Books & Culture

Tragic Affairs of the Human Heart

In Fritz Lang’s “The Woman in the Window,” Edward G. Robinson shines as an academic, yearning for passion over his life of silent desperation. But, as his character reveals, there is always a cost for such untamed desire.

The human heart is sometimes fickle. Hidden desires come out uninvited and, sometimes, human beings can become slaves to them. If a desire is hidden and suddenly reveals itself, most often as a kind of forbidden fruit, it’s usually a good indication of direction one should not go. There is always a voice of ethics as opposed to a voice of the erotic that calls us back to reality so we might avoid the dire consequences of succumbing to unmoored eros. History and literature warn us that this is an especially dangerous temptation for middle-aged men no longer feeling vital in the midst of the ordinary turn of events.

In “The Woman in the Window” (1944), directed by Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson plays such a man. A professor of psychology at a local college, Richard Wanley deems himself an ordinary man who is aware of the precarious nature of his age. He doesn’t indulge in any wanton talk of a mid-life crisis. Instead, he uses logic and intellect to weed out any submission to emotional and irrational desires.

But when his wife and two children leave to go on short vacation, Wanley goes to his club to meet with a few friends. Before he enters the club, he is taken in by a painting in a store front window display: a portrait of a woman with a mysterious and suggestive facial expression, her neck and shoulder tastefully exposed. His gaze is one of curiosity but, it would appear here, he is mainly drawn in for aesthetic reasons.

At the club, his friends tease Wanley about the fact that he is now a “bachelor” while his wife and children are away. He assures them he is nothing of the sort—that there is no cause for concern or rude jokes. After his friends leave, and in order to pass the time, Wanley does pick a book—but not just any kind of book. Clearly alluding to the nature of hidden desires, the book is Song of Songs or Song of Solomon—the great Biblical erotic poem about two lovers who sing praises of each other as they desperately try to reunite.

There are many interpretations of the Song of Songs, some taking the relationship to be literally between man and woman, others have taken on a more philosophical, theological, and symbolic meaning. But it’s clear that the intent in the film is to look at the poem from a literal point of view.

As he reads, Wanley falls asleep, only to be awakened by the club’s butler so he heads home. He is driven to take another look at the painting of the woman in the storefront window. But this time, Wanley’s look is hardly distant or absent. As if reading the Song of Songs activated a long-forgotten desire, Wanley’s gaze is contemplative and yearning. He thinks that he has the power over the desires the painting draws out but in fact, it is the woman who draws him into her fold.

As he carefully examines the woman, as he is becoming obsessed with the desire to possess the painting, the face of the woman begins to come alive. Wanley is startled only to realize that there is an actual woman standing behind him. The woman is Alice Reed, played by Joan Bennett, and it turns out, she happens to be the woman who posed for the painting.

After a brief exchange, Wanley agrees to go out for a drink with her and to her apartment in order to see the original sketches of the painting. There is a suspenseful quality to this exchange. We know that this meeting will not end with Wanley going home, having a cup of warm milk, putting on his striped pajamas, and falling asleep. Alice is coy—as any femme fatale would be.

But this brief erotic exchange, this possibility of an affair is quickly extinguished by the abrupt and aggressive arrival of a man, Frank Howard. He is angry and appears to be threatened by Wanley’s presence in Alice’s apartment. He tries to murder Wanley but instead, in self-defense, Wanley kills him.

Alice the femme fatale suddenly becomes an irrational damsel in distress. Bennett switches so easily and beautifully from cigarette-smoking, gin-and-tonic-drinking seductress to a helpless woman, who suddenly has a dead body in her apartment. Any notion of a love affair, which seemed attractive and dangerous (and which the audience might have expected), is completely destroyed by this one act.

But can Wanley be judged in the same manner as a cold-blooded killer? Can he make this already absurd situation any better? If only he refused the siren call of the woman in the painting! The ethical necessity has taken over the erotic force. Nothing matters now, except the next step.

Wanley decides not to call the police and that the only option is to get rid of the body. Every scene keeps the viewer on edge because Wanley is continuously making clumsy mistakes in covering up the murder. Robinson is a master at playing Wanley as both a pathetic and pitiable man but also as a man who is trying to escape justice. He doesn’t deem himself guilty of murder, only guilty of having met and been drawn in by Alice.

Bennett’s Alice is warm and caring toward Wanley but that, too, is not something of which we can be certain. After all, who is she really? Why was she interested in the middle-aged Wanley? Was the whole thing just one big set up in order to get rid of Frank Howard? Is Wanley simply a dullard who was used for untoward purposes? Or is Alice really no femme fatale but merely a poor, confused woman caught in a nightmare? Or is there a most surprising twist in the end?

Lang certainly could be considered the creator of the film noir genre, especially with his 1931 film, “M.” But even before that, at the height of German Expressionism, in his silent masterpiece “Metropolis” (1927), we see the elements of darkness and tension, which become part of Lang’s language and oeuvre. As a director of silent films, he had to rely purely on images in order to convey the gravity of the plot and suspense. In “The Woman in the Window,” Lang’s background in making those choices stands out, especially in close ups. The film remains part of the great American tradition of film noir, as well as a perfect marriage between American cinematic vision and Lang’s roots in German Expressionism.

Robinson’s capacity as an actor to convey the interiority of a human being remains unparalleled. He is often known to the general audience as a man who played gangsters, but this is poor and lazy analysis. Robinson’s range throughout his career reveals a man deeply aware of the foibles of the human heart—one who knows that nothing is simple or superficial about people, not even gangsters. In this film, he shines as an academic, yearning for passion over his life of silent desperation. But, as his character reveals, there is always a cost for such untamed desire.

Books & Culture

A review of “The Age of Entitlement,” by Christopher Caldwell (Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $28)

The Myth of Civil Rights

Agree or disagree, the rage that Christopher Caldwell identifies isn’t going away.

What was the 2016 election really all about? In one version, Donald Trump’s rise was an awakening of bigotry, of nostalgia for the days when Americans were mostly white, women knew their place, and gays lived in the shadows.

But there is another way of telling this story. It is one in which Americans who grew up in a country that was more or less prosperous and wholesome for the majority had found, by 2016, that they were strangers in their own homeland. A mixture of hedonism and demographic changes had despoiled the decency of family life and eroded cultural unity. Meanwhile, globalization strip-mined the economy and made life precarious for the middle class. America had become a mistrustful and lonely place, increasingly a land of winners and losers who didn’t talk to their neighbors, or even knew what country their neighbors came from.

A new look at the Trump era, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties by Christopher Caldwell, examines our political crises from the point of view of those Americans who, by 2016, were feeling that the country they knew and loved was slipping through their fingers. Like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which spawned countless essays on the merits of the Founding philosophy, this book is a literary mortar charge that spares no idols.

It’s central target: the Civil Rights revolution, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Caldwell’s explosive idea is that the inchoate grievances that have animated conservatives for generations—spasms of rage about “reverse racism,” affirmative action, political correctness and the like—have really been directed at the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Whether they realized it or not, by 2016, a working majority of Americans found that they did not like what “free at last” had become—indeed, what it had been destined to become.

There’s nothing new about conservatives grumbling about the 1960s, affirmative action, or political correctness, of course. What makes this book so provocative is its suggestion that the triumphant account of civil rights is a myth—that it is just one way of looking at things. History is written by the victors, and after fifty years of civil rights winning, the mere suggestion that maybe this victor shouldn’t have won is heresy.

Most revolutions gone wrong are characterized as having been pure at their inception. Die-hard socialists insist that Stalin corrupted the pure intentions of Marx and even Lenin, for example. Today, many conservatives are in the curious position of doing the same with respect to the 60s, a revolution that was never even theirs. While allowed to lament its excesses, all Americans are required to accept that the epoch was a necessary step forward. Leftism today may be extreme, but the progress made back then was necessary. Feminism today may be too radical, but Betty Friedan’s was the authentic article. With respect to race, the race-conscious militancy of today, with its vicious sloganeering and brazen hostility towards whites, is seen as the corruption of the pure, race-neutral liberalism of the civil rights movement.

But Caldwell nudges the reader to see the civil rights revolution as a genuine revolution, one that came with “staggeringly high” costs to “money, freedom, rights, and social stability” and, like the upheavals of 1789 and 1917—though he does not make the comparison directly—left the world in its aftermath completely unrecognizable. Those who suffered the most had realized, by 2016, that they were on the losing side of an upheaval and waged a counter-revolution with Trump. That Caldwell identifies civil rights and King at the core of this conflict makes for a bold argument indeed.

Caldwell riffs on a familiar critique of revolution: what was meant as a liberation went south, and instead seeded new forms of oppression. With civil rights, the promise was less consciousness of race. Instead, it made race into the central fact of American life. Once institutionalized, civil rights grew into a mighty, bureaucratic regime, an identity-fixated Eye of Sauron empowered to police and transform every nook and cranny of public and private life. The two primary tools at its disposal, political correctness and affirmative action, emanated directly from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which created new ways of working around the will of the majority. Through fear of litigation and the stigma of being labeled a bigot, civil rights empowered activists to win transformative changes not by persuading the people to accept them and passing laws but through a combination of legal gamesmanship, censorship, and court-ordered redress.

In Caldwell’s telling, everything that conservatives hate about political correctness and progressivism—the bullying and witch hunts, the judicial activism—was baked into the civil rights pie. At each step of its advance, civil rights intimidated a majority into giving up its rights, status, dignity, and resources to an ascendant group of protected minorities who had acquired “an iron grip on the levers of state power,” working in tandem with “judicial elites” to short-circuit democracy. Civil rights empowered “minoritarian impulses,” like the push to normalize gay marriage, to “override every barrier that democracy might seek to erect against them.”

Gradually, this new system became its own “rival constitution,” one that steadily eroded the understanding of liberty that Americans had taken for granted under the written Constitution of 1787. While minorities acquired a “mysterious set of passwords and procedures” that required society to “drop everything and respond to their demands,” the erstwhile majority got the short end of the stick. They were dethroned and relegated to the margins of America’s national story. Life in America became about “diversity,” and nothing more. That is, it became about everybody except them.

Conscripted in the Racism Witch Hunt

Very quickly, the kumbaya anti-racism of King had devolved into a national witch hunt against “racism” in which all Americans were conscripted. This is not what was expected. Whites thought that once racism was “solved” through legislation, all Americans could live in harmony and peace. But what started in the 1960s as a movement against racism had turned, by 2016, into an entirely new social order defined by race—as well as sex, sexual orientation, and other forms of belonging centered on those groups that previously had not “belonged.” What was billed as a one-time solution to segregation had become an “entire new system of constantly churning political reform” that was extended to include new groups: women, gays, immigrants.

A new paternalistic state looked with favor on certain groups while heaping punishment on others, most of all whites but especially white men. While the “winners” in the new system praised it as a liberation, the “losers” grew conscious of having been displaced.

In spite of this profound re-alignment, civil rights continued to draw from the “permanent emergency powers” established in the quest to smash the “sham democracy” of Jim Crow. Caldwell here alludes to a curious feature of revolutionary regimes: namely, the need to pretend that it is always the year that the revolution began. This make-believe gives the regime moral authority. As the “good” intentions of the revolution are corrupted, it becomes increasingly necessary to trick the people into believing that the revolution is in imminent danger, that an existential threat to its ideals is still present. One of the distinct features of civil rights ideology, it seems, is a time freeze: it is always 1964, and Jim Crow is alive and well. Caldwell makes notes of the curious, recent explosion in the cavalier use of “white supremacy,” even as public displays of racism have dropped, the costs of being branded a bigot have become ruinous, and of course, the actual population of whites is dropping. Under civil rights, everyone is required to pretend that it’s still Reconstruction.

The regime that civil rights built was most unnatural, one that required “trillions upon trillions” of dollars to maintain and a constant effort to humiliate and repress those on the wrong side of the revolution. Eventually, Caldwell suggests, white Americans realized that pressing claims for their rights and dignity in the name of the old constitution was a waste of time, since it had been replaced by something else: an ideology of “anti-racism” that had actually developed into plain old racism, this time directed toward them. Precisely through their constitutional exclusion under civil rights, whites became more conscious of their race. Whether they realized it or not, by 2016, the only way back to the race-blind, old constitutional order had become “the repeal of the civil rights laws.”

By presenting civil rights as an optional, necessary choice between two social orders, as something either to be accepted or rejected rather than the inexorable unfolding of Justice, Caldwell crosses a line—but a line Caldwell suggests all conservatives must cross themselves, like it or not.

In a revolutionary regime, the greatest crime is to question the revolution. Caldwell’s gravest transgression is to attack civil rights’ preeminent status as the “unique surviving narrative” of an era awash in suspicion of the past. We are accustomed to viewing civil rights as a story of everyday heroes working together to organically, even miraculously, overcome the odds and perfect the logic of democracy. But Caldwell presents it as a minoritarian, hostile takeover accomplished at every step by force or deception or both. Rosa Parks, he audaciously observes, was not a random bus passenger but an “organizer of considerable sophistication” and an intellectual leader of the civil rights movement, an oft-overlooked fact in popular folklore. Verboten observations like these are sprinkled throughout: a majority of Americans disapproved of the mythic March on Washington in its immediate aftermath.

