Snow Day 3/1/15

  1. Understanding nothing
  2. A civilization that’s lost its mind
  3. Why Obama’s lie matters
  4. Hardly a rallying cry
  5. Is the Enlightenment Project “corrupt”?
  6. You Can’t Dance to Atheism
  7. Conservatism & Nonconformity
  8. Obama’s non-imposition principle



Future historians, I think, will look back on this decadent period as a time when our civilization lost its mind …

The most radical, revolutionary thing any prominent American has ever said was articulated by Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing on behalf of the Court majority in the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey opinion:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

The idea that nature exists as a blank canvas onto which we are entitled to project our own wills, restrained by nothing except our imaginations, is at the heart of nihilism. Kennedy’s idea vacates the concept of the common good. Yet I believe that most Americans, even those who recoil at the idea of transgenderism, would agree with Kennedy’s statement, at least in principle. It is how we have been acculturated. We don’t believe that the point of life is to seek harmony with an unseen order; we, as Americans, believe that we have the right to impose our own idea of order onto the natural world, damn the consequences.

(Rod Dreher)

The ellipsis elided the specific example of “how transgender activists have so co-opted the political and media class that any discussion, even among scientists and academics, of transgenderism that contradicts their preferred narrative is stigmatized, and even turned into a career-ender.” While I’m skeptical about transgender, I’m not familiar enough with the landscape to endorse the co-opting claim.

But consider the phenomenon I remarked on recently (I’ll not bother finding the link): out elites mostly live by a relatively traditional ethic – marrying someone of the opposite sex, procreating, remaining married, saving money – while professing a Kennedyesque radical individualism that, put in practice, brings devastation, poverty, and powerlessness to the proles.


[In 2008,] Obama—at Axelrod’s own urging—put before the voters a position on a public question different from the one he actually held, and that he did this because he thought it would increase his chances of winning the presidency.

Cynics will dismiss this story as commonplace: politicians mislead voters all the time, they will say. This is a deadly error. In this question, it’s not just the issues in a given election that are at stake. It’s the nation’s commitment to representative self-government—a commitment that is nothing but a sham if candidates for office are not duty-bound to tell the truth when soliciting the public’s votes.

One of America’s fundamental political principles is the doctrine of government by consent. The founders intended to establish, and every generation of Americans since has sought to preserve, a form of government in which the people give the basic direction to public policy by electing representatives to make laws and administer the government for them. There can be no genuine consent, however, and hence no meaningful self-government, when politicians mislead the voters.

(Carson Holloway)


“Vote Republican: They May Be Politely Indifferent to Us, But At Least They Don’t Hate Us” is hardly a rallying cry.

(Rod Dreher) Rod thinks Jeb Bush is doing something politically smart by “queering the GOP.” Not that he approves, but that he’s trying to describe the reality of the present (and future, it appears) political moment.

In my indifference to my former party, I failed to see this coming, but in retrospect, I could have.


At the Tablet, Todd Gitlin praises the Enlightenment (or the “Enlightenment project”), while admitting that it, er, has a few bugs to work out. But not to worry:

It’s dreadfully intertwined with a dominant growth fixation that overheats the atmosphere and melts the icecaps to such a degree as to threaten human civilization. And also—it’s the same scientific revolution that provides the tools to record the damage and clamor for a restart.

Matthew Cooper at Ethika Politika jumps on him, perhaps a bit too hard:

Are all of the people and movements that corrected the Enlightenment in its bloodiest and most brutal historical excesses to be explained from within the framework of the Enlightenment itself? This is not a reasoned or empirical claim, and it could use a fair bit of scrutiny.

Even from the beginning, the Enlightenment had its opponents, and these opponents by and large were those who held to the idea that a certain degree of axiomatic authority existed outside the realms of one’s own reasoning. The early abolitionist sentiment held by Dr. Samuel Johnson did not rest on the basis of an independently reasoned conviction in the equality and brotherhood of man, but on the basis of his religious conviction that black and white were alike created in the image of God, a conviction that his “Enlightened” (and pro-slavery) biographer Boswell thought to be “zeal without knowledge.” The biting satire of Rev. Jonathan Swift was motivated not by the smug self-assurance that drove François-Marie Arouet to put pen to paper, but instead by a profound Tory traditionalism that favored the works of classicists over the “new learning” of the “Enlightened” Baconians and the political economists of his time. In Russia, abolition of serfdom was emphatically supported, not by the “Enlightened” despots like Catherine the Great (who indeed expanded and consolidated the practice), but instead by the traditionalist, communitarian Slavophils led by Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Konstantin Aksakov, and Yuri Samarin, all of whom were equally insistent on monarchical rule and a society founded on the traditional values of the Russian Orthodox Church. In Western Europe and America, it makes absolutely no sense to talk about the labor movement without mentioning Rerum Novarum and the subsequent involvement of the Catholic Church in the labor movement. The Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council understood itself as irreconcilably opposed to Enlightenment thinking, but not to its liberatory aims.

