Clippings and Comment, 2/6/19

1

Ms. Devi publicly defended Mr. Fryer. Since then, she says she’s struggled to find research collaborators and has lost nearly every female friend at Harvard: “Suddenly, I would find that my emails were going unanswered. People would avert their gaze from me walking down the hall. There was this culture of guilty until proven innocent and, if you’re defending him, guilt by association.”

Ms. Devi adds that every one of her remaining friends has advised her not to defend Mr. Fryer. One told her that “at a place like this, which is extremely progressive, it will only have a cost—it will have no benefit.” Ms. Devi says she knows of others who also wanted to defend Mr. Fryer but “don’t want to go against the social-media mob.”

An immigrant from India, Ms. Devi fears her outspokenness will limit her job prospects in the U.S. “It’s very, very high-risk to identify myself and defend an accused person,” Ms. Devi says. “Everyone protects the identity of the accuser. She gets to hide under the mask of anonymity, and we have to destroy our futures.”

Jillian Kay Melchior, Title IX’s Witness Intimidation, Wall Street Journal.

This is the kind of toxic culture against which Betsy DeVos’s regulatory legal changes are powerless.

2

It’s nice to be Trump. His bragging is unencumbered by his past. His self-satisfaction crowds out any self-examination. What he needs isn’t a fact check. It’s a reality check, because his worst fictions aren’t statistical. They’re spiritual.

The State of the Union address was a herky-jerky testament to that. I say herky-jerky because it was six or eight or maybe 10 speeches in one, caroming without warning from a plea for unity to a tirade about the border; from some boast about American glory under Trump to some reverie about American glory before Trump (yes, it existed!); from a hurried legislative wish list to a final stretch of ersatz poetry that read like lines from a batch of defective or remaindered Hallmark cards. As much as Trump needed modesty, his paragraphs needed transitions.

“Don’t sit yet,” he told them when he feared that they would end their celebration too soon, before his next great pronouncement. “You’re going to like this.”

Even the newly, briefly, falsely sensitive version of Trump couldn’t lose his bossy streak — or stop hungering for, and predicting, the next round of applause.

Frank Bruni.

3

I’m tempted to write “Democrats are reduced to pointless obstructionism,” but “obstructionism” implies the ability to obstruct. Senate Democrats lack that ability, having done away with the filibuster for lower-court judicial nominations when they were in control. Thus they are reduced even further, to “pointless mudslinging.”

Yet “pointless” doesn’t mean “harmless.” The Democratic senators’ juvenile tactics will not stop Rao’s confirmation, but they are lowering the already debased national discourse.

Rao is now 45 years old, solidly middle-aged. To reach middle age, one must first pass through an earlier stage of simultaneously knowing very little about the world while believing oneself to understand it completely. Youthful folly is particularly unfortunate in budding writers, who inevitably commit their stupidity to the page. If they write for publication — rather than privately composing the worst novel ever written in the English language, as I did at that age — their silliness will linger for posterity to sample.

… [F]rankly, Rao’s college writing wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. It wasn’t even as bad as I expected from early media coverage.

Megan McArdle

4

[F]rom the moment he announced his run for the presidency, I believed that Trump was intellectually, temperamentally, and psychologically unfit to be president. Indeed, I warned the GOP about Trump back in 2011, when I wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal decrying his claim that Barack Obama was not born in America. From time to time, people emerge who are peddlers of paranoia and who violate unwritten codes that are vital to a self-governing society, I wrote, adding, “They delight in making our public discourse more childish and freakish, focusing attention on absurdities rather than substantive issues, and stirring up mistrust among citizens. When they do, those they claim to represent should speak out forcefully against them.”

Today I see the Republican Party through the clarifying prism of Donald Trump, who consistently appealed to the ugliest instincts and attitudes of the GOP base—in 2011, when he entered the political stage by promoting a racist conspiracy theory, and in 2016, when he won the GOP nomination. He’s done the same time and time again during his presidency—his attacks on the intelligence of black politicians, black journalists, and black athletes; his response to the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia; and his closing argument during the midterm elections, when he retweeted a racist ad that even Fox News would not run.

Peter Wehner, on why he left the GOP and what he has gained thereby.

Apart from my having left the party earlier than Wehner, he captures my feelings very well.

5

What is the statute of limitations for being a jerk-goofball-hellraiser? asks Kathleen Parker of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam:

In 1983, just before winning a third term as Louisiana’s governor, Edwin Edwards famously said that the only way he could lose the race was “if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

Presumably, no one checked his yearbook.

Parker must have tenure, a large 401k, and a looming retirement, because it is now forbidden, on pain of professional death, to forgive youth and foolishness.

6

Had you heard about Liam Neeson making terrible, racist comments? Did your source bother quoting what he actually said, in context, or was your source someone like the preening Peacock Piers Morgan (“so full of shit his breath makes acid rain,” as Bruce Cockburn sang of someone else), who tells you what to think before he tells you what Neeson said?

We have created a culture that despises repentance, and condemns grace.

If you can’t multiply examples of that during the past week, you weren’t paying attention.

