we’d brought in used the adjective fairly freely and authoritatively.

Hearing him use that term bothered me.  That, alongside my own thinking about Lennon’s “Imagine” and CNU’s holding a conference on “The Future of Religion in America” led me this fall to a couple of books which turned out to be useful to read in tandem:  Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion:  How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age:  The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.  Douthat’s is from 2012, Bottom’s was released this summer.  My “notes” upon them have turned into an essay, however, so gird thyself.

Let’s begin with the less comprehensive book, An Anxious Age.  It consists of two parts, the first about how the crash of the Protestant Mainline left in its place a distinctive approach to politics and culture that Bottum calls that of “The Poster Children,” and the second about the travails of contemporary Catholicism, which can be summed up as why the “Catholic Moment” didn’t happen, or why Catholicism couldn’t culturally replace the Mainline.  I’ll only talk about the first part here.    

“The death of the Mainline is the central political fact of the last 150 years of American history,” Bottum says.  The Mainline once was the uniting cultural river of the realm, but now that it’s subsided nearly to extinction without anything able to fill its place, we are left fragmented, and more subject to polarization.  Bottum describes his theory in a recent Weekly Standard essay:

…the Protestant churches in early America were widely divided on theological and ecclesial issues—and yet they somehow joined to form what Alexis de Tocqueville would call the nation’s “undivided current of manners and morals.” We can debate how long-lasting and all-encompassing that central Protestantism really was, but…the collapse in recent decades of the mainline churches (from around 50 percent of the nation in 1965 to under 10 percent today) remains one of the most astonishing cultural changes in American history.

He works more with the Mainline “river” image in the book, describing Jews and Catholics as having “lived on its banks,” socio-culturally speaking.  He does not speak of this river as having been dried up so much by outside factors, but as having had its members ascend/evaporate right out of its banks of their own accord:  “American Protestantism thinning itself up so far that it loses all tethering in the specifics of the faith that gave it birth.”  The ascension was, initially, into a theology more abstract about the concept of God, focused upon social justice, and less bound by the Bible, creeds, and sexual restrictions.  

Bottum uses his interview subjects, and a few well-known figures, as symbolic types (in the way Habits of the Heart did with “Sheila” and such).  He begins his account with “Bonnie Paisley,” a twice-divorced Oregon liberal very serious about how she decorates her home, only slightly so about her flirtations with New Age religion, and completely dismissive of her family tree’s Protestant roots. 

Bonnie’s life illustrates where American Mainline Protestantism has gone, the place where it’s been aiming for generations:  Christian in the righteous timbre of its moral judgments, without any actual Christianity; middle class in social flavor, while ostensibly despising middle-class norms; American in cultural setting, even as she believes American history is a tale of tyranny from which she and those like her have barely managed to escape.  

Bottom traces the pattern here back to the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch (whose grandson, both he and Douthat both note, was none other than Richard Rorty).  The “post-Protestants,” in things like their heightened moralism regarding food and fitness, their attraction to theories that demand self-examination like today’s “white privilege” one, and their demonization of certain institutions or persons, display an “anxious” need to

…see themselves as good people—a hunger for spiritual confidence in perfect parallel to the hungers that drove previous generations of American Protestants… In their view, the social forces of bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, and oppression are the constant themes of history.  These horrors have a palpable, almost metaphysical presence in the world.  Post-Protestants believe the best way to know themselves as moral is to define themselves in opposition to such bigotry and oppression—understanding good and evil not primarily in terms of personal behavior but as states of mind about the social condition.  Sin, in other words, appears as a social fact, and the redeemed personality becomes confident of its own salvation by being aware of that fact.  By knowing about, and rejecting, the evil that darkens society. 

Bottom then tells us that he compiled “that list of six evil social forces…from the writing of the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch.” A chapter is devoted to his teaching, and particularly focuses upon his call for “redeemed personalities.”  Here are two striking Rauschenbusch quotes, from the early 1900s:

A better and more Christian method of getting a religious realization of sin is to bring before our minds the positive ideals of social righteousness contained in the person of Christ and in the Kingdom of God and see sin as the treasonable force which frustrates and wrecks these ideals…

As long as man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without conviction of sin…

Or as one young Occupy protester told Bottom, “we want people to know about the wrongness in society the way we do.”

Different conservative scholars will regard this arc of Rauschenbusch to post-Protestantism in different ways:  some will see it as a corruption of American Protestantism by historicist philosophy, some will see it as the destiny of Biblical religion generally, and others as reflecting a dynamic peculiar to Protestantism, which is more where Bottum stands.  But he is less interested in ultimate explanation than in description of what has been afoot. 

One of the more fruitful ways he does this is to suggest that to think about class in America, particularly in the mode of the “liberal elites”-talk that conservatives have indulged in in recent years, actually requires one to think less about economic ownership and quantifiable wealth, and more about how the old insiders of Protestant society set a the classic pattern for elite behavior in America.  By this pattern, what matters most is a priestly-class badge of Rauschenbusch-like or Emerson-like focus upon redeeming politics—or at least upon redeeming lifestyle and aesthetics.  One has to be cultivated in a certain way (elite “liberal education” or something similar) and one has to display signs of having seen the light.  By this understanding, mere “Power Elites” of course exist, and as Rauschenbusch’s list of six evils indicates, they threaten social righteousness, but a rightful elite exists also, that of the elect.

One might consider what I once wrote about the Quaker-rooted Joan Baez in this respect. Folks like her undoubtedly felt excluded by and hostile to the WASP “Society” of the day, but by Bottum’s understanding, their transmutation of the Protestant spirit eventually became the new elite coin of the realm.  And in part because for some time it had been no longer united around religion, “Society” collapsed in the face of the 60s revolutions, with its would-have-been heirs becoming the marginalized preppie class portrayed in the Whit Stillman films; whereas the counter-cultural sorts who really embraced the likes of Joan Baez-music, whether post-Protestant, ex-Catholic, or non-Orthodox Jewish, gradually took over most of the cultural heights. 

Now today, as the fall of The New Republic might symbolize, and the hollowing out of our college’s humanities departments definitely indicates, these seem to be being replaced themselves by more tech-oriented “liberaltarian” types on one hand, or by PC-activist Upworthy-types on the other.  There’s something less spiritual and less intellectual about the Post-Protestants’ apparent millennial heirs, we might say, so that Bottum’s theory is only really useful for explaining the age we’ve just been through.  However that may be, Bottom holds and anecdotally shows that many of today’s younger progressives still manifest many of the attitudes he pegs as post-Protestant.

As all single-cause explanations of modern American liberalism are deficient, and trying to connect such to social class analysis is trickier yet, it is of course the case that Bottom’s theory ultimately works too neatly.  But I find it much more suggestive and convincing than most such theories.  It captures something quite important about contemporary liberalism’s overall tone, and I feel better about the more strident of my liberal brothers and sisters when I think of them less in terms of their affinity for what non-theological conservative thought (including my own) tells me is their Jacobinism, “liberal fascism,” Marxism, vengeance-seeking, and hate-enabling historicist idealism, and more in terms of their feeling a religious-like longing for redeemed life.  More importantly, this seems closer to how they (with big exceptions admitted) understand themselves. 

Again, Bottum’s thesis is not presented as a theory about American liberalism simply, but one about our whole history with respect to how religion interacts with politics and national identity.  It is useful for considering the contemporary nature of this given that “secularization” and “post-Christian” turn out to be inadequate concepts. 

