Friday Links

August 18 is the anniversary of the death of Genghis Khan: founder of the Mongolian Empire, prolific spreader of DNA, and climate-change hero. Related: Why Genghis Khan’s tomb can’t be found.

Cancer Treatment in the 19th Century.

Building the Middle Ages one LEGO Brick at a Time.

National Geographic shows you how easily rats can swim up through your toilet.

Florida company offering ‘alien abduction insurance’ has sold nearly 6,000 policies.

 The surprisingly interesting history of the lightbulb.

ICYMI, most recent links are here, and include the anniversary of the battle of Thermopylae, washing machine history, Churchillian and Shakespearean insults, underwater wine cellars, and why only some people remember dreams.


White Professor Under Fire for Quoting James Baldwin’s Use of Racial Slur

Ridiculous, but true: Laurie Sheck, a white New School professor in downtown Manhattan, is in trouble after she brought up for discussion James Baldwin’s use of the n-word. She pointed out that the acclaimed documentary about Baldwin is entitled “I Am Not Your Negro” . . . yet “negro” is not the n-word used by Baldwin in that remark, made on The Dick Cavett Show. She asked the class to consider why this bowdlerization happened. Sheck tells Inside Higher Education that a white student complained about her speaking the n-word aloud and that some sort of investigation ensued.

“With a new semester approaching, Sheck isn’t sure where she stands at the New School,” reports IHE. She’s heard almost nothing from the institution since a June meeting, during which she was accused of saying the N-word in class while quoting the black writer James Baldwin.” A faculty union advised/strongly hinted that she should take a “conciliatory position,” such as “by changing her curriculum, providing trigger warnings or having students read potentially offending passages themselves, instead of out loud,” IHE reported.

Sheck has impeccable credentials — she was shortlisted for the Pulitzer and has contributed to The New Yorker and The Paris Review. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” she told IHE. “So what we’re trying to do here is get things out in the open. When these things are covert and people feel quietly intimidated into changing the syllabus, that’s not going to help students. It just feels like enough is enough.”

She has asked the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to help clear her name. FIRE is asking the New School to drop its investigation. Recall that the chief communications officer for Netflix, Jonathan Friedland, was fired after advising employees that the word “retard” was just as offensive as the n-word, which he used in a meeting. In other words, just pronouncing these syllables aloud, without supporting or expressing racism in any way, is an excellent way to get yourself in hot water, whether it’s in corporate America or a university. The New School, by the way, has a proud history of supporting the Frankfurt School, so this is another instance of circular gunfire on the left.


Ten Things that Caught My Eye Today (August 15, 2019)

1. Russell Moore talks with Kay Warren about mental illness, suicide, and living with the death of her son.

2. Michigan adoptive family is back in court with the Becket Fund

3. Naomi Schaefer Riley on legislation in New York that would make it harder to help kids in seriously neglectful situations

4. What are the Social and Psychological Costs of Our Computer-Mediated Lives?



7. The Washington Post is hiring a “social issues” editor, which includes religion.

8. Labor Department Rule Broadens Religious Protections in Federal Contracting

9. Notre Dame acquires G.K. Chesterton’s library

10. Someone will appreciate this: What Hans Urs von Balthasar learned from St. Ignatius




Politics & Policy

Could Democrats Pass the Assault Weapons Ban in 2021?

Former Vice President Joe Biden at The Graduate Center of CUNY in the New York City, July 11, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

While Republicans in Washington are talking about the possibility of passing a “red-flag” law and expanding background checks for gun sales, 2020 Democrats continue to put the Assault Weapons Ban front and center.

2020 frontrunner Joe Biden published a New York Times op-ed this week promising to reinstate the ban if elected president, and he’s blaming the failure to pass it on “weak-willed leaders who care more about their campaign coffers than children in coffins.” This incendiary attack is odd given the fact that the Obama-Biden administration never led Democrats to even hold a vote on the ban—nor any other gun-control measure—when there were 60 Democrats in the Senate and nearly 260 in the House.

