Rod Dreher

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The Rot Of American Party Elites

Political consultants, donors, and activists seeking opportunities in today’s Republican Party (Michael Potter 11/Shutterstock)

What in the actual hell is wrong with these people? Who raised them? Wolves?:

Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, one of the House’s most ardent social conservatives, said Thursday night that he would resign after the House Ethics Committee began an investigation into complaints that he had asked two female staff members to be a surrogate to bear his child.

In a statement, Mr. Franks said the discussion about surrogacy came up with “two previous female subordinates” because he and his wife, who have struggled with fertility, wanted to have a child. He said he regretted that the conversations had “caused distress.”

“Due to my familiarity and experience with the process of surrogacy, I clearly became insensitive as to how the discussion of such an intensely personal topic might affect others,” Mr. Franks said.

In a furious column titled “The GOP Is Rotting,” David Brooks lets the Republican Party have it. Excerpts:

The Republican Party I grew up with admired excellence. It admired intellectual excellence (Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley), moral excellence (John Paul II, Natan Sharansky) and excellent leaders (James Baker, Jeane Kirkpatrick). Populism abandoned all that — and had to by its very nature. Excellence is hierarchical. Excellence requires work, time, experience and talent. Populism doesn’t believe in hierarchy. Populism doesn’t demand the effort required to understand the best that has been thought and said. Populism celebrates the quick slogan, the impulsive slash, the easy ignorant assertion. Populism is blind to mastery and embraces mediocrity.

More:

Today’s tax cuts have no bipartisan support. They have no intellectual grounding, no body of supporting evidence. They do not respond to the central crisis of our time. They have no vision of the common good, except that Republican donors should get more money and Democratic donors should have less.

The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

Read the whole thing. 

He’s absolutely right, of course, and the Republicans who voted for that unpopular (see here and here), help-the-rich, deficit-exploding tax bill, rammed through at the last minute, without any of them really knowing what they were voting on, don’t deserve to remain in office. A lot of us will end up voting for them by default, because we decide for whatever reason voting for a Democrat could be worse, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Republicans are incapable of responsible government.

The rot afflicting the GOP did not start with Trump. This former Republican did not recognize his political homelessness in 2016 or 2017, but in 2008, when the rot of the GOP had become obvious and intolerable. For me, it was:

  1. The Iraq War: the sheer incompetence of it, and the inability of the GOP to learn from their disaster.
  2. The economic crash, and the role the Republican Party played in creating conditions for it (note well that the Clinton-era Democrats are also guilty of this)
  3. The Bush administration’s cronyism, as revealed in the wake of Michael “Brownie” Brown’s Katrina debacle. Look at this Washington Post report from September 2005. Excerpt:

Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

FEMA’s top three leaders — Director Michael D. Brown, Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode and Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler — arrived with ties to President Bush’s 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation, according to the agency. Two other senior operational jobs are filled by a former Republican lieutenant governor of Nebraska and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official who was once a political operative.

Contra my friend David Brooks, the contempt for expertise among leading Republicans did not begin with the Trump administration.

And for that matter, let us recall that it was the best and brightest of the Republican Party’s defense and national security elite that led the nation into its worst foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. Did you see Ken Burns’s recent Vietnam documentary? Did you see Errol Morris’s fantastic documentary The Fog of War, about Robert McNamara and Vietnam? Those were Democratic Party elites, but the most important fact is that they were American elites, just as the Republican elites that led us into Iraq. And it was American elites — Republican and Democrat — that led us into the 2008 economic crash, beginning with the Clinton-era deregulation of Wall Street, continued through the George W. Bush era.

My problem with Donald Trump is not so much that he’s a populist rebuke to the GOP elites (who deserve it) but that he’s a loudmouth incompetent who’s so bad at it — and his most ardent supporters let him get away with it. This tax bill, which he embraces, gives lie to any substantive claim that Trump is a populist.

Trump’s awfulness, though, should by no means excuse the Republican Party for creating the conditions that led to his rise. Nor, for that matter, should it let the Democrats off the hook. Here’s a very good analysis by Thomas B. Edsall, a left-leaning political journalist who is always worth reading, in which the writer chides liberals to quit living in denial about how they helped bring Trump about, and perpetuate his popularity. Shorter Edsall: liberals really have declared war on the way of life that a lot of Red America values.