That last sentence cracks me up at myself.  As if I, raised in a Presbyterian church, and won over to evangelical understandings of faith in my college days by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, could ever be simply objective about whether America (Europe, too) was losing its religion, and thus could talk coldly-scientific about whether the “secularization thesis,” the idea that the more modern a nation becomes the more it will turn away from belief in God, was “an adequate concept” or not!   

But as we turn to the more important book here, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, let’s proceed–since we have no other choice–as if such an objective stance can be arrived at, by any of us whether religious or not.   Douthat’s main argument should already be familiar to Postmodern Conservative readers, although it is much more powerful in book form than in summary:  America is not moving into a secular age shorn of religion generally, in the manner typical versions of the secularization thesis would predict, but it is moving, indeed already has moved, into an era in which Christian orthodoxy is pushed to the side, with its place filled not by atheism and secularist disregard, but by Christian heresy


Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: Ross Douthat , Joseph Bottum , George Mardsen , Religion , Christianity

The True Meaning and Conservative Balance


First off, I agree exactly with Pete’s criticism of those who criticize the Republican base. If the criticism is from the WSJ point of view that the Republican party should be all about cutting taxes on job creators and deregulating and dissing citizens and citizenship through our immigration policy and abandoning all the relational concerns of social conservatives, then God bless the base. This criticism comes mainly from the libertarian/oligarchic donors. And sad to say, Jeb seems to be too responsive to it. It is not a ticket, for one thing, to ride to victory. Jeb needs to start following his heart more than the money.

Here’s the kind of balance I believe in: I’m good with Christmas being both a season holiday that unites all Americans without exception and a religious holiday about personal redemption through God really becoming man. I saw that balance on the country-music Christmas show I saw on one of the networks — half seasonal and half religious tunes. The latter featured a superbly soulful performance by the underrated Carey Underwood and an Appalachian spin on Go Tell It on the Mountain by Sarah Evans. The network NBC show about lighting the Rockefeller tree was 100 percent secular and 100 percent trivial, although Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett do make a very tuneful combination. I just got an e-mail from a conservative living at the end of history in Santa Barbara, and he reports that it’s just depressing to have a holiday season with no religious overtones — no crèches and such — anywhere, even in front of churches. He also reports on the virtually complete absence of volunteerism and the practice of the virtue of charity in paradise. Everyone comes as close as possible to living the unobsessive, self-indulgent life that Marx strangely called communism, which means, ironically, that everything costs something — everything sells, in fact, for market value.

Conservatives these days are about restoring balance to an America distorted by the indiscriminate application in everyday life of the high principles of the libertarians and those of the politically correct (which aren’t as different as you might think). Surely it is an offense against diversity for the true meaning of Christmas to take too much of a hit at the altar of diversity. That means that Ayn Rand’s celebratory affirmation of Christmas as an orgy of commercial excess prevails way too absolutely. Because I’m fair and balanced, I’m not saying that Christmas in America shouldn’t have a strong commercial component, but the greatness of our country used to be our relatively unreserved affirmation of public (meaning, to begin with, in the marketplace) displays of diverse — but only somewhat diverse — religious lifestyles. Without some common appreciation of the “true meaning,” the festivities have no particular reason for being festive.

Jeb Bush, Base Panderer


Years ago, in a joint appearance with Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush struck me as both the more principled and the more pragmatic politician. Unfortunately, Bush seems to be going backwards. He is setting himself up to oppose the Republican base. The problem is that he has met the enemy, and he is Jeb.

This New York Times article is all about how various Bush advisors expect him to stand up to the Republican base and tell people what he really thinks. That’s good, because the Republican base could use some truth telling. Too bad Bush does not seem up to it.

First, let’s get clear about what the Republican “base” constitutes. One way use of the term is to describe those right-leaning voters and activists who are alienated from the Republican party’s leadership and feel that the GOP is often some combination of unimaginative, cynical, self-interested, and cowardly.

But there is another Republican base. This is the Republican base that is made up of most of the party’s major donors, of the Washington business lobbies, of the Republican consultant class, and the political functionaries who shuttle back and forth between working for the lobbies and working for the GOP.

The blind spots and self-destructive enthusiasms of the first, populist Republican base are often mentioned, but the second, elite Republican base has its own blind spots and self-destructive urges. It was the Washington-based Republican base that twice missed the story of Obama’s abortion radicalism and let him get away with posing as a social issues moderate. It was the Washington-based Republican base that decided that the answer to the GOP’s problems on immigration was a combination of up-front amnesty and increased guest worker programs. It was the Washington-based Republican base who thought slogans about how “you built that” could substitute for a middle-class economic agenda (though this particular failing was also shared by the populist right of 2012). There is no sign that Bush is ready to talk turkey to this part of the base. To all appearances, Bush has decided to become the embodiment of this part of the base.

This tendency, to complain about the Republican base while in the bosom of the base, shows up in various parts of the Times article. This is precious:

Mr. Bush seemed to be musing on such an approach last week before a gathering of chief executives in Washington, when he said that a Republican hopeful had to be willing to risk the nomination in order to remain competitive in November. “Lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles,” Mr. Bush said at the event, sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.

As is this:

Speaking last month to a Republican donor, he discussed the difficulties posed by the early states in the nominating process, especially Iowa, where religious conservatives have won the past two Republican presidential contests.

Bush’s comments only make sense if you assume that the Wall Street Journal, the Republican donors, and the Bush family are not part of the Republican base and bear no responsibility for the GOP’s problems over the last eight years. That assumption is as crazy as the nuttiest rant at a Tea Party rally.

Too bad we don’t have a former Republican governor from Florida who is willing to call out the members of the Republican base for their past mistakes and their self-serving delusions.



Looking to 2016


First off, I’m going to leave it to Pete and Carl to help you become expert on recent congressional behavior. I’m pretty pessimistic about how interbranch relations will go over the next couple of years, and I’m thinking the president will fare better in fending Congress off than Republicans expect. That means, of course, that reform we can believe in depends on the Republicans capturing the presidency in 2016. Although I know a number of liberals who very much prefer Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton, Pete is right that her obvious demographic is pretty limited. So although Clinton is vulnerable, the extraordinary Obama-level candidate who can exploit that fact isn’t on the horizon.

Meanwhile, I agree with those experts who say that, at the end of the day, the three most likely Republican nominees are Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul.  Fourth might be Romney. And then the drop-off is pretty severe in terms of probability. The Republican process is not kind to outsiders, and the learning curve on the campaign trail is usually too steep for those short on experience and organization. (Santorum in 2012, Huckabee in 2008.) For those who say Christie and Bush aren’t attractive to much of the Republican base, I refer you to Romney’s capacity for staying the course in 2012.  

I hasten to add I’m not thinking that any of those guys right now has the right stuff to win in November. It would be better if the Republicans had a fairly young, eloquent guy who inspires principled enthusiasm and who would win because of his personal superiority to the Democratic nominee.

For now, you’d be foolish not to think that Paul, although not yet a likely nominee, is actually probably more likely than any other particular Republican. That might be because he comes the closest — not that he’s all that close — to having those desirable characteristics listed above (if, for me, you abstract from the truth or desirability of what he actually believes). On foreign policy, he will benefit because his ”realist” view differs  from that of the others. Once it’s clear he’s quite competitive, he will attract infinite amounts of money from the key big donors who are basically libertarians. And his argument that he can build a new kind of Republican coalition will sound plausible to many, especially said big donors. Can he draw lots of those youthful libertarian securitarian slackers back into the GOP fold? 

