Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei


fawcettthisperfectdaybyiralevin565About a year ago, I was browsing in a used bookstore and saw an old paperback copy of something I’d never before heard of: This Perfect Day, a dystopian novel by Ira Levin. It looked interesting enough that I paid my 85 cents and took it home.

As soon as I finished it, I started writing a blog post about it. I abandoned that post when I realized that the plot is full of so many ingenious twists, and so much of what gives the book its enduring interest, can be explained only by describing events that take place after the most surprising of those twists, that it would be impossible to review it without ruining the story.

Those who have read the novel will recognize the title of this post as the first line of a rhyme that members of the society depicted in the novel habitually recite:

Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei,

       Led us to this perfect day.

Marx, Wood, Wei and Christ,

       All but Wei were sacrificed.

Wood, Wei, Christ and Marx,

       Gave us lovely schools and parks.

Wei, Christ, Marx and Wood,

       Made us humble, made us good.

Recently two bloggers whom I read regularly both reminded me of This Perfect Day. Regular visitors to this blog know that I like to get all points of view; I’m something of a leftie myself, and to check my biases I read, among others, Peter Hitchens, who is on the right regarding matters of sex and sexuality, and Steve Sailer, who is on the right regarding race and nationality. The other day, Mr Hitchens mentioned that he had read This Perfect Day and thought that it was a much-underappreciated book. I offered a comment saying what I said above, that perhaps the reason it is underappreciated is that it is difficult to review it without giving away too many surprises, and so it hasn’t been widely enough recommended. I suspect Mr Hitchens dislikes the pseudonym “Acilius”; he doesn’t seem inclined to approve my comments, so that one has not appeared at the site. I’m Acilius on so many platforms that it would seem wrong to adopt another pseudonym, and for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere I prefer not to use my legal name. So I suppose I won’t be contributing to his combox.

Today Mr Sailer posted an item about a New York Times story in which was hidden an implicit retraction of some reporting that had previously appeared in the Times; his remarks about it included this sentence:

That’s one of the joys of holding the Megaphone: You can redefine your behavior as Not Fake News in that you gave extremely curious and industrious readers a path to the truth without troubling the majority who like their News Fake.

Now, I am about to give away some of the very cleverest plot twists in This Perfect Day, but so as to ruin the story for as few people as possible, I will put it after the jump.  (more…)

Some what-ifs

I recently posted a much-too-long comment on Peter Hitchens’ blog.   Mr Hitchens had posted about one of his recurrent themes, that, contrary to what the popular phrase “special relationship” might suggest, the United States does not in fact treat the United Kingdom in a markedly more indulgent fashion than it brings to its treatment of its other allies.  He gave a series of examples of hard bargains the US had driven in its relations with the UK.  The last of these examples was the aid the US gave to Britain in the period 1940-1941, which was conditioned on Britain’s yielding to the US a large portion of its gold reserves, its shares in many US and Latin American firms, and its naval bases in the Western hemisphere. To this I responded as follows:

Well, with regard to US policy towards the British Empire in 1940 and 1941, I do think you are overlooking rather an important point. It did seem quite likely from May of 1940 on that Britain might very well surrender to Germany. The expectation that Britain would surrender seems to have motivated, for example, Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA. Without Britain among the allied powers, the USA would have been as impotent in Europe in the 1940s as Britain and France were in Poland in 1939. In view of that expectation, Hitler would likely have thought of his declaration of war on the USA on 11 December 1941 much as Argentines may have thought of their country’s declaration of war on Germany on 27 March 1945, a costless gesture designed to appease a nervous ally.

If we look back at the events between May 1940 and December 1941, not in the light of the Allies’ eventual victory, but of the United Kingdom’s probable defeat, both Washington’s demands and London’s acquiescence in them become far less of a scandal. Even if Germany had not chosen to occupy Britain after its defeat, it is likely that the Nazi regime would have found ways to help itself to at least as much of Britain’s gold reserves and other financial assets as the USA in fact claimed, making the Reich a major presence in business in the USA and the leading economic power in Latin America. Had the Nazis added Britain’s naval bases and other imperial assets in the Western Hemisphere to this economic power, the USA would have been entirely incapable of making a contribution to any war against either Germany or Japan.

In that light, I think we can see the Roosevelt government’s demands and the Churchill government’s concessions as a kind of super-Dunkirk. Without actually making British surrender more likely, these concessions represented the choice of a postwar environment in which the far Western boundary of German power would in no case exceed the shores of the Atlantic. Even in the event of the absolute worst case scenario for the UK, in which the Germans occupied and subjugated Britain, a great power would still exist somewhere in the world that was neither fascist nor communist, with a population that speaks English and courts that occasionally cite Magna Carta. Such a power might not be in a position to intervene militarily on the island of Britain, but its example could embolden guerrilla resistance to the Germans. A United Kingdom government of the period may even have harbored the fond wish that the continued viability of the USA might foster a certain residue of respect for Englishness even among Nazi occupiers. This fond wish may look silly in retrospect, as we consider what we know of the Nazi regime, but at the time might not have been an altogether contemptible basis for policy.

The alternative surrender scenario, in which the British Empire had held onto enough of its assets for its fall to terminate the USA as a world power, would in the short term have given Germany and Japan free hands in their expansionist programs. Considering how wildly those programs were inflated beyond each country’s ability to support them, in particular with regard to Germany’s invasion of Russia and Japan’s invasion of China, it seems likely that they would eventually have collapsed and brought the regimes down with them.

