First Principles

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is in the Dock Today

We know for certain that right now, the late Supreme Court justice knows the truth of abortion, a truth she assiduously avoided in her professional life.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not a judge today. Today she is in the dock. She is the accused. Like each one of us who will face judgment one day, Ruth Bader Ginsburg begs for mercy.

As a Catholic, I cannot opine on the state of anyone’s soul, living or dead. We cannot know what happens in the final moments of anyone’s life. We know making a perfect act of contrition in the final moments prevents your descent to the fiery place. We also know—but cannot know—the mercy of God.

What we hear about Ruth Bader Ginsburg is what a wonderful person she was. Justice Antonin Scalia’s son published a well-regarded column about her longtime warm friendship with his dad. Her husband was a gourmet chef. They put on lovely parties. She was good company.

In this vein, it is interesting that Ken Starr’s column at the Wall Street Journal focuses almost exclusively on her personality. She was shy and soft-spoken. Her house was a convivial clubhouse. She and her husband golfed. Starr mentioned one issue she cared about greatly: abortion.

Before joining the high court, Ginsburg delivered a lecture in which she placed a right to abortion not in “substantive due process,” which the Supreme Court long ago wrenched out of its true meaning in fair procedures, but in equality. Ginsburg said that without abortion, women could not lead equal lives or have equal dignity.

And Ginsburg had plenty of time in her career to vote in favor of killing unborn babies. One of the most important and revealing was the case called Gonzalez v. Carhart, on the partial-birth abortion ban. Partial-birth abortion is the act of killing a child as she is being born. In some cases, her entire body—except for the head—is out of the birth canal and into the world. The abortionist then reaches in and stabs the child’s head and delivers the dead baby. Imagine the little feet kicking and then going limp with the cranial stab. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ban on this despicable procedure. 

Ginsburg dissented.

She made several claims in her dissent: that once-upon-a-time women did not have independent status under the law; that women now have the right to participate equally in the nation’s socio-economic life, and that abortion is central to a woman’s destiny. Ginsburg concluded that restrictions on an abortion procedure—i.e., stabbing a baby’s head while being born—would deprive women of equal citizenship. 

Keep in mind that the decision did not ban cutting the baby limb from limb and bringing out the parts. The law only banned killing the baby while being born intact. As a lawyer and pro-life advocate, Cathy Ruse (my wife), said at the time, “My right to equal citizenship depends on a doctor stabbing my baby’s head with scissors rather than dismembering her? That’s preposterous.”

So now the woman who defended this brutal procedure and many more is standing before God’s judgment seat. As I said, we cannot know the disposition of her soul. We pray that she rests in peace. We pray that God’s mercy washes over her. I know dozens of pro-life Catholics who hit their knees and prayed for Ginsburg when they got the word of her passing. This is well and good. 

I am not a theologian, so I cannot know, but I wonder if in her defense will be the millions of unborn babies killed in abortion, that gruesome act Ginsburg defended and promoted her whole professional life. Why would I think such a thing? Because those in or near the Beatific Vision understand forgiveness, getting it, and giving it. It is the essence of Heavenly citizenship.

We know for certain that right now, Ruth Bader Ginsburg knows the truth of abortion, a truth she assiduously avoided in her professional life. In her Gonzalez v. Carhart dissent, she even mocked using the terms “unborn child” and “baby.” But now she knows. And may God have mercy on her soul.

 

First Principles

This essay is adapted from a September 16 speech celebrating Constitution Day at the Institute of World Politics.

The Case Against Slavery and Against ‘Anti-Racism’

Today’s anti-racists share in common the zeal of yesterday’s temperance advocates. For the fundamental evil of reformist revolutionaries is certainly not being drunk on alcohol but rather being drunk on power.

This year’s Constitution Day comes at a fearful time for friends of constitutional government. Some now even fear its collapse, whether by raging mobs or scheming lawyers. Either way, whether by force or by fraud, from fists or from sophistry, tyranny lurks to replace constitutional government. 

This division stems from a stark question: Is America a land of which we can be proud or one of which we must be ashamed? An exceptional nation for its virtues, prosperity, faith, and strength, or an exceptionally evil and hypocritical one for its slavery, materialism, bigotry, and imperialism? “Anti-Racism” is surging with its demands to end “institutional racism” and “white privilege” and indulge in self-flagellation with confessions of guilt. 

This arises in part from our confusion over slavery. Today slavery has become synonymous with racism, oppression, income inequality, marriage, and childhood. I would contrast such distortions of the “anti-racism” mindset with the “anti-slavery” of Abraham Lincoln.

Keep in mind that Lincoln’s entire approach to abolishing slavery distinguished the evil of slavery itself from issues of race. Today’s race-obsessed understanding of American history produces perverse policies and attitudes consumed by passion. But the equality we all seek is not a passion. Defining equality and the issues around it in terms of passion thwarts the reason required to understand it and persuade others.

Lincoln displayed such logic in making his case against slavery. In the 1850s the growing nation had become morally indifferent to slavery, while at the same time finding itself more economically dependent on it. Yet he did not condemn the Southerners as monsters, as the abolitionists did. He allowed that human nature was alike, in the North and the South. He won over skeptical audiences with a succinct definition of slavery: “you work, I eat.” 

Instead of further polarizing his audiences, Lincoln appealed to the work ethic prevalent throughout the country. No one boasts of being a moocher, any more than most people alive then thought the slave-trader was respectable company. Obvious to most if not nearly all, this consensus on self-interest and subsequent moral duty lies at the heart of what Lincoln meant by equality of natural right. So we understand him when he says, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”  And, more strongly, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

The Road to Emancipation

Similarly, when the South seceded, Lincoln had to respond with war—a war about saving the Union, not ending merely slavery. In fact, his civil war statesmanship revolved around the meaning of “saving” the Union. The meaning of salvation deepens throughout the Civil War, as Americans would later hear in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln led the nation from First Inaugural necessity to the Second Inaugural fulfillment, from the saving of the physical integrity of the nation to the saving of its soul.

All his objections to secession applied with even greater political, moral, and religious force to slavery. In his July 4, 1861 message to Congress, Lincoln justifies the war against the secessionists, as “essentially a people’s contest. [The] . . . leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; . . . to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.”

Without mentioning slavery or race, Lincoln made the purpose of the Civil War “an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”

We could examine numerous instances of Lincoln’s statesmanship advancing the anti-slavery cause throughout the war, but let’s examine the most important, the Emancipation Proclamation.

Often mistaken for an emancipation of all slaves (that was not accomplished until the passage of the 13th Amendment) the Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, distilled Lincoln’s strategy and principle. Of course, it was attacked then and today as a worthless gesture, not actually freeing any slaves. In the same vein, the proclamation could not have succeeded in its grand object had it freed any slaves in the Union. In fact, its success rested on its appearance of moral indifference.

Lincoln reportedly said early in the war, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

The Union army victory at Antietam on September 17 (Constitution Day 1862) would permit the proclamation of September 22. That victory meant the coalition of free and slave States would hold against the secessionists. The war’s objective of “affording all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life” might now begin to be fully pursued.

Even here Lincoln had to proceed cautiously. The proclamation was an executive order, not a law, and followed from his power as commander-in-chief.

The Union boldly spread word of the proclamation among the slaves. For example, in Florida an army unit of freedmen was sent on a covert mission to spread word of the proclamation to plantations and thus encourage slaves to flee. Of course, masters feared retribution and even massacres from their freed slaves. Thus what the Declaration of Independence had made a reason for independence—the encouragement by the Crown of “domestic insurrections” against the colonists—had now become a means for restoring the Declaration. To understand America we need to grasp the reason behind seeming contradictions and see the ultimate purpose.

The South reacted as might be expected for those being threatened by death from their slaves. They executed 300 captured black soldiers and their white officers. On April 18, 1864, Lincoln eloquently protested the Ft. Pillow massacre. He had introduced black soldiers into Union ranks and for that, he said, in appealing to the consciences of his Maryland audience: “I am responsible for it to the American people, to the Christian world, to history, and on my final account to God. Having determined to use the negro as a soldier, there is no way but to give him all the protection given to any other soldier.” 

Lincoln was saying that the laws of war and natural law apply to black soldiers’ treatment by both South and the North. This states plainly what he had said poetically in the Gettysburg Address and what he would say in his Second Inaugural. The black soldiers were part of the proof for the truth of the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln’s radicalism is found in his conservatism: he is radical in returning to the ways of the fathers. 

Recovering an Older Wisdom

How did the change take place from Lincoln’s view of equality to the “anti-racism” cacophony we hear today? In sum, the great shift took place in two stages: First, with Progressive Woodrow Wilson’s unique attack on the Declaration of Independence as an outdated, individualistic document. A far more clever Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, instead reinterpreted the Declaration for his own purposes.

Replacing Lincoln’s equality of natural rights, FDR redefined the Declaration to be a guarantee of socialized security. Such an indeterminate goal sets no limit to what government can do for that overriding psychological purpose. FDR replaced the old Lockean social contract with a new “contract” between the government and the governed. Now we must agree that those who work will have their wealth redistributed. And, to emphasize his seriousness, he condemned as a fascist anyone who criticized this new understanding. 

The equality of the American founding can be treated as an exercise in metaphysics, and in fact, it is worthy of such an endeavor. But the moral meaning of equality is clear to all: injustice occurs when Lincoln’s “you work, I eat” definition of slavery prevails. But only being free of slavery does not suffice for a fulfillment of equality.  

“Here comes my friend Douglass,” Lincoln announced, as he saw Frederick Douglass enter the White House. If we berate America for the injustice of slavery, we must hail the nation for its strongest souls and its best friendships. These are the rare types of equality that deepen the fundamental equality.

Flannery O’Connor demands mention as modern America’s most profound storyteller about race and real anti-racism. She would scoff at the clichés that plague our contemporary discourse and media. 

In her 1965 short story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” she presents us with a vain mother who boasts of her grandfather’s plantation of 200 slaves and her even more preposterous Progressive son who desperately tries to meet black professionals on newly integrated buses and fantasizes about introducing his mother to a black fiancé. In different guises revelation literally strikes them both, but too late. O’Connor was able to dissect such bathetic people because her art truly transcended race, rooted as it was in her faith.

“Anti-racism” is growing like its 19th-century ancestor, the temperance movement. Both forms of fanaticism have their parallels in Marxian socialism. Lincoln’s magnificent Temperance Address pointed out the flaws it shared with its cousins, the abolitionists, and the pro-slavery oligarchs. For the fundamental evil of reformist revolutionaries is certainly not being drunk on alcohol but rather being drunk on power. An appreciation of Lincoln’s anti-slavery statesmanship is the first step to recovery.

First Principles

Why Cancel Culture Is Anti-Christian

It is not surprising that those who place so little value on the life of a completely innocent unborn child would so carelessly destroy the life of any hopelessly flawed adult.

Many years ago, my Dad told me that if a man lived long enough he’d get to see just about everything. (He also told me that nothing good happens after midnight, another solid observation I blithely ignored until I became a father myself.) I find that those of us of a certain age, who remember words like pride, faith, and patriotism as taught to us to be duties rather than punchlines, think a lot about our fathers these days. 

What would they make of this post-patriotic world that seems to be so much more interested in virtue-signaling than genuine virtue? What would they think of young people, many of whom have known little of real economic privation or the prospects of war, desperately trying to tear down—literally and figuratively—a system that made such a happy circumstance so commonplace?

My parents were prototypical Democrats, born in the midst of the Great Depression to working-class Catholic immigrants. They were both the first in their families to go to college and by some divine providence became public school teachers. In their day, there were (to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald) no endless second acts in American lives, especially for those who were not to the manner born. A central tenet of their faith was the belief that one’s blessings were never to be taken for granted, but rather things to be nurtured, cared for, and appreciated. 

Simply being born in America by some quirk of fate was forever to be considered one of those blessings. Being asked to serve your country was part of the social contract that allowed you to enjoy its great bounty. Both of them having lost parents when they were in their teens, my parents had an innate understanding that life was precious and that we, as human beings, knew not the time nor the hour when we might leave this mortal coil. 

All of this is not to say that they were unaware of how difficult life could be or that there were injustices and inequities in our country. Still, they saw those failings as a result of the imperfection of man rather than any systemic problem with a country built upon the bedrock belief that all men were created equal, that we were all endowed by our Creator with certain natural rights. 

That America did not always live up to the high standards set forth at its birth did not render its growth, success, and place in the world invalid or illegitimate. No, those failings made it human and therefore forever a work in progress. Having taught thousands of high school kids over 30-year careers, my parents were well aware of humanity’s foibles and weaknesses. But like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, they were ready as teachers and parents to celebrate progress, rejoice in what was today, and to reject the temptation to brood over past insults and injuries.

One can think of few features of modern life more antithetical to the teachings of Christ than today’s cancel culture in which any sin—past or present, real or imagined—gives license to an often faceless and anonymous mob to ruin the life of a fellow imperfect human being. 

Even more sad and frightening in a country that always, at the very least, tolerated a diversity of viewpoints, is the idea that certain thoughts themselves could be considered sins if they did not hew to the orthodoxy of an increasingly disconnected and overeducated elite. 