If Democrats didn’t have the will to pass the Assault Weapons Ban back then, is there any reason to think they would actually have the votes to pass the if they take back the Senate and the White House in 2020? It’s possible but very unlikely, even if they abolish the filibuster. 

Not a single Republican in the Senate, not even moderate Susan Collins of Maine, backed the ban the last time it received a vote in the Senate in 2013. Seven of the sixteen Democrats who voted against the ban in 2013 are still serving: Michael Bennet (Colorado), Martin Heinrich (New Mexico), Angus King (Maine), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Jon Tester (Montana), Tom Udall (New Mexico), Mark Warner (Virginia). And Democrats have picked up a couple new members who have been cagey about the ban: Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Doug Jones (Alabama). 

It’s possible to imagine most of these Democratic senators flip-flopping on the issue (Mark Warner already has done so) if they were under pressure. But it’s very hard to see Joe Manchin and Jon Tester ever voting for the ban, a move that would very likely end their political careers. 

So Democrats and gun-control activists, in their best-case scenario, would likely need to hold at least 52 Senate seats and abolish the filibuster to pass the ban in 2021.

Right now, Republicans control the Senate 53 to 47, and it will be quite a difficult task for Democrats to pick up five seats. They have to defend a seat in deep-red Alabama, but also have pick-up opportunities in the blue and purple states of Maine, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, and Iowa. If Democrats don’t run the table these races, they’d need look for one or more pick-ups in red states—such as Georgia, Texas, or Montana—to get to 52 seats. Again, that seems very unlikely but not impossible.

Film & TV

Disney’s Hitler-Movie Problem

Disney’s Jojo Rabbit (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/IMDb)

The Walt Disney Co. is at an inflection point. It has proved a mammoth success with family entertainment, not to mention its ABC programming, but ever since it dumped Miramax in 2010 it has proved averse to edgy and R-rated fare. The challenge it faces is that entertainment-industry oracles think it isn’t big enough. Look at Netflix’s market cap: $129 billion. That’s more than half of Disney’s $241 billion, and Netflix pretty much just does streaming — no theme parks, no ESPN, no 75 years of beloved characters and stories, etc. Disney is taking on Netflix directly by both launching the Disney+ streaming service in November (that’s for families) and also by buying the rest of Hulu, so Hulu can be Disney’s brand for programming not aimed at families. Pursuant to this, Disney bought 20th Century Fox to beef up its production slate.

With Fox Disney acquired a bunch of . . . odd stuff. Everything Fox had waiting to go since Disney bought it has flopped (Dark Phoenix, Stuber, and now The Art of Racing in the Rain). Fox’s arthouse unit, Fox Searchlight, whose proud history includes Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire, has a bunch of stuff that looks pretty peculiar coming from the House of Mouse. Next up is a Hitler satire, Jojo Rabbit.

Jojo is directed by the New Zealander Taika Waititi, who worked on Flight of the Conchords and became a big-time movie director with Thor: Ragnarok.  It debuts next month at the Toronto Film Festival, and Disney is already expressing jitters about it. Apparently it’s a “cutting-edge satire” about a boy with an idiotic imaginary friend named Adolf Hitler. So, this isn’t Toy Story 5. But then again, if Disney is going to be the all-things-to-all-people offering that Netflix has built, it can’t just do kiddie stuff.  Nevertheless, a Disney exec grew “audibly uncomfortable” during a screening, reports Variety. Disney CEO Bob Iger was so angry with his new Fox unit that a quarterly earnings call was compared to a “public hanging” by a producer quoted in Variety. Fox-at-Disney still has the Brad Pitt space epic Ad Astra coming, plus the Avatar sequels, but I worry that Chateau Mouse will shy away from doing interesting movies if Jojo Rabbit flops. And Jojo Rabbit sounds like exactly the kind of movie that will flop unless it is given expert marketing attention. Does Disney have the will to back this film?


Is Elizabeth Warren Really Ahead in Iowa?