7

Of late, I’ve found a term for my political temperament: “trimmer” (second listed meaning). So I am today declaring myself a centrist non-candidate for POTUS. The toxicity of Left and Right, sampled above, have become intolerable.

8

My Church is the best Church because it never interferes with a man’s politics or his religion.

Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, via John Senior, The Death of Christian Culture, page 136.

Uncle Toby is Andrew Cuomo’s patron saint.

9

Because I find his droning, vulgar cadences intolerable, I did not listen to even to that portion of the President’s State of the Union address that may have been continuing as I left a musical rehearsal.

But it sounds as if I may have missed something even worse than the usual vulgarity: I may have missed a scripted approximation of normalcy, which would make the return to vulgar reality even more agonizing.

I’m too old for roller coasters, even if they’re just emotional.

10

A Canadian cryptocurrency exchange says about $140 million worth of customers’ holdings are stuck in an electronic vault because the company’s founder, and sole employee, died without sharing the password.

But two independent researchers say publicly available transaction records associated with QuadrigaCX suggest the money may be gone, not trapped.

They say it appears Quadriga transferred customer funds to other cryptocurrency exchanges, although it isn’t clear what might have happened to the money from there.

Paul Vigna, Wall Street Journal.

My avoidance of cryptocurrencies is vindicated.

11

In a reflection on the Nashville Statement written a few years ago, I wrote:

Like me, Justin grew up Southern Baptist. Sometimes, someone will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. However, the question actually rests on a misunderstanding. I did not “hold onto” the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage.

When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with. Many of his arguments are modified versions of the arguments which I heard to rationalize divorce and contraception in the Southern Baptist congregation I grew up in.

And because of the obvious prejudice of so many conservative Christians toward gay people, it’s easy for him to dismiss conservative exegesis as Pharisaical legalism.

You might say that I “backed” my way into the Catholic Church,first by recognizing the link between accepting contraception and accepting same-sex marriage, and only later recognizing the flaws of the “slow motion sexual revolutionaries” I grew up with in the Southern Baptist Church.

Ron Belgau. This “alternate universe” argument, where one says “If I believed X, I would eventually come to believe Y,” is one that I have made, if only when arguing with myself about what I would believe today had I remained in the Christian Reformed Church.

12

Oh, how we miss the trolley problem .

There’s a runaway trolley plunging toward a widow and five orphans, but if you pull the lever to divert it, you’ll hit Elon Musk. Which do you choose?

This is a problem?!. Quick! Where’s that lever?!

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Clippings from 1/27/19

1

It just beggars belief that the same liberals who fret about “micro-aggressions” for 20-somethings were able to see 16-year-olds absorbing the worst racist garbage from religious bigots … and then express the desire to punch the kids in the face.

Our mainstream press has been poisoned by tribalism. My own trust in it is eroding. I’m far from the only one.

What was so depressing to me about the Covington incident was how so many liberals felt comfortable taking a random teenager and, purely because of his race and gender, projected onto him all their resentments and hatred of “white men” in general.

This is the abyss of hate versus hate, tribe versus tribe. This is a moment when we can look at ourselves in the mirror of social media and see what we have become. Liberal democracy is being dismantled before our eyes — by all of us. This process is greater than one president. It is bottom-up as well as top-down. Tyranny, as Damon Linker reminded us this week, is not just political but psychological, and the tyrannical impulse, ratcheted up by social media, is in all of us. It infects the soul of the entire body politic. It destroys good people. It slowly strangles liberal democracy. This is the ongoing extinction level event.

Andrew Sullivan

2

That so much of the progressive-media discourse on the Covington episode consisted of the emotional revisitation of petty (and some unpetty) childhood traumas has given the whole project a Freudian odor, and, like the work of Sigmund Freud himself, it consists largely of intellectual fraud bolstered by manufactured or distorted evidence — claims of fact that are said to speak to a higher metaphysical truth no matter how frequently and how thoroughly they are debunked as claims of fact.

In the Covington fiasco, the very American progressives who boast so tirelessly and tediously that they are “for the People” have reclaimed an ancient prerogative of aristocracy: the whipping boy.

Kevin D. Williamson

3

One of the unexpected and very pleasant comments I heard over the weekend was on the excellent Left, Right & Center podcast, and I believe from Josh Barro, the podcast moderator (who never tires of the “full disclosure” that his “husband’s” emails were among those leaked by Wikileaks in the 2016 election runup). It went like this (not a direct quote):

Quite recently, we excused an inquisition into the decades-old high school acts of one Brett Kavanaugh. It was carefully explained that the justification was that his acts back then, if they were as alleged by Christine Blasey Ford, were seriously criminal, and he was seeking one of the highest offices in the land, with essentially life tenure.

There is no justification remotely approaching this for the inquisition against the Covington Catholic lads.

Thank you, Josh.

4

[Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo] recalled an exchange with college students not long ago. One of them said: “I get who you are. You’re one of those spineless centrists.”

“And I was like, ‘Excuse me?’,” she said. “It takes a lot of spine to be a centrist in America today. You get whacked from the left and whacked from the right. That’s my life. I get whacked.”

