Dim enlightenment

Mold-BUUG!

The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

The Nation, 25 November 2013

Three items of note:

Michelle Goldberg’s piece on “The GOP’s Poverty Denialism” includes a paragraph that very clearly expresses a phenomenon that I’ve often noticed on the political right, but that I’ve never been able to put into words:

It seems that to be a contemporary Republican, one must simultaneously believe two things: that Obama has immiserated the country and driven unemployment to intolerable levels, and that the poor have it easy and there are plenty of jobs out there for the taking. When the tension between these two beliefs gets to be too great, Republicans will usually tilt toward the latter.

I’ve spent a great deal of time around Republicans and other American right-wingers in my life, and that pair of beliefs is the single most annoying thing about them.  Whenever a Democratic president is in office, or the Democrats seem to be controlling the state or local government, they’ll bang on about the harm those Democrats are doing to the economy, then in the same breath declare that there has never been more opportunity for those who are willing to work.

I think there is another pair of contradictory beliefs underlying the right-wing addiction to this contradiction.  Most of the libertarians and virtually all of the Republicans I know tend to interpret any case of prosperity in the USA as proof of the virtue of an unfettered free market.  That applies not only to periods of economic expansion, but to any amenity, even roads and and other public works built by tax dollars.   Indeed, the wealth of rich individuals is often cited as a sign of the goodness of a free market, even when those individuals have been enriched entirely by tax schemes or government contracts.  On the other hand, the same people, faced with recessions, poverty, etc, reflexively attribute those conditions to the fact that the USA does not have and never has had an unfettered free market.

Far better to be a radical libertarian like the late Murray Rothbard or Sheldon Richman, who denounce our regulated, subsidized economic system and call it by the name “capitalism.”  Rothbard and Richman are frankly utopian in their call for a freed market, and so are able to be logically consistent in their appraisal of present conditions.  Better still to be a real conservative like Henry Adams, who in his History of the United States Under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison showed how even 16 unbroken years of bad government could not stop a basically healthy society from prospering, as in other works he showed that good government could not stop a deeply corrupt society from decaying.

Also in this issue of The Nation, Rick Perlstein argues that the people now leading the Republican Party are very much the same as were the right-wingers in that party decades ago.  In some ways I think Perlstein is right.  It never ceases to amaze me when Democrats are hurt and surprised to find that Republicans don’t like Democratic presidents, a phenomenon on which Perlstein comments thus:

This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”

All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks.

When Senator Helms made that remark, Democratic friends of mine earnestly explained to me that the reason Republicans hated Bill Clinton so much was because of his activities during the Vietnam War.  Now the same Republicans had been every bit as hostile to Presidents Carter, Johnson, and Kennedy as they were to President Clinton, and the very people who were so concerned for the mental health of the Clinton-haters would themselves soon be making dark comments about what justice would mean in the cases of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney.  The particular stories and images that people nurse in their hatred of Mr O are of course different than the stories and images that would feed their hatred of a white president, but I cannot see how anyone could honestly say that the degree of the hatred directed at President Obama is or could be any greater than the hatred all of his predecessors have received from their opponents.

However, I do think that Mr Perlstein exaggerates both the continuity between the irresponsible Republican fringe of yesterday and the irresponsible Republican mainstream of today and the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.  His first paragraph describes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against the Truman administration in terms reminiscent of Senator Ted Cruz’ campaign against the Obama administration.  Mr Perlstein sums up that and several other analogies with the line: “Presto: after decades of trying, the reactionary tail finally wags the establishment dog. The recklessness of the goals, however, [has] always been the same.”

As regards Senator McCarthy, that strikes me as patently false.  Senator McCarthy’s original pet cause on Congress, before he devoted himself to an effort to create the impression that the US government was infested with vast numbers of Soviet agents, was support for public housing.  By today’s standards, McCarthy’s economic views would put him on the left wing of the Democratic Party.  Even the hallucinatory drama of a crusade against subversive influence in Washington, with the names of the players updated as the times require, is endlessly replayed by Democrats and Republicans alike in this age of security clearances, free speech zones, and universal surveillance.   World Communism may not be too frightening these days, but Republican administrations can always find sinister foreigners with whom they can accuse their opponents of sympathizing, and Democratic administrations can always find dangerous misfits in the interior of the country whom they can caricature as mortal threats to an open society.  So the cycle of Red Scare and Brown Scare continues, so the federal police powers grow steadily, so Guantanamo Bay and the National Security Administration maintain a smooth flow of operations.

As for the difference between the Democrats and republicans, consider this paragraph from Mr Perlstein’s piece:

The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations—in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom—to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all.

I place great importance on the integrity of the political process.  I would rather my favored side lose a fair election than win an unfair one.  People who are like me in that way have at several points formed voting blocs that held the balance of power in the USA.  The 1970s were such a time.  That was why the release of the Pentagon Papers did so much to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War early in the decade, why the Watergate scandal and the subsequent pardon of Richard Nixon so damaged the Republican Party in the middle of that decade, why the Church Committee investigations into abuses of power by the CIA raised the prospect of real reforms, and why laws were enacted to move toward public financing of political campaigns.  The public had seen that the political elite was not living up to a code of fair play, and voters who were indignant about that were able to swing elections against politicians whom they blamed for the misdeeds.

Where I disagree with Mr Perlstein is in the question of who it is who must believe in this code of fair play.  It is not the politicians, and not their most committed partisans.  I say that I would rather lose an election fairly than win one unfairly.  That is why I would not be a successful politician.  In the heat of the contest, of course candidates and their supporters will do whatever they can to win.  If they aren’t so absorbed in the contest that they will resort to any dirty trick that is likely to gain the victory, they probably won’t be able to conduct themselves effectively if by some chance they do win.  That holds regardAless of party or period.  It is for voters to hold them to a code of fair play.  The better job voters do, the less politicians will have to gain and the more they will have to lose by resorting to wickedness.  Of course, as Mr Perlstein points out, the US political system is structured to limit voters’ ability to do their job.  That makes it all the more important that we do work at it.

Also in this issue, Jackson Lears reviews several books about happiness.  In addition to the authors of the books reviewed, Mr Lears mentions the following eminences: Ernest van den Haag, Samuel Beckett, Steven Pinker, Philip Rieff, Margaret Thatcher, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Pope, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Milton Bradley, William James, Theodore Dreiser, Ray Stannard Baker, G. Stanley Hall, Alfred Tennyson, Theodore Roosevelt, J. W. Goethe, Dale Carnegie, Studs Terkel, William Whyte, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Steve McQueen, Betty Friedan, Michel Foucault, Benjamin Franklin, D. H. Lawrence, Abraham Maslow, Clifford Geertz, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, John Brown, Barack Obama, John Muir, C. S. Lewis, John Keats, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Niccolo Machiavelli, Bernard Mandeville, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, William Morris, Edmund Burke, and Robert Frank.  Quite an impressive roll call, though a bit imbalanced in regard to gender and race.  The gender imbalance might not be quite so irritating if Mr Lears had not mentioned Frankenstein, but not Mary Shelley.  As for the racial imbalance, you can at least give Mr Lears credit for being clear as to what a brother has to do to gain his attention, since the only non-white person mentioned is currently serving as president of the United States.

