What is “conservative”?

Can I still call myself conservative?

The answer depends on your definition. Here’s one I’ve always liked: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” said the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. To which he added: “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

Conservatives used to believe in their truth. Want to “solve” poverty? All the welfare dollars in the world won’t help if two-parent families aren’t intact. Want to foster democracy abroad? It’s going to be rough going if too many voters reject the foundational concept of minority rights.

And want to preserve your own republican institutions? Then pay attention to the character of your leaders, the culture of governance and the political health of the public. It matters a lot more than lowering the top marginal income tax rate by a couple of percentage points.

This is the fatal mistake of conservatives who’ve decided the best way to deal with Trump’s personality — the lying, narcissism, bullying, bigotry, crassness, name calling, ignorance, paranoia, incompetence and pettiness — is to pretend it doesn’t matter. “Character Doesn’t Count” has become a de facto G.O.P. motto. “Virtue Doesn’t Matter” might be another.

Trump demands testimonials from his cabinet, servility from Republican politicians and worship from conservative media. To serve in this White House isn’t to be elevated to public service. It’s to be debased into toadyism, which probably explains the record-setting staff turnover of 34 percent …

Conservatives may suppose that they can pocket policy gains from a Trump administration while the stain of his person will eventually wash away. But as a (pro-Trump) friend wrote me the other day, “presidents empower cultures.” Trump is empowering a conservative political culture that celebrates everything that patriotic Americans should fear: the cult of strength, open disdain for truthfulness, violent contempt for the Fourth Estate, hostility toward high culture and other types of “elitism,” a penchant for conspiracy theories and, most dangerously, white-identity politics.

This won’t end with Trump. It may have only begun with him. And Trump’s supporters may wind up proving both sides of Moynihan’s contention: not just that culture is what matters most, but that politics can still change it — in this case, much for the worse.

(Bret Stephens, Why I’m Still a Never-Trumper)

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Spitting in the soup

That people associated with a university would invite a hateful mythmonger like Richard Spencer to campus is a tragedy; but it’s a greater tragedy that someone like Spencer is a public figure at all. That’s not something that even the best university administration can fix.

I might add that when people say that they want conservative ideas to be represented on campus and then invite Ann Coulter or Milo or Richard Spencer to speak, they have zero interest in ideas. They just want to spit in their neighbor’s soup.

(Alan Jacobs, part of his delayed reaction to the New Atlantis article I recently alluded to)

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Lossy compression

I just (when I wrote; not when this was released) finished reading two blogs and a New Atlantis article, all three related. They individually and collectively hit me so powerfully that I have scheduled a reminder to come back to them after they’ve had a chance to marinate a bit.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the blogs, that of Swarthmore’s Timothy Burke, in a delayed reaction to Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy that liberal political dispositions “are unresponsive to blasphemy or sacrilege, that liberals do not cross-wire deep emotional responses connected to disgust or repulsion to politics, do not have strong notions about the sacred and the profane as a part of their subconscious script for reading the public sphere and political events”:

My colleague and friend Ben Berger pointed out during one of our discussions that this observation seemed fundamentally wrong to him–that people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious, and that many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do …

Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.

Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.

I am not quoting that to mock those of liberal political disposition, or Timothy Burke, or Swarthmore. In fact, I pretty much share that “Trump is sacrilege” feeling. I appreciate how well Burke elaborated it.

Nor do I quote that to convince my readers that “Trump is sacrilege.” The other two things I read, both by Alan Jacobs, are on what I think it a more enduring concern, at least to me at this juncture of my life. That concern involves at least three key terms, by my parsing:

  • Information density.
  • Mythical core.
  • Lossy compression.

Stay tuned. I suspect there will be more coming on this concern, but it needs to ferment/marinate first.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got the time, I’ve given the links. The mashup of the three strikes me as challenging but not really unfamiliar or beyond the reach of an intelligent reader. But then, I may have a pretty unusual reading history that prepared me for this challenge.