Paul is, as I’ve said before, the one Republican candidate that I probably couldn’t vote for. Once again, the Republicans have lots of candidates but are very short on those who could likely go the distance through the nomination process. Several distinguished experts have mentioned both Scott Walker and Rick Perry to me. I remain to be convinced in both cases. Portman is boring (and in any case has taken himself out of the running). Cruz turns every battle into the Alamo, which did not go well. Rubio’s not ready. And so forth and so on.

The Republicans (if it’s possible to speak of any such organized group) did little to nothing to groom a candidate for 2012, and so they got nothing enduring from their 2010 victory. The “establishment” seemed okay with Romney mainly because he was a very low-maintenance — a very convenient — candidate, although he was obviously the wrong guy to exploit the anti-Obamacare surge. I could go on and explain why Bush seems so similar today.

To conclude with the most obvious point of all: Everyone really knows how disappointed so many Americans will be to be stuck with choosing once again between a Bush and a Clinton. Jeb might be the best President Bush of them all, you say! I agree that he might be a pretty good president. Mitt might have been too.

Elizabeth Warren Takes The Stage


The fight over the Cromnibus has elevated Warren’s profile, and you will soon be hearing a lot more about her from the activist left and from mainstream media journalists (partially overlapping categories). So it is a good time to keep in mind that Warren’s natural base of upper-middle-class white liberals is large and wealthy enough to raise money and make noise, but lacks the numbers to seriously threaten Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Jim Webb’s natural base of Democratic-leaning Jacksonians (whose views don’t map all that well on of left-right axis) are also too few to actually get the nomination.

Clinton’s vulnerability is that she has tried to position herself as slightly more hawkish and pro-business than Obama. Warren is positioning herself to Obama’s left. The key to beating Clinton is combining that minority of Democratic voters who think of themselves as left-of-Obama with voters who strongly approve of Obama and don’t appreciate the thought of a candidate who is tighter with Wall Street and quicker to commit US troops than the current president. Warren and Webb could bring Clinton’s numbers down by attacking her, but I don’t see how either of them has a path to the nomination. I still think that the much-mocked Biden is best positioned to put together a coalition of strong Obama supporters and dissent middle-class liberals that could challenge Clinton.

Rockin’ Reactions to the Cromnibus


Well, Speaker Boehner, Minority Leader McConnell, looks like you win this round.  I’d urge those of our readers who have Republican representatives or Senators to call or write them today to stop the omnibus funding bill if they haven’t already, also known as the “Crominbus,” from passing, but it looks like we’ll see a vote in favor of it soon, so it is almost certainly too late.  The NRO editors spell out some of its problems on the main page, while admitting it has some good provisions, and a few days back on the Corner Yuval Levin and Michael Needham reminded us of the basic problem with this approach.  It simply gives Republicans too little leverage for resisting the implementation of, or for simply retaliating against, Obama’s Big Amnesty executive order action[scroll below for why it isn't an order].  

But I think it’s Carl Perkins who best captured my feelings towards this whole GOP approach:



Then again, after reading all 1,600 pages of the bill, maybe it’s the subtle lyrical artistry of the forgotten 60s British R+B band The Downliners Sect, here rendered by the never-even-marginally-famous 80s San Diego garage band The Gravedigger V, that best captures my reaction:  



Oh, I know that perhaps a visually-handicapped fellow like you, Speaker Boehner, might not be able to see the ugliness, but it’s really more about your unfaithfulness and the way you keep on jivin’ us with your excuses–you keep it up, though, and this is what you’ll hear:



And you also, McConnell:


P.S.  For NRO readers interested, Joe Clay had about 8 or so other sides that are equally great, and I talked about The Gravedigger V and 80s garage music in a an old Songbook post.

UPDATE:  Developing, but at this hour it looks like that call to your representative might be worth it after all.  The House vote to pass has been delayed

What Residential Colleges Are For


So my essay asking whether colleges should get out of the housing business was somewhat controversial. I didn’t answer the question definitively or for all institutions of higher education. But, in the spirit of “critical thinking,” I thought I’d raise one tough question that arises in the all the controversy over the Rolling Stone article about the gang rape at the University of Virginia frat house, an alleged gruesome incident that turns out to have been imagined to fit into a common politically correct narrative about “the culture of rape” on our residential campuses.

The question remains, after all, about whether life on campus makes students better or safer than if they lived on their own as genuinely autonomous adults. One criticism of campus life, after all, is that it’s deformed by the extreme consumer sensitivity that animates colleges competing for the increasingly scarce resource of the student willing to pay the often bloated price of the private (or any) residential college. A related criticism is that the effectual truth of treating dorm students like autonomous, freely consenting adults is that they are granted all kinds of privileges without the corresponding responsibilities that they would have in the real world. Another related criticism is that colleges are too focused on non-academic amenities at the expense of sustaining the high academic standards and somewhat common curriculum that could,  with friendships rooted in the goods tht those pursuing a higher education should share in common, to some extent displace the loneliness and cluelessness of an excessive focus on personal autonomy.

Somebody sent me an article with the upbeat title “Why Small, Residential, Student-Centered Colleges Will Prevail.” It’s by Scott Miller, president of Bethany College (West Virginia). He’s no ordinary president, but a quite influential consultant. Not only that, he edits Presidential Perspectives, which features essays on higher-education leadership written by college presidents for college presidents. If you go to that essay series, you can confirm for yourself my view that Dr. Miller is not alone in his perception of what can save the small college.

The first thing you notice is his account of how the Christmas season brings his particular small-college campus community together. Dr. Miller reports that we “light our tree as a symbolic, interfaith illumination of hope and knowledge against the darkness.” I have no objection to that, but I will note that the community doesn’t rest on a shared religious faith in the personal meaning of Christmas.

On education, Dr. Miller claims that there have been two waves of reform initiated — demanded — by students. The first, from the Sixties, was all about “injecting social awareness and educational relevance into the campuses.” It’s about civic activism, justice ,or, as some say, political correctness.

The second came from the student demand that their education become relevant in the sense of being keyed to “personal technology.”  Educators, the president explains, had no choice but to accept this demand too.

All in all, what students have demanded, allegedly, is educational reform in the service of activism and technology. And he creates the impression that that’s not only where reform has occurred but that those innovations have displaced whatever it was higher education was about before the Sixties.

These two particular moments in higher-education reform have been displaced by a broader awareness of administrators that higher education has become “a consumer option.” So the institution’s mission becomes more about what students desire than what they need. And Dr. Miller seems, at first, to be critical of this therapeutic approach, admitting that one feature of it is the “recreation arms race” that turns the campus into a theme park. Still, he admits that Bethany has “invested millions in facility upgrades…that we all knew would appeal to the facility-focused student consumer.” There’s no choice for college presidents but to be “beholden to student inclinations.” And he tellingly never gets around to saying confidently or even straight out that we, at Bethany, give students what they need as, say, “evolving citizens” instead of what they think they want as clueless teenagers.

The danger for the residential college, of course, is that students’ “ever-increasing need for convenience” will mean that they will be displaced by “branch locations,” online degrees, “for-profit” programs, and so forth. The consumer might well conclude that the distinctive aspects of residential education aren’t worth the big bucks or huge investment in time that they cost.

