Walking in Roman Culture

For years I’ve had it in the back of my mind to prepare a study called Posture and Gait in Classical Antiquity.  We have a variety of sources that could help us reach conclusions about how various types of people tended to stand and move in ancient times.  There are literary descriptions of posture and gait, visual artworks depicting people standing and walking, clothes that required a particular posture and gait if they were to stay on the wearer’s body, shoes that exhibit particular patterns of wear, buildings with entryways that accommodate some strides better than others.  Were such a study completed, it could open the door to investigations in topics ranging from dance to infantry operations to architecture to the status of the disabled and the expression of social class in antiquity.

I’ve never got around to beginning such a study, and now I find that someone has had a similar idea.  Timothy M. O’Sullivan of Trinity University has written a book called Walking in Roman Culture.  According to a review by Alana Lukes that circulated on an email list of members of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, a professional organization of American classicists, Professor O’Sullivan’s book presents “a compilation of citations from ancient sources which mention the physical activity of walking by the ancient Romans,” and does not go into depth on any other sort of evidence.  Still, that’s quite enough material for one book.  The magnum opus I have occasionally toyed with the idea of creating would be the work of decades, and Professor O’Sullivan appears to be  quite a young fellow.  So perhaps he’ll end up writing such a thing.

Unkept Republics

I named my online persona after Gaius Acilius, a man who lived in 155 BC, in part because the history Acilius wrote of Rome seems to have reflected some of the concerns that would define what scholars like Quentin Skinner call the “Republican Tradition” in political thought.  Professor Skinner has labeled such thinkers as Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Thomas More “neo-Roman” because of their preoccupation with themes that Romans like Acilius developed.  For example, all of these thinkers ask how a person can be called free when that person is dependent on the favor of others, and all of them answer with various schemes for creating compartments of social life within which people can be independent.  A couple of years ago, I suggested in this space that a way of developing this idea in a highly bureaucratized world like that of the twenty-first century might be to develop three conceptions of liberty in tandem with each other, as freedom from bureaucracy, freedom within bureaucracy, and freedom as a product of bureaucracy.  I called this suggestion “The Three Freedoms.”  So far as I can see, it is an idea which has had no influence on anyone.  I shouldn’t be surprised; I haven’t been trying very hard to draw anyone’s attention to it.  Gaius Acilius would probably be disappointed in me.

What brings all this to mind is a piece in the current issue of The Nation magazineYascha Mounk reviews Maurizio Viroli‘s The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy.  According to Mr Mounk, Professor Viroli accounts for Silvio Berlusconi’s long tenure at the forefront of affairs in Italy by arguing that “Berlusconi was able to stay in power because he transformed Italy from a republic into a kind of royal court.”  Not simply a monarchy, but a court.  Mr Mounk explains Professor Viroli’s terminology thus:

For him, a court system, far from being defined by the traditional trappings of royalty, is any arrangement of power whereby “one man is placed above and at the center of a relatively large number of individuals—his courtiers—who depend on him to gain and preserve wealth, status, and reputation.” Viroli calls the person at the center of the court system the signore. Even if it weren’t for the uncanny association with the droit du seigneur, it is clear why the label fits Berlusconi. Viroli is hardly exaggerating when he states that over the past few decades, “all of Italy’s political life has rotated around Silvio Berlusconi: all eyes turn to him, all thoughts, hopes, and fears.” He quickly became such a polarizing figure that the gulf between Italy’s left and right, which had been huge and vicious during much of Italy’s postwar history, has shrunk. What mattered most for Italians during his reign was whether one was for or against Berlusconi. In the summer of 2010, for example, several politicians on the left were prepared to fawn over Gianfranco Fini, a longtime fascist with center-right views, simply because he had broken with Berlusconi and spoken in public about his opposition to the prime minister.

Berlusconi not only made himself the Sun King of Italian politics; he acted like a Mafia don. At his word, pretty teenage girls became TV presenters, TV presenters ascended to the rank of government ministers and government ministers were offered lucrative jobs in various industries once they left office.

Mr Mounk goes on the explain the relationship between Professor Viroli’s views and those of the school associated with Professor Skinner:

For Viroli, Berlusconiland was more than a corrupt court. Drawing on republicanism, a long-neglected tradition of political thought that has recently been revived by intellectual historians and political theorists like John Pocock, Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, Viroli argues that Berlusconi’s corrosive influence has deprived Italians of their liberty. On Viroli’s account, philosophers who stand in the liberal tradition worry only about actual interference with a person’s actions. “A Free-Man,” wrote Thomas Hobbes with his characteristic crispness, “is he that, in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to doe what he has a will to.” The subjects of a benevolent despot remain perfectly free so long as he does not inhibit their actions. Viroli argues that according to such a liberal conception of freedom, Berlusconi’s Italy remained a free country: “If we can rightly point to violations of liberty only in cases where fundamental civil and political rights are suppressed by force, then we Italians are, generally speaking, a free people.”

Yet for Viroli, the liberal definition of freedom, with its exclusive emphasis on freedom from interference, is too anemic. He worries that a ruler with vast, arbitrary power would have a chilling effect on the freedoms of his subjects even if he never chose to exercise his power. To emphasize this point, republicans such as Viroli like to cite the example of Tranio, the protagonist of a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus. Tranio is a slave. But because his master is often absent, and because he is so wily, no one ever interferes with his actions. As long as he continues to flatter and manipulate his master, he is free to do as he pleases. And yet, the republicans point out, a slave is surely the very opposite of a “free man.”

While slavery is now officially banned throughout the world, Viroli argues that the most salient characteristic of slavery—the relation of domination and dependence between master and slave—persists in a milder form in our societies. “Citizens who can be tossed into prison arbitrarily by the police,” for example, stand in just such a relation of dependence to an oppressive, dominating power. Even if, for now, they nominally remain at liberty, they lack real freedom. In the case of Italy, though Berlusconi never used his vast power to interfere with the lives of Italian citizens, they knew that he could, at any moment, choose to do so. This lack of real freedom, Viroli argues, limited the things Italians dared to do as well as the words they dared to say.