Here’s what Alan Jacobs said about it:

And Wesley Hill:

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First Amendment Follies

Which is more depressing?

  1. A California Attorney General ignorant of the first amendment or contemptuous of his oath to uphold the constitution; or
  2. A group of Texas College Presidents who, presumably having deliberated carefully, apparently couldn’t find among them even one College President to scream “Wait a minute! We’re going to make asses of ourselves!” before publishing solemn nonsense that made asses of themselves?

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More lies in an age of lies

When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.

Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this.

It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.

(Peggy Noonan, concluding a column on the Netflix series “The Crown” and Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Post,” each of which lies and misleads in its own way)

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Game, set, match

Donald J. Trump presumably needs no introduction.

Jim Sciutto is, incredibly enough, CNN Chief National Security Correspondent.

John Cardillo is a Trump and #MAGA buff who has a talk show or something analogous on the net.

David Harsanyi is a Reactionary (his term) who writes for @FDRLST and @NRO.

I quote this Twitter series (to be read in reverse order if you don’t know what’s going on) because, much as I dislike Donald Trump being president, I think Harsanyi has captured the gist of what’s going on:


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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Bad Analogies

[N]o one, not the most wild-eyed critic of the principles underlying the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s, ever suggested that, if such laws were passed, they would lead to obscure Christian bakers’ being forced at the point of government bayonets to produce cakes for the celebration of homosexual weddings. (I write “principles” because the Masterpiece case is a challenge to a Colorado statute, not to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) The slope is, in fact, slippery.

We ought to think a little about how far down the slope we want to go. We ought to think a little about how far down the slope we want to go. Americans look instinctively to our Constitution and to our national political principles for guidance, and our attitude toward them is the civic version of sola scriptura. We tend to generalize when we ought to specify and sometimes to specify when we ought to generalize. The social and political condition of African Americans in the 1960s was indefensible and incompatible with our national ideals. Something needed to be done, and something was, imperfectly. But our generalizing from that has not always been intelligent or prudent or constructive. Jews often were treated shabbily in our country, and sometimes still are, but the case against Princeton’s numerus clausus system of discriminating against Jewish applicants was not the same as the case against Mississippi’s suppression of African Americans. The situation of gay Americans in 2017 is not very much like that of black Americans in 1935.

It is not the case that discrimination is discrimination is discrimination. Telling a black man that he may not work in your bank because he is black is in reality a very different thing from telling a gay couple that you’d be happy to sell them cupcakes or cookies or pecan pies but you do not bake cakes for same-sex weddings — however much the principle of the thing may seem superficially similar. If the public sphere is infinite, then the private sphere does not exist, and neither does private life. Having a bakery with doors open to the public does not make your business, contra Justice Harlan, an agent of the state. A bakery is not the Commerce Department or the local public high school.

Sure, bakery customers may travel there on public roads. But tell me: Isn’t that EPA-regulated air you’re breathing?

(Kevin D. Williamson)

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Hatchet-Job History

[I]nexcusably sloppy editorializing posing as scholarship has becoming increasingly characteristic of the conservative movement as a media phenomenon. Editorial opinions dressed up as as scholarship and then placed in book form and mass-marketed have become part of the new highbrow conservatism …

Perhaps one of the most ludicrous examples of the conservative movement’s recent attempt at being sophisticated was an exchange of equally uninformed views by talk show host Dennis Prager and Dinesh D’Souza, on the subject of the fascist worldview. The question was whether one could prove that fascism was a leftist ideology by examining the thought of Mussolini’s court philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944). Gentile defined the “fascist idea” in his political writings while serving as minister of education in fascist Italy. He was also not incidentally one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century; and in works like General Theory of the Spirit as Pure Act, adapts the thought of Hegel to his own theory of evolving national identity. It would be hard to summarize Gentile’s thought in a few pithy sentences; and, not surprisingly, the Canadian historian of philosophy H.S. Harris devotes a book of many hundreds of pages trying to explain his complex philosophical speculation.