Perhaps it is not particularly surprising that those who place so little value on the life of a completely innocent unborn child would so carelessly destroy the life of any hopelessly flawed adult. 

While other cultures and faiths might tolerate or even celebrate the concept of vindication, ours believes in turning the other cheek. This not only recognizes God himself as the ultimate arbiter of redemption but also allows and encourages human progress. It is difficult to move forward when one seeks an eye for an eye. Any concept of forgiveness or mercy is totally absent from the cancel culture today.

As a Catholic proud of his faith, I am sometimes asked why I support President Trump. I did not find that question difficult to answer four years ago and I find it even less difficult to answer today. In short, I would much rather deal with someone who unapologetically tells me what he thinks even if it might offend me than someone so afraid to offend others that his beliefs are hidden or in some cases nonexistent. 

The president’s staunch and unyielding defense of what has made America great is more imperative today than ever before. To turn our backs on our shared history and accomplishments would be tantamount to a senseless cultural suicide that would hurt the most vulnerable among us. 

Let’s remember, President Trump has embraced and signed prison reform legislation that extends second chances to Americans who have made mistakes. To the extent the president’s political opponents have manufactured so many of his alleged sins for four years, perhaps all people of faith and goodwill should extend him the same courtesy.

First Principles

New York’s Actions Against the NRA Are an Omen of Things to Come

The NRA should serve its members. But it should not, in fighting for its members, also have to fend off trumped-up charges and draconian remedies aimed at silencing its message.

This week New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James, sought to dissolve the National Rifle Association. She took this action ostensibly to pursue a claim of financial mismanagement. But the real reasons are obvious: the NRA is the preeminent defender of the Second Amendment, and the Left—and New York leftists in particular—really hate guns. In her earlier role as New York’s public advocate, James sought to strong-arm banks into dropping their business with gun manufacturers following the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

While the motive is obvious from the remedy being sought, the underlying allegations have some merit. The NRA has been serving the interests of its executives more than its members. Oliver North tried unsuccessfully to set the organization on the road to financial reform last year. The guys in charge seem to have forgotten who they work for. 

As an NRA member, I was disappointed, though hardly shocked, by these developments. This is a common problem in the nonprofit world, where greed, self-dealing, and lax accounting are masked by the language of serving the public interest. We’ve seen it with everything ranging from Wounded Warrior Foundation’s lavish spending on what were essentially vacations for the leadership to the Kid Wish Foundation, which only spent three cents of every dollar on fulfilling the wishes of dying children.

A Dangerous Precedent

While the government is certainly within its rights to look into fraud, the government’s investigative powers are not supposed to be used for low partisan purposes. In addition to the obvious potential for abuse, there was, until recently, a concern for “mutually assured destruction.” If New York is dissolving the NRA, why couldn’t Alabama shut down the scandal-ridden Southern Poverty Law Center? What private group would be safe from government harassment?

The Left does not seem terribly devoted to restraint, nor do leftists seem concerned about payback. They focus on power and winning, and their actions suggest they believe their hold on power is only going to become more substantial and less contested in the near future.

This is why Obama’s IRS brazenly shook down Tea Party groups while treating the Clinton Foundation with kid gloves. This is also why the whole crew behind the Russian collusion investigation did what they did. They thought their movement was ascendant, that Hillary Clinton would win the White House, and that their corrupt misuse of government power would never be discovered. Even now, they still treat President Trump as a temporary anomaly. In a place like New York City, left-wing Democrats are nearly untouchable, giving us a preview of what they would do to the nation as a whole if given the chance.

This is not unknown territory. Politics has always been a bare-knuckle sport, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries the spoils system, outright cheating, voter suppression, and backroom deals were how things got done. Outside of electoral politics, anarchism and labor violence tore apart places like Chicago and Colorado. Three American presidents were assassinated between 1865 and 1901. 

The ideals of a loyal opposition and the peaceful transition of power, along with limits on the use of government power for narrowly partisan purposes, were the product of a short-lived interregnum during the middle of the 20th century. While the 1960s convulsed the nation, a silent majority did elect both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. While they each faced political battles, their rights to the traditional powers of the office were not in question. Bipartisanship reflected a consensus on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy positions.

Politics Has Been Getting Rough 

Starting with the 2000 election, we began to see signs of significant fracturing, along with an unwillingness to transfer power peacefully. This is somewhat forgotten because George W. Bush was briefly buoyed by the feelings of national unity after the 9/11 attacks. Prior to that, he faced inaugural protests and boycotts. The close Florida election devolved into a battle of lawyers that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was, in the words of his enemies, “selected not elected.” 

After Bush’s narrow victory, new principles were announced that the Electoral College itself was illegitimate and that the popular vote was more important. This rhetoric was deployed again in 2016 against President Trump—this time with the connivance of certain Republicans alarmed at his populism. 

For all their faults, the New Deal Democrats had limited aims. Both they and the Republicans respected the peaceful transition of power, because of their implicit respect for the American people and their choice. Close elections and messianic politics have brought that to an end. Today’s Left does not believe in being a loyal opposition, because leftists do not accept the possibility there can be a range of reasonable disagreement or that they may not be ascendant. 

The very term “progressivism” implies that history has a particular direction, as well as a moral dimension. The Left’s electoral defeats have been blamed on cheating, foreign interference, and, when all that fails, are taken as a sign that the “deplorable” American people themselves do not deserve to rule themselves. 

The older principle of a loyal opposition was superior, however, and not simply for the party that was out of power. Because fortunes change and today’s opposition may be tomorrow’s party in power, it is also a story of enlightened self-interest, where each side exercises restraint and fair play. But a loyal opposition can only exist in a more limited and less strife-ridden political environment, where many questions are off-limits and a large swath of matters are left to private choice. 

That is to say, the more genteel politics of the 20th century arose from the fact that we actually were a united people, that our political disagreements took place within a particular range, and that government activity was bound both by the Constitution, as well as an unwritten constitution written into the character of the American people. The latter included such hoary chestnuts as “What you think is your business,” “A man’s home is his castle,” and “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”

Freedom of Association as Core American Principle

This Americanism used to include the idea that people had a right to voluntary association and to petition their grievances. In other words, Americans used to respect the right of grassroots groups to organize out of their concern for an issue, whether that concern was their right to bear arms, the abortion debate, or to stay out of foreign wars. These groups were mostly off-limits to harassment by those in power, as both sides of political debates respected the principle of voluntary association. Certainly, no one thought they could be targeted for destruction by a state attorney general.

Indeed, private groups that had extensive corruption—such as the Teamsters—were never disbanded, even when subject to government investigations under federal racketeering laws. In that case, the union was placed under receivership for a period. Notably, the government’s remedy included a vote by Teamster members to restore the leadership’s accountability to the organization’s members. 

America’s gun owners deserve a lobbying organization that is effective, a good steward of its resources, and focused on its mission. The NRA would be just fine without Wayne LaPierre or any of its other leaders. Its power comes not from its executives or its lobbyists’ rhetorical skills, but its large and motivated membership. The NRA should serve its members. But it should not, in fighting for its members, also have to fend off trumped-up charges and draconian remedies aimed at silencing its message.

We know from the pretextual harassment of churches and the destruction of small businesses in recent months that the government can be merciless in the hands of fanatic ideologues. The evolution of the Left into a combination of old-style corruption and modern ideological fanaticism is a symptom of a nation with little in common and little love between divergent factions. 

The Second Amendment expresses the American Founding generation’s wariness of centralized power and unwillingness to depend on the good faith of one’s political opponents. In other words, it is a doomsday option for use in emergencies when ordinary political activity becomes impossible. Attacking an organization devoted to protecting gun rights reminds us of what is increasingly apparent: the Left wants to remove all obstacles to its consolidation of power and intrusion into the private lives of ordinary Americans.

First Principles

Gun Control Is Dead

There’s simply no way Americans will tolerate being disarmed in the face of soaring violent crime, riots, and a neutered police force.

This summer has answered the question, “why would somebody ever need an AR-15 or a high-capacity magazine?” As the Left continues to advocate for ending private ownership of military-style rifles, Americans can also see that powerful rifles are turning up in the possession of violent rioters and looters. In this video, one can clearly see Raz Simone, then a noted leader within Seattle’s “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone”, handing out an expensive, tricked-out AR-15 to a complete stranger. Simone somehow went from an Airbnb host to a Tesla-driving, arsenal-distributing mogul in the space of a few weeks. 

As shown in this video, a militant left-wing militia group called NFAC (literally, “Not Fucking Around Coalition”) staged an armed protest in Kentucky during which an accidental discharge wounded three people. Their black attire and paramilitary appearance bore a chilling resemblance to their predecessors-in-spirit from 1930s Italy.

Why do these leftist protestors suddenly have access to expensive weapons? One answer may be China. 

In May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized approximately 10,000 assault weapons parts in Kentucky. According to the Epoch Times, U.S. customs officials have seized a staggering 5,300 gun parts shipments from China in 2020, up from 31 shipments in 2019. For emphasis, that’s not 5,300 parts that were seized, but 5,300 shipments of parts that federal authorities intercepted.

On a bipartisan basis, law-abiding whites, blacks, Democrats, and Republicans see the rising violence as a threat to their families. In deep-blue Minnesota, for example, gun stores are emptying out, particularly of ammunition, as fearful citizens wait as long as four hours to purchase a gun. Across the nation, background checks, which were well on their way to an all-time record earlier this year, have almost doubled when compared to this time last year. 

The AR-15 uses .223 caliber ammunition and manufacturers can’t keep up with the current demand. One out of every five firearms purchased in the United States is an AR-15. The National African American Gun Association (NAAGA) saw a surge in membership of approximately 5 percent in just 36 hours after the George Floyd video surfaced. In that same 36 hours, sales to NAAGA members of .223 caliber ammunition increased by 27 percent. 

When faced with a mob of arsonists and looters, the AR-15 with a standard capacity magazine is the appropriate tool to protect people and property.

Then, of course, there is the McCloskey incident which seems to confirm that leftist politicians really do want to make citizens helpless in the face of the mob. 

In June, protestors entered the private, gated community of Portland Place in St. Louis, Missouri. According to Mark McCloskey, protestors told him, “we would be killed, our home burned, and our dog killed.” Every part of the interior of Portland Place is private property. McCloskey ordered the trespassing protestors to leave. They didn’t. McCloskey invoked his rights under Missouri law to brandish a legally owned AR-15 to fortify his demand that they leave.

The Goerge Soros-backed St. Louis prosecutor, Kim Gardner, seized the McCloskey guns—Mark McCloskey’s AR-15 and Patricia McCloskey’s nonfunctioning handgun—in a perverted application of a Missouri law making it a crime to use a gun to intimidate people. The law expressly exempts brandishing a gun to deter a persistent trespasser. To prove a violation of section 571.030(4) of the Missouri criminal code, Gardner must prove that both firearms were “readily capable of lethal use.” 

According to a report by a local St. Louis television reporter, Gardner sent both firearms to a crime lab. When Patricia McCloskey’s small handgun proved inoperable, a member of Gardner’s staff, Assistant Circuit Attorney Chris Hinkley, requested that the firearm be reassembled so it could function correctly. The lab technicians complied. After the reassembled firearm proved operable, Gardner then charged Patricia McCloskey with a crime. 

As the criminal statute requires proof that the weapon was, “readily capable of lethal use,” the tampering with the evidence as-seized constitutes a conscious attempt to defraud the court. Gardner will lose her case against the McCloskeys and, we can hope, she will face consequences for tampering with evidence in order to frame Mrs. McCloskey.

Americans clearly see local politicians ignoring or even encouraging rampaging mobs. 

In Denver, a politicized city government ordered its police to withhold protection from peaceful pro-police demonstrators so that Antifa/BLM protesters could assault them without consequences. In Kirkland, Washington (near Seattle), private business owners brandished AR-15s and other weapons to protect their businesses from looters and rioters. 

Just months ago, former Vice President Joe Biden, a beneficiary of taxpayer-funded secret service protection, lectured Americans that nobody needs an AR-15 and a high capacity magazine. Biden indicated he intended to appoint Beto O’Rourke to lead gun control efforts in a Biden Administration. O’Rourke famously promised to take away Americans’ AR-15s. “If I win, I’m coming for them,” Biden said of privately-owned AR-15s during his endorsement of O’Rourke’s gun confiscation policy.

Biden’s plan for a “buyback,” a euphemism for confiscating private guns, is a nonstarter. His plan will require all gun owners “who possess assault weapons or high-capacity magazines” to select from two options, either, “sell the weapons to the government, or register them under the National Firearms Act.” 

Biden also plans to create a bureaucratic veto for all gun purchases. Currently, if the FBI fails to adjudicate a background check for a gun purchase in a timely manner, the dealer may complete the sale after three business days. Biden would close this “loophole,” which will allow the federal government to slow or veto individual gun sales simply by doing nothing. Biden would also eliminate all online sales of guns and ammunition.

Americans don’t feel safe. Paternalistic, privileged white liberals are terrifying middle and lower-income communities with calls to defund the police. There’s simply no way Americans will tolerate being disarmed in the face of soaring violent crime, riots, and neutered police force. When faced with a mob of arsonists and looters, the AR-15 with a standard capacity magazine is the appropriate tool to protect people and property. 