Such hate facts were washed away by diversity, the official, pseudo-religious ideology of the revolutionary regime of civil rights. Reverence for King was ordained, and any skeptical thoughts about the rightness of civil rights became crimes. It was as if America had been founded in the 60s and everything that happened before was a cause for shame. Americans were now required to think of their country and its history as a disgrace, and no group was more deserving of humiliation than American whites. As diversity became America’s creed, a Manichean dualism that held up “white” and “people of color” as moral opposites crept in. “The lines between white racism, white failure, and mere whiteness blurred,” and whites became evil.

Immigration in the Wake of Civil Rights

Alienation was forcefully shepherded through the civil rights regime. A major preoccupation of The Age of Entitlement is the titanic demographic shifts that followed in the wake of the Hart-Celler act of 1965, a law which, like civil rights itself, was vastly underestimated even by its proponents. The reassurances of Hart-Celler’s advocates now read like parody. “The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset,” said Senator Ted Kennedy at the time. “The bill will not aggravate unemployment, not flood the labor market with foreigners, nor cause American citizens to lose their jobs.” It did all of those things and more.

Dove-tailing with Hart-Celler, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 institutionalized permanent transformative change, by marking illegal immigrants “victims,” American citizens their moral and legal inferiors, and any criticism of migration racist and taboo. By 2016, America had been totally transformed in ways that no one had voted for. A “link that had made Americans think of themselves for three centuries as, basically, a nation of transplanted Europeans” had been cut on the sly.

The costs and the indignities of the new order, from its intrusions on free speech to its incursions on dignity, from its forceful cultural transformations to the exorbitant costs of maintaining the Great Society, eventually grew intolerable to a majority that disproportionately had borne them. In Caldwell’s telling, the 2016 election was a bottled up explosion of populist anger that had been delayed, for some time, by Ronald Reagan. Elected to cut welfare and stop mass migration, Reagan instead bought an expensive illusion of peace between the two constitutions by leaving Johnson’s Great Society in place and simultaneously cutting taxes for the white middle class. Under the order Reagan created, which made globalization and mass migration permanent features of American life, the majority would continue to suffer a stream of indignities, from the loss of their labor power to foreigners, to the loss of their status under a civil rights regime that Reagan did nothing to roll back. By 2016, when whites’ economic prospects had diminished enough to make the loss of their rights unbearable, the Reagan peace was no longer tenable.

It may be a mark of civil rights’ success that Caldwell approaches his fraught subject with a polite delicateness that borders on consternation. “The more distant King’s vision of race relations became,” he notes with vexation, “the more imperative it became to advertise it as if that were the vision of race relations the country had gotten.” But elsewhere, Caldwell hints that the race-conscious militancy that civil rights became was always lurking somewhere in King’s rhetoric. In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in which King expressed his disappointment with “the white moderate” and his reluctance to surrender his privileges, Caldwell sees the invocation of a “pragmatic international solidarity against white rule” that presaged intersectional politics, which would unite a rag-tag coalition of minorities against a common white enemy. While King is seen as taking a more moderate approach than Malcolm X in “twenty-first-century civil rights pageantry,” King “soon moved beyond it” and “turned down a different path.”

Fatal Contradictions?

So was civil rights really bedeviled by a fatal contradiction? The idea doesn’t exactly meld with the portrait of a terrifying, powerful system that Caldwell sketches. Perhaps this “contradiction” was not really a weakness, but a fault imputed to civil rights by its frustrated victims? The “winners” certainly would never challenge its legitimacy by contrasting what it had become, in 2016, with how it started. Indeed, they received—and continue to defend—civil rights in its whole trajectory as a blessing. Why posit a “contradiction” when civil rights devolved so quickly into race consciousness, and never went back, anyway? Perhaps this “contradiction” can be elided by assuming that civil rights has no such weakness—that it was a kind of sleight of hand, and that its fifty years of revolution have been a stunning success on its own terms?

Caldwell seems to say as much, but the outer limits of his position are somewhat unclear. While clearly sympathetic to the “losers,” he does not argue for the repeal of civil rights outright. Caldwell is clear that Jim Crow was an evil system that could not stand. And yet, civil rights “moved beyond the context of Jim Crow laws almost immediately.” So at what infinitesimal point in time was civil rights legitimate? Presumably, never.

Here’s where The Age of Entitlement reaches the peak of provocation: by asking, “was civil rights a mistake?,” Caldwell at least hints at the prompt, “was there an upside to segregation?” or at least, “was there a downside to desegregation?” Integration was necessary, but “the costs of civil rights were high.” The most radical consequences of civil rights were not incidental but developed logically in a cascade out of desegregation and its erasure of what Caldwell calls the “master freedom,” the First Amendment’s implied freedom of association. Once groups began mixing freely, race-neutral jurisprudence had to be replaced with “something the overwhelming majority of [American] citizens would never have approved: an explicit system of racial preference.” Since mixing groups together came with the possibility of friction and offense, political correctness was created to iron out that wrinkle.

Caldwell makes a convincing case that the polite tremor that greets the mere question, “was civil rights legitimate?” was in some sense engineered, that it is the product of ideology. As such, The Age of Entitlement is sure to provoke predictable howls of condemnation. Liberals will see in its eloquent narrative a reactionary wail of sentimental “racism.” To simply dismiss the grievances of the “losers,” though, is to identify oneself with the “winners,” and not much more than that.

To evaluate a book like The Age of Entitlement in a culture as fragmented as this one may be complicated by that fragmentation. It is fitting that Caldwell cites Nietzsche, father of all postmodernists, because The Age of Entitlement depicts an America in which a “will to power” is all that really matters anymore.

“It is far easier,” he writes, “for both former perpetrators and former victims alike, simply to transvalue the prejudices—so you wind up with the old world turned upside down.” If Caldwell is right, then words like “racism” have become terms of abuse used by the “winners” to keep the “losers” in their place.

Jim Crow was intolerable, but what it almost immediately became in its replacement has been intolerable, too. There’s a simple and dark answer to this conundrum, the idea that equality is not possible. This realization is the darkest part of The Age of Entitlement. Caldwell is obviously disturbed by the difficulty, impossibility even, of equality, of how old inequalities seem to succeed almost inevitably to new ones. That is something familiar from the history of revolutions, of course. Caldwell dives into the chaos of revolution and counterrevolution without really taking a side. He recedes into Nietzschean perspectivism, presenting the “loser’s” point of view without fully adopting it himself. Since this is a work of heresy, that is not only understandable but wise. Americans now live in a country in which a deadly pandemic cannot be discussed without making it about race.

Agree or disagree, the rage that Caldwell identifies isn’t going away. But then again, if he’s right about the awful power of civil rights, perhaps it’s just a final spasm of dissent.

Books & Culture

Psyche, Soul, and ‘Cedarwood Road’

It is only in middle age that we can begin to break free from the forces that shaped us.

Been thinking about life and mortality today. I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does.”

That was the tweet sent out recently by Representative Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who was one of an untold many exposed to the novel coronavirus at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The congressman closed his office and remained at his Arizona residence for the duration of his seclusion. It was from here that he sent out his tweet. It was mocked on social media, with tweeters encouraging the “would-be Spartan” to enlist in the army.

And yet, Gosar’s observation remains poignant. Most people would like to think they have a destiny, that their lives won’t end in some meaningless way from a bat-generated virus.

Gosar’s observation represents a battle between our public face and the feeling in our soul that God wants us for a different kind of destiny. In psychological terms, it’s the battle between the ego and the subconscious.

As psychologist James Hollis had observed, the ego is in charge of the “executive function.” It allows us to drive to work, pay bills, have well-behaved children, and present a civilized face to friends and colleagues. The subconscious, on the other hand, is a place of myth, desire, fate, and legend. It’s where we confront the life we were meant to live. The life of Jesus is a representation of this. The Lord had a regular childhood and adolescence, then performed his public ministry, but during it all his subconscious soul and connection to God were leading him, inexorably, to his destiny the cross. And even he had a moment when he wanted the cup to pass away from him.

Dynamism Over Nihilism

Gosar’s tweet reveals a wrestling match between ego and subconscious, or between our will and God’s. Thinking about life and mortality, the subconscious desires honor, valor, a glorious ending. The ego intrudes and attempts an override, saying that “it doesn’t matter.” Then the subconscious pushes back: But it kinda does. Dying with honor for a great cause, obeying God’s will for us, matters.

Hollis is the executive director of the Jung Society in Washington, D.C., where I recently saw him give a series of lectures. The disruption caused by the coronavirus has given his ideas fresh potency, as people are second-guessing their careers and starting to consider their destinies. (Honestly—do we really need as many journalists as we have?)

At one lecture Hollis observed that the ego is nothing but a “thin wafer of consciousness floating on an iridescent ocean called the soul.” The powerful, archetypal forces of the unconscious—which Hollis also calls the psyche or “the gods”—are a tectonic force that has its own plan. Ignoring this destiny can cause depression, anxiety, addiction, and listlessness.

“When we are off track, psyche protests,” Hollis writes in his book What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. “Noisy demonstrations are held in the amphitheatre of the body; streets are blocked in the brain by rebels from the cane fields; dreams are invaded by spectral disturbances; affects riot and tear down the work of years.”

As journalist Oliver Burkeman observed, “This is a radical and humbling way of thinking about psychology. It means that what you think you want from life probably isn’t what life wants from you. And it means that living meaningfully is almost certainly going to screw with your plans, forcing you out of comfort and certainty, and into suffering and the unknown.” Hollis quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things.” To be fully alive, the soul has to “meet its appointment.”

While people may dismiss Hollis (and Jung) as New Age, his writing is grounded in a sober reality that is absent in the sunny bromides of too many Christians. It’s also far more dynamic than the dull nihilism of the elites and the young.

Myth, Legend, Destiny

There are arguments to be made against Hollis’s approach. One of the problems in the Western world over the last several decades is that more and more people neglected their obligations to explore their destiny, often leaving broken families in their wake. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” was used by Woody Allen to defend his marriage to his step-daughter. The power of myth to chart an unavoidable fate rendered characters in the dismal recent “Star Wars” movies as helpless and robotic. The young partiers in Florida getting water during the pandemic look more lost than followers of the soul’s code.

This is why age is important to the concept of embracing your destiny. Hollis’s book titles reveal this: Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, and Middle Passage. For the first few decades of our lives we are at the mercy of external forces that we have no control over: family, environment, the politics of our time, and our social status are constantly affecting the way we see the world, often so powerfully that we, as Hollis notes, “wind up living someone else’s life.” It is only in middle age that we can begin to break free from the forces that shaped us. It’s important that we follow our bliss, but we’ll only have the wisdom to do so when we’ve been alive for a while and can begin to untangle what has influenced us.

There is an exception to this rule: the worlds of sports and the arts. Professional sports teams gain certainty that it is “their year” to win it all, performers feel a destiny at a young age and embrace it. Brad Pitt once noted that there was a point when he was a young man in high school that he had a certainty that he was going to be famous.

Rock and roll is replete with songs about “destiny” and forces that are going to make life or love happen no matter what. In their 2014 song  “Cedarwood Road,” Irish band U2 explores how their fateful meeting seemed to be destined. It opens:

I was running down the road
The fear was all I knew
I was looking for a soul that’s real
Then I ran into you
And that cherry blossom tree
Was a gateway to the sun
And friendship, once it’s won
It’s won, it’s one
Northside
Just across the river to the Southside
That’s a long way here

All the green and all the gold
The hurt you hide
The joy you hold
The foolish pride
That gets you out the door
Up on Cedarwood, Cedarwood Road

This is a powerful distillation of Hollis’s thesis. Bono was not hunting for fame but “looking for a soul that’s real”—i.e. letting himself be led by the subconscious and not the ego. He meets guitarist the Edge, their coming together “a gateway to the sun.”

Bono is operating in the realm of myth, legend, destiny. His environment, Ireland in the 1980s, is a place rife with politics and violence, as represented in the colors of green and gold and hard geographical boundaries. Yet he will embrace the “foolish pride” that gets him out the door and onto the world stage.

The last lyric in the song is “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.” Bono has met his soul’s appointment to the world’s stage, where he will be “defeated by even greater things.” People might say that ultimately it doesn’t matter if U2 had ever gotten out of Dublin. But it kinda does.

Books & Culture

‘The Hunt’ Deserves to be Seen

Conservative movies just cannot catch a break. If it isn’t one thing it’s another. “The Hunt” came out on Friday the 13th—right as the coronavirus panic kicked into high gear. The theater was sparsely occupied.

“The Hunt” starts with a text between an unknown group of people, one of them insulting the president, followed by a call by the others to hunt down people who voted for him at The Manor. This is followed by a group of deplorables led by Betty Gilpin, who are drugged, kidnapped, and set down on a field, at which point liberal elites led by Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank begin hunting them down, one by one. At one point, one of the liberals notices that one of their victims was a married man. Ignore that, comes the reply. “The man was a monster.” And what made him a “monster”?

“He used the n-word, not just in private, but in public.”

Throughout the movie, the elites constantly refer to the blue-collar workers that they have corralled as if they were only slightly better than animals. The Second Amendment is brought up in an ironic exchange which I will not reveal so as not to spoil the scene. When together, the hunters constantly virtue signal with each other, correcting each other with the type of Newspeak that is commonplace in universities, in an unending exercise of one-upmanship. For example, one of them says, “Hey, guys,” only to be immediately reprimanded by the female for using a male plural term. Another time, one person refers to blacks and is corrected to use the term “African American.” This goes on nonstop anytime they are together. In this manner, the movie does not promote conservative values so much as ridicules the liberals when not showing their bloodthirstiness.