Mr Mounk suspects that Professor Viroli’s model takes him at once too far and not far enough in his assessment of the damage that Mr Berlusconi did to Italy:

Viroli’s account of the theory of republican liberty is attractive, but his argument that Italians were, in his own sense, unfree is not convincing. Some Italians did find themselves in a true position of dependence on Berlusconi’s whims. Journalists at the networks and newspapers he controlled knew that one honest sentence could make the difference between a lucrative job and the dole. In a country where even many junior positions in business, government and academia have long been reserved for insiders and their children, many young people knew that their career prospects depended as much on their willingness to flatter Berlusconi or his cronies as on their ability to get the job done.

Nevertheless, even on a republican conception of liberty, most Italians remained free during Berlusconi’s rule. The reason is not just that Berlusconi never chose to interfere with the lives of his adversaries by, say, throwing a member of the opposition in jail for a rude op-ed; it’s that Italians knew perfectly well that Berlusconi had no more power to do such a thing than does Barack Obama. The price that opponents of Berlusconi were afraid of paying was not, as Viroli thinks, that Berlusconi might decide to interfere in their lives in an arbitrary manner but rather that he would choose not to tempt them with favors. For all the signore’s power and influence, ordinary Italians hardly lived in fear of his wrath.

One wonders exactly when these paragraphs were written; on 31 December 2011, Barack Obama signed into law a bill which grants him the power to throw anyone in jail on any grounds whatever.  So he is a rather poorly chosen example of an official with limited power to interfere with the lives of his adversaries.  Nonetheless, no such law seems to be on the books in Italy, and no Italian leader since Mussolini has behaved as if one did.

As Mr Mounk thinks that Professor Viroli’s model drives him too far when it implies that Italians have been reduced to slavery, so he claims that it prevents him going far enough in his analysis of aspects of the Berlusconi regime that liberalism also indicts:

The weakness of Viroli’s central assumption, that only the language of liberty can adequately express the horrors of Berlusconi’s rule, may explain why his account of Berlusconiland is not fully persuasive. Other critics of Berlusconi have written damning accounts of his reign, but instead of going so far as to claim that Berlusconi made Italians unfree, they have demonstrated that his government violated the equal treatment of citizens before the law, neglected the government’s duties to further the economic interests of its citizens and condoned corruption (failings that liberals as well as republicans condemn). In The Sack of Rome (2006), for example, Alexander Stille explains that Berlusconi’s business empire was, from its first days, built on political favors and rent-seeking. A true modernization of Italy’s economy would have given his companies unwanted competition and deprived them of crucial state subsidies. Berlusconi chose instead to preserve arcane rules and bureaucratic roadblocks, or even to create new ones, to protect his business interests. He sacrificed the country’s economic well-being for his own.

Berlusconi’s influence on the judicial system was equally disastrous. Whereas in many countries the statute of limitations cannot expire after a defendant has been indicted, in Italy defendants go free if the highest court of appeals has not upheld their convictions within the allotted time. Knowing this, Berlusconi’s attorneys, whom, in a rare instance of efficiency, he made members of Parliament, shortened the statute of limitations for the most troublesome white-collar crimes and devised rules to strengthen legal tactics for delaying trials. This change had the desired effect of aiding Berlusconi’s defense in his trials for false accounting and embezzlement. It also had the unintended effect of making it more difficult to jail members of the Mafia.

Even with these strictures, Mr Mounk’s final assessment of Professor Viroli’s book is strongly favorable:

Stille and others have described the disastrous economic and legal fallout of Berlusconi’s rule in much greater detail than Viroli. But Viroli, in his own way, paints an even more memorable portrait of Italy’s new ruling class. His description of Berlusconi as a signore is on the money. And while the servility of Berlusconi’s hangers-on may have been self-imposed, it still raises the central paradox of Berlusconiland. Absolute monarchs are able to cow their courtiers into submission by wielding the implicit threat of pain, imprisonment or execution. Berlusconi never had such tyrannical powers. Even so, his underlings acted as if they were mere courtiers—apparently, the hope of getting rich was quite enough to keep them in line. This makes the Italian case all the more relevant at a time when the superrich and their political enablers seek to wield ever more influence over democracies in a climate of austerity. It seems that to achieve their purposes, our would-be masters need not impede our rights or liberties: the promise of a farthing of their vast riches might be quite enough to turn many of us into docile servants.

Elsewhere in the issue, David Sarasohn contributes a piece with the resoundingly neo-Roman title “The Treason of the Senate,” in which he looks back to a series of essays published in 1906 and concludes that all the forms of corruption that marked the US Senate in the Gilded Age have reemerged and been joined by new evils.  Sarah Wildman’s “Israel’s New Left Goes Online” promoted a webzine called +972, which presents itself above all else as independent of ideological and institutional constraints characteristic of the Israel/ Palestine conflict.  Someone like old Gaius Acilius would certainly have been alarmed at a process that empowers extremist minorities and reduces citizens to dependence on increasingly professionalized security forces, so he likely would have understood +972s goals, whatever conclusion he might ultimately have reached regarding their politics.  Chris Savage writes of “The Scandal of Michigan’s Emergency Managers,” officials appointed by that state’s governor to replace elected municipal governments of whom he disapproves.  I think that someone in the republican tradition would say that the true scandal of this system is that there is no citizenry jealous of its rights that rises up in revolt when the governor pulls this stunt.  That same governor, incidentally, is the topic of Patricia J. Williams’ column in this issue; though he is a member of something called the Republican Party, he could hardly be called an heir of the republican tradition.

I’ll mention just one other piece, a review essay by Paula Findlen called “Galileo’s Credo.”  At various points in the development of the republican tradition, Galileo has been a powerful symbol of the autonomous individual maintaining his honor by refusing to knuckle under to the overweening power of a court.  Professor Findlen notes that as a young man, Galileo and his friends laughed at literal-minded neo-Romans who favored Latin over the vernacular and went about wearing togas.  Yet in his resistance to the demands of the Vatican, surely Galileo lived as the stubbornly independent noblemen of the old Res Publica would have recommended.

