Postmodern Conservatism

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Person, Family, Law (Ralphistic Heresies cont.)


I appreciate Peter Lawler’s continuing efforts to give the term “Ralphism” currency among the great schools of thought of our times – or at least as a little one-person subdivision of the growing intellectual movement that is Postmodern Conservatism.  And he may point to the essence of this Ralphian (Ralphistic?  Ralphological?) position when he describes me as “more political and more familial than both [creedal, Trinitarian] Christians and [Orthodox High Transerotic] Straussians.  Peter even generously grants that “there may be a lot right about” my political-familial twist on Pomoconology.

Peter chooses to pick up my questioning by the Strauss/Voegelin handle, which is of course pertinent (and certainly the plainest way to approach initially the great Hancock/Walsh debate).   And he helpfully frames the fundamental question in terms of the Christian discrediting of both pagan natural theology and pagan civil theology.  So far, so good – but note that the proximate source of my line of questioning was an intra-Christian debate between a certain Old Thomism (De Konnink) and the Personalist Natural Law of Jacques Maritain.  It seemed to me that the former had a good and prescient point in his warning of the vulnerability of the latter to liberal individualism.   So I was really just asking, does this seem right? And is the warning relevant to what Lawler means by “Personalism”?  (And the genealogical question: is Lawler’s Personalism continuous with the French school of that name? – perhaps a mere scholarly question of provenance, but perhaps not without interest.) 

To be sure, I am not at all a follower of De Konnink’s old Thomism.  Indeed I suppose it’s fair to say I risk backsliding towards something like pagan “civil theology” – and this is where my Straussian residues are significant.  And no doubt my familialism has some connection with what is called “Mormonism” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints indeed holds that familial relations are eternal in such a way that would seem to compromise the trans-familial transparency of Peter’s creedal Christianity.  (For my Mormon reflections on Christ’s infinite atonement, see this at Patheos)

But my question was really primarily a question of political philosophy concerning the notion of transparent personhood beyond both family and city.  At bottom, it’s a very simple (which is not to say easy) question: can we even know what “relational” means, and can we even helpfully modify and determine the meaning of “personhood” with the term “relational,” without contaminating the infinite transparency of personhood by concrete contents grounded in the political and familial orders.  My worry about the terms “personal” and “relational” is parallel to a concern I have with the term “community” as in “communitarian.”  A communitarian (like Michael Sandel, and maybe Charles Taylor) is a critic of the idea of the individual as independent of “community.”  But what community?  If we say: a community that imposes no particular beliefs or obligations on the individual, then we’re back where we started from.  Our academic communitarians thus believe in “community,” but not in any real community that ever has existed or will exist.  Similiarly, if we take our bearings from a “person” whose relationality is not defined by any concrete and determinate relationship (familial, political, or religious), then we’re back to the open-ended “individual” (who in fact represents a vacuum to be filled philosophically by materialism and politically by the State).

Or religious, I said.   The content of this Christian personhood depends, obviously, upon Christianity – and perhaps upon its liturgies and sacraments as much as upon any creeds.  And upon Christian commandments, I would say, upon concrete laws not irrelevant under the reign of Personal Grace. 

But here with my emphasis on Law I am succumbing again to my Straussian/Mormon heresies.   I submit them for what they’re worth as a spur to thinking about personhood.


Ralphism vs. Being Personal?


As I complained before, I can’t seem to get things to stick in threads from my laptop.

So Ralph asks: Am I more Voegelinian or more Straussian? Am I way existential or way political? Well, I have no idea what it means to be Voegelinian; I don’t even speak Voegelianese. It’s very hard to know what Strauss’s “bottom line” is, and certainly Straussians seem to disagree. My objection to Strauss, maybe, is that, deep down, he follows “classical political philosophy” by denying any foundational status to personality or individuality. For him, philosophy is getting over yourself, learning how to die, overcoming the illusions of personal significance — even those intertwined with eros — in the progress toward a kind of transerotic solitude.

Straussians often think in terms of “the city and man.” There’s the civic excellence of the good citizen and statesman, and there’s the natural excellence of the philosopher. But I follow, for the most part, the third way of the personal logos as found in the writings of the early Church Fathers (see the excellent work of Ratzinger). The basic Christian insight really did authoritatively discredit both natural theology (the god of the philosophers) and civil theology (the gods of the city). The Romans often mistook the Christians for atheists because they, like Socrates, denied the real existence of a theological foundation of the political community. The modern philosophers, who denied the real existence of the personal Creator the Christians describe, still accepted and “secularized” (if you want) the denial of natural and civil theology (for Locke, we free individuals are not parts of nature or the city). For Strauss, modern philosophy is, in that respect, infused with Christian presuppositions about the irreducible status of personal identity. (Rousseau wanted to both restore civil theology and radicalize authentic personal identity — and boy did that misbegotten effort screw up the world.) Strauss’s denial of any truth to the so-called secularization theory is obviously “exoteric” and contradicted by many particular sentences in, say, Natural Right and History. If the project of Strauss is to restore civic theology and/or natural theology, he and his followers are in the process of failing.

The characteristic modern heresy — found even or especially in modern philosophers — is that it’s possible to be personal without being relational. But being relational doesn’t mean, at the deepest level, being political or even being familial. The personal love that connects husband and wife and parents and children has a very deep status in Christianity as characteristics of beings made in the  image of the personal, relational God. But for Christians — as opposed to, say, Mormons — family life as we now experience it does not survive our biological demise, although our personal, embodied being does. The real but imperfect love of human beings for each other is “relativized” somewhat by the perfect transparency of each of us before the God who made each of us in particular and sees and loves each of us just as he or she is.  Obviously, the big difference between Thomas Aquinas and both Maimonides and Locke has to do with that particular providence.

So, for Ralph, orthodox Christianity is too “existential.” But surely so too is “the philosophic experience” described or popularized by Straussian Allan Bloom — focused as it is on death as personal extinction and singularly living the truth about the lack of difference between particular persons and particular leaves. But orthodox Christianity, being all about the equality of all relational persons under God, is a long distance from Kantian autonomy, as it is from the thought of one existentialist that hell is other people. And obviously we Thomists agree with Ralph that we come to the universal truth through the particular loving and “character forming” experiences of being embedded in communities. Logos, after all, is personal; it is a characteristic of a well-formed relational person, and not of a mind or a body or even a mixture of mind and body. But we don’t forget that the church is more foundational than and quite distinct from the city.

Overall, Ralph seems to be more political and more familial than both Christians and Straussians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There may well be a lot right about it, at least as a way of challenging us to think radically about who we are.

Don’t take any of these ramblings too seriously. I’m too tired to read them over, and this is only a blog, after all.


Natural Law and ‘The Person’ at Agora


I’m back! (I hope that doesn’t sound like a threat . . .)

I’ve already given one report at on Christianity and Modernity at the Agora Institute (a propos of an excellent conference in Philadelphia last weekend).  Among 16+ excellent participants, you might know Mark Schiffman, Sherif Girgis, Chris Tollefsen, Steve McGuire (who I imagine got me invited — thanks!),  I was especially fortunate to have Richard Velkley, who shares my interest in the Strauss-Heidegger connection, assigned to comment on my paper on “The Claims of Subjectivity and the Limits of Politics.”

This snippet might serve as a statement of my basic argument:

Philosophy is the natural (albeit rare) extension of this natural interest in conceiving the whole, which cannot be severed from our interest in understanding our place in the whole (and the whole’s place in us), from man’s interest, as Tocqueville says, “in grasping himself.”

We are political beings because this natural interest in understanding the whole and our place in it can never be consummated. This failure fully to grasp ourselves or the elusive whole in which we find ourselves leaves us dependent upon the conventional wholes — the practical orders — which precede us and in which we live, breathe and have our being. Politics is the natural (albeit not effectively universal) extension of our awareness that the conventional whole whose authority precedes us can be conceived as an arena of human reflection and choice. 

We are beings open to — or vulnerable to — the claims of revealed religion because neither poetry, nor philosophy, nor politics can fully respond to our interest in understanding the whole and our place in it, in grasping what is and in grasping ourselves.

The paper that most fascinated me was by Brad Lewis of Catholic University, “Personalism and the Common Good: Thomistic Political Philosophy and the Turn to Subjectivity.”  Brad expertly related the dispute between Jacques Maritain (and friends), who endeavored to “personalize” Thomism in order to embrace the spiritual truth of modern liberal democracy,  and the old-guard Thomism of Charles De Koninck.  Now, as usual in such disputes, one might well say that both sides had valid criticisms of the other. De Koninck was certainly much more confident than I could be that moral limits on individualism can be deduced from or at least firmly grounded in a naturally available understanding of God’s nature. But he seems to me to make a very important (and, in the event prescient) point by warning against the tendency of “personalism,” however spiritual in intention, to devolve in practice into what the personalists took to be its opposite, “individualism.”  