This year has reminded us that the Second Amendment has nothing to do with hunting. Gun control is dead.

First Principles

Build the Family

Americans should seek to extend the blessings of family life to more people. Sophie Lewis and her feminist allies, now including Black Lives Matter, blow the smoke of a pernicious ideology that instead seeks the family’s destruction.

Social transformation continues at a breakneck pace. Ideas germinating in leftist fever swamps have become public dogmas in a matter of a generation—or a couple of weeks—or the last few hours. Thus, the calls by Sophie Lewis, and most recently Black Lives Matter, to abolish the family cannot be ignored.

Lewis’s book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family renews the feminist call for the abolition of the family. Simone de Beauvoir, founding mother of modern feminism, said in a 1972 interview: “I think the family must be abolished” and replaced “with communes or with other forms which have yet to be invented.” The list of feminists who followed Beauvoir is long. Revolutionaries from Black Lives Matter have hopped on board, hoping to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” and replace it with “extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another.” 

Moderate family abolishers merely hope families will wither away into irrelevance without much pushing. For these moderates—“moderate,” by my desperate standard—progressive steps must be taken to weaken the authority of parents over children, to thin out family loyalty, and to detach husbands and wives. 

Others, more radical like Beauvoir, think family should be proscribed by laws backed by force. Families should be mocked and dishonored as “comfortable concentration camps” (to use Betty Friedan’s lingo). A public opinion shaped by Black Lives Matter radicalism would not permit anyone to trace social ills like poor education, murder, or crime to family breakdown. 

For Lewis the radical, every time is a good time to abolish the family. On George Soros’ Open Society website, she argues, “the coronavirus crisis shows it’s time to abolish the family.” At The Nation, her acolytes chime in: “Want to dismantle capitalism? Abolish the Family.” A fawning interview at Vice captures the spirit: “We can’t have a feminist future unless we abolish the family.”

Her rhetoric aims to put those who would defend the family on their heels, making them own every horror that has ever originated in a family. People are not safe in their own homes, so the coronavirus stay-at-home order consigns women to “intimate partner rape” or children to “psychological torture.” Far from being a haven in a heartless world, family life, for Lewis, is “child abuse, molestation, intimate partner rape, psychological torture, and more.” Being in the home “genders” all concerned, as housework comes to mean more. 

The family, according to this view, is a pressure cooker, a source of repression. People come to think that they have responsibilities or duties to other people. This makes them vulnerable or angry. Worst of all, it oppresses women, who would never take on such duties unless tricked by the patriarchy. 

A Blinkered, One-Sided View

Such ills would disappear, for Lewis, with “full surrogacy.” Full surrogates would not just carry a baby for another. We would all be surrogates for each other, spontaneously, and with great dedication. We would inhabit bigger, broader systems of care that fully provide people with the support and love that today they expect from blood relations. Liberal feminists before Lewis have embraced this “surrogate” family for a generation, in the hope of creating what they call Intensive Care-Giving Units (ICGUs). While some feminists would allow the blood-tie to remain at the heart of such units, for radicals like Lewis full surrogacy transcends blood. 

These are not the mere ravings of academic cranks. David Brooks, weathervane of the respectably woke, now agrees that “the nuclear family has been a mistake” and should be replaced by virtuous group living. 

First, the pretense. Air sometimes gives destructive agency to fire, so let’s abolish air! Radicals try to make defenders of family life own every misfire of every family while denying the contributions of families to sustaining and nurturing life. Anyone who makes such arguments is no well-meaning reformer, but a fanatical revolutionary with no interest in making anything better. 

In fact, it turns out that family misfires are all on her side. Subcultures in America have long moved in the direction of the abolition Lewis embraces. Fewer families form in the mean streets of Baltimore or in the hollers of Appalachia than ever. Has there been some major movement toward peace, greater trust, less violence, brotherhood, and human happiness in these parts of our country? Have decreases in family contact led to more upward mobility or happiness or justice? No. Instead crime, misery, dashed-hopes, and violence beset these communities. Lewis and anyone who endorses her ideology must own this misery, and they ought to be made to blush if they have consciences. 

There probably has never been and never will be a human association more crucial to civilizing human beings than the biological family, especially when it is duly limited in a political community. Certainly not the university. And not the New York Times editorial page. The choice isn’t between the oppressive family and liberated Elysian Fields; it is between the mostly good family and the Killing Fields

The Truth About Family

Why? Human beings thrive when they can trust others with their lives and honor. Families build themselves in mutual reliance, and by habit and experience, they build such trust. Mutual reliance shows that all those who are interdependent in the family are also responsible for someone other than themselves. And thus they come to love someone other than themselves. Who do you call in times of illness or distress? Who but a strong, virtuous husband or brother will protect a smaller, vulnerable woman from predator or thief? Who can you count on when you contract cancer or have your dreams crushed or when you are an infant? 

If you have no one, your life is very poor indeed. Those with families are most likely to have someone. The COVID-19 lockdowns reveal these truths to more of us every day. 

Americans should seek to extend the blessings of family life to more people. Sophie Lewis and her feminist allies, now including Black Lives Matter, blow the smoke of a pernicious ideology that instead seeks the family’s destruction. That ideology distracts us from our true problems, while exacerbating them. We must clear the underbrush of anti-family ideologies to address the real problems confronting Americans. 

Lewis screams “too much marriage,” when in fact it is “not enough.” She says “abolish.” In reality, we must build. 

First Principles

‘Liberation’ and the Dismantling of Liberty

The only way “liberation” may be pursued is through the systematic dismantling of liberty as it was understood at the founding of this nation 244 years ago this weekend.

The original idea of liberty in America was fairly narrow. “Liberty” referred simply to the state of affairs enabled by a limited government that protected the natural rights of its citizens. In fulfilling that commitment, citizens were enabled to pursue ends conducive to their own happiness and flourishing. 

But as government steadily expanded, so too has the menagerie of “rights” Americans demand the state recognize. Today, we are told healthcare is a “right.” Marriage is a “right.” Abortion is a “right.” Education is a “right.” These ideas would have puzzled people in the early republic. These new “rights” are the product of a movement away from God-given natural rights in favor of civil rights.

When activists say “Healthcare is a right,” what they mean is that health care should be a right. In other words, they are inventing a new right through the use of rhetoric. These new rights aren’t God-given natural rights.

The very possibility that a new right to privacy (or healthcare, or education, and so on) can be imagined shows the place from which these rights derive: the power of the state. Under the new order which began in earnest with the New Deal, the state doesn’t merely protect rights—it creates them. Having abandoned the historical concern with natural rights, liberals pursue an ongoing expansion of civil rights which can only be achieved through a steady expansion of state power. 

A government that can create a right can also take it away. And when such a situation obtains, the constitutional vision of liberty has been lost. The past six months have been a stark demonstration, illustrating just how perilous that state of affairs can be.

This loss of the older form of liberty (a precondition that enables the individual to pursue happiness) restructures the relationship between the individual and the state when it comes to the question of happiness. As various limitations to the individual pursuit of happiness come to light, the state invents new rights (and obligations) to dismantle them. In bestowing these rights as a means to actively advance some individuals’ prospects for happiness, the state itself accepts a new role as a guarantor of happiness. Over time, this enables a public perception that the absence of individual happiness is evidence of governmental failure. Or worse, as we see in cases like the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” the existence of personal dissatisfaction is confirmation that the founding principles of the nation are lies.

From Liberty to Liberation

The danger inherent in our historical moment is illustrated by the fact that we hear less and less about liberty and more and more about liberation.

For example, the “About” section of Black Lives Matter’s website makes no use of the word liberty but has repeated references to liberation. It boasts a “continued commitment to liberation for all Black people.” They also inform readers that they “embody and practice justice, liberation, and peace with one another.”

The fact that this sentence does not promise just and peaceful interaction with “others” in general, but rather with “one another” hints at the intolerance of the movement towards those who refuse to endorse the organization. Inviting readers to “take action,” the site reminds us that BLM is not only a “liberation” movement, but a hype fashion movement as well: “Join the Movement to fight for Freedom, Liberation and Justice by signing up for updates, supporting our work, checking out our resources, following us on social media, or wearing our dope, official gear.

On the off chance the Biden campaign is reading this, you can get said “dope gear” here.

On the “Mission and Principles” page of the Women’s March site, we find the same kind of blather. No mention of liberty. But liberation plays a prominent role in the group’s “Unity Principles,” which promise “a new understanding of the connected nature of [their] struggles and a vision of [their] collective liberation.”

Another example: in calling for the decriminalization of all sex work, the Democratic Socialists of America explain that this is a necessary step “toward the goal of liberation.” The liberating power of such a move may come as a surprise to many, given the sex industry’s notorious involvement in human trafficking. But let’s not get wrapped up in the details: this is liberation we’re talking about.

The embrace of “liberation” by the Left is instructive, especially given their careful avoidance of liberty. So, what is the difference? Liberty is a pragmatic idea—one of this world. It is not happiness. It is not satisfaction. It is a tool for pursuing these things. The attainment of happiness or satisfaction through the exercise of liberty is never guaranteed. To acquire those things, the person with liberty is required to do something himself. Liberty is something that is exercised by the individual. 

The End Goal of “Liberation”

The proper role of government is to protect the natural rights of citizens that enable them to pursue the blessings of liberty. But the state itself does not pursue liberation or happiness or satisfaction, not for itself and not for its people. Not only would that be presumptuous, but it would also be wrong.

Free persons will locate happiness in different places and conditions, so it is they who must use their rights to pursue their own happiness. If the state were to dictate what happiness means and how it must be pursued, then liberty would cease to exist. As it stands, we’ve made significant “progress” toward that goal. And the peculiar absence of the word liberty from the leftist parlance of our day makes clear that for them, it is not a goal at all.

Liberation of the kind they seek is a transcendental idea—it is not of this world. Unlike liberty, which serves as a means, liberation is an end. That end seems to be universal happiness, universal satisfaction, and perfect justice. No such society has ever existed. These are the characteristics of a utopia. Those who know some Greek will remember that translated into English, utopia is “no place” or “nowhere.” We call the perfect society with a universally happy people a utopia because it is impossible in this fallen world. 

Strictly speaking, the end goal of liberation is an “other-worldly” state. As an end (rather than a means), liberation implies the roles of the people and the state. In contrast to liberty, which is independently pursued by free individuals, liberation is a historical endpoint which will be achieved by the state on behalf of its people. The people on the streets from BLM, Antifa, and other groups only pursue liberation indirectly: the chanting, the sign-holding, the destruction of images and property; they do nothing to actively promote more happiness or justice. Instead, those vicarious forms of agitation and violence work as coercion, applied to the state in an effort to force it to do the legislative work of “liberating” them. 

Of course, the idea that universal happiness, equality, or justice can be achieved through the exercise of state power presupposes that one particular ideology has the proper understanding and definition of those concepts. Put differently, the totalizing autocracy that would be necessary to enforce “liberation” of the kind these groups agitate for would need to actively silence and expel competing ideas of human happiness and fairness. As such, the project of liberation is clearly at odds with the values of diversity and pluralism (two ideas over which it claims sole patronage).

For these reasons, whenever you hear anyone using the term liberation, it should be cause for alarm. Ever notice how when you learn a new word, you hear it in conversation for the first time a day or two later? You already know the word liberation, but its shared etymology with liberty make it seem benign and unworthy of concern. 

Make a point to listen for liberation though, and pay attention to the context in which you hear it. Now you will hear it. A lot. And when you do, understand that the only way liberation can be pursued (of course, a utopia can never be achieved) is through the systematic dismantling of liberty as it was understood at the Founding of this nation 244 years ago this weekend.

In other words, it can only be pursued through control. Over you.

If you do the math above, you’ll see I’m talking about the Revolution that fought for liberty in 1776—not the current revolution that, in looking back to 1619, seeks liberation by demolishing the vision of freedom that was imagined by our forefathers and advanced by patriots in every American generation since. Long live the real American Revolution of 1776, not this fake revolution we’re experiencing now. Long live American liberty!

First Principles

‘Through All the Gloom, I Can See the Rays of Ravishing Light and Glory’

Why this American Founder believed July 2, 1776, would be “the most memorable epocha in the history of America.”

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia after a lengthy debate adopted a resolution in favor of declaring independence from Great Britain. The language of the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, which Americans have celebrated ever since as Independence Day. But John Adams, who sat on the committee appointed to draft the document and encouraged Thomas Jefferson to be the principal author, had a slightly different idea about which day his countrymen would remember. In two letters dated July 3 to his beloved wife, Abigail, Adams explained why he believed July 2 would be celebrated as “the most memorable epocha in the history of America.”

Here is an excerpt from Adams’ letters. Happy Independence Day!

Philadelphia July 3d. 1776

Yesterday, the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony, “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, and as such they have, and of right ought to have, full power to make war, conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the causes which have impelled us to this mighty revolution, and the reasons which will justify it in the sight of God and man. A plan of confederation will be taken up in a few days.