Yes, the GOP is putrefying. So is the Democratic Party (as Edsall’s analysis reveals). The rot began long before Donald Trump showed up on the political scene. He is both symptom and catalyst, but he didn’t start the rot.

 

 

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Making A Christmas Memory

“Dad, it’s SNOWING!” said the above little girl this morning — a phrase that was no doubt repeated all over the Baton Rouge area. It is hard to explain to someone from more northern latitudes what a MASSIVE HONKING BIG DEAL any snow at all is to kids this far South. It snows only once or so every few years. This is the first snow my kids have seen since we moved to Louisiana in 2011. They were out in it before daylight, having seen the forecasts last evening. It was as hard for them to get to sleep last night as it usually is on Christmas Eve.

They were well prepared for it. I was away from the keys most of yesterday, and had a restful evening at home in front of the first fire of the season. Julie and Matthew were out doing errands, and Lucas and Nora decorated the Christmas tree while I sat on the couch and read Christmas stories to them.

Let me warn you off what I thought would be a nice Advent present for us: a collection of seasonal short stories called A Very Russian ChristmasThe first one I chose at random was a Chekhov story that made no sense. The second was a Dostoevsky tale about a ragamuffin whose mother freezes to death, and he goes out into the icy city, where the rich won’t let him into their Christmas celebration, then a bully beats him up, and he finally finds a stack of wood to curl up under and freeze to death, but it’s all okay because he meets Mama in heaven.

“Dad, that’s awful,” one of the kids said. “What kind of Christmas story is that?”

A very Russian one, apparently. I gave it one more stab: a Maxim Gorky tale about a writer who wrote a Christmas story about an elderly beggar woman and her blind husband freezing to death on their way to the first matins of Christmas day. Satisfied with his story, the writer is visited by a cavalcade of the ghosts of his characters from these miserable stories, while the Voice of God chastises him bitterly for adding to the misery of the world by writing stories highlighting it. The spirits torment him so much that he tears his short story up.

“This is horrible!” I said, as the kids groaned.

Deep in the hole, I went for the big guns: Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”. I used to read a lot of Capote, but never this story. It’s set in 1940s Alabama. The narrator is Buddy, a seven year old boy who lives with his sprawling family out in the country. His best friend is a distant, elderly cousin who is not all there mentally. The story begins with the old cousin waking up one morning in November and deciding, as she does every year at that time, that it’s time to make Christmas fruitcakes.

Capote, who based the story on his real-life childhood relationship with his Cousin Sook, writes in spellbinding detail about living through the Christmas season with her. Here they are making fruitcakes:

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.

And here they are, an elderly woman and a seven-year-old boy, tramping through the woods to chop down a Christmas tree:

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on.

Many years ago I was a reader of Capote, but somehow I had never seen this classic story, and I didn’t anticipate the final lines … which I could barely choke out because I was sobbing. Literally, sobbing. So was Lucas, as he sat by the fire.

My unsentimental daughter: “Mom, my gosh, they’re crying! Both of them!”

Well, we were. It’s the best Christmas story ever. For me, I’m sure part of it is how the story evoked memories of my late, great aunts Hilda and Lois — especially Lois, who was my own version of Cousin Sook. Here’s Lois in her cabin’s kitchen, where I saw with her on her lap as a little boy and helped her mix cake batter and bake pecan cookies:

I had no idea at all how poor she and Hilda were until I saw that photo in adulthood. That cabin was a kind of Tom Bombadil’s cottage to me as a little boy. It looks so shabby here, and I guess it was, but that’s not how I remember it:

A retired priest friend who had ministered to Lois and Hilda back in the 1970s, when they lived here, asked me a few years ago why it was that the family let those old women, then nearing 80, live in such hardscrabble conditions. Good question. I put it to my dad, who just laughed.