John S Wilkins’ “Evolving Thoughts”

A year and a half ago, in September 2010, blogger John S. Wilkins posted something I meant to remark on here.  A response to the public discussion going on at the time about Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design, it was titled “Stephen Hawking and the Creation of the Universe.”  Mr Wilkins’ point was that, while some presented Professor Hawking’s book as presenting an argument against the existence of God, the argument Professor Hawking actually presents tells only against a theology that was discredited in the nineteenth century.  Once mathematicians demonstrated that simple processes could yield complex and stable systems, the Enlightenment theory of the universe as a grand machine and of God as the grand machinist, a view expressed in, among other movements, deism, lost its logical warrant.  Mr Wilkins closing paragraphs read thus:

Can we come up with a deist god that is consistent with the modern physics? One way is called “block universe” theory, and I have discussed this before. Any deity that is not themselves bounded by ordinary causal relations and time is able to set up a universe that does things causally even if that universe is unpredictable within spacetime. But this is rather more like the traditional theist God, only without all the intervention. In losing the Laplacean deist god we find ourselves back with the Augustinian-Thomist deity. If you think it matters. I’m a block theorist for other reasons than theology, but the option is there if you need it.

A universe that can “create” itself is a state of affairs that is actualised, and may very well be actualised by a deity that desired it. The notion of cause has been so stretched and modified that it is almost unrecognisable, but there is nothing I can see that is self-contradictory about it, and so I conclude that Hawking, if he’s being reported correctly, has disproven a view of God that had currency solely among scientists and philosophers who were still Enlightenment thinkers.

Now somebody will tell me that the book is more subtle and interesting than that. Which is what these posts are for…

I bring this up now because Mr Wilkins has announced that both his blog and his Twitter account are likely to be dormant for a time, since he’s out of work and short of funds.  If you have profited from his temperate and learned posts on biology, the philosophy of science, and the case for agnosticism, you might consider donating money to him.  If you haven’t read him and are interested in the natural world, philosophy, science, or religion, or if you simply enjoy hearing a calm and rational voice, you should have a look.  Even if you don’t decide to help him financially, I’m sure your reading of his blog would bring both satisfaction to him and fresh intellectual stimulation to you.

The American Conservative, March 2012

The table of contents of the March issue of The American Conservative seems to have a problem.  I haven’t seen the print edition yet, but the page numbers in the online edition’s table of contents  don’t match the pages numbers in the magazine. There was a similar, though smaller-scale, problem with last month’s issue.

In the cover story, Peter Hitchens argues that, while the snarling rage Margaret Thatcher continues to evoke in her opponents does go to show that she was a figure of great historical consequence, conservatives are quite wrong to adopt her as a model of political success.  Rather, her true significance is a tragic one, embodying the final collapse of a social ideal and of an approach to governance.  The reverence Lady Thatcher continues to enjoy on the Right in both the UK and the United States suggests to Mr Hitchens that her partisans in those countries have not come to terms with this collapse, and that their ability to formulate and direct national policy is handicapped by their attachment to these outworn notions.

Rod Dreher, the original “crunchy con,” takes a more optimistic view of another eminent Briton.  He gives a glowing writeup to Prince Charles, of all people.  Evidently Mr Dreher sees in His Royal Highness the prophet of a “revolutionary anti-modernism.”  I suppose it is a sign of my shortcomings that I can never keep an entirely straight face when the topic of the British Royal Family comes up; not being British, it would certainly be inappropriate of me to say that grown-up countries don’t have kings and queens.  But I will say that my favorite aspect of the British monarchy has always been the expectation that the various princes and princesses would keep their opinions to themselves.

Gary Johnson, who from 1995 to 2003 represented the Republican Party as governor of the state of New Mexico, has left that party and declared his candidacy for president as a member of the Libertarian Party.  W. James Antle gives sympathetic attention to the freedom-loving Mr Johnson and his quixotic campaign.  Mr Johnson and his fellow Libertarians oppose many things which I think are eminently worth opposing.  If they were the only ones speaking out against the crony capitalism, the wars of aggression, and the burgeoning police state that the Democrats and Republicans have combined to foist upon the USA, I would certainly vote for them.  Fortunately, however, former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson is running for president as a left-of-center candidate.   Mr Anderson stands against all the evils that the Libertarians would fight, and at the same time supports measures to ensure fair play for all to and restrain the excesses of the market.  Mr Anderson may not have much to offer the authors and editors of something called “The American Conservative,” but most of them are just as much opposed to Libertarianism as they are to the 1980s-style liberalism that Mr Anderson represents.

Our favorite Eve Tushnet returns to the magazine with an argument to the effect that the fear of divorce has spawned a social movement that has, paradoxically, weakened marriage in the USA.  Here’s one paragraph that’s too good not to quote:

Possibly in response to divorce scripts like “We just fell out of love,” or “It just happened,” which emphasize powerlessness, the contemporary delayed-marriage script attempts to crack the code, figure out the formula, and do it right.  The fact that marriage, like parenting, is mostly about acceptance, forgiveness, and flexibility in the face of change and trauma gets suppressed.

It’s hard to believe that a celibate like Ms Tushnet wrote such an insightful remark about the nature of marriage.   On the other hand, I don’t suppose Pythagoras was a triangle, and he came up with something useful to say about them.  Be that as it may, there’s some more great stuff in Ms Tushnet’s article.  For example:

A culture of love can’t be built on a foundation of rejection.  The path forward doesn’t include further stigmatizing divorce, or bringing back stigma against unmarried childbearing… What young people need is hope: a sense that marriages can last, not because the spouses were smart enough on the front end but because they were gentle and flexible enough in the long years after the wedding.

Samuel Goldman undertakes to explain “what sets conservatives apart from authoritarians and fascists,” a task prompted by a recent book that lumped together many writers who were in one way or another connected to the word “conservative” (in some cases by their own adoption of that label as a description of their ideological stands, in other cases by their affiliation with a political party with the word “Conservative” in its name, and in still other cases only by the fact that some self-described conservatives have spoken highly of them) and declared them all to be enemies of freedom.  Why so unimpressive a work should occasion an essay by anyone of Mr Goldman’s talent may seem mysterious, but the mystery lessens when one realizes that the author of the book actually occupies a chair of political philosophy at a well-known university.  When it first appeared, some critics noticed the author’s credentials and wondered if it was a parody of crude efforts by right-wingers to smear the word “liberalism” with tar from an equally injudicious brush, but that individual has insisted that he regards his production as a genuine contribution to scholarship.

