Chronicles, January and February 2010

When I wonder what’s gone wrong with the USA in recent years, I often come back to the idea that many of my countrymen have succumbed to a sort of mass narcissism.  US news outlets and public figures seem to believe that they have; when any sort of anti-Americanism anywhere in the world makes news, few voices with a national audience dare to go into depth about what might drive people to act against the USA or its citizens.  It’s as if the American public could not tolerate any reference to itself except in the form of a continuous stream of unrestrained flattery. 

Thus the US media often depicts acts of violence against Americans, be they acts of war carried out by enemy combatants or acts of terrorism carried out by private individuals, as if they were not only unjustified, but unmotivated.  Since we are not to admit that there is anything about the USA that could possibly be seen as unattractive, we are not allowed to say that anyone could have a reason, even a bad reason, to attack Americans.  When Americans are attacked, therefore, the attacks appear in the news not as the deeds of people who are driven to respond to some or other event or policy that has angered them, but as things that exist independently of any sort of cause-and-effect.  In that way, the attacks are taken out of time and are presented to the public as entities that have always existed and will always exist.  Thus we have obsessive coverage of  security lapses, even very minor lapses such as the gate-crashers at the White House last year.  An attack might be lurking nearby, seeking an opportunity to occur.  We must therefore be ever more on guard against attacks, which means in practice that we must be ever more submissive to the demands of the security apparatus and its masters.  Mass narcissism thereby leads to mass degradation. 

The two most recent issues of ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine both contain pieces that challenge this narcissism.    Ted Galen Carpenter’s article in the February issue about US torture policies that took shape under the Bush/ Cheney administration and that continue under Obama and Biden cites reports that show those policies to be the main motivation for foreign fighters who went to Iraq to fight Americans in the years after 2003.  It’s a shame Carpenter’s article isn’t online; the whole thing is a powerful indictment of torture, and of advocates in the Bush and Obama administrations. 

The January 2010 issue carries a column in which “paleolibertarian” Justin Raimondo says that his job as editor of is complicated by the fact that most of his readers and many of those who write for the site are on the political left.  He is often puzzled by his readers’ unwillingness to accept the conclusions of their own arguments.  So, “For years, opponents of endless military intervention in the Middle East have been warning that our actions will lead to ‘blowback,’ a term used by the CIA to indicate the old aphorism that ‘actions have consequences.'”  Thus far Raimondo and his readers are in agreement.  However, when Raimondo suggested in a recent column that Major Nidal Malik Hasan may have acted on behalf of al-Qaeda when he massacred fellow US soldiers at Fort Hood, he was deluged with harsh criticism.  Unwilling to see the shooting as the major’s attempt to retaliate for US policies that had killed his fellow Muslims, many fans of the site insisted that the attack was orchestrated by the US national security apparatus to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and rebuild public support for the wars in Afghanistan.  The mainstream press, meanwhile, tried in those early days after the massacre to ignore Major Hasan’s religion and his record of vehement opposition to US Middle Eastern policy, instead peddling the theory that as a psychiatrist he “had, in effect, ‘caught post-traumatic stress disorder, the very affliction it was his job to ameliorate.  According to this theory, the warfare-induced stress experienced by his patients had rubbed off on Hasan to such an extent that he went ballistic.”  The PTSD-by-proxy theory may preserve our national narcissism, ascribing the attack to a cloud of mental illness that drifts from one person to another, giving us an excuse to dismiss any questions about what we as a people may have done to provoke it.  Raimondo is having none of it:

[T]he facts are these: Major Hasan was perfectly correct in stating that the United States is embarked on a war against Islam, and that no one who is a practicing Muslim can consider taking up arms against his fellows in this fight.  All pieties to the effect that we’re on the side of the “good” Muslims notwithstanding, the United States has been fighting what is essentially a religious war.  Is it an accident that we’re currently occupying two Muslim countries, and are threatening to make war on a third?

Of course, the September 11 attacks didn’t have to be the first shot in a “clash of civilizations,” as the famous phrase goes.  We could have treated Osama bin Laden and his crew the same way we treated the Mafia and other criminal gangs from the land of my ancestors:  not by invading Italy, but by targeting their leaders, tracking them down, and pursuing them relentlessly until they were all captured or killed.