Senator Elizabeth Warren during the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

A new poll conducted by Change Research shows Elizabeth Warren jumping out to a double-digit lead in Iowa, with Biden and Sanders tied for second place:

Warren 28%

Sanders 17%

Biden 17%

Buttigieg 13%

Harris 8%

Booker 3%

O’Rourke 3%

Gabbard 2%

Klobuchar 2%

Steyer 2%

Bullock 2%

Castro 1%

Yang 1%

Bennet 1%

A few grains of salt: 

One: The Change Research poll was conducted entirely online, and RealClearPolitics doesn’t include Change Research polls in its polling averages.

Two: A Monmouth survey (conducted via telephone by actual human beings) found Biden still holding the lead at 28 percent, with Warren in second place at 19 percent, and Sanders in third place at 9 percent. The Monmouth poll was in the field August 1 to 4, just a week before the Change Research poll was conducted from August 9 to 11. Nothing dramatic occurred in the Democratic primary between August 4 and August 9.

Three: CNN’s polling analyst Harry Enten notes that Change Research “had Buttigieg leading and at 25% in Iowa. I think skepticism is warranted.”

Law & the Courts

Watch: Kat Timpf Calls Jail Time for Feeding Stray Cats ‘Absolutely Egregious’

In her latest video for National Review, Kat Timpf reports that 79-year-old Nancy Segula from Ohio was sentenced to jail after caring for the stray cats near her home.

Politics & Policy


Rep Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

There are things in the news that I find genuinely difficult to understand.

Exhibit A: We all are apparently expected to clutch our pearls because the government of Israel has, in accordance with its law, politely declined to host some of its enemies. Representatives Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) had planned to visit Israel as part of a junket organized by group advocating financial sanctions against Israel. Both are, as the New York Times put it, “vocal in their support of the Palestinians and the boycott-Israel movement.” Why on Earth would Israel invite onto its own sovereign soil those who deny its legitimacy as a Jewish state?

Exhibit B: A related issue: Apologists for such as Omar and Tlaib often say, “We’re not anti-Semites, we’re anti-Zionists.” What I hear is this: “We hate the Jews all together, nationally, not one at a time!” And that doesn’t seem to me much of a defense.

Exhibit C: A public-radio story this morning decried the fact that many illegal immigrants to the United States are detained in facilities located in rural areas. This, critics say, makes it more difficult for them to access certain kinds of services, and it makes it difficult for friends and family to visit them. “It’s just too far!” one said. My own experience with being detained by law-enforcement agencies is not extensive, but my recollection is that they did not seem very concerned about my convenience at all. And when I reenter the United States through JFK, my own government manifestly does not give a fig about the convenience of its own citizens crossing the border legally, passports in hand. I don’t know why we’d want to make it more convenient to break our laws.

Health Care

FCC Proposal: Dial 988 to Prevent Suicide

When the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018 became law, the FCC was charged with determining the feasibility of constructing a three-digit suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline to supplement or replace the current ten-digit number. The FCC studied the issue and after analyzing the pros and cons, recommends setting aside 988 for that purpose.

As the study explains, suicide is reaching crisis levels.

In 2017, “more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide and more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2016, suicide increased in 49 of the 50 states, and in more than half of those states, the increase was greater than 20%.  Moreover, the largest increase in deaths by suicide occurred in the past decade, and from 2016 to 2017, an increase of 3.7% (more than 2,000 additional suicide deaths) was recorded.

Suicide rates are higher across various at-risk populations, including Veterans and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. More than 20 Veterans die by suicide every day and between 2008 and 2016, there were more than 6,000 Veteran suicides each year. According to the CDC, LGBTQ youth contemplate suicide at a rate almost three times higher than heterosexual youth, and more than 500,000 LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide this year.

I’m all for it. But I wonder whether Oregon, California, and the seven other states that have legalized “suicide by doctor” (a term I first heard from my friend Tom Shakely of Americans United for Life), would permit the system to operate. After all, they are on record as being pro-some suicides.

Sarcasm aside, this is a very good idea. But the hotline should be utilized whenever anyone asks for or threatens suicide — including when diagnosed with a terminal illness. Everyone who is suicidal deserves prevention interventions, not just the healthy and depressed.