Posters for other movies usually cite accolades from journalist-critics. “The Hunt,” in contrast, quotes the previous denunciations of the movie by these critics, based on the previews: “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.”

Other movies that should have been patronized en masse by conservatives (but were not) were “Death of Stalin” (a white-knuckle comedy, all the more horrifying because the scenes were historically accurate), “The Interview” (a very good satire of North Korea’s dictator, though filled with gutter language), “Death Wish” (a remake of the original with a strong Second Amendment theme), and “An American Carol” (a scathing satire on liberals, particularly Michael Moore, using the Dickens tale as its basis).

It takes a monumental effort to make a movie in Hollywood with conservative values. All of the above lost money.

Indeed, the lack of support by the producer of “An American Carol” made him swear off from making any more movies with a conservative theme because of a lack of support from conservative audiences.

“The Hunt” is likely to join that group of neglected movies—but it doesn’t have to. Universal Pictures, which is distributing the film, will make “The Hunt” and a few other first-run films available for rental on various streaming platforms starting Friday.

Now, compare that to liberals’ response to movies that reinforce their ideology. Anytime that Hanoi Jane, Michael Moore, Rob Reiner, Oliver Stone, Jim Carrey, or Barbara Streisand make a movie bashing conservative values, liberals trample over each other in a mad stampede to see them, and thereby support future similar movies, not to mention gathering rave reviews.

Conservatives, on the other hand, just stay home and complain that conservative movies are not being made in Hollywood.

And, incidentally, they also say the same about books.

Books & Culture

A review of “I Still Believe” (Co-directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, Rated PG, 115 minutes)

‘I Still Believe’ and the Maturing of Christian Film

It’s a high-water mark and a bid for the mainstream from a faith-based film industry that has produced uneven product in its several decades coming of age.

IStill Believe,” the new film by directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, represents a high point of the Christian film industry. Faith-based films have been hugely successful in recent years, even if they haven’t attained the aesthetic excellence of more secular films. With the beautifully shot, smartly edited, and wonderfully acted “I Still Believe,” that has changed. “I Still Believe” is not a masterpiece, but it is a very good film that can compete with mainstream Hollywood.

It’s 1999, and musician Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) leaves home in Indiana for a Christian college in California. At school Jeremy meets Melissa (Britt Robertson). They fall in love, and Jeremy intends to propose, but Melissa is unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. Defying his parents and the culture at large, Jeremy and Melissa marry.

Jeremy willingly walks into a situation that is going to end badly—one from which most young people would run. Melissa is interested in astronomy, and she compares herself to a dying star whose brilliant transformation will provide the cosmic dust for the creation of even more abundant life. She accepts her end as part of a larger plan.

The story is based on the real-life romance between Christian singer Jeremy Camp and Melissa Henning, a story told in Camp’s book I Still Believe. The film is one of the first movies produced by the Kingdom Story Company, a production company specializing in Christian films that are distributed through Lionsgate. The Erwin brothers are central players in the company; Jon Erwin compared Kingdom to a “Christian Pixar” or “Christian Marvel.”

Andrew Erwin last month explained the goal: “Our focus is still firmly rooted within the church, but it’s focused out . . . And so our goal is to reach out beyond the church walls to engage a generation that’s walking away from the church—as an introduction to Christianity.”

“I Still Believe” represents something of a reversal of the old theme of secular versus religious movies and, in fact, is better than most recent Marvel movies.

For decades secular audiences considered Christian movies like “Left Behind” and “God’s Not Dead” as bromides, a cheesy celluloid form of confirmation bias for Bible Belt believers. In these films the protagonist is challenged with a crisis, but because God is all-powerful and in charge, the main thing to do is hunker down, pray, and endure things until deliverance—or accept the tragic outcome as His will. For secularists, this supposedly infantile outlook sits in contrast to the grim but adult realism of more mainstream cinema, with the struggling anti-heroes who seemed to more accurately reflect the ambiguous lives of people in the audience. Films like “Chinatown,” “Lady Bird,” “Parasite,” “Moonlight” and even “The Bad News Bears” reflect an adult world of compromise, violence, and disappointment with only intermittent or questionable redemption. It’s why “Goodfellas” is considered a masterpiece and the Christian feel-good film “The Ultimate Gift” is not.

In recent years, however, it is mainstream Hollywood that has become more and more fantastical, as Christian films have become more realistic. Superhero franchises have taken over Hollywood—movies like “The Avengers” that recycle the same plot over and over again. A threat to the galaxy is coming, and a band of flawed but lovable heroes assembles to take it on.

“Joker,” 2019’s most lucrative and highly praised film (it was nominated for 11 Oscars and won two), dramatizes the sad life of a clown whose life circles a drain of abuse and neglect until the only solution is a purgative eruption of violence. Praised for its realism, “Joker” is heavily indebted to Martin Scorsese’s films “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Unlike “Joker,” however, those films had flashes of humor and even tenderness that balanced out the mayhem. “Joker” opens with a mugging and ends with a murderous riot, with nothing but more misery in between. Life certainly has its problems, but it is rarely so unremittingly bleak as “Joker” suggests.

“I Still Believe” is a much more accurate, and even adult, reflection of real life. What is it like for a person who is faced with an unbearable tragedy but who is determined not only to walk through it without completely surrendering to resentment, but to accept that suffering ultimately might have meaning? Of course, this being a faith-based film, Jeremy will accept Melissa’s death as part of God’s will. But “I Still Believe” doesn’t avoid the pain, rage, and doubts that come—and linger—with such a tragedy.

In one of the best scenes, Jeremy talks with his dad, Tom (Gary Sinise), about the “why” of it all. Sinise, a Hollywood veteran, offers a wonderfully nuanced exploration of the mystery of how self-sacrifice and life’s disappointments paradoxically can enrich us. “I had a lot of plans that didn’t work out,” Tom tells his son, “yet I stand here feeling like a very rich man.”

Sinise doesn’t deliver with blankly born-again optimism. He has real regret, he’s often tired, and he second-guesses how the whole divine-plan thing works. Yet the kids he wasn’t sure he wanted—including one who is developmentally disabled—have filled him up. To paraphrase Richard John Neuhaus, Tom has reached a faithful simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity.

After many films and several hits, the Erwin brothers are now expert filmmakers. Their previous films include “October Baby” (2011), a Christian pro-life drama, “Moms’ Night Out” (2014), and sports drama “Woodlawn” (2015). Their music biopic “I Can Only Imagine” was the most successful independent film of 2018. It made $86 million in worldwide box office against a production budget of $7 million. In “I Still Believe,” cinematography, acting, direction, editing, and music all work flawlessly and even with subtlety—something that is not always the case in Christian films. It’s a high-water mark and a bid for the mainstream from a faith-based film industry that has produced uneven product in its several decades coming of age.

Books & Culture

By News Alone?

We cannot win the culture war by responding to the Left’s narrative. We need to create our own narratives.

While attending CPAC last month as part of the John Batchelor Show’s panel, “Everything You Didn’t Know About Russia-gate But Were Afraid to Ask,” I had a chance to duck into the main room to catch part of a performance of “FBI Lovebirds: UnderCovers.”

Produced by conservative filmmaker Phelim McAleer, the play revolves around the text messages between former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI counsel Lisa Page as they are read aloud by actors Dean Cain and Kristi Swanson.

After witnessing this tour de force performance, I recalled how at American Greatness I had previously written about the censorious Left’s attempts to stop the play from being performed. Heartened that this show had indeed gone on, I further reflected upon conservative-populism’s progress and prospects in the ongoing culture war.

It was less heartening.

First, however, the good news—literally. In the news arena, conservative-populists are having a much broader range of options than ever before, both on-air and in print. And viewers are responding in droves, tuning into these channels or logging into their sites. Akin to the early days of broadsheets and newspapers, conservative-populists are looking for news sites that support their philosophical worldview rather than ones that insult and demean it, all the while hypocritically alleging to be “objective.”

Yet, while having more options among conservative-populist sites, the attempt to curtail conservative speech on internet hosts is proceeding apace and justified with the bogus lines used on college campuses to deny free speech. Of course, one of the chief targets in this effort is the ability of these news sites to present ever more information to their viewers.

Further, there is fierce competition for the large conservative-populist news audience. Though large, this audience is also finite (as is every audience). Thus, while battling for an audience share, many of the conservative-populist news sites, especially the newer ones, face the reality that incremental increases in viewership will not constitute an adequate return on investment or sustain further operations.

But most importantly, the news is post-culture—i.e., occurring after the culture is shaped by the Left.

In the culture war, the late Andrew Breitbart was right when he said, “politics is downstream from culture.” As is the case with left-wing sites, by their nature the conservative-populist news reports political developments, offers political commentary, and selects stories through a political prism aligned with its audience’s.

Ergo, the Left’s news sites bolster the collectivist “narrative” already crafted and disseminated by the Left’s hegemonic cultural power. They constitute the Left’s coup de grace in driving a political message. On their part, then, conservative-populist news sites do not shape the culture; they respond to Left’s culture and its political consequences.

Yes, conservative-populist news sites are crucial to waging the culture war; but they are not by their nature capable of being the vanguard in changing the culture.

What conservative-populists need are the means to reach an underserved and ignored audience through the arts. The primary goal needs not to be to crudely push a political goal. That is propaganda, not art, and boring to boot.

The key is to create and disseminate art that respects the permanent things of faith, family, community, and country, rather than art that deliberately denigrates and reviles them. The success of the very few movies and television shows with such a subtext know their paramount goal is to entertain not proselytize.

And Americans do and will watch.

The Left knows this. It is why they tried so hard to stop “FBI Lovebirds: UnderCovers.” The Left has used entertainment to assail and shape the culture for decades.

By news alone, we cannot win the culture war. Only when conservative-populists finally have their own ability to create, produce, and provide entertaining content and attract this ignored mainstream audience—which will result in sustainable revenues and more—will the culture war truly be engaged.

But right now, with politics being downstream from the Left’s culture, conservative-populists remain up that creek without a paddle.

Books & Culture

Resisting the Totalitarian Power of Politicization

The child who reads and cherishes The Lord of the Rings will have more of substance to say about how we should live than will the child brought up on political doggerel.

People who live in the post-totalitarian system,” wrote Vaclav Havel in The Power of the Powerless, “know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.”

Far be it from me to suggest, in this presidential election year, that it is of little importance which man is elected, or whether a party comes to full power with the proud intention of raising temples everywhere to the great god of Sex, rather than merely worshiping it furtively and still somewhat guiltily, as their opponents do. And I am aware, and I have written elsewhere, that those who want to enshrine the unnatural must have recourse to the full force of a state tending toward the totalitarian, lest people clear their heads and return to the natural. So we have no choice but to fight the political fight.

Yet we should remember why it must be fought, and this is hard to do when all things, including the relations of man and woman, are subsumed under the political.

Havel asks us to consider a greengrocer who one day decides not to hang a Communist propaganda sign in his window. He does not replace it with a different sign; he does not trade one ideology for another. Ideology, says Havel, “is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality,” and life in its system is “permeated with hypocrisy and lies.” It absorbs man into “a mere ritual.” It gives him nothing to think with but “a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.”

To break with that system is to reject the “logic of its automatism.” You attempt instead “to live within the truth.” But where is such a life to be found?

Havel says that it lies latent, dormant, half-smothered within each individual: “Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, therefore, there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth.” Therefore we must appeal to that life, he says, in “the area of the existential and the pre-political.”

He insists upon this, recalling the 1969 trial of musicians in a rock and roll band. “These people had no past history of political activity,” he says. They “had been given every opportunity to adapt to the status quo, to accept the principles of living within a lie and thus to enjoy life undisturbed by the authorities. Yet they decided on a different course.” They were like the Christian baker in Colorado who has gently declined to contribute his work to affirm same-sex pseudogamy; or like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who decline to pay for their employees’ contraception and abortion. None of these people wanted to make a political point. They wanted to decline to make a political point; even to decline to be political at all.

Since “every free human act or expression, every attempt to live within the truth, must necessarily appear as a threat to the system,” the system must see them as things that are “political par excellence.” And so they unwittingly are. From the pre-political, says Havel, must come the first stirrings against the totalitarian world, the world of ideology.

He recalls a foreman at the brewery where he once worked. “He was proud of his profession,” says Havel, “and he wanted our brewery to brew good beer.” He was always at work, thinking of improvements, but that meant he was a nuisance to “the slovenly indifference to work that socialism encourages.” The brewery’s managers did not care for the work and were ruining the place, so the foreman complained to his superiors, and for his pains he was “labeled a ‘political saboteur.’” He lost his job. His attempt to live within the truth came not from politics but from a fundamental human aim—to do good work and to behold its fruits.

The United States, still more than nominally a democratic republic, shows many signs of the post-totalitarian demoralization that Havel describes.

Consider a schoolteacher who will not bow to the ugly utilitarian aims of the Common Core, but who teaches great poetry for its own sake. The automatism of her fellow teachers and her superiors will move to crush her. Consider the secretary who declines to post a rainbow flag on the wall beside her. The machine lurches into action. Consider the curator of a small museum, who exhibits paintings he believes are beautiful and powerful, without regard to the sex or the race of the painters. Juggernaut comes a-rolling.

The system is perpetually hungry. It must be so because lies evacuate the soul. The more you feed, the emptier and hungrier you become. To the totalitarian mind, all things must be politicized; no region of life may remain untouched, unabsorbed, undevoured. Choirs, knitting groups, groceries, elementary schools, day-care centers, libraries, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, congregations, bowling leagues, fast-food joints, department stores, florist shops, delicatessens, marriages, flirtation, love poetry—all must go down the vast assimilating gullet of Jabba the State, who belches up emptiness and rages for more.