Later in the same column:

The horror of my left-liberal readers at the arrival of blowback in the form of Major Hasan is understandable, but the denial of reality is self-defeating and, as I have shown, self-contradictory.  You can’t say a “civilizational” war is a bad idea because we’re not prepared to accept the consequences, and then, when the war commences, refuse to accept the consequences.  We do indeed have a “Muslim problem” in this country as a direct result of our crazed foreign policy.  That is the lesson of the Fort Hood massacre, and denial won’t get us anywhere. 

Raimondo goes on to draw further conclusions.  We can sustain “our crazed foreign policy” only if we adopt an equally crazed domestic policy, and create “Muslim-free zones” wherever there are potential targets for sabotage or terror attacks.  I suspect that Raimondo intends the construction “Muslim-free” to jolt readers by its similarity to the Nazis’ word Judenrein.  Nor does Raimondo see this nightmare scenario as an impossiblity: indeed, he declares that “Another attack on the scale of September 11 would effectively lead to the de facto abolition of the Constitution, the disappearance of liberalism, and the end of any hope that we can rein in our rulers in their quest to dash the American ship of state on the rocky shoals of empire.”  The very leaders who speak to us only in words of the sweetest flattery may be preparing us for a future of servitude.  The very media enterprises that treat us as if our sensibilities were too delicate to endure a word of criticism may be preparing themselves for a future under the direction of a ministry of propaganda.

What is dignity?

The moderns

Industrialization means mass society, bureaucracy, high technology, political ideology; each of these things reduces the likelihood that a modern person will turn to another person as a particular living being and increases the likelihood that moderns will see each other as abstractions.  Analyzing this tendency, sociologist Max Weber said that the rise of bureaucracy locked moderns in an “iron cage of rationality”; characterizing modernity in general, Weber spoke of a “world grown cold.”  For centuries now, there have been those who have rebelled against modernity in the name of a lost human connection, and have harked back to premodern times.  This anti-modern tradition has found an American voice in Chronicles  magazine

In his column in the December 2009 issue editor Thomas Fleming informs us that “Reactionaries, alas, almost always ruin whatever good remains in a tradition.”  The rest of the issue is full of evidence for this view, I’m sorry to say.  Members of various Christian denominations take turns bewailing the rising support for gay rights among their coreligionists; persons of various nationalities denounce immigration in general and immigration to their countries by Muslims in particular; Paul Craig Roberts complains that because some parking spaces are reserved for the handicapped, the rest of us “are second-class citizens”; etc etc etc. 

There are some diamonds in the rough, however.  In the course of a denunciation of the liberal-minded leadership of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, we read that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori chose as the slogan for 2009’s triennial Episcopalian convention “Ubuntu,” “which is supposed to be an African word for sharing and caring.”  Jefferts Schori’s opening address noted that “Ubuntu doesn’t have any ‘i’s in it,” and went on to claim that individuality is found only in our dealings with each other:

The “I” only emerges as we connect- and that is really what the word means: I am because we are, and I can only become a whole person in relation with others.  There is no “I” without “you,” and in our context, you and I are known only as we reflect the image of the One who created us.  

That sounds like fairly orthodox Christianity to me, and the suggestion that non-industrialized or lightly industrialized parts of Africa may have preserved a clearer understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community is certainly in line with the anti-modernist tradition from which Chronicles magazine springs.  But that isn’t the reaction this writer gives.  He seems to interpret it, not as an appeal to premodernity and a world without the coldness that comes with industrialization, but to the coldness of political ideology in its collectivist forms.  

The writer points out that Episcopalianism, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, has long been in decline, while Anglicanism has been growing in Africa.  However, the African converts to Anglicanism could not be further from Bishop Jefferts Schori’s liberal Anglo-Catholicism; they tend to be fierce defenders of traditional gender roles, so that a female Presiding Bishop who is a staunch advocate of gay rights would not be very popular among them.  Perhaps, the writer speculates, “Africans may need to send missionaries to convert American Episcopalians, Methodists, and other mainline Protestants to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  When the African missionaries arrive, Katharine Jefferts Schori will no doubt remind them that there is no ‘i’ in ‘Ubuntu.'”   