Anyway, of the six books actually under review, five strike Mr Lears as silly and pernicious.  Some are pseudo-science, some are collections of platitudes, all are designed to forestall any criticism of the way American capitalism operates today.  The exception is How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.  Of the Skidelskys, Mr Lears writes:

[T]he authors reveal an uncommon sensitivity to the abrasive impact of capitalist culture on human relationships. They prefer to focus on friendship rather than community as a nodule of the good life (claiming persuasively that “community” is too easily reified into a collective ideal that somehow transcends the welfare of its individual members). And they note the difficulties of sustaining friendship in a culture obsessed with mobility, autonomy and utility, where the speed-up is a way of life. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” says American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini. It is one of those quotations that, in its very banality and predictability, encapsulates the depth of our moral predicament. Free-market fundamentalists, the Skidelskys argue, “get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings.” You cannot find a more succinct and compelling indictment of neoliberalism than that.

The Skidelskys’ alternative is modest and deeply humane, and involves no posturing or jargon. They are social democrats, not socialists, and they want to retrieve the ethical language of social democracy—on the assumption that if we start talking seriously about the good life again, we can begin re-creating the institutions to sustain it. They believe personal autonomy is one good among others, without giving it special preference. They believe that the cultivation of personality is a good as well, and that people need “a room behind the shop,” a protected place apart from commercial transactions to pursue that cultivation. They believe in the importance of property as a base for cultivating one’s tastes and ideals—one’s personality. But they like their property small; they are drawn to the traditions of Catholic personalism and distributionism—the localist communitarianism embraced by figures as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day. They know, with William Morris, that the precondition for leisure is the reduction of toil. (That would include, for starters, the relaxing of demands for increased productivity, the slowing down of the speeding up.) They also know there are links between social Catholicism, the sociological liberalism of Tocqueville, and Burkean conservatism; with the thinkers in these traditions, they share an enthusiasm for mutual-aid societies and employee cooperatives—for voluntary associations that provide a meeting ground between the remote organization and the isolated individual. They might have mentioned the Protestant Social Gospel, and the need to recover and reassert it against the cult of prosperity that for several decades has commanded center stage in contemporary evangelicalism. An enlarged Protestant ethic—one that prizes commonwealth over wealth—could enrich their vision of the good life as well.

In the Skidelskys’ vision of the good society, noncoercive paternalism would be balanced by localism. The state would bear responsibility for promoting basic goods, would ensure that the fruits of productivity are shared more evenly, and would reduce the pressure to consume—perhaps through a progressive expenditure tax like the one proposed by the economist Robert Frank. This would restrain what he calls the “runaway spending at the top,” which belies the myth that the 1 percent is the “investing class” and has “spawned a luxury fever,” Frank writes, that “has us all in its grip.” To that same end—the dampening of consumption—the Skidelskys propose eliminating advertising as a deductible business expense. They are also refreshingly resistant to free-market globaloney. The good life, they make clear, is not (and cannot be) dependent on globalization: “Developed countries will have to rely more on domestic sources of production to satisfy their needs; developing market economies will need to abandon export-growth models that rely on ever-increasing consumption demand in developed countries.” Scaling back consumption means scaling down international trade. This is not an ascetic agenda—the charge so often leveled against critics of consumer culture, as if consumption is the only imaginable form of leisure. On the contrary: How Much Is Enough? is an effort to imagine possibilities for a satisfying life beyond market discipline.

In his habit of promiscuous quotation, in the deeply ingrained conservatism revealed by the sources he favors for his quotes, in his constant suspicion of and frequent dismissiveness towards fashionable opinion, and in his high esteem for leisure as a goal of civilized life, Mr Lears reminds me of the writer who has influenced me more than any other, Irving Babbitt.  Because of that resemblance, as much as the content of his argument, I am inclined to read the Skidelskys’ book.

A sensible emptiness

Ever since Alexander Cockburn died in July, Counterpunch, the newsletter he founded and co-edited, has tended to let in more and more academic leftism.  Where a pungent, demotic style once prevailed, the pedantic jargon of reheated Marxism now roams wild.

Despite this sad falling-off, Counterpunch still carries news and comment worth reading.  I’d mention a piece that appeared today on Counterpunch’s website, “Atheism and the Class Problem,” by David Hoelscher.   True, it exhibits several academic vices that would never have survived Cockburn’s blue pencil, but it’s well worth reading nonetheless.

Here’s an interesting paragraph from Mr Hoelscher’s piece:

It is too often overlooked that economics is inextricably mixed up with religion. David Eller, an atheist and anthropologist, helpfully reminds us that the realistic view on this point is the holistic perspective. It sees religion as a component of culture, and as such “integrated” with and “interdependent” on all the other “aspect[s] of culture—its economic system, its kinship practices, its politics, its language, its gender roles, and so on.” It was not for nothing that Max Weber insisted that, in the words of Joel Schalit “the economic order is a reflection of the religious order.” It is no accident, then, that in the face of massive public debt and a wretchedly inadequate social safety net, various levels of ostensibly secular government in the U.S. grant 71 billion dollars in subsidies annually to religious organizations (as calculated by Professor Ryan T. Cragun and his students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega.)

That sounds a bit like Irving Babbitt, who started his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership thus:

According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the re­lations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thorough­ness, the economic problem will be found to run into the politi­cal problem, the political prob­lem in turn into the philosophi­cal problem, and the philosophi­cal problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Of course, Babbitt’s point was the opposite of Mr Hoelscher’s.  For Babbitt, the most important questions were ethical questions, and the most important function of a social system was the formation of moral character.  Some virtues are best cultivated in conditions of prosperity; for that reason, Babbitt is prepared to grant that economics is worthy of some concern.  For Mr Hoelscher, however, economic inequality is the greatest of evils, and religious institutions are among the forces that sustain that evil.