When I look back to the year 1761, and recollect the argument concerning writs of assistance in the superior court, which I have hitherto considered as the commencement of this controversy between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole period, from that time to this, and recollect the series of political events, the chain of causes and effects, I am surprised at the suddenness as well as greatness of this revolution. Britain has been filled with folly, and America with wisdom. At least, this is my judgment. Time must determine. It is the will of Heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever. It may be the will of Heaven that America shall suffer calamities still more wasting, and distresses yet more dreadful. If this is to be the case, it will have the good effect at least. It will inspire us with many virtues, which we have not, and correct many errors, follies and vices which duces refinement, in States as well as individuals. And the new governments we are assuming in every part will require a purification from our vices, and an augmentation of our virtues, or they will be no blessings. The people will have unbounded power, and the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venality, as well as the great. But I must submit all my hopes and fears to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the faith may be, I firmly believe.

Had a declaration of Independency been made seven months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious effects. We might, before this hour, have formed alliances with foreign States . . .

But, on the other hand, the delay of this declaration to this time has many great advantages attending it. The hopes of reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by multitudes of honest and well-meaning, though weak and mistaken people, have been gradually and, at last, totally extinguished. Time has been given for the whole people maturely to consider the great question of independence, and to ripen their judgment, dissipate their fears, and allure their hopes, by discussing it in newspapers and pamphlets, by debating it in assemblies, conventions, committees of safety and inspection, in town and county meetings, as well as in private conversations, so that the whole people, in every colony of the thirteen, have now adopted it as their own act. This will cement the union, and avoid those heats, and perhaps convulsions which might have been occasioned by such a declaration six months ago.

But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.

You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.

***

Watch American Greatness Managing Editor Ben Boychuk read from Adams’ letters and briefly discuss their importance on a recent episode of the 4Esoterics podcast. Subscribe to the 4Esoterics on iTunes and follow the show on Twitter @4Esoterics.

Bonus 4Estoterics from Judah Friedman on Vimeo.

First Principles

Grim Lessons from Aristotle on the Causes of Civil War

Why aren’t we challenging our cozy assumptions that things can’t get worse?

Is the United States headed for a civil war? Every new partisan battle feels like the battle to end all battles.

But contemplating apocalyptic violence and massive upheaval brings doubt: even with all the current acrimony, could it really be the case that the most successful nation on earth is spiraling towards internal war? Isn’t intense partisanship a hallmark of American democracy? At what point does intense partisanship threaten to devolve into civil war? And how would we know—especially when so many of our intuitions are bolstered by unfounded hopes and the assumption that things can’t change?

Let’s step away from the moment’s heat and look at things from an outsider’s point of view. Aristotle is a helpful guide. Not only did the ancient Greek philosopher think deeply about the numerous civil wars that took place in the tumultuous world of ancient Greece, but he also grasped a profound point that’s easily lost on us: civil wars don’t show up like some surprising and alien virus attacking an otherwise healthy body. Civil war takes place because familiar forces wear down the healthy civic bonds that hold citizens together until some crisis finally triggers action. 

That’s what makes reading Book V of the Politics so unnerving. When we consider the seven long-term causes Aristotle identifies as having the potential to transform otherwise peaceful citizens into would-be factionalizers, it’s startling to find that so many of the well-known proclivities of our contemporary ruling class are exactly those that Aristotle thought would undermine political cohesion and make civil war more likely.

Changing the Political Landscape Through Demographics 

Aristotle understood that there is some truth behind the claims such as “personnel is policy” and “demography is destiny.” Character and cultural norms structure basic expectations about how people should live together, and so inevitably influence political views. Indeed, this was the idea behind the prediction of an emerging Democratic majority in American politics: “fast-growing” and “dynamic” populations would result in a progressive lock on power precisely because the cultural norms of those groups would motivate left-leaning voting.

What Aristotle reminds us, however, is that quickly transforming a political order through demographics can be incredibly dangerous. For it dispenses with the notion that politics is a realm for discussion about justice and the good and instead inaugurates a process whereby citizens invested in the existing constitution are simply overpowered. Stunningly, many who rule in western liberal democracies have deliberately embraced this tactic.

Andrew Nether, the now-famous former advisor to Tony Blair, made the point bluntly: while the huge increase of migrants to Britain was given cover by talk of economic benefits, the actual goal was to “rub the Right’s nose in diversity.” Nether, like the other globalists who embraced such explicitly non-political means to effect major political change, was well aware that this upheaval would produce discomfort, create fissures, and sow the seeds of conflict.

Unjust Distribution of Wealth 

The reason so many politicians accepted such change was, as Nether indicated, the promise of increased communal wealth. That is a powerful reason: for procuring wealth has always been, and surely always will be, one of the main reasons people seek membership in any community.

But the mere increase in total GDP achieved through immigration has not led to a shared sense of economic security: for our decision-makers flooded markets with cheap labor at exactly the same time that they incentivized offshoring, cheered on technological creative destruction, and introduced rafts of regulations that increased living costs and inhibited business formation. As a result, as the extreme cases of California and New York illustrate, our rulers have ended up promoting the very conditions that Aristotle took to be the most volatile: a political situation featuring a few dynastic oligarchs who feel entitled to power, a far larger group of vulnerable poor who believe they’re being treated unfairly, and a struggling middle class that otherwise might have acted as a buffer between them.

Unjust Distributions of Honor 

It’s a mistake to fixate exclusively on these familiar issues of wealth distribution. Commentators too often assume that money alone explains human action in the political realm. Aristotle reminds us that this is dangerously myopic: people don’t come together in a political community merely to achieve a basic income; they make the effort of living together because they believe they’ll have the chance to enjoy beautiful things and attain some level of respect. Aristotle documents many cases where rich citizens, who have plenty of money, unhesitatingly initiate civil war against other rich citizens because they believe their wealthy adversaries were making it impossible for them to find proper respect in their community.

We should take note. Honor is not some archaic value, and our own cultural elites obviously dole out major awards, highlight positions of prestige, and publicly celebrate specific kinds of citizens for emulation and approval. Indeed, anyone who leans Right has long learned to live with the fact that most cultural honors are reserved for progressives. Nevertheless, though this partisan distribution of honor was always perceived as unjust, it was tolerated: for those on the Right could still go about enjoying their lives, cheering on and supporting their own heroes overlooked by elites. But times have changed.

Progressives in positions of cultural power are no longer content merely to reserve honors for the Left; they have decided it is time for those on the Right to be actively dishonored.  All public statues and symbols revered by the Right must now be toppled and desecrated. Conservatives and Republicans must be “deplatformed” from college campuses, corporate boards, and social media because they should not only be deprived of the honor of speaking but need to be publicly shamed.

Arrogance

Such shaming is closely related to what Aristotle called “arrogance.” This isn’t merely a matter of believing oneself to be better than others. It’s a disposition to enjoy humiliating those with less social status, and it’s not hard to understand why Aristotle took it to be a cause of civil war.

The arrogance of elites doesn’t merely signal to others that they are unworthy of participation in the community—that’s accomplished by dishonoring. Rather, it shows that elites care nothing of the suffering of those beneath them in the social hierarchy.

Now you would hope that our own American upper class would at least be wise enough to be discreet in its arrogance for the sake of social harmony. But, astonishingly, we live in a time when our credentialed class flaunts it.

Watch any of the popular comedy or news shows designed to flatter college graduates who are desperate to prove their membership in the managerial professional class. They openly mock the general populace for its stupidity. They whole-heartedly laugh at the backward manners of fly-over country. They celebrate casting cherished icons in pee or feces or flames. They know full well these acts will cause pain in those for whom those symbols have meaning. Making people feel humiliated is the cruel goal of their humor and art.

Fear

In fact, things have gotten so out of control that a vocal contingent of the Left won’t even stop with dishonoring and humiliation. They wish to produce some level of terror in the heart of anyone who questions their views. Consider how extraordinary it is that David Plouffe, a famous, elite democratic advisor felt completely comfortable tweeting, “It is not enough to simply beat Trump. He must be destroyed thoroughly. His kind must not rise again.” What does that communicate to Trump supporters?

And it’s not as if even more direct actions, such as hounding people out of restaurants, are reserved only for those who question fundamental values of the Left. Even those who disagree with the Left on some fairly technical policy matter (e.g. Net Neutrality of the Internet) are considered fair targets of public harassment, doxxing, threats of job loss, physical menacing, and social isolation.

Indeed, the groups now setting up violent autonomous zones in Seattle and Portland declare that by simply owning a home or running a business, one has sinned and is therefore marked for attack. The message in all of this is clear: even basic goods like wealth and safety that initially motivate membership in political society should be taken from those who depart from the new orthodoxy.

Contempt 

One might wonder: how could highly educated professionals not expect some pushback from such gratuitous cultural shaming, humiliating, and even scare tactics? The answer is that they sincerely believe there is an insurmountably large competency gap between themselves and everyone else. Much like ancient oligarchs, our cultural elites have what Aristotle calls “contempt” for those beneath them. They genuinely believe that “deplorables” in the lower social ranks are simply too disorganized, chaotic, and emotion-driven to amount to anything, while they see themselves as supremely competent and judge their coordinated decision making as indisputably beneficial for the common good.

Perhaps there was a time when average people had such high regard for the competency of elites that they wouldn’t have minded a few hurtful excesses of status signaling. The problem, however, is that many Americas are increasingly having their own deep doubts as to whether our powerful institutions are filled with people worthy of their vast influence.

All things considered, how impressive was our foreign policy establishment in comprehending the threat of China? How inspired has the performance of the CDC, the NIH, and the FDA been over the last 30 years, let alone in this current pandemic? How much quality education is being delivered given the levels of debt students incur? How farsighted were our elites in predicting the actual effects of global trade? How scrupulous have the FBI and CIA been in upholding the highest standards of integrity while wielding unimaginable power? How consistent have our elites been in even being able to live by the same basic rules they set for the rest of us?

Superiority  

With growing contempt for our elites, an ever-increasing number of Americans are beginning to think that their own judgments and mores, while admittedly untutored and uncultured, are superior to those in charge.  When the “thought leaders” selected by our major institutions seem psychologically incapable of comprehending a world beyond whatever greasy professional pole they’re climbing, average people turn away from such “experts” and actively back those who ignore them.

Aristotle didn’t think that these seven factors guarantee civil war in some kind of deterministic formula, and he also had interesting ideas about mitigating them that could be explored in further essays. But surely this astonishing list of familiar spectacles should give us pause.

If Aristotle is right that these are the sorts of things that make civil war more likely, why shouldn’t we be worried? Why aren’t we challenging our cozy assumptions that things couldn’t get worse?

First Principles

John Roberts and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamer Robe

Intelligence invests in illusion when the need for illusion is deep.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, ruling that the Trump Administration failed to comply with federal regulation procedures. 

In an opinion for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts explained, “we address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.” Justice Clarence Thomas, the sole African American on the high court, thought there was more to it.

“The majority today concludes that [the Department of Homeland Security] was required to do far more,” Thomas wrote. In effect, the majority was holding the decision of the Trump Administration to a higher standard than President Barack Obama’s “executive action” that established DACA illegally in the first place. The decision, Thomas wrote in his dissent, “must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision.” 

The chief justice has some prior experience massaging the law in order to arrive at a politically desirable outcome. Where he was unwilling to read into the true intent behind the technical noncompliance of the Trump Administration on Thursday, he was more than willing in 2012 to patch up the illegal-as-written federal subsidies in the Affordable Care Act. 

It stands to reason that Congress meant for those provisions to apply in every State as well,” Roberts wrote as he upheld Obamacare. Though Congress had failed to write the Affordable Care Act in such a way as to let the federal government provide health care subsidies in every state, Roberts reasoned nevertheless it must have meant to. Thus, the chief justice was willing to aid the legislative body from the bench. 

To argue his case, Roberts cited the dissenting opinions of his colleagues, who argued that Obamacare would collapse without federal subsidy in all states, as evidence that congress indeed must have intended to subsidize them all. As Brett LoGiurato of Business Insider explained at the time, “He’s basically telling his colleagues: I’m right, and your words prove it.” 

As the late Terry Jones told King Arthur (Graham Chapman) in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”: I didn’t vote for you. And we don’t vote for Supreme Court justices, either, which makes it particularly frustrating when they function as a robed politburo. In Roberts’ case, as Max Bialystock told Roger Debris in “The Producers,” “that robe is you!” 

The amazing politburo robe also suits Justice Neil Gorsuch. Shortly before Roberts’ executive order on DACA, Gorsuch essentially rewrote the 1964 Civil Rights Act. For Ken Masugi, Gorsuch “took a knee”—which is true but incomplete. 

Gorsuch and Roberts are intelligent men, but as Saul Bellow said, “a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” The illusion here is the veneration of Nancy Pelosi, CNN, and the Washington Post. To have the veneration, as recent rulings confirm, Supreme Court justices will cave to just about anything. 

In strictly non-legal terms that even a deplorable Trump supporter might understand, they combine bullshit and chickenshit to arrive at the desired political end. Perhaps Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine could donate some gear no longer in use, but the real need here is for a spine transplant. And now abide ignorance, casuistry, and cowardice, but the greatest of these is cowardice. Or maybe it’s a three-way tie.  

In the argot of DACA, foreign nationals illegally present in the United States are “Dreamers.” They all want to be brain surgeons and help baby pandas, apparently. But legal immigrants and legitimate citizens know better. Upholding DACA relieves the Dreamers’ lawbreaking parents of all responsibility. 