Fleming’s own column, mentioned above, has one good passage.  Having visited a monastery, he wonders what his late father, a committed atheist, would have said about it.  He supposes he would have declared that the monks’ greatest accomplishment was “the mindless repetition of things that have been done over and over for two thousand years.”  Fleming’s reply to this imaginary attack is:

Excepting the “mindless” bit, I should say, “Yes, it is a great (if not the greatest) accomplishment to have gone through the same motions so many times for so many centuries.  We do not always know what or why we are doing.  Indeed, most of what we think we know we take on trust from a higher authority, like the television weatherman or an ill-educated high school teacher who once told us something about Galileo.  Jefferson, in a letter to a young nephew, described politeness as artificial good humor (a word that meant something like temperament or character): ‘it covers the natural want of it, and ends by rendering habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue.'”  That observation, elevated to the spiritual level, suggests that if we go through the same motions and repeat the same words our distant ancestors did, we may someday possess something of their Christian virtues.          

Most notable of the good bits is Chilton Williamson’s column.  Williamson is interested in the word “dignity.”  Williamson turns to a Latin dictionary for definitions of the root word dignitas.  Each definition he finds there “applies to some distinguishing quality, to something earned, or to something peculiarly inherited.  There is nothing universal about it.  All human beings are alike in having been made in the image of God, but that is not the same thing as saying that they share equally in the divine dignity, any more than they share in the divine goodness.” 

I wonder how seriously Williamson means these sentences to be taken.  If there is truly “nothing universal about” dignity, then one would think that it could not be shared at all.  The gulf between God’s dignity and any human being’s dignity would be absolute, and so would the gulf between one human being’s dignity and another’s.  As God alone would have divine dignity, so Williamson alone would have Williamsonian dignity and Acilius alone would have Acilian dignity.  Surely it wouldn’t stop there; isn’t a name a universal concept inasmuch as it suggests that the person who exists in one place at one time is the same as the person who exists in another place or at another time?  So that not only would one person’s dignity be a profoundly different thing from anyone else’s, but in every moment that compose the parts of a person’s life a new dignity would come into being and pass away, existing independently of the dignity of any other moment.  So even if my life (for example) were nothing but an exhibition of buffoonery and degradation for all but one instant, if I were to compose myself in that one instant I would, for its duration, be cloaked in dignity.  That does not seem to accord very well with the idea  of “something earned, or… something peculiarly inherited.” 

For all that, I hail Williamson’s concern for the particular as against the general.  That concern is the great strength of Chronicles magazine, and of the tradition that lingers on in its pages.  The desire to see a person as a particular being, not in any sense as an abstraction, is surely a healthy one, and where the Chronicles crowd has failed to achieve that desire I wish them better success next time.

What do we need to have in common if we are to communicate with each other?

Regular readers of this site know that Believer1, alias Mrs Acilius, is a sociologist.  Lately she’s been spending time with a school of thought called Symbolic Interactionism.  American social theorist George Herbert Mead is usually named as the founder of Symbolic Interactionism.  The Believer has shared with me some claims that Symbolic Interactionists make that she finds problematic.  For example, Mead defined communication as something that occurs if and only if one person sets out to elicit a particular response from another person and then sees that other person respond in that way.  So, if I tell you a joke in order to make you laugh, I have communicated with you if and only if I have seen you laugh.  When she reads this sort of thing, the Believer transforms into the Disbeliever.  Could anyone really use the word “communication” only in this very narrow sense? 

blogger-in-computer1The November 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture includes a number of pieces that remind me of Symbolic Interactionism.  The highlight of the issue is Chilton Williamson’s column.  Williamson seems to have a Mead-like sense of the limits of communication.  Williamson finds fault with the mass media, not only for being controlled by corporations and other self-interested bureaucracies, nor for showing political biases in one direction or other, but precisely because they are massive.  Williamson writes:

