Trump, he loves this. He loves the bile, the wrath, the mockery. It’s a well-done steak to him, with extra ketchup. But Hawley and Cruz? I bet they are befuddled and mystified. How could it possibly have come to this? They are, then, our own Stepan Trofimoviches. It was all a game to them, until it wasn’t. They are, like him, utterly frivolous. If they had any dignity, any moral backbone, they would resign their offices. But the very frivolity that led them, and us, to this pass is the vice that will prevent them from acting honorably. I hope I am wrong, but I expect they will go to their graves thinking How could we have known?Frivolity – Alan Jacobs
While the laws that we live under matter a great deal, Christians need to recover the primacy of the personal over the political more than anything else. If we can’t love our neighbors in a personal, politically agnostic, face-to-face way, they’ll turn to synthetic and unreal ideological communities to fill the gap left by the loneliness of their daily lives.
The road back to sanity, solidarity, and social trust on both sides of the political spectrum will involve turning away from this ideological cul-de-sac and back toward personal communities once more. If Christian churches won’t do this, they risk being exploited as political playthings of the powers that be. — Christianity as Ideology: The Cautionary Tale of the Jericho March
If I could select on person to rule as a benevolent dictator it would probably be Yuval Levin. He has the knowledge, wisdom, experience and temperament to make a great leader (which is why he is not so stupid as to run for office but that is another post).
If you are seeking some sense of how we might get out of the mess we find ourselves in, I recommend his piece at The Dispatch today (BTW, you should join The Dispatch): The Path Back From Conspiracy. Building on his must read book, A Time to Build, he locates the solution in institutions but crucially rebuilding the integrity of institutions.
This requires a realistic understanding of human nature:
To imagine we don’t need responsible elites—or that the desire for institutional integrity is a naïve and over-earnest fantasy—is actually to deny the limits of human reason, power, and ability. It is a kind of utopianism masquerading as realism. It ultimately depends upon the fiction that corrupt elites are exceedingly competent, so that what the people need is their own hyper-competent champion to fight back. In truth, however, neither the elites nor their opponents are particularly capable. They are all human beings, and to imagine that human beings can seamlessly pull off a sophisticated, multilayered, sinister conspiracy over an extended period in a free society is already to lose touch with reality.
But our institutions seem corrupt and useless:
That sort of corruption of our professional institutions has grown pervasive. Not only in politics but in journalism, the academy, public health, federal law enforcement, American religious life, and beyond we have lately seen the lure of political expression overcome the strictures of professional formation, and the result has been a cratering of public trust and a growing detachment from reality.
The solution, however, is not to burn it down as so many seem to want, but build it up:
We should criticize elites for failing to live up to professional and institutional standards, not dismiss those standards as a sham. We should demand integrity, not deny it is possible. We should fight for the professions and the universities, not against them. We should want our institutions to be worthy of trust and authority, not seek to burn them down.
The corruption of the American establishment doesn’t mean we can do without elite institutions, it means we need to help them recover their integrity.
We desperately need leaders and communities who can take up this important work. Particularly in the areas noted above that so warp our perspectives these days.
The bad news is I am back from vacation in Michigan and no longer have access to a lake simply by stepping out of my tent and choosing the form of my water transportation (pontoon boat, row boat, or kayak). The good news is I read another political satire and am here to report back.
First, the basics:
The award-winning and bestselling author of Thank You for Smoking delivers a hilarious and whipsmart fake memoir by Herb Nutterman—Donald Trump’s seventh chief of staff—who has written the ultimate tell-all about Trump and Russia. Herb Nutterman never intended to become Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff. Herb served the Trump Organization for twenty-seven years, holding jobs in everything from a food and beverage manager at the Trump Magnifica to being the first general manager of the Trump Bloody Run Golf Course. And when his old boss asks “his favorite Jew” to take on the daunting role of chief of staff, Herb, spurred on by loyalty, agrees. But being the chief of staff is a lot different from being a former hospitality expert. Soon, Herb finds himself deeply involved in Russian intrigue, deflecting rumors about Mike Pence’s high school involvement in a Satanic cult, and leading President Trump’s reelection campaign. What Nutterman experiences is outrageous, outlandish, and otherwise unbelievable—therefore making it a deadly accurate account of being the chief of staff during the Trump administration. With hilarious jabs at the biggest world leaders and Washington politics overall, Make Russia Great Again is a timely political satire from “one of the funniest writers in the English language” (Tom Wolfe).