Mr Goldman’s little essay is remarkable for the courtesy and patience which it shows towards this book and its author.  Not for Mr Goldman such words as “charlatan,” “impostor,” or “fraud.”  Nor does he engage even in subtle and urbane ridicule of his subject.  Instead, he takes it as an occasion for a concise exposition of major themes in the works of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.  Mr Goldman’s even temper, as much as his demonstration of the absurdity of the book’s characterization of those thinkers, exposes the depths of its author’s corruption far more effectively than could the most blistering polemic.

Weirdomatic goes bananas

Over at Weirdomatic, fotb Irina Alexandra has posted a gallery of banana-shaped household products.  I found these especially charming:

Banana Vases

JFK, George Quintana, and tumblr

Our tumblr page is called “Thunderlads After Hours.”  If you are a tumblr user, you will be familiar with the service’s “Dashboard” feature.  All the posts on all the tumblr pages you follow appear before you in a constant stream. We follow lots of people, so we see lots of images when we log on there.  Below are a few we’ve seen there.

This is the avatar for a page we follow that goes by the name “Jack Ruby Tuesday“:

President John F. Kennedy projected a public image that was in many ways the opposite of the image Colonel Harlan Sanders projected.  They both came to international prominence in the 1960s and have remained familiar ever since, and each is strongly associated with a three-letter abbreviation.  So I think this image is worth a chuckle.  Because it simply replaces Colonel Sanders’ three-letter trademark “KFC” with Mr Kennedy’s familiar “JFK,” I think it is much funnier than the image on this T-shirt.

Also, this image caught my eye a few days ago:

I’d say this picture is sensational in more than one sense of the word.  The artist worked under the name George Quintana, though his given name was George Quaintance.

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.

The smallest and the largest

In 1968, designers Charles and Ray Eames released a short film called “Powers of Ten.”  Here it is:

Here’s a tribute to the film that appeared as xkcd #271:

There’s something I occasionally wonder about.  People sometimes say that hearing about the scale of the universe at its largest makes them feel small and unimportant.  On that scale, the earth figures as a minuscule portion of a solar system that is itself a minuscule portion of a galaxy that is in turn a minuscule portion of one of countless clusters of galaxies in the universe.  When I hear that remark, I think about the scale of the universe at its smallest.  Tiny as our world is in comparison with the deepest reaches of the sky, how large do we bulk in comparison with the smallest units of the submicroscopic world?

This flash animation from Cary and Michael Huang, released a couple of days ago as a followup to a similar project they put out in 2010, takes us from the Planck length, which is evidently the smallest size a thing can be, up to what theorists currently suspect is the total size of the universe, which extends at least 7000 times as far as we will ever be able to see.  The latest theories hold that the total size of the universe might be about 1.6 times 10 to the 27th power meters.  That theory may be as mistaken as all the previous theories about the same thing have been, but it’s the best we have going at the moment.   So, if that theory is correct and you were to lay humans end to end, the number of them you would need to stretch from one end of the universe to the other would be 28 digits long.  The Huang brothers note in their animation that the total height of all living humans is much shorter than that, of course; in fact, if we were all to lie down end to end we would only reach about 1o million kilometers, only about 1/15 of the way from the earth to the sun.  Even if all 100,000,000,000 humans who ever lived were to be reincarnated and join us, we would still reach less than 15 billion kilometers, which would barely get us from one side of the Solar System’s Kuiper Belt to the other.

So, compared to the largest scale of structure in the universe, we are indeed quite small.  But let’s take a moment and look at the smallest scale of things in the universe.  The Eameses stopped their exploration at the level of the proton.  In 1968, there wasn’t much point in trying to delve deeper.  Since then, science has made advances.  The Planck length is 1.6 times ten to the minus 35th power meters; so, if you laid the shortest possible objects end to end, the number of them it would take to stretch from one end of your body to the other would be 36 digits long. A 36 digit number is of course bigger than a 28 digit number, vastly bigger.  So our size is much closer to that of the entire universe than it is to that of an object that exists on the scale of the Planck length.  The 2010 version of the Huangs’ flash animation illustrated this dramatically, with a human symbol standing well to the right of the center of the zoom bar. If contemplating the scope of the universe as a whole makes us feel small and insignificant, does contemplation of the Planck length make us feel large and mighty?

Perhaps it does.  If it doesn’t, I can think of two possible reasons.  First, it might be that the feature of astronomy that gives people the feeling of smallness and weakness is not the size of the structures astronomers study, but the fact that those people don’t understand what astronomers are talking about and don’t feel confident in their ability to figure it out.  That sense of smallness is not likely to be relieved when the conversation turns from light-years and dark energy to yoctometers and the quantum foam.

Second, it might be the legacy of monotheism.  When we visualize the universe on the largest scale, we imagine ourselves to be standing outside it, taking it in at a glance.  To minds formed under the influence of a belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Creator God, such a visualization is clearly an imitation of God.  In such an imagination, it shows an awesome power to zoom in and find individual humans, to number the hairs on their heads (between 50,000 and 200,000, according to the Huang brothers) and keep an eye on the sparrow.  On the other hand, to look up from the level of the Planck length may not suggest much to such a mind.  It’s true that medieval theologians like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas developed ideas about angels as one-dimensional beings who had the power to assume visible form as the situation required; to those titans of Scholasticism, the idea of two-dimensional strings vibrating at the smallest levels of scale in the universe and forming the basis of the physical world might have been extremely interesting.  Still, to the extent that people think about angels today, it’s in terms that neither Albertus nor Thomas would have recognized as rational, or even as Christian.  Aside from a few eccentric philosophers like Massimo Cacciari and the late Mortimer Adler who maintain an interest in the Scholastic conception of angels, the only people who bring them up nowadays seem to be those who believe that the souls of holy people become angels.  For the Scholastics, this would have been rank heresy.  They believed that angels represented an order of creation separate from humans, who may operate within time and space on occasion, but who are not generally subject to the passage of time or extended in three-dimensional space.  Humans, they held, were destined either to be resurrected in perfected bodies, as Jesus had been, or to be cast into Hell.  In either case, we would continue to be three-dimensional beings of something about a meter and a half in height.  I can’t see what motive believers in the Hollywood-derived conception of the afterlife would have for attaching any special significance to a view of the universe that looks up from the smallest scale, and indeed they do not seem to be excited about the submicroscopic world.