But that only makes the idea of Germany capturing a more-or-less-intact British Empire the more frightening. On the one hand, the Germans, unbothered by the nuisance of a Western front, would doubtless have had time to complete their extermination of European Jewry and to make great headway in their genocidal plans against Gypsies and others. On the other, the force that would eventually have defeated the Germans would not have included the USA, the UK, or any other democratic governments. The Soviet Union alone would have defeated the Reich, and the Red Army would have swept into all the territories it had once controlled. Perhaps that would have been rather a different Soviet Union than the one that actually existed in the late 1940s or early 1950s; it’s easy to imagine that Stalin, for example, would not have survived had the Second World War gone much worse than it did for the USSR. But even if the Wehrmacht had done as well against the Soviet Union as Napoleon did against the Tsar, surely it would in the end have been defeated even more thoroughly than was the Grande Armee.

And without the USA in the Western Pacific, Japan’s eventual, surely inevitable defeat in China would have come when the Kuomintang forces were even more completely exhausted than they were in 1945. That would have left Mao’s Red Army to pick up the pieces, not only in mainland China, but in surrounding countries as well. With no American forces in the region to offer an alternative, the Japanese occupations may have proved merely a prelude to a domination of East Asia by Chinese Communists, as the victories of the Third Reich may have been a prelude to the domination of the rest of the Eastern hemisphere by the Soviet Union.

A nightmare world, certainly. And, as with all nightmares, it grows from long chains of contingency. But I don’t think that any of these contingencies are either inherently unlikely to have happened, or unlikely to have haunted the minds of British and American policymakers in the period May 1940-December 1941.

This comment far exceeds the Daily Mail‘s limit of 500 words, a limit of which I was unaware when I submitted it.  (I had never posted a long comment to the Daily Mail‘s site before, amazingly enough.)  I am most grateful to Mr Hitchens for waiving that limit and allowing my post to stand as it is.

A few weeks ago, I read, for the first time, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  I suppose the influence of that alternate-history novel can be seen in this comment.  I would add that, unlike Dick, I don’t propose a scenario in which the USA would be occupied by Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, merely one in which German influence in the Western hemisphere and the absence of a staging area from which to launch attacks against German positions in Europe and Africa made it impossible for the USA to fight against the Third Reich.

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.

Requiescat in pace?

Peter Hitchens is one of my favorite right-wing political bloggers.  His brother Christopher has also been mentioned here from time to time.  Today, Peter Hitchens had the sad duty to write a post about his brother’s death.  It’s an eloquent statement of a personal grief made public by the fame that each brother had attained in his life.  I recommend it highly.

Peter Hitchens is a defender of a very conservative brand of Anglicanism; his brother was a celebrated atheist spokesman.  I myself am not a believer, but I am deeply interested in the ways in which widely accepted religious doctrines can shape the thinking even of people who consciously reject them.

So, I often think about how we respond to death.  It is convenient to be able to say to a bereaved person, “My prayers are with you”; if you share a common belief in an afterlife, it may be comforting to invoke that belief also.  Yet it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to treat Christian language about death as if it were an attempt to comfort the grieving, since a great deal of the discomfort that a resident of a Christian land faces upon the death of a loved one stems from Christian doctrines and practices.  If we affirm a doctrine of immortality, then we can never quite let go of the idea that we should be on contact with those whom we love, for we can never quite accept the idea that they have ceased to exist.  If our loved ones are out there someplace, in some form, then it is an ever-renewed pain that we cannot see them or hear them or touch them.

Alexander Schmemann was a Russian Orthodox priest who emigrated to the USA during the Soviet era.  Father Schmemann became one of the founders of the Orthodox Church in America.  In his book For the Life of the World, Schmemann considered the fact that Christianity does not make it easier for the bereaved to accept the death of a loved one, but harder.  This, he argued, was not a failing of Christianity, but one of its virtues.  Here is a quote from that argument:

“Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and its own ethics. And it ‘works’ and it ‘helps.’ Quite frankly, if ‘help’ were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as ‘adjustment to life,’ ‘counseling,’ ‘enrichment,’ it has to be publicized in subways and buses as a valuable addition to ‘your friendly bank’ and all other ‘friendly dealers’: try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to ‘give up’ the very category of ‘transcendence,’ or in much simpler words, the very idea of ‘God.’ This is the price we must pay if we want to be ‘understood’ and ‘accepted’ by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because they ‘satisfy’ the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a ‘status,’ a rationale, make it ‘normal.’ Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, ‘he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.’ In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere ‘help,’ not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an ‘other word’ which looks like a cemetery (‘eternal rest’) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to ‘dispose’ every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a ‘just society’ and to be happy!—this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his ‘positive ideal’—religious or secular—and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes ‘awful,’ the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any ‘other world’), it is this life (and not some ‘other life’) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by ‘transforming’ them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the ‘end’ and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”

— Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy  (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)pages 94ff

A provocative remark

From Peter Hitchens’ latest Sunday Mail column:

The French… long ago recognised their defeat by Germany in 1940 as permanent, and resolved to live with it in return for prosperity and the outward appearance of grandeur. That, enshrined in the Elysee Treaty of 1963, is the unspoken pact at the heart of the EU.

It may be easy to dismiss anything published in the Mail, especially when it is harsh toward the French and the Germans.  But is this not in fact a very plausible description of the last 70 years of French policy?