Likewise, DACA draws down U.S. taxpayer dollars for foreign nationals, with zero compensation from their own governments in Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. A nation in fathomless debt, getting worse by the day, thus relieves corrupt foreign governments of responsibility for their own citizens. These considerations do not, however, move Roberts to give the Trump Administration a pass when it comes to legal technicalities. 

Those wearing an amazing technicolor dreamer robes can go right on emanating in the penumbras when it suits them. But at least Justice Clarence Thomas has been on to their game from the start. 

First Principles

Dare To Be a Daniel

The remedy for this state of affairs comes from people once again taking charge of their own lives.

There is an old Puritan hymn (based on the apocalyptic Old Testament book of Daniel for the less-than-biblically literate) we grew up singing. Perhaps you recall it: 

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it known. 

In a famous essay written just after World War II, George Orwell, in one of his great punchlines, suggested, “to bring this hymn up to date one would have to add a ‘Don’t’ at the beginning of each line.”

He was talking about the timidity of modern people, thinkers and doers alike, in relatively safe circumstances, to be quiet about dishonesty. Doesn’t intelligence require truth-telling? But then in the first sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell himself wrote satirically: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 

In our present-day Chinese-induced viral pandemic, which started with colossal lies from the East, perhaps it is time to get to the essential truth. 

Our brilliant global elites over a number of decades made a dangerous Faustian bargain with the Communist Party of Beijing. The deal was supposed to bring them into the capitalist fold and yield greater international order. 

Instead, it has led to this tragedy. We were told untold economic benefits would make them “good democrats,” as we outsourced our jobs to them. Clearly, they are not, and the Communist deception continues unabated. 

In a word, we were conned.

Isn’t it time to pull ourselves from the swamp of political correctness, the lies of advertising, and a near-total bureaucracy that has consumed so many secular people, especially academics and media pundits? 

Global poverty, we were likewise told, is the greatest challenge of our time. Many still believe investments in education to be an essential part of the solution to this grand challenge. Despite spending $2.3 trillion on development assistance over the past 50 years, as William Easterly reminded us in, White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, failure abounds. 

Easterly writes: 

In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; searchers find things that work and get some reward . . . . Planners apply global blueprints; searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom, while searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; searchers find out whether the customer is satisfied.

So, we ask as searchers, might it be time for leaders, for philanthropists, for business executives, for politicians of all stripes and locales, and for the citizenry at large, to lead where others fear to tread? Donald Trump has been willing to go there. Why not follow his lead? Dare. 

To rethink ways forward, not in some new plan or phony U.N. “millennium goals” but merely by utilizing the magic of the market and the well-known reward of good old American entrepreneurship and innovation? 

Toward a New Economy of Thrift

If we ask those questions in the light of the considerations raised in this present corona crisis, then we are surely guided to thrift, as a much-needed virtue and as an illustration of the true meaning of spiritual capital, of our American aspirational can-do-ism. Thrift, in its Old Norse origin, meant literally “to thrive.” 

How can we thrive again?

I have tried to show the place of thrift and thriving in a theological worldview as well as its effects in generating an economy of stewardship rather than of consumption. Thrift serves as a link between spiritual investment and material reward. And the reward is not merely an increase in productivity and delayed gratification but care for others, for the environment, and for future generations. 

An economy of thrift is one that bears the imprint of the legacy from which it springs. It is one that answers both to the demand that we conserve the earth’s resources, and to the demands of philanthropists, that we care for the poor. It is an economy that shows the effect of reinvesting capital, namely, and perhaps most importantly, to conserve the permanent things.

In place of that economy, however, we have seen the emergence of the economy of transient and consumable things, too many of which were made cheaply and by slave labor in China. I would side with those critics of the consumer society who have seen the fragmentation of the family, the loss of commitment, and the growth of short-term pleasure-seeking as its most evident effects. 

I agree with them that, even if in some attenuated economic theory, the consumer society is capable of self-perpetuation in a continual orgy of stale delights, it will provide only an impoverished life to its members. It will be a life without (the pursuit of) happiness, because without solid virtues, a life in which the old ideas of duty, sacrifice, and responsibility have no place, love is dethroned from its place in the center of things.  

The remedy for this state of affairs is not more state action, more welfare programs, yet another congressional bailout, and more interference and regulation from above in the workings of the market. The remedy comes from below, in the reinvestment of all forms of capital. It comes from people once again taking charge of their own lives, seeking to live as those Calvinist Scots of the 17th century lived, in a state of responsible stewardship over all resources within their control, saving for the future, spending on others in need, and living a life of goodwill and piety, according to the law of God, not some left-wing “Green New Deal” or WHO political edict. 

Restoring Republican Virtues

Perhaps today, together and by leveraging our minds, we can achieve a new revolution in ethical thinking and doing. That’s if we, as the prophets of old suggested, dare to be Daniels. Thrift and its sister virtues, if truly embraced and followed, if fueled and lived, if tied to all the other moral virtues, would, without doubt, lead to greater human flourishing. 

In fact, as the American Founders intended, Benjamin Franklin especially, those virtues would supply us with unprecedented benevolence. The disposition to do well would emanate from an inclination to be charitable and, in the end, would be a gift from generosity. All of this would occur if the virtues became less forgotten and, instead, found new favor and life among us all. 

That is the opportunity of this hour. And there is abundant evidence that Americans everywhere are stepping up, lending a hand, volunteering, and contributing, as they always have.

Their renewal would perhaps be best activated if we in this unusual period of respite and solitude, like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, simply took time and came to appreciate again what he called, the “dappled things”: 

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-fire coal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings. . . . 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him. 

Demonstrators take part in an "American Patriot Rally," organized on April 30, 2020, by Michigan United for Liberty on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses. - The group is upset with Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerÕs mandatory closure to curtail Covid-19.
First Principles

Freedom, If You Can Keep It

It is we, America’s citizens, who ultimately bear responsibility for how our leadership handles this crisis—that is what government by the people, for the people, and of the people means.

Good public health policy is good economic policy. An epidemic run wild will destroy an economy just as surely as a ruined economy will destroy lives.

Political leaders at all levels of government will soon have to make one of the gravest calculations of their lifetimes: identifying the singular point of equilibrium between the physical and economic health of their constituents. They will have to discern that precise moment when health risks for their citizens have declined to the point that they may prudently begin removing restrictions they’ve placed on social and economic activities. 

Where the disease is not prevalent, that may be a relatively easy call. But where the viral outbreak remains a very real and potent danger, opening up the economy too soon could have disastrous long-term economic consequences, as well as lethal health effects.

Much hangs on getting these decisions right. And, as citizens, we are not mere spectators in this drama. Our names may not be on the marquee, but we are more than bit players. 

It is we, the people, who confer power on our leaders. By our votes, we have put those leaders in office, and when this is over, we will have to judge whether those we elected proved worthy of the trust we placed in them. Did they take good counsel? Did they balance the needs of all citizens? Were they arbitrary or equitable in deciding which activities to prevent and which to allow? Did they take advantage of our vulnerability to take just a little more power for themselves? 

COVID-19 has tested not just how our mayors, governors and federal officials manage a pandemic, but also how they manage our freedom. It is a truism that, once people have power, they seldom want to give it up. That all-too-human trait does not recede, even in the midst of a national emergency. 

George Washington was an exception. He rejected the prospect of being crowned king. He said no to a third term in office. His decisions conform perfectly with fundamental American values. 

Our founders recognized the dangers inherent in the allure of power. They acknowledged man’s natural inclination to seek power and set out to constrain it. Hence the separation of powers, the checks and balances, and the division of power between the national government and state governments. The system they designed was brilliant, and it has worked remarkably well up to now. But these are extraordinary times. 

Never in the history of the United States have Americans given up so much of our freedom. For the most part, we have done so willingly because we believed it was for our own good and for the good of the more vulnerable among us. 

Yet now that the number of fatalities and hospitalizations is running far lower than projected, many complain that this shutdown was unwarranted. A strong argument can be made that those in power did only what they thought was necessary, however, given the limited information available about the disease at the time.

The uncertainty about the nature of the virus and what seemed like a very real potential for rampant death led President Trump and America’s governors to place extreme restrictions on our activities, and we accepted them. That we willingly conceded our freedoms to the leaders we elected and that we trust them to return those freedoms is a true test of what makes America exceptional.

The good news is that the government America’s Founder designed—a republic in which power resides with its citizens—is sufficiently agile and resilient that it can adapt even to an unforeseen crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission noted in its preliminary report released this week, “The American system of federalism provides the appropriate governing structure for responding to a crisis with as many different facets and variable effects as we are seeing with COVID-19.” 

But that also means that we do not get to blithely leave the fate of our country in the hands of those we elected. They are our representatives, not our rulers.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington on January 16, 1787, “The people are the only censors of their governors.” It is we, America’s citizens, who ultimately bear responsibility for how our leadership handles this crisis—that is what government by the people, for the people, and of the people means. 

Thus, if we still value our freedom and have not sacrificed it to the fear of disease, in the weeks and months ahead we must ensure that we remain engaged and informed. We must fully understand the limited powers of our government officials. We must know our history well enough to understand why the Framers of the Constitution designed the government that they did. (And if we do not know it, this is the perfect time to learn it.) Finally, we must care enough about our freedom to demand we get it back—fully—once this crisis has passed.

First Principles

Millennials and Zoomers: Socialism Will Ruin Your Life

The reality is that there are a few, extremely powerful people, set to benefit, who want to dismantle a civilization that is the culmination of millennia of the world’s best minds—a distillation of the heights of human glory and wisdom.

Hello Americans 35-and-under. As a fellow Millennial, I’m talking to you. 

Socialism, and its close cousin, Communism, is descending on North America with a vengeance. And the main reason it might soon succeed is that you’ve been lied to and indoctrinated your entire lives through the media, the school system, and institutions of higher education. 

We are particularly vulnerable in this time of pandemic national crisis, as we are seeing brazen attempts at unrelated government overreach in both Canada and the United States in recent days. This should be a warning.

At first blush, many of the tenets proposed by these philosophies and political approaches seem common sense and attractive. Who doesn’t want everyone to have enough money to live? Or to have access to top-notch health care? Or expect respect for the equal dignity of both sexes and all races and classes?

But the way socialism and communism propose to address these needs is rooted in a false conception of economics and human nature, an ethos of unbridled envy and thirst for power.

These systems will empower an elite of the few and take everything that is precious to you, just so you can, theoretically, have your ration of bread and toilet paper and equally share misery—that is, until the bread and toilet supplies simply run out. 

We have had a test run with this reality in recent weeks with the coronavirus crisis. But at least it is temporary—for now.

I already know it’s likely I’ll be accused of “fear-mongering” or exaggeration, so let me beat the naysayers to the punchline. Until you’ve read The Gulag Archipelago, can regurgitate the actual stats of torture and killing in Mao’s China and the Cambodian genocide, and have internalized the very real application of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to the radical Left’s approach to politics these days, your accusations simply don’t carry weight.

I have read these. More than that, I personally know people affected to this day by these corrupt regimes—regimes our young and, unfortunately, coddled generation has no context for understanding. The gruesome stories are beyond belief, but they are real. The relevant words: mass starvation; betrayal; cannibalism; torture; existential distrust of family, your lover, your child. 

I met an older Polish man on my way to Krakow a few years ago who told me grimly that at the age of eight, his father was taken from their home one night, with no reason given, and he never saw him again.

We horrifically dishonor the suffering of millions by buying into the idea that the fragile stability, freedom, and economic access we have enjoyed is something that we deserve and with which we nonchalantly may tamper. Our pride and entitlement are sickening. Perhaps the more proximate case study of Venezuela would do us some good—10 years flat from the implementation of socialist government, and Venezuela’s world economic position plummeted

Some argue this devastating economic plummet wasn’t due to socialism, but that rebuttal doesn’t hold water. True socialism has never once confirmed a different result. The Scandinavian countries, often pointed to as socialist success stories, in fact, veered away from full socialism, foreseeing the havoc that system would wreak on their countries. In nearly direct proportion to the extent of socialism’s implementation do we see its horrific destruction.

In his university years during the 1970s, my dad, with strong idealist and socialist sensibilities, traveled to Romania—a country still self-proclaimed as socialist, though not communist—to visit family, right in the center of the region behind the Iron Curtain. After being ruthlessly searched at the border, and hearing the personal stories of his family, he came back to Canada a sworn enemy of the evils of creeping communism and socialism in the West. One need only smell the bitterness to know the poison. If only more could smell.

The reality is that there are a few, extremely powerful people set to benefit from the system who want to dismantle a civilization that is the culmination of millennia of the world’s best minds—a distillation of the heights of human glory and wisdom. They have been working single-mindedly and with dedication toward achieving this goal for more than a century, which is why it’s the air you breathe now—that is, the principles you’re being constantly fed and are so familiar to you now—don’t seem all that threatening. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid; it spiked our amniotic fluid.

The main issue, and the most temptingly deceptive, is that the socialist and communist principles compare us to an invisible ideal—one which has never happened and, as any sane person can admit, will never happen. Human nature is flawed and corrupt and stubborn. Our systems, imperfect as they are, are among the best ever created to curtail the worst of this corruption and power-obsession. 