The Rodney King Era

The February 2012 issue of The American Conservative includes several pieces that reflect, directly or indirectly, on the presidential campaign currently underway in the USA, and a couple that have a broader interest.

The American Conservative started in 2002 as a forum for right-wingers who did not want the US to invade Iraq.  It continues to give voice to conservative anti-militarism.  Several items in this issue further develop right-wing arguments against warfare, among them: Doug Bandow’s “Attack of the Pork Hawks” (subtitle: “Loving the Pentagon turns conservatives into big-spending liberals”); William S. Lind’s “Clearing the Air Force,” which argues that the only useful functions of the United States Air Force are those that support operations led by the Army and Navy, and therefore that those functions should be transferred to those services while the independent Air Force is dissolved; and Kelly Beaucar Vlahos’ “Gitmo’s Prying Eyes,” about the Defense Department’s attempt to erase attorney-client privilege for the “unlawful combatants” it holds at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.  Noah Millman’s review of Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel identifies Mr Gorenberg not by his usual sobriquet of “left-wing Zionist,” but as a “Jewish nationalist” who accepts a deeply conservative conception of nationhood as the maturity of a people, and who opposes Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories because that occupation reduces Israel from achieved nation-state to insurgent revolutionary movement.

The cover story, Scott McConnell’s “Ron Paul and his Enemies,” notes that Dr Paul’s campaign has inspired levels of alarm and anger from various elite groups in official Washington far out of proportion to the modest levels of support the good doctor has attracted.  Mr McConnell’s explanation of this is that those bêtes-noires of The American Conservative, the “neocons,” fear that Dr Paul will trigger a movement that will threaten the prestige they enjoy in policy-making circles in the American government.  The neocons are the neo-conservatives, adherents of an intellectual movement that traces its origins to the anti-Stalinist Left of the 1930s and 1940s and its rise to political salience in the work of a group of activists, academics, and functionaries who attached themselves to the Senator Henry M. Jackson in the 1960s and 1970s.  Like the late Senator Jackson, the neo-conservatives are generally sanguine about the ability of the US government to do good by means of large scale programs intervening in the domestic affairs of both of the United States itself and of other countries.  The group around The American Conservative consists of old-fashioned conservatives and libertarians who are deeply skeptical of Washington’s potential as a doer of good in any sphere.  Mr McConnell’s argument, summed up in his piece’s subtitle– “An effective antiwar candidate is what the neocons fear most”– is that, even though neoconservatives now hold such a stranglehold on respectability in foreign policy discussions in official Washington that the manifest failure of their signature project, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, could not weaken it, they know that it is in fact very tenuous.  The mobilization of a powerful antiwar constituency within the Republican Party could send the neocons to the sidelines very quickly, he believes.  Therefore, they must move quickly to silence Dr Paul, lest the 29% of Republicans who tell pollsters that they share his antiwar views should crystallize into a force that could shift the national discussion away from the presuppositions of militarism.

One stick with which neoconservative spokesmen and others have beaten Dr Paul is a series of racially charged columns that appeared in newsletters he edited in the early 1990s.  Mr McConnell discusses the controversy over these columns thus:

Here the reprise of the story of the newsletters published under Ron Paul’s name 20 years ago proved critical. The New Republic had made a national story of them early in the 2008 campaign. James Kirchick reported that numerous issues of the “Ron Paul Political Report” and the “Ron Paul Survival Report” contained passages that could be fairly characterized as race-baiting or paranoid conspiracy-mongering. (Few in Texas had cared very much when one of Paul’s congressional opponents tried to make an issue of the newsletters in 1996.). With Paul rising in the polls, the Weekly Standard essentially republished Kirchick’s 2008 piece.

I’ve seen no serious challenge to the reporting done four years ago by David Weigel and Julian Sanchez for Reason: the newsletters were the project of the late Murray Rothbard and Paul’s longtime aide Lew Rockwell, who has denied authorship.* Rothbard, who died in 1995, was a brilliant libertarian author and activist, William F. Buckley’s tutor for the economics passages of Up From Liberalism, and a man who pursued a lifelong mission to spread libertarian ideas beyond a quirky quadrant of the intelligentsia. He had led libertarian overtures to the New Left in the 1960s. In 1990, he argued for outreach to the redneck right, and the Ron Paul newsletters became the chosen vehicle. For his part, Rockwell has moved on from this kind of thing.

Intellectual honesty requires acknowledging that much of the racism in the newsletters would have appeared less over the top in mainstream conservative circles at the time than it does now. No one at the New York Post editorial page (where I worked) would have been offended by the newsletters’ use of welfare stereotypes to mock the Los Angeles rioters, or by their taking note that a gang of black teenagers were sticking white women with needles or pins in the streets of Manhattan. (Contrary to the fears of the time, the pins used in these assaults were not HIV-infected.) But racial tensions and fissures in the early 1990s were far more raw than today. The Rockwell-Rothbard team were, in effect, trying to play Lee Atwater for the libertarians. A generation later, their efforts look pretty ugly.

The resurfacing of the newsletter story in December froze Paul’s upward movement in the polls. For the critical week before the Iowa caucuses, no Ron Paul national TV interview was complete without newsletter questions, deemed more important than the candidate’s opposition to indefinite detention, the Fed, or a new war in Iran. On stage in the New Hampshire debate, Paul forcefully disavowed writing the newsletters or agreeing with their sentiments, as he had on dozens of prior occasions, and changed the subject to a spirited denunciation of the drug laws for their implicit racism. This of course did not explain the newsletters, but the response rang true on an emotional level, if only because no one who had observed Ron Paul in public life over the past 15 years could perceive him as any kind of racist.