The fragility of “personalism,” I was led to argue there in Philadelphia, leads us to the root of the problem of Christianity and politics: Personalism is true, but all too subject to derailment (to use a good Voegelinian term much in play at the conference).  

I could not help observing that the Maritain–De Koninck debate seemed to me to anticipate the earth-shaking gigantomachia of the Walsh-Hancock debate of the early 21st century. (You don’t know what I’m talking about?  David and I enjoyed two extended, probing, and to me very satisfying exchanges in the pages of Perspectives on Political Science, first in relation to his Modern Philosophical Revolution, and then to my Responsibliity of Reason.)  Short version: David is more existential, and I am more political. He a little more Voegelin, I a little more Strauss. 

I should mention, since we’re on my friend Peter Lawler’s turf here, that the whole discussion made me wonder just how or to what degree his emphasis on “personality” ties into the French tradition of personalism (via Walker Percy??).  And my critical question to Peter would run parallel perhaps to De Koninck’s to Maritain and to mine to Walsh: Is it helpful to play up the person’s transcendence vis-à-vis the concrete moral contents of a political-historical community? The person, like the Trinity, is “relational.”  But either the person disposes of his/her relationships from some autonomous (spiritual?) standpoint, or the certain relationship have a given and authoritative content (familial, for example), that must in practice be regarded as prior to personal transcendence, as informing it and providing personality a meaningful, authoritative ethical context.

Higher Ed and Technology


I only have time for a moment of shameless self-promotion.  Here’s an article I wrote for another channel that was inspired, in different ways, by our Jim Ceaser and Peter Thiel.

Thinking About Romney, Gershwin, Heidegger, Thiel, and Obama


Because I’m on sabbatical, I’m very short on definite deadlines, and my main form of procrastination here at Panera is to check out websites and even Facebook.  Here are some of my “learning outcomes.”

Pete below, as usual, is right to keep us focused on the bizarre third coming of Romney.  Mitt really is a good guy, and, all factors considered, it would be better if he were president right now. Having said that, surely it is the case that he won’t be the nominee in 2016 if another semi-competent, plausible candidate emerges. That means we can’t rule him out.  After all, he wouldn’t have been the nominee last time had another semi-competent, plausible candidate emerged. The result in November, 2016 would be the same as it was last time.  Well, it would probably be worse, because the Democratic candidate wouldn’t be stuck with the incumbent’s baggage.

Let me add quickly that I continue to really “feel” for our president in the difficult choices he faces in his “containment-plus” war strategy.  His situation seems to be largely his fault, but it’s partly Bush’s fault too.  In any case, God help President Obama now.  We can help him by criticizing helpfully his choice of means and his waffling on the end.

Today is the birthday of George Gershwin, T.S. Eliot, and Martin Heidegger.  I list them in order of the pleasure they have given me.  In terms of intellectual pay grade, the order would have to be reversed.  If I were smarter, I could go on to say something about how Gershwin and Eliot are two singular examples of American 20th-century greatness that couldn’t have been predicted by Tocqueville. And I will repeat that I have learned more from Heideggerians than Heidegger.  Noble reason: Students of Heidegger such as Walker Percy and Leo Strauss add something to the thought of MH that has to be added to make it “resonate” with someone like me.  Maybe more truthful reason:  I just haven’t quite gotten the knack of speaking Heideggerian.  Even in the case of Eliot, I prefer Tolkien.

You really do have to read Peter Thiel’s new book.  It’s officially a book about startups, but it’s eerily and even crazily a book about almost everything. It’s quite the singular mixture of transhumanism, Strauss, and Girard.  It has chapters on the fundamental importance of secrets, foundations, and founders.  Something to think about:  Peter lets us know he has decided to make the esoteric truth about monopolies exoteric.  Competition–not monopoly—is the opposite of capitalism, it turns out.  You might say that this is a distinctively Googlily point of view, but I’m pretty convinced by the general logic of his analysis. The book prophetically suggests that the future belongs to founders along the lines of the guys who founded Google, Amazon, Paypal, and Apple.  Maybe the future–the compete conquest of nature–will be owned by Silicon Valley. Well, I don’t really believe that.  But I’m glad Peter was honest enough to say that there are guys in SV who do believe that.


Mitt Romney As Republican Tofu


I can’t believe we are really talking about Romney 2016, but there is one thing in this excellent Ross Douthat post that could be seen from another perspective. Douthat writes that Romney’s performance was “disappointing relative to his own pollsters’ expectations [emphasis in the original] in the general election”.

Maybe it more relevant to argue that it was the performance of the Republican pollsters that was disappointing, just as the performance of the Republican tech operation was disappointing, just as the ads produced by the right-leaning Super PACs were disappointing. You could argue that some of these were the failings of Romney as a manager, but it is worth remembering that Romney ran by far the best organized of the Republican primary campaigns. He ran the best managed buggy whip operation in America.

This gets at how I see Romney. He was going to competently run the GOP playbook as it existed in 2012, with the GOP team that existed in 2012. The smart guys thought that he should run on the economy while avoiding the social issues and potentially damaging specifics on health care policy. His campaign ran the kind of campaign that the decadent Republican consulting class wanted to run. Both Tea Partiers and establishment Republicans were obsessed with the entrepreneurs who built that – and so was Romney. Both Tea Partiers and establishment types complained about the 47% and so did he. The best that Romney could be was a pretty good version of what his party thought it wanted. Mission accomplished.

Now, if Romney ran in 2016, maybe he would adopt something like the Yuval Levin and James Capretta approach to health care and/or the Marco Rubio and Mike Lee approach to tax policy – if that is what he thought the nominating electorate wanted. That would be fine, but the problem is that no playbook exists for selling those policies and defending them from opposition distortions. If that playbook existed, Romney would study it until he had it mastered, but he is the wrong guy to develop that playbook, just as he was the wrong guy to reform the center-right’s creaking electoral institutions.


Have Fun! But Be Safe


In that neglected gem the University Bookman, the fascinating critic Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has provided quite the astute summary and elaboration of the core insights of James Poulos’s series of descriptions of our “pink police state.” Our friend James has brought together what are, at this point, the enduring themes of postmodern conservatism, including his spin on Tocqueville’s better-and-worse theorizing. Things have, from a certain view, gotten better on the liberty front;  everyone is a kind of selective libertarian now. From another view, things are also getting better insofar as people are becoming more prudent when it comes to personal health. We know where more and more risk factors are, and we do what we can to avoid them. But there’s a cost to liberty in our devotion to health and safety or personal sustainability. We are, as I’ve said for a decade or more, getting more puritanical, prohibitionist, and paranoid when it comes to avoiding risk. As Gobry observes, our selective libertarianism is a long distance from libertinism:

In Nietzschean terms, the libertine’s attitude towards sex is a thoroughly Dionysian embrace of sex as an untamable elemental force (with the added frisson of rebellion against the God of the Bible); the pink police state’s is an Apollonic domestication as harmless entertainment. Do whatever you want, so long as the risk is contained. Bro-choice is pro-choice.

Safe sex is bourgeois sex. It’s even nihilistic sex, in a certain sense. But it’s characteristic of the kind of nihilists who lack courage–tamed nihilists. It allows you to be master of your domain without really being master of your domain. Techno-calculation replaces virtue, yada yada. Still, it’s the case that acting on the basis of any calculation about one’s own benefit and that of others does produce self-restraint based on self-denial. Let’s not be so Nietzschean as to be against domestication as such. Let’s not be accused of endorsing some culture of rape.  But true domestication, you can respond, is genuinely relational or with shared personal responsibilities in mind. The real problem is that “safe sex” points in the direction of the pure sentimentality of pornography or imagining a meaningful relationship with an Operating System programmed with your safety and self-esteem in mind (see the film Her). When Tocqueville talked up relatively unerotic or bourgeois or middle-class sex, it was as safely confined to the marital bedroom and with the procreation and raising of children in mind.  Let’s admit that  it’s more better than worse than aristocratic sex, with its double standards, detachment of love from marriage, yada yada. Two cheers for old-fashioned bourgeois sex and the nuclear family, with their affirmation of the practical benefits of the Christian virtues of chastity and fidelity and their reconciliation of productivity and love.