In Dr. Miller’s own experience, however, the preference for the small liberal-arts college remains strong. Why? Well, there are the “student creature comforts.” But there’s also the immediate access “to their fellow creatures — devoted faculty and staff.” These service creatures are completely devoted to fostering the success of particular students in their pursuit of “meaningful careers” and “engaged citizenship.” It’s the job of faculty and staff to “speak up for students where it counts,” to be agents facilitating their entry into “global competition.” This kind of devoted facilitating is yet another amenity for which students are paying handsomely, a privilege that doesn’t seem to generate a corresponding responsibility.

So, at the end of the day, what the residential college offers is better customer service.  There’s nothing said about the distinctive content of the education that Bethany or other such schools offer, beyond the student’s acquisition of “a complex mix of special skills to compete and a broad perspective to flourish.” There’s nothing about liberal education, shared and cherished academic experiences, deploying the residential model to offer students leisurely experiences of books, art, music, and so forth that they couldn’t get on the activist and entrepreneurial streets of our middle-class democracy. There’s even nothing about character-forming student community or the “tough love” that produces demanding standards and sparing praise from formidably distant (yet still caring, in the right way) faculty. There’s nothing, as some would criticize, about forming the souls of students around some vision of the good life, about learning who you are and what you’re supposed to do.

In my view, there is something to what Dr. Miller says, just not as much as he thinks. After all, there are surely advantages to attending an institution that is all about me and my educational needs. The faculty aren’t specialists lost in the research and allowed to be dreamily disengaged from student life. The college doesn’t claim to be on the cutting edge of the advance of human knowledge, and that’s appropriate, because no undergraduate should think of himself or herself as anywhere near ready to get anywhere near that edge, except perhaps in some fairly trivial pursuit.

Still, if education is really reduced to relevance generated by student demand — to justice and technology — then I can’t see why all this personal  service is really worth the money.

There are two kinds of residential colleges that, I believe, have real futures. The first is those whose “brand” signifies of a high level of intelligence and accomplishment in all those admitted. Harvard, whatever goes on there educationally, undeniably provides almost all its graduates access to a career path that leads to a high level of success. That is true although Harvard may not be so student-centered, and, as Steven Pinker humorously remarked, its faculty are hired as highly competent specialists in their fields who are pretty clueless when it comes to cultivating the souls of their students.

The other residential colleges with undeniable futures are those with “niche” missions centered around some understanding of what higher education is as more than justice and technology. The common conceit of democracy is that undeniable progress in justice and technology signifies progress in all areas of human virtue and self-understanding. The truth is that such progress in the direction of personal liberation has undeniable relational costs. We’re getting worse and worse, after all, in living well in the truth about who we are as beings born to know, love, and die. And our access to genuinely countercultural narratives — such as those found in poetry, philosophy, and theology — that might give us a kind of selective nostalgia for what we were deprived of in our busy world full of the diversions of outraged activism and personal technology displayed on screens is atrophying.

There is a market, if a limited one, for the genuinely countercultural college. That is, a college that hasn’t caved in the most important respects to the spirit of the Sixties and the alleged imperatives of technology. And, if you think about it, there’s something fishy in Dr. Miller’s claim that these two sources of allegedly indispensable disruptive innovation even came from students. It seems to me that they came from educational experts and that serious students, even or especially today, long for much more.

Maybe the center of a residential college should be understood as friendship, the kind of friendship that emerges through the joy of shared discovery in the lab or through “Socratic conversation” about a tough book. But there appears not to be enough there there at Bethany to speak of the goods to which the students should have been led to devote themselves in common. There’s an undeniable conflict between the higher forms of friendship and an overemphasis on personal autonomy, and surely almost all the charges and countercharges about rampant sexual assault, infantilizing and intrusive political correctness, and all that stem from the absence of trust that forms a genuine community, a place in which the various privileges all come with corresponding demanding responsibilities.

Obama’s Plastic Memo-tastic Amnesty Action


So I was arguing politics with a fellow today, and I said, “Yeah, well what about Obama’s unconstitutional big amnesty executive order, huh?What about THAT?”

And he said, “Well, it’s not!”

I started to go into why it is unconstitutional, and had already made one or two choice points about the take-care clause, when he jumped in, and said, “No, no, what I mean is that it’s not an . . . ”

“Not an amnesty!” I impatiently interrupted.  “Well, consider what it does!  It . . . ”

But then he cut me off: “No! What I’ve been trying to say is that it’s not an executive order. It’s just a memo.” 

He pulled out his smartphone and made the relevant search. And you know what? While part of me still thinks this simply cannot be true, and hangs onto the thread that a Jerome Corsi story must somehow be wrong, for the present I’m obliged to say this appears to be the truth:

Today the National Archives and Records Administration, responsible for maintaining such filings, said no such executive order was ever signed or filed, confirming WND’s report Wednesday. A National Archives librarian, Jeffrey Hartley, made the confirmation in an email Thursday to WND. “As I indicated, it would appear that there is not an Executive Order stemming from the President’s remarks on November 20 on immigration,” Hartley wrote.

Instead, there are two memoranda. As I learned over at Powerline, the speculation is that the distinction between memo and executive order could help Obama in future legal proceedings.

Clutching more tightly to the poor guy’s phone, I sort of lost it a bit, in a Web-enabled episode of hyper-concentration, feverishly searching sites, flipping past the Federal Register’s record of Obama’s executive orders right over to The American Presidency Project, which tells us that

it was not until the Federal Register Act in 1936 that a more thorough contemporaneous documentation of Executive Orders began.  Before then, and occasionally afterwards, a later discovery of another order has resulted in assigning a number already in use together with an associated letter (e.g., 7709, 7709-A). . . . Today virtually all numbered Executive Orders are published.

And that “there have always been many forms of Presidential orders in addition to the numbered Executive Orders and Executive Orders included in the published ‘unnumbered series’. Currently, these commonly are called ‘Memorandums’ but can have many titles.”

“Directives” is another term political science text-books use for some of these.  But actually, I wasn’t thinking so . . . logically at that moment.  I was recalling a big post I wrote on the executive amnesty, titled “He Did It,” and wondering if he really did do it, and whether there could be a number between 13681 and 13682 that would signify that Something Was Done – 13682-X? 13681.5? . . . and I crouched down like everyone had to do in that annoying Being John Malkovich movie where they have to go to the floor that is between floors, what was it now? And when was that song? Ah yes, Floor Seven-and-a-Half! That’s where Obama’s amnestied illegals would be and his birth certificate too, and I knew something was happening there, but I didn’t know what it is, but they would believe me this time when I told them about the unconstitutionality of . . . , of . . . , 

“Is this where Executive Order 13682 is ?”

And somebody points to you and says,

“The memo’s his.”

And you say, “What’s mine ?”

And somebody else says, “Where what is?”

And you say, “Oh my God,
am I here, all alone?

I’ll spare you the rest of the details of my spiral down the rabbit hole of gibbering illumination. The fellow I had been arguing with had taken his phone and moved on when I snapped out of it, and there I was, dazed, sweating, but accepting now the strange reality. 