To have a justice system that isn’t mob rule is novel. To have even a concept of “human rights” is novel. To be able brazenly, condescendingly, and obliviously to speak “truth to power,” regardless of the worth of your opinion, without any real consequence, is an utterly Western ideal, fought for with blood. Do you know this? Can you picture a world without these underpinnings?

Minorities: where would we rather live than here and now? Truly—where? And when? Name it and own that, and then we can have a conversation. Might you be someone whom the world has treated unfairly? Absolutely. And any decent person of goodwill wants to remedy that as much as possible. That is the constant, unfailing work of a truly civil society. But we are insane if we do not see what we have. We are disastrously, grotesquely ungrateful.

I have hesitated to speak or write thus far because, being a sensitive person and someone who cares about individual humanity and truly heartbreaking stories, I know we can proliferate nuance to the sky with the difficulties of very real humans in every strata of society. As a songwriter, I tell these stories without agenda, and I consider it one of my greatest honors. There will always be people falling through the cracks in a flawed world, and we will always have a serious moral responsibility to see, love, and help our suffering neighbors. 

Thus, the likelihood of this message being hijacked by the particulars, as a smokescreen to the pulsing seriousness of this immense leviathan undercurrent, is high. (Refer back to Rules for Radicals, please.)

But it is time for us to realize we are on a sinking ship, and without putting up a fight, we will soon all be under waves of horror most of us have never thought possible. All of the victim narratives, the railing against patriarchies, the spoiled brat tantrums on the world stage, will become utterly irrelevant as we all crumble under the tragic weight of the great collapse of everything we have ever held dear.

Thirty-five-and-under, I’m talking to you: how much are you prepared to lose?

First Principles

Shaking Hands Is Vital to American National Character

Dr. Fauci’s view, that to avoid infecting others in the future, the handshake should disappear as a social custom, privileges mere life at the expense of the good life and further undermines American civic life by ending a custom that directs us towards others and away from ourselves.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently told reporters, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”

This view reflects the perspective of the immunologist, the specialist, the expert. It necessarily fails to take into consideration dimensions of human interaction and their role in shaping our social customs that then inform and reinforce aspects of our civic life.

Fauci seems only to understand the act in itself. He views the handshake in terms of its consequences as an agent of spreading infection and germs. Yet, this perspective ignores other concerns that affect us both as human beings and as citizens.

From the strict viewpoint of immunology, the perfect solution is ever greater emphasis on social isolation and, to that end, reducing all person to person contact.

Yet this view taken to its logical conclusion would require such isolation from one another one would have to ask in what way do we remain human beings and in what way are we fellow citizens?

If the only goal is to prevent the spread of disease then there is no theoretical limit to restrictions on human interaction. But in what way would we see each other as sharers in a shared common civic life? Would not this increased isolation only accelerate the dangerous forces of individualism that Alexis de Tocqueville so forcefully warned us about in his Democracy in America?

The handshake is more than any mere physical act of contact between one human and another—it is also representative of the recognition of the other, not as a threat or an enemy, but as a fellow human being and potential friend. For more than 2,000 years, the handshake has been a sign of friendship, peace and unity. The gesture traces its origins back to 5th century Greece, where it was a symbol of peace, showing that neither person was carrying a weapon.

It was at once a sign of trust and a verification of that trust: extending open palms and then shaking revealed the absence of weapons both in the dominant hand and hidden somewhere on the person.  Over time, the gesture was used in diplomacy, sportsmanship, and among peers and strangers as a sign of welcome, trust, and respect. And, consequently, the refusal to shake hands with another is seen as an open rebuke and a sign of distrust.

A handshake is not an act of deference, as a bow is, but of trust and social solidarity among those who are not within our immediate kin group. One shakes the hands of friends and strangers, not family. The bow or curtsey is clearly a sign of deference. One bows or curtsies to someone of status or authority. That person does not respond in kind. The handshake implies a level of equality that the bow or curtsy cannot.

The handshake also differs from the kiss, which is more a sign of affection or a strong familial bond. So, too, the hug. The handshake implies no affection or deep feeling, but merely an act of acceptance and welcome. It is offered to strangers when neither a kiss nor a hug seem appropriate.

In the Anglo-American world, the handshake is also an act of binding agreement or contract. In fact, handshakes often act as confirmation and consent to an agreement or contract between parties. In common law countries, a handshake deal, just like a verbal contract, may be enforceable in the same way as a written contract. Usually, in today’s world of contract law, the use of handshakes is reserved more for smaller contracts whereas contracts dealing with larger amounts usually require a written contract. In today’s business world, handshakes are more symbolic and an actual agreement, a written contract, will emerge sometime later—following the handshake.

The civic and political symbolism of the handshake should not to be taken for granted, however. The handshake expresses the fundamental equality which underlies the character of a republican social order. It was the Quakers who first popularized the handshake in America, so argues Michael Zuckerman. Zuckerman writes that the Quakers scorned “courtly gestures of subordination,” preferring the “practice of the handshake, extended to everyone regardless of station.” Thus, the handshake’s egalitarian character echoes the egalitarian character of the American Regime.

We should note that Thomas Jefferson was the first American president who brought the handshake into the White House. From his presidency onward it became an established custom and from Jefferson’s time up to Calvin Coolidge’s administration, it was expected that the president would meet and greet visitors in the White House with a handshake. There was never a bow or a curtsy. Jefferson sought to bring a more republican character to the presidency, which many anti-Federalists feared would readily lend itself to becoming overly monarchical in character.

The act of having the president greet visitors with a handshake was not only an attempt to bring the office slightly down from something majestical and fitting for a  monarch but to remind both president and citizen that the president is but a fellow citizen, a peer. And while handshaking and politics still go hand in hand—or they did up to our current political moment of pandemic panic—the gesture reaffirms that the politician is one of us, a fellow citizen, a fellow Joe or Jane. And the act of a politician not shaking hands can put people, and voters, off. In fact, President Trump, a famous germophobe, was known to dislike the practice before running for office. But even he understood that he had to overcome his discomfort for the sake of the larger point. The view that everyone deserves at least a handshake, makes the act of not offering one a significant symbolic act, signaling conflict, hostility, or ill-will.

Suggested alternatives of the fist bump and the elbow bump are much more aggressive and less open acts. They are hardly acts of trust. Both the fist and the elbow move is more indicative of an aspect of human violence than of friendship towards the other party, it is not a welcoming or peaceful sign, except perhaps in an ironic and modern way. Both acts are more reminiscent of pointing the tip of the sword toward another person than of a handshake. The fist bump is more an assertion of power, where the other party responds in kind to show his equal power—it is not a sign of welcoming.

Ultimately, Fauci’s view of handshakes shows that he regards the preservation of the body as paramount. In so doing he fails to consider the myriad ways his advice hampers our ability to live lives truly in community with our fellow citizens.

Aristotle teaches us that the end of life is not simply to live, but to live well; to fulfill our full potential as a social animal and human being. While health is a necessary prerequisite to being able to live the good life,  the real end, the end that is the reason for which the lower ends like mere life are pursued or preserved, is to truly live. Subsistence cannot be the summum bonum. Mere health and mere physical safety cannot replace the good life.

Fauci’s view—that to avoid infecting others in the future, the handshake should disappear as a social custom—privileges mere life at the expense of the good life and further undermines American civic life by ending a custom that directs us towards others and away from ourselves.

First Principles

The Expectations Abyss

On our side of the abyss, the 16-year-old boy is dying slowly of intellectual asphyxiation in school and online. On that side of the abyss, the biggest manufacturer of women’s clothing in Cleveland is advertising for a likely lad to come and do office work, with high hopes set forth for a well-remunerated career.

Icollect magazines. Not the brightly colored paper things that fall apart. My magazines are bound in large volumes of about 1,000 pages, six months at a time: The Century Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, Scribner’s, and others, and they date from around 1875 to 1930. In those magazines, you will find articles of what would strike us now as staggering length, on any subject you can name.

Occasionally you will stumble upon interesting advertisements, like this one under “Help Wanted—Male”:

BOY, about 16, for general office work; excellent opportunity for advancement. Apply H. Black and Co., Superior and East 19th.

In the copy I have before me now, The Century from May through October 1882, 960 large pages, I find “An Aboriginal Pilgrimage,” an account of the author’s investigation of the Zuni Indians; a sailing travelogue called “Around Cape Horn”; the diary entries of Thomas Carlyle as he visited Ireland; “The Personal History of Garibaldi”; an appreciation of the elderly John Henry Newman; an article on woodcutting, metalworking, and the engraving of cameos in elementary schools; “Marble Mining in Carrara”; serialized novels by William Dean Howells (A Modern Instance) and Frances Hodgson Burnett (Through One Administration); articles on music, architecture, politics, painting, religion, anything.

I’ve come to believe that you can learn far more about the United States from browsing in just one of these volumes than you can in a half dozen college courses in American Studies.

Other than the impressive breadth of subjects in The Century, and the depth of general knowledge and literacy their authors assumed in their large and varied readership, what strikes me as I read these magazines is what a foreign land it is, this United States that used to be. Everywhere I turn, I find myself either ashamed for my national ancestors for not seeing what the moral law required of them, or, 20 times as often, ashamed for my fellows now, whose college professors would be hard put to read The Century, let alone to understand the high aesthetic, moral, and religious aspirations that animated their authors and readers.

You may say, by way of excuse, that people always put their fancy dress on when they know they will be seen in public. But the authors then were no more comfortable with the mores of their time than our authors are now with ours. And I am not talking, anyway, about what the people were conscious of saying about themselves. I find most telling what they did not have to bother to say about themselves; what they let drop, by the way.

Hence that advertisement above. It was not in The Century, which did not take advertising. Read that sentence again. It was in a newspaper clipping that someone cut out from The Cleveland News, in January 1908, and evidently kept inside his parents’ book. I often find things in my magazines that were not in the magazines: notes and cards and so on. Some child had cut out nine puzzles from the News and saved them. On the back of one of the puzzles, I find that “Help Wanted” ad.

It’s in English, sure, but it might as well be on the other side of a great abyss which no one is permitted to cross. On our side of the abyss, the 16-year-old boy is dying slowly of intellectual asphyxiation in school and online. On that side of the abyss, the biggest manufacturer of women’s clothing in Cleveland is advertising for a likely lad to come and do office work, with high hopes set forth for a well-remunerated career.

The company, H. Black, was at this time building a large and handsome factory, beautiful without and well-ventilated and pleasant within, with a free-standing water tower to provide pressure for the sprinkler system in case of fire. The Blacks, Jewish emigres, paid for the architect to tour the country to study designs for factories that combined beauty and practicality with a sense of the human needs of the laborers. The building, I am glad to say, still stands and is still in use.

Then, people did not waste their youth in pointlessness. I turn to another clipping and find an obituary for one Edward Alexander MacDowell, “the noted American composer,” who died at age 46. “MacDowell studied and taught abroad,” the piece says, “and when he returned to this country, in 1888, he was famous as a composer of orchestral, vocal, and piano music.” That means that he returned at age 26 or 27, about the age at which our college graduates rise to the status of assistant manager at McDonald’s. But then, it was assumed that young men would possess energy and the capacity to do things for themselves.

On the back of another clipping I find this advertisement from a home builder, W. N. Brewer:

 You Can Buy Fine Home in Lakewood If

You Have $300 to $500

BALANCE MONTHLY

SEE OUR NEW HOUSES

Built by day-labor, better than you could build yourself.

Note that last sentence. It made me sputter with laughter. What it assumes is that many men would build their homes with their own hands, with help from their brothers and cousins and friends. We are not talking about a log cabin in South Dakota in the days of Sitting Bull. We are talking about stone or brick or wood houses in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland to the northeast.

Above the Brewer advertisement, I find one for “The Deming Brothers Company,” selling houses. The three brothers had left their home in Sarnia, Ontario, when the youngest, Barton Deming, was 18 years old, and came to Cleveland, where they got jobs in industry and formed their own corporation in 1903, when Barton was 28. He became the president in 1908, the year of this advertisement, and went on to be one of the great builders of homes in the Cleveland area.

When adolescence does not really exist, but young people go from childhood to adulthood with speed and matter-of-fact confidence, they must have had some considerable self-discipline, which is to the soul what swimming or lifting weights would be for the body.

So I find a piece of an article on the back of a third clipping, under the headline, “Mothers Should Teach Children Good Manners.” I will quote what I have of it:

Good manners in a child are a great help in the battle of life of the future man or woman.

No child will be well mannered, however, unless he is taught to be so from infancy, and a mother cannot expect her son or daughter to behave well before strangers if he or she is not obliged to do so all the time.

For example, a small child who does not know better than to take the best seat in a room while the stranger stands or takes what is left shows lack of proper training. It reflects unpleasantly upon the mother, proving her to have been careless or ignorant of what good breeding demands.

Children should be taught early not to seat themselves while their elders stand, and little folk should always stand when greeting a grown person.

If only the author could see us now.

First Principles

Experts and Statesmen in the Time of Coronavirus

The war against COVID-19 puts the choice between expertise and common sense front and center. Are we to be ruled by statesmen or experts?