A David and His Slingshot

Suleiman Bakhit (1978–2019) (Oslo Freedom Forum)

In this blog in 2015, I wrote, “Though still young, Bakhit has led a highly interesting and eventful life.” I’m afraid that Suleiman Bakhit has now died. For a statement from the Human Rights Foundation (New York), go here. For an article in The National (UAE), go here.

Suleiman Bakhit was a Jordanian, born in 1978. His father, Marouf, would twice be prime minister of their country. Suleiman became an entrepreneur. Specifically, he started a line of comic books. Very successful. Why did he do it?

I’ll quote from something I wrote in 2014 — a journal from, and on, the Oslo Freedom Forum, where he had spoken:

Bakhit says that little kids in Jordan were admiring bin Laden, Zarqawi, and other terrorist monsters, because at least those monsters were strong and “honorable.” He wanted to give them other figures to admire: superheroes.

Have some more:

For his troubles, Bakhit was slashed in the face, by extremists. He shows a photo of himself, right after the attack. He is mended now, but the scars remain. The extremists were trying to put a mark of shame on him, he says. “They were transferring their own shame to me.”

Bakhit is superb on the link between shame and terrorism. He also talks about the Nazis, back in the 1930s: and their shame over the Versailles Treaty. He makes a comparison between the Nazis and ISIS that is utterly convincing, to me.

Shame plays a role in all crime, right? Or at least much crime . . .

And one dollop more, with some humor at the end:

The biggest problem in the Middle East, says Suleiman Bakhit, is “terrorism disguised as heroism.” We must have a David to slay this Goliath of a lie, he says. And “the comic book is our slingshot.”

I must say, I am moved, inspired, by Bakhit’s talk. He has hit on some deep truths, and he is acting on them. He is “making a difference,” as we used to say. (I guess we still do.) Also, he has the gift of charisma. There is a spark in him. And he’s very funny. Completely bald, he says, “I have a lot of hair, just bad distribution.”

The following year, 2015, I did a podcast with him, a Q&A, here. An accompanying text said, “He is an interesting man who has led an interesting life who has interesting things to say — whether one agrees with them or not.” Yes.

He was one of the most exceptional people I have ever met. Instead of merely expressing dismay at Arab extremism — or denying or excusing it — he tried to do something about it. Something damn creative, too. And there was nobility in that face, that scarred face of his. His attackers tried to shame him, but the honor was all his.

Economy & Business

Economic Variables

Telecommunications workers install a new antenna system for AT&T’s 5G wireless network in downtown San Diego, Calif., April 23, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

There is much to be said about Matthew Desmond’s New York Times essay on how slavery shaped the U.S. economy, which is a very interesting read even if much of its argument is fanciful in its parallelism, e.g.: Antebellum slave overseers developed quantitative tools for measuring slaves’ productivity, modern corporations use quantitative tools for measuring workers’ productivity, ergo . . . ? The difference between slavery and non-slave labor is so radical and so fundamental that comparisons between the two are not very illuminating in most cases.

One or two general points come to mind.

There are many good criticisms to make of the U.S. economy and its work practices. This is not one of them:

Consider worker rights in different capitalist nations. In Iceland, 90 percent of wage and salaried workers belong to trade unions authorized to fight for living wages and fair working conditions. Thirty-four percent of Italian workers are unionized, as are 26 percent of Canadian workers. Only 10 percent of American wage and salaried workers carry union cards.

The median household income in the United States is 25 percent higher than it is in Iceland. Average incomes are higher in the United States than in Italy or Canada, too. Would you rather have a union card or a 25 percent raise? (If that seems like a rhetorical question to you, then, congratulations: You’re rich.) It may or may not be the case that American workers earn more because of our (relatively) loosey-goosey market regulations, but it is difficult to believe that they are uniquely disadvantaged in any meaningful economic way compared with lower-paid workers in more tightly regulated markets.