I’d like to quote another bit of Mr Hoelscher’s, this one consisting of two rather long paragraphs:

Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism. Shortly after the death of New Atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens in December 2011, Chomsky’s longtime friend, radical scholar Norman Finkelstein, derided Hitchens’ anti-theist provocateuring as “pissing on other people’s mostly innocuous beliefs.” (emphasis mine) Brothers and doctoral psychology students Ben and Bo Winegard, in an erudite article effusively praising Chomsky, argue that the so-called New Atheists are directing their prodigious intellectual firepower at the wrong target. They believe, correctly in my view, that today in the U.S. “The most potent mythology [“even among believers”] is neoliberal nationalism and the most powerful institution is the corporation.” The church, they assert “is no longer an inordinately powerful institution” and thus the New Atheists have “mistakenly dragged a 200 year old corpse into the modern world.”

But religion as a cultural force is not nearly as moribund as the Winegards suggest. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey of religious belief, which found that 80 percent of American adults “said they never doubt the existence of God.” How is that possible if religion is so weak? Diane Arellano, program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project in Los Angeles (and former student of Sikivu Hutchinson), writes compellingly about how most of the African American and Latina students she works with “come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles” and about how it is not particularly unusual for her to learn of a pregnant teen who eschews the option of abortion “because she can’t ‘kill’ God’s creation.” On the political front, Christian “conservatives” are largely devoted to the fascist Republican Party while most liberal religionists are devoted to the plutocratic Democratic Party. In his perceptive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank offers a convincing explanation for why large numbers of poor and working class people vote Republican and therefore against their own economic self-interest. The basic dynamic is that right-wing political leaders and spokespeople succeed in achieving a “systematic erasure of the economic” from discussions about class and replace it with messages that warn of liberal “elites” bent on undermining mid-American Christian cultural values. Frank’s argument is not a comprehensive explanation for the success of radical corporatism across a wide swath of the country—other important factors, including moral rot inside the Democratic Party, widespread anti-intellectualism (itself in large part an effect of religion), and the sophistication of state propaganda are a large part of the mix as well—but it does capture a substantial part of our political reality.

How is it possible that 80 percent of American adults claim never to doubt the existence of God if religion is so weak?  I can think of an explanation.  In the USA, participation in religious groups has been declining steadily for forty years; for much of that time, so much publicity was given to the growth of the fundamentalist Christian groups that many people seemed not to notice that the mainline Protestant churches were losing more followers than those groups were gaining.  Now the fundamentalists are declining too, and the mainline is still shrinking.  This is not because some atheist campaign has persuaded millions to deny the existence of God; if anything, larger majorities now express agreement with theistic statements than did back in the early 1970s, when over 60% of Americans attended church on a weekly basis.  There is no paradox here; it is easy to say the words that go along with an orthodox belief if you know that no one will ever expect you to adjust your behavior to exemplify that belief.  Mr Hoelscher makes much of the fact that the poor are likelier to say that they hold conservative religious beliefs than are the rich; a fact he does not mention is that the likelihood that a person will participate in a religious group generally varies in direct proportion with that person’s income.  Again, it’s easy to say that you’re orthodox if there’s no one around to hold you to it.

T. C. Frank’s phrase, “systematic erasure of the economic,” got me thinking.  It certainly is true that political discourse in the USA is strangely disengaged from economics and class realities.  I’d say it’s giving the right-wing too much credit to say that they are solely responsible for emptying politics of any direct expression of these concerns.  The various left wings that have come and gone throughout American history have succeeded in convincing virtually everyone in the USA that class divisions are a very bad thing, and that their existence is a reproach to society.  Since the liquidation of class divisions does not seem to be an imminent prospect, that leaves Americans with few options beside denialism and despair.  Among those who are interested, not so much in liquidating all class distinctions, but in countering the worst effects of them and building a sustainable social compact, there might be considerable social activism, as there was in the mid-twentieth century when organized labor was a power on the land.  But those days are past.  Unions are marginal players in American politics today, and nothing has grown up to take their place.  As Mr Hoelscher notes, the Democratic Party and other institutions that are supposed to be vehicles of the center-right are as silent about class division as are their counterparts on the right, and offer the public no means to resist the demands of the super-rich.  Where we might expect conflict, we find a strange absence.

As much as American life has emptied politics of challenges to the power of the financial oligarchy, so too has it emptied religion of challenges to individual moral character.  Theology, doctrine, and myth still waft about in people’s speech and in their minds.  These abstractions are surely the least valuable parts of any religious tradition.  Absent the human connections sustained by common worship, absent the presence of admirable people whose good examples can form the character of those around them, absent the sense of purpose that comes from the feeling that one is a participant in a vast multigenerational enterprise upon which inconceivably important matters depend, it is difficult to see what can come of theology, doctrine, and myth except conflict and needless confusion.  That’s what brought Richard Wilbur’s “A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness” to my mind; in that poem, its title a quote from mystic Thomas Traherne, Mr Wilbur rejects the idea of a placeless sanctity, of a spirit that lives in isolation from the flesh.  It is “the steam of beasts” that is “the spirit’s right oasis,” not the “land of sheer horizon” where “prosperous islands” “shimmer on the brink of absence.”  American life has become too much a matter of absences, its politics a contest of absences, its religion an organized absence, its art a proclamation of eternal, everlasting absence.  It’s high time we turn to presence again.

Paul Elmer More fans, take note!

Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) and Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) were the co-founders of a school of thought known as the “New Humanism” or “American Humanism.”  These literary scholars sought to establish that a particular set of propositions about morals and psychology could be found in the most respected books of many of the world’s great literatures.  Babbitt was an irreligious man, but he dutifully included the Bible on his list of Great Books; he took a serious academic interest in early Buddhist writings, and late in life began a study of Confucius.

While Babbitt included sacred texts in his studies in an attempt to show that there is a form of moralism that is compatible with many religions but dependent on none of them, More took a different approach.  He had a strong, though vague, religious leaning; after youthful studies of the Upanishads and other holy books from ancient India, he settled into Anglo-Catholicism.  By far the most popular of More’s books in his lifetime was The Sceptical Approach to Religion; I suspect its popularity is based solely on its title.  While the rest of his books are written in a remarkably clear, easy style, The Sceptical Approach to Religion is largely unreadable.  Intended as a work of apologetics, the book consists primarily of disavowals, qualifications, and backpedaling of every sort.  The Sceptical Approach to Religion appeared in 1934, the year after Irving Babbitt’s death.  I suspect that if the notoriously pugnacious Babbitt had been alive to give his opinion of the book, More would never have dared release such a mealy-mouthed production.

Although The Sceptical Approach to Religion presents readers with an extraordinarily murky version of More’s religious ideas, his most sustained scholarly work, the five-volume treatise known as The Greek Tradition, paints a clearer picture.  The full title of the series is The Greek Tradition from the Death of Socrates to the Council of Chalcedon (399 BC to 451 AD.)  Its thesis is that the development of ancient Greek philosophy beginning with Plato found its logical culmination in the debates at the Council of Chalcedon and the doctrines that emerged from those debates.  The study has its eccentric aspects certainly, and shows its age.  Nor can a nonbeliever quite take More’s thesis seriously.  Nonetheless, I can say that it has repaid me well every time I’ve read it, for all my skepticism.