Today the erotic bourgeois virtue has, it’s true, tended to become only do what you want as long as it’s securely detached from birth and death, from the hell of a necessarily enduring connection with other people. It’s also do what you want as long as you’re being productive too. It’s too risky not to have your own money. So our “Apollonic domestication” is being what David Brooks called a “bourgeois bohemian.”  It’s living freely in the sense of being unmoved, at least deeply, by love.  It’s the flat-souled life of American educated sophisticates described by Allan Bloom more than a quarter century ago. It’s a world of single moms and superfluous men. Well, it’s not exactly what Bloom described, because he didn’t understand Americans to be moved deeply by death either, by the prospect of one’s own extinction. They turn out to be moved enough by the experience of personal contingency to be pretty obsessed by risk containment. 

It’s because we don’t have what it takes to be authentic libertines, to have dangerous liaisons, that we don’t have what it takes to be genuine libertarians. Increasingly, however, our young self-described libertarians are imagining themselves to be libertines, living in a world so unrepressed that liaisons or hook-ups don’t have to be dangerous or even dissed any more. 

True libertarians claim to have virtue enough to fend for themselves. Selective libertarians are fine with the state providing a very safe space for their harmless self-indulgences or expressions of personal identity.  That might mean that true libertarians affirm a somewhat repressive world in which characters are actually developed with virtue in mind.  A free man, Nietzsche says, is a warrior.  We don’t have to go that far.  But we might say a free man is a gentleman, someone who knows who he is and what he’s supposed to do, someone who characterized by the virtue of self-command.  The true libertarian is Marcus Aurelius or Atticus Finch.

Overall, it’s my judgment that not only is this criticism of the relationship between the evolution of bourgeois bohemianism and statism getting to be old news, but it’s always been more than a bit exaggerated. Sophisticated Americans, after all, are getting and staying married in bigger numbers. They’re deferring romantic gratification not mainly out of fear of losing their minds in love, but because they’re centering their lives around both work and children. They just don’t have much time to fool around or even be fulfilling themselves online, because their loving relational responsibilities are genuinely demanding. Unlike aristocrats,  both husband and wife now have  to be productive, and they’re stuck in small houses with the kids without “help” when it comes to the diapers and other chores. Two cheers for the resurgent bourgeois family!

Still, parents  are fairly paranoid about their kids’ health and safety, as well as their prospects for personal productivity. Notice I said only fairly paranoid, maybe paranoid by comparison to their parents and especially grandparents. They aren’t so security conscious that they can’t be in love with their kids in the present.

Still, I agree that the main threat to the future of human liberty in any techno-bourgeois society will probably be preferring personal security over liberty.  The merging of perfect security with perfect liberty, some say (such the man of the hour Peter Thiel), will be with the coming of the Singularity.  But the Americans who still “invest” in children are mostly too sensible to really hope that they and their kids will soon be conscious software or machines or whatever. 

The childless future Thiel imagines will be a world of “intelligent design” (see his new book) or perfect rational control. Is a world without chance or contingency really free? Well, it does depend upon the real power of human agency, but it’s also one where, seemingly, nothing about the future is indefinite. A deathless world is also probably one without love, at least if it’s our own techno-creation.

And there’s still a lot to the observation that Americans are increasingly tempted by libertarian post-political fantasies, precisely because they don’t associate “being free” with the responsible and devoted exercise of political liberty. That means they don’t resist nearly enough security-conscious big government or endlessly intrusive big Google.

Notice that, following the general spirit of Poulos (and Bloom and Brooks),  I confined my analysis to prosperous and sophisticated Americans, while neglecting the proletarianization of the middle class and all that.

The argument for that kind of selective analysis, as I’ve explained before, is becoming increasingly untenable.

Tags: James Poulos , pink police state , university bookman , pascal-emmanuel gobry , peter thiel

Tell Me How This Ends


That was what David Petraeus was thinking about when the US was occupying Iraq. Who would govern the Sunni areas when US troops pulled out?

That is what I’m asking now. We can bomb the mostly Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria that are currently being controlled by ISIS, but who will occupy them? Even if the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria become hostile to ISIS, who will reassure those Sunnis that standing up to ISIS won’t mean that ISIS will come back and slaughter their families in a week or a month? Would a Sunni Arab on the Syrian side of the border trust the Assad government or the Free Syrian Army? Would a Sunni Arab on the Iraq side of the border trust the Iran-backed Iraqi government? Tell me who takes over the land and the populations currently governed by ISIS. Then tell me how it ends.  

A Certain Kind Of Republican


I sometimes write about the Republican establishment in the form of the donor and consultant classes, but the big money donors and campaign consultants do not an electorate make (though they can influence candidates both directly and indirectly). Today, I would like to give a stylized account of certain right-leaning voters who might be sympathetic to the GOP establishment:

These voter might be small businessmen but are more likely in the salaried professions, and they lead personally decent, quiet lives. While Tea Partiers tend to see themselves as conservatives first and Republicans second, these voters consider themselves Republicans before they consider themselves conservatives – and they think of themselves as responsible bourgeoisie above all else.

These voters take their cues from the mainstream news media (not just the network news but also the NYT, Washington Post, Politico, and the local news) and the Washington-based chattering classes (with a special emphasis on the thoughts of former Republican office holders). These voters don’t entirely trust either the mainstream media or the GOP establishment. They know that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (and it sometimes deeply irritates them), and they know that the GOP establishment sometimes gets it wrong and is almost always uncreative. But they also think that right-wing talk radio hosts are a bunch of intellectual crooks and that Tea Partiers are a bunch of yahoos. By default, they end up forming impressions by applying a discount-for-bias approach to the mainstream media’s narratives and going along with whatever the Washington GOP establishment decides as the consensus.

They don’t see the populist right (especially the populist right they see portrayed in the media they consume) as a viable alternative. They want people who will govern responsibly and who will say no to the demands of the Democratic interest groups. They don’t want self-defeating radicalism. Given a choice between their caricature of a Tea Partier and an establishment Democrat, they will go with the Democrat. They don’t want Hillary Clinton, but better her than Michele Bachmann.

That doesn’t make these voters the inevitable enemies of populist conservatives. They want a candidate who gives off a sense of sobriety and expertise. Ben Sasse could appeal to these voters even though he wasn’t the first-choice of the Washington Republican establishment. Marco Rubio ran as an insurgent conservative against a moderate, establishment-backed candidate and these voters came home to him. Tea Partiers can win primaries without these voters, but a candidate that consolidates the Tea Party vote and seems acceptable to these kinds of voters almost can’t lose a nominating contest – even if the Washington Republican leadership would prefer someone else.

The challenge for a Tea Party candidate is that it is easier to get attention from both conservative broadcasters and the mainstream media by taking stands (as much rhetorical as substantive) that will drive a wedge between conservatism-first Tea Partiers and responsibility-first(as they understand responsibility) right-leaning voters. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are both Tea Party insurgents and they have picked some of the same fights. Lee has been more constructive on policy, but Cruz is much better known among both Tea Partiers and non-Tea Partiers – and that is not just because Cruz is a more dynamic speaker.


Questions about Pro-Life Libertarians and U2 Love Lyrics


1) Was Ben Domenech right, when he recently implied that increasing numbers of younger libertarians are pro-life?  That would make sense logically, for even if you buy into the idea that the Griswold-Eisenstadt-Roe-Casey-defined right of privacy is protected by the word “liberty” in the 14th just as the liberal justices say, or is a somewhat newly-grasped natural right that ought to be explicitly announced and protected by a new amendment, you would have reason to think there can be no “balancing” of that right with the right to life.  If you take the Declaration’s right to life truly seriously, whether on older natural law and/or Biblical grounds, or even (I think) on the purely “politicalized psychology” natural rights grounding of Locke, Jefferson, etc., you regard it as inalienable, and in the face of contemporary science and timeless logic, all the hemming and hawing about “not knowing” whether the post-conception “thing” is a human person cannot keep you from applying that right to the prenatal human in all stages from conception on.  Another way to put it is this:  any libertarian who is going to be categorical about the inalienability of liberty and property rights has got to also be so about the right to life. 

Domenech described this as “heartland libertarianism,” and as being on the rise, especially among the young:

…unlike most Libertarian Party candidates, every libertarian-leaning Republican elected over the past several years—including Mike Lee in Utah, Justin Amash in Michigan and Thomas Massie in Kentucky—is strongly pro-life. Their brand of heartland libertarianism is not at odds with limited government conservatism or Christian belief; instead itaccepts the Lockean view of natural rights at the basis of the American founding. Ron Paul himself made this view explicit in a 2012 ad campaign, arguing that “unless… we understand that we must protect life, we can’t protect liberty.” This is a view of natural rights and the Declaration of Independence that eliminates a litmus-test issue that would bar many Christian conservatives from voting for a candidate like Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, the pro-choice former governor of New Mexico. It is an approach that expands the appeal of libertarianism, attracting supporters who in prior generations might have been lock-step Republicans and traditional churchgoing social conservatives, but have instead reconsidered whether compassionate conservatism and nation building was a good idea after all.