[T]he mass media of today are capable only of lies.  Or, to put it another way, they are incapable of speaking, or transmitting, truth, including the so-called facts… The media have nothing worthwhile to say because the audience they address is, by definition, a mass audience- that is, in terms of genuine human communication, no audience at all.  Both the right and the left, Republicans and Democrats, have been denouncing media bias for generations.  Media bias, they claim, prevents the people from having the true facts about public life, and thus makes democracy unworkable.  But really the situation is the same no matter which side runs the show.  The media represents the massed mental power of the corporate world, political as well as business, and that power is the power of the Prince of Lies.  “In this age of democracy,” John Lukacs says, “[the] intrusion of mind into matter tends to increase.”  This is because mind intruded into matter becomes mere matter- in other words, mere product.

Williamson contrasts the USA that Alexis de Tocqueville described in 1831, where “Americans lived and breathed the politics of their towns, their states, and their country,” and where political debate was the usual mode of conversation among men, with our version of the same country:

Today, Americans assiduously avoid discussing politics in social situations.  Their political conversations occur almost in hiding, among family or like-minded associates, or one-way– nightly, in the privacy of their dens in front of the television set- as Hannity and Beck reinforce their own opinions: remote and unanswerable presences, but reassuring ones.  It is all a bit like watching pornography.

How do those of us who find Hannity and Beck anything but reassuring respond to this situation?

The homogenized, disinfected, carefully controlled, and apparently neutral and anodyne content sustained by the mass media, by denying notice to, and access by, minority opinion, quite naturally ensures that dissenters develop progressively hostile, extreme, and unreasonable opinions and ideas and resort to the relatively unregulated internet to express them.  Unlike the official media, the web is a bedlam of raw personal opinion, but here lack of constraint has the same result as overconstraint: suspicion, uncertainty, and resentment… The unpleasant truth is that every writer needs an editor, albeit an honest editor who is as well an individual and a human being, not a corporate automaton.  Ultimately, unrestrained populist babble is no more reliable than the corporate monotone that pretends to inform us about the shape and content of the modern world we inhabit.  

The products mass media bring to the market less and less resemble tools through which we can look at the world, more and more take on the character of accessories with which we decorate ourselves.  Williamson quotes Jean Guéhennoc, who wrote that “the ultimate stage of democracy by media will be reached when political debate no longer has any influence on actual decisions but on the collective perception that a people has of itself.”  It may seem superfluous, but Williamson follows this quote with a reference to Barack Obama, elected by a people overwhelmingly opposed to his predecessor’s policies of war in Asia and bailouts for Wall Street, who has used his office to expand wars and bailouts alike. 

How have we come to this desperate pass?

Short of either a nuclear winter or a global-warming summer that destroys much of the natural world and civilization along with it, the media will dominate what remains of that civilization for as far as the human eye can see.  The media are no plot but a technological excrescence that was not designed overall but incrementally, and according to technological and financial, rather than human, logic.  There is the problem.  Mass communications are destructive because they claim to communicate without doing so, and the reason they cannot communicate is that human communication multiplied by scores of millions of times is impossible.  To address everyone at once is to address nobody at all. 

For Williamson, communication among human beings means connection among human beings.  A charismatic speaker may be able to form some kind of connection with a large group, but even the most charismatic speakers are limited in the kind of connection they can form with such a group, and thus with the kind of message they can communicate; “Christ Himself appears to have limited his audiences to 5000 people, while saving His choicest teachings for private discussions with the Twelve.” 


Looking back, and further back

nostalgiaThe June and July issues of Chronicles, the rightwardmost of my regular reads, include a couple of pieces that seem to acknowledge that the basis of conservatism is nostalgia.  That isn’t so bad, I suppose; everyone feels nostalgia, and people who are nostalgic for the same things can share a bond, and can sometimes nurture a gentleness together. 

June: Roger McGrath reminisces about his childhood in a thinly populated, mostly rural California.  He makes it sound like paradise, or like a place a rambunctious boy might have preferred to paradise.   