“Hell, you couldn’t get those old ladies to do nothin’ they didn’t want to do,” he said. It’s true. I can remember that much. They were indomitable. Here they were as Red Cross nurses in World War I, in France:

For me, I think the tears came mostly from how the Capote story evoked all those memories of my own early childhood with Lois and Hilda, who were my great-grandmother’s sisters. That world no longer exists. There is nothing left of it, except in my memory, and in the memories of Southern children who were fortunate enough to have had it.

By the way, do you remember the Fruitcake Lady from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show? She was a bossypants nonagenerian who had been Capote’s Aunt Tiny. She was awesome beyond awesome. Take a look at this clip of one of her “Ask The Fruitcake Lady” segments: (it’s NSFW):

Bitter Southerner has a good remembrance of Aunt Tiny (Marie Rudisill), who was the kind of dame old-timey Southerners call “a pistol.” Anyway, please read “A Christmas Memory,” aloud, by the fire, to your kids. Lucas and Nora just came in from playing in the snow. They’re cold and wet, and warming up by the fire. There will be more stories today, but none can possibly be as good as the one we read last night. And that is a Christmas memory for our family.

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French Ambassador Go Home!

This appeared on Twitter yesterday:

Gérard Araud is the French ambassador to the United States.

Maybe you have forgotten something about the 1940s, Monsieur:

As James C. e-mails this morning:

All I can say is, you know how the French often talk about loving Americans but loathing our government? Que veut dire <> en français?

Seriously. Americans should be aware that this ambassadorial jackass no more represents the collective view of the French people than our own Twitter-in-Chief represents the view of the American people. But really, if M. Araud wanted to tweet only one thing that would be guaranteed to most insult and even most outrage Americans, well, this is it.

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The GOP’s Moral Bankruptcy

A senior Republican official — a conservative Christian — texted me yesterday to say:

So Franken and Conyers are out while the GOP is rallying to and will likely be stuck with Moore. I truly never thought I’d see the day when the GOP ceded the moral high ground to the Democrats on sexual ethics. I’m truly stunned.

Here’s a new piece from The Atlantic by Tina Dupuy, a Democratic woman who said that she too was groped by Franken. Excerpts:

I have a radical idea: Maybe Democrats can replace politicians who harass and abuse women with anyone other than an abuser. There are good men in the world. I married one. I’ve worked with many more. Do we really believe our talent pool will dry up and our caucus will be nonexistent once we kick out all the creepers? I don’t. What if protecting men who harass and abuse women isn’t actually good for women?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s only good for the men.

More:

This year’s pervert purge has inspired many to look at uncomfortable truths about their heroes, their co-workers, and their values. The New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg repented of her support for Bill Clinton, writing a piece with a battering ram as a headline, “I believe Juanita.” For me, it’s been sinking in that the working white women who felt condescended to by affluent feminists voted, by significant margins, for an admitted sexual predator over the lady who’d not believe them if they were abused by someone she liked. Their choices don’t seem so ridiculous to me any longer.

Democrats sold our soul. Nothing makes that more clear than how women voted in the 2016 election.

I’m also no longer defending Bill Clinton. I’m ashamed I ever did. But I’m not condemning or admonishing Hillary. I think we all make the choices that seem right at the time. I don’t feel like pummeling her with my privilege of hindsight. But there’s a rot in the Democratic Party. It’s not just bad men and exhausted women; it’s that we chose Bill over the women. And that original sin lost us the election of what we all assumed would be the first female president of the United States. And Trump, who boasted he could “grab ‘em by the pussy,” being in the White House doesn’t make that untrue. It just makes it a painful irony.

I wasn’t going to come forward. Then I was. Then I wasn’t. I’ve been hoping Franken would just step down and I wouldn’t have to say anything. I’ve been hoping he’s a decent enough man not to force his victims to parade in front of the Ethics Committee. I’ve been hoping I’d not ever have the moniker of “Franken accuser.”

But she changed her mind. Good for her. I write this on Thursday morning. Al Franken is going to make a statement today. I presume that he will resign, given that even Chuck Schumer has declared that it’s time for him to go.

