A 20th century wag topped off a famous line from Kipling this way: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . . maybe you just don’t understand the gravity of the situation.”
We have actually contrived to invent a new kind of hypocrite. The old hypocrite, Tartuffe or Pecksniff, was a man whose aims were really worldly and practical, while he pretended that they were religious. The new hypocrite is one whose aims are really religious, while he pretends that they are worldly and practical.
G. K. Chesterton
A somewhat quixotic friend whom I’ll call Gus dropped by the other day to reprove me for recurring error. “Don’t take this wrong, Steve,” Gus said. “You know that you and I agree on a quite a few things. But I’m concerned. I have to object.”
“Object to what?” I asked.
“In your last book,” Gus explained, “and in a number of recent articles, and in a blog post just a day or so ago, you describe the current cultural conflict that is tearing up America as one between traditional ‘religion’ and a conflicting movement that you describe as ‘secular.’ ‘Secular egalitarianism,’ you sometimes call it.”
“Okay. And the problem is. . . ?”
“The problem is that this is a fundamental misdescription.”
This story is a sad one: “A North Augusta mother is in jail after witnesses say she left her nine-year-old daughter at a nearby park, for hours at a time, more than once. . . . The girl is in the custody of the Department of Social Services.” I have two reactions to the story. On the one hand, I remember growing up in Manhattan and my mother allowing me to travel to the school yard a couple of blocks away when I was in fourth grade (age 9-10) for “hours at a time.” She did not believe I was in…
John McCain has pronounced on the Paul-Perry-Paul war of foreign-policy op-eds that are available here, here, and here, so let us review the bidding. To believe there are things that exceed U.S. control is to accede to an “absence of American leadership” to which all global ills are traceable. To believe other things, controllable or not, fall outside of U.S. interests is to advocate “a withdrawal to a fortress America” such as preceded World War I. Say what one will about Senator McCain, he knows how to spice up a Sunday show with stark simplicities.
Saturday I went to The Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Old Vic in London. The production was very well staged and well acted, but the play itself is problematic. As many readers of our blog will know, the play loosely recreates the Salem Witch trials in which a variety of hysterical young women accused their elders of being witches. The result was that twenty blameless people, mostly women, were hanged after relatively summary trials.
The Crucible has some undoubted power, beginning with the baseless accusations and building toward a crescendo of condemnations of an ever wider group of innocents. The last scene focuses on whether John Proctor will confess to the crime of witchcraft in order to save himself from execution. He refuses to testify to a lie that will legitimize the trials, thereby redeeming a life that had been blemished by adultery with one of the accusers.
The principal aesthetic problem with the play is that it veers to unrelenting melodrama without the leavening humor that even the greatest tragedies in our language incorporate. Critics have compared it instead to a Greek tragedy, but Hegel correctly noted that the great Greek political tragedies feature “a clash of right with right.” There is no such clash here with all the martyrs except John Proctor portrayed as saints and the accusers and judges as either hysterics or villains.
Politically, the play is more troubling. As we know from his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller intended it to be an allegory for the “red scare,” where many communists and fellow travelers were summoned before Congress to name names. The difficulty with this analogy is clear. There were no witches. On the other hand there undoubtedly were communists.
The standard narrative used to justify the existence of the administrative state and thus legitimate its powers is that America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries entered into a realm of industrialization, corporate power and concentration, density and urbanization, among other causes, that entailed the need for expert rule in executive agencies. Necessity of government action required courts and rule-making agencies that could adjust the social order to rapidly arising needs not anticipated in the 'horse and buggy' Constitution. However, what if there really is nothing new under the sun about administrative power? Instead, what if its call…
The red herring of impeachment is forcing the rhetorical argument about the swollen executive to unhelpful extremes. Those in a rhetorical rush to impeachment, especially those who have been threatening it for years, may well be guilty of defining the ultimate constitutional sanction down. The proper response is to argue on prudential grounds against it. It is not—as many are doing—to define impeachment up.
As Hamas empties its current stock of artillery rockets (some 10,000) from Gaza onto Tel Aviv and southern Israel while its allies in Lebanon launch similar projectiles into Galilee, and as half of Israel’s population rushes in and out of shelters, no one can forget that the Arab world (minus Egypt and Jordan) is at war with Israel in fact as well as formally. Nor does the Arab world leave doubt about its war aim: to destroy the Jewish state. But as the Israeli air force strikes gradually at the rockets’ launch sites and storage areas and picks away at some of Hamas’ mid-level leaders, as some 40,000 army reservists prepare for a possible invasion of Gaza, the aims of Israel’s military operations are by no means clear. It is clear, however that these operations do not amount to war. That is because, obviously, they do not aim at winning peace for Israel.
In my previous post, I asked whether our society is “post-Christian” (as is commonly reported), and I suggested that the question might matter to readers of this blog insofar as many of our revered legal and political commitments are arguably grounded in Christianity (or at least in the bibical or Judeo-Christian tradition). I also quoted T. S. Eliot’s provocative contention that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else.” Eliot thought that “[w]e have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian.”
Suppose Eliot was right in 1939, when he gave his lecture. Even so, things might have changed. So we might ask whether our own society has become “positively something else” other than Christian. Has some other “positive” ideology or philosophy or faith come along to replace Christianity as a foundation for our social and political arrangements? If so, what is that “positive” replacement?
Several years ago in a conference at Cardozo and again in a book published earlier this year (The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom), I speculated that Christianity may have been replaced as a cultural and political orthodoxy by “secular egalitarianism.”
Yesterday I enjoyed an exhibition at Tate Britain on the life and art collection of Kenneth Clark. Lord Clark was the leading art historian of his generation, the Director of the British National Gallery, and the assembler of an exquisite collection of his own. For me the exhibition recalled a more personal connection. His famous television documentary Civilization had instilled in a teenager from a decidedly non-artistic family an abiding passion for European art, particularly from the Italian Renaissance. What I learned from the exhibit was that this enlargement of my world was yet another gift from those we now call the…