Now we have a new book that apparently reflects a research program similar in scope, if not in theological purpose.  Marian Hillar, a professor of philosophy and biochemistry* at Texas Southern University, has published a book called From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.)  A review of the book by Patricia Johnston of Brandeis University was recently sent to members of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South.  Professor Johnston writes:

In this sweeping review, Marian Hillar attempts to trace the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, from the early pre-Socratic philosophers to Tertullian, with a special focus on Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), Justin Martyr (115–165 CE), and Tertullian (160–225 CE).

Paul Elmer More would have been alarmed at that part; he objected to the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that early Christians thought of the Holy Spirit as something on a par, not with God the Father and God the Son, but with the communion of the saints or other expressions that might very well name something of great religious importance, but that no one thought of as one of God’s Persons.  Still, More had some reservations about Justin Martyr’s orthodoxy and thought of Tertullian primarily as a notorious heretic, so he might not have found it too hard to believe that they were precursors of Trinitarianism.

*Professor Hillar was a medical doctor before earning his philosophy Ph.D.

Atheism is no excuse for skipping church

In a recent review of Alain de Botton‘s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, John Gray writes:

Rarely mentioned in the debates of recent years is that atheism has been linked with all kinds of positions in ethics, politics and philosophy. More particularly, there is no necessary connection – either as a matter of logic or in the longer history of atheist thinking – between atheism and the rejection of religion.

Atheist thinkers have rejected and at times supported religion for many different reasons. The 19th-century anarchist Max Stirner rejected religion as a fetter on individual self-assertion. Bakunin, Marx and Lenin rejected it because it obstructed socialist solidarity, while Nietzsche hated religion (specifically, Christianity) because he believed that it had led to ideologies of solidarity such as socialism. Auguste Comte, an atheist and virulent anti-liberal, attempted to create a new church of humanity based on science.

In contrast, the French atheist and proto-fascist Charles Maurras, an admirer of both Comte and Nietzsche, was an impassioned defender of the Catholic Church. John Stuart Mill – not exactly an atheist but not far off – tried to fuse Comte’s new religion with liberalism. In marrying atheism with very different ethical and political positions, none of these thinkers was confused or inconsistent. Atheism can go with practically anything, since in itself it amounts to very little.

Certainly a dictionary definition such as “the doctrine that there are no gods” amounts to very little.  Professor Gray champions such a definition:  “Rightly understood, atheism is a purely negative position: an atheist is anyone who has no use for the doctrines and concepts of theism.”  For my part, I am reflexively skeptical of any very simple, purely abstract definition of an ideological label.  I doubt that anyone adopts such a label as a self-description or responds powerfully to it as a description of a participant in a debate unless it suggests a rather substantial narrative.   “Atheist” is a label that millions of people wear with fierce pride, and that raises equally fierce anger and fear in hundreds of millions of others.  The strength of those reactions proves that the word has connotations for these people that go far beyond the tidy little abstractions of the dictionary, and their predictability shows that these connotations are much the same from person to person.   Therefore, I am not convinced that anyone anywhere is an atheist simply in the dictionary sense of the word.  There are people who reject particular religious beliefs that involve the existence of gods, and there are people who accept particular beliefs that exclude the existence of gods.  The key thing about each of these people is their relationship to those particular beliefs, to the people they know who espouse those beliefs, and to the institutions in their social worlds that are associated with those beliefs.  A label such as “atheist,” in the dictionary sense, would sort a pious Confucian, an orthodox Communist, and a militant freethinker together.  Certainly no category that includes three such disparate people could be a very important part of our understanding of the world.

As I am skeptical of the dictionary version of the word “atheism,” so too am I skeptical of the word “theism.”  The Oxford English Dictionary gives four definitions for “theism.”  (Not counting another, unrelated, word spelled the same way, which means “illness as the result of drinking tea.”)  These definitions are: “belief in a deity or deities; as opposed to atheism”; “belief in one god, as opposed to polytheism or pantheism”; “belief in the existence of god, with denial of revelation”; “belief in the existence of god, without denial of revelation.”  n the first of these senses, the word appears to be a back formation created by taking the prefix off of “atheism.”  The word is obsolete in the second sense, having been replaced by “monotheism.”  The third sense has been replaced by “deism”; where deism is a live option, its opponents still use the word “theism” to describe themselves.  In view of the word’s history, then, it would be as true to say that “theism” names a “purely negative position” as it is to say that “atheism” names a “purely negative position.”  A theist is someone who rejects the labels “atheist” and “deist” and will not play the social roles that come with those labels.

Again, no one does only this.  Those who call themselves “theists” are adherents of particular religions.  Surely, no one believes in “a personal god”; billions of people believe in the God their favorite preacher describes.  Mere theism is as unreal as C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.”  Indeed, the labels that name world religions cover so many people and so many cultures of faith that anyone can see the point the late Edward Said made when he proposed scrapping the term “Islam” on the grounds that such a word “imputes a unified and monolithic religious and cultural system” to what is in fact an infinitely diverse range of experiences lived by over a billion people scattered all over the globe.  How much worse then is a label that encompasses not only that range, but also the ranges of experience grouped under “Christianity,” “Judiasm,” Sikhism,” “Hinduism,” etc.

Professor Gray does recover a bit as the review goes on.  So:

Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith.

Today’s atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.

De Botton has done us a service by showing why atheists should be friendly to religion. Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe (or don’t believe). When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous.

The fixation on belief is most prominent in western Christianity, where it results mainly from the distorting influence of Greek philosophy. Continuing this obsession, modern atheists have created an evangelical cult of unbelief. Yet the core of most of the world’s religions has always been holding to a way of life rather than subscribing to a list of doctrines. In Eastern Orthodoxy and some currents of Hinduism and Buddhism, there are highly developed traditions that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all. Though not often recognised, there are parallels between this sort of negative theology and a rigorous version of atheism.

A couple of years ago, we noticed James P. Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief, a book which argues not only that its beliefs are not the things which make a religious tradition most valuable, but that an excessive emphasis on beliefs is the surest way to drain a religious tradition of its value.  Professor Gray seems to be approaching Professor Carse’s views here.  He goes on to write paragraphs that will make any admirer of Irving Babbitt wince:

The present clamour against religion comes from confusing atheism with humanism, which in its modern forms is an offshoot of Christianity.