It is this. Millions of Americans have been having this big debate, about something so important it prompted a presidential address to announce it, ongoing Republican talk of impeachment, and speculation about whether it could create a permanent Democratic presidential majority. In all this debate and discussion, it was something both its opponents and its defenders had called, at the White House’s own lead, an “executive order.” But then it turned out that what Obama finally decided to do wasn’t an executive order, not really. It was a memo-type order. He made this change likely for legal reasons — as I skim through the OLC report defending the constitutionality, for example, I notice no use of “executive order.” And in his Obama little speech announcing the action also refrained from using that term. So, he knew he had made this change but, bizarrely, neglected to tell us all. He would let us continue to have the debate, one often focused on ascertaining the precise meaning of terms in the Constitution, while still using the wrong term for his action. Or maybe this was not so bizarre. Someone working with him thought a bit of political advantage would be gained by not highlighting the change, and Obama agreed to this. I’d call it an iffy calculation, as the advantage seems quite small, and could be secured only by an instance of dishonesty that would likely soon be discovered. But as his weird good luck would have it, the first of his opponents to figure out that he hadn’t issued an executive order was the birther-friendly Jerome Corsi

In any case, editors all over the world will soon be sending out e-mails like this: 

Note: if you recycle content which referred to the November 20 presidential action on immigration as an “executive order,” you must now update it to “executive memorandum.” Refer to the debate about such as the “executive action on immigration” issue, or the “debate about the constitutionality of Obama’s executive action.”

Or perhaps, the line is going to be: “Who cares about the technical legal terminology? Executive memo, order, directive — it all amounts to the same!”

Please, someone, show me why the Corsi story doesn’t hold up — show me that the “action” really was, or soon will be entered in as, an executive order. Because while I admit to being most impressed by any president who can give me a contact high from long distance, hallucinogens really aren’t my thing.

Tags: bad trips , impeachable offenses , words , weirdness

Codevilla for Clarity in Foreign Policy


“While the Storm Clouds Gather” is another long foreign policy essay by Angelo Codevilla, probably the best of his I’ve read.  It’s in the latest Claremont Review of Books, and is provided here at Powerline’s request.  There’s a lot to it, but I particularly like its advocacy of public clarity as opposed to the “creative ambiguity” which Codevilla ties to Henry Kissinger.  Here’s how he applies this to our relations with China:

Not least of the perversions of statecraft that compose Henry Kissinger’s legacy is the concept of “creative ambiguity.” The current generation of officials has accustomed themselves to imprecision in policymaking and diplomacy, believing that they thereby “preserve their options.” No, they create options for others. A new generation of statesmen, reversing Kissinger’s baleful legacy, should strive for the utmost clarity in our relations with China. Serious, clear, unambiguous policy that communicates clearly to all what the United States is ready, willing, and able to do is the key to such peace as may be possible.

Let us follow the example of John Quincy Adams’s relations with Russia, the despotism par excellence of his day, which had proclaimed the supremacy of monarchical over republican ways and had signaled its intention to expand its settlements in North America. Adams, wanting peace and friendship with the tsar while keeping more of his settlements out of America and asserting our own identity, left no doubt in Russia’s mind about where America stood on these matters. Today’s America has far more sticks and carrots than Adams did. But these are valid only insofar as they answer, precisely and satisfactorily, the questions in the minds of the governments with which we deal. What plans and means do we have to defeat what possible Chinese military moves? Does China understand what our limits are? Does everyone else? Does China, and do others, understand what our objectives in the Pacific are and that our means match our ends? Do we have in mind and can we sustain a relationship with Japan that satisfies its concerns? Just as Adams left no doubt about where America stood, neither should any statesmen today leave any doubt in Chinese minds. 

I agree with that entirely.  I hate the way most American administrations in my lifetime, but especially Obama’s, constantly talk in vague terms that hint at further process. We need more “you do this, we will do that” talk these days.  It would help in the global situation of general uncertainty about U.S. commitment, and in the national one of partisan divide on foreign policy.

Here’s my own example of the kind of clarity I’d like to see.  Unlike many conservatives, I oppose our issuing any defense pledges to the Ukraine.  In fact, unlike Codevilla himself, I’m pretty sure we ought to refrain from even sending them arms.  So I’m with Obama on both those points.  I think.  And that’s the problem–I don’t really know where he stands.  Obama and many of our allies talk as if there will be all these impossible-to-live-with consequences for Russia further seizing Ukrainian territory, but then the policy is de facto revealed to be one of no military help. There’s no clear statement that, “With Ukraine, we will be forced to sit by and watch Russia do very unjust things if it chooses to, given the realities of our capabilities, interests, and alliances; Russia will pay substantial economic and diplomatic costs, and we do think it will regret the way it chose to pursue its objectives, but those costs might well not deter it; however, we warn Russia that if sends so much as a single soldier against one of our NATO allies, including the Baltic republics, we will retaliate militarily, and we will go to whatever level of warfare is necessary to expel all Russian forces.”  Instead, we’re just assured that invading Ukraine any more than it already has would so bad for Russia’s own interests that it surely won’t do it, and we and the EU have people “working on” the issue, which is in “process,” which blah, blah, blah, let it fade from the news cycle already…and so who really knows what the policy is, and whether or not the same mush would be applied by Obama to the Baltics?  

If anyone wants to pipe in to defend Kissinger and “creative ambiguity,” I’d appreciate learning more, but here’s one more good Codevilla statement regarding China:

Our post-1945 commitments in the region remain, even as our power to fulfill them declines in absolute terms and especially in relation to China’s. Without exception, the region’s governments fear China. Many have territorial contentions with it and racial animosities toward it. The decline of American power is leading Japan ever closer to building military forces to rival China’s. The Philippines scramble to hold onto what remains of U.S. power there. Taiwan and Singapore worry. South Korea, for its part, is listening to China’s increasingly unsubtle offer to broker the Korean peninsula’s unification if South Korea will exchange its security alliance with the U.S. for one with China, oriented against Japan.

If Codevilla is right about what present or future South Koreans will be willing to consider, that’s a grave danger to keep an eye on.  Korean-Japanese relations have been rather strained for the last half-decade, and if China were to get either South Korea, or a unified Korea, to step onto its side foreign-policy wise, or even just to pledge neutrality in any military conflict it has with Japan and/or the U.S., it might become much bolder and more aggressive.  A real pivot to Asia means doing all we can to encourage and facilitate friendship between Japan and South Korea .  It also means doing some work to prepare American opinion, Democrat and Republican, for the slim-but-real possibility of our having to fight alongside Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and perhaps in defense of disputed island territories.  This also means some public spelling out of what we are not willing to do, lest anti-China leaders in those nations become tempted to force our hand. 

Codevilla’s piece begins with a history of American foreign-policy failure throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, usually involving the sins of overextension, or of not seeking victory aggressively enough when we do get engaged.  Some of his calls there are pretty wild–here’s the three I find most questionable: a) he implies that had TR won the election in 1912, he would have taken us into WWI a couple years sooner, on basically preemptive strategic grounds, which would have been for the better, b) he sides in some way, not precisely clear, with General McArthur’s take-it-to-China-if-necessary way of fighting the Korean War, and c) seems to think JFK bargained away too much in the Cuban Missile Crisis deal.  That last call is particularly scary, but Codevilla mentions only in a couple sentences, so it’s hard to know precisely what he had in mind.  In general, I wouldn’t want a GOP president who chose Codevilla as his or her top foreign policy or defense adviser, but I still think this is a fine and important essay, and think Codevilla’s view is one that must be heeded, i.e., in some way represented in future White House councils.  