If the Weekly Standard editors hoped the flap would stir an anti-Paul storm in the black community, they were sorely disappointed. In one telling Bloggingheads.tv dialogue, two important black intellectuals, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, showed far more interest in Paul’s foreign-policy ideas, and the attempts to stamp them out, than they did in the old documents. Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates likened Paul to Louis Farrakhan. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but the portrait fell well short of total scorn. It was difficult to ignore that the main promoters of the newsletters story, The New Republic and the Weekly Standard, had historically devoted exponentially more energy to promoting neoconservative policies in the Middle East than they had to chastising politicians for racism.

In 2008, Mr McConnell, then The American Conservative‘s editor, had responded to Mr Kirchick’s original piece with stern reproof for Dr Paul.  The magazine then endorsed Dr Paul for president anyway, though Mr McConnell himself would later express his preference for Barack Obama. In the paragraphs above, Mr McConnell seems to be rather straining to downplay the newsletter matter.  For one thing, while Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are by anyone’s standards “important black intellectuals,” each of them is rather conservative and neither of them could be accused of having a low tolerance for white-guy B.S.- rather the opposite, in fact.  It is true that the early 1990s were a time of unusually raw tension between whites and African Americans; indeed, the late 1980s and early 1990s were an extremely strange period in American history, as Dr Paul’s 1988 appearance on The Morton Downey, Jr Show should suffice to demonstrate.  But this does not excuse Dr Paul’s pandering to the racialist right in those years.  Rather, it makes it all the more culpable.  In 1991, many parts of the USA, from Crown Heights in New York City to South Central Los Angeles, were teetering on the brink of race riots.  In that year, a majority of white voters in Louisiana pulled the lever in support of the gubernatorial campaign of Neo-Nazi David Duke.   To peddle racially charged rhetoric at that time was, if anything, more irresponsible, because more dangerous, than it would be today.

An editorial in the same issue discusses Dr Paul from a slightly different perspective.  In a single page, it dismisses the newsletters twice, once as “artifacts of a time- the Andrew Dice Clay era in American politics, when the populist right reacted to political correctness– then a new phenomenon– by sinning in the opposite direction”; then with this line: “The Rodney King era is a distant memory; the wars and economic outrages of our bipartisan establishment are still very much with us.”  If these dismissals leave you unsatisfied, there is still a refuge for you on The American Conservative’s webpage, where blogger Rod Dreher has repeatedly expressed his objections to Dr Paul’s newsletters in very strong terms (see here for one of the strongest of these objections.)

No discussion of “the Rodney King era” would be complete without a reference to The Bell Curve, in which psychologist Richard Herrnstein and historian Charles Murray argued that American society was becoming more stratified by cognitive ability, that cognitive ability is largely inherited, and therefore that America’s class system will likely become more unequal and less fluid as the highly intelligent pull ever further away from the rest of us.  Four chapters of the book dealt with race, analyzing the average IQ scores of various ethnic groups and concluding that African Americans as a group are likely to be among the hardest hit by the adverse consequences of this trend.  Professor Herrnstein and Mr Murray offered chillingly few suggestions as to how this grim scenario could be prevented or ameliorated; Mr Murray’s right-of-center libertarianism led him always to emphasize out the ways in which social programs intended to broaden opportunity sometimes redound to the disadvantage of their intended beneficiaries, an emphasis which, in conjunction with the book’s overall argument, seemed to suggest that there is no escape from the most dystopian version of its predictions.  Published in 1994, The Bell Curve rose to the top of the bestseller lists and garnered enormous attention; today, it would be difficult to imagine a major publisher agreeing to release it.  The nativist theory of IQ which is at its heart, and particularly the explicit development of that theory’s implications in the four chapters on race, makes it such an easy target for anti-racist spokesmen that a publisher who released it nowadays would be risking public infamy.  Yet in those days, The Bell Curve hardly represented the far edge even of acceptable public discourse.  So the far more aggressively anti-black Paved With Good Intentions, by Jared Taylor (a self-styled “white nationalist”,) found a major publisher and considerable sales when it was published in 1992; his recent followups to that book have been self-published.

Mr Murray has returned to the scene with a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  By focusing exclusively on whites, Mr Murray need not dwell explicitly on racial differences in average IQ score or any theory as to what causes these differences; by setting 2010 as an ending date, he need not dwell on its grimmest implications for the future.  Reviewer Steve Sailer, himself a tireless advocate of the nativist theory of IQ, reviews this new book and finds some interesting nuggets in it.  For example, Mr Sailer refers to figures, evidently included in the book, which indicate that while 40 percent of affluent American whites are now unaffiliated with any religion (as compared with 27% of their counterparts in the early 1970s,) 59% of less well-off whites are now religiously unaffiliated (as compared with 35% of the same group in the earlier period.)  That leads me to wonder if the very conservative, rather militant forms of Evangelical Christianity that are so popular among the white working class, as well as the right-wing political views that so often accompany that form of Christianity, are a sign that the individuals who profess them identify themselves as cadet members of the  professional classes.  Their militancy, even when presented as a challenge to some relatively liberal subset of the upper middle class such as elite academics or Democratic Party politicians or leaders of mainline Protestant churches, advertises to all that they are church-goers, and thus strivers, not to be confused with the defeated mass who have lost interest in such institutions and faith in the promises they represent.

Timothy Stanley’s “Buchanan’s Revolution” looks back at the last antiwar rightist to make a splash as a US presidential candidate, Patrick J. Buchanan.  Mr Buchanan was one of the founders of The American Conservative, and the magazine still runs his column (including a recent one lauding Ron Paul.)  So it is no surprise that the treatment of him here is respectful.  However, in light of what was going on with race relations in the USA in 1992, it is sobering to see these passages:

Of all Pat’s buddies, the one most excited by his campaigns was columnist Samuel Francis, who had worked for North Carolina senator John East before landing a job with the Washington Times. Physically, he was a fearsome toad. The journalist John Judis observed that “he was so fat he had trouble getting through doors.” He ate and drank the wrong things and the only sport he indulged in was chess. The mercurial, funny, curious Francis was an unlikely populist. But he was ahead of the curve when it came to Pat’s insurgency.