There are countries with more libertarian-ish economic practices that have higher household incomes than in the United States (e.g. Switzerland, where there’s no national minimum wage or capital-gains tax) and countries with bigger public sectors and expensive welfare states that also have higher incomes (e.g. Norway and, depending on the measure you use, Sweden). What might be learned from that?

Of course, household incomes are only one measure. You might also want to look at GDP per capita — if you are interested in redistribution, you’ll want to make sure you have something to redistribute. Here are the top 40 countries (and quasi-autonomous jurisdictions) by GDP/capita, according to the IMF:

  1. Qatar
  2. Macau
  3. Luxembourg
  4. Singapore
  5. Brunei
  6. Ireland
  7. Norway
  8. United Arab Emirates
  9. Kuwait
  10. Switzerland
  11. Hong Kong
  12. United States
  13. San Marino
  14. Netherlands
  15. Saudi Arabia
  16. Iceland
  17. Taiwan
  18. Sweden
  19. Germany
  20. Australia
  21. Austria
  22. Denmark
  23. Bahrain
  24. Canada
  25. Belgium
  26. Oman
  27. Finland
  28. France
  29. United Kingdom
  30. Malta
  31. Japan
  32. South Korea
  33. Spain
  34. New Zealand
  35. Cyprus
  36. Puerto Rico
  37. Italy
  38. Israel
  39. Czech Republic
  40. Slovenia

What to make of that list? One possible takeaway is that there are a few different ways to become a rich country: You can be happily located, either atop vast reserves of oil or with a relatively small population conveniently located for trade purposes, or something like that. But strike the oil emirates and the outlier city-states (San Marino has one-tenth the population of Lexington, Ky.) and what do you have? Countries with strong labor unions? Some of them, sure, but others are the dead opposite. The most common qualities are things like reasonably secure property rights, openness to trade and investment, and more or less stable and accountable government.

That’s a lot on one little point, I know, but our understanding of the world is made up of lots of little points, some of which are not, you know, true.

Professor Desmond insists that the U.S. economy is “uniquely severe,” which I do not think is a defensible claim in a world in which India and China exist, to say nothing of places such as Pakistan, Cuba, Venezuela, etc. India is a democratic country in which a form of slavery persists (debt bondage) even though it is legally prohibited. It is a place in which heavy regulation of the agricultural economy disadvantage poor workers. The character of regulation and regulatory institutions matters a great deal.

Professor Desmond notes that Brazil has relatively heavy regulation concerning temporary workers compared with the United States. That may be true, but it would be very difficult to argue that this has left the typical Brazilian worker better off than his American counterpart. Life at the 50th percentile in Houston is not very much like life at the 50th percentile in Rio de Janeiro. These things do matter and really ought to be taken into more forthright consideration. Brazil had slavery for some years after it was abolished in the United States, but we are to believe that the U.S. economy is uniquely entangled in slavery — why?

Professor Desmond also makes much of the “financialization” of the U.S. economy; but as Tyler Cowen has shown, the share of assets controlled by the financial sector has remained more or less steady for a long time, holding around 2 percent. All this talk about “financialization” may be saying rather less than everybody seems to think.

As I said, there is much of interest in the essay. But I am not sure it makes the case Professor Desmond thinks he is making.

Politics & Policy

New Poll Has a Few Encouraging Results for Pro-Life Voters

Pro-life marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has released an interesting poll this week regarding public attitudes toward legal abortion. Most public-opinion polls conducted by media outlets and survey-research firms contact only several hundred people. This PRRI survey, conducted between March and December of last year, surveyed more than 40,000 Americans. As a result, it is able to provide state-level data on public attitudes toward life issues, and on attitudes about abortion among some relatively small demographic groups.

The poll contains two findings that are particularly helpful to the pro-life movement. First, this poll, like several polls conducted so far this year, shows that a plurality of Americans oppose using Medicaid funding to cover the costs of abortion procedures. When asked if government health-insurance programs for low-income women, such as Medicaid, should cover abortions, 46 percent of respondents agreed and 48 percent disagreed. Survey questions that specifically ask about taxpayer funding of abortion typically show higher levels of disapproval. Even so, it is still noteworthy that even when polls use wording sympathetic to taxpayer funding of abortion, a plurality of Americans still express disapproval.