I don’t put it at all past the Democrats to be tossing Franken overboard because it’s excellent politics heading into 2018, with the Republicans saddled with Donald Trump and quite possibly Roy Moore — two of the politicians most popular with conservative Christians. The Republican Party and the conservative movement, such as it is, will reap what it has sown. I ask, paraphrasing Tina Dupuy:

Maybe Republicans can replace politicians who harass and abuse women with anyone other than an abuser. There are good men in the world. I know them, I am trying to raise them, and by God’s grace, I try to be one. Do we really believe our talent pool will dry up and our caucus will be nonexistent once we kick out all the creepers? I don’t.  

Look at this:

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“Tremendous moral standards”? Recognize God? These two?! It would be comedy if it weren’t so outrageous.

Joe Carter — a conservative Evangelical — laid down the law last week in a powerful column. He begins by discussing the case of Wesley Goodman, a young conservative Evangelical politician who traded on his squeaky-clean Christian image, but who was a predatory homosexual — and lots of people knew about it, but said little or nothing. Carter concludes:

As we have discovered over the past two years, so long as the flawed candidate can be considered the “lesser of two evils” (i.e., not a Democrat), then some evangelicals believe we can vote for them and keep a clean conscience.

In an article published last October, I asked: “Why are so many evangelicals condoning sexual assault?” I noted that “many evangelicals—especially prominent conservative defenders of family and public morality—side with the powerful oppressors over the vulnerable oppressed. Many have shown they are willing, even eager, to overlook admissions of sexual assault if it will lead to their preferred political outcome.” And that some of America’s most notable pastors, educators, and organizational leaders “attempt to square the circle by claiming that while they are personally opposed to sexual assault and boasting about committing it, they have no intention of holding the perpetrator accountable.”

Numerous people told me at the time that I was being too critical and that the election of 2016 was a special circumstance. Given the choice between two extremely unqualified and unworthy candidates, conservative Christians were voting for Trump merely to protect the Supreme Court. For a time I wondered if that was true. Maybe it was just a political fluke, and evangelicals weren’t discarding our principles.

And then came Roy Moore.

Carter calls on conservative Christians to put aside the “lesser of two evils” strategy and simply refuse to use their vote cooperate with evil:

If every evangelical committed to convictional inaction, politics in American would change within four to five years (about two election cycles). Knowing they were truly at the whim of Christian voters, both parties would be forced to make radical changes. Convictional inaction is a nonpartisan approach that solves our political crisis by literally doing nothing. 

The flaw in this approach, of course, is the collective action problem. It would take a majority—or at least a critical mass of convictionally inactive voters—to make it functional. And as we see in Alabama, there simply aren’t enough Christians willing to risk letting their political opponents win any temporary victory.

Still, I hold out hope that this approach will catch on. Politically conservative evangelicals today have been catechized by Fox News and talk radio. But there are a growing number of churches teaching what it means to live as ambassadors of the kingdom of God and not as partisan dupes in our current political cults.

Eventually, we may be able to restore the idea that character and moral integrity are minimum requirements to hold political office. But in the meantime, we’ll increasingly be stuck with the Wesley Goodmans and Roy Moores of the world. We’ve taught candidates they can get away with almost anything because they know we don’t have the courage not to vote for them.

Amen. Preach, brother.

I wrote this a year ago, in The Benedict Option:

Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that the robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to America’ s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.

So is Roy Moore. So is the Republican Party. The idea that the party of Bill Clinton, of abortion-at-all-costs, and mandatory transgenderism in public schools has gotten out ahead of the GOP on sexual morality tells you all you need to know.

From the politics chapter of The Benedict Option:

No matter how furious and all – consuming partisan political battles are, Christians have to keep clearly before us the fact that conventional American politics cannot fix what is wrong with our society and culture. They are inadequate because in both their left -wing and right – wing forms, they operate from the position that facilitating and expanding human choice is the proper end of our politics. The left and the right just disagree over where to draw the lines. Neither party’s program is consistent with Christian truth.

By contrast, the politics of the Benedict Option assume that the disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul. Benedict Option politics start with the proposition that the most important political work of our time is the restoration of inner order, harmonizing with the will of God — the same telos as life in the monastic community. Everything else follows naturally from that.