Havel suggests that at all costs we must protect regions of human life from politics, if we are ever to live within the truth again, and if we are to recover a healthy politics itself. The cure must come from without, not least because the political rebel plays the game by the assumptions of the politics he opposes. What are those seedbeds of health? I will name one here: the school.

I do not mean that children should be taught political truths rather than political lies. I mean that it is eminently desirable that they should not be immersed in politics at all.

Some engagement with the political is inevitable when you are talking about history, but even then it is best to teach about historical eras as you would teach about alien cultures, generously, on their own terms, with their own stories and songs, and not to sneer at them because they used outdoor privies and their women were not in Congress and they read the Bible a lot. School should be what its name suggests: a place of leisure, where you learn good things for the sake of their goodness, and not for mere utility, political or otherwise.

The child who reads and cherishes The Lord of the Rings will have, I believe, more of substance to say about how we should live than will the child brought up on political doggerel. He will have life to appeal to; he will have the humus of reality from which green things can spring. Learn from The Wind in the Willows about friendship and the hilarious folly of being human. Or just enter that world of Mr. Toad; play the music because you love it; be wise and childlike; you will be a rebel before you know it, and almost whether you know it or not.

Books & Culture

Orson Welles and the Search for Justice in America

“The Stranger” speaks to our own human choices. It speaks of what we wish to see and what we desire to remain hidden.

These days in America there’s not a lot of regard for justice as a concept. Instead, we have an unwanted “gift” of social justice—a bland ideology that doesn’t really care for the truth or even for the actual marginalized and forgotten people it claims to champion. Without slipping into some strange nostalgia, it would seem to me that in the past, Americans were far more clear about what actual justice was and is. This was particularly true during World War II.

Even though many Americans were inclined toward isolationism at the beginning of the war, when it came to understanding the actual events of World War II (especially once America was fully engaged in the effort), people knew who the enemy was and what made them bad. After the war, many Nazi war criminals fled Germany, often escaping justice in South America. At the same time, there were those whose job it was to hunt and apprehend these war criminals. 

Such are the events, roughly speaking, of Orson Welles’ 1946 film, “The Stranger.” 

Welles plays a Nazi criminal on the run, Franz Kindler, who has made a new life in a quaint town of Harper, Connecticut. He has changed his name to Charles Rankin, and is a respected teacher and member of the community. As the film opens, he is about to get married to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), daughter of a well-regarded liberal Supreme Court Justice. Rankin has managed to fool everyone in town about his real identity, which is hardly surprising since, as the film points out, he managed to commit most of his unspeakable crimes during the war incognito. The only characteristic that is known to others about his personal peccadillos is his obsession with clocks. This obsession proves to be one important cause of his downfall as the plot “unwinds.”

Rankin is secure in his false existence, and there are indications that despite his otherwise monstrous nature, he may genuinely love Mary. But all of that is changed when an unwelcome guest comes to Harper. 

Konrad Meinike, a Nazi war criminal who once worked with Rankin, goes through a lot of trouble to seek him out. He has become a religious and faithful man, repentant and seeking to persuade Rankin to follow his example. He pleads with Rankin to admit what he has done and to pay for his sins. Rankin doesn’t care for Meinike’s words of spiritual healing and, in order to cover the truth, he kills him.

What Rankin doesn’t know at the time he commits the murder is that a detective working for the United Nations War Crimes Commission, one Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), has followed Meinike to town and is there to capture him. So an otherwise low-risk crime takes on new dimensions of danger for Rankin. 

Nightmarish Noir

Wilson inserts himself into the Longstreet family, hiding his true identity and pretending to be an antiques dealer. Throughout a pleasant dinner and conversation with the Longstreet family, Wilson is on the lookout for signs that Rankin might be Kindler. Rankin’s affinity for clocks becomes apparent when it is revealed that Rankin has an ambition to fix a long-malfunctioning town clock. What makes the suspicion grow, however, is when Rankin corrects Wilson that Karl Marx’s theory could never save the German people because Marx “was not German, but a Jew.” In a telephone call to commission officials, Wilson remarks that only a Nazi would make such a distinction and decides to stick around the town a little while longer.

Despite the fact that this film deals with overtly political content (especially since it was released just a year after the end of the war), the approach that Welles took in his direction is not in any way ideological or even humanitarian. Aesthetically, it follows the form of a film noir: all of the actors (and this is especially true for the main protagonists, Welles, Robinson, and Young) contribute to the sensibility that is found in other films of the same genre.

Typical of Welles’ direction, he adds a nightmarish quality to the scenes, especially in the presentation of shadows. It is in the shadow of evil that looms over the town of Harper; it is in the shadow of Rankin that is overtaking Mary’s entire being; it is in the shadow of Wilson, an unrelenting justice seeker bringing with him Rankin’s destiny; and finally, it is in the shadow of the Holocaust.

The horrors of the war, especially concentration camps, were not then fully known by the general public, and Welles was fully invested in showing the truth. Commenting on the Holocaust footage that was captured during the liberation of the death camps, Welles wrote for the New York Post, on May 7, 1945:

No, you must not miss the newsreels. They make a point this week no man can miss: The war has strewn the world with corpses, none of them very nice to look at. The thought of death is never pretty but the newsreels testify to the fact of quite another sort of death, quite another level of decay. This is a putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage. For some years now we have been calling it fascism. The stench is unendurable.

Welles was incredibly affected by the images and decided to include them in “The Stranger.” In one scene, Wilson attempts to convince Mary of what’s at stake in determining Rankin’s true identity by showing her the horrific images of the death camps. Robinson’s acting moves from hard justice-seeking at any cost to quick bursts of compassion for Mary’s state of mind. This movement is so palpable that we have no choice but to look.

In many ways, Mary represents an embodiment of the people who refused to see the horrors and perhaps continued to do so, even after they were presented with clear evidence. Like Welles, Robinson was also deeply committed to bringing the truth of the Holocaust to the American people, and he did this even earlier in an openly anti-Nazi film, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939), in which he plays Ed Renard, an FBI agent on the hunt for a Nazi agent.

Welles’ attractive looks only add further confusion about his culpability. Naturally, it is clear that he is indeed Franz Kindler, but throughout his manipulative pleading with Mary that he is not Franz Kindler, one sees why she might need to believe him. Welles’ acting ability to portray Rankin as a kind lover and a war criminal in one is an unrepeatable cinematic event. 

The continuous gaslighting of Mary eventually devolves as Rankin begins to lose his power over her and is more and more overcome by his own “putrefaction of the soul.” Loretta Young brings tenderness and vulnerability to Mary without making her a stereotypically weak female lead. Welles’ cinematic vision, in which he moves the camera from deep focus to near invisibility of the character, adds a certain level of the tension we might find between our interior lives and exterior presentations. 

A Strong Sense of American Justice

What then is justice or truth? Who is committed to seeking the truth in order to reach justice for the dead? “The Stranger” has a clear political message for a specific time, yet it also goes beyond the particularities of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. It speaks to our own human choices. It speaks of what we wish to see and what we desire to remain hidden. To act against evil is never easy.

Who is responsible? Who is silent? 

There is a saying in the Babylonian Talmud that goes like this: “If I don’t answer for myself, who will answer for me? If I answer only for myself—am I still myself?” This indeed cuts through our place in this world, in which both good and evil exist. “The Stranger” is a philosophical film noir with a strong sense of American justice. The brilliant and assertive cinematic vision and interplay among Welles, Robinson, and Young urge us to wake up and reconsider the place of justice and truth in our relations with one another.

Books & Culture

The Rule of Our Sophisticated Suckers

Modern art and architecture says “You will like this  because it is for your own good, although you are too stupid to see it.” But some people do not have to be cowed into submission. They are the suckers of the age.

“There’s a sucker born every minute,” said P. T. Barnum, expressing, without intending it, the soul of modernist movements in the arts.

Donald Trump recently outraged what has been called, without any sense of irony or hyperbole, “the architectural community,” with a directive preferring the federal style for new public buildings in Washington, D.C. That is the style that dictators love, said the modernist architects and their cheerleaders in the press, forgetting that it was a style beloved in democratic Athens, republican Rome, the newly federated Italy of the nineteenth century, parliamentarian Britain, and the United States herself. Or are we to believe that Mount Vernon and Monticello were the retreats of dictators?

It was a fine case of psychological projection. Ordinary people are fond of those styles that broadly fit in the category of the classical. That is because ordinary people like orderly things, whether they are as simple as a Cape Cod house or a small church with a single steeple, or as grand as the Parthenon or the Capitol itself. No ordinary person would build the modernist cathedral in Brasilia, which looks like the calcified skeleton of an anemone from an alien world, or Cooper Square at Cooper Union, which looks as if it were melting and sagging and about to smother everyone inside it. When an ordinary child draws a house, it isn’t a box he sees, but a kind of face, fit for creatures like him. He does not want to live in a parking garage.

Of course, dictators can have good taste in architecture: Pisistratus, Augustus, Napoleon. But modernism requires the might of political, economic, or institutional power, for enforcement. Had the people who were going to live in it been consulted, the hideously inhuman Pruitt-Igoe apartment complexes in St. Louis would never have been built. Ordinary people who still loved English poetry favored Robert Frost, writing in meter, and never warmed up to the free-verse experimenters that the powers in academe insisted they should adore. People do not hang up on their walls Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” despite its interesting freeze-frame mechanics, because they do not care to have needles thrust into their eyeballs.

I don’t mean, either, to suggest that a healthy human being will have good taste in art. Plenty of fourth-rate Raphaels have decorated Catholic churches with their Madonnas, and many a draggy and sentimental hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” for example, is taken to dance while nobler works sit at the wall and wait. But ordinary poor taste tends to what is too precious and pretty, or sometimes to what is homely in an honest and straightforward way. It is incomplete or untaught. It is not vitiated. The man whose eyes grow misty as he sings “Santa Lucia” will thrill with awe to hear Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma.” The woman with the many-colored plaster saint on her bedroom dresser will hardly know what to say when she sees the young Michelangelo’s “Pieta.

Modernist art and architecture, priding itself on scorn for nature and for natural human desires, must be forced upon a society, and so, despite its rhetoric of revolution and liberation, it partakes of the diktat or the swindle. “You will like this,” it says, “because it is for your own good, although you are too stupid to see it.” You must suffer buildings like the brutalist concentration center for the FBI in Washington, a thing that President Trump has called out for its ugliness, because it is a massive thing bespeaking power. It is for your own good, and you have no more authority to reject it than you would have to tell the glass-eyed officers at your door to get lost.

Some people, however, do not have to be cowed into submission. They are the suckers of the age. Julien Benda thought that the intellectuals who went along for the totalitarian ride were vicious: le trahison des clercs, he called it. But they were better and worse than traitors. W. E. B. DuBois really did believe that Stalin was the herald of a better age, and it wasn’t that DuBois had betrayed his principles. DuBois, as intelligent and learned as he was, was a modernist sucker. John Cage “writes” his 4’33”, for which somebody dressed up as a pianist sits at the instrument and does absolutely nothing, in three movements, and people who doubtless have too much money to spend and who have taken a course in modern music at the local university erupt into applause.

“Ain’t he a-going to play that thing a-tall?” asks Billy, fresh to the big city from Tennessee.

“Ignorant redneck,” sniffs the urban sophisticate. He and not Billy is the sucker.

The modernist university itself is for the servile and the suckers. I am speaking in a general sense here, but it is often illuminating to perform a simple thought experiment, what I call imaginative isolation.

Take the Emperor from Andersen’s justly famous fable. Separate him from the mutually reinforcing cravenness of the crowds around him. Put him in your living room. You say, “Sir, get some clothes on!” You are not fooled for a moment.

Take the feminist peddling a course in Aboriginal Women in America. Put her in a booth, and let her wares include transcripts of her railing against “the patriarchy.” Make the price tag clear: $4,000. Who signs up for that? Even liberal women will not be fooled.

Take the sociologist peddling a course in the politics of resentment. Put him on a stool at the local diner, and have him try to persuade a single human being, male or female, old or young, to write out a check for that same $4,000, so that he can try to make them as miserable and angry as he is. No one writes that check.

The university can do what it does because it collects the tolls on the only bridge over the river: it functions as a cartel, a monopolist, a protection racket. Plenty of people would not be fooled by the college swindle if they were alone, but they catch the swindle by social contagion, they grow proud of the swindle, and they go on to swindle others in turn. The same kind of swindle is in play whenever we find a “community,” meaning “cabal,” pressing for something that the swindlers’ own fellows, within living memory, would have considered ugly, unnatural, foolish, blasphemous, or unfit for a free and virtuous people. I trust that the reader can fill in the specifics.

Books & Culture

Scent of a Woman: Part Deux

The best work of one Academy Award winner may be behind her.

As the daughter of the late producer-writer Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow could have starred in “It’s All Relative,” a film about the way so many people in show business, particularly movies and television, are all in the family. That project, not to be confused with “All Relative,” is still in development and never got made, unlike the 1996 version of “Emma.” 

Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as Emma Woodhouse earned her the role of Viola in the 1998 “Shakespeare in Love,” for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Paltrow, now 47, was not up for any Oscars this year, and she recently provided evidence that her best work may be behind her. 