Thomas Fleming builds a scholarly argument to the effect that early Christians were not pacifists.  I often suspect that Fleming has a grudge against Quakerism.  I’m not sure where he would have picked up such a grudge- he grew up in a family of atheists, so it isn’t rebellion against his parents.  But this article seems like a detailed response to some or other Quaker tract.  And he frequently denounces many practices that are associated with Friends, such as silent worship.     

In a piece lamenting the rapid decline of global birthrates over the last 20 years, Philip Jenkins makes an interesting suggestion.  Most demographers claim that when religious beliefs lose their social power, people choose to have smaller families.  Jenkins suggests that the arrow of causality should point in the opposite direction.  Perhaps it is the fact that people have fewer children that disinclines them from taking religion seriously.  “Without a sense of the importance of continuity, whether of the family or of the individual, people lose the need for a religious perspective.”  He quotes the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski.  Safranski claims that a drop in birthrate

results in a dramatic lack of maturity in the way people choose to live their lives… For childless singles, thinking in terms of the generations to come loses relevance.  Therefore, they behave more and more as if they were the last, and see themselves as standing at the end of the chain. 

George McCartney praises Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road as a biting satire of self-styled “nonconformists” who congratulate themselves on their superiority to others while they are in fact utterly conventional.  McCartney condemns the recent film of the same title as an example of the sort of thing Yates was ridiculing.  He praises Eran Riklis’ film The Lemon Tree, the story of a Palestinian woman who insists on taking care of the lemon grove she inherited from her father even after an Israeli cabinet minister appropriates the land in which it grows for his own private use.  Her refusal to give up her ancestral claim is the sort of thing that warms the reactionary hearts of the Chronicles crowd, and I suppose it reflects the kind of nostalgia that a person really could build a humane politics around. 


Chronicles, May 2009

The Reverend Ann Holmes Redding

The Reverend Ann Holmes Redding

This issue of Chronicles tells the story of Seattle’s Reverend Ann Holmes Redding, who has been ordered to leave her position as an ordained priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church in America simply because she has converted to Islam.  They do not seem to have great sympathy for Rev. Redding’s complaint of religious discrimination, but they don’t have much respect for the Episcopal Church, either.  Surveying the willingness of that Church’s leaders to discard all of the more hostile-sounding parts of the Christian tradition, they conclude that the Episcopalians’ “understanding of ‘Christ-follower’ must mean a disciple of the imaginary Jesus who never, no never, discriminates.” 

The issue’s main feature is a roundtable under the title “Can the Republic be restored?”  Not without a moral revolution, says Thomas Fleming: “Constitutions do not make a people free any more than clothes nake the man.  Men, in fact, make clothes, and a free people makes a constitution that expresses its character.”  It is because Americans have lost the moral character of a free people that we have lost our Republic, not because we have lost our Republic that we have been degraded.  I think Fleming is right as far as he goes- political institutions express the habits of the people among whom they exist, they don’t transform those habits.  So there isn’t much point in writing a constitution that guarantees free speech, for example, to a people who fear unfamiliar ideas and habitually defer to authority.  On the other hand, those habits don’t appear spontaneously, but become widespread because of social institutions that reward them. 

Can the American Republic be restored?  Donald Livingston says no, because there never was such a thing.  The states were Republics when they formed the Union, the Union itself was something less: “a federation of republics is not itself a republic any more than the federation of nations in the United Nations, or in the European Union, is a nation.  A federation is a service agency of the political units that compose it.  Whatever else a republic might be, it is not a service agency of something else.” 

Can the American Republic be restored?  Clyde Wilson doesn’t claim to know, but he is quite clear on what will have to happen first if it is to be: the US presidency will have to be reined in.  “The American president began as Cincinnatus, a patriot called to the temporary service of his country (a republican confederation.)  The president ends as Caesar, a despot of almost unlimited power, presiding over a global empire.” 


Chronicles, April 2009

George McCartney’s review of the movie The Reader begins with a description of a comedy sketch in which Kate Winslet said that making a movie about the Holocaust is a sure way to win an Oscar.  That part starts at 3:13 in the clip below.