Above all, this means being ordered toward love. We become what we love and make the world according to our loves. We should act from a place not of fear and loathing but of affection and confidence in God and His will.

When we are truly ordered toward God, we won’t have to worry about immediate results — and that’s a good thing. In interviewing surviving dissidents from the Czech Communist era, researcher [Flagg] Taylor discovered something they had in common with Saint Benedict and his monks. They never expected to live to see the end of totalitarianism, and they did not really believe their activities would have any effect in the short term. But this worked to their advantage.

“They surrendered themselves to the idea that these things were worth doing in and of themselves, not because they might have definite, measurable consequences,” Taylor says. “Havel, Benda, and the other dissidents made it clear that once you start down the path of consequentialism, you will always find a reason not to do anything. You have to want to do something because it’ s worth doing, not because you think it will make the Communist Party fall in four years.”

In our immediate circumstance, political consequentialism is cratering Christian moral credibility. One more thing:

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I’m 50 years old, and grew up in a time when conservative churches held themselves out as opposed to situational ethics and moral relativism, both in secular society and within liberal churches. And now, look.

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Garrison Keillor? Who He?

‘To history’s ashcan, go!’ (Ron Cogswell/Flickr)

Garrison Keillor? Who he? David Vossbrink writes:

Garrison Keillor has been disappeared into the Memory Hole. If you look for his biography or the archived shows from a half century of “A Prairie Home Companion” on the website of Minnesota Public Radio since his fall from grace, you’ll now find only this: “Sorry, but there’s no page here.”

Keillor and his entire body of work from “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Writer’s Almanac” have been effectively erased from the archives of MPR, along with the work of all the other storytellers, singers, poets and production staff who made the shows successful.

In these tumultuous days of unceasing revelations of sexual scandals in media, politics and business, media enterprises especially face a new ethical challenge with their fallen stars: What do you do with history and art?

That’s a very good question, though it really should be an easy one to answer: as a general rule, the art is separate from the artist. The MPR panic is what you would expect from a Stalinist regime dealing with figures who have fallen out of ideological failure. Unless MPR has evidence that Keillor was some kind of unspeakable monster, this response has been hysterical and unjust — unjust not just to those who worked on the show, including Keillor, but unjust to the show’s fans, and future fans.

MPR has given no details of its decision to unperson Keillor, other than it believes him guilty of sexual harassment. Keillor told his side of the story, to some extent, and if he’s right, there’s no way this is a proper response by MPR. Then again, he might be self-servingly manipulating the truth. We don’t know yet, and may never know.

Vossbrink continues:

As consumers of news, entertainment and art, we should be able to choose what we want to watch. If you’re uncomfortable with the work of sleazy movie stars, celebrities and producers, then you can ignore them. That shouldn’t be MPR’s call.

By the Memory Hole standard, we wouldn’t have much history or culture to choose from our collective pasts. Too many artists and politicians from other eras have been pigs, though their art and their decisions live on. We should be able learn from their histories.

We learn, too, from debates about confederate monuments and the whitewashing of history, and how we handle the paradoxes of Thomas Jefferson as a slave-holding champion of liberty, Christopher Columbus as a bold and brutal explorer, and Robert E. Lee as traitor and war hero.

If you only chose to partake of art, music, and literature created by morally upstanding persons, you’d quickly come to the end of what’s available. Museums would empty out. Concert halls would fall silent. Bookstores would have to be repurposed as yoga studios, and movie theaters as hipster churches. The unfortunate truth is that bad, or at least deeply flawed, people often make the best art.

Assuming the worst about Garrison Keillor’s private behavior does not negate the decades of pleasure — wholesome pleasure, let it be noted; my kids and I used to listen to his show together — that his quality radio program provided. If we grant MPR and content-owners like them the right to erase the artistic legacy of creators like Keillor, where does it stop? Who will be next?