“A candle selling on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop online store,” People Magazine reports, “has a very unconventional scent.” The actress’ company is “currently selling a $75 votive cheekily named ‘This Smells Like My Vagina.’” It supposedly started as a joke between Paltrow and “perfumer” Douglas Little. The pair were testing a scent when the Academy Award-winning actress blurted “Uhhh, this smells like a vagina.” 

Gwyneth’s many fans might wonder if she used a different word, and whether her marketing committee had a quorum in recent meetings. It’s not likely that in the vast flyover country, or even progressive coastal enclaves, anybody was panting for a fragrance called “This Smells Like My Vagina.” 

Maybe Gwyneth is taunting some former boyfriend who never got below decks with the “tall, wafer-thin, delicate beauty,” as the actress’s IMDb description has it. Maybe the target is some famous actor who turned down Gwyneth’s offer for a date. Or perhaps the scent is some kind of payback for casting couch types, but there is another possibility.  

Maybe the marketing committee, short of a quorum, ran the perfume by Harvey Weinstein—not exactly Cary Grant, Robert Redford, or Brad Pitt, all of whom could easily score with the ladies on appearance alone. As Louise in “Being There” might say, in the looks department, Harvey was definitely “shortchanged by the Lord.” 

Still, based on experience, Weinstein is capable of comparing the fragrance to dozens of vaginas, many from delicate, wafer-thin actresses. It’s not impossible that he caught a whiff and said “yep, that’s my girl Gwyneth for sure. Go with it.” And maybe some former boyfriends came out of the closet.  

The Goop marketers might have consulted one of those professional “nose” types who rate perfumes. As one French expert might say, “je ne reconnais pas les vagins de Brigitte Bardot ou Catherine Deneuve, mais le vagin de Gwyneth Paltrow c’est pas trop mal.” (Google it.)

The films of Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly have grossed billions worldwide but “This Smells Like My Vagina” may gross in a different way. Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Nancy Pelosi have yet to come out with perfumes that smell like their vaginas. If they do, let the market decide. Also watch out for claims that these products are “unhealthy for sensitive people,” as NPR says, and somehow discriminate against transgender types, those Dave Chappelle calls the “alphabet people.”

True to form, “This Smells Like My Vagina” recalls the 1992 film “Scent of a Woman,” nominated for Best Picture, with a Best Actor Oscar for Al Pacino. As the joke had it, Ronald Reagan sent Nancy to rent “Scent of a Woman” and she came back with “A Fish Called Wanda.” For all her own fine essence, Academy Award winner Gywneth Paltrow may not have heard that one. 

Meanwhile, at this year’s Oscars, a film produced by Barack Obama—the former American president, not the Kenyan—won best documentary feature for “American Factory.” Of course, this had nothing to do with politics.

The evening’s best line came from director Julia Reichert, who told the global audience “things will be better when workers of the world unite,” a rip-off from an old script by Karl Marx. Apparently Reichert didn’t get the memo that Joseph Stalin killed millions of the workers, and that American Marxists are all elitist Gramscians now, like Pete Buttigieg’s dad

Movies and Academy Awards speeches often soar beyond satire. Perhaps the best effort comes from the Monty Python troupe. 

In one episode, John Cleese said the film “Scott of the Antarctic was “pro-humanity and anti-bad things.” In the Pythons’ “The British Show Biz Awards,” Eric Idle hails “a man who has done only more than anyone,” and the “award for the most awards award.” That’s pretty much what the Academy Awards are about. 

Move along people, nothing to see here. 

Books & Culture

Prayers for Rush Limbaugh

When Rush’s formerly-nicotine-stained fingers pass the torch, we must aspire to carry it as diligently, as unashamedly, and as merrily as he has.

One afternoon in 1992, I visited a friend at his quarters on Tyndall Air Force Base. We ate burgers and swapped stories, and then he looked at the clock and turned on the radio. “You gotta hear this guy!” he said with a confident grin.

I doubted that. I had tired of “shock jock” DJ schtick by the time I was 20. Still, Mike was a good friend who made very good burgers, so I prepared to politely endure the performance. Mike’s grin remained as I heard, for the first time, Rush Limbaugh’s diligent employment of the talent God loaned him.

God must have checked his credit rating; it had been a substantial loan.

Years of listening may be blending, in my memories. Still. I’m sure that that very first day, it was one of the parody songs which made me chuckle, as it were, audibly. (In 1992, we didn’t know how to “lol” yet.) A Ted Kennedy impersonator sang “I Get Around” and when Rush’s voice returned, we could tell that he’d enjoyed it as much as we had. His heart was in his work, and his sincerity came through. He was sincere in his criticisms of the leftist icon, and just as importantly, he sounded sincerely amused.

Good humor is the key to Rush’s appeal. “Moderate strength is shown in violence,” observed G.K. Chesterton. “Supreme strength is shown in levity.” Rush’s humor is the humor of supreme confidence. He revels in that confidence, not in his own superiority, but in his arguments and in the hard-working salt-of-the-earth Americans who increasingly were becoming his audience.

Like much of that audience, I found it a breath of fresh air for someone on the radio to be articulating the positions I held, and being irreverent towards figures whom I had never revered. Musical lese majeste to that lyin’ Lion of the Senate was just the beginning. Risible figures had their own “update themes” as effective as musical caricatures, and (like thousands of the folks calling themselves “Dittoheads”) I rejoiced in the feeling that my political and cultural opponents were no longer insulated from public criticism.

It would be hard to overstate how important this was. Before the effects of the internet, news was monolithic and liberal; I’d been ineffectually yelling back at the television since I was a little right-wing kid. In college I’d discovered National Review (it was a conservative magazine in those days) and I enjoyed its arguments and William F. Buckley’s vocabulary-expanding commentary immensely, but outside the library where I could read it (I couldn’t afford a subscription) a conservative critique seemed to get no public traction.

Now, however, Rush’s three-hour show took those ideas and criticisms and projected them far and wide—beyond magazine pages—with courage, passion, and style.

Rush became common culture to conservatives. Half his brain, he said, was tied behind his back; perhaps it was the pedantic half, since he so successfully brought ideas from the highbrow conservative inner circle out into the real world where they could do more good.

Certainly the behind-the-back part included that portion of the brain which makes excuses, and the lobe which generates cowering behavior in response to partisan malice. Rush has been called every nasty name in the left-wing lexicon of invective, and borne it all cheerfully. Their abuse hasn’t hindered his enormous success over the decades. Shrugging off the slanders and ignoring the epithets is one of the lessons we’ve learned from him.

And we’ve all learned from him. His singular importance cannot be described as the exclusive blessing of the other conservative radio-talk-show hosts who now thrive in the industry he single-handedly created, but rather a blessing to all of us who push back against leftist intimidation and encroachment.

The current generation of opponents of the Left, every great or small champion of our beloved old constitutional Republic and its commonsensical citizenry, owes an awful lot to the most recent recipient of the Medal of Freedom. He showed us what could be done, and exhibited the marvelous attitude with which it is necessary to do it.

When Rush’s formerly-nicotine-stained fingers pass the torch, we must aspire to carry it as diligently, as unashamedly, and as merrily as Rush has.

Schtick notwithstanding, I don’t think Rush wants us to think that no one will ever be as great as he is—even in radio broadcasting. God has loaned out a lot of talent. No matter what future excellence is attained, however, Rush’s contribution will remain historic and unique. No one else will ever have been the first.

Thank you, Rush Limbaugh. You’ve shown us how it’s done and we are praying for you!

Books & Culture

Homily for Romney

So, Mitt Romney Schifffted gears;

And we listen to them grind,

Like his teeth, because the nation’s

Left him very far behind.

 

For the moment, his new friends

Smile in cold satisfaction –

But he’ll find his Schiffting principles

Won’t gain him any traction.

 

Those who now sing fulsome praise,

Found him disgusting, once. Of course,

They haven’t really changed their minds; it’s

We who trusted, who feel remorse.

Books & Culture

A review of “Marriage Story” (Directed by Noah Baumbach, R, 136 minutes, Netflix)

‘Marriage Story’ Is the Perfect Movie for Our Narcissistic Time

“Marriage Story” doesn’t deal with its fraught subject in a mature way. It soothes with the message, “no judgment.” But is that really what America needs to hear?

It is impossible to watch the critically acclaimed Oscar-nominated “Marriage Story” without bearing in mind that America no longer takes marriage very seriously. The plaudits showered on the film seem like no accident.

A melodramatic tale about two bicoastal (New York and Los Angeles) artists going through a painful separation, “Marriage Story” has been praised for its “realistic” and compassionate look at the anguish of divorce. But the title is deceiving. At the heart of “Marriage Story” is a belief in nothing—not in love, not in the family, and certainly not in marriage.

The only things that are real in this story are the characters and their narcissism. Although it touches on matters of fundamental importance, it has little to say about them. The focus is on the feelings, though only of the mom and dad, and not much else. Pitched as a movie about marriage, “Marriage Story” is about the pseudo-liberation of breaking a family apart.

We know how “Marriage Story” is going to end from the start. When the story begins, Charlie Barber, an ambitious and self-absorbed New York theatre director, and Nicole, an equally ambitious and self-absorbed actress, are at a divorce mediation. In one of the few life-affirming moments, a narration plays of husband and wife reading letters about the things they love about each other as a sentimental montage plays.

Then it’s back to reality. Charlie and Nicole are sitting in uncomfortable silence, letters in hand. The session breaks down when Nicole storms out, but not before making a comment about her husband and the mediator fellating each other.

It quickly becomes apparent that Charlie and Nicole are not particularly modest or pleasant people. Nicole moves to Los Angeles temporarily for a TV pilot but ends up settling there without warning. Although they agree to split amicably, Nicole hires a witchy, ruthless Hollywood divorce lawyer (Laura Dern) to represent her. Charlie, who is focused on directing his play in New York, is taken off guard when he’s served his papers. Before long, they are drawn into a nightmarish civil war that inflicts enormous emotional and financial costs on both of them. Charlie hires, then fires, a kind but dotty and ineffective attorney (Alan Alda) and finally takes on a thuggish one (Ray Liotta) who is equal to the fight.

As the conflict escalates, they fight over their child, air out the dirty laundry in court, and get into a viral screaming match. They dredge up every little slight they’ve ever felt and say cruel things about each other. “Marriage Story” leaves the impression that divorce is a hell that should be avoided at all costs, but it doesn’t really work its way to that conclusion. Divorce is depicted both as purgatory and as a basically frivolous detour on the road to self-actualization. That isn’t just morally irresponsible, per se, it’s a narrative weakness.

“Marriage Story” asks for sympathy, but it’s too kind to its characters by half. What they experience is terrible, but it also feels contrived, and the story is forgetful that mom and dad are not the only ones in the family. They have a son, Henry, whose perspective is entirely ignored. The story is told through the lenses of the parents and their narcissism. It doesn’t dwell too long or hard on the reasons for their separation or the consequences of it.

To find the story convincing, one will probably need to share the assumption behind the narrative that these people deserve unconditional sympathy, rather than shame. How one responds here will depend on his attitudes about marriage and divorce in general: is marriage a serious, life-lasting commitment or a transaction, something that can be canceled at any time and exchanged for something better? Is there any shame in breaking up a family, or is divorce simply a matter of “choice,” always for the better?

The remarkable thing about “Marriage Story” is that it depicts an at-fault divorce, but it doesn’t feel like one. There is a betrayal on one side, but the narrative driver is more in the realm of “irreconcilable differences.”

Nicole is unhappy because Charlie is controlling and has no respect for her ambitions. She’s tired of being “just” a wife and mom, and wants “an entirely different kind of life,” something that belongs to her alone. She rushed into marriage expecting bliss, but ended up with buyer’s remorse. Charlie is miserable because he finds Nicole a burden to his aspirations and, it’s implied, he never really wanted to get married (or divorced for that matter) in the first place. He probably would have been happier sleeping with groupies in Brooklyn. He finds his wife’s complaints about independence bothersome and not worthy of taking seriously. Both are totally consumed with their personal feelings, their sense of injury, and their desire for artistic glory.

Do these people really need to get divorced, or do they just need to grow up? To put it some other way, are they unhappy with each other, or destined to bring unhappiness with them everywhere that they go?

“Marriage Story” doesn’t look into the latter scenario, but it seems like a logical one. It’s not hard to imagine an ending beyond the final page like this: Charlie finds another trophy wife to join him on his quest for greatness, while Nicole marries an indie filmmaker of whom she eventually grows resentful and then betrays. Rinse and repeat.

Like a cinematic equivalent of slam poetry, “Marriage Story” validates everything the characters feel. In so doing, to paraphrase Christopher Lasch, it lacks the critical distance from its subject matter that is needed to reach any edifying conclusions. Charlie and Nicole are never seen reflecting on their actions, and they are surrounded by hip New York-L.A. creatives who reassure them that what they’re doing is a kind of therapy, a painful but transitory step on the road to true happiness. “Marriage Story” is about the emotional toll of divorce on a couple, but it doesn’t depict the end of a family as a tragedy. It’s a movie about marriage that doesn’t take marriage seriously.

This is clear when all the sound and fury ends with a shrug. Charlie and Nicole go on to become fabulously successful and famous, and their son, if he has experienced any trauma at all, does not show any sign of it. In fact, he doesn’t cry or show any distress in the entire movie. How’s that for realism?