Unfortunately, de Botton falls into this confusion when he endorses Comte’s scheme for a humanist church. “Regrettably,” he writes, “Comte’s unusual, complex, sometimes deranged but always thought-provoking project was derailed by practical obstacles.” It is true that in accepting the need for religion Comte was more reasonable than the current breed of atheists. But it is one thing to point out why atheists should be friendly to religion and another to propose that a new religion should be invented for atheists.

The church of humanity is a prototypical modern example of atheism turned into a cult of collective self-worship. If this ersatz faith came to nothing, it was not because of practical difficulties. Religions are human creations. When they are consciously designed to be useful, they are normally short-lived. The ones that survive are those that have evolved to serve enduring human needs – especially the need for self-transcendence. That is why we can be sure the world’s traditional religions will be alive and well when evangelical atheism is dead and long forgotten.

I mention Irving Babbitt because of the episode that briefly made him a celebrity.  In 1930, Babbitt was 65 years old, and had for over 30 years taught French and Comparative Literature at Harvard University.  In those decades, he and his friend Paul Elmer More had assembled a school of learned followers who labeled themselves “the New Humanists.”  1930 was the year the New Humanists chose to make their debut as a movement.  A book featuring essays by Babbitt, More, and many of their followers (including Babbitt’s pupil T. S. Eliot) appeared under the title Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization; Babbitt himself gave a lecture at Carnegie Hall, drawing an audience of 3000.  Much to the dismay of Babbitt and company, a circle around philosopher John Dewey also chose 1930 to launch a project under the name “the New Humanism.”  While Babbitt traced the criticism that he and his school practiced back to Erasmus and the other the Christian humanists of the Renaissance and claimed that it offered a way even for irreligious people such a himself to recognize the value of religion, the Deweyans were hostile to traditional religion and favored views quite similar to those Professor Gray describes above.  The extent of the Deweyans’ triumph in the battle for the word “humanist” can be measured not only by remarks like Professor Gray’s but also by the prosperity of the American Humanist Association, which had its origins in the Dewey group’s 1930 activities and which stands today as the USA’s foremost institutional champion of atheism.  Needless to say, the American Humanist Association’s successive “Humanist Manifestoes” make no reference to Babbitt and More, and certainly take no notice of Erasmus or any other Christian humanists.

Babbitt’s “humanism” suffered from many weaknesses, not least the fact that it was at least as sweeping a collection of diverse beliefs and experiences as would be sorted under the label “theism.”  Indeed, at the height of the “Humanist” controversy Paul Shorey slashed away at the New Humanists precisely because they made the term “humanism” bear an impossible burden.  Even as the dictionary versions of “theism” and “atheism” elide the whole world of religious experience, so too Babbitt’s conflation of all the sages, philosophers, and prophets of the past is, in Shorey’s words, “exposed to misunderstandings and misapplications, and Professor Babbitt wishes to deduce from it precisely his own ideals in religion, ethics, culture, philosophy, politics, and education.”  By contrast, Shorey declared himself  “content to take the word in a loose, fluid, literary way and in the traditional Renaissance sense of devotion to the Greek and Latin classics and to the cultural and ethical ideals that naturally result from an educational system in which they hold a considerable place.”  Babbitt would likely have claimed that he and his school used the word in the same way, but that they, unlike Shorey, had thought through the question of what “cultural and ethical ideals” can be expected to “naturally result” from various educational systems in which the Greek and Latin classics hold various places that might be called considerable.  In other words, what Shorey was doing with the word “humanism” may be very much like what Professor Gray is doing by invoking the dictionary definition of “atheism.”  In each case, the critic is trying to avoid a controversy by associating himself with a version of a word that is artificially drained of its connotations and narrative content and confined to a purely formal significance.  In each case, however, the word has associations that cannot be suppressed.  By trying to hide those associations behind the dictionary, the critic puts himself in a weak position.  If Shorey wished to escape from Babbitt’s attempt to overstuff the word “humanism” with all the wisdom in the world and to ground in it all of his preferred ideas, he would have been better advised to consider the particular uses of the word as evidenced by identifiable people in specific situations than to express a preference for a use of the word that differs from Babbitt’s chiefly in its greater vagueness.

Philosopher that he is, Professor Gray was never likely to declare that a term and the prejudices it expresses are best left unexamined.  His refuge in the dictionary, however, leaves him in a very awkward position.  For example:

“Religion,” writes Alain de Botton, “is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognising our paltriness.” It is a thought reminiscent of Blaise Pascal. One of the creators of modern probability theory, the 17th-century thinker invented an early calculating machine, the Pascaline, along with a version of the syringe and a hydraulic press. He made major contributions to geometry and helped shape the future development of mathematics. He also designed the first urban mass transit system.

Pascal was one of the founders of the modern world. Yet the author of the Pensées – an apology for Christianity begun after his conversion to Catholicism – was also convinced of the paltriness of the human mind. By any standards a scientific genius and one of the most intelligent human beings that may ever have lived, Pascal never supposed that humankind’s problems could be solved if only people were smarter.

The paradox of an immensely powerful mind mistrusting the intellect is not new. Pascal needed intellectual humility because he had so many reasons to be proud of his intelligence. It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali – to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions – lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd but the fact it can be asked at all might be thought to pose a difficulty for de Botton. His spirited and refreshingly humane book aims to show that religion serves needs that an entirely secular life cannot satisfy. He will not persuade those for whom atheism is a militant creed. Such people are best left with their certainties, however childish.

I would be the last to deny that Pascal was a great mind, but neither would I say that atheism, even of the militant variety, has confined its appeal to people who can be dismissed as “best left with their certainties, however childish.”  As Professor Gray says, a bare denial of the existence of gods, considered in the abstract, doesn’t “amount to much.”  Yet there is something in the label “atheist” and the roles that atheists play in society that has a powerful attraction even to people who could have matched wits with Pascal.  Like Paul Shorey before him, Professor Gray has not followed his own lead.  As he is willing to break the “fixation on belief” in discussing religion, so too should he break the same fixation when discussing irreligion.

“Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing”

T. H. Huxley in 1860

The title of this post is a quote from Thomas Henry Huxley.  I came across it a few months ago, when I was reading an old paperback I found in a used book store.  The book was Voices from the Sky, by Arthur C. Clarke (Mayflower Press, 1969.)  The cheap, high-acid paper hadn’t aged well in the decades since the book was printed; the pages crumbled in my hands as I read.  All I kept from it is the top half of page 155, a bit from an essay titled “Science and Spirituality.”  On the previous page, Clarke had mentioned the widespread impression that science and religion are irreconcilable.  To which he says:

It is a great tragedy that such an impression has ever arisen, for nothing could be further from the truth.  ‘Truth’ is the key word; for what does science mean except truth?  And of all human activities, the quest for truth is the most noble, the most disinterested, the most spiritual.