Read the whole thing. Oddly enough, what’s happened to Keillor makes me more opposed to removing Confederate statues — not because of any sympathy for the Confederacy (I have none), but because of fear of erasing historical memory. All totalitarian regimes know that the key to controlling a people is controlling its memory. We are, for now, a free people. One key to preserving our freedom is saving as much cultural memory we can from those who, whether out of nefarious motives or an overabundance of moral zeal, would prefer that we not know.

You can walk into any good bookstore in the country and buy the works of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Ezra Pound, though both were pro-fascist during the Second World War. And you should be able to! To unperson someone whose artistic work is as gentle and anodyne as Garrison Keillor’s because of some alleged sins in his personal life ought to chill writers, musicians, artists, and those who love art, music and literature, to the bone. I’ve mentioned in this space on several occasions that I hear from readers who grew up in Communist countries, and who tell me that they sense more and more the same atmosphere of their youth coming into existence here. This erasing of Keillor and his enormous and valuable creative legacy from history has to be setting off their internal alarms.

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The Sweet Sting Of The Babylon Bee

Lord, now let your servant go in peace. I have achieved the three media milestones I wanted to in my life: 1) I have been in The New Yorker, 2) I have been a guest on Mars Hill Audio Journal, and now, as of this day, I have been parodied in The Babylon Bee, by making their Top 10 Books of 2017 List.

(If you don’t know, the Bee is a Christian version of The Onion, parodying the intersection of Christianity and popular culture. Unlike most Christian knockoffs of secular things, this one is actually as good as the original. Seriously.)

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This Was Communism, You Fools

Detail of a 1982 painting commemorating visit of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (Vasluiul Comunist/Flickr)

This has been the 100th anniversary year of the Bolshevik Revolution, one of history’s greatest calamities. The beginning of Soviet communism’s end arguably came with the founding of the Solidarity trade union in Poland, or possibly with the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Whatever the case, it decisively arrived with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

College students today did not live through the Soviet and Eurocommunist years. This grieves and offends Harvard undergraduate Laura Nicolae, whose parents escaped from Ceausescu’s Romania. She writes in the Harvard Crimson about the university’s culture:

Walk around campus, and you’re likely to spot Ché Guevara on a few shirts and button pins. A sophomore jokes that he’s declared a secondary in “communist ideology and implementation.” The new Leftist Club on campus seeks “a modern perspective” on Marx and Lenin to “alleviate the stigma around the concept of Leftism.” An author laments in these pages that it’s too difficult to meet communists here. For many students, casually endorsing communism is a cool, edgy way to gripe about the world.

After spending four years on a campus saturated with Marxist memes and jokes about communist revolutions, my classmates will graduate with the impression that communism represents a light-hearted critique of the status quo, rather than an empirically violent philosophy that destroyed millions of lives.

Statistics show that young Americans are indeed oblivious to communism’s harrowing past. According to a YouGov poll, only half of millennials believe that communism was a problem, and about a third believe that President George W. Bush killed more people than Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who killed 20 million. If you ask millennials how many people communism killed, 75 percent will undershoot.

She continues:

The stories of survivors paint a more vivid picture of communism than the textbooks my classmates have read. While we may never fully understand all of the atrocities that occurred under communist regimes, we can desperately try to ensure the world never repeats their mistakes. To that end, we must tell the accounts of survivors and fight the trivialization of communism’s bloody past.

My father left behind his parents, friends, and neighbors in the hope of finding freedom. I know his story because it is my heritage; you now know his story because I have a voice. One hundred million other people were silenced.

Read the whole thing. 

I will never, ever understand why we tolerate, even celebrate, Communist chic, when we would not for a second tolerate Nazi chic. Here I’d like to recall the words of the late Orthodox priest George Calciu, who spent years of torture in the Romanian gulag for being a Christian priest. From a 1996 interview with Father Calciu, published in this collection:

I was very fortunate because I was among the sixteen people that the Securitate took to Jilava prison, where my [spiritual] healing began. In Jilava they built a special cell in a half-cylindrical shape. It was like a cylinder cut in two. We were underground; Jilava is built underground. Above the cell were seven meters of earth. You cannot see Jilava-the whole prison is underground. In this cylinder they built four cells with no windows, only a door. We had an electric bulb, day and night. They put four of us in each cell. In each cell there would be either a very sick man or a mad man. In my cell, I had a man -Constantine Oprisan- whose lungs were completely emaciated