Second, this poll bolsters an existing body of survey research showing that, among single-issue abortion voters, the pro-life position continues to enjoy a sizable advantage. The PPRI survey shows that 27 percent of Americans who oppose abortion will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on the issue. In contrast, just 18 percent of voters who describe themselves as pro-choice will only vote for a candidate who favors legal abortion. Pundits and political professionals often encourage pro-life candidates to downplay their opposition to abortion in order to be more electable. This poll, along with many other surveys, suggests that espousing pro-life beliefs might be politically advantageous.

Unfortunately, this poll has some shortcomings. Since it was conducted in 2018, the respondents had yet to experience the changes in abortion policy that have taken place this year, including legislative efforts in states such as New York and Illinois to expand access to legal abortion, as well as efforts in states such as Missouri, Georgia, and Alabama to protect the unborn.

That the PRRI poll is broken down by religious denomination is interesting, though scholars of public opinion know that church attendance tends to be a better predictor of abortion attitudes than denominational affiliation is. Unfortunately, this survey failed to ask questions about either self-described religiosity or church attendance.

What’s more, the wording of the survey questions is somewhat favorable to the pro-abortion-rights position. When it asks about attitudes toward abortion, pro-life respondents can say that “abortion should be illegal in all cases” or “illegal in a most cases.” Polls that give respondents the option of saying that abortion should be “legal only in a few circumstances,” meanwhile, tend to report higher levels of public support for the pro-life position. Similarly, people are more likely to say they oppose taxpayer funding of abortion than “Medicaid coverage” of abortion.

Abortion certainly will be a highly salient issue in the 2020 election, as every Democratic presidential candidate supports Roe v. Wade and has publicly opposed the Hyde amendment, which prevents the direct taxpayer funding of abortion. Pro-lifers should welcome surveys that show both opposition to taxpayer funding and higher levels of intensity among pro-life voters.

Law & the Courts

‘Mandatory Buy-Back’ Means ‘Confiscation’

MSNBC’s Garrett Haake tweets:

One more time, with feeling: “Mandatory buy-back” is a cowardly and cynical euphemism, and members of the press should not be using it outside of quotation marks. What O’Rourke is proposing here is gun confiscation, coupled with limited compensation. Every time somebody in the media uses the term “buy-back,” they are laundering O’Rourke’s extremism.

Even on its own, “buy-back” makes no sense as a term: Were O’Rourke to get his way, the government would not be “buying back” the guns on his list because the government did not own, or sell, any of the guns on his list in the first instance. When coupled with the word “mandatory,” the pretense becomes farcical.

I do not expect Beto O’Rourke to respect the integrity of the English language, especially when that integrity makes his life difficult. But MSNBC is supposed to be a news organization. Would that it acted like one.


‘A Peculiarly Sanctimonious Nationalism’

Women dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate against cuts to Planned Parenthood on Capitol in Washington, D.C., June 27, 2017. (shua Roberts/Reuters)

I have been delighted by some of the responses to my inoffensive little discussion of the Faust legend last week. “Hey! He’s talkin’ about us! Harrumph! Harrumph!

Certain cordwainer-related proverbs suggest themselves.

Faust has been on my mind because of something that keeps presenting itself in unexpected (and not unexpected) ways, week after week: It is remarkable how powerful the compulsion to confess is.