Domenech didn’t say it, but it would be perfectly consistent for this kind of libertarianism, which is perhaps better described as “natural rights libertarianism” to be pro-gay-marriage.  As a brand of libertarianism, it wouldn’t need to meet the litmus test I think anything still called a form of “conservatism” must meet, which is to only be pro-gay-marriage insofar as it is won via democratic votes. (BTW: I’m against gay-marriage, but I only get into a sky-is-falling-mode about it when it is legalized via judicial decisions.)

Are these sorts of libertarians, who are pro-life and pro-religious-liberty, but who otherwise find social-conservatism distasteful, increasing in number?  What do you think?  I am open to learning about the best polls on this, or simply hearing everyone’s anecdotal impressions. 

2) Was this New Yorker writer Joshua Rothman correct that in many instances, when U2 lyrics seem to be about love for a woman or about difficulties caused by such, they are actually, or at least at their deepest level, about the Christian’s difficult calling to love God

I was a big fan of the band when younger (see the Songbook post on “New Year’s Day”), and still enjoy hearing them, and even on occasion thinking about their overall significance, and especially the Christian side of that.  Still, I’m not interested enough to have taken the trouble yet to download their new album.  I understand the reasons certain writers have given for their needing to make the big “ironic shift” they did with Achtung, Baby  back in 1992, but felt some of the moves that accompanied that too accommodating–musically and theatrically–to 90s-era decadence, and I generally think the effectiveness of pop-art/ironic strategies in rock to be quite overrated.  So, I guess I like best the simpler U2 of the first four albums, which just happens to be the U2 of my own youth, despite the painfully ridiculous earnestness (“Like a Song,” anyone?) of some of that material.

In any case, if Rothman is right, a lot of those later lyrics about disappointment in love become a bit more interesting, perhaps.  (My “perhaps” has to do with feeling that some “Christian hipster” artists have a tendency to play up the soulfulness of doubt-struggles more than they should.)  Maybe I’ll even buy or download some of those albums.  But count me as unconvinced so far—for a few songs, maybe, but pretty much across the board?  Can any of our readers add to Rothman’s case? Or have I read him incorrectly?


The questions are unrelated, beyond my feeling curious and ignorant about both.

Tags: U2 , Ben Domenech , Joshua Rothman , Libertarianism

Yuval on the Long (and Personal) Way


Our friend Yuval Levin has a very penetrating and elegant article in the new First Things.  It really is postmodern and conservative, although in Yuval’s distinctive mode.  The long way is personal progress through virtue, the short-cut is social (and techno-) progress that intends to make virtue superfluous.  One reason we’re stuck with virtue is that, without it, even political and economic liberty aren’t sustainable.  But those forms of liberty–and certainly not unregulated personal autonomy–aren’t properly human bottom lines.  Here’s a particularly poetic part of Yuval’s conclusion.

Not everyone has the good fortune of a flourishing family, or the opportunity for rewarding work, or a liberal education, or a humbling faith, let alone all of these at once. But some combination of these soul-forming institutions is within the reach of most, and the work of reinforcing them, sustaining the space for them, and putting them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible is among our highest and most pressing civic callings. That calling, rather than a hyper-individualist liberationism, should be the organizing principle of our political life, helping us see what to conserve and how to advance.



Providence, Community, and Society


So I’m back from Providence, R.I. (quite a lively place these days), where I ran a conference (with Dan Mahoney) sponsored by both the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Liberty Fund.

The point of the readings (which I didn’t choose) for the conference seems to have been to reflect on the distinction between Community and Society (see the sociologist Tonnies).  From the communitarian point of view, in the beginning there was communism (or the complete identification of the particular human being with the Community) and human “progress” has been the direction of a world in which all human connections are calculated, consciously constructed, and superficial. The movement is also from the small agrarian community to the big industrial city. It is also, of course, in the direction of the rootless cosmopolitanism of the rich sophisticate.  Said sophisticated or enlightened person sets the standard for Society, which is really a ruthless competition for status and money under the veil of politeness.

In the view of Tonnies, Society becomes, as it were, all head and no heart, pits emotionally distant classes against each other, and eventually self-destructs. Along the way, there may be a period of socialism — which is the conscious management of everything. Socialism is infinitely distant from natural communism.

For Tonnies, there’s one possible way to resist the full emergence of this unsustainable world “after virtue”: the conscious cultivation of the remaining islands of Community in the midst of Society. Community can become a matter of choice, which, of course (according to this way of thinking), it never was before.

The choice of Community in our time would depend on affirming a truth about human nature that can’t completely be transformed by social or historical forces. Tonnies, being basically a 19th-century romantic historicist, often preferred the logic of historical-social development to empirical evidence. And we have a lot more of that evidence these days.

Tonnies great debts are to Marx and Hobbes. He learns from Marx that urbanizing “capitalism” drowns in the icy waters of egoistical calculation all illusions about the beauty or insrinsic goodness of virtue. And he thinks, again with Marx (and Rousseau before him), that the war-of-all-against-all that Hobbes describes as the natural condition of human beings is actually the “purely social” condition of bourgeois or cosmopolitan individuals.

Marx looks forward to the revolution that can, in a way, restore primitive communism on a completely conscious basis. We will have all the benefits of communism without all the repression and scarcity. Because he’s as “forward looking,” in his way, as techno-sophisticates such as Peter Thiel, he is heartless enough to diss rural idiocy. Tonnies and Rousseau want us to be selectively nostalgic for rural idiocy. (Another possible position:  Rural idiocy is actually the invention of capitalism, which causes all the brains to move to the city to run the centralized operations that have rural branches. People in small towns used to run their own banks, hardware stores, and stuff.)

The economist McCloskey gave us some thoughtful criticisms of the more apocalyptic applications of the Community-versus-Society distinction. First off, “bourgeois virtue” is not an oxymoron. Second, the romantic views of Community ignore all the murderous, exclusivist cruelty that was characteristic of our more rural and unenlightened past. In some ways, people really have gotten less cruel and more gentle. There may well be less hate in the world. And it’s far from clear that there’s less love. The connection between love and marriage, after all, is a modern ideal, and someone might even claim that modern workplaces are more emotionally satisfying on the personal level than those of the past. Not only that, those silly economists who really believe that people or businesses can be understood solely or even mostly in terms of utility maximization are just as unempirical as those who think they long for primitive communism. Our world is a sustainable mixture, McCloskey claims, of Community and Society.

McCloskey’s tale is more than a bit of a lullaby, it seems to me. Still, she’s useful for freeing us from the various illusions of romanticism.

Our conference’s bottom line remained: Classical liberals or libertarians or whatever you call them are not conservatives because they privilege the forward-looking, techno-liberation of Society — meaning the liberation of the free individual — over the political-cultural repression of Community. Insofar as they affirm some Community, they do so instrumentally as a means for the progress of Society.

Have said all this: My objection to the distinction between Community and Society is that neither captures the the free and relational being found in the Biblical/Christian “anthropology.” Being free and relational is more than a “compromise” between Society and Community.

One more thing:  The very smart and altogether admirable young people at this conference came disproportionally from large families headed up by loving and capable parents.  Their formative experience, to sample Tonnies, was of the communism that is characteristic of a highly functional family.  So they almost all thought that Society exists for the benefit of Community.  They almost all also thought, however, that one sign of the progress of modern Society is the liberation of women to choose to be productive and political beings just like men.  They were still, in this respect, “communist” enough that I had to courageously defend what’s true about Ayn Rand (even from a Christian view).  That didn’t take me very long, and I wasn’t intending, after all, to produce Randians or even Hayekians.  Maybe Tocquevillians.

“Post-Constitution Day” for Tim Kaine and the Senate Democrats


If September 17th was Constitution Day, then the 18th must have been Post-Constitution Day, right? 

Generally I’ve critical of conservative thinkers, such as Mark Levin, when they say we now live in a post-Constitutional order.  I just don’t think that’s accurate, even though we’re rather plausibly on the way there.  But this last Thursday sure provided some uncanny evidence in support of that idea.

Item:  whereas on September 16th, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine published an editorial in the NYT insisting that Obama had to have authorization from Congress to wage war against ISIS, on September 18th, he supported his Democratic Senate colleagues’ decision to delay a vote on the war until after the election!  