Constantin Oprisan

Constantin Oprisan

by tuberculosis. Twice a day he had to cough up fluid from his lungs. We would help him by giving him a hat or something, and he would cough and bring up all the discharge from his lungs-blood and everything. It was horrible to see him. On the first day I entered this cell, with me were Constantine Oprisan, my friend who saved me from suicide, and another student younger than us. Constantine began to cough up the fluid in his lungs. I was leaning against the door – surprised because I had never seen anything like that. The man was suffocating. Perhaps a whole liter of phlegm and blood came up, and my stomach became upset. I was ready to vomit. Constantine Oprisan noticed this and said to me, “Forgive me.” I was so ashamed! Since I was a student in medicine, I decided then to take care of him.

So I decided to take care of him and told the others that I would take care of Constantine Oprisan. He was not able to move, and I did everything for him. I put him on the bucket to urinate. I washed his body. I fed him. We had a bowl for food. I took this bowl and put it in front of his mouth.

He was like a saint. It was the first time that I was in contact with such a man.

Can you tell us more about him? How he taught and strengthened you?

He did not talk much. He talked to us everyday for about one or two hours because he was not able to talk very much. But every word which came out of his month was a holy word-only about Christ, only about love, only about forgiveness. He said his prayers, and [what a deep impact it had on us] hearing him say those prayers, knowing how much he was suffering. It was not so easy. Out of his gentleness of soul -he wanted to protect us- not to cough too much to spread the germs in the atmosphere. He was like a saint in the cell with its. We felt the presence of the Holy Spirit around him; we felt it. Even during his last days when he was no longer able to talk, he never lost his kindness toward us. We could read in his eyes the spiritual light and the love. It was like a flood of love in his face.

Did he tell you stories about when he was head of “The Brotherhood of the Cross”?

Yes, he did. He told us about how he worked with the youth. I am sure he loved the youth and that he was loved by them. He was completely dedicated to man. He was a very clever man -amazingly clever. He was so kind with us. He did not talk much about himself. He talked about faith, about love, about prayer. He was praying all the time. It was not so easy to be in the cell all the time with the same people, you know. When there arose some conflict between us, he prayed. And his prayer was very effective. We were ashamed, just because he was praying, and we knew it. He was not praying in a loud voice, but his face was completely transformed. We understood that he was praying for us and we stopped [arguing].

He was in [such a terrible physical] condition because he had been tortured in Pitesti for three years. They had beaten him on his chest, on his back and had destroyed his lungs. But he prayed the whole day. He never said anything bad against his torturer, and he spoke to us about Jesus Christ. All the while, we did not realize how important Constantine Oprisan was for us. He was the justification of our life in this cell. Over the course of a year, he became weaker and weaker. We felt that he had finished his time here and would die.

Once a week we were obliged to shave. I would watch Constantine Oprisan, and my friends would shave. Afterwards, I began to shave and one of the others would watch Constantine Oprisan, because we watched him day and night. When anything happened, they would tell me to go to Constantine Oprisan, because I had told them that I should be the only one to take care of him, since I had hurt him that first day. I was sure that I had hurt him, and I felt very, very guilty. While I was shaving, Marcel, the student who was younger than us, saw that Constantine was ready to die. He said, “Go and see Constantine Oprisan; he is dying.” I looked at him. His face was completely emaciated. His eyes were open, but I saw that over his eyes there seemed to be a curtain of mist. His eyes turned inside himself. I was so scared, so afraid. I felt that he would die and I would be alone in his cell. I put my hand on his and said, “Constantine, don’t die; don’t die! Come back; come back!” I cried with a great voice! Immediately he came back. His eyes became clear. He looked at me. I was right in front of his eyes, you know, bent over him. I don’t know what happened in his soul, but I saw an immense terror in his face. His eyes were full of terror and he started to cry. I had the feeling that he had been ready to enter the spiritual world, and I had asked him to come back to the cell. This was a great terror, and so he started to cry. Tears were flowing out of his eyes. His face became the face of a child, a newborn child. He was crying like a newborn child coming out of the womb of his mother. Constantine Oprisan cried because I forced him to come back. In a couple of minutes he died.