Maybe we live in a Christian society, after all. One of my little projects over the past few years has been trying to revive a broader interest among conservatives in T. S. Eliot as a social critic. We speak of him, to the extent that we speak of him at all, mostly as a poet and literary critic, not as a political thinker. (Recall that Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind ran “From Burke to Eliot.”) But see how familiar this bit of “The Idea of a Christian Society” is:

This essay is not intended to be either an anti-communist or an anti-fascist manifesto; the reader may by this time have forgotten what I said at the beginning, to the effect that I was less concerned with the more superficial, though important differences between the regimens of different nations, than with the more profound differences between pagan and Christian society. Our preoccupation with foreign politics during the last few years has induced a surface complacency rather than a consistent attempt at self-examination of conscience. Sometimes we are almost persuaded that we are getting on very nicely, with a reform here and a reform there, and would have been getting on still better, if only foreign governments did not insist upon breaking all the rules and playing what is really a different game. What is more depressing still is the thought that only fear or jealousy of foreign success can alarm us about the health of our own nation; that only through this anxiety can we see such things as depopulation, malnutrition, moral deterioration, the decay of agriculture, as evils at all. And what is worst of all is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial. Towards the end of 1938 we experienced a wave of revivalism which should teach us that folly is not the prerogative of anyone political party or anyone religious communion, and that hysteria is not the privilege of the uneducated. The Christianity expressed has been vague, the religious fervour has been a fervour for democracy. It may engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress towards the paganism which we say we abhor. To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion; and we may reflect, that a good deal of the attention of totalitarian states has been devoted, with a steadiness of purpose not always found in democracies, to providing their national life with a foundation of morality—the wrong kind perhaps, but a good deal more of it. It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.

Our content, meaning our dogma, is pagan: Our so-called nationalism is lightly reworked idolatry wedded to a diluted version of the god-king cult, and much of our talk of recessions and GDP and such is only a technocratically anesthetized version of blaming the king’s failure to properly propitiate the cereal deities when the rains are insufficient and the crops fail. But our forms remain recognizably if perversely or unexpectedly Christian. A while back I wrote an essay on American Buddhism as a cultural eccentricity and the emergence of “mindfulness” as a corporate management fad. One of the things that struck me was how high-church one popular strain of American Buddhism has become, with a very strong emphasis on things like ecclesiastical titles, costumes, sacred aesthetics, and even a kind of apostolic succession — this teacher was the student of that teacher, who as the student of this teacher before him, etc. It is the very opposite of what you’d expect from a society’s with a counterculture that once dismissed “organized religion” more or less categorically. I do not doubt the sincerity of these believers, but neither do I doubt that post-Protestant America has more or less reinvented the Catholic mode of devotion and adapted it for a climate that is somewhat looser on questions of sexual mores (but nice American progressives should not inquire too closely about what the Dalai Lama and his people traditionally have taught about, say, homosexuality) and more comfortable with contemporary social practices, including what once was lamented as “consumerism.”

Part of this is only an ancient appetite for ritual and formality. Eliot has been at times characterized as a neo-medievalist; here is the top headline right now at Triangle, an American Buddhist magazine: “Thai King Bestows High Honor on Western Buddhists: One of the four Thai Forest monks granted a royal title explains the significance of this ceremony in Thailand and the West.” We reason-bound republicans love a good royal title, for some reason, and obsessing over the comings and goings and minor social gestures of royals is not limited to the pages of Town & Country. But even the controversies within American Buddhism have a kind of Christian shape to them, as I wrote in 2018: “The question of ‘guru devotion’ is very much on the mind of American Buddhist reformers such as Stephen Batchelor, a self-described Buddhist atheist and author of Buddhism without Beliefs. His worries about ‘elevating the guru to the same status as the teachings themselves’ are recognizably Lutheran: sola scriptura, in effect.”

From Game of Thrones to The Handmaid’s Tale, we cannot help but reimagine Christianity in a dystopian setting. (If King’s Landing is not a dystopia, I don’t know what is.) But the reality is that we live in Eliot’s pagan dystopia, and his “peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism” has in our own time grown even more peculiar and perversely sanctimonious. (It also is strangely vulnerable to criticism from supposedly irrelevant sources.) The Christian shape of things endures in unexpected ways, especially in our national rituals of excommunication, confession, and — if we are feeling charitable — reconciliation. Hence the need to study Doctor Faustus and The Canterbury Tales, along with the major works of Christian religious thinking and, of course, Scripture itself: not only to understand the civilization that has been lost but also to understand the world as it actually is, foundering and sputtering under the same judgment as it always has.