Of the recent political satire books I have read Make Russia Great Again was by far the best.
Christopher Buckley makes the White House activity all too believable and doesn’t go so far over the top as to spoil the humor. The dry humor works with just enough absurdity to add spice. Sure, it is at times sophomoric and crude, but given the subject matter what do you expect?
Why the three stars? I guess there is a fine line between humor that is funny and that which is depressing. So even as I smiled wryly at the humor, I was shaking my head at the reality that makes satire of the Trump era so difficult.
And this is where judging this book becomes difficult. If you WANT to laugh at/with Trump World, Buckley provides the opportunity. But in some ways it seems to normalize the absurdities involved. Ironically, the humor works in important ways because Buckley gets at the absurdity that lies close to any form of politics and celebrity culture and plays it straight. And he highlights how Trump turns this all up to 11. There isn’t a seething anger or a bitterness either.
I get that it is hard to make satire of our current situation but isn’t that what talented writers are supposed to offer?
This is the question I have been asking myself this summer. OK, perhaps that is an exaggeration. But it is a useful literary device for a blog post…
If you are scoring at home, I am on a quest to read 100 books in a year. As a result, I am always tempted by short books. I stumbled on two politically orientated satires this summer which I thought would be both entertaining and present a theme for this on-again off-again blog.
No so much…
First was The Cockroach by Ian McEwan which I found rather sad all things considered.
When the decorated Captain of a great ship descends the gangplank for the final time, a new leader, a man with a yellow feather in his hair, vows to step forward. Though he has no experience, no knowledge of nautical navigation or maritime law, and though he has often remarked he doesn’t much like boats, he solemnly swears to shake things up. Together with his band of petty thieves and confidence men known as the Upskirt Boys, the Captain thrills his passengers, writing his dreams and notions on the cafeteria wipe-away board, boasting of his exemplary anatomy, devouring cheeseburgers, and tossing overboard anyone who displeases him. Until one day a famous pirate, long feared by passengers of the Glory but revered by the Captain for how phenomenally masculine he looked without a shirt while riding a horse, appears on the horizon . . . Absurd, hilarious, and all too recognizable, The Captain and the Glory is a wicked farce of contemporary America only Dave Eggers could dream up.
My quick take: it was funny (and depressing) in spots, but just too heavy handed and preachy by the end. Better than its British equivalent, The Cockroach, but that is a low bar.
Perhaps reassuringly, many critics agree with me.
I’m taking a break from Twitter and Facebook this month for reasons I may blog about later. Normally, I would share an article I found interesting on Twitter (I don’t do politics on Facebook) but today I thought I would go old school and blog it here.
Anyone reading this who knows me will know that I am a fan of Jonah Goldberg. I have been reading him for decades and he got me my start in online opinion writing at National Review Online. His G-File this week is both classic Goldberg and well worth reading. If you haven’t signed up for his new project, The Dispatch, I highly recommend it.
Part of the newsletter is a riff based in part on Yuval Levin’s new book A Time To Build, which I have just started and which I also highly recommend. He notes how celebrity and social media come not from character formation that are the function of institutions but the using of those institutions for our own needs and wants – as a platform:
Once you start looking around, the list of people who use their institutions like cultural ATMs—staking out credibility that isn’t theirs to buy celebrity and authority they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or deserve—starts to seem infinitely long. Ricky Gervais is now a right-wing hate figure for simply pointing out that Hollywood A-listers use award shows as literal platforms for virtue signaling about causes they often know very little about.
One of Yuval’s most important points is how social media erases formality. We say things to and about strangers we would never say to their faces. The anonymity of social media untethers us from the constraints of institutions and good manners. And even when we’re not anonymous social media allows us to cash in on the reputational capital of our institutions for our own agendas.
This is one of the reasons I am so disconnected and disenchanted about national politics these days. It is platform building, virtue signaling and tribalism everywhere you look it seems.
The first part of my review of Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg sought to outline the book’s argument (1900 word outline, I know). In this post I want to address some of the critics of the book and thus explore the tensions noted at the start of my review.