McCartney argues that the movie misses the moral point of Bernhard Schlink’s novel.  Movie and novel both dramatize a sexual relationship in the late 1950s between Hanna, a former Nazi concentration camp guard, and Michael, at the time a 15 year old boy.  The two see each other again years later, when Hanna and other war criminals are on trial and Michael is a law student observing the process.  For McCartney, the key scene in the novel comes at this trial:

In the novel, Schlink’s point is that Hanna is being personally scapegoated for crimes that many others participated in, whether actively or passively.  To prosecute her without admitting this is to perpetuate the nation’s guilt and ramify its bitter consequences.  The novel fully dramatizes the wholly unwarranted self-righteousness of the other young German law students as they observe the trial.  They take it as an occasion to despise the older generation, including their parents, for their complicity in the policies of the Third Reich.  Michael would undoubtedly be with them but for his relationship with Hanna.  As it is, he’s left with the impossible burden of coming to terms with her culpability in the midst of his lingering feelings for her. 

Questioned at this trial about mass murders in which she participated, Hanna asks the judge in a state of true bewilderment, “What would you have done?” 

Of course, with the moral clarity available after events, it’s all too obvious what she should have done.  Schlink’s larger point is that it’s also obvious what the Germans should have done about their Nazi rulers.  But as Hitler rose to power and the Nazis took command of state institutions, barraging the populace with ceaseless propoaganda complemented by a relentless program of civilian surveillance, what course was safely open to the ordinary individual?  It’s easy, Schlink implies, for those who enjoy freedom today to say their elders should have resisted.  Of course they should have.  So should the Russians have resisted the rise of the Bolsheviks and Stalin’s police state.  So should all Americans have denounced George W. Bush’s criminal policies.  Schlink argues that these should haves are only helpful in the present if applied by those who realize that they themselves may not have had the moral heroism necessary to stand up to those in power.   

The novel “does a fair job of examining” the “deformation of a soul” like Hanna’s, a deformation which made it possible for her to commit acts of immense violence while seeing herself only as a victim.  The movie, by contrast, dwells on the actors’ physical nakedness, offering little insight into the psychological terrain in which the characters made their decisions.   “We need to see more than the actors’ breasts, buttocks, and genitalia to understand them.  We need principally to understand what happened to Hanna to make her the way she is.  On screen, we never do.” 

McCartney also objects to the fact that the sex scenes are played out between an 18 year old man playing a 15 year old boy and a 33 year old woman.  “In a film that means to expose the ongoing effects of abuse, we’re edified by the spectacle of a boy actually being abused by his director and his costar.  What else can we call what happens to David Kross in this movie?… [I]s 18 the age whhen, for professional reasons, a boy can disregard the sexual appeal of a nude 33 year old actress pressing against his naked body?  Who’s kidding whom?” 


Chronicles, March 2009

same-sex-weddingI first became aware of the political question of same-sex marriage in 1980.  I was in fifth grade and we were supposed to conduct debates in class about issues of the day.  I was assigned to the group opposing this proposition: “The Equal Rights Amendment should be passed.”  Researching for my part in the debate, I found an argument that the plain wording of the proposed amendment (“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”) would grant men the right to marry other men and women the right to marry other women.  This was in the context of an article opposing the amendment. 

At first I was excited to find this claim.  Up to that point all that I had been able to find were dry legal arguments that would never capture the attention of my classmates.  Here at last was a point that would grab the imaginations of everyone in the room and hold them for as long as I needed. 

But as I thought it over, I realized that there was an obvious question that would stump me if anyone asked it.  Why shouldn’t same sex couples be free to marry?  The only argument in the article was that same sex couples couldn’t reproduce.  My immediate response to that was to think of my grandmother.  When my grandfather died, she was in her fifties, most assuredly past childbearing.  Yet she remarried, and no one thought to object.  So why was the sterility of same sex couples a reason why they should not be allowed to marry? 