This, despite the fact that for many months, Kaine has been talking up his efforts to develop and promote bipartisan legislation, which he calls the War Powers Consultation Act of 2014, that would better allow Congress to resist unilateral attempts by the executive branch to make decisions about war (part of the bill requires a vote after seven days of combat) and peppering this talk with quotations from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and effusions of patriotic love for that wise document, the Constitution.  If Tim Kaine is looking for another illustrious quote of old with which to make his case, allow me to recommend these words from a prayer of the younger Augustine:  “Lord, make me chaste!  But not yet!”

Perhaps that is unfair—for a man like Kaine has to work with the Democratic Senate, and the Democratic base, that he’s got.  Time will win them over to his view, and to a more consistent application of his principles. 

But no, that’s not it.  Bottom line:  Kaine could have opposed this.   He could have said, “My colleagues aren’t quite with me yet, and the ISIS situation is indeed a confusing one, but eventually they’ll see that their decision to delay a vote on these war actions was a mistake, that the principle of congressional war-initiation-oversight we’re hopefully going to more clearly enshrine always requires Congress to quickly give an initial yea or nay vote.”  Again, that’s not my constitutional principle, but Kaine’s.  I respectfully disagree with it, but regard it as a classic and more-often-than-not salutary American political belief.  But Kaine made no stand for the principle, but reversed his whole position—at least until after the election—and hoped no-one would notice.  

Item:  whereas by Congressional legislation and Presidential declaration, September 17th has for many years now been celebrated by all government offices as Constitution Day, on September 18th, fifty Democratic Senators, with Tim Kaine among them, voted against a bill’s amendment that would have allowed a congressional vote upon President Obama’s promise to unilaterally issue an unprecedented in scope and baldly unconstitutional amnesty for many millions of illegal immigrants.  

When does Obama promise to do this? After the election, when else?

How would Obama’s promise, if kept, violate the Constitution?  Let us count the clauses. There’s the 1) take-care clause, 2) the presentment clause, 3) the clauses pertaining to the veto, of course understood in the light of judicial rulings that they do not permit line-item vetoes, and finally 4), there’s that pesky clause right at the beginning of Article 1:  “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” But the Senate refuses to even cast a vote upon this promise to steal their own power!

A few hardy souls, such as Eric Posner, have tried to argue that the promised amnesty would not violate the take-care clause, and that the action in is no way de facto legislation.  The embarrassing thing for Democrats, however, is that Posner is an outright Executive-Branch Supremacist, and that his arguments were easily demolished, both by conservative columnist Ross Douthat and by many of the liberal commenters upon his original TNR piece.  But alas, most Americans don’t know the news.  

James Madison, whose wisdom is so extolled by Kaine, wrote in Federalist 51, a document which tens of thousands of teachers have taught to young Americans as representing the truth about their Constitution, that

…the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others.

Congress is supposed to resist when the President encroaches upon their powers.  And one would think, the more blatant the encroachment, the greater the resistance.  But for some reason, our congressional Democrats have lost all motive to resist.  One might compare their attitude with that displayed by quite a few Democratic representatives of 1937, when FDR pushed to expand the Supreme Court, albeit by means of completely-constitutional legislation, and lost the vote in the Democrat-dominated Congress handily.  But the Democrats of these latter days resist nothing, and what BHO promises is even worse, being nothing but an unconstitutional substitute for legislation.

And make no mistake, it might alter our system as much as an enlarged Supreme Court would have.  If the Democrats allow Obama to do this, the next Republican president will win acquiescence from his party to his issuing an executive order of similar magnitude and unconstitutionality, perhaps unleashing a tit-for-tat dynamic that becomes a permanent feature of our system, de facto granting every future president some unspecified number of Super-Executive Orders.  A few smart liberals like Jonathan Chait have issued warnings of this kind, but no-one in Democratic political or MSM circles heeds such, not even the rumored-to-exist moderate-minded Constitution-reverencing Democratic representatives, the kind that Kaine aspires to appear to be. 

So, whatever the future holds for us, which I hope and pray will include a return to more serious allegiance to the Constitution, every teacher of Federalist 51 will from now on struggle to respond to a single pungent argument against its reasoning: “But, 2014!” 

It’s all pretty “Scary Stuff,” Senator Kaine.  And I say that after last week, that’s as much your foot trampling the Constitution there as it is Obama’s. Any possibility that you might give us some reassurances to the contrary?  You don’t face election for four years.  Are you going to step up and lead in matters constitutional?  Say, by finally answering questions like this one?  I’m sure those Republicans who take your position on what the Constitution requires with war-powers would like to believe you that you have some level of sincere devotion to the document, before they consider supporting your bill.  I’m looking to the broader future, however,  If you are not, as I think is now apparent, going to be the leader these polarized times call for, might you know of any up-and-coming Democratic stars, who are prepared to more fully assure their non-Democratic brothers and sisters that the Constitution still rules us all?  

You can get back to me anytime.  Even, if you wish, after the election.

Tags: Tim Kaine , Constitution , amnesty , war-powers

Getting All Personal


Leading with shameless self-promotion:  Richard Reinsch and I introduced a needed (Orestes) Brownsonian dimension to the Yuvalism (or reform conservatism) that is sweeping (maybe a slight exaggeration) America in National Affairs

Turning to what I’m doing right now:  I’m running a conference with Dan Mahoney (see below) on freedom and community in America.  We opened with Hayek and Ayn Rand explaining why they’re not conservatives.  According to Rand, either you’re a CAPITALIST or a STATIST.   And either you’re a sucker who embraces the anti-morality of ALTRUISTIC SELF-SACRIFICE or you rationally affirm the objectively true morality of (unbridled) SELF-ESTEEM–which turn out to be that nothing trumps ME.  Question for discussion:  Isn’t our NONFOUNDATIONAL, LEFT-LIBERTARIAN morality morphing in her direction, without her toughness?  Capitalism is replaced by a selective libertarianism, with room for a little person-sustaining statism and a lot of transhumanism, that’s about a progressively more reliable environment for ME.

My question to the basically anti-libertarian students:  Is there something true in Rand’s radical refusal to be reduced to a a PART of a whole “greater” than oneself?

Daniel Mahoney and the Truth about Solzhenitsyn


One of the few things possibly better than reading our friend Daniel Mahoney, and especially about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is listening to him talk on, in his friendly regal fashion, about Solzhenitsyn.

A couple of days ago the Liberty and Law Site made available this podcast, wherein Mahoney talks about his new book The Other Solzhenitsyn:  Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker.  This work can be considered as a supplement or sequel to Mahoney’s 2001 effort to sum up Solzhentisyn as a political thinker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:  The Ascent from Ideology.  Its format allows Mahoney to range more widely—for example, there are chapters on certain themes spanning several works, such as one on the need to forswear absolute pacifism in order to resist soul-corrupting evil, others which consider a specific literary work, such as one on In The First Circle and another on the late-in-life short stories, and one which compares the responses of Raymond Aron and Solzhenitysn to communist totalitarianism. 

If you’ve read some of Solzhenitsyn’s corpus, you’ll find it a difficult book to put down, and if you haven’t read any of it, well, what are you waiting for?!  Had I to start over again, I’m not sure the order I’d go in, but certainly the GULAG Archipelago first, in the abridged edition, perhaps some of the key essays and speeches next, available in the Solzhenitysn Reader, edited by Ericson and Mahoney, and then onto either In the First Circle, or the first two first “knots” of the super-novel The Red Wheel, namely, the just reissued–in the superior/complete Willetts translations–August 1914 and November 1916.  The third of these is one of my very favorite novels, despite the criticism it gets for providing too much history and political commentary alongside its main sections.  For In the First Circle and August 1914, make sure you get the newer versions.  And somewhere in there, you need to delve into a number of the short stories and poems.

In general, I would just say that there is a distinctive fire and life imparted by Solzhenitsyn that just sweeps you up—indeed the best thing about Mahoney’s book is  that his prose reflects that in part.  I’m not a literary expert and likely have serious lacunas of taste, but for me Solzhenitsyn is in my personally select class of literary artists—Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Ellison–who just capture me completely and peculiarly fire my soul, I think in more healthy directions than not, when I read them.

Mahoney feels obliged to spend a good deal of time, in his book, and especially in this interview, refuting a vague calumny that often attaches to the great author’s name, especially in sophisticated Anglophone circles, as a retrograde Russian nationalist, and thus anti-democratic, narrowly religious, probably anti-Semitic, etc.  It’s all utterly untrue.  Mahoney is right to do his scholarly duty against the calumny, of course, but it’s most unfortunate that this is still necessary.