Many of Goldberg’s critics charge that he ruled out the answer that must underlie any true restoration or rehabilitation of our society: God. I think this is an unfair criticism in a couple of ways; tactical and philosophical.
From a tactical standpoint, they ignore the fact that Goldberg removes God for the sake of argument not because he is an atheist or thinks religion plays no role. He is aiming at persuasion in a democratic public square where reason and decency are the highest form of argument. To argue from the perspective of faith would be to lose a sizable chunk of his audience from the very beginning.
Philosophically, Goldberg is arguing from a position of pluralism and common ground because he believes it is the best way to defend and shore up the blessings of the Miracle. The book is full of calls for strengthening and restoring civil society, for creating space for institutional pluralism, for refusing to ground meaning in national political symbols and language. The place for religious values and faith to flourish is in this system, not in a hoped for near universal faith-based worldview or culture.
Two critiques/reviews are worth noting. Let’s start with Jonah Goldberg’s Soulless Case for Liberty by Richard M. Reinsch II. Allow me to quote a section that represents the heart of this critique:
Does the Enlightenment Miracle provide the best understanding of America? And if it doesn’t—if in fact there are better tributaries that nourished the American Founding—does that mean that Goldberg’s diagnosis of what ails America will be similarly off-target?
This is not to affirm Rousseau’s political project, but it is to say that you have to take the rough with the smooth. If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal. If man’s mind constitutes reality, then truly how far are you from arriving at Marx’s famous admonition that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
Frankly, I do not have the philosophical or historical chops to untangle the arguments Reinsch makes regarding Locke, et al. But there are two basic points worth highlighting. One is the argument that the excesses of the Enlightenment are part and parcel of the Enlightenment. In this view if you are going to celebrate the good, you must include the bad in the accounting; if you accept the blessing of the Miracle you must also accept Marxism, Communism, Scientism and a host of other extremes.
John Daniel Davidson’s review follows similar lines:
The fundamental problem with his argument is that it rests on an incomplete account of the Enlightenment and the liberal order. Yes, the Miracle gave us capitalism and democracy, but it also gave us hyper-individualism, scientism, and communism. It gave us liberty and universal suffrage, but it also gave us abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism. The abolition of man was written into the Enlightenment, in other words, and the suicide of the West that Goldberg warns us about isn’t really a suicide at all, because it isn’t really a choice: we aren’t committing suicide, we’re dying of natural causes.
If Goldberg wants to preserve the Miracle, he’s going to have to do a better job of explaining how it happened. To do that, he’s going to have to look back further than 300 years and rediscover the old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to. Western civilization depends on sturdier stuff than material wealth, or individualism, or even democracy.
First, I think this is a little unfair. Goldberg is describing the ingredients that led to the Miracle not trying to define and argue the strengths and weaknesses of something broadly termed the Enlightenment.
Second, if you accept what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution (the individual is sovereign, our rights come from God not governments, the fruits of our labors belong to us, and no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class) as the basis for politics must you then accept any and all of the extremes of individualism, reason and science? Does an appreciation for liberal democratic capitalism require accepting Marxism, Communism, and Socialism not too mention the extremes of the Progressive Era?
I think Goldberg makes a compelling, if limited, case that the extremes were more outgrowths of romantic and reactionary impulses than simply natural outgrowths of the foundational ideas. But he understands that history is messy and that ideas are not teleological but interactive and contingent.
Look closely and you will see that both Davidson and Reinsch are putting a greater burden on Goldberg than he seeks to take up. Goldberg sought not to offer the best explanation for America nor the whole of Western Civilization but rather the explosion of wealth and flourishing he calls the Miracle.
As was noted in my review, civilization alone is not sufficient to create the Miracle. The ancient roots of Western Civilization are important but they did not lead directly to the change Goldberg seeks to explore . The “old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to” can and did exist without the economic explosion that is at the heart of the book.
The irony of many of these critics, in my opinion, is that they are guilty of the very reactionary or romantic nostalgia-based impulse that Goldberg decries. They seek a return to Christendom or at least a worldview based on Christian infused values. They seek a return to a civilization based on the values of Athens and Jerusalem via Rome. This may be understandable and even preferable in theory, but, in my opinion, that world is not coming back. Can we use ancient wisdom to chart a better course forward and restrain the excesses of our culture? Yes, but we can’t return to a pre-enlightenment West or rebuild Christendom.