In the decades since, I’ve kept an eye on the debate.  I’ve found some very sensible arguments supporting the right of same sex couples to marry, and some intriguing arguments to the effect that no one should marry.  But what I have not found are many substantive arguments in favor of reserving marriage for heterosexual couples.  This is quite surprising.  One would assume that by now someone would have come up with a worthwhile argument  in favor of the status quo

In this issue of Chronicles, Thomas Fleming explains why he is opposed to same sex marriage.  (more…)

Chronicles, February 2009

lincoln-coverChronicles is often criticized for its “neo-Confederate” bent.  The two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth draws that side of the magazine out in force. 

Joseph E. Fallon quotes extensively from Lincoln’s friends and associates to the effect that the sixteenth president had little use for Christianity.  He then analyzes Lincoln’s use of religious imagery in his speeches, arguing that he exploited beliefs which he did not share to browbeat his countrymen into supporting a policy of extreme violence and unaccountable executive power.  Fallon dwells on the Second Inaugural Address, claiming that the famous passage saying that we must acquiesce in God’s will to punish us for that sin even if  “all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword” represents a particularly gruesome moral inversion.  “Lincoln assiduously promoted the idea that, while he was blameless for the war, its death and destruction served some higher good.”  Fallon closes with a paraphrase of a well-known line which he attributes to Voltaire, that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. 

Thomas Fleming asserts that the Civil War cost the lives of “600,000 American soldiers and perhaps twice as many noncombatants (most of them black.)”  I’ve often heard the figure 621,000 as the number of combat fatalities in the Civil War, the other two claims in that sentence were news to me.  I don’t know all that much about the Civil War, so for all I know Fleming could be right.  He goes on: “Some years ago, when I was debating Lincoln’s legacy, a graduate student asked if I did not think the war that freed the slaves was worth the cost.  He was actually shocked that I did not think that hundreds of thousands of dead slaves would have agreed with him.” 

The cost of the Civil War to southern blacks is also a major theme of Clyde Wilson’s “The Trasury of Counterfeit Virtue.”  “The notion that soldiers in blue and emancipated slaves rushed into each other’s arms with shouts of Glory Hallelujah is pure fantasy,” writes Professor Wilson.  Instead, the historical record shows one case after another when Union forces tortured, raped, and slaughtered blacks with impunity.  Wilson cites Ambrose Bierce to the effect that the only blacks he saw with the Union army were those whom officers were using as slaves. 

Joseph Sobran mentions Lincoln’s statement, from the First Inaugural, that “the Union is much older than the Constitution,” only to dismiss it as evidence that “Lincoln’s knowledge of history was shaky.”  I think there’s a bit more to be said for this claim than Sobran allows.  Certainly the thirteen colonies that broke away in 1775-1783 had by that time for many years been much more closely linked to each other than any of them had been to other parts of the British Empire. 

Justin Raimondo, editor of, looks at the comparisons between President Obama and his predecessor that one hears so often these days and takes them with undiluted seriousness.   Lincoln, Raimondo reminds us, “suspended habeas corpus, jailed his opponents, and closed down newspapers that displeased him.”  Raimondo evidently fears that Mr O’s praise of Lincoln might mean that he plans to follow this example.  Lest this fear seem overdone, Raimondo does refer to the powers that presidents between Lincoln and Mr O have claimed for themselves.  One rather silly moment in Raimondo’s article comes near the beginning, when he quotes a description of the similarities between these two Illinoisan presidents that mentions the fact that they are both quite thin.  “Two thin men?  What normal person would make such a comparison?  To our elites, thinness is a sign of moral virtue.”  Well, perhaps the mention of it is also a sign that Lincoln and Mr O don’t really have that much in common, so that likeners have to draw on the most superficial resemblances. 

Daniel Larison, of the Eunomia blog, goes into depth on a theme that Professor Wilson also addressed, the role of Lincoln in fusing Big Government with Big Business and laying the foundations of the corporatist-militarist economic and political system the United States has today.  Larison mentions Canadian philosopher George Grant, a critic of bigness in both economic and political institutions.  “Over 40 years ago, Canadian philosopher George Grant said that American conservatives must oppose economic centralization if they seriously hope to pursue political decentralization.”