These lapses might be explained by the surmise that “Marriage Story” isn’t really about marriage and family at all, but only about two narcissists and their careers. In the end, have Charlie and Nicole learned anything about themselves or each other? They haven’t suffered, really. They’re still friends. Outside of one vicious argument, they remain amicable throughout the movie. It can even be said that they still love each other, and the movie shoots for “we’re still family even though we’re not a family anymore” sentimentalism. What’s the point?

If there is one, it appears to be indulging in emotional punishment and histrionic victimhood. “Marriage Story” asks us to buy into its liberal assumptions about life, and to suspend judgment of people who would probably be happier if they took themselves less seriously. There’s nothing profound about this stuff, but a shallow culture of confession is predisposed to find over-sharing and “raw” emotional disclosure revealing and deep in the absence of anything asking them to reach higher.

“Marriage Story” reflects the shallow morals of a shallow time. It validates a culture that abhors the family and exalts non-commitment. It tries to “destigmatize” something that is already largely accepted by society without shame. Divorce today is normal to the point of banality. If “Marriage Story” is meant to be uplifting, a generous and nonjudgmental take on this sad reality of American life, then it has the effect of a PSA against the shallow beliefs that underpin its very narrative, the non-committal attitudes that made America into a land of broken homes.

“Marriage Story” dwells on the sadness of divorce, but it never wonders if Charlie and Nicole made the right choice. They give up too easily. Separation is fated. That’s not uplifting, it’s depressing. The objection—if two people are unhappy, then why shouldn’t they just separate?—may be plausible in specific cases, but it’s a hopeless attitude toward life and the society created in its image is a very sad one.

The film affirms that despair as a phony form of liberation. It seems to say that marriage, like everything in life, is trivial. At its core, “Marriage Story” lacks conviction in life, in love, in marriage, in all of the things that make life worth living.

Charlie and Nicole made a commitment they couldn’t keep. Life is full of mistakes like that, but should they be glorified? “Marriage Story” doesn’t deal with its fraught subject in a mature way.

It reinforces the beliefs of a broken, narcissistic society that may be inclined to find its divorce-as-liberation message reassuring. It soothes with the message, “no judgment.” But is that really what America needs to hear?

Books & Culture

A review of “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory,” by Andrew J. Bacevich (Metropolitan Books, 256 pages, $27)

The End of the End of History

In the end, the most fervent believers in the god that failed were anti-Communists. They failed to anticipate the end of Soviet Communism.

Between the promise of peace and the hell of war, between the day of the Lord and two decades of fighting in the forever war, between the paradise of the future and the pain of the present, between the commands of the Scriptures and the demands of conscription—between the cross and the sword—stands a witness to history.

Stoic in his suffering and steadfast in his devotion, this witness chronicles the tragedy of American foreign policy.

He bears witness to our loss, while he endures a loss like no other.

His name is Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.

His new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, is a series of profiles in political folly. The follies of presidents both blind to history and blasé about the end of history, in spite of the history of history itself: that it is an argument without end.

The argument continues, in spite of the rightness of certain unalienable rights. The argument rages, in spite of this unarguable truth, that we cannot thrive anywhere if our troops are everywhere.

The argument also worsens our judgment with bad intelligence, in spite of the money we lavish on our intelligence agencies—because of the money we lavish on our intelligence agencies.

Because of what we know about the Pentagon and CIA, because of the things we know we know—the known knowns, according to Donald Rumsfeld—we should just say, “No.”

We should not spend more money to know the obvious, that the permanent bureaucracy is stronger than any president, because all presidents are temporary residents of the White House.

No matter what they say—that all free men are citizens of Berlin; that the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker; that freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace—presidents do not convert the religious.

In the end, the most fervent believers in the god that failed were anti-Communists. They failed to anticipate the end of Soviet Communism.

Professor Bacevich acknowledges his own failure to envision the end not only of a war but a way of life.

He describes the healing of a wound and the reversal of a scar. He details the disappearance of a 27-mile-long incision between East and West Berlin. He depicts the resurrection of a people and the death of a crude form of open-heart surgery on the German body politic.

He sees division in the post-Cold War world of technology and trade. He sees two worlds, separate and unequal, where the color line is green.

He sees how politicians comfort the upper class by promoting policies that threaten the middle class. He sees how Bill Clinton undermined the working class. He sees how George W. Bush and Barack Obama finished the job.

He sees their vision of hope and change for what it is: an illusion.

He sees how Donald Trump came to power.

Books & Culture

Queen Elizabeth Beats Hollywood and the Stumblebum Sussexes

Once upon a time, a dolt from Tinseltown imagined she was a match for the queen of England.

His wife, a hero of sorts only in the TV series “Suits,” had hightailed it to Canada, leaving Harry Windsor, formerly known as Prince Harry, to deliver a concession speech.

Make no mistake—no matter the moola they rake in, Harry and Meghan Markle have been sorely defeated and deflated.

Earlier in January, the stumblebum Sussexes had smugly announced to the world that they “planned to carve out a progressive new role within this institution.” The unavoidable implication of that sleight-of-hand was that “this institution” (the monarchy) was just not “woke” enough for the couple’s exquisitely honed sensibilities.

Gallantly has Harry tried since to make his subjects believe that it is he, not Meghan Markle—his meddlesome, divisive, American wife—who had attempted, and failed miserably, to outsmart Queen Elizabeth II.

But the crass and callous rollout production, lacking in etiquette and contemptuous of royal protocol, fell flat.

So deeply silly was the Sussexes’ Instagram statement, that it had brainy royal correspondents and members of the queen’s bench sniggering that Harry and his Hollywood wife must have been getting bad advice from friends across the Atlantic who knew nothing about the workings of the British monarchy.

A woman of impeccable class, Queen Elizabeth, 93, handled the Markle tantrum with great kindness—even though the couple had informed the world of their antics before apprising the queen and other members of the royal family.

Wrapping up Markle’s failed brinkmanship, Harry unleashed a load of bafflegab, peppered with oddly fatalistic phrases such as, “after so many years of challenges,” “there really was no other option,” and, sadly, “it had come to” this.

Translated: After two years of royal toil, my wife has had enough. She cracked under the duress of being dressed to the nines, served the food of her fancy, watched over and catered to, housed in a palace of her own design, and showered with her heart’s desire and a title.

These were paltry rewards for Markle’s herculean efforts. In a word, Meghan prefers the life of a celebrity to that of the public servant.

Despite two years of torturous toil, Harry and his “hardworking” bride were prepared “to continue serving the Queen.” Alas, rambled Harry, that “unfortunately . . . wasn’t possible.” The queen was having none it.

No wonder. Her Royal Majesty embodies mettle. She has lived a life of dedication and duty. Still in her teens, before being crowned, Elizabeth had joined the military, during World War II, where she “drove a military truck while she served.”

Translated, again: Meghan and Harry (the man of the house here comes first) had hoped to serve the queen on their own terms. Her highness went hardline, the outcome of which is that, for mindlessly following Meghan, Harry and his boorish bride have been stripped of their status as “working members” of the royal family, have forfeited their “HRH” titles and the honor of traveling on behalf of the queen. Their names have been expunged from the court circular. The Sussexes are also in the bad books of the prince of Wales. Prince Charles, after all, pays for his son’s lavish lifestyle.

According to Alastair Bruce, ABC News’ “royalty consultant,” and himself a military man, Prince Harry will also lose his honorific military patronages and titles, including “his title as Captain General Royal Marines,” which was especially dear to Harry.

Granted, life at Frogmore Cottage in Windsor, a place beyond picturesque, didn’t quite cut it for Meghan. But since it was renovated largely at public expense, down to a yoga studio, a staircase for Meghan’s grand entrances and original paintings from the queen’s own collection—the pair will have to reimburse the Sovereign Grant fund.

That the British monarchy stands for the last vestiges of ancient English tradition is not in dispute. But what do the Duke and Duchess of Sussex stand for in this tawdry saga? The Economist magazine, whose sources crown Meghan Markle as the “principal agent of the current debacle,” tethers “Harry and Meghan to . . . Marx.”

Markle, the Economist reports, is a “product of an entertainment business that has done more than any other industry to fulfill Marx’s prediction that ‘all that is sacred’ would be ‘profaned’ and ‘all that is solid’ would ‘melt into air.’”

The Communist Manifesto predicted and celebrated that crass commercialism would subject national institutions “to the revolutionary logic of the global market.” “The Sussexes,” muses the Economist’s Bagehot column, “are … embracing capitalism in its rawest, most modern form: global rather than national, virtual rather than solid, driven, by its ineluctable logic, to constantly produce new fads and fashions.” [Emphasis added.]

In 21st-century capitalism you accumulate followers in order to monetize them. . . . In a 21st-century-capitalist society you are propelled around the world in pursuit of the latest marketing opportunity.

To date, the queen has foiled Meghan’s mindless plan to brand the term “Sussex Royal.” Believe it or not, the two twits had gone and hired a branding agency—the same one that caters to the children’s channel Nickelodeon—and had tried to trademark a Sussex Royal logo.

No doubt the queen’s bench has put Meghan and her American pettifoggers in their proper place.

Once upon a time, a dolt from Tinseltown imagined she was a match for the queen of England.

Books & Culture

A review of “Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Progressive Elite,” by Peter Schweizer (Harper, 368 pages, $29.99)

The Grubby Corruption of Our Power Elite

We all owe Peter Schweizer an enormous debt of gratitude for his enormous and effective labors in bringing sunlight to these tenebrous and mephitic climes.

In January 1956, John F. Kennedy published Profiles in Courage, biographical encomia to eight U.S. senators, from John Quincy Adams to Robert Taft, whom Kennedy thought exhibited conspicuous courage in the discharge of their public duties.

I say Kennedy published Profiles in Courage. But the book was written not by JFK but by the loyal Kennedy apparatchik and fixer Ted Sorensen. Sorenson, like so many in the Kennedy circle, was a bit thuggish. He was also an eloquent writer. Remember this famous bit from Kennedy’s inaugural? “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Nicely put, and it was put by Sorensen, merely read by Kennedy.

Anyway, Profiles in Courage was an early installment in that long-running (indeed, still-running) effort to obscure the distasteful reality of JFK with a carefully cultivated image of an eager yet culturally sophisticated patriot (see the index under “Pablo Casals visits the White House”).

Profiles in Courage deserves its place in that vast mythopoeic enterprise the public knows as Camelot. But a much more important book is Peter Schweizer’s Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Progressive Elites.

Schweizer will be known to many readers of American Greatness. He is unquestionably our most accomplished anatomist of “using public power for personal gain. . . . cronyism, corruption, patronage, and intimidation.” His string of bestsellers includes Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, and Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison.

Do not be misled by the name “Clinton.” Schweizer’s subject is not perfidy, corruption, and self-dealing by Democrats, but perfidy, corruption, and self-dealing by politicians regardless of party. Republicans figure prominently in several of his books. If Democrats figure so heavily in others—exclusively in Profile in Corruption—it is because these days Democrats tend to be more accomplished at corruption, as they are at political hardball in general, than Republicans. The name “Clinton” should remind us all of that, as it should remind students of early 19th-century English literary history of William Hazlitt’s astute observation that “those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.”

Schweizer frankly acknowledges that many—well, some—politicians, on both sides of the aisle, are honest public servants, men and women who “navigate the challenging world of politics with integrity, and for the good of the country.” This is undoubtedly true—as is his observation that such straight shooters “appear to be a dying group.”

In his new book, Schweizer considers a rather different cast of characters from those that Kennedy-Sorensen eulogized. Instead of heroes like John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston, and Daniel Webster, Schweizer focuses his searchlight on nine figures who exemplify political corruption in the administrative state that is America today. More than half of the figures are household names—Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. The rest are prominent but somewhat lesser-known Democrats: Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Schweizer begins his book with a look back at Robert Penn Warren’s classic tale of political corruption, All the King’s Men. By today’s standards, the bribery that was at the center of Judge Irwin’s corruption in Warren’s novel seems almost quaint in its simplicity. As Schweizer notes, “While few today would follow the outdated pattern of 1930s bribery, current political figures often benefit from financial ties with special-interest parties that are hard to trace, obscured behind what seems like a rock wall. . . . Part of the challenge is first identifying the tie between political power and those with whom they leverage their position.”

The rhetorical power of Schweizer’s books stems from two things: first, meticulous research that provides the gem-like elements of his political portraits, and second, an evenhanded, almost deadpan, narrative style in which facts are marshaled, set forth, and left to speak for themselves without undue editorializing.

“What makes so many people angry at Washington,” Schweizer writes, “is the fact that those with political power get to operate by a different set of rules than the rest of us.”

Writing about Kamala Harris, for example. Schweizer minutes her early career as a district attorney in San Francisco and her avid support for Barack Obama in 2004 when he was running for the U.S. Senate. She shot to prominence, but her rise, Schweizer shows, is “far more complicated” and “troubling” than Harris’s own PR would acknowledge.

“Harris’s elevation to national politics,” he notes, “is closely tied to one of California’s most allegedly corrupt political machines and investigations into her tenure as a prosecutor raise disturbing questions about her use of criminal statutes in a highly selective manner, presumably to protect her friends, financial partners, and supporters.” Schweizer details Harris’s involvement with Willie Brown, the powerful (and, incidentally, married) California pol who was more than 30 years Harris’s senior. Brown smoothed the way for Harris’s budding career, steering influence, and remunerative appointments her way.

Schweizer’s inventory of Harris’s shady behavior while attorney general for California is partly shocking, partly numbing. Harris was always ready to look the other way when powerful political interests were involved, but ferocious when dealing with people without power or influence.