In the global south of the 19th century, the opium trade in China was supported and encouraged even at gunpoint by the proponents of economic liberalism and free trade, and was left to be opposed by Confucian classicists and scholar-officials like Lin Zexu; even today, questions about China’s problems with economic inequality and political corruption are addressed with the greatest urgency and moral clarity not by the pragmatist or liberal children of the Enlightenment, but by Confucian thinkers like Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang, and by idiosyncratic leftists like Wang Hui and Gan Yang. Criticism of 20th-century African colonialism drew heavily upon nationalist and postcolonial ideas (for example, those of Abbé Alexis Kagame and Dr. Henry Odera Oruka) which defended specifically Tutsi and Luo ways of life and emphasized a specifically African way of doing politics and approaching the humanistic questions, even as they made common cause with Christianity and the study of the Western classics. Even when Gitlin acknowledges a “partial exception” in Mohandas Gandhi, he claims that it doesn’t matter because Gandhi was assassinated for his anti-clericism. True though this is, it would be arguing in bad faith to ignore the traditionalist dimension of home rule, and the independence of India that constitutes the main point of Gandhi’s legacy.

Thus we can see part of the way in which Gitlin’s perpetual motion machine works. The people who fought for the inclusion of the marginalized, the rights of the enslaved, and the rights of the colonized, can all be explained away in Gitlin’s thinking as fighting for “Inclusive Enlightenment” over “Fraudulent Enlightenment”: In this way the “self-correcting” mechanism of the Enlightenment machine draws upon the energy inputs of the people who either explicitly oppose it, or understand themselves to be outside it. But there is a flaw: The thinkers, activists and institutions mentioned above simply cannot be thought of merely in terms of their “courage to use [their] own reason,” for the simple fact that the reason they used was not their own to begin with. In each and every case highlighted above—the English Tory moralists, the Russian Slavophils, the Catholic workingmen’s associations, the political Confucians, the Chinese New Left, the African post-colonial theorists, the followers of Gandhi’s swaraj—the moral drive for the activism originates not in the power of individual reason, but in some form of transcendent or culturally situated authority.

This is not to deny, of course, that the Enlightenment had, and continues to have, its own internal critics. But it does seem a remarkable sleight-of-hand for Gitlin to refer to the critics of Enlightenment across the board as “tendentious,” particularly when he is so eager to claim credit for such critics as Gandhi on the Enlightenment’s behalf.

I recall hearing that the sociological meaning of “corrupt” is “lacking sufficient resources for self-correction” or something very close to that. As I recall, the accusation of corruption was being made against a certain Church that’s also a State but seems to have a bit of a problem cracking down on pedophile clergy on its own.

Is it too bold to suggest that the Enlightenment project is indeed corrupt? If militant secularists succeed in their quest to eradicate the public expression of religious convictions, we’ll all learn just how much further we can descend before it’s their blood in the streets.


There aren’t any overwhelming and inspiring collective atheist rituals. I don’t mean that these can’t exist. Olof Palme’s funeral procession was one unforgettable example. But they don’t exist today. Possibly, the London demonstration against Pope Benedict would qualify but in terms of numbers it was wholly insignificant compared with the crowds that he drew, or that flock to church every Sunday.

Against this point the committed atheist replies exactly as a liberal protestant would have done 20 years ago: bums on pews don’t matter; he or she is in the business of truth, not numbers, and the truth must in the course of time prevail. I don’t believe this. I don’t believe it in either case. Individualism without some myth of the collective is quite powerless. This is clearly illustrated by the Tea Party in America where the myth of a particular sort of extreme individualism is inseparable from the myths of a particular sort of America whose history has been invented in almost every detail.

If I’m right, then liberal, individualistic atheism is impossible as an organising principle of society because any doctrine that actually works to hold society together is indistinguishable from a religion. It needs its rituals and it needs its myths. A philosophy will grow around it in due course. Now perhaps you can have, at least on a small scale, a society committed to the principles of rational and tolerant disagreement and the sovereignty of reason. But what you end up with then isn’t some rational Athens of the mind. It’s Glastonbury.

(Andrew Brown, You Can’t Dance to Atheism)


[A]s “The Imitation Game” argues, a society often benefits from allowing space for nonconformity.

This presents something of a challenge for conservatives. A broad adherence to social convention is important for a just and stable society. But there is clearly some tie between human progress and the rejection of social and intellectual convention. The existence of norms is essential to social cohesion; the creative violation of norms is essential to social advancement.

(Michael Gerson)


No system of government can or should ever be imposed upon one nation by any other.

(Barack Obama, Egypt, 2009) That was before we had a “Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons,” of course.

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.