New Year, Old Right

The latest issues of my two standard “paleocon” reads, The American Conservative and Chronicles, include fewer really noteworthy articles than average.  The election of Mr O as president and a solidly Democratic Congress freed them to turn from the constant struggle to show how they differ from the Bush/ Cheney Right and toward standard-issue conservative territory, denouncing government spending, unconventional family structures, etc. 

The contest, 1972

The contest, 1972

In The American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy argues that George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign triggered a transformation of the Republican Party by driving Cold War liberals into its ranks.  Mary Wakefield reviews Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, Wakefield reports that Dowden, the current director of the Royal African Society, is deeply pessimistic about western programs to aid Africa, but deeply optimistic about Africans’ ability to build a future for themselves if left alone. 

Sheldon Richman offers a succinct explanation of the Austrian school of economics’ theory of malinvestment and uses this theory to explain the current financial crisis.  David Gordon reviews a book by the most celebrated living opponent of the theory of malinvestment, Paul Krugman. 

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

Jim Pittaway,  licensed psychotherapist and friend of the late Michael Aris, applies his professional expertise and his personal animosity to Aris’ widow, Aung San Suu Kyi, to an analysis of western policy towards Burma.  The professional expertise part is quite illuminating.  Suggesting that we should view the Burmese regime’s relationship to its people as one of captor to hostage, he asks us to apply “the biggest rule of hostage crises: unless you can take him out right now, don’t threaten the perp.”  Since the 1990 election, the West’s dealings with Burma have consisted primarily of a series of idle threats, and the hostages have paid the price. 


Chronicles, December 2008

Giotto painting reproduced on the cover of this issue




Giotto painting reproduced on the cover of this issue


Three articles about Christmas in this issue of Chronicles.  Editor Thomas Fleming, who I seem to recall occasionally describes himself as having been raised an atheist, then converted to arch-traditional Roman Catholicism, describes in the third person the attitudes of an unnamed man who was raised anatheist, then converted to arch-traditional Roman Catholicism.  As a boy, this anonymous person disliked Christmas.  The months-long buildup, the morning moments unwrapping toys that could never live up to the expectations that buildup engendered, the endless anticlimax of the day as of adult relatives hung on and bored him with their chatter.  Far better Halloween, an ordinary day that ended with a burst of total anarchy.  As he grew, he preferred the moral atmosphere of Halloween to that of Christmas.  The Christians he knew pretended that death was nothing to be afraid of and embedded that pretense into the holiday, while Halloween began by taking the cold terror of death and everything touching death for granted.  Evidently this preference remains with him in his religious phase, as the terror of death gives Easter its power.

Contributor Thomas Piatak defends Christmas, not against the severe theology of Fleming, but against opponents of public piety at Christmastime.  Apparently it was Piatak who coined the phrase “The War Against Christmas.”  While Fleming inveighs against a religious Christmas that soft-pedals or denies the hard truths of lifeand thus denatures Christianity, Piatak fears a secular Xmas that is “devoid of religious or cultural significance or indeed of beauty, with nothing left but multiculturalist pap and tawdry sentimentalism.”  As examples of this creeping insipidity, Piatak cites a case in Columbus, Ohio in 2003, when the school district banned a performance of Handel’s Messiah unless equal time were given to “Frosty the Snowman” and “Jingle Bells.” 

Columnist Aaron D. Wolf has little use for the idea of a secular “War Against Christmas,” though he does agree that such a thing exists.  He tells us of wishing a store clerk “Merry Christmas.”  “She looks directly at me, smiling, eyes narrowed, and nods.  “Yes.  Merry CHRISTMAS!”… It wasn’t a bright, elven (sic) “Yes!  Merry Christmas!”  She spoke with a knowing, in your face, liberal America air of defiance.”  Later: “That Merry Christmas seemed more like a countercultural protest statement, that kind that says, yeah, you’re one of us, or yeah, I’m one of you.  One of you… what?  Believers in Christ Jesus?  … Or perhaps it was one of you proud white Americans.”  Wolf’s suspicion that many of those most exercised about the “War Against Christmas” are in fact not very much devoted to Christ at all, but are only interested in sticking it to educated secularists, gains verisimilitude from the high December sales of mugs bearing the slogan “Don’t be a Pinhead.”