Frank Bruni

5

[T]here are several difficulties with the current briefs for impeachment, which suffice for now to keep a Pence presidency out of reach.

The first is the gulf between the democracy-subverting powers that the briefs ascribe to Trump and the actual extent of his influence …

Much of the case for “trampling” … is a case against Trump’s rhetoric. And one can acknowledge that rhetoric’s evils while doubting that the ranting of a president so hemmed in, unpopular and weak is meaningfully threatening the Constitution.

… [T]he second problem with the case for impeachment … might be summed up in a line from a poem that Trump often quoted in 2016: You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in. … [L]ittle about his rhetorical excess, his penchant for lies and insults or the seaminess of his courtiers was hidden from voters on the campaign trail in 2016, in an election that by the Constitution’s standards Trump legitimately won.

[Yoni] Appelbaum … analogizes Trump’s race-baiting to Andrew Johnson’s efforts to impede Reconstruction in the late-1860s South. But when he was impeached, Johnson was literally using his veto to abet the possible restoration of white supremacy. Whereas Trump is conspicuously losing a fight over some modest border fencing, and his last race-inflected policy move was … a criminal justice reform supported by many African-Americans. The president may be a bigot, but the policy stakes do not remotely resemble 1868.

Ross Douthat, 1/27/19 (emphasis added).

Take heed of this. Much as I detest Trump, I think all three points are valid, and the second one worries me most.

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Clippings 1/6/19

1

My admittedly unscientific sample of a dozen Federalists’ personal stories — backed up by political scientists’ more systematic research into the question — suggests that each individual Federalist is akin to an excited synapse in a sprawling hive mind with no one actually in charge.

The society itself lobbies for no policies; it never signs amicus briefs or represents clients in cases. No one at Federalist Society headquarters in Washington dictated Barnett’s moves or told him how to advocate for what positions. It’s just that at a few gatherings made possible by the Federalist Society that Barnett happened to attend, synapses fired, a corner of the hive mind engaged, and Barnett took it from there. Multiply that chemistry tens of thousands of times over the past 36 years and you have the Federalist Society’s true source of power.

David Montgomery, Conquerors of the Courts

2

It’s clear why it’s disturbing that a teenager amputates his penis. It is less clear why it is not disturbing, but in fact a wonderful thing, that a surgeon amputates a healthy teenager’s penis. In the first case, it’s a sign of mental illness; in the second case, it’s “gender confirmation.”

Rod Dreher

3

This is the dumbest publishing platform on the web.

Text.fyi (H/T Alan Jacobs)

4

Trump’s Terrible Record on Property Rights. That a sleazy land developer should think stealing from widows and orphans is a great idea comes as no surprise.

5

“I realize that homosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is,” he said, “but then, of course, heterosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is, too. And being a man is a serious problem and being a woman is, too. Lots of things are problems.”

Robert Gottlieb, quoting Artist/Illustrator Edward Gorey in a review of Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey. The story caught my attention because of a 1973 photo of Gorey, and I’m glad it did. A very unusual man, whose opening art on Masterpiece Theater I did remember.

6

Love or hate him (or anything in between), no reasonable person can deny that Trump is a textbook example of narcissistic personality disorder. Reading the list of symptoms on the Mayo Clinic’s website is like scrolling through the president’s Twitter: “Require constant, excessive admiration,” “exaggerate achievements and talents,” “be preoccupied with . . . brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate,” “monopolize conversations and belittle . . . people,” “expect special favors and unquestioning compliance,” “have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.”

David VonDrehle

7

Auden once wrote, “The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to auricular confession: Be brief, be blunt, be gone. The scrupuland is a nasty specimen.” I would amend that to say that the scrupuland — the overly scrupulous person — is a tired specimen. Nothing is more exhausting than ceaseless self-examination, self-reflection, self-criticism.

Alan Jacobs, Scruples

8

Unitarianism—that urbane form of the Arian heresy that denies the divinity of Christ, the existence of the Holy Spirit, and the need for sacraments and liturgy … A turn-of-the-century, moralistic, therapeutic, Deism, it espoused a rationalistic religion in which Jesus Christ was a good moral teacher and the Christian story provided a robust ethic of good works, good manners, good hygiene, good contacts, and respectability.

Dwight Longenecker, T.S. Eliot’s Magical Journey

My impression of our local Unitarian-Universalist Church, sharpened by weekly rehearsals of éy chamber choir as its guests, is that it has lost much of that cachet, though it is striving to be a welcoming community — universally welcoming, of course.

9

If we are stressed, we can talk ourselves into believing we are relaxed, but our jaw may be tight and our brow heavy. In the same way we sometimes mistake ‘correct doctrine’ for love, and wonder why we feel so angry when our doctrines are attacked. In the image, the little figures are ‘every man’ and ‘every woman’. They are lost in the present moment, and the only government is the beauty of the silent tree around which, with all their hearts, they dance.

Artist/Illustrator Linda Richardson, as part of commentary on an illustration for poet Malcolm Guite’s Waiting for the Word.