Incidentally, that painting is by one of the great Kugach painters, whose work can be seen at the Lazare Gallery (appt. only), which has a collection of contemporary and 20th-century Russian realist painting, located in the countryside between Richmond and Williamsburg.  The Lazare owners claim that not a few serious realists these days go to Russia for the schooling in technique only available there–just one more sign among others that you can’t reduce your thinking about today’s Russia to Putin and his thuggish armies.

Mike Huckabee And The FairTax Test


Mike Huckabee is either publicly contemplating running for president or is perpetrating a scam to raise his Q-Score.

On paper, Huckabee should be the strongest of the potential GOP presidential candidates. No one else has his combination of charisma, executive experience, wide name recognition, and pre-existing base among the party’s evangelical Christians. The problem is that he has never been sufficiently serious about the preparation aspect of running for president. Huckabee didn’t do the policy homework during his 2008 presidential run (as Ross Douthat pointed out at the time). If anything Huckabee has regressed since embarking on his new career in the entertainment industry. His most recent CPAC speech was a lazy and disjointed bit of ideological niche marketing rather than something from a prospective president.

If you want to know how far Huckabee can go, look what he does with his FairTax proposal. The Republican party is not going to nominate someone who wants to impose a 30 percent (or perhaps even higher) federal sales tax. Even if Huckabee manages to consolidate the evangelical vote (which might not happen if the other candidates target his tax proposal early), the other elements of the GOP nominating electorate will rally behind whatever establishment candidate survives the New Hampshire primary. As long as Huckabee sticks with the FairTax, he can’t be anything more than the candidate who finishes second.

That doesn’t mean that Huckabee couldn’t have an impact. Michele Bachmann only competed in one delegate selecting contest (in which she finished last), but she helped Romney take down Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich (though Gingrich would have a brief resurrection after Bachmann dropped out).

Huckabee is a far better campaigner than Bachmann and, as Henry Olsen pointed out, Huckabee’s political base in Iowa is quite large. A Huckabee campaign could knock Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz out of the box quickly, and suck up any oxygen that might be available for a candidate that hasn’t been blessed with the favor of the big party donors and the Washington consultant class. But Huckabee isn’t the guy who beats the Republican establishment. He is, at most, the candidate who gets beaten by the Republican establishment and does the GOP establishment the favor of preventing other populist Republicans from getting any traction.

But maybe this is all just part of a Huckabee marketing scam, and he just suckered me into providing him with a teeny bit of free publicity. I hope that is the case.   

Tags: Mike Huckabee

Constitution Day, 2014


It was the worst Constitution Day ever.  My president had promised us all that after the November election, he would do a “Big Amnesty,” a move that Ross Douthat and I described, correctly, as amounting to raw theft of legislative power by the executive branch, and as one of the most blatant and far-reaching violations of the document ever contemplated. 

So I went out to the public square and asked my fellow citizens what they felt about it.  Most of them hadn’t heard, or regarded the fuss as an aspect of “the immigration issue.” 

So I went to my facebook feed, to see if any of my liberal friends, who so often post on political topics such as the need for a higher minimum wage and so forth, had any protest to make.  Surely they were now ready, at least on Constitution Day, to make some noise against Obama’s promise.  But no.  I mused that I could post something about it again, but I’d have to figure it would only be for my sake—only a handful of persons would “like” it or respond.  I would be the guy interrupting everyone’s facebook time with worries about the Constitution.  Nah.  I’d already exceeded my three-political-items a month limit anyhow, I figured.

So I went to the conservative websites, and I learned that Senator Ted Cruz had put up a petition to oppose the Big Amnesty.  All right!  So I went and signed it—but then I noticed:  all of Cruz’s bullet-points were against the policy, not the unconstitutional means of doing it.  Now sure, I’m against the policy in a big way—despite my San Diego-bred prejudice in favor of nearly all persons and things Mexicano, I’m against actions that will legitimate and cause more illegal immigration.  Horrible policy, were it merely a democratically-arrived at policy decision.  But the really scary thing proposed here is not the giving of a quasi-amensty to five million or so, but the doing it in an uanti-democratic and unconstitutional way.  Why isn’t Cruz making a big deal of that?  How can he possibly announce this new petition on Constitution Day and not make that aspect the centerpiece of his effort? 

So I went to a Constitution Day debate that featured a leading conservative champion of robust, but scrupulously constitutional, presidential prerogative power for foreign policy and military purposes, John Yoo.  Yoo’s performance was in general very under-whelming—either he was off his game or is simply a much better writer than speaker—but here’s the shocking thing:  he barely even mentioned the president’s promise to just say the hell with the separation of powers. 

Much better in all ways was his opponent, the Democrat-voting scholar Jonathan Turley.  He at least mentioned it, and with some heat.  He at least brought some passion to the table, saying that Obama, whom he voted for, “is the president Richard Nixon wanted to be!” and that “Obama’s becoming the danger the Constitution was designed to avoid!”  Wow.  The audience, mostly students at Christopher Newport University, warmed to his comments all right.  

I couldn’t warm to them entirely—I knew that with respect Turley’s other big contention, that modern presidents, Obama and Bush II especially, have increasingly violated the Constitution with respect to war-powers, my position was closer to Yoo’s than his own.  I think Turley errs by claiming that on such war-powers issues, the correct interpretation of the Constitution is entirely Madisonian and not at all Hamiltonian, such that Congress must generally have say on whether the President can enter our forces into armed conflict.  There’s a lot one could say about this position, which tends to be backed more by liberals than conservatives.   I have a real measure of respect for it while disagreeing with it, and I like the constitutional seriousness it evokes from liberals, especially lately, as witnessed by even Bruce Ackerman coming out against Obama’s attitude towards the Constitution, and by my Virginia Senator Tim Kaine exploring new ways to legislatively strengthen the principles of the War Powers Resolution.  In fact, as I recalled this similarity Kaine had with Turley, I also remembered that he recently had the honor of being one of the few Democratic Senators who voted against the recent Harry Reid-pushed amendment to curtail the 1st amendment protection of free speech.  Kaine has a real claim to moderation, and to seriousness about the Constitution. At least as those are understood in our day.

So I went to Senator Kaine’s website.  Surely by now this paragon of Rigorous Adherence to the Constitution would have answered the question put to him a Weekly Standard reporter back in the spring: “Are there any parts of Obamacare that the president can’t suspend?”  Surely by now someone would have demanded he answer this question as applied to the Big Amnesty promise, such that the question becomes “Are there any parts of Obamacare, or immigration law, that it would be unconstitutional for the president to suspend or to refuse to enforce?”   Surely he would have by now announced his shock that Obama would promise to act in this way on immigration.  But no, there was nothing, just a link to his demand yesterday that the president obey the War Powers Resolution and Article I by seeking congressional approval to attack ISIL.

I would like to pose a question to my Senator.   It is this:  “If you have no apparent constitutional objection to the president suspending any part of Obamacare or immigration law, why would it not also be constitutional for him to suspend any part of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, or any part of the War Powers Consultation Act of 2014 you’re hoping to get Congress to pass?” 

People, tell me, is there anywhere for me to go?  When there was little response to the posts I wrote here at NRO this summer, namely, “The Case for Formally Threatening Obama with Impeachment Right Now,” “Ross Douthat and the Week of Obscene Silences,”(linked above) and “Scary Stuff,”  was that a sign that, apart from Turley and a few others, I am largely alone on this?  Am I just too school-boy earnest on this?  Or is the Constitution just too hard to understand?  Even when the issue centers on the chief executive promising to exercise a legislative power not granted to him in the text?  

Political commentator on the Ricochet blog Claire Berlinski last week reported the results of an experiment she conducted, where she simply ignored the news for two or three weeks to see if she would be happier, more well-adjusted, etc.  And guess what? It worked!  Happiness is not knowing the news.

The news on Constitution Day 2014 is that our president has promised us that he will violate the Constitution after the election in an unprecedentedly blatant and major way, and that you, my fellow citizens, my friends, my newscasters, even my fellow conservatives, and even my supposedly moderate and oh-so-Constitution-focused Senator Kaine, you make no protest against it.  You see the moment coming, as a man at a station sees a locomotive approaching from a distance, glimpsing it here and there as it silently winds down the mountain curves, and there you stand, doing nothing.  

You are telling your president that you accept it.

So to Jonathan Turley, but not to you, I tip my hat this Constitution Day.  Regrettably, I can’t wish him, nor anyone, a “Happy Constitution Day.”  No one can.  For in 2014, the day is either made a Happy one by forgetting all about Constitution, or an unhappy one by remembering it.