Tags: China , Russia , Ukraine , Angelo Codevilla , Foreign Policy

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Or: Introduction to Mad Men Studies)


I really appreciate everything Carl has said about the decline and fall of The New Republic. When I think about what Chris Hughes has wrought, my personal narrative focuses on the Silicon Valley takeover of everything. It’s not that I don’t think it’s illegal or un-American for a Facebook guy to buy a cherished American literary/political institution and disrupt it anyway he wants in the interest of economic sustainability or whatever. I pity the fools, however, who really believed that The New Republic would somehow be redeemed to its past or even pretty recent glory by this guy. I could go on and talk about the more complicated example of Peter Thiel, but you might think I’m obsessed with Thielism. I could also talk about Jeff Bezos, or go a bit more in the industrial (or somewhat-out-of-touch) direction of the Koch brothers. That would make me sound much more moralistic than I actually am. I’m open to a personal bailout by any of these creative and disruptive gentlemen. I am concerned about the effects these guys — bringing in Bill Gates and others — are having on American education and especially higher education.

When thinking about what’s happening now, I find refuge, as I’ve said before, in selective nostalgia — and today I’m not talking polis envy (Straussians and Arendtians) or “it takes a medieval village” (Alasdair MacIntyreans), but a quick visit to 1959.

As an aid to being nostalgic and being selective, I went back to the beginning in my study of the AMC instant classic Mad Men. That’s to the first show of the first season, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” I’m going to brainstorm with myself about the show’s indictment of what went on in top ad agencies in Manhattan in 1959.

1. Everyone smoked. Thanks to Reader’s Digest, it was generally known that cigarettes were “poisonous.” So it’s the job of the ad agency to market the product with that inconvenient fact in mind. One arc of progress since 1959: the war on smoking fought by all our major institutions. Manhattan bars and offices would now be smoke-free — and everyone’s eyes (and other parts) would benefit. (Following the lead of other colleges, we just banned smoke from all of Berry’s 26,000 acres. And we’re offering various forms of cessation therapy for anyone who’s having trouble kicking the habit.) The astounding thing about the show is that the sophisticated guys know the score about smoking, but it doesn’t scare them into stopping. It is true that Don Draper rejects as stupidly counterproductive an ad campaign that explicitly appeals to the American spirit of risk-taking or the “death wish” Freud tells us we all share. That sort of thing has to remain subliminal.

2. There was a culture of drinking hard liquor — even at work. Sometimes the result might be being freed from personal inhibitions and an inspired, off-the-cuff sales pitch. But, overall, there were obvious costs in personal productivity, as well a dramatic increase in non-connsensual personal behavior. Liquor was deployed by ad men to induce women and clients to do what they wouldn’t do in their right minds. Being drunk was also an excuse for doing what you aren’t supposed to do in order to have fun, speak candidly, or gain advantage.

3. Women employees are secretaries and such. They’re called “the girls.” They joke about the sexual favors they perform to keep or enhance their jobs. The less-classy ad men abuse their “girls” with degrading conversation. Women tell each other to “dress for success” or uncover their legs and to be rigorously honest in assessing their physical assets.  Not only that, an innocent young woman who comes to work at the agency is sent by her highly experienced female mentor to the doctor for birth control.  The uncaring male physician harasses her for her personal choice and warns her he will cut her off if she abuses it.  Men don’t have to be sexually available to keep their jobs, but women do. No one blames men for their promiscuity, but women are viciously labelled for doing what they’re stuck with doing. The poor women are denied the right to enjoy sexual pleasure for what it is.

4. Even Don Draper himself can’t stand it when his authority is threatened by a smart woman. Even Don assumes that a smart and pretty woman would be happier as a stay-at-home mom than as an executive.

5. In general, successful men don’t take marital fidelity seriously. Women, meanwhile, don’t fool around after marriage. Men can have it all – wives, kids, girlfriends, hookups, jobs, freedom generally — but women can’t

6. Gay employees are fearfully in the closet and lie about their heterosexual conquests.

7. Jews have their own ad agencies, and the others don’t hire Jews. The most sophisticated and classy ad men joke about how ridiculous all that is, but they don’t do anything about it.

There are others, but I always like to stop at 7. The history of the show is largely progress, through the Sixties, away from the unjust and unhealthy madness. Next exercise: What are some downsides of what is, to a point, all this undeniable progress? One example: Studies show that technological progress has slowed to a crawl in our time in areas detached from the safe space of the screen because we’ve become too obsessively risk-averse.

One more point:  The first episode of MM was much more over-the-top or unsubtly polemical than almost all the others.

Not by the Color of Their Skin . . .


I think that this CNN article is basically right. I don’t see much evidence that, other things being equal, the Republicans nominating African American candidates for elected office helps the GOP with African-American voters.

There is only one place where the article could be a little stronger. South Carolina had elections for both of her Senate seats in 2014. Both of the Senate races were won by Republicans. The article notes that Tim Scott (who is African American) got 10 percent of the African American vote to Lindsay Graham’s 6 percent. That might be some slight evidence that nominating an African American candidate might have a small impact on the willingness of African Americans to vote GOP. On the other hand, Scott got 82 percent of the white vote to Graham’s 74 percent.

Or look at Louisiana. In 2008, Mary Landrieu was running in about the best national environment possible for a Democratic candidate. She received 96 percent of the African American vote and won a majority in the first round. This year, Landrieu was running in a far worse national environment for Democrats and she also faced the famous Elbert Guillory ad that got some conservatives excited. In the first round of the Louisiana Senate race, Landrieu got 94 percent of the African-American vote.

Conservatives sometimes get excited by the election (or even the nomination) of African-American Republican candidates or messages to African Americans broadcast by right-leaning African-American spokesmen. The idea (which is not always explicitly articulated) is that these African-American officeholders and spokesmen will play some key role in reaching out to African-American voters Well, some of them might do just that, but not because they are African American. As far as I can tell, when it comes to garnering African-American votes, the impact of the GOP’s nominating African-American candidates or putting forward African-American spokesmen is somewhere between very small and nonexistent.

That doesn’t mean that Republicans should give up. Republican Candidates like Mitch Daniels and John Kasich have been able to win over 20 percent or more of the African-American vote. When it comes to learning how to find common ground with right-leaning African American voters, conservatives should first look at what Daniels and Kasich got right.

This is actually good news. We should be glad that, in winning African American voters, what really matters is the content of the message and not the skin color of the messenger.

More on TNR


Over at Slate, Rutgers prof and former TNR managing editor David Greenburg has a fine piece, “What We Lost with the Loss of The New Republic.”  We lost a place for what he calls “heterodox liberalism.” RTW–I largely agree with his take, and particularly so with this bit:

The impending transformation of the New Republic from a liberal magazine into a “vertically integrated digital media company” is regrettable for many reasons, not all of them sentimental. Conservatives need a liberal magazine that’s unpredictable enough to make them want to read it. Liberals and leftists need a magazine that will prod them to question their beliefs, and revise or strengthen them. All of us need robust intellectual debate of a high caliber that treats politics and ideas with the seriousness that they deserve.

As for Ezra Klein’s take at Vox, “Even the liberal New Republic Needs to Change,” well, there’s some good points in there, including a nod to Yuval Levin and National Affairs, but basically, as the headline suggests, it’s pretty shockingly cold-fish.  See, Klein is just too Spock-like objective and super-informed about contemporary media to lament TNR’s passing, or to protest the manner of it.  Unless, that is, he meant his piece to be vindictive, and/or, a bid for future opportunities.  Whatever the case, it’s yet more evidence suggesting that had JournoLister Klein been born in another place and time, he would have been well-suited for work at Pravda.  

’Course, as interesting as David Greenburg seeems–he has a recent book on Coolidge that’s probably worth reading in tandem with the big Amity Shlaes bio, for one–it turns out he was on Journo-List himself!  So my initially intended contrast between him and Klein breaks down quite a bit. I don’t know how involved Greenburg was with the List, but his getting sucked into that tells you a good deal about what went wrong with liberal opinion journalism during the Age of Obama, and the sorts of stands that will need be taken to make it unpredictable and self-questioning again.