Goldberg doesn’t deny the role Christianity played in the West and discusses and debates the role it played in the Miracle, but he rightly understands that Christendom alone did not create the prosperous West. Liberal democratic capitalism did. Discussion of where we go from here must acknowledge where we are, how we got here, and plot a path forward not seek a return to a mythical past.
Other critics have questioned whether Goldberg’s argument can really be called conservative (see Davidson). Before I get to this larger issue, this Trumpian comment at the end of Reinsch’s review I think it points to something:
Trump’s victory, along with the victory of the Brexiteers in June of 2016, led me to the following conclusion: when something like 90 percent of the smart, rich, pretty people throw it all at you and you still win, then a reassessment of politics in your democracy is surely called for. I’m a conservative after all, there are no formulas or templates. For those, I look to the libertarians.
This is what you might call paleoconservative virtue signalling. It is an attempt to paint Goldberg with the brush of an out of touch and mistaken liberal elite (and the comments use this as an excuse to dismiss the book and author). Put aside Goldberg’s critique of Trump through the lens of romantic and reactionary ideas, and Trump’s clear lack of philosophical conservatism or knowledge of any of the history Reinsch covers, does the fact that Trump took advantage of Hillary Clinton’s historic weakness to win roughly 40k votes in three states, and thus the presidency, really call for a reassessment of politics in our democracy? Maybe Trump is not sui generis but part of a larger pattern that Goldberg highlights; maybe he is a symptom rather than a cause.
Again, I think attempts to write Goldberg/SOTW out of conservatism is off for both tactical and philosophical reasons. Tactically Goldberg is seeking common ground within the broad range of American political history. This might be called “classical liberalism” for lack of a better term. For Goldberg, American conservatives seek to conserve the genius of the American founding. And he believes it is important, and possible, to find common ground on the values and principles contained therein with those who don’t see themselves as explicitly conservative.
I understand that there are strains of conservatism (paleo or traditionalist) that reject classical liberalism, roughly what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution, as a philosophical or political foundation. But in my opinion this is not the dominant perspective of modern American conservatism and Goldberg is solidly within the confines of that group; fusionism rightly understood.
Goldberg acknowledges that the ingredients of the Miracle contain within themselves the possibility to undermine the larger project. Capitalism and innovation are a threat to tradition and stability. Individualism and rationalism can lead to family and cultural breakdown and loneliness and isolation which leads to reactionary and romantic alternatives. He spends time outlining Schumpeter’s and others arguments on these tensions.
Equally clear, is Goldberg’s rejection of progressivism and its heirs today; those who would overturn the Miracle. He is seeking, again for lack of a better term, the vital center; a group who may disagree on specific policies and approaches but who share a commitment to liberal democratic capitalism.
While he rejects the romantic/reactionary element of both left and right, he is also deeply conservative and even traditionalist. Again, he passionately advocates for the rebuilding of civil society, for pushing power down rather than up, and for the institutional pluralism that allows faith, family and community to flourish. There is a whole chapter on the attack on the family.
The problem is that so many want to nationalize and universalize these battles as part of American politics. The result is polarizing culture wars that don’t end up strengthening civil society, families or communities.
The challenge is twofold. One is that the mental division of labor critical to the success is unnatural and feels foreign. Two is that applying these ideas work for the macrocosm but not for the microcosm; they work for the large society and world but not for our families, neighborhoods, and churches.
Goldberg’s answer is not a re-founding of Western thought on Judeo-Christian or pre-enlightenment philosophy but rather a sort of localist pluralism. Acknowledging and being grateful for the ideas and principles that allowed for the unprecedented economic growth and human flourishing of the last 300 years while recognizing the constant human temptation to tribalism and romanticism that undermines these values. But at the same time defending, and at times rebuilding, civil society at the local level. Tending the gardens of family, civic organizations, religious communities, and local institutions.
Goldberg does not deny the tensions involved in this conservative project within a liberal democratic capitalist system but rather accepts it as the challenge we face.
The question is whether we are up to it.