The Chinese virus is a clarifying agent. Among other things, one can see the choice between republican and progressive government—the rule of the people on the one hand and the rule of experts on the other. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden perfectly embody this choice in response to the crisis.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the way the two men approach the expert advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and member of Trump’s COVID-19 Task Force.

Trump is adamant that he will listen to and consider what Fauci has to say, but in the end he, as the elected president, will determine the right course of action. For Trump, politics is the overarching art: immunology and epidemiology are subordinate sciences. Biden promises the opposite, saying “If I’m elected president, I will always lead the way with science. I will listen to the experts and heed their advice. I will do the opposite of what we’re seeing Donald Trump do every day.”

Who Rules? 

This is the choice before us. Are we to be ruled by experts as if they are our guardians simply because they might be smarter than us in specific fields, or are we to rule ourselves?

The supposed legitimacy of the former approach comes from fear. We are told the world is too complex. We need the experts to guide us, protect us, and save us. We need an elite guardian class to rule over us because we cannot make it on our own. But this cowardice makes us nothing more than slaves, not citizens.

The legitimacy of self-rule springs from our love of justice and our virtue. In our republican system, it requires a commitment to the truth that all men are created equal, and to the proposition that the just powers of government are derived by consent. It requires courage, moderation, friendship, and grace. It is these virtues that allow us to live free, apart from the “chains of despotism” as Madison says in Federalist 55.

The rule of expertise is not politics rightly understood; it is management. There is no deliberation involved. Instead, there is only bureaucracy, administration, and a religious—actually, cultish—devotion to what we now call science.

The rule of the people allows for statesmanship and liberty. Though statesmen might not always be “at the helm,” we the people, as the safeguard of our own liberty, can elect representatives with wisdom and prudence or pay the price when we don’t. We evaluate how well they do, discuss, debate, and then decide who should govern through elections.

Expertise Is Not Prudence 

The rule of expertise, while on the surface promising intelligent leadership, is incapable of prudent government. The rule of expertise leads to incompetence, strife, and corruption instead of scientific precision and impartiality.

This is because the rule of expertise is built on a weak foundation. People’s faith in “science” is often misplaced. Most of what we call science is really just scientism—the foolish belief that men cease to be men when they put on white lab coats and begin charting numbers and lines. Scientism overstates what men can actually know. Moreover, the rule of expertise stands or falls on the belief that men are basically good and scientists are immune to the unjust desire to rule for their own benefit.

Admittedly, it is hard to convince anyone in the grips of this false religion that there is more to governance than the opinions of (necessarily) flawed experts. The warm embrace of the dream world provides great comfort that somehow the right human beings are in control. Most people will fight to stay asleep in the cave of shadows, insisting that they know the truth.

Regardless, the vast majority of “experts” are useless academics and professional bureaucrats. Their fields of study are full of jargon and credentials that lead to conformity and groupthink. Experts learn early that challenging the authorities in one’s field is risky for one’s career. Whatever thinking is involved quickly devolves into vague, abstract theorizing about ideas that are unable to be proven or disproven and thus do not threaten the ideas of one’s peers or superiors.

Often, what is supposed to be science ends up being just another form of cronyism, and what we call “expertise” ends up being knowledge of otherwise useless jargon and how to navigate a career field. The government bureaucracy that results is incompetent, often harmful, and tyrannical.

This is not to say there are not very smart men whom we can legitimately call experts—men like Dr. Fauci. But even at their best, these experts are incapable of prudence. Their knowledge is specific and precise, limiting their ability to consider circumstances broadly. Their skillset is often highly technical, built on years of experience and careful adherence to established protocols, limiting their ability to consider new solutions. And, besides, they typically confront only one problem a nation faces, not the full spectrum of the problems we must face.

In short, science and expertise can be wonderful things that help us to know what is, but they cannot answer the question of what we ought to do. This is the difference between science and politics. One is about knowing; the other is about acting. Expertise and science are subordinate to the art of politics. Experts make terrible rulers.

Prudence and Common Sense 

Those who don’t presume to be experts, on the other hand, tend to be more attuned to actual circumstances. Whereas experts often enjoy the comfort of abstract thinking, regular people are more immediately connected to the harsh realities of life and the consequences of their decisions. A miscalculation might be professionally embarrassing for an expert, if anyone even notices. In real life, a miscalculation hurts one’s business or family.

Likewise, the normal man is often better equipped to consider the highest things. Less enamored of his own knowledge of or power over the world, he tends to rely more on pre-scientific knowledge, or common sense. He tends to be more aware of what he doesn’t actually know, more reliant on conscience, and to have more faith in the divine. In short, normal people tend to be comfortable looking to the heavens for help and guidance.

The American regime is founded on the idea that common citizens with common sense can achieve sensible politics. This can lead to a sort of local statesmanship, often manifested in family, small businesses, and peaceful communities, where people live with the consequences of their actions. Occasionally it leads to statesmanship proper: the ability to look after the wellbeing of the whole nation with prudence, wisdom, and faith.

The Present Moment 

If you listen carefully to the White House press conferences on the coronavirus pandemic, you will notice that Trump emphasizes the newness of the problem, the complexity of the circumstances, common sense, community, and action. Expertise has a place, but it is and must remain in a subordinate role. He sees the inherent connection between Easter and getting through this and doesn’t shy away from prayer. His critics, on the other hand, whine about the need to listen to expertise and science, as if these are gods who will save us if we just submit to them.

It is not by happenstance that the choice between republican and progressive government aligns with a choice between a party of people who worship God, promote families, seek to protect babies, care about local business, and respect science in its place, and a party of people who worship “science,” eschew religion, promote abortion, are cosmopolitan, and sneer at traditional families. It should not surprise anyone that in this crisis one party wants local control with federal support and one party wants local submission to federal control. One is the party of the people; one is the party of scientism.

The war against COVID-19 puts the choice between expertise and common sense front and center. Are we to be ruled by statesmen or experts?

As we emerge from this crisis, I predict that we will find the battle lines between the two camps have only hardened and the stakes are higher than ever. But at least things will be clear.

First Principles

A Resource for Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty is the latest in the Ashbrook Center’s series of document collections covering major periods, themes, and institutions in American history and government. 

For anyone interested in the fate of religious freedom in America Religious Liberty: Core Court Cases may be the most important guide to contemporary controversies over religion in the public square a nonspecialist can own. At least the price is right; the text of the 244-page book is also available free on the internet, in keeping with the civic education mission of the publisher, the Ashbrook Center. Nonetheless, many readers will prefer the inexpensive paperback, as they may prefer to spare themselves the cost of replacing a destroyed computer or cell phone, which is likely to come after reading some of the court’s opinions.

By selecting a diverse array of opinions on religion and the law, we at the Ashbrook Center produced a book that encourages non-specialist readers to examine the legal strife surrounding issues such as the constitutionality of “under God” in the pledge of allegiance or a prayer recited before a football game at a public school, whether a law may violate the conscience of a religious business owner, or whether a cross may be erected on public land. 

The need for this collection was striking even before the Supreme Court accepted for argument a case involving a Philadelphia law requiring the inclusion of same-sex couples as adoptive parents and faith-based adoption agencies who have rejected them. Is the law discriminatory against religious institutions or are the religious adoption agencies violating a general law against discrimination?  

How has America come to such a situation, one might ask, where the fate of children is dependent on the constitutionality of laws restricting charitable religious institutions? After all, churches have always been involved in children’s welfare, including adoptions.

Moreover, one might ask, how is that such a law does not restrict the “free exercise” of religion, as the First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress [or any government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The texts in our book permit the reader to explore how the courts as interpreters of laws and our fundamental law, the Constitution, have come to such conclusions, which seem so contrary to common sense. 

As the principal editor, I did not seek to produce a book of advocacy leading to one conclusion or another but rather to offer the strongest arguments for the various sides of the controversies under scrutiny. Throughout Religious Liberty the modest study guide raises questions that encourage skepticism of all the justices’ arguments. These questions and the selection of opinions pit Supreme Court justice against justice not only within each case but over the decades. 

Contrary to most case books, we recommend that beginning readers start their inquiry from the most recent cases we include, where the controversies are clear and most striking, and then move on to the earlier precedents. To illustrate our approach, we deploy Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017), where the court decided, 7-2, that Missouri had violated the First Amendment by failing to permit a religious school, Trinity Lutheran, to compete for a state recycling grant to pave its playground. 

Our abridged version contained only excerpts from Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurrence and Justice Sandra Sotomayor’s vociferous dissent. Gorsuch argued that Missouri discriminated against the school’s constitutional right to freely exercise its religion and compete for state funds. 

Sotomayor defended Missouri’s power to prevent an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The state, in her view, was trying to prevent “an unlawful fostering of religion.” Because the church school has a religious mission, its “playground surface cannot be confined to secular use….”  

Sotomayor’s puzzling attitude reflects one conclusion of almost 70 years of cases that would confine religious liberty to mere “freedom of worship,” which exists pretty much within the walls of a religious institution. Reflecting the thrust of the most recent cases, Gorsuch was arguing for a far more robust conception of religious free exercise, a pillar of a free society.   

Clashing interpretations of free exercise and establishment have led to this odd confrontation between parts of the First Amendment. Instead of taking prohibition on the establishment of religion to mean no official or established church, and all the implied political, legal, and financial advantages that go along with that, it has come to mean permitting no advantage to religion generally. Religions may not be discriminated against, but they may not, even in general, be given any advantage by government, either. The late Justice Stevens argued that the “religious neutrality” demanded by the establishment clause means neutrality between religion and non-religion. (But has any president failed to say “God bless America”?)

Furthermore, the free exercise clause has come to mean a free exercise preference for minority sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Amish, and the animal sacrificing religion of Santeria—all victors in free exercise cases. Might “free exercise” justify these religions’ seeming defiance of general laws involving flag salutes at school, compulsory school attendance, and sanitation? 

In a pivotal case involving a state law against drug use, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990), Justice Antonin Scalia denied that religious freedom created “a private right to ignore generally applicable laws” and permit drug use for religious observers. Dissenters insisted that his opinion undermined religious liberty, and Congress passed a law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, limiting the court’s decision. 

So how should we apply these cases from our book to the Philadelphia adoption agency? Oddly, the late Justice Scalia, hero of conservatives, seems to have supplied ammunition to both sides, with his limitation on religious liberty claimants against general laws, on the one hand, and with his emphasis on “history and tradition” in understanding the meaning of religious establishment, on the other, from his powerful dissents in school prayer and religious monuments cases. 

We can see how Sotomayor would adopt Scalia’s Oregon v. Smith argument against religious exemptions from valid general laws and emphasize Supreme Court opinions such as Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that made same-sex marriage a constitutional right. Her argument that allowed Missouri to prevent religious schools from receiving state funds would also prevent adoption agencies (or bakeries or other businesses, such as Hobby Lobby) from restricting their services based on their religious beliefs. She would use Scalia against the court’s most recent decisions, which have expanded free exercise and restricted the meaning of establishment, as Gorsuch advocates. This is just one element of the arguments that the court is likely to use in deciding the adoption agency case.

Religious Liberty is the latest in the Ashbrook Center’s series of document collections covering major periods, themes, and institutions in American history and government. When complete, the series (45 volumes in all) will be comprehensive, and also authoritative, presenting America’s story in the words of those who wrote it. These primary document works will be invaluable resources for undergraduate and secondary school instructors, as well as for engaged citizens.

First Principles

The March for Life Proves that Cowering on ‘Social Issues’ Is Politically Stupid

Conservatives need to stop letting progressives define the limits of acceptable viewpoints and start “fighting for those who have no voice.”

This past weekend, along with an 800-person contingent from the University of Notre Dame, I marched in the 47th annual March for Life. It was my second time at the event and truly an historic occasion. I say this not simply because the march is the largest, regular demonstration in America (and probably the world) but because, for the first time, the president of the United States addressed the crowd in person—a crowd that was several hundred thousand strong.

President Trump spoke powerfully and to great applause about how “every human soul is divine, and every human life—born and unborn—is made in the holy image of Almighty God.” He declared his explicit support for the central claim of the pro-life movement, one rooted in our founding—in the Declaration of Independence, specifically—that every single person has the inalienable, God-given right to life.

Given the massive political debt the Republican Party owes to ordinary pro-life Americans—in the form of their precious votes, campaign contributions, myriad volunteer hours, grassroots mobilization and organization, and day-to-day rhetorical advocacy for nearly 50 years—one would think that, by now, we would have seen significant movement on the question of abortion. Public opinion is largely pro-life. But abortion remains legal and is becoming ever more monstrous in its reach and application. Why?

Because, by all appearances, the swamp of “conservative” politicians, strategists, and think tanks—i.e., “Conservatism, Inc.”—would prefer to milk the issue in perpetuity so as not to lose support.

Think about it: If the issue disappears completely—if the Supreme Court, say, were to overturn its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade—so-called pro-life conservatives might actually have to work for their daily bread (quelle horreur!). Then how would these sort of Republicans—unable to offer their opportunistic, polished, but hollow pro-life rhetoric—fund their campaigns and win elections?

They wouldn’t—and a GOP populated primarily by these kinds of hucksters would probably collapse.