Tags: The New Republic , David Greenburg , Ezra Klein

The New Republic, 1914-2014


Alas, it looks like it’s over for The New Republic magazine. A once-great institution, killed by a pair of lofo-pandering facebook-enriched millennial jerks.  I here voice my gratitude to all of those who made the magazine central to my political education in the 1990s.  I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for TNR. 

I stopped my subscription sometime in 2008, and had stopped eagerly reading the magazine around 2005 or so.  And not too long ago, when I had thought about re-subscribing, I found myself dissuaded by articles like the one that stooped to smearing Scott Walker as a racist on the basis of no evidence related to the man himself.  But a couple weeks ago, when I saw the magazine’s 100th anniversary issue, well, I just had to pick it up.  It is worth getting, incidentally—there’s some interesting stuff about the early Herbert Croly years, an undoubtedly softened account of the conflicts between owner Marty Peretz and the more-regular liberals at TNR during the 80s through early aughts, and in any case, the issue’s now worth owning simply as a memento of a lost age. 

I don’t claim to know the whole TNR-in-the-aughts story, but to me it seemed that a major betrayal of a style of broad-minded intellectual liberalism occurred there in the 2003-2006 years, due to an overall Democratic turn against the “New Democrat” creed of the 1990s, due to a sense various liberals, especially under Peretz’s TNR, came to have of having been duped into initially supporting the invasion, and due most obviously to the diminishment and then end of Marty Peretz’s ownership and editorial control.  I don’t say Peretz was all sweetness and light, and I understand and accept things like resistance to his stance on the Middle East as well as the new editor Franklin Foer’s 2006 apology for Peretz allowing the Elizabeth McCaughey article “No Exit” that helped kill Hillary-Care, but I nonetheless say that during those 2003-2006 years many elite liberals broke important bridges with moderates, and made various deals with the devil, that were harbingers (and direct causes) of the broader acceptance of demonization and polarization that has afflicted the entire nation during the dismal Obama years. 

So I say the dominant TNR crew broke faith with robust liberalism, and have remained guilty of this by their coddling of the increasing numbers of Democrat leaders and Legacy Media types who have become disturbingly shameless about their dogmatism, Obama-defense, conservative-demonization, and propagandistic manipulation of lo-information voters, to the point that in 2014, it often seems that what it means to be progressive is to assiduously close one’s mind to basic facts about events like Ferguson.  Doubling-down on error and lies for the sake of narrative advancement is simply what it means, intellectually speaking, to be a liberal these days.  That’s too harsh, but it isn’t too harsh to say that the TNR of the last decade bears a good deal of responsibility for it becoming plausible to say such.  The TNR liberals were in a position to fight the poisonous trends, but as far as I can tell, they refused to. 

I assume Franklin Foer, editor through most of 2006-2014, bears a good share of responsibility for the break and betrayal I’m trying to sketch, and so I found it touching, and a cause of hope, to read these words of his at the conclusion of his 100th-anniversary mini-history of TNR

…liberalism…quibbles with capitalism and our constitutional system—views them as imperfect and in need of constant improvement—but it has ultimate faith in both.

On the surface, American liberals are an entirely different species than classical liberals. Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and the rest of the classical liberals, after all, hated the all-powerful state and made it their mission to curb it; they celebrated the market and trumpeted the virtues of self-interest. That American progressives chose to call themselves liberals seems a twisted and confusing misappropriation.

Old liberals and the new ones have very different methods; but at bottom, they have exactly the same convictions. They both believe in the transcendent importance of freedom and individual liberty. It’s just that the threats to those values have changed. There’s not a capricious monarch looming. In a constitutional democracy, the centralized state was no longer a grave danger to be contained, but an actual guardian of freedom—a protector against new menaces, like rapacious corporations and bigoted local tyrants. The state must create and enforce the rules that help ensure that the market economy remains productive and fair, despite its size and complexity.

This isn’t the stuff of sloganeering; it’s a complicated set of beliefs that even most liberals don’t fully appreciate. And when The New Republic has hashed out these debates, it has sometimes created the illusion of incoherence—a step to the left here, a step to the right there, then a nice long twirl in the center. Critics of the magazine shout, “But it doesn’t add up!” To which the proper response is: exactly. Aside from the works of John Rawls, American liberalism hasn’t yielded volumes of great philosophical clarity. It has flourished in a magazine, which has provided the perfect venue for liberalism to explore itself—to arrive at provisional judgments and to reverse those judgments, to engage in a never-ending act of ideological seeking, to revel in the vitality that comes with the hard task of intellectual invention.

Well, there’s a lot we could say about this, but that’s the kind of liberalism most Americans can live with.  

But alas, if TNR could have been a place for a return to a leftward liberalism that could still claim continuity with Enlightenment liberalism and a concomitant forthright support of American constitutionalism, and perhaps even a place for fresh attempt at a new “New Democrat” creed, these are no longer possibilities.  Maybe Foer and the others will, backed by a good investor, try to start a new magazine.  I hope they do, but one senses that this particular ship, and much of what it stood for, has been scuttled for good.

A few final thoughts.

1.) There’s a bigger story here, likely involving the end of Peretz’s involvement, behind all of this.  

2.) What I write above might suggest that TNR deserved this.  There is a kind of poetic justice, you might say, in TNR being killed by the kind of Yahoo-ish and Upworthy-like journalism that became so complacently accepted on the left, and if my account is right, too little attacked by TNR itself. 

3.) I honestly don’t know if that is correct or not, even if I guess I want it to be.  But either way, it does nothing to decrease my utter contempt for what Chris Hughes and Guy Vidra did here. They lied about their intentions, and tossed a revered symbol into the latrine-hole.  It’s the kind of thing that, emotionally speaking, makes me never want to use facebook again.   They are low-lifes and barbarians, and may their names ever be disgraced by this. 

4.) Inevitably some will make this out as more symbolic than it is.  They’ll say it stands for the Exhaustion of American Progressive Liberalism, which stepped into power in 1912 with the election of Wilson, was symbolized and intellectualized by TNR’s founding in 1914, and after a solid 100-year run that culminated in the years 1933-1980, faded out with the shocking disappointment of Obama and co., followed by TNR’s demise in 2014.  Given the ugly ascendancy of Upworthy-style “progressivism” in our time, and depending on how likely you think Democratic defeat in 2016 is, it’s not a totally implausible angle.  Nevertheless, I don’t see it that way.  

5.) It’s just that kind of year.  

UPDATE;  John Podhoretz is right to say the following:

The magazine foundered because liberals foundered, because Obamaism was a cult of personality that demanded fealty rather than a philosophy that demanded explication.  …what has befallen the New Republic is, in some ways, what has befallen liberalism writ large. It became unserious, and is about to become more unserious still, because that it what has happened to liberalism as a governing philosophy.

That doesn’t mean we should count liberalism out, however. Even the non-zombie “serious governing philosophy” kind remains in play.  

Tags: the inherent crumminess of 2014 , Journalism , Liberalism

Give Some Liberating Logos for Christmas


So I know it’s seasonal and traditional to tell our readers what to buy their loved and liked ones for Christmas. The problem with coming up with such a list is that I might disappoint you with how minimal or how banal my reading has been this year. Another is that I might tick off those I leave off.  I have chosen, to avoid those problems, a shamelessly self-promotional theme.