Hey, but that’s no big deal for such priests of the GOP church as Prager and D’Souza. They zoom to the heart of Gentile’s neo-Hegelian worldview in thirty seconds and state with absolute certainty that he was a “leftist.” …

I still recall a column by [Jonah] Goldberg in which he exiled to the far left ultraconservative opponents of the French Revolution, because they didn’t believe in human rights. He then went on to compare the Catholic counterrevolutionary Joseph de Maistre to a black feminist advocate of affirmative action, because both associated human beings with the national identities into which they were born. Apparently anyone who views others in terms of their ethnic origin, no matter at what point in history, is a certified leftist. At that time I was puzzled (but am no longer) that Goldberg had no idea that political camps in 1800 were different from what they are now.

Let me close these observations by noting the obvious. There are still many respectable historical works that are produced by scholars identified, however loosely, with the American right. But there is also a plague of genuinely ridiculous writings on historical subjects coming from conservative media celebrities that surpass in their arrogant stupidity almost anything I’ve encountered in professional journals. As for people who yap about the ideologically tainted work that originate in our universities, one might hope they’d be somewhat better than those they declaim against. That’s not always the case.

(Paul Gottfried, Right-wing Celebrities Play Fast and Loose With History) I’m disappointed that Dennis Prager collaborated so recently with Dinesh D’Souza. I guess someone needs to be his friend if he’s ever to be rehabilitated, but that shouldn’t include joining him in the hucksterism to which his tragic flaws have presently consigned him.

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Speech or Religion?

I wrote several times, I’m pretty sure, that I thought the Masterpiece Cakeshop case would be argued by Jack Phillips’ attorney, and would ultimately be won, as a case about compelled artistic expression, a violation of the First Amendment’s speech clause. Free speech and compelled expression precedents are more strongly in Phillips’ favor than the current state of the law on free exercise of religion. Or so I thought.

I stand by that, but I’ll admit that the justices asked some pretty skeptical “where do we draw the line” questions about when or whether a cake is expressive, when a craft is art, and stuff like that (the last clause is my fudge factor — I’m not going back to review the transcript of argument again).

[Digression: I don’t think they’d have asked those skeptical questions had the case not implicated our newest Super-Right, the right to have everyone in every way affirm your every expression of your every sexual (and “gender”) whim. So it appears that the law of the land has another distortion factor baked into it: an LGBT distortion factor has taken root, joining the original abortion distortion factor (“no legal rule or doctrine is safe from ad hoc nullification by this Court when an occasion for its application arises in a case involving state regulation of abortion”) and a little-remarked creationist distortion factor (Creationists categorically lose cases involving science teaching—and intelligent design advocates get labeled “Creationists”).]

But I do disgress. I wrote today because someone I respect thinks, after scrutinizing the Masterpiece Cakeshop oral arguments, that the case could turn on the free exercise of religion after all.

Mark Bauerlein and Mark Movesian recently chatted about this on the First Things podcast. Bauerlein is no lawyer, but Movesian is a law prof, and he thinks Anthony Kennedy may smell blood in the water: a lack of neutrality or of general applicability in the Colorado law, which could be fatal under Employment Division v. Smith‘s new test for free exercise violations (the “when does the constitution create a religious exemption to a law” question).

The lack of neutrality (e.g., gerrymandering to target an unpopular religion) has been fatal in only one famous case since Employment Division v. Smith, to the best of my recollection: a case involving Hialeah Florida targeting the Santeria religion, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. But general applicability has been a wider problem, because, basically, religion gets an exemption if anyone gets an exemption, and our laws typically are riddled with “small business,” “Mrs. Murphy’s Boarding House” or other piddly little exemptions that someone lobbies for powerfully or that seem fair to legislators.