10

Conde Nast has tried slipping a morality clause into contract with writers:

granting Condé Nast, the New Yorker’s corporate overlord, “sole authority” to terminate writers’ contracts in the event they become the focus of a social-media mob, “the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals.” The morality clauses are now regular features of writers’ contracts at Condé Nast.

… Two things are almost always misunderstood about these campaigns: One is that the Twitter mobs are mostly camouflage for internal corporate politics — ABC is not making multi-million-dollar programming decisions based on the tweets of Caitlyn the Rage-Monkey on Twitter, but public outcries can provide plausible pretexts to internal plotters. Second, the institutions themselves — corporations, publications, government agencies — are the real target, not the writers or other contributors. The point of the Bret Stephens mob wasn’t to silence Bret Stephens, who has any number of places he can publish that will give him an audience comparable in size and prestige to that of the New York Times; the point of the Bret Stephens mob was for status-anxious and resentful nobodies to get a momentary jolt out of telling the New York Times “Dance, monkey!” and seeing its editors begin to tap their feet and sway.

One wonders what kind of magazine writer is not involved in public disputes, and what use he could be.

Kevin D. Williamson at National Review.

I’m pleased to report that Masha Gessen, who gives Camille Paglia a run for the heterodox money, declined to sign. Look for her soon in pages other than Condé Nasté.

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How big is Trump’s amygdala?

It has been a long time since I tried to write a book review, and I’m not sure I ever really knew how.

New Year’s Eve’s eve, I undertook to read Frank Buckley’s The Republican Workers Party, which my son thoughtfully bought for me, intuiting that I might like it because it was my wish list.

Clever lad. Good amygdala.

I wanted to read it because Buckley (no known relation to William F.) is a smart guy, not an elected hack, and I thought I might gain more insight into how Trump got elected, and why “it was just what we needed,” as the subtitle has it.

I finished it the next day, mission accomplished.

The book struck me as uneven, and as mostly a platform for Buckley to advance his pet theories, with Trump as a convenient if implausible icon of his impending triumph.

Nevertheless, I was impressed by a couple of what I considered key insights:

First, what everyone knows but tends to forget as Trump makes his own oafishness so prominent: Trump was not Hillary Clinton.

I thought that Hillary Clinton was vastly more mean-spirited and less principled than Obama, and more vindictive than Richard Nixon; that as president she would happily use all the tools at her disposal to silence dissent, and that the progressive media would cheer her on as she did so.

Page 10. That is exactly right. Had my state been in play, I feared I would need to vote for the corrupt but stable Hillary, with exactly such consequences when she won (as she surely would, right?).

The social conservative awakening that helped elect Trump came when voters realize that the liberal agenda amounted to something more than a shield to protect sexual minorities. It was also a sword to be used against social conservatives. The trump voters might have grumbled about the 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell decision that recognized the right to same-sex marriage. But that didn’t pick anyone’s pocket and no great political protest followed. It was a different story when homosexual activists employed there newly one right to put religious believers out of business.

Page 57 (italics added). Here, I hope he’s right. We could really use a backlash in this area, and Hillary would have resisted that backlash.

In our culture wars, in Hillary’s condemnation of the deplorables, the religious voter experience to reverse Sally Fields moment: “You dislike me! You really dislike me!“

Page 58. Again, pitch perfect. I took some solace in the perception after the election that at least Trump did not hate people like me, and that he had enough supporters of a sort for which he likely would mistake me, that I would remain Not A Target in a Trump regime. So far, so good on that.

While Hillary Clinton ignored Catholics, Trump went out of his way to court them. It didn’t happen overnight. Early in the campaign he picked a stupid quarrel with Pope Francis. But by the end he was persuaded to grant a lengthy interview to the Catholic EWTN television network and to tweet his happiness at the canonization of mother Theresa. The mainstream media didn’t notice any of this, but Catholics dead. They were seven-plus for Trump, and white Catholics were +23 for him, providing him with the winning margin in the crucial rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. And that was the election.

Add a dinner party, I told all this to a New York Times reporter. “What’s EWTN?” he asked me.

Page 59. Insularity is not a flyover country exclusive. Or as Jonathan Haidt has noted, conservatives grok liberals better than vice-versa.

Second, social immobility has become a real problem. Chapter 6, Where Did the Dream Go?, focuses on our loss of social mobility in the United States, both absolute and relative to other nations. Canada vastly outstrips us in social mobility, and people will suffer a lot of deprivation stoically until they think their children will have it no better.

Immobility matters more to us than inequality. Only three things will last to the end of time, God‘s promise to Abraham; the Church; and the selfish gene.

P 44. Very nice line.

The American dream isn’t dead; it just migrated to Canada, and the other countries that are more mobile than us. In what we wrongly take to be the land of opportunity, a bicoastal aristocracy, smug, self congratulatory and disdainful of the Trump deplorables in the heartland, has cleaved itself off. Because of this we are living in what Marxists call an objectively revolutionary society.

