The Eternal City may seem an odd place from which to get some perspective on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle; Italy these days is being its usual, ungovernable self, and the Vatican is, at least for the moment, stiffing the efforts of the U.S. bishops to get to the bottom of the McCarrick abuse scandal and to reform the way bishops govern their local churches. But Rome is still Rome, and there are always lessons to be learned here as one walks atop layer after layer of Western history.
The first of these lessons occurred to me as I walked past the Forum, where Cicero and others fought valiantly, if sometimes futilely, to assert the superiority of the rule of law over the rule of brute force in public affairs. The old Senate house, remarkably small, calls to mind Robert Harris’s wonderful trilogy of novels about the great orator whose elegant Latin challenged so many of us in our junior year of high school. In that trilogy — Imperium, Conspirata, and Dictator — Cicero’s career is recounted through the recollections of Tiro, his quondam slave and longtime secretary. Tiro’s telling brings onto the stage a host of characters familiar from Shakespeare and ancient-history courses, and while his focus never shifts from the fortunes of his master, there is another player on the Roman scene who constantly threatens to undo Cicero’s efforts to sustain Rome as a republic: And that is the mob.
I suppose I knew, in some abstract sense, that organizing various gangs to put pressure on the Senate was a feature of late republican politics in Rome, but Harris’s trilogy brings the Roman mob to vibrant, and often destructive, life. And as then, so now: The mob inevitably turns politics into a blood sport, as passion displaces reason, and identity — whose gang is your gang? — supplants any larger notion of civic responsibility or patriotism.
The Wall Street Journal’s September 28 headline informed me that the Kavanaugh hearing the day before had riveted America. Call me queasy if you like, but it didn’t rivet me; I didn’t watch, because the entire affair disgusted me. Here was a spectacle straight out of the Roman forum during the decadent days of a dying republic: a mob — in this instance, in the blogosphere and social media — braying manically and threatening senators. And, again as in ancient Rome, too many of those solons, especially among those from the party that imagines itself the guardian of civil rights, were happy to play to the mob’s prejudices and appease its fevers as they stripped a distinguished jurist of any semblance of the right of presumed innocence.
Cicero and Tiro would have understood. And they would also have known where mob-appeasement leads, which is not a happy destination.
Rome also means Catholicism, and Catholicism means (or used to mean, here at its center) serious theology. And as unlikely as it may seem to those stewed in the juices of secularism, theology also sheds light on the Kavanaugh circus.
As Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted, faith unpurified by reason risks becoming mere superstition. And as Daniel Henninger pointed out in a fine op-ed column in the Journal the morning the Kavanaugh hearings recommenced, the assault on Brett Kavanaugh’s integrity mounted by the likes of Senator Dianne Feinstein was not a matter of evidence and corroboration but of belief: “I believe” Christine Blasey Ford being the mantra on the minority side of the rostrum in the Senate Judiciary Committee. No matter that the complainant could not identity where the alleged offense had taken place, or how she got there, or how she left the scene; no matter that the other persons alleged to have been present all contradicted her account of the evening. “I believe” — which is not a standard of evidence but in this case a tacit confession of a lack of evidence — trumps not only the rules by which American politics and legal affairs have been conducted but reason itself.
The precise theological term for this mindlessness is “fideism”: a faith, or belief, that is impervious to reason and is indeed contemptuous of reason. That means it’s superstition, not faith. And if Senators Feinstein, Durbin, Hirono, Klobuchar, and the rest of the superstitionist Democrats cannot see in themselves the image of the judges who hanged putative witches in 17th-century Massachusetts, they should look in the mirror again — or perhaps have a look at Arthur Miller’s dramatic recreation of that abomination, The Crucible.
Then there is the fideism sustaining the irrationality of the defenders of Roe v. Wade, which is one of the bottom lines in this particular Supreme Court succession battle. For in American abortion politics, as in American sexual-revolution politics more generally, “I believe” trumped “I think” a long time ago. No supporter of the abortion license has ever managed to defend rationally the proposition that the product of human conception is something other than a human being at a certain developmental stage. Nor have the diehard defenders of Roe been able to articulate a rational counter to the first principle of justice, which teaches us that innocent human life deserves the protection of the laws. Nor have Roe’s proponents managed a rational response to the withering criticism that Harry Blackmun’s 1973 decision got from even liberal constitutional theorists. In “pro-choice” America, it’s all fideism, all the time.
Mob madness and a fideism detached from reason are lethal to the democratic project. “Democracy dies with the death of the dialogue,” John Courtney Murray used to say. And while “dialogue” is too often a psychobabble term these days, the instinct behind Murray’s observation was a sound one. Serious conversation, even sharp debate, are the lifeblood of democracy. Both are precluded by the mob, and both are severely damaged by fideism.
And so the culture war becomes a struggle to defend the most fundamental premises of democracy and republicanism. Cicero would have understood, and it’s not altogether pleasant to stand here in Rome, near where he stood, and ponder his fate and that of the republic he cherished.