Back in the 1980s, Francis had predicted an uprising against the liberal elite that governed America. The only people who would break their stranglehold were the ordinary folks who made up the ranks of the “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. Mr. MARs was Mr. Average. He was either from the South or a European ethnic family in the Midwest, earned an unsatisfactory salary doing skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar work, and probably hadn’t been to college. He was neither wealthy nor poor, living on the thin line between comfort and poverty. All it took to ruin him was a broken limb or an IRS audit.

But Francis argued that the Middle American Radicals were defined less by income than by attitude. They saw “the government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously… MARs are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected. If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective, it is reflected in a statement … The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.”

Preferring self-reliance to welfare feudalism, the MARs felt that the U.S. government had been taken captive by a band of rich liberals who used their taxes to bankroll the indolent poor and finance the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The MARs were a social force rather than an ideological movement, an attitude shaped by the joys and humiliations of middle-class life in postwar America. Any politician that could appeal to that social force could remake politics.

Two things made the MARs different from mainstream conservatives (and libertarians). First, not being rich, they were skeptical of wealthy lobbies. They hated big business as much as they hated big government. They opposed bailing out firms like Chrysler, or letting multinational companies export jobs overseas. They were especially critical of businesses that profited from smut, gambling, and alcohol. Although free market in instinct, they did appreciate government intervention on their behalf. They would never turn down benefits like Social Security or Medicare.

Second, the MARs were more revolutionary than previous generations of conservatives. Conservatives ordinarily try to defend power that they already control. But the MARs were out of power, so they had to seize it back. This was why conservatives like Buchanan behaved like Bolsheviks. “We must understand,” wrote Francis,

that the dominant authorities in… the major foundations, the media, the schools, the universities, and most of the system of organized culture, including the arts and entertainment—not only do nothing to conserve what most of us regard as our traditional way of life, but actually seek its destruction or are indifferent to its survival. If our culture is going to be conserved, then we need to dethrone the dominant authorities that threaten it.

Buchanan agreed. He wrote, reflecting on Francis’s words, “We traditionalists who love the culture and country we grew up in are going to have to deal with this question: Do we simply conserve the remnant, or do we try to take the culture back? Are we conservatives, or must we also become counter-revolutionaries and overthrow the dominant culture?”

The populist counter-revolution that Francis proposed was not explicitly racial. In theory, Hispanic or black industrial workers were just as threatened by economic change and high taxes as their white co-workers. And the cultural values of Hispanic Catholics and black Pentecostals were just as challenged by liberalism as those of their white brethren. But in Francis’s view, these ethnic groups had become clients of the liberal state. Only political correctness—argued Francis_prevented whites from admitting this and organizing themselves into their own ethnic interest group. In this worldview, the Democrats gave handouts to African-Americans in exchange for votes. Hispanics were brought in from Mexico to lower wages and break unions, providing cheap domestic labor for the ruling class and maximizing corporate profits. The only people without friends in high places were the middle-class white majority.

Buchanan and Francis disagreed over this point. Pat was concerned about the decline of Western civilization. But he never saw Western society in explicitly racial terms. He opposed both welfare and mass immigration, but he thought they hurt blacks and Hispanics as much as whites. Francis believed that human characteristics—including intelligence—were shaped by race.


During the primary, (economist Harry) Veryser arranged a meeting between himself, Pat, Francis, and (scholar Russell) Kirk. Buchanan and Francis behaved as if no one else was there, and Pat sat in rapt silence listening to his friend expand upon the coming revolution. It was an intellectual romance, said Veryser. Harry was embarrassed, Kirk was furious that he wasn’t paid the attention he deserved. Both concluded that Buchanan was in love with Francis’s mind, that he truly believed that the two men could remake the world. Francis was a true believer, and his zeal infected Pat. He gave to Buchanan’s peculiar rebellion the theoretical structure of a popular revolution.

I used to read Samuel T. Francis’ column in Chronicles magazine.  It was a microcosm of Chronicles itself; full of one fascinating bit after another, often making the most interesting sort of points, and then, by the way, dropped in the middle someplace, a bizarre remark that could only be attributed to racism.  In one of the last to appear before his death in 2005, he was going on about the things that American children ought to, but don’t, learn in public schools.  He was developing a powerful vision of public education as a vehicle for cultural continuity and the formation of a common national heritage.  It was thrilling stuff, if not entirely convincing, until the middle of the fifth or sixth paragraph when he listed among the things that all Americans should learn in school “why slavery was right, and why the South was right to maintain it as long as it did.”  Then he went back to being interesting, but really, it was hard to focus after that.  And really, all of his columns were like that, brilliant, fascinating, and marred beyond saving by such outlandish remarks.  When The American Conservative started in 2002, Dr Francis wasan occasional contributor, writing three articles for the magazine (one each in 2002, 2003, and 2004.)  The editorial team there evidently took more of an interest than did their counterparts at Chronicles in toning the racialist content of his columns to a minimum, so that there were no true lightning bolts of lunacy.

Dr Francis, to the embarrassment of his more respectable friends, called himself a white nationalist and socialized with David Duke.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Dr Francis was a figure of some influence.  The “job with the Washington Times” that Mr Stanley mentions was that of editorial page director.  That a man of his views could attain such a position is another marker of how raw the racial resentments of whites were in the Rodney King era. In his obituary of Dr Francis for The American Conservative, Scott McConnell wrote that at Dr Francis’ funeral he found himself talking with none other than Jared Taylor.  Mr Taylor said that the cab driver who took him from the airport to the funeral had asked who Dr Francis was.  In response, Mr Taylor proclaimed “He stood up for white people!”  The cab driver, a white workingman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was visibly shocked and uncomfortable.  I very much doubt that many like him would have been upset by such a remark 14 years before.