Page 45. This is a severe problem, even if putative billionaire Trump, who got his money by a mixture of gift, inheritance and tax fraud, is a dubious avatar of renewed social mobility.

Third, in chapter 8, Nationalism, the author compares the Republican Workers Party to the Christian Democrats of Europe. If I could buy that, it could be very welcome news, and I sort of half buy it.

Before you laugh derisively, remember that he’s describing the Republican Workers Party, not your father’s Republican party, and that we’re in the midst of a big political realignment. Allow me—a notional member (my state doesn’t register party affiliation) of the American Solidarity Party, which is pretty explicitly Christian Democrat—at least to be hopeful.

On nationalism versus “white nationalism,” a nice quip at page 68:

There isn’t much room for white nationalism in American culture. For alongside baseball and apple pie, it includes Langston Hughes and Amy Tan, Tex-Mex food and Norah Jones. You can be an American if you don’t enjoy them, but you might be a wee bit more American if you do.

Fourth, Chapter 9, How to Bring Back Our Mojo, includes an discussion of the importance of school choice, which Trump supposedly made central to his campaign. I don’t recall that and I haven’t seen Betsy DeVos do anything about it.

There will be many roadblocks and lawsuits if DeVos tries to reform primary and secondary education, and I’m not sure how well we (as opposed to nations who’ve long enjoyed school choice) would execute school choice after having a substantial monopoly by government schools for so long.

But the educational statistics are horrible. Let’s just say that America is #1 only in unearned self-esteem, and in the teens or lower far too often. And the excuses are lamer than Buckley at his lamest.

Speaking of which, Chapter 9 is also one of Buckley’s most deeply uncharitable chapters, imputing to the New Class (his derisive term) all kinds of nasty, self-serving motives, reminding me of the John Birchers who thought that every misstep was ipso facto part of a conscious Communist conspiracy. He makes many solid points about educational choice and about the folly of our immigration laws, but to me they were sullied by those sleazy and demagogic imputations.

Shame on him. The points could have stood without creepy theories about his ideological adversaries, and probably would have been more forceful.

Fifth, Chapter 11, Draining the Swamp, includes a proposal for a truly radical slashing away at regulations, through appointment of a Commission to eliminate duplicate or anti-competitive regulations, cutting the Code of Federal Regulations by something more than 50% (I think it was closer to 90%). He cites a Napoleonic project along those lines.

Though this vastly ambitious idea has some appeal, I don’t trust any administration to do it without checks, even if the APA itself might be too cumbersome a check. Verdict: not remotely ready for Prime Time.

Chapter 11 also includes the author’s most disingenuous point, among several, that taxing large college endowments “would serve to focus them on their educational mission.” Surely he knows better, and after his book went to press, it emerged that this proposal, now enacted, will cause collateral damage to religious friends of the administration. Insofar as they supported the tax as a way to punish liberal educational foundations, I’m feelin’ the schadenfreude burn.

Buckley is not entirely unaware of Trump’s shortcomings, and takes at least token notice of a few:

At the White House, we’ve been treated to a succession of feckless amateurs, flaming egomaniacs and shady hustlers.

Page 4.

Every time things have turned his way, Trump has made an equal and opposite gaffe. Firmness and prudence, energy and tact, were not given to him in equal measure, and the man who wrote The Art of the Deal now finds himself obliged to deal with people who can scarcely hide their contempt for him.

Page 4.

In the passage that I thought was most counterproductive to the author’s aims, he discusses a theory that the amygdala correlates to empathy. He seems to assume that Donald Trump is empathetic, but he left me wondering:

  • How big is Trump’s amygdala?
  • What’s his cunning/empathy ratio?

At its worst, which worst spanned several chapters, Buckley’s “argument” reminded me of the opening anecdote in Tucker Carlson‘s early Politico piece about Trump:

About 15 years ago, I said something nasty on CNN about Donald Trump’s hair. I can’t now remember the context, assuming there was one.

In any case, Trump saw it and left a message the next day. “It’s true you have better hair than I do,” Trump said matter-of-factly. “But I get more pussy than you do.” Click.

At the time, I’d never met Trump and I remember feeling amused but also surprised he’d say something like that. Now the pattern seems entirely familiar. The message had all the hallmarks of a Trump attack: shocking, vulgar and indisputably true.

Trump’s response wasn’t much beneath Carlson’s original snarky remark. But “We won, so suck it up” (i.e., “I get more pussy than you do”), even if tacit, really isn’t really an satisfactory response to many (or most) of the criticisms of Trump.

Yet that was Buckley’s tone, I thought, as he made a number of implausible and pro forma arguments about how Trump does this or intends that. See, for instance, “amygdala,” above.

Verdict: Worth reading, especially if you are still baffled and disoriented about how Trump could happen, but keep your critical thinking at about Defcon 2.

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Can’t get away from it

I wasn’t going to pass this along, but after the arrest of the bombing suspect in Florida, I heard our President bloviating, and the feelings came rushing back.