It is also the one most likely to inculcate humility.  Said T. H. Huxley a century ago: ‘Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.’

Science has now led, in our generation, to the ultimate abyss- that of space.  Questions to which philosophers and mystics have given conflicting answers for millennia will soon be answered, as our rocket-borne instruments range ever further from Earth.

Several things about these paragraphs arrested my attention.  Clarke usually called himself an atheist, and it was to describe his own opinions that Huxley coined the word “agnostic.”  So it is rather odd to see one of them invoke the other in defense of religious values.  Moreover, it seems a bit naive to assert that space is “the ultimate abyss.”  Ultimate in size space may be, unless of course there are parallel universes, in which case the space in which we live may be only fraction of an infinitely larger abyss.  But for all we know, the mysteries of space may yet pale in significance and complexity next to those of the subatomic world, or of some other field of study.  The final sentence is, if anything, even more naive.  Surely the most interesting thing about science is not its ability to answer familiar questions, but its ability to raise unfamiliar questions.  Philosophers and mystics have not given conflicting answers for millennia to, for example, the question of whether Venus ever had plate tectonics.  Without scientific inquiry, not only would we not have the concept of plate tectonics, we wouldn’t even know that Venus had a surface.  Once scientific inquiry has reached a certain point, our habits of mind and our whole view of nature change in ways too subtle to notice and too numerous to count.  In truth, the essay showed many signs of hasty composition; it was far from Clarke’s best, and I was surprised to see it published in a collection.

I tracked the Huxley quote down.  It comes from a letter Huxley wrote to the Reverend Charles Kingsley on 23 September 1860.  The letter appears on pages 217-221 of Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, edited by Leonard Huxley (London: MacMillan and Company, 1900); the sentence Clarke quotes appears on page 219 of that book.  Kingsley had sent Professor and Mrs Huxley a letter of condolence on the death of their young son, in which he alluded to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Huxley’s response is worth reading in full, though I will quote only a few selections.  Kingsley had mentioned various arguments that are supposed to bolster the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Huxley’s response makes it clear what these arguments were:

I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together—because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

Thus Huxley sets the gracious tone of the letter, and makes it clear that he disagrees with Kingsley.  Next:

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Certainly a classic statement from the first self-described agnostic!

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.” All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

So does Huxley present himself as a scientist, and as a stout defender of the methods of science.  I am surprised at his statement that “the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and feel, ‘I believe such and such to be true.’  All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act.”  When Huxley wrote that sentence, he was 35 years old.  I’m older than that now, and the longer I live the more obvious it is to me that to say and to feel “I believe such and such to be true” is usually a waste of time, and quite often the mark of a jackass. Maybe that’s just because I spend a lot of time on the web, or maybe not.

Huxley then sets out to show how a thoroughly scientific mind approaches Kingsley’s views:

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know—may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton’s essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton’s argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth’s picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by their persistence and my cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind— that my own highest aspirations even — lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my pre-conceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

This rather resolves the paradox of the atheist Clarke invoking the agnostic Huxley in defense of religion.  Huxley is responding graciously to his friend’s sincere attempt to comfort him in a moment of extreme affliction.  In that endeavor, he assures Kingsley that he seeks to cultivate the same virtues Kingsley hopes his religion will engender, and simultaneously makes it clear that he does not accept Kingsley’s religion.  Clarke was known for a similar combination of friendliness and forthrightness in his dealings with believers, and I surmise that in this letter he may have found a kindred spirit.

Huxley mentions arguments in favor of the immortality of the soul that Kingsley had not made, notably the idea “that such a system is indispensable to practical morality.”  Huxley’s objection to this argument is emotionally powerful and scientifically astute:

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

The words that shocked Huxley came from I Corinthians chapter 15, verse 32.  Here is the passage Huxley probably heard, taken from the funeral service in the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  It comprises verses 20 through 58 of that chapter:

Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule, and all authority, and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead? and why stand we in jeopardy every hour? I protest by your rejoicing, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not: for some have not the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame. But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die. And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body, as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. All flesh is not the same flesh; but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead: It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit, that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, (for the trumpet shall sound,) and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality; then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 0 death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

Is Paul suggesting in this passage that those who disbelieve in the immortality of the soul will skip the funerals of their loved ones in order to visit the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet, and thus committing “a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature”?  I think not.  He does not mention funerals, or the first shock of mourning; he does not deny that it is natural for us, as animals, to grieve out our grief when death has put someone we love forever out of our reach.  He talks about baptism, and martyrdom, and day after day spent under the shadow of persecution.  The reward for all of this trouble is to be found in an immense drama that began with Adam and Eve and that will continue until the end of time, a drama in which everyone, alive and dead has a role to play.  If this drama is not really in production, if our efforts do not really connect us the living with the dead who went before s and their efforts will not connect the living to us after we die, why bother with the whole thing?  Better to embrace laziness and live the easiest possible life than to sustain so demanding an enterprise.  Such laziness might not preclude a period of howling grief fit to impress any ape, though it would set a limit to the ways in which a person is likely to change his or her habits in the aftermath of that period.

Of course, when Huxley heard the passage above he was standing at the open grave into which his young son’s coffin had just been lowered.  It would be unreasonable to think ill of a person subject to such extreme stress for taking a few words out of their context and putting an unwarranted construction on them, especially when the priest speaking them represented a group that was alien to Huxley’s beliefs and hostile to him personally.  I do wonder, though, why it was just that construction that came to Huxley’s mind.  Obviously, I don’t know.  But I think I do know what Irving Babbitt would have thought about it.   Babbitt (1865-1933) was a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard whose works have had a great influence on me.  The poet and critic T. S. Eliot took some classes from Babbitt, and after Babbitt’s death wrote that “To have been once a pupil of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position”; even for someone like myself, born decades after Babbitt’s death and familiar with him only through his books, Babbitt’s influence is permanent.