Why doesn’t Conservatism, Inc. have the stomach or the spine to push hard on this issue, an issue central to the justice of the American project and hearts of the people they claim to represent? Why do they only dust off pro-life talking points and gin up faux outrage come election season, never translating much of it into concrete political victories? Why have we only just now, in 2019, graduated from legislating mandatory (hours-long) waiting periods to heartbeat bills and outright bans?

Because movement conservatism is trapped in an elite ecosystem that is rabidly pro-abortion, and this has blunted their sense not only of what’s possible but of what’s right. Their friends, neighbors, and colleagues in all the wealthiest zip codes view access to abortion as the summum bonum of liberty and (economic) life. The prestigious universities they attended all teach bodily autonomy as a sacred doctrine. And their fellow attendees at fancy D.C. cocktail parties are sure that abortion on demand and without apology is the moral, enlightened position.

This environment has neutered their ability to understand that the average American recoils in disgust at the horrendous procedure, one in which an innocent human being is always sacrificed for some lesser end. They fail to recognize the vast majority of the rest of the country instinctively intuits that a monstrous injustice is wrought each time an abortion is committed—the horror of which is compounded by the mind-boggling reality that since 1973, our nation has been the site of a consistent slaughter of the most innocent among us on a scale several orders of magnitude greater than the Holocaust.

Truly, what good is a roaring economy erected atop a mound of babies’ corpses?

Conservatism, Inc. has been so browbeaten by the constant, inane refrain of “my body, my choice” that the best its members can do is act like they really want abortion gone. Sadly, I submit that they don’t really, deep down in their gut, want that world to arrive. But they’ll say whatever they need to say to fill their campaign bank accounts and cash their checks.

The most basic right is the right to life; the very concept of “rights” is rendered nonsensical without it. Life is the prerequisite for the exercise of any other rights—be they natural, political, or civil.

President Trump understands this, which is why he spoke at the March. In his telling, the Democratic Party “ha[s] embraced the most radical and extreme positions taken and seen in this country for years, and decades—and you can even say ‘for centuries.’” Awkward phrasing aside, he is indisputably correct on this point, and he offered a series of examples to illustrate the claim:

“Nearly every top Democrat in Congress now supports taxpayer-funded abortion, all the way up until the moment of birth.”

“Last year, lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb right up until delivery.”

“The Governor [of Virginia] stated that he would execute a baby after birth.”

Finally, “Senate Democrats even blocked legislation that would give medical care to babies who survive attempted abortions.”

The crowd vocalized its displeasure at being reminded of these ghoulish events with loud boos.

Conservatives need to stop letting progressives and the “professionals” gaslighted by them define what are and are not acceptable positions for them to take and start “fighting for those who have no voice.” They need to get over their squeamishness about boldly tackling “controversial” social issues; after all, the Left will oppose them tooth and nail no matter how hard they fight, so they may as well go all in. They need to recognize their political duty to “protect, cherish, and defend the dignity and sanctity of every human life” and then stand with the “strong women, amazing faith leaders, and brave students who carry on the legacy of pioneers before us who fought to raise the conscience of our nation and uphold the rights of our citizens.”

If that isn’t a winning message, what is?

First Principles

Remembering the Farming Way

We need to pause sometimes and remember who these dinosaurs were and what they have contributed. For a while longer, a few are still with us, a sort of collective keyhole through which we can look back into a now unremembered American past, whose codes and mores we simply abandoned—and to our great and present loss.

Almost all the pragmatic agricultural wisdom that my grandparents taught me has long ago been superseded by technology. I don’t anymore calibrate, as I once did when farming in the 1980s, the trajectory of an incoming late summer storm by watching the patterns of nesting birds, or the shifting directions and feel of the wind, or the calendar date or the phases of the moon. Instead, I go online and consult radar photos of storms far out at sea. Meteorology is mostly an exact science now.

Even the agrarian’s socio-scientific arts of observation that I learned from my family are seldom employed in my farming anymore. Back in the day, when a local farmer’s wife died, I was told things like, “Elmer will go pretty soon, too. His color isn’t good and he’s not used to living without her”—and tragically the neighbor usually died within months. Now I guess I would ask Elmer whether his blood tests came back OK, and the sort of blood pressure medicine he takes. I don’t think we believe that superficial facial color supersedes lab work. Farmers did because in an age of limited technology they saw people as plants, and knew that the look and color of a tree or vine—in comparison to others in the orchard or vineyard—was a sign of their viability.

I grew up with an entire local network of clubs and get-togethers, and ferried my grandparents to periodic meetings of the Walnut Improvement Club, Eastern Star, the Odd Fellows, Masons, the Grange, and Sun-Maid growers. They exchanged gossip, of course, but also vital folk and empirical information on irrigation, fertilizers, and machines.

The point was to remind us that “we” (i.e., the vanishing rural classes) needed to stick together—especially given glimpses of what the country would be like in the 21st century. When one of us died or got sick, people showed up with flowers, food, and offered help—whether the use of a tractor, or truck or hired man to “get you through this.”

Now? Zilch.

I don’t know any of my neighbors. Most are recent immigrants from south of the border, many here illegally. The land is almost all leased out to or has been purchased by large corporations. The old farmhouses are also rented and often poorly maintained: a sort of rural skeleton, with the flesh gone and the bones flaking apart. I hear from our coastal elites all about diversity, community, and caring. But out here, no one believes there is much diversity. Community does not exist. And as for caring, it is about making sure you get home at night without a drunk driver forcing you off the road—or worse.

So Much for Diversity or Community

I don’t know where exactly all my Armenian, Greek, Japanese, Mexican, Portuguese, Scandinavian agrarian friends of my childhood went, but they and their offspring are all long gone. And it is mostly rich versus poor left now, with little in between in California. I’m not sure massive illegal immigration is going to lead to the sort of communities that legal immigration and family farming once built. I once remember locals saying things like, “We can’t find the damn key to our house. Never had a need for it,” and, “Say, did you see that stranger two weeks ago prowling around the ditch bank?”—as if such a rare occurrence demanded neighborhood consultation.

Now? Rural houses have walls, fences, barbed wire, cameras, and fierce pit bulls. I feel like it is North Africa circa AD 430, and the world is retreating into rural makeshift fortifications. And the occupants—few of them farmers—are armed to the teeth. The local sheriffs by needs appear in raids against the Norteños and Sureños gangs, equipped like the 82nd Airborne.

[Hiatus: I was just interrupted writing this by a loud noise outside the front door at 6 a.m. A drunk driver swerved off the road—as is an almost a monthly occurrence—tore out an almond tree in our orchard, and tried to keep driving for a bit before his car conked and law enforcement appeared. A kind and professional highway patrolman, speaking Spanish, is now booking him in the front of the house. The driver seems quite drunk (in the early morning no less), doesn’t speak English, and, along with his passengers, gave me a nice frown when I walked out, in apparent recognition that he destroyed my property and has not a bit of contrition, much less any intention of paying me anything.]

The science and culture of family farming are about gone. I used to worry when my grandfather got the flu: who will run the farm? And how without him, given his stored wisdom that was never written down? He himself used to lecture about the bankruptcy of a neighbor, “He was a good enough farmer, but no one counted on his son getting killed in that accident and a cancer in his lung.” I learned that often just health and constitution meant success while fragility and illness failure. Continuance was always in the balance.

The Solid Constitution of the Farmer

To extend the farming logic, one ingredient in Donald Trump’s success appears to be his underappreciated constitution that somehow defies the logic of septuagenarian preventive medicine.

I had a Swedish grandfather like that whose lungs and esophagus were scarred and shriveled from gassing in World War I, who made a hardscrabble living by raising what he ate and breaking horses, and yet his constitution made it to 80—before the ancient scar tissues and cysts in his gassed mouth finally went malignant. We pried him off his 40-acre pasture and took him to an oncologist in 1968, the first doctor he had visited in 30 years.

Agribusiness wisely does not depend on the health of a paterfamilias, much less the regimens it once took to keep him going. Protocol is on the internet and managers are university trained in the sciences of hydrology, genetics, and plant chemistry. I can often spot a rare vestigial family-owned and operated 100-acre almond orchard by its less impressive, less tidy look, in comparison to the garden-like corporate-operated tesserae of the same size as part of huge 10,000-acre mosaics.

So the health of a single middle-aged male farmer used to determine whether the farm thrived or failed. The males I grew up with used all sorts of creams, balms, ointments, folk remedies, and embraced strange regimens about eating, when to go to bed, and when to get up. These habits were felt essential to ensuring trees were pruned or grapes picked. I never could figure out why locals wore either railroad engineer overalls, or matching khaki pants and shirt, or blue shirts and jeans that variously reflected their own idiosyncratic theories about how to endure the scorching summer heat, or frosty winter mornings, or to protect from wasp stings or sand burrs.

I don’t particularly miss the endemic grouchiness of agrarians, reflective I suppose of the tragic nature of family farmers. Even when a neighbor produced three tons of raisins per acre and in a rare year of good prices no less, he would sigh when complimented, “Well, I did alright, at least good enough.” And when the rain took his crop and the market prices dropped even in the midst of shortages, you would hear, “I’m done for and about had it with this farming business.”

In other words, much of the natural and human knowledge I picked up on a five-generation small farm in Central California is no longer applicable to the 21st century in the age of social media, the internet, huge wealth, globalization, open borders, and the transformations of the arts of farming into the sciences of agribusiness.

Or is that assessment entirely true? Aren’t there occasional vestigial insights?

Vestigial Insights of a 20th-Century Farmer

Call them philosophical reflections or perhaps reminders of the tragic view of human existence of the last 2,500 years in the agrarian West since Hesiod that still remain invaluable in our rich and faceless society.

One is the idea of hubris incurring nemesis. Farmers taught me to save in good times, because they would not, could not last. If religious—and most were—they assumed an omniscient God watches over us and tempers the good with the bad. A healthy son, a banner plum year, a new shed meant “watch out!” Such good luck could not last, especially if one took such good times as a referendum on one’s own talent or brilliance—which, human nature being what it is, one usually and catastrophically did.

Nemesis then followed haughtiness. The wise instead sought balance (to hide from the jealous roaming pagan goddess Nemesis): to remain cautious and humble when things were good, and defiant and resolute when they turned awful.

I still remember their wisdom of unintended consequences, irony, and paradox. Sometimes farmers who never smoked, drank, or ate too much dropped dead of strange cancers or wasting diseases. Model peach orchards of hardy stock on occasion were sickened by bacterial gummosis. Beautiful two-story Victorian farmhouses of the 19th century burned down right after expensive restorations. That edged legacy still haunts me. I’m as afraid of good times as of bad, as if the two faced off on some baleful teeter totter, each having a commensurate turn, raising us higher and then taking us down.

I still cannot shake agrarian wisdom even in our suburbanized world. Watch out for fast-talkers and know-it-alls whose speech substitutes for real accomplishment, a lore that I guess evolved from the solitary nature of farming when people worked days alone, had few with whom to talk, and failed or succeeded by how much they got done—all and only visible to the naked eye. Not talking to a single person for an entire day while pruning or tractor driving or irrigating is no longer a normal experience.

Sometimes agrarian genes are outright curses. Why cannot a person lodge a legitimate excuse? Aren’t there extenuating circumstances?

Excess of Independence as Corrective to Today’s Acedia 

Most of my near own disasters over the last 60 years were needless and self-inflicted and came from foolishly “pressing on” in order that I didn’t “let someone down”—as if one always had to finish pruning the entire vine row with the flu, or disc the entire 20 acres with pink eye.

I would hear in my farming brain “You gave your word.” “You said you’d do it.” “What if everyone did that?” Or rather I heard what had been instilled by others.

And so when I had a dull ache in my groin, I went to fulfill a speaking engagement for an educational consortium touring in Muammar Gadaffi’s nightmare of a country and ended up in shock with a ruptured appendix in Libya, in a desperate search for a surgeon. (I found one 26 hrs. later).

A reluctance long ago in Greece to tell the archaeological director of an excavation that my urine was turning pink soon led to a staghorn calculus, a severed ureter, and an iffy flight back to the United States for an emergency operation.

Getting Middle East malaria or dysentery was usually because I didn’t want to seem to “house up” as they said on the farm. Farmers believe, apparently, that there is some natural force in the universe that rewards continuance when in fact they often make their own plight worse by not taking simple precautions. I remember a 70-year-old farmer showing me a “small” bruise on his back from falling out of his cab: his entire back from neck to belt was bright purple.

I once begged my 66-year old father not to patch old telephone wire (the remnants of a shared rural country line) on a 25-foot high, 70-year-old shoddy extension ladder. He badly broke his foot. When one does that in his sixties, and is a bit too heavy, it can devolve into all sorts of other imbalances. But he did fix the wire and the phone.

By the early 5th-century AD, “Rome”—already a crumbling Mediterranean hegemony—was a world away from the Italian agrarian state of the 3rd-century BC, in customs, values, and outlook: richer and more cosmopolitan, but unsustainable in its excesses, disunity, and rootlessness.

In our own late imperial days, honor the independent truck driver, the farmer, the guy who runs the 24-hour 7-Eleven store, and the owner-welder in a fabrication shop. We need to pause sometimes and remember who these dinosaurs were and what they have contributed. For a while longer, a few are still with us, a sort of collective keyhole through which we can look back into a now unremembered American past, whose codes and mores we simply abandoned—and to our great and present loss.