The most fundamental moral principle in the universe may well be: “You break it, you buy it.” But a close second is: You can’t call women cruel and misogynist names, defame ethnic groups, discriminate based on religion, accuse opponents of being “un-American” and “treasonous,” excuse and encourage violence by your supporters, threaten political rivals with prison, tear migrant children from the arms of parents and then credibly call for national “unity” when it is politically useful.

This is the horrible reality of our political moment. The president of the United States says something entirely presidential — “We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony” — and it did nothing more than add another layer to his lies. More specifically, President Trump wants Americans to join him in a fake reality — to prove their loyalty by taking outlandish hypocrisy at face value. It is like the sophomoric entrance ritual to some secret society. Eat this cow eye and pig intestine, and we will be bound forever by our willingness to do asinine things on command. Trump’s call for national unity is the functional equivalent of an offal banquet.

It would be different if Trump had accompanied his words of reconciliation with any sense of remorse. But this is a difficult thing for a narcissist to fake (though some have that talent). I come from a religious tradition where anything can be forgiven — but only if repentance involves demonstrated sincerity. Trump could not maintain his ruse of reconciliation for 15 seconds. He used his call for unity to blame the news media for hostility and negativity. This is like a leper blaming the mirror for his sores.

Michael Gerson (emphasis added).

Everybody, I think, knows this is true, but what do I know? I do not understand many of my countrymen any more. Maybe some of them really believe that the extreme snarkiness toward Trump of the New York Times, Washington Post and (slightly less) National Public Radio spontaneously combusted, and that I shouldn’t believe my lyin’ eyes telling me the Trump tossed matches almost every day.

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Pandering after relevance is a sure way to destroy the integrity of the church. (Attributed to Eugene Peterson by Mark Galli)

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Populism and corruption

Last week I couldn’t shake Andrew Sullivan’s introduction: “We always knew this would happen — that the rule of law and Trump would at some point be unable to coexist.”

This week, I can’t shake Alan Jacobs:

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry. Moreover, when people see the sheer size of the institutions at which they’re so angry, they despair of any real change happening, and are content with listening to leaders who channel their own frustration.

General contempt for our institutions, government and church alike, makes them too weak to enforce their norms, which first enables corruption — the kind of corruption American Catholic bishops and members of the Congress of the United States are guilty of — and then produces populist figures who appear to want to undo that corruption. But the institutions are too weak to control the leaders either, so those leaders are empowered to do more or less whatever they want to do. This is the case with Trump, who will surely last at least until the 2020 election, and also, I think, with Francis, who will probably last until he dies or chooses like his predecessor to resign.

Moreover, since neither Trump nor Francis is interested in doing the work needed to repair their corrupt institutions — they don’t even have any incentive to do so: the ongoing presence of “swamps” is what lends them such legitimacy as they possessall the products and enablers of corruption are safe. This is why the American bishops who spent decades enabling and hiding sexual abuse are probably feeling pretty good about their prospects right now.

(Bold added, italics in original) I have read so many Catholics in this dreadful hour asking “Lord, where shall we go?” — specifically about the longing for a valid Eucharist, ex opere operato — that I sense another facet of why Francis has little incentive for repairing what’s broken.

Jacobs’ P.S. is an interesting speculation, too.

We’re conditioned to think of populist autocrats as reactionary conservatives, aren’t we? But remember that Trump was widely (and accurately in my opinion) excoriated as “no conservative” or things along those lines, and Pope Francis has been hailed as a “breath of fresh air” and such, suggesting a reformer of a stale and conservative institution.

I once read (sadly, I think around and of the Roman Church’s “long lent” the last time sexual abuse was in the spotlight) that sociology defines “corruption” along the lines of “lacking resources for self-correction.” It takes someone or something from outside to fix things.

Peter Beinart thinks he discerns a different, semi-fascist meaning of “corruption” at work among the President’s supporters, citing Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley:

Corruption, to the fascist politician … is really about the corruption of purity rather than of the law. Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of the traditional order.

According to that school of “corruption,” I guess Trump is supposed to be America’s restorer of the traditional order, Pope Francis the Vatican’s bringer of a new, better order. The two construals of “corrupt” converge.

That, I guess, brings us back to Alan Jacobs sense that neither is going anywhere.

(This all feels a little bit half-baked and inelegantly written even to me, but it’s the best I can do on a notion (insight?) that came to me and has already exceeded any reasonable time budget for writing it down.)

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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

Follow me on Micro.blog Follow me on Micro.blog, too, where I blog tweet-like shorter items and … well, it’s evolving. Or, if you prefer, those micro.blog items also appear now at microblog.intellectualoid.com.

Monday Potpourri, 8/27/18

1

I tend to think of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (which I’ve never finished reading) as all about the evils of artificial contraception. That’s a blind spot.

Carl Trueman points to its prediction of the moral and social chaos sexual revolution would leave in its wake, and to contemporaneous commentary by Dietrich von Hildebrand that entails “a moving account of human love and a critique of a society that reduces love to sex and sentiment.”