Irving Babbitt might have read Paul much as he read the Buddha.  In the course of the denunciation of the elective system then being introduced to American higher education that runs through his book Literature and the American College (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin,1908,)  Babbitt wrote:

A popular philosopher has said that every man is as lazy as he dares to be. If he had said that nine men in ten are as lazy as they dare to be, he would have come near hitting a great truth. Theelective system has often been regarded as a protest against the doctrine of original depravity. This doctrine at best rests on rather metaphysical 1 foundations, and is hard to verify practically. The Buddhists are perhaps nearer the facts as we know them in putting at the very basis of their belief the doctrine, not of the original depravity, but of the original laziness, of human nature. (page 53)

with this clarification:

The greatest of vices according to Buddha is the lazy yielding to the impulses of temperament (pamada); the greatest virtue (appamada) is the opposite of this, the awakening from the sloth and lethargy of the senses, the constant exercise of the active will. The last words of the dying Buddha to his disciples were an exhortation to practice this virtue unremittingly (page 53 note 1)

In the introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada,*  Babbitt enlarges on this discussion, drawing a contrast between appamada and karma.  Both words mean “work,” but Babbitt claims that in the Dhammapada and the other early Buddhist scriptures written in the Pâli language karma carries the sense of an effort sustained over a long period, several lifetimes in fact, that culminates in a kind of knowledge that can be acquired in no other way.  Babbitt made a habit of attributing his favorite ethical ideas simultaneously to all the great sages of the ancient world, east and west; nothing would have appealed to him more than declaring a familiar passage in Paul to be identical in content to the doctrines of the Buddha.

Babbitt used the Buddha and the other sages as an arsenal of sticks with which to beat his intellectual arch-nemesis, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  For Babbitt, Rousseau was the patriarch of the Romantic movement, and the essence of the Romantic movement was an embrace of mere whim.  Indeed, the sentences I quoted from Literature and the American College introduce one of  his innumerable denunciations of Rousseau, in that case denouncing him for confusing “work,” which the Buddha understood as a virtue that quiets the spirit, with mere activity and busy-ness, which the Buddha regarded as a vice in which we escape from our true obligations.  For the Rousseau of Babbitt’s imagination, violent displays of emotion were events of great significance, while projects requiring long years of steady labor and harsh self-discipline were trivialities.

I suspect that Babbitt would have seen a child of the Romantic movement in Huxley’s reaction.  Rousseauism primed Huxley to conceive of his bereavement, not in terms of a scheme like Paul’s that subordinates the whole of life to an immense drama in which the living and the dead all have roles to play, but in terms of the intense emotional experiences in the early stages of mourning.  Presented with Paul’s statement that without a belief in the Resurrection, this drama would not make sense, Huxley then heard that without such a belief his intense emotional experiences would not make sense.  Observing the indications of the same experiences in the apes, Huxley concluded that either Paul was mistaken, or the apes were believers in the Resurrection.  Babbitt could be quite harsh in his judgments of spokesman for Romanticism; in Huxley’s remarks, he might well have seen a man unable to distinguish between, on the one hand, “the lazy yielding to temperament” that the howling ape represents and the commitment to a life on the grand scale that Paul’s letter and the Buddha’s sayings describe.

Babbitt was no more religious than Huxley or Clarke, as a matter of fact.  But some of his associates and followers were.  If Huxley were writing to one of them, perhaps he would have criticized Paul from another angle, and with another ethological example drawn from elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  There are nonhuman animals who subordinate their immediate needs and pleasures to long-term goals and the  good of a group, whether penguins going months without food to incubate their young, social insects devote their whole lives to the acquittal of a single set of tasks within the hive or swarm of which they are part, etc etc.  Granted, humans have brain functions that do not exist in those other animals, and so we respond to incentives differently than they do.  So a latter-day defender of the idea that a belief in personal immortality is indispensable to practical morality among humans might argue that only an explicit narrative connecting generation to generation can enable us to do what comes naturally to our distant cousins elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  And of course a latter-day Huxley could ask for evidence supporting this psychological claim.

Huxley was no Buddhist or Christian.  One sentence quoted above suggests that his ethical views were a form of Neo-Stoicism.  That sentence is “My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.”  This is a rather neat summary of the Stoic aspiration to peace of mind through an acceptance of the world as it is.  I find further evidence of Stoicism in other passages.  A long paragraph between the two portions that I quoted above argues that in fact, the virtuous are likelier than the wicked to prosper in this world, a view often associated with Stoicism.  In that paragraph, Huxley also argues that we should put the physical laws of nature on a par with moral laws, and not regard those who suffer in consequence of “physical sins” as instances of wronged innocents.  That certainly fits into most Stoic models of “the natural law.”  And following the description of his son’s funeral, we find this remarkable passage.  I will let it stand as the last word:

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time—before I had earned absolute destruction—and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. Sartor Resartus led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my late to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him.

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is—a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

*originally published by Oxford in 1936, reissued by New Directions in 1965; this bit is on pages 91-93

Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle. 

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The American Conservative, 18 May 2009

The Balance of Power

The Balance of Power

Michael Desch’s cover story, “Apocalypse Not,” argues that while Iran is nowhere near having nuclear weapons, things wouldn’t be so bad even if it did have them.  Desch quotes some of the overheated rhetoric of anti-Iranian hawks.  One line that stuck out for me was a quote from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying.”  To which an uncharitable observer might add, he should know… 

In response to assertions of this sort, Desch points out, first, that deterrence kept both Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung from using nuclear weapons, and no one seriously argues that Iran’s leadership today is more warlike than were Stalin or Mao.  Second, the Iranian political system does not centralize decision-making to any one man, as the Soviet and Chinese systems did in the days of Stalin and Mao.  Therefore, it is far less vulnerable to the paranoid delusions of a single leader than were the systems those men dominated.  So if nuclear deterrence was good enough to keep Stalin and Mao in check, it should be good enough to keep Ahmedinejad in check as well.  Desch goes further, arguing that acquiring a nuclear arsenal might even lead the Iranian regime to become less difficult for its neighbors to live with.  The existence of such an arsenal might enable the US and Israel to adopt a containment strategy towards Iran, which might lead to a mellowing of the regime, as the Soviet regime mellowed in the decades of containment following Stalin’s death.     

Stuart Reid claims that “The truth is that man is no longer civilized enough to wage war.”  What we call war, earlier ages would have seen as sheer murder. 

A review of Defending the Republic: Constitutional Morality in a Time of Crisis commends its authors, conservative legal scholars and political theorists, for recognizing that while the center-left still tries to use the courts to do what should be done through the elected branches of government, “there is an anti-constitutional Right as well.”  Irving Babbitt scholar Claes G. Ryn contributes an essay to the volume in which he equates the neoconservatives with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, likening the wars of the Bush/Cheney years with the Vendée and the first stirring of Napoleon’s campaigns of conquest.  The title of Ryn’s essay is “Neo-Jacobin Nationalism or Responsible Nationhood?,” proposing a dichotomy of the sort Babbitt would have relished.   Ryn develops the same dichotomy here.