Since Harris is now on her way to the political oubliette, however, Schweizer’s discussion of her depredations is of less exigent interest than his discussion of other figures, especially Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, all, remarkably enough, leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president. What Schweizer says about Warren provides a theme of which the other candidates provide faithful variations.

When Warren first emerged on the political scene, in the years following the financial crisis of 2008, she was hailed as a progressive heroine, untainted by the grubby power-politics of Wall Street. But as Schweizer shows, with Elizabeth Warren, image and reality diverge sharply.

“Her family’s accumulation of wealth,” he notes,

even while she has risen to power championing attacks on corporate America, has been deeply dependent on those same corporations. Indeed, in the 1990s she effectively leveraged her position working as a government consultant on bankruptcy issues to reap a rich financial harvest as a legal consultant for the biggest corporations in America. And her family has benefited from other corporate ties. The fundamental contradictions between what she presents herself to be and what she has done provide for remarkable contrasts.

Remarkable, indeed. But, in the end, less remarkable than the walking spectacle of corruption that is Joe Biden.

We’ve all heard about, and then been admonished not to heed, the stories about the world extortion tour of Hunter Biden, the former vice-president’s son, during which he extracted millions in fees and billions in contracts from China, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Biden pere keeps telling the world not to look at that man behind the curtain, but when we have videos of Joe Biden bragging about how effective was his threat to withhold $1 billion in aid to Ukraine unless a prosecutor looking into a company on whose board his son sat (monthly fees: north of $50,000), then it is hard to take Biden seriously.

Once again, image and reality diverge. The image Joe Biden has always cultivated is of a man of humble origins and working-class sympathies. But the reality is that he sits like a spider at the center of a web of financial interests that his two brothers, Frank and James, his sister, and his son Hunter and daughter oversee and profit from. They did quite well during the more than three decades that Biden was a U.S. senator.

But as Schweizer dryly notes, when Barack Obama picked Biden as his running mate in 2008, “it boosted the Biden family fortunes to another level. Now suddenly there were opportunities on a global scale. The executive branch offered an abundance of power to leverage, and the value of the Biden family’s commercial deals, especially those of Hunter, James, and Frank, would skyrocket.”

Schweizer cites chapter and verse in his indictment of the Bidens and other figures in this danse macabre. His real subject, however, is not this unsavory lot of so-called “progressive” politicians. Rather it is a truth of human psychology summed up in Milton Friedman’s observation that “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

All the figures that Schweizer discusses are known as “progressives” of one stripe or another, from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the heavy-handed redistributionist, socialist end, to Joe Biden in the gabbling senile establishment middle. They all talk about helping the little guy. They are filled to the brim with “good intentions.” But the scare quotes are intended. What they are really all about is increasing the power of government, and hence their own power and perquisites, under cover of noble-sounding progressive nostrums.

This brings us to the core of Schweizer’s important book. “What makes so many people angry at Washington,” he notes, “is the fact that those with political power get to operate by a different set of rules than the rest of us.” That’s it in a nutshell.

As one compares the treatment accorded to Hillary Clinton, say, or Biden and his sons and brothers with the treatment accorded to General Mike Flynn or a host of other people outside the charmed circle of progressive piety, one is tempted to suggest a change to the inscription on the U.S. Supreme Court.“Equal Justice Under Law” is so out of date; “Unequal Justice Under Law” would be a more accurate slogan, one that accorded better with actual practice if not rhetoric.

Schweizer is right. Such people “use their own levers of power to protect their family and friends from the scales of justice; bail out their failing businesses; steer taxpayer money to them. When they misstep, they are excused or it is covered up. While those with little or no power have to pay for the consequences of their actions, the political class often does not. The power elite—the people who grease the wheels for themselves—are the most disconcerting and dangerous ones.”

Despite the conspiracy of silence imposed by a compliant media on these facts, the truth is leaking out bit by Biden bit. It is one reason that we now have President Donald Trump, not President Hillary Clinton. It is a reason, too, that, come January 2021, President Trump will embark on his second term. We all owe Peter Schweizer an enormous debt of gratitude for his enormous and effective labors in bringing sunlight to these tenebrous and mephitic climes.

Books & Culture

Terry Jones, ‘Monty Python,’ and the Quest for Supreme Executive Power

“Holy Grail” came out in 1975, but it packs some relevance for a farcical ceremony now going on in the Senate. Supreme executive power still derives from a mandate from the masses. Some Democrats don’t get that but Terry Jones would understand.

News of Terry Jones’ recent passing at 77 likely drew a blank from anyone under 40. The British comic was hardly a household name in America, but he is worth recalling for several reasons, partly because he never made it on his own.

Jones was part of the Monty Python troupe that hit its stride close to 50 years ago. This was collaborative comedy at its best, with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Jones all playing off each other in grand style. Jones excelled in roles such as game show host Arthur Mee on the “All-England Summarizing Proust Competition.”

Contestants had to summarize Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, once in a swimsuit, and once in evening dress, all in 14 seconds. As one contestant played by Graham Chapman has it, “Proust’s novel ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, the forfeiture of innocence through experience, the reinstallment of extratemporal values of time regained, ultimately the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of a humane religious experience, re-stating as it does the concept of intemporality . . .”

Nice try but he gets gonged off. Other contestants, including a men’s choir, fail to measure up.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Arthur announces, “I don’t think any of our contestants this evening have succeeded in encapsulating the intricacies of Proust’s masterwork, so I’m going to award first prize this evening to the girl with the biggest tits.” As they say, you couldn’t do that today, but the skit was only funny if viewers knew something about Proust, as the French say, a real pisseur d’encre.

Jones excelled in drag roles and in one home-invasion sketch he breaks wind. John Cleese tells him to lay off the beans and Jones says “I only had three cans!” In another sketch, he tells a man who supposedly speaks in a roundabout way that he finds “nothing of the discursive quality” about him. And as fellow Python Eric Idle put it, “I hate people who vent their loquacity with extraneous bombastic circumlocution.”

Idle is the unctuous master of ceremonies for “The British Show Biz Awards,” an Oscar spoof in which he hails a man “who has done only more than not anyone, but who, nevertheless, has only done more.” When the time comes for the “award for the most awards award,” that goes to the “Dirty Vicar Sketch,” starring Terry Jones as the Reverend Ronald Sims, the Dirty Vicar of St. Michaels.

“How do you find the new vicarage?” asks an elegant lady.

“I find the grounds delightful, and the servants most attentive,” the vicar says, “and particularly the little serving maid with the great big knockers, and when she gets going. . .” Never politically correct, Jones could nevertheless deliver insight on political themes.

For example, playing a woman in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Jones asks King Arthur “how’d you get to be king?”

As Arthur explains, “The lady of the lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying that by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!” This draws a response from Dennis, played by Michael Palin.

“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government,” Dennis argues. “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

“Holy Grail” came out in 1975, but it packs some relevance for a farcical ceremony now going on in the Senate. Supreme executive power still derives from a mandate from the masses. Some Democrats don’t get that but Terry Jones would understand.

Meanwhile, in 1989, Graham Chapman was the first of the Monty Python troupe to depart. As John Cleese put it this week, “Two down, four to go.” To all, thanks for the laughs and the memories.

Books & Culture

A review of “The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite,” by Michael Lind (Portfolio, 224 pages, $25)

A Class War for Our Time

The alternative to engaging in the fight Michael Lind describes is that conservatives will remain caught somewhere between the libertarianism of Republican elites and the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party.

I first heard of Michael Lind from a friend, who called him “cantankerous” and “brilliant” and mentioned that Lind was certain Trump would win. This was in 2015, when the conventional wisdom held that Trump’s pre-primary lead in the polls would evaporate, giving way to a more serious establishment candidate to challenge Hillary Clinton.

I first met Lind more than a year later, at an event hosted by a Washington, D.C. think tank he founded, where he walked me through his entire theory of American politics. In short, we were undergoing a realignment where populist Republican voters would lead a revolt against the party’s libertarian and neoliberal elite. And he explained how this realignment led to the rise of Donald Trump.

Lind has now published The New Class War, a book that delves into the details of our conversation from a few years ago. It’s an expansion of an essay he published in American Affairs, where he argues that Western democracies are undergoing a significant upheaval because Western elites have rebelled against the working and middle classes of their own countries. Those elites have invested in globalized labor arbitrage in China and other countries instead of building productivity in their own nations. In the process, they have created a labor market where working-class people have found it harder to find the kind of work that enables them to live the kinds of lives they want. And they have made a social world where the institutions—unions and churches, especially—that working class people rely on have been decimated. These two facts are related, of course: the decline of unions is, in part, a story of globalization decimating the American manufacturing sector.

In some ways, this is a story that many have heard before, but Lind explores it in new ways.

First, building from James Burnham, he defines “the elite” as the “professional class”: people who’ve achieved advanced education, who cluster in the major urban enclaves of our country, and who serve as bureaucrats in our government, managers in our corporations, and educators in our schools and universities. This definition leaves out many rich capitalists—an uneducated, but wealthy, owner of an electrical supply company, for instance—even as it includes middle-income teachers.

Many classical Marxists will bristle at Lind’s decision to place so much of the blame at the feet of the professional class instead of the super-rich, but Lind’s argument does possess some explanatory power: income is often a far less potent predictor of voting and cultural affiliation than educational attainment.

And though the Marxist can scream “false consciousness” until he’s red in the face, recent electoral history in Western Europe and America suggests that the working classes, in fact, do care about their own national borders. The proletariat of the world has not united, even as the professional class shows increasing transnational solidarity and fewer obvious signs of national loyalty or civic pride.

Compromising the Good Life

But Lind does not advocate an overthrow of the professional class. He’s instead arguing that they should wake up, learn a little about their own countrymen, and share a little power. To the libertarians on the Right, he asks them to consider the upside of labor unions. To the neoliberals of the Left, he asks them to consider the downside of mass immigration. To Lind, the populists can’t “win”: there will always be an elite, and the goal of our politics should be a class compromise.

Outside of provision for healthcare and other basic needs, Lind doubts whether redistribution can solve our most significant problems. He is similarly scornful of the idea that workers need only to “go back to school” or, worse yet, “just move” for better wages.

Part of living a good life is being able to build it where you want, not just in four or five coastal megacities. The problem with the working class, says Lind, is not that they lack enough human capital or geographic mobility, it’s that they lack bargaining power. And in an economy replete with various types of labor arbitrage (like shipping millions of manufacturing jobs to China), acquiring more education is unlikely to give workers the bargaining power they need. Consequently, our class compromise can’t take the form of a little more redistribution or subsidies for education so the working class can “upskill” into better jobs.

This “palliative reform,” says Lind, “at most can create oligarchy with a human face.”

Human Capital and Productivity

There are parts of Lind’s argument with which I quibble. I’m not so sure it’s possible to separate the managers of our globalized world from its owners. The managerial class at Apple has shipped much of the iPhone production to China—even as it allows the Chinese government to spy on dissidents using its devices—but I don’t see the shareholders or leadership of Apple offering much resistance.

Human capital development may be no substitute for bargaining power, but there is undoubtedly some connection between human capital and productivity, and we ought to make our workforce as skilled as possible. I would have appreciated a more detailed treatment of religion, especially because Lind (who is not Catholic) has clearly been influenced by late-19th century Pope Leo XIII.

But this is simply a brilliant book by one of our country’s most gifted thinkers. And it is more than that: it offers a path forward for a conservative movement almost pathologically unable to offer a structural critique of the American economy.

It is important, of course, to emphasize personal agency and responsibility—no person benefits from a defeatist attitude or culture. But the tendency in recent years has been to take this insight and turn it into a reactive policy agenda.

To every person who’s lost a job, or lost a son to opioids, or has been unable to afford a family, our reflexive response can’t be, “Stop complaining and try harder.” Personal resilience and responsibility are invaluable, but as a political response it is both depraved and self-defeating to shrug and recite these mantras. Sometimes, our elites—say, the masters of Purdue Pharma earning billions by starting a drug epidemic—really did screw up. The New Class War offers a more substantive politics that the Right would do well to pursue.

The “Racial Anxiety” Distraction

There is a subversive idea lurking in The New Class War, about the role of social liberalism in our politics. In a critical review at the New York Times, Anand Gridiharas argues that Lind has a massive blind spot when it comes to race: that Trump voters were motivated less by “economic anxiety” and more by cultural or racial animus.

This story is increasingly conventional wisdom among socially liberal Americans. It is also largely absurd and relies on a series of academic studies that suffer from real errors—some lack proper statistical controls, others redefine “working class” or “racial anxiety” to suit the narrative. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that Romney’s voters were more racist than Trump’s—and yet the 2012 election didn’t invite dozens of mainstream think pieces about the character flaws of country club Romney voters.

Even if you buy the “racial anxiety” story, you also have to concede that this explanation has an agenda—it leads to certain thoughts, and from certain thoughts to advancing certain policies and ignoring others.

It is uncontroversially true, for instance, that Trump voters live in areas that were both ravaged by the opioid problem and saw a disproportionate share of the casualties from the last two decades of military adventurism. To focus on the racism of Trump’s base is to ignore these problems and instead make these voters villains—it is to “blame the victim” to take a popular term from academic sociology.

Lind’s book invites us to interrogate social liberalism and ask whether this dominant ideology of the American elite exists because it justifies plunder by the professional class.