In this volume, von Hildebrand clearly draws upon earlier arguments from his 1927 book In Defense of Purity: Love is ecstatic and joyful, transcending rational analysis. Von Hildebrand’s key text is Song of Songs, the biblical poem that captures the mystery, power, longing, and exuberance of erotic love. Much conservative Protestant writing on marriage typically neglects the Song for a prosaic, patriarchal focus on male authority and female submission. Those tempted by such a drab view of love ought to read von Hildebrand, for whom passion, mystery, and ecstasy all play their biblical parts.

Still, the part of Humanae Vitae that leaves me leery is the insistence that every marital act instantiate both the unitive and procreative purposes of sex. I’m willing to admit mistakes in how I’ve lived my life (my blogs are not my confessional, but I’ll not deny here what I confess there), but I’m not conscience-wracked — even now, when I know so much more about the Christian tradition on contraception than I knew then — that my wife and I tooks steps to prevent pregnancy during our first year of marriage so she could complete her college degree.

Granted, the same contraceptive technologies, by Supreme Court decisions of half a century or so ago, must be available to fornicators and adulterers as well as married couples, but to put it in reductionist terms that the encyclical presumably avoids, is delaying or spacing pregnancy in marriage a slippery slope to all the evils of the sexual revolution?

Apart from the possibility that I’ve thought more about that than most people, my response lacks any authority, but here goes: that’s not my lived experience.

2

Alan Jacobs, who doesn’t write all that much about matters political, musing on two heads of state, the U.S. and the Vatican:

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry.

He’s not expecting either The Donald or Pope Francis to be “forced out” or to change course.

So why do we get the vapors so badly when news breaks?

The big social-media companies function as what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia, and the result is that we lack temporal bandwidth. Unless we work hard to cultivate that temporal bandwidth, we won’t have the “personal density” to resist the amnesia-producing forces that make us think that whatever happens today is more important than anything that has ever happened.

Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump …

[T]he greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.

Alan Jacobs again, elsewhere. Do read it all. There’s a payoff.

3

Jeffrey Bilbro, Learning to Distinguish between Demonic and Redemptive Technologies, at Front Porch Republic responds to a Christianity Today essay that tends to reduces Agribiz to “genetic seed modification and GPS-guided harvesters,” ignoring assaults with on crops and earthy by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Bilbro’s most important contribution, it seems to me, is a not-too-vicious debunking of what the CT author seems to think is the only alternative to Agribiz in the manner Monsanto pursues, and some allusive hints we may just be cruising gradually toward sudden calamity.

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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

Follow me on Micro.blog Follow me on Micro.blog, too, where I blog tweet-like shorter items and … well, it’s evolving. Or, if you prefer, those micro.blog items also appear now at microblog.intellectualoid.com.

One year

On the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Washington Post opinion page featured Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, half of a journalism power couple, announcing that, and why, she now supports him.

That was interesting enough in its own right, but at the bottom of the story, some further links appeared:

  1. The 10 best things Trump has done in his first year in office
  2. The 10 worst things Trump has done in his first year in office
  3. Erik Wemple: New York Times crowdsources the case for Trump, embarrasses pundit class

That last one links to here and makes a telling observation about why ordinary people and Never Trumpers can articulate what good Trump may have done more effectively than his closest confidants can:

Such individuals have an advantage over the professional class of Trump supporters, in that anyone in Trump’s orbit knows better than to cede any ground, to admit any fault, in defense of Trump. Should they do so, they’ll lose critical Trump-sycophancy points.

Then he gives an example of how the sycophants come off as dissembling geldings.

Yesterday, I called Trump a train wreck of a human being, and I stand by that. What profiteth it a man if he gain the world but lose his soul? I would not trade places with him. Not for $3 billion (if that’s a real assessment of his wealth); not for Melania, Stormy Daniels or all the other women; not for the Presidency of the United States.

(Yes, I know: “Judge not lest ye be judged.” But II Thessalonians 3:13-15 and Ezekiel 33:8 too.)

But his failure at the most important thing doesn’t mean he’s failed at everything. Read and judge for yourself.

UPDATES:

I wonder if Pastor Robert Jeffress, who described himself to The Atlantic on 10/28/17 as the president’s “most vocal and visible evangelical spokesman,” would still stand by this remark he made in that same interview:

“I do think President Trump is a positive role model for children.  Specifically, I would be happy for my children (and now, my coming grandchildren) to emulate his work ethic, leadership skills, and patriotism.”

(Rod Dreher) It is hard for me to imagine that the man who considered Trump a positive role model is practicing the same religion I try to practice.

Second change was adding the Ezekiel citation, above — which I wasn’t going to mention by itself.

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“While saints are engaged in introspection, burly sinners run the world.” (John Dewey) Be a saint anyway.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Blessing or Curse?

I almost didn’t click the New York Times Opinion headline “Is Trump a Blessing or Curse for Religious Conservatives?” But since it was by “OpEd Contributors” rather than the Editorial Board (from which I would have expected disingenuous concern trolling had they adopted such a headline), I clicked, and found Ross Douthat, a Never-Trumper, interviewing Never-Trumper David French (Evangelical/Calvinist) and Trump Supporter John Zmirak (a Crisis Magazine type Catholic). It is outstanding and well worth using one of your free looks at New York Times pieces should you not be a subscriber.