Uniting with Rod Dreher


I took a trip this morning over to the tasteful and erudite site of The American Conservative.  Being a uniter, not a divider, by nature, I was hoping to find much to affirm.  Sadly, I was a  bit disappointed or uncharacteristically disagreeable, although I want to say that, overall, my favorite cultural critic is now the AC’s Micah Mattix.

I was impressed by the sheer abundance of thoughtfulness in the recent posts by Rod Dreher.  He’s obsessed a lot more than is good for his or our mental health over Cruz’s misbegotten speech.  The question: “What the hell was that guy thinking?”  The answer: “Well, nobody knows, but he wasn’t thinking as much as he should have been.”  Still, Rod’s bottom line is correct: American Christians should form a coalition in defense of the “parallel goods” of the safety and security of Israel and saving Christians and Christianity in the Middle East.  I’ve tried to be all poetic and show those two goods might be considered one.  But I don’t require that either the Israelis or the Arab Christians see things my way.  Rod, sign me up for the coalition.

Not only that!  Rod has provided a fine summary of a position I’ve put forward for your consideration from time to time: libertarian means for non-libertarian ends:

We’ve got a First Amendment, the penumbra of which grants us lots of latitude for running our own religious lives as we see fit. The ground of liberty in this way is going to be shrinking, that’s clear, in the coming laïcité.  But we still have a lot more freedom than do religious folks in other countries, and that’s worth preserving.  I am a conservative, not a libertarian, but we live in a fundamentally libertarian social order.  It might make sense, then, to vote for principled libertarians over conventional conservatives, if the principled libertarians truly respect the liberty of unpopular religious minorities to live within their sphere and flourish.  I believe that over the course of my children’s lifetime, defending the First Amendment is going to become the most important cause for religious conservatives, because on it everything else for us will depend.

Because, unlike Rod, I can’t say I make my living blogging, I can only make a few comments at the moment: It’s true that the ground of liberty is sinking as we seem to gradually surrender the true understanding of the Free Exercise Clause as the freedom for the church (religious communities) as an organized body of thought and action. Sadly, as libertarians are getting more principled, they’re often thinking less in terms of freedom from government as for being immersed in the intermediary associations, beginning with the family and the church, where people find personal significance. “Being principled” too often means pushing too hard for autonomy across the board through government policy, beginning with an activist judiciary. And libertarians are often rather indifferent to what Joel Kotkin calls “the proletarianization of the middle class,” as well as to the rise of the new “clerisy” rooted in Silicon Valley that intrusively enforces  its cosmopolitan (or basically techno-manipulative) moral vision throughout out institutions, as well as through our screens.

Still, it does seem that, for example, preserving the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of our system of higher education really does depend on freeing our private, mostly religious schools from domination by foundations, corporations, experts, bureaucrats, the government, accrediting associations, and all that. There are some libertarians who really do share “our” desire to enhance that particular deregulatory outcome.  And Rod reminds us to continue to be grateful for America’s rather singular—pre-French revolutionary—understanding of religious liberty, which is still more intact than some traditionalists say.

So sign me up for this coalition too—although we have to be very selective about the kinds of libertarians we endorse. They have to be, in fact, selectively libertarian, having some room for the devotion of citizens and the civic vision required for a responsible foreign policy. Civic devotion, of course, need not and should not be as intensive and expansive as what Pat Deneen recommends as the cure for our democratic restlessness at the AC. Those Puritans, after all, weren’t so good for the Catholics or for the truth of religious liberty. Democratic restlessness doesn’t need to be eradicated, only moderated. The restless heart only finds its home in the true God, and our political home is “relativized”—although not obliterated—by comparison. A similar thing could be said about the free market. America, truth to tell, means to be “a home for the homeless.”

Critical Thinking vs. the Virtue of BS


So I’m returning today to thinking about higher education. I’m not thinking about students (I’m on sabbatical), and, in any case, they’re almost never the problem. My concern is educational experts and their silly studies that show stuff.

Here’s a professor who actually makes some good sense. He proposes “the virtue of BS” as an antidote to the omnicompetent pretensions of ”critical thinking.” He reminds me of Socrates taking on the sophists, but only to a point. If I had to choose between unironically embracing the method of critical thinking as the goal of my teaching and just shooting the bull, I’d probably choose the latter.  His point here is to oppose the view that critical thinking is a virtue in itself, and so not a means serving the end of virtue. Another way of his putting his point is that, contrary to many experts, critical thinking isn’t the point of liberal education.

Critical thinking is branded as a methodical skill or competency — a “how”– dogmatically detached from any “why” or human content. It can be applied to any problem or any opinion. Why is the phrase “critical thinking” such a big deal these days? Well, Tocqueville said the Americans are Cartesians who’ve never read Descartes. That’s because he noticed that the Cartesian method — doubt — is also the democratic method. What’s mainly doubted is personal authority. If I defer to your authority, then I let you rule me. And so why should you listen to me when I tell you to read the DWM Descartes? I can doubt or be critical perfectly well without doing that.  The good news, for a democrat, about critical thinking is that it proves nobody is better than me.  The bad, of course, is that I can’t really show I’m better than anyone else or have any real personal significance.  It detaches me from the relational world of persons, without having the power to locate me somewhere else.

Critical thinking, from one view, is redundant. What would “uncritical thinking” be? Certainly not thinking. But thinking is more than critical in the sense of being merely deconstructive or utilitarian. The goal of thinking is not the dizzying disorientation that Tocqueville found in the isolated or allegedly self-sufficient or unrelational mind. It’s the shared joy of knowing the truth in common, and that knowing is an irreducibly personal and relational characteristic. “Consciousness,” Walker Percy amusingly said that Descartes forgot, is “knowing with.”

The author actually points to a kind of mean between the two extremes of critical thinking and BS: Thinking about who we are and what we’re supposed to do with some confidence that such questions have answers we can (to some extent) share in common. A little managed BS about love and death and God and virtue can serve that goal. But not discussion so “freewheeling” that the distinction between those informed by the reading and those who are not disappears, not to mentionthe indispensable moral distinction between seriously trying to tell the truth and shooting the bull. It would be corny and only marginally misleading to say here that the model is the Socratic dialogue. Today’s classroom, for one thing, is a much “safer space.”

It’s another excess of democracy to think that the two human modes are critical thinking (and problem solving) and BS. That mistake is based on the dogmatic dichotomy between the head being for calculation alone and the heart being for (randomly or instinctually) valuing and loving alone. So we have the distinction between the sciences (that serve technology) and the humanities (or emo-relativism). Even the physicists, or at least the theoretical physicists, can’t rest content with that.

The author is surely right that the way to get over this false choice is to read a smaller number of texts with greater care, with the truth about the soul or the being born to know, love, and die in mind.

The Politicized Soul and the Death Wish at the Heart of Liberal Disorder


When the seduction was complete the seducer did not find happiness but descended into despair. Whereas once he was consumed by the thrill of the hunt, the moment he acquired his object’s affections was the moment that revealed his own emptiness, and so he laments to the reader:

“Why cannot such a night last longer? … to love is beautiful only as long as resistance is present; as soon as it ceases, to love is weakness and habit.”

This is how the parable of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary ends, with a lesson about the transient nature of passion and the emptiness of its pursuit as an end in itself. Yet, unbeknownst to the philosopher, there was for centuries before this writing an answer to the rhetorical question of his fictional seducer, and that answer, according to author Denis De Rougemont’s classic Love in the Western World is concealed in the deepest ideas of the Western Romantic tradition and touches us today through our culture and politics.

How do you sustain the sensation of passion? Romanticism’s answer, according to De Rougemont, is to artfully choose an object of desire that eludes your efforts to possess it.

Beginning with the medieval romance Tristan and Isolde, De Rougement deduces from tell tale features of early romantic writings that human passion and aspiration are not what they seem. For all of Tristan’s superiority to his time, the bold knight never actually consummates his love for Isolde, there is always an obstacle, and the author’s inconsistent deployment of these obstacles hint at is hidden behind the scenes.

“They [the lovers] invent obstructions as if on purpose, notwithstanding that such barriers are their bane. Can it be in order to please author and reader? It is all one; for the demon of courtly love which prompts the lovers in their inmost selves to the devices that are the cause of their pain is the very demon of the novel as we in the West like it to be.

What, then, is the legend really about? The partings of the lovers? Yes, but in the name of passion, and for love of the very love that agitates them, in order that this love may be intensified and transfigured – at the cost of their happiness and even of their lives.”