Seven recent issues of The Nation

Ever since I started writing here, I’ve been referring to “Mrs Acilius.”  Until last month, that was a bit of an exaggeration, as I had not actually married the lady in question.  We tied the knot 12 May.  So lately, I’ve had things on my mind other than this blog.  That’s why I haven’t been posting “Periodicals Notes” regularly.  But I’ve vowed to catch up.  So here are my notes on the last seven, yes seven, issues of The Nation.

nation 25 may 200925 May: It’s been almost 60 years since a jury found that former State Department official Alger Hiss was lying when he denied that he had passed classified documents to an agent of Soviet military intelligence during the years 1934-1938.  The Nation has never let go of the Hiss case, and still publishes articles, columns, and reviews at regular intervals maintaining his innocence.  When Hiss died in 1996, I read a few books about the case.  Hiss’ own book, In the Court of Public Opinion, and his son Tony’s memoir of him, Laughing Last; Alistair Cooke‘s A Generation on Trial; and Allan Weinstein’s Perjury.  I mention the fact that I read these four books not because they qualify me as an expert on a matter as complex and hotly disputed as the Hiss case; obviously they do not.   All I want to do is explain that I have a certain familiarity with the Hiss case, and that I take an interest in discussions of it. 

D. D. Guttenplan reviews two recent books, Susan Jacoby‘s Alger Hiss and the Battle for History and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev.  In regard to Spies, Guttenplan’s main goal is disprove the book’s accusation that journalist I. F. Stone was a Soviet agent.  I would be inclined to say that Guttenplan achieves that goal easily.  I haven’t read the book, but unless there is a great deal more to it than Guttenplan acknowledges it would seem that its authors have not only failed to make the case against Stone, but have actually made a compelling case that Stone could not have been the man the Soviets codenamed “Blin” “”Pancake.”)  

Guttenplan’s contribution to the Hiss debate is less of a triumph.  The review goes on and on about the absence of Hiss’ name from declassified KGB documents.  It would be difficult to imagine a less relevant point.  Hiss was never accused of spying for the KGB.  The KGB was an organ of Soviet State Security.  Hiss was accused of passing documents, not to Soviet State Security, but to Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU.)  The man who identified himself as Hiss’ contact was Whittaker Chambers, whom no one denies was an operative of Soviet Military Intelligence.  In the Soviet system, Military Intelligence was a bitter rival of State Security; they most assuredly did not share with each other the names of highly placed agents whom they had recruited. 

Hiss’ defenders are not alone in ignoring this point.  So, those who are most convinced of his guilt often bring up the “VENONA Intercepts,” cables sent by KGB station chiefs in Washington to Moscow and intercepted by the FBI in the years 1946-1980.  These cables use the codename “ALES” to refer to a man who sounds more like Alger Hiss than anyone else, and describe him as an agent of Soviet intelligence.  They do not report direct contacts with ALES, however, nor do they include any intelligence gathered from him.  The likeliest explanation, then, is that the station chief had heard a rumor that Hiss was working for Soviet Military Intelligence and was reporting this rumor to headquarters.  That such rumors were circulating about Hiss in various intelligence services around the world before Chambers made his charges public has been known for some time; in the first edition of Perjury, published in 1978, Allan Weinstein devoted a whole appendix to indications that a number of European intelligence services believed Hiss was a Soviet agent.  VENONA does nothing but add Soviet State Security to the list of these services.   

nation 1 june 20091 June:  Akiva Gottlieb reviews Clint Eastwood’s latest bout of macho self-pity masquerading as a movie.  The last two paragraphs sum up Gottlieb’s view:

In the closing scene of Gran Torino, a lawyer reads from the dead man’s will, which Walt had written himself. It turns out that he had chosen to bequeath the titular totem of middle-class luxury to Thao, “on the condition that you don’t chop-top the roof like one of those beaners, don’t paint any idiotic flames on it like some white trash hillbilly and don’t put a big gay spoiler on the rear end like you see on all of the other zipperheads’ cars.” In other words, Walt gets to keep his racial epithets and be the hero, too. The closing credits roll over a shot of Thao cruising in his new vehicle of assimilation, with Eastwood’s raspy voice cooing gently on the soundtrack, reminding the next generation just who we have to thank for our liberty.

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The American Conservative, 23 February 2009

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Daniel McCarthy chronicles the American Right’s shift from the skepticism about the office of US President that fueled the principled critique of excessive presidential power that thinkers like James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall sustained in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the abject presidentialism of the Bush/ Cheney Republicans.  McCarthy does not suggest an agenda for curbing the power of the presidency; still less does he express agreement with my favorite idea, abolishing the office.  He does not even hope for a return to the arrangement of the nineteenth century, when the Congress was the senior partner in the leadership of the federal government.  The wish he does express is that conservatives will once more express a wish for a return to those days.   

Richard N. Gamble, author of the magnificent book The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity The Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation and of a neat article about Irving Babbitt’s view of Abraham Lincoln, reviews several  recent books about Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy.  Most interesting to me were Gamble’s remarks about What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, by Malcolm D. Magee.  The key paragraph is this:

Magee gets Wilson largely right, but one further refinement of his analysis would have been helpful in connecting American Christianity and the “faith-based foreign policy” of the subtitle. It is not enough to say that Wilson was a Calvinist or a Presbyterian. Wilson, as Magee’s evidence makes clear, was a particular kind of Calvinist and Presbyterian. He adhered to a branch of Calvinism that tried to reorder every institution by bringing it under Christ’s dominion. Magee refers to “the Presbyterian tradition,” but it is doubtful there ever has been anything so unified in American history. Wilson owed his view of the church and the world not to confessional Presbyterianism but to the transformationist strand of evangelicalism that came to dominate mainstream Presbyterianism in the late 19th century. Wilson imbibed an activist faith that in many ways distorted historic Presbyterianism. He rejected creedal, confessional Presbyterianism. In order to understand his foreign policy, then, we must understand not his Presbyterian roots in general, but the fact that he emerged from a branch of Protestantism that had more in common with low-church, sentimental, meliorist evangelicalism than with historically Reformed Christianity. Magee fills in an important dimension of Wilson’s thought and personality, but finding the precise faith on which Wilson based his foreign policy requires that the story of American Christianity be told a bit differently.

Kirkpatrick Sale reviews a novel by Carolyn Chute, The School on Heart’s Content Road.  In a fictional town in a rural Maine, a commune full of aging hippies form an unlikely alliance with the local underemployed rednecks.  Forming a militia, they decide that the only way for Mainers to reclaim their freedoms is to secede from the USA.  Since Chute is herself a member of the real-life 2nd Maine Militia and an advocate of the dissolution of the USA, it is perhaps surprising that the militiamen are an unimpressive bunch whose revolt peters out into drunkenness and random fornication.  But not so surprising that she promises a series of four sequels. 

Bill Kauffman goes to his favorite gun show and reports that the American Left is missing a fertile recruiting ground there.  The attendees are “working and rural citizens who are pro-Bill of Rights, anti-corporatist, and open to radical alternatives.”

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