Single-Minded Social Liberalism

In some people’s hands, social liberalism can encourage us to ignore an entire subpopulation of Americans, call them deplorables, and move on—even as their homes and communities are ravaged. It can be repackaged the next day to defend aggressive protections for abortion rights because, as popular Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams argued, abortion restrictions are “bad for business.”

Cast it in environmentally conscious terms, and Bernie Sanders will flirt with a quasi-eugenics program for the world’s poor, mostly nonwhite populations, to fight climate change. And in Elizabeth Warren’s hands, a neoliberal obsession with education leads to a college debt forgiveness program that, on net, transfers wealth from the middle to the top, even as it leaves the very people who caused the problem—university administrators—untouched.

I had long assumed that social liberalism’s marriage to the Democratic party was incidental. But Lind’s book has me asking: how is it possible that the best-educated, most well-connected people have increasingly adopted the same ideology? Why have both libertarian elites on the Right and neoliberal elites on the Left both adopted social commitments far more liberal than their voting bases? How did the most significant critic of Purdue Pharma, globalization, and financialization—Tucker Carlson—become the man most hated by the political movement that claims to stand for America’s working people?

The answer is simple: social liberalism is the ideology of the managerial class because it serves their economic interests. It’s Lindian class warfare pretending to be a conscience.

Which Way for Conservatives?

Of course, if Lind is right, the conservative movement has problems of its own. Over the last few decades, the Republican Party increasingly has made an electoral trade: losing professional class suburban whites and gaining working and middle class (primarily) whites. Yet it has clung to economic libertarianism because that is the ideology of its own ruling class.

Unlike the Democratic Party, where its social liberalism fits with the Republicans’ suburbanite discards, the Republican Party has not yet moved substantially to where its voters actually are. If the social liberals want to transfer the responsibility for the college debt crisis from Millennials to the middle class, the libertarians refuse to acknowledge the problem at all.

A fuller realignment would likely require that the Republicans discard their libertarianism just as the Democrats fully embrace their neoliberalism. This would mean, among other things, that some of the socially conservative minority Democrats shift to Republicans. That shift, in turn, depends on appealing to those voters’ economic interests more than catering to establishment opinion on issues like “comprehensive” immigration reform (or ignoring them altogether). Indeed, there is some evidence already that, in the wake of the current economic boom, Donald Trump enjoys (for a Republican) high approval numbers among black and Latino voters.

The future is always uncertain. But if Lind is right, and I think he is, the implication for our politics is that conservatives should embrace populism and become the new brokers of a class compromise. The alternative is that they will remain caught somewhere between the libertarianism of Republican elites and the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party, incapable of commanding a multiracial majority but perhaps held afloat electorally by the class war they refuse to actually fight.

Books & Culture

Rest in Peace, Dearest Roger

Roger Scruton experienced what it means to be generous and what can be gained when civilization makes a concerted effort to celebrate and practice virtue.

I have been, like most true-blue conservatives, in tears and mourning for over a week reflecting on the passing of our friend and mentor, Roger Scruton.

Last year he was finally and duly elevated in a country that never appreciated him sufficiently, to the Order of the British Empire, which made him rightfully a “Sir.”

Sir Roger was proud of the title and what it connoted. A firm believer in tradition and community, aside from beauty and truth, he was, in essence, a reverential man. He was truly a man for all seasons. And he was also profoundly modest. His humility endeared him to his audience because he honestly stated when he did not know an answer or had not thought through a problem. But reading his more than 50 books, across the widest panoply of subject matter, gives any objective person reason to question Roger’s strong virtue. He had no equals.

Roger was in fact, a giant, the likes of which we are unlikely to see any time soon or ever again. He was the thinking conservative of the century, surely in Britain and Europe. But it is his multidimensional perspective that most impresses. He was not a siloed man of tunnel vision or just one puffed up sub-specialization. Roger knew the whole fabric of reality and appreciated the need to tie it together, to weave a whole cloth. He was truly learned. This made him rare and unique.

I thought I would recount for posterity four episodes that show Roger’s real and sincere qualities, one’s which I hope others can model and benefit from. We should all be so fortunate.

I met Roger many decades ago when he was still at Birkbeck College teaching philosophy having been made persona non grata in wider academia. He was ousted because he did not sit well with the established Leftist, and increasingly Marxist, post-modern orthodoxy. Roger spoke his mind and wrote in convincing ways that proved the arguments of the Left were vapid and empty. But what really irked them was that he was not some armchair, ivory tower Don. He acted dutifully with integrity and followed through on his manifest ideas; he entered the arena. During the entire Cold War, Roger was intimately involved in assisting, and even smuggling literature, notes from the underground so to speak, to and from all the countries in the former Soviet bloc and at great danger to himself and fellow travelers. I was one of them, including Bibles.

Fast forward and I recall with deep pleasure my interactions with Roger over two books I personally authored about a decade ago. The first was Spiritual Enterprise, which was later republished as Virtuous Business, and made into a popular PBS documentary.

Roger helped me hone my pregnant ideas and framework into a seamless whole. I was for sure a better economist and knew the business literature and case experiences far more than Roger, and yet he was intently interested in how we could make capitalism better, “moral,” in the original sense intended by Adam Smith himself.

Three years ago, we had Roger invited to Said Business School at Oxford to address the MBA class and he honored me by thanking me publicly for having shaped his opinions about the topic and the market. It is particularly gracious when a teacher acknowledges a student, at any level, and we were peers.

All of us were students of Roger’s: on aesthetics, musicology, architecture, and philosophy. He was, indeed, a master teacher.

Another book I wrote, under the auspices of the Templeton Foundation, was titled Being Generous. Jack Templeton, M.D. wrote the moving preface as a tribute to his famous philanthropist father. What is untold is that Roger was the editor. He worked with me for over a year as I thought deeply about the virtue of generosity and the contours of gratefulness and how it was the root of the good and meaningful life.

“Above all,” Scruton concluded, “loyalty is a commitment to one’s duty which may include family, friendship, career, religion or country.” These were the things that mattered most to him: first principles.

He liked that I rooted the book in the Hebrew scriptures and also considered all the world’s other great religions in this universal finding. Roger and I sat for hours on end in the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., at Montpelier Farm in Virginia, and in his office on Beaumont Street, in Oxford, discussing the nature of “gift.” We concluded that it is the Christian tradition that has shaped our Western culture and its understanding of the concept of charity as “the love to which we are commanded,” to use Kant’s striking words.

These are frankly some of my best memories of Roger and the spirit of dialogue he represented and lived.

Roger confessed to me that his autobiography, Gentle Regrets, was incomplete and that conversations about the transcendental brought him to reevaluate his own relationship with God and His Church. His later books and lectures reflected this. Clearly, Roger sits today in Heaven at the right hand of the Father, with all the saints, looking down on us. Doubtless, on arrival he was roundly thanked with, “a job well done.” Roger should be seen as a masterful philosopher who loved wisdom and also as a faithful servant who demonstrated what so many seek and fail to find—a purposeful life. He combined faith and reason.

I was taken to see that in his last days Roger admitted that the meaning of life was simply “all about gratitude.” Roger himself embodied that very attitude. He took seriously the grace of God in all things.

My final episode to recall was at and after Roger’s well-attended and insightful lecture at the Legatum Institute in London, in May 2018, discussing “The Character of Loyalty.”

He reminded us that loyalty is a fundamental virtue on which we all depend for survival because it ties families, communities, and nations together. In defining loyalty, Roger distinguished between personal loyalty, which is a vow, such as a marriage vow or family ties and national loyalty, which is a contractual commitment. The motivation for loyalty may be practical where the commitment is rational and deliberate or sentimental where the commitment may remain despite a cost or disadvantage.

“Above all,” he concluded, “loyalty is a commitment to one’s duty which may include family, friendship, career, religion or country.” These were the things that mattered most to him: first principles.

We spoke and dined after the talk and lamented about the slow progress of Brexit about which he cared immensely as an Englishman, and anticipating the Trump impact on notions of national sovereignty, as opposed to globalism in world affairs. His conservative demeanor and good cheer made Roger, while a brilliantly critical mind, nonetheless an eternal optimist.

I talked to Roger a number of times in the last year after his atrocious debacle with the government and after he embraced his bout with cancer. Always the gentleman, Roger knew we were all terminal beings. Life had an origin and a destination. The journey he took us on while on this earth will be remembered forever and is contained not only in his spoken words and written sentences but in his loving embrace as a human being.

In the context of our grand pursuits, it was our joint belief that being generous may be the most important thing we can do not just for others, but for ourselves, for our societies, for our progeny, and even for the God or gods we choose to worship.

Well over 200 years ago, the same thing was said in the voice of the Scottish Enlightenment. Adam Smith’s seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, for which he is rightly famous, was made possible by his earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, Smith wrote: “It is the best head joined to the best heart.”

Roger Scruton was precisely that.

He experienced what it means to be generous and what can be gained when civilization makes a concerted effort to celebrate and practice virtue.

Books & Culture

The Gratitude of a Lover of Wisdom

To properly do philosophy, one does not need to spend eight years getting a Ph.D., figure out exactly what Plato or Aristotle thought, or win a debate. Scruton knew this truth intimately, having been expelled from the academy some years ago. He understood that at its heart, philosophy is an act of love.

There have already been a number of heartfelt and some prosaic obituaries for Sir Roger Scruton, who died last Sunday after a short battle with cancer, so my faint contribution feels a bit like a ripple in an ocean of remembrance. Many have already noted the numerous awards with which he was bestowed, the countless books he had written, and the host of thinkers he influenced. In all of these requisite biographical retellings of a man’s life, we too often lose the person, the one we hope to remember well.

I, like many of my generation, first encountered Scruton on YouTube, watching the documentary he wrote for the BBC, “Why Beauty Matters.” In it, I discovered a new vocabulary. No longer were art, music, or architecture, things left to a pedantic class of intellectuals, but instead I learned that they are human experiences to which we can all have access, if only we know where to look in our world of ugliness. Scruton finally showed me that there is a way to speak about things that matter.

From that point on, I devoured anything I could find from him on the internet. I checked out every book of his in the library and bought several of his books with what little money I had in my bank account, hoping to divine some of his wisdom. I told my friends and family about him. I thought the thought of every budding intellectual—“this is it, this is the philosopher to whom I can relate.”

For the rest of my undergraduate career, I devoted myself to the study of philosophy, politics, and music—eventually attempting in my own way to replicate the lessons I learned from Scruton by writing my thesis on Mozart and philosophy, hoping one day to meet the man who helped shape me intellectually and who gave me so much hope.

Not long after I graduated, I was given that opportunity. Through a mutual friend, I was told about a two-week seminar Scruton was holding over the summer near his home in England. We would be the first class of students attending “Scrutopia” (as Scruton named it). When I arrived I was shocked at how “normal” everyone was. In my youthful naïveté, I had thought that everyone attending would be graduate students, professors, and fellow philosophers, instead of school teachers, businessmen, consultants, and accountants.

For two weeks, we attended “class” for six hours each day (which was more a conversation between Scruton and the students about various elements of his thought and philosophy in general). There were also excursions to Roman ruins around the Cotswolds and two visits to Scruton’s humble farmhouse estate.

On the second visit to Scruton’s we were treated to a tour of the grounds, the stables, and a dinner prepared by the philosopher’s wife, Sophie, using vegetables from their garden and sausage procured earlier that day from the pig next door. After dinner, a concert was given by Scruton and friends, with the esteemed philosopher heading the trio at his piano.

Only now, almost three years later, reflecting on the beauty that comes from good wine mixed with the English countryside, and after the passing of a dear mentor, do I finally realize what Scruton wanted to teach us.

Earlier that day, all of the students were given time to have a one-on-one conversation with Scruton. I had spent the whole night preparing questions to ask this eminent mind. I asked him where I could go to learn: “St. John’s College, Baylor, or Princeton, but only if you study with Robbie George.” I asked what books and he kept coming back to: “Joyce’s Ulysses, or anything by Kant or Wittgenstein.” I asked what was one question he still didn’t have an answer to: “What exactly kitsch is and why is it bad?” I asked what conservatives should not do: “Become embittered.” I asked him which two books he wrote best explained who he was: “Notes From Underground and On Hunting” (the former being his fictional novel of the Prague underground university scene in the 1980s).

Finally, I asked him what one has to do to become a philosopher like him. As is the case with most stupid questions, great minds, like great potters, are able to sculpt something beautiful from the rough clay they are given, and thereby turn the questioner toward wisdom.

“Well, I am not a philosopher,” he replied. “I am just a man who got lucky enough to spend his life getting paid to think.”

All these years later and this was what he wanted to teach us. To properly do philosophy, one does not need to spend eight years getting a Ph.D., figure out exactly what Plato or Aristotle thought, or win a debate. Scruton knew this truth intimately, having been expelled from the academy some years ago. He understood that at its heart, philosophy is an act of love. He told us early on at Scrutopia that one of the foundational moments of his becoming a conservative was falling in love with the England portrayed by T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets. He rebuilt that England in his own tiny corner of the world and graciously shared it with us.

Roger Scruton was no stranger to criticism from modern academics and pundits for his defense of Western Civilization, but just like the England with which he fell in love, he knew that our civilization was a communal exercise of generations passing down the things they love, and that the job of the teacher is to inspire his students to love the permanent things.

It feels fitting then that having given so much to others, one of the last things he wrote in The Spectator was that “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” At the end of his life, I am left with my own feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for the time that he shared with all of us “normal folk” instilling in us a love for the permanent things.