A world out of joint

  1. Vacation and dystopia
  2. Another circumstance that permits of an exception
  3. And yet another
  4. Misfits in a world out of joint


I don’t know what it is with me, vacation and dystopia.

5 years ago (I know, because I recall the rental condo balcony I sat on as I read), it was A Canticle for Liebowitz. More recently, I read Farenheit 451 and re-read Brave New World, which as prophecy, has 1984 beaten all hollow. This year, I’m looking forward to The Children of Men.

It wasn’t always so, and I don’t save up all dystopias for vacation. I read The Handmaid’s Tale (it ranks down there with 1984) in this past deep midwinter, and I recall a vacation we took with my wife’s high school chum when I got so wrapped up reading Chaim Potok in the back seat that I kind of resented it when we had to stop and sightsee.

How can a semi-retired guy be looking forward to vacation so much? Well, herehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, here, here, here and here. Shall I start the wineries or the bike trails now that the top restaurants are chronicled? Or the entertainment possibilities?

And can you see why a week isn’t enough? I think I read dystopias up there to keep from getting too elated.


If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

West Virginia v. Barnette.

The State of Oregon thinks it has found a circumstance that permits an exception.

It doesn’t take kindly to folks critiquing their “red light camera” racket. If you utter your opinion “about how red light cameras misuse the standard mathematical formula for timing traffic lights, leading to unsafe driving conditions and unfair citations when drivers slow down to turn,” you just might get fined for the unlicensed practice of engineering!

Neat trick: free speech critical of a profession’s performance constitutes the practice of that profession. Fortunately, guys with actual licenses to practice law think there’s something wrong with that.


Yet another authoritarian regime, that of Barack Obama, wasn’t too keen on free speech, and enlisted (of all the implausible agencies) the USDA to suppress it:

You may (or may not) have seen this story. Briefly, the Obama secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, issued a letter in July of 2015 against all “harassment” based upon, inter alia, sexual orientation and gender identity, including “disrespectful” speech on these matters. Pursuant to this letter, USDA officials in Michigan have threatened to shut down a farm (by refusing to inspect the beef) if the owners put an article in the break room that opposes homosexual “marriage”–an article, by the way, which no employee was obligated to read and which appeared alongside articles supporting homosexual “marriage.”

Let me emphasize: What Vilsack wrote, that gave inspectors this power, was just a letter. It was a diktat. It followed no special process. It was a pure exercise of bureaucratic power by the then-secretary. This empowered USDA meat inspectors (!) to inspect and micromanage the contents of articles in break rooms at meat facilities all over the U.S., including family farms run by Christians.

And let me also emphasize: Since this was a letter issued by one man, a simple diktat, a simple exercise of power by one bureaucrat, it would be very easy for a different man in that same position to rescind the letter. A perfectly easy thing. We now have a new Secretary of Agriculture. His name is Sonny Perdue (former Georgia Governor). He was appointed by new President Trump. He could just issue a new letter rescinding the old letter, and he could instruct his meat inspectors that they are not ideology inspectors.

He hasn’t done so. Why not? Who knows? I don’t know. Laziness, I suspect. When it comes to religious liberty, the current administration is long on empty gestures and woefully short on effective action, even when the effective action is very direct and easy.

Yet Maggie Gallagher, astonishingly, holds Congress responsible for investigating the abuse of the USDA’s powers. So eager is she to absolve the executive branch, the Trump administration, of any responsibility to do anything whatsoever, that she goes out of her way to say that they don’t have to!

(Lydia McGrew) Yeah! That’s the ticket! Opinions you don’t like are “harassment” and “disrespectful” speech, suppression of which is USDA’s core mission!

Actually, Gallagher’s article isn’t as craven as McGrew says. But I still say the First Amendment Defense Act is unconstitutional (see here and here) and there’s something fishy about conservatives making it the cause du jour. I think they’re trying, with empty and unconstitutional symbolism, to make the GOP look like it cares about religious freedom. After the Battle of Indianapolis, when big business said “Jump!” and the Indiana GOP replied “How high, Master?!”, everyone should know that’s not true.


Why might it be a positive good that the College should be preparing you to be “misfits” in the world?

Consider, for example, the place of a misfit in a world characterized by conflict, where change is sought through violence alone, where rhetorical force is laced with fear-mongering or hatred. Such a misfit might bring reason to bear on the rancor, and imagination to the resolution of conflict.

Or consider a world that is so conventional that people rarely contribute anything original or inventive….where so little of our natural human capacity, and none of our imagination, is exercised! What kind of world would it be if everyone acted as though they had the answers to life and no one had any questions of it?

What is the place of a misfit in a world that is out of joint? Or a world that has reduced all value to an economic metaphor? Where everything has a price and nothing is priceless? Where the end of life is service to the global economy? And the end of education is simply to fit one for the marketplace!

What is the place of a misfit in a world governed by one rule only: That it’s what we can get for ourselves that counts, a world that does not accept that it is in our nature to do good for one another?

Many of you will recognize those worlds or will imagine that all of these descriptions characterize aspects of the world we live in. The world is hardly perfect; a misfit may be what it needs from time to time to get it on a better path. Perhaps when Buchanan spoke of preparing “misfits in the universe for the time being,” he meant that misfits entering the world today could help shape the world of tomorrow, one that would be a better fit for the imaginative, reform-minded individual.

(Spring 2017 Commencement Address this May at both campuses of St. John’s College (Annapolis and Sante Fe) by Annapolis campus President Christopher Nelson.)

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Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.