One of Ron Paul’s rivals for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Willard Milton Romney (known familiarly as “Mitt,”) is mentioned by name in a review of economist Bruce Bartlett’s book, The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform, Why We Need It, and What It will TakeMr Bartlett was a staffer for Dr Paul in the 1970s, but has not been associated with him in recent years.  Reviewer Tom Pauken quotes Bartlett as saying that the USA’s corporate income tax exempts money spent on interest payments, but does not give such favorable treatment to money returned to shareholders in dividends.  It is unsurprising, then, that US businesses raise vastly more money by borrowing than by selling equity.  Mr Pauken says that this situation “has been great for private-equity moguls and leveraged buy-out operators like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwarzman, who have made fortunes gaming the system.   But it has been destructive to the long-term health of many US companies and to American workers who have lost jobs as a consequence of tax incentives that encourage companies to pile up debt.”  Mr Bartlett calls for the repeal of the corporate income tax and of several other taxes, and their replacement by a border-adjusted value added tax.  I’ve endorsed similar proposals here, often under Mr Bartlett’s influence, and am glad to see that he is still working the old stand.  As for the connection to Mr Romney, I would mention a link I posted on our tumblr page to a recent column by Paul Rosenberg called “Mitt Romney, ‘Welfare Queen.'”  The caption I gave that link was “In the USA, corporations can write interest payments off their income taxes, while they have to pay taxes on dividends they pay shareholders.  So, shareholders collect almost nothing in dividends, while banks and private equity firms collect trillions of dollars in interest payments.  Those interest payments are an alternative form of taxation, and people like Willard M. Romney are tax recipients, not taxpayers.”  I think is a reasonably fair summary of Mr Rosenberg’s argument, though Mr Bartlett’s views are somewhat more complex.   

A few months ago, I noted here a column about the Revised Common Lectionary that Philip Jenkins had contributed to Chronicles magazine.  Professor Jenkins argued that the committees that produced that selection of Bible readings had left out all of the passages in which God is shown commanding or praising violence, thus creating a false impression of the scriptures.  Professor Jenkins has presented that argument at book length, in a volume called Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.  Patrick Allitt’s review of Professor Jenkins’ book in this issue draws out some interesting points.  For example, the books of Joshua and Judges, which include many of the Bible’s most bloodthirsty passages, describe events that supposedly occurred in the late Bronze Age, but in fact were written at least 600 years after that period.  That not only means that the massacres they celebrate are not only unlikely to have taken place (archaeologists have found no residue of such conflicts,) but also that they were written at about the same time as, and very likely as part of a dialogue with the authors of, the passages about social justice and universal benevolence that warm the hearts of those who read the books of Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah.  The thorny passages in Deuteronomy also date from this relatively late period.  So to suppress the Mr Angry Guy passages from the Heptateuch is to misrepresent the Mr Nice Guy passages from the prophets.  I should mention that elsewhere on the magazine’s website, blogger Noah Millman appends a nifty bit of rabbinical logic to the review.

Intellectuals in the traditionalist right often mention the name of philosopher Eric Voegelin.  The late Professor Voegelin’s works are too deep for the likes of me, but an essay by Gene Callahan about his ideas in this issue of the magazine had me thinking of making another attempt at reading one of Professor Voegelin’s book, most likely The New Science of Politics (simply because it’s the one I’ve made the most progress with in my previous attempts.)  Of the many extremely interesting bits in Professor Callahan’s essay, the most interesting to me was his summary of a notion Professor Voegelin labeled the “hieroglyph.”  By this word, Professor Voegelin evidently meant “superficial invocations of a preexisting concept that failed to embody its essence because those  invoking it had not experienced the reality behind the original concept.  As hieroglyphs, the terms were adopted because of the perceived authority they embodied.  But as they were being employed without the context from which their original authority arose, none of these efforts created a genuine basis for a stable and humane order.”

I think this notion might explain a great deal.  Take for example a term like “national security.”  In such a place as the USA in the early nineteenth century, a poor country with a tiny population, a vast border, a radically decentralized political system, and every empire of Europe occupying territory in the immediate neighborhood, a patriot might very well advocate an aggressive program of territorial expansion, political consolidation, and a military buildup.  Such steps might well have been necessary for the infant USA to maintain its independence.  Today, however, such policies only weaken the United States.  Our international commitments empower our enemies, our national government threatens our liberties, our military expenditures divert capital from productive uses and weigh heavily on the economy as a whole.  To secure the blessings that make the United States of America worth living in and dying for, we must be prepared to revise or discontinue all of the policies customarily justified under the rubric of “national security.”

Likewise with the term “free market.”  As someone like Mr Bartlett has done so much to demonstrate, our current financial and corporate elites by no means owe their preeminence to success in unfettered competition.  Rather, they are the figures who have been most successful at manipulating a system that is defined and sustained by the continual involvement of government in every phase of economic life.  And yet even those among the rich who are most blatantly tax-recipients find defenders who speak of them as if they were so many Robinson Crusoes, in possession of nothing but that which they themselves had wrested single-handed from nature.  Virtually all conservatives and most libertarians are guilty of this form of hieroglyphic use of the term “free market” and its accompanying imagery at least occasionally.  Some libertarians, like the aforementioned Murray Rothbard, acknowledge the fact that the existing economic system is not a free market in any meaningful sense, and so speak not of a “free market” that is to be defended, but of a “freed market” that is to be created when our currently existing economic system is abolished.  The late Professor Rothbard and his followers frankly call the existing system, the one which they find unacceptable, “capitalism.”  For my part, I am perfectly willing to accept and defend the system Rothbardians call capitalism, though I would also call for a recognition that where there is subsidy, there must also be regulation.  And of course I would hope that we would have a lively democratic political culture that would guide our regime of subsidy and regulation to aim at socially desirable ends, rather than simply functioning as a means by which the power elite can entrench its position at the top of the economic and political order.

*I don’t actually agree with Mr McConnell that Llewellyn Rockwell is the likeliest author of the articles in question.  The most obnoxious piece, which in fact contains all of the tropes that drew fire in the other pieces, appeared under the byline “James B. Powell.”  A man by that name did in fact write for the Ron Paul newsletters, and is today a member of the board of directors of the Forbes Corporation.

Ukulele Hunt’s Ukulele Video of the Year 2011 Contest

It’s time to go to Ukulele Hunt and vote for the best ukulele video posted online last year.  I seem to have been the first person to have voted for Amanda Palmer & the Young Punx’ “Map of Tasmania” (Oh. My. Gawd!,) and the second to have voted overall.  I won’t deny that several of the other candidates are probably at least as good (especially LP’s “Into the Wild“), but I couldn’t help myself.