Passion, our romantic tradition understands, is not in the possessing but in the pursuing. If passion is the telos of the romantic’s existence then the art of the practical is his enemy. In pursuing the impossible the pursuit is prolonged ensuring the experience of, if not ultimate satisfaction then its closest proximity, a desire that can only taste but never fully be satisfied.

“Most people do not bother about understanding or about self-awareness; they merely go after the kind of love that promises the most feeling … Hence, whether our desire is for the most self-conscious or simply for the most intense love, secretly we desire obstruction. And this obstruction we are ready if needs be to invent or imagine …

The ending of the myth shows that passion is an askesis [self-deprivation], and that as such it is all the more effectively in opposition to earthly life that it takes the form of desire, and that, as desire, it simulates fate.”

The more one’s object defies the possible the more consuming the passion, and in the absence of discernment the heightened sensation is willfully confused with authentic experience.

As De Rougemont describes it, this theme takes many forms and runs throughout Western culture to our time, first forced underground by the Church into romantic medieval poetry then to finally explode upon the Western imagination in the popularity of the 19th century novel, of which include the likes of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the Ubervilles, Jude the Obscure, and Le Miserables. These, in turn, fed like an underground river the numerous tropes that informed the products of popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries: the lovers whose love is doomed by the constraints of family or societal taboo; the cause fought by the oppressed against the oppressors whose story ends after the revolution is won but before we see how the victors actually govern.

 Passion is at its most passionate when circumstances ensure it never comes in contact with practical realities.

Our society has been taught at the knee of this school of desire, as revealed not just by our popular culture but our ideology. As desire is stimulated by an ideal that eludes it has found excellent opportunities in the politics of the impractical.  The socialist paradise, nationalist dreams of cultural purity, the crusade for total equality and transformative government, or the founding of a libertarian John-Galt-istan, are all visions that reside beyond reality’s horizon and succeed equally in enflaming the politicized soul by virtue of their impracticality or basis in fantasy altogether.

When the political philosopher Eric Voegelin observed that at the heart of destructive political movements is a gnostic impulse to transform the present world to conform to a vision of an impossible perfected world, he is approaching but is still only elucidating externalities and symptoms of the disease. What De Rougemont reveals is that destructive political movements are gnostic because they need to be in order to sustain the ever demanding requirement of the self who seeks the confusion of passion with heightened authenticity. De Rougemont’s discovery not only explains the peculiarities of romantic passion, but reveals that romantic passion, as portrayed in its earliest literature, provides an entry point into the inner workings of irrational desire which confounds civilization to this day.

In his unintentionally De-Rougemontian meditation on the motives of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology, Lee Harris insightfully observed about a college friend’s progressive activism:

“…what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability … The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.”

This political fantasicm exists for the passionate need of the self as heroic protagonist, everything else are props on the stage of the drama playing out between his ears. This, Harris goes on to argue, is a genus of fantasy that also explains some of our most virulent political movements, including Al Qaeda and by implication ISIS today. As destructive political movements go some are more destructive than others. Lee Harris’ college friend’s fantasy was relatively benign by any standard. The problem, Harris argues, is that many of the most seemingly benign fantacists, in their reverie, only aid in undermining the institutions and principles civilization depend upon to survive, and so render vulnerable what in their fantasy they think they are saving. As idealistic as the politics of Harris’s friend may seem, it informs exactly those sentiments that sought an American withdrawal from the world, which predictably surrendered territory to the most toxic of fantasies, jihadism, a fact of which we are now being reminded with each film of a beheaded westerner posted online.

Much of what has pre-occupied today’s commentariate is the apparent uselessness of language in our political discourse. What to one side may seem to be a simple discussion of keeping expenditures within budget is proclaimed by the other side as a war on the poor. Questions of whether a business owner can operate their business in accordance with their own values is transformed and magnified into a war on women. Accusations of bad faith ensue all to no productive end. But we make a mistake in assuming these debates are operating according to strictly rational interests, rather much of what passes for political discourse is informed by a popular need for morality theatre. To this extent philosophers make poor guides. Our literature reveals what the strictly rational disciplines often overlook.

In his book The Captive Mind, the polish poet Czeslaw Milosz describes the state of philosophical trance that seemed to possess the intellectual class in 20th century Communist nations. Resorting to a literary analogy about a pill that induces well-being in its recipients called Murti-Bing, he describes intellectuals of his time and place as so possessed by the vision of a world where ultimate well-being was almost within their grasp that they rationalized the brutal toll their communist system was taking upon their civilization. The more corrupt and sclerotic the regime became, the more Milosz’s artistic and intellectual comrades looked to a future glorious state to rationalize the present age of affliction.

“… the recompense for all pain is the certainty that one belongs to the new and conquering world, even though it is not nearly so comfortable and joyous a world as  its propaganda would have one think.”

Milosz’s examples of captive minds is the intellectual counterpart to what I have described as politicized souls, revealing that when possessed the mind is no more a refuge than the heart. It is for this reason that we may be too quick to comfort ourselves with the notion that eventually the consequences of misguided politics will, like Samuel Johnson’s gallows, clarify the collective mind. The pain caused by bad policy in the service of a sufficiently grand vision can yet be transformed into its vindication. We have seen this to be the case in smaller ways as partisan rationalizations have succeeded in insulating such disruptive events as an incompetent roll-out of Obamacare and malfeasance in the IRS from their logical implications which threatened to stab at the heart of the liberal project. We will learn more about the severity of the national condition as we see how the politicized souls and captive minds in leadership respond to the accumulating conflagrations in the Middle East and the world. As of this writing, it does not look promising.

If De Rougemont is any authority, the condition left to its own trajectory leads ultimately to a bad end. Deluded passion, in its desire to achieve ever greater states of heightened sensation, finds its ultimate achievement in death itself. The story of Tristan and Isolde famously ends in the death of both in a glorious reverie of desire made most acute by their mutual end.

Hear now my will, ye craven winds!
Come forth to strife and stress of the storm!
To turbulent tempests’ clamour and fury!
Drive from the depths all her envious greed!
Destroy now this insolent ship,
Let its wreck be sunk in her waves!
All that hath life and breath upon it,
I leave to you winds as your prize.

De Rougemont explains, “The couple imagine that they are now more fully alive than ever and are more than ever living dangerously and magnificently. The approach of death acts as a goad to sensuality. In the full sense of the verb, it aggravates desire.” Anticipating the temptation for readers to assume that such a state only resides in romantic melodrama, De Rougemont builds an argument bridging romantic fatalism with its political equivalents including the raging nationalisms that swept up the 18th and 19th centuries. Generations of school boys learned by heart versus like this by Lord Tennyson glorifying what amounted to a tragic and bloody miscommunication in the Crimean War

”Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

In the recent movie Les Miserables (based on the 20th century musical based on the 19th century novel), Paris is portrayed as a metropolis populated by innocents suffering under the yoke of a brutal established order. Into this milieu enter the heroic revolutionaries of the ill-fated 1832 June Rebellion singing on behalf of their cause:

But now there is a higher call
Who cares about your lonely soul
We strive toward a larger goal
Our little lives don’t count at all!
Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the night that ends at last!

At the end of the story, its most sympathetic hero, Jean Valjean, passes into the next world and we learn that in the afterlife the cosmos is governed by an eternal political revolution wherein the good Manichees of the Red stand victorious upon their battlements in a forever now that is never consummated in the actual taking of governmental power and responsibility.

The resonance of Les Miserables for our time is not a coincidence. Victor Hugo’s work is a masterpiece of romantic synthesis, subsuming in its ambitious scope not just the standard romantic tropes, but the religious and the ideological. The result is a seemless mash-up in the service of a political-revolutionary metaphysics. Of course our present day Manichees don’t think in terms of an afterlife or a metaphysics but have reconfigured an imagined heaven into an imagined future and the present moral order as made up of those on the right or wrong side of history. And in an age where postmodern solipsism has embedded itself in the collective weltanschauung, the shining future is to the modern ideologue what the bible was once said to be for protestants – to each their own interpretation. As a result, our political world is a hot-house of competing wannabe Jean Valjeans each wanting to be the hero of their own solipsistic epic. But as our political avatars have at it in the trenches of twitter hashtags and the ramparts of the blogosphere, the real world is still operating by its own Clausewitzian logic. Our continued hunger for confusing passionate distraction with authenticity has slowly surrendered this world to forces more practically minded and less sympathetic to the freedoms we seem determined to  take for granted.

It is for this reason that it is well to be reminded that death comes to civilizations as well as individuals. And not all death wishes are wishes for death as such, some wish for it not knowing it as death, confusing it with that strange pulse of heightened passionate euphoria before the light goes out.  


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