The views of French and Zmirak are starkly opposed to one another, but the disagreement remains polite. Zmirak (whose articles at Crisis were sometimes off-putting when I followed Crisis) skillfully and unexpectedly pushes some of my buttons:

Were Christians scandalized by the spectacle of George W. Bush leaving Iraqi Christians to face jihadi violence? They should have been. It was far worse than anything Trump has done. I must confess that I am deeply embittered by the callousness that George W. Bush displayed toward the lives and liberties of religious minorities in Iraq — when as U.S. commander in chief, he had essentially absolute power over that occupied country. Of about one million Christians, some 900,000 were ethnically cleansed, most of them while our troops still occupied the country. I can put up with Donald Trump’s old Howard Stern tapes all day long, compared with that.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I was scandalized. And embittered. That is closely related to why I declared my break with the GOP, and why Ted Cruz turned my stomach and earned my hostility with his calculated provocation of folks at an In Defense of Christians conference.

Zmirak almost had me with the seductive “skeptical prudence” until French weighed back in:

Douthat: So when we see polls showing a wild swing between the 1990s and the present in the share of evangelicals who think character matters in a politician, John, you think evangelicals are actually coming around to a more sensible view than they held in the Clinton era?

Zmirak: Yes. Just as evangelicals are coming around to using Natural Law (philosophical) arguments — rather than biblical proof-texts for their political positions, I think they are moving closer to the skeptical prudence that always marked Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican political thinking. Read what the Family Research Council, or National Organization for Marriage, publish on social issues. They’re not thumping the Bible. They’re citing Cicero and Aristotle.

French: I’m sorry, but the transformation of the evangelical public from the American segment most willing to hold leaders to a high moral standard to the segment now least likely smacks of pure, primitive partisanship, not high theological principle. Evangelicals aren’t coming around to using Natural Law at all. It’s pure instrumentalism. They’ve made an alliance of convenience. They haven’t made some sort of thoughtful intellectual shift.

The interview goes beyond political ramifications and also discusses such things as how Trump relates to the surge of “nones.” There, too, there’s a point-counterpoint that is skillful and make some sorting out and critical analysis necessary to decide.

Here’s my sorting: Zmirak is riding an a wave of kept promises by Trump. I consider that wave welcome, but entirely unexpected.

Before November 8, 2016, I had no reason to expect Trump, a man of extraordinarily base character and a world-class bullshitter, to keep a single promise to Christian supporters. All I felt fairly confident of was that on religious freedom, his fickleness would be preferable to Hillary’s hostility to orthodox Christians who want to live openly as such. But that one issue was not sufficient to outweigh what has proven to be epic narcissism (I knew it was severe narcissism, possibly sociopathy, but events have proven it worse than I feared) that drives him to irrational and counter-productive behavior.

Zmirak has at least one more notable comment:

I have this from pastors who met with Trump for many hours: He genuinely listens to them. They’re the kind of people most playboys from Queens never encounter. He connected with some of them personally. He saw their concern for his soul. And he took and takes their concerns seriously.

Trump sees that the church is a big part of what made America great, and he sees that the state persecution that President Obama began hurts the country. I hope that he sees more, sees Christ as his savior. But in his role as Caesar, protecting our rights is quite enough.

If I had known this from credible sources before the election, it would have impressed me somewhat that narcissist Trump is actually capable of listening for longer than it takes to compose a Tweet. But such was the sycophancy on display from Trump-friendly pastors that it would have been hard to persuade me that such a report was credible.

So in the end, though I’m closer kin to Zmirak religiously than to French, I’m with the latter, for reasons this can serve to summarize:

I belong to the camp of Christians who are grateful when Trump makes good decisions but also quite mindful that our political witness is inseparable from our Christian witness. Thus, we have no option but to condemn his worst impulses and work to counteract his toxic influence on our larger culture. While policy positions are important (though Trump’s real impact is often vastly overblown), a nation is ultimately shaped far more by its culture than its policies, and we can never forsake the greater power for the lesser win.

Where Christians once demanded honesty, they rationalized lies. Where Christians once sought evidence of ideological consistency, they accepted incoherence.

Many of us, however, looked at these accommodations and asked a simple question. Where is your faith? Christians were acting as if not just the nation — but the church itself — was in peril based on the outcome of a single election. Yet is God not sovereign over all the nations, including our own? Doesn’t scripture repeatedly condemn the exact kinds of moral compromises that so many Christians made? Don’t we believe those scriptures?

There is nothing more dangerous to the church than a lack of faith. I don’t at all mind it when Christians cheer the good things that Donald Trump has done. I join them. I do mind when they rationalize and excuse bad acts out of a completely misguided and faithless sense of cultural and political necessity.

(Emphasis added)

It is possible that in 20 years, I’ll say “God in his providence used this most improbable Caesar to good end,” but I don’t think I’ll ever regret my write-in vote, which was based on what I knew then. That God can use evil men, or turn evil to good, never justifies voting for evil men or evil policies.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Shorts

Shorts:

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.