First off, I really and truly believe that the best little book — a genuine stocking stuffer — you could give is the collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s September speeches edited by Marc Guerra. Perfectly entitled Liberating Logos, this is the best introduction for anyone you know longing to know what Christmas really means, with the word becoming flesh and so forth. At no extra charge, a very charming introduction by the legendary James Schall is included. Liberating Logos is the gift that keeps on giving for anyone suffering from Benedict-withdrawal syndrome. Or for anyone who wishes we could always have a philosopher-pope, a pope who knows and understands so much and can write in such a clear yet penetrating way. At merely $16 at Amazon, you could lowball some of your more annoying friends without generating any criticism. And the true meaning of Christmas really is reflected in gifts that are inexpensive but classy and deeply personal.

Another unexpected bargain is The Science of Modern Virtue, edited by Marc and myself. This book is a comprehensive and deeply philosophical introduction to the thought and contemporary cultural and political influence of Descartes, Locke, and Darwin. It includes essays by ME, Marc, our Ralph Hancock, Jim Stoner, Tom Hibbs, Paul Seaton, Lauren Hall, Sam Goldman, Craig Tobin, ”Darwinian Larry” Arnhart, Jeff Bishop, and Sara Henry. Each of these singular provocations originated as a talk at the first Stuck with Virtue conference at Berry College, an event unrivaled in recent years as a display of foundational wisdom and even liberating logos. At $28.95 at Amazon (for a beautifully produced hardback), it is an amazing number of words per buck.

AND there’s my  Allergic to Crazy. This is an endlessly entertaining and stunningly diverse collection of easy-to-read moments in the history of my brain. It’s already a cult classic. But one problem is that the cult at this point could easily fit in my office. This is the book for the people you know who spend a lot of time sitting in the bathroom or on the subway or who suffer so profoundly from the dreaded syndrome of attention deficit that they need something to read at stoplights. It’s also great for young parents or elderly grandparents stuck with pretending to watch their kids ride the bench at basketball or hockey. At $21.60 for 400 pages at Amazon, it’s an even more amazing numbers of words per buck.

A really nice gift — but still inexpensive enough — would be all three of these. Each is filled, in its own way, with liberating logos. And each is allergic to all forms of crazy.

Mitt Romney at BYU: Beyond Politics


Mitt Romney at BYU: Beyond Politics

About 20,000 members of the BYU community had the opportunity November 18 to hear from honored alum and twice-unsuccessful presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (I was lightly acquainted with the Romneys decades ago, when I was in graduate school and Mitt probably still hadn’t made his first 10 million. He was liked and trusted by all who knew him, in my experience.) I was respectfully curious to hear what he might have to say.  I had been a luke-warm fan of his candidacies, both as a citizen (because of his political baggage and his positions) and as a Mormon (because I doubted it would be good for Mormons to have a Mormon President).  But I must say that hearing him in the Marriott Center that Tuesday morning confirmed my sense that he is an admirable human being; certainly it was hard not to wish (as growing numbers of people far from Provo now do) that this was the man in the White House.

His opening jokes were pretty good, and quite well delivered.  To be sure, this conventional bit of self-deprecation regarding his two losses was not exactly a rare gem: “I’d prefer to say that I won the silver medal.”  But this opening joke referring to recent publicity surrounding LDS founder Joseph Smith was pretty good, and I thought really quite daring before a conservative Mormon crowd that included BYU and Church authorities:

It seems like only a few years ago that I sat where you are sitting. Things were different then: the Beatles were the only boy band, Ma Bell was the only phone company, BYU cafeteria food was the only choice at the Cougareat, and Emma Smith was Joseph Smith’s only wife. 

After referring to some welcome support he got on the campaign trail from a Mormon congregation, Romney gave some good basic advice about contributing to one’s community: 

There may be times in your life when you may feel that it is a bit of a burden being a member of the Church. Some folks will think you’re not Christian, some may be insulted that you don’t drink, and others will think you’re trying to be better than them by not swearing. But I can affirm this: your fellow members of the Church will be a blessing to you that far more than compensates. They will bless you when you are sick, lift you up when you fall, help you raise a teenager, counsel you about a job, and yes, even move your unpacked junk. We are not perfect. As a matter of fact, in many things we are probably no better than anyone else. But we are remarkably good at reaching out our hands to one another in need. Decide to be one of those who does just that.

He then warned against the Mormon version of the Protestant Ethic, a common enough syndrome, one would have to say:

 I can’t tell you how many members of the church I’ve spoken with who think God will help their business succeed, or get them a promotion, or make their investments profitable. I just don’t think God will intervene to help you get rich. There may be exceptions, but I wouldn’t count on it. What He does guarantee is written in D&C 90:24. “Search diligently, pray always and be believing and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewithal ye have covenanted one with another.

Telling of the remarkable people he had been able to meet as a presidential candidate, he passed on this wisdom from a Lutheran former bishop of Stockholm:

His counsel on judging other religions was instructive. He said he had three rules for understanding another faith. First, learn about that faith from one of its adherents, not from one of its detractors. Second, compare the best of one religion with the best of another, not the best of one with the worst of the other. And third, leave room for religion jealousy. I inquired what he meant by that. He explained that in every religion he has encountered, there is something he wishes were also part of his religion.

Mitt gave good advice about getting good advice:  “I can assure you, finding someone who cares enough about you to tell you the truth and then taking time to gain their counsel and their coaching, is invaluable.”  His wife Anne fulfilled this role best, he confided.

What most struck me, though, were the remarks of this uber-wealthy businessman and prominent politician on the limits of secular success.

Living life can become self-consuming: Who you are can be overshadowed by what you do, or what you have done. If you allow this to happen, the inevitable twists and turns of secular life can warp your self-confidence, limit your ambition, test your faith, and depress your happiness. You are not defined by secular measures.

Easy for him to say, you might well be thinking.  But I could see he meant it.  Mitt Romney never really thought being President was the most important thing.  Maybe that doomed him, and so hurt our country.  But this trans-political advice is clearly good for his soul, and for ours:

You are a child of a Heavenly Father who loves you, you are His work and His glory. This statement confirms your incomparable worth. This statement also informs your life’s most important work: to lift others, to lift your family and spouse if you marry, and to remain true and faithful to the Almighty.




Tags: Mitt Romney , BYU , Mormonism

L’Enfance du Christ


As we enter the season where you run stark raving mad out of stores screaming, “I liked  ’Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ the first 139 times!” and when even Handel’s Messiah starts to sound a bit old, allow me to recommend one of my favorites that too few seem to know about:  Hector Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ.   The knock-out piece is “L’Adieu des bergers a la Sainte Famille” (The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family), here performed by a massive choir with the Académie de musique de Paris:

The entire work is three parts, of which the first one, about Herod, is on the too-operatic-to-appeal-to-most side of things.  But the second and third parts contain some absolutely glorious moments.  The best version I know of is on the Harmonia Mundi label, by another French group under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. The late Sir Colin Davis also has a version, which I’m sure is excellent.  Here he is sharing his knowledge of the entire work.

Berlioz was no Christian, but he had a feel for the Biblical story.  The Hamonia Mundi liner notes correctly say L’Enfance du Christ reflects “Berlioz’s desire to return to the religious emotions of his own childhood,” and tell us that he referred to it as “my little sanctity.”  So you can take it as a compliment to, or a tonic to wash away the taste of, the “Matilda Mother” Pink Floyd song discussed below.  In any case, it’s great Christmas music.  

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.


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