So here’s the problem: Colorado has, on something like three occasions, exempted cake bakers from making cakes that opposed gay rights or same-sex marriage. I assume those cakes were sought by provocateurs who, frankly, I would have dismissed as misguided and counterproductive (I actually may have so dismissed them). But by asking for a Bible-shaped cake with a Romans 1 “Clobber Passage,” the provocateurs may have turned refusal into “anti-Christian discrimination.”

Not only did those other three bakers win on the basis of dubious distinctions from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, but a couple of Colorado’s Civil Rights Commissioners slung some bigoted-sounding remarks at Jack Phillips, with which Justice Kennedy grilled Colorado’s attorney. (Pro Tip: Do not let any mean words pass your lips if Anthony Kennedy may eventually be judging your case.)

I’ve taken more time than intended hyperlinking to terms of art and cases that not all readers may know, so I’ll wrap up.

Bauerlein, the non-lawyer, was delighted to think this might be decided on free exercise of religion grounds. I disagree. I would consider it remarkable and disheartening if Jack Phillips won on “an oopsie!”—catching the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in an inconsistent application of its facially neutral and exceptionless law—because that would be a narrow decision where I’d like, the cases that have built up in this area need, and the Supreme Court normally delivers, something bigger and more definitive than “this one Colorado law was applied to Jack Phillips in an nasty and inconsistent, and therefore unconstitutional, manner.”

The country doesn’t get a lot of guidance out of that on how to behave in the future, and what guidance it does get tends toward “use some guile and maintain plausible deniability when you stick it to Christian bigots.”

But if Colorado’s “oopsie” prompts overruling of Antonin Scalia’s nadir, his new free exercise test in Employment Division v. Smith, and restoration of the status quo ante, the Wisconsin v. Yoder free exercise test, I would be stunned and very, very happy.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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Toxins and antidotes

I encountered one of this quotes before and may have shared it, but now I’ve read the whole article:

When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation. But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.

Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, let me end with a few rays of hope and some thoughts about what can be done. I began this lecture with a discussion of the fine-tuned liberal democracy, which is the hypothesis that human beings are unsuited for life in large diverse secular democracies, unless we can get certain settings finely adjusted. I think this hypothesis is true, and I have tried to show that we have stumbled into some very bad settings. I am pessimistic about our future, but let me state clearly that I have low confidence in my pessimism. It has always been wrong to bet against America, and it is probably wrong to do so now …

[I]f you want more hope, let me tell you why I think things are going to start to improve on university campuses, beginning in the fall of 2018: because as things get worse on campus, more people are beginning to stand up, and more people are searching for solutions. Some college presidents are starting to stand up. They all know they are sitting on a powder keg, and they want to defuse it. Also, they are generally liberal scholars, deeply opposed to illiberalism …

Professors are starting to stand up, too. At Heterodox Academy, we started with 25 members two years ago; now we have over 1,400, evenly balanced between left and right. We got a big surge of members after the violence at Middlebury because that was a tipping point. Professors are overwhelmingly on the left, but they are mostly liberal Left, not illiberal. My field—social psychology—for example, is quite sane. I have been raising the alarm about political imbalance and orthodoxy since 2011, and so far nothing bad has happened to me …

And most importantly, some students are beginning to stand up. At Reed College, one of the most politically orthodox schools in the country, social-justice activists had been protesting and disrupting the first-year humanities course for more than a year. They called the course an act of white supremacy because it focused on dead white authors. They said the course was traumatizing to non-white students. They brought their signs and chants into the classroom every day, making it hard for professors to teach or for students to learn. Many Reed students and professors objected, but none dared to do so publicly, lest they be called racist themselves. Finally, this fall, several Asian students stood up, criticized the protesters, and asked them to stop interfering with their education. Once these students stood up, support for the protesters collapsed. Many people had been going along out of fear, rather than conviction.

(Jonathan Haidt) This edited transcript of Haidt’s Wriston Lecture for the Manhattan Institute, delivered on November 15 has much more of worth than I have quoted, including analysis of how we got so polarized. A hint: I left the GOP in 2005, but there was handwriting on the walls ten years earlier (which I did not notice.)

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.