Politics & Policy

Actually, Bloomberg, It’s Not That Simple

Hunters fire their guns during a sighting-in and test-firing of shotguns and rifles for the upcoming deer hunting season in Joliet, Ill., in 2011. (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)

Bloomberg’s editors argue that the Senate should pass a law mandating “universal background checks.” “Americans overwhelmingly support universal background checks,” they insist. So what’s all the fuss about?

Quite a lot, actually. For a start, the idea that “Americans overwhelmingly support universal background checks” is derived from national polling on the question in abstract, not from our experience with trying to pass actual bills into law. Indeed, when Americans are actually asked to line up on either side of the question — that is, when details of what would actually be involved becomes clear — that “overwhelming” support tends to evaporate. In Nevada, in 2016, the idea squeaked through as a ballot proposition by 50.45 percent to 49.55 percent. In Maine, in the same year, it failed, 48.2 to 51.8. There’s a bit of I-support-Medicare-f0r-All-but-not-when-I-see-the-plans dynamic here.

And those plans matter. The Bloomberg editors insist that our present “two-tiered system” — by which they mean that we run background checks on commercial and interstate transfers, but not on private intrastate transfers — “is an insult to common sense and undermines public safety.” But that two-tiered system is exactly what one would expect to see given that the federal government is permitted to superintend interstate commerce, but is not permitted to superintend private transactions within the same state. Moreover, it is far, far easier to write a law that applies mandatory background checks to commercial sales than it is to write a law that applies them to private transfers, because, while there is no argument as to what constitutes a commercial sale (that’s any gun transferred to a person by an FFL, via form 4473), there is a raging argument as what constitutes a private transfer. Does loaning a gun to someone for a month count? Does giving your wife a gift count? Is there a difference between handing someone a gun at a range and handing someone a gun in your property? Should we limit the definition to transfers that take place at gun shows and via public notices, as Toomey-Manchin sought to do, or should we expand it beyond that? And who should be exempt? Your brother? Your cousin? Nobody? Only people with concealed-carry permits?

And how should the government ensure compliance? The traditional answer to this is, “by setting up a registry.” Or, at the very least, “by forcing the commercial entities that would be charged with running the checks to keep records that could be made available to the police.” (That’s apparently “not a registry.”) But if we do that, we’re not just talking about extending background checks; we’re talking about reversing a decades-long prohibition on gun registries, too. How does that play into the dynamic?

At the end of the piece, the editors take a swipe at the NRA’s opposition to their idea:

The NRA states that it opposes background checks because they “don’t necessarily stop criminals from getting firearms.” This appears to be the organization’s most compelling argument. One wonders whether the NRA would apply it to laws against murder, assault and the like — which also don’t “necessarily” stop those crimes. Few lawmakers in Washington can be swayed by such patently ridiculous reasoning. But the NRA’s money and electoral muscle talk, so Americans keep needlessly dying.

This is a bad argument. For a start, recent pro-gun-control studies have cast serious doubt on whether so-called universal background checks actually do anything at all. Of course that should be taken into account when deciding whether to upend the country’s laws. Furthermore, the editors are not comparing like with like here. The promise of “laws against murder, assault and the like” is not that they will prevent those things — “murder, assault, the like,” remember, are malum in se, not malum prohibitum — but that they provide the government with the chance to punish people after the fact. The promise of background checks — a promise that is repeated endlessly, including in this editorial — is that they will prevent people from dying in the first place. It would be, to borrow a phrase, “patently ridiculous” to suggest that we need universal background checks so that we have something to prosecute criminals with once they have committed a crime, given that those criminals are already prosecutable for both illegal possession of firearms, and for whatever it is that they’ve done having got hold of one. So if they don’t work in the first place . . .

The headline on the Bloomberg editorial is “Mass shootings show need for gun buyer background checks.” Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Bloomberg editors can find a single mass shooter from the last decade who obtained his firearm via a post-sale private transfer in a state that lacked “universal background checks,” I will be all ears. But they can’t, of course. Which is why there is no mention of such a person in their plea.

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