How long were you with him in that cell?

One year.

After he died, everyone of us felt that something in us had died. We understood that, sick as he was and in our care like a child, he had been the pillar of our life in the cell. Then we were alone without Constantine Oprisan.

We took a towel and washed his body to prepare it properly to be buried in the earth. Then we knocked at the door and told the guards that Constantine Oprisan had died. They came after three hours. We had never left that cell before – that cell which had neither light nor windows. The water, was seeping into the walls; the straw mattresses were putrid under our bodies. So, after two hours, for the first time, the guard commanded me and my friend to take the body of Constantine Oprisan and go outside.

Outside it was so beautiful. Flowers and trees and blue sky. As long as we were in the cell, we forgot about the beautiful world. When we went out, we saw that the world had not changed. This vegetation, these flowers-hurt us. It was like an insult to us, because we were suffering, dying… but the universe did not care about us! The sun was going down and there was a golden light. Everybody was shining like gold. We put Constantine Oprisan on the ground. He was completely naked because we had to give his prison clothes back. His body was completely emaciated. We could not believe that he was a human being. He was completely emaciated; only bones, only bones. And I think that the bile at the moment of death must have entered the bloodstream, because he was completely yellow. My friend took a flower and put it on his chest -a blue flower. The guard started to cry out to us and forced us to go back into the cell. Before we went into the cell, we turned around and looked at Constantine Oprisan -his yellow body and this blue flower. This is the image that I have kept in my memory -the body of Constantine Oprisan completely emaciated and the blue flower on his chest. He was nothing but bones and skin -no muscle. Nothing else… his body lying on the ground with a blue flower.

Afterwards, it was very difficult. I may have sinned because Constantine Oprisan, before he died, said, “I will die, but after death, I will pray to God for you. All my prayers will be for you, because I do not want you to die to this cell.” And I am sure he prayed for us, because all three of us succeeded in leaving this prison to go to Aiud [Prison]. I am sure that Constantine Oprisan was praying to God for us. The sin I committed was that all the time I was thinking and invoking the soul of Constantine Oprisan to come and give us light. He never came, though for months I asked him to come and give us light. I think this was a sin I committed, for perhaps it gave him some unrest. I am sure he was very grateful to me that I took care of him. I am sure he loved me very much. He loved everybody. But I think for me he had a special love because I had a special love for him.

Was he older than you?

Yes, he was about six or seven years older. And I never had a repulsion for him after that first time. I took care of him with love and respect. He was like a child in my hands. I had to put him on the toilet, to wash him -to do everything for him. I was thinking that for this love through which we were connected, he had to come to me to give us the light of God…When I took care of Constantine Oprisan in the cell, I was very happy. I way very happy because I felt his spirituality penetrating my soul. I learned from him to be good, to forgive, not to curse your torturer, not to consider anything of this world to be a treasure for you. In fact, he was living on another level. Only his body was with us – and his love. Can you imagine? We were in a cell without windows, without air, humid, filthy – yet we had moments of happiness that we never reached in freedom. I cannot explain it.

Such was the utopia that Communism created. In fact, the Romanian Communists created worst: the Pitesti prison, which was established as a place where, through intense physical and psychological torture, the state would attempt to create the New Communist Man. This website contains a bit of description of what they did to prisoners at Pitesti. It’s so horrifying I won’t copy any of it to this blog post.

This was communism, you young Harvard fools.

 

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The Wildfire Within

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Unbelievable … but all too believable.

I hope and pray that all of you readers in southern California — no matter what your politics, religion, or lack of same — are safe. Please check in with us here and tell us what you’re seeing. Times like this really do remind us that we’re all in this together. Help your neighbor.

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Democratic Women Turn On Franken

US Sen. Al Franken (Miker/Shutterstock)

Another woman claims that Sen. Al Franken sexually harassed her.  Thus, this statement just released by US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York:

Senator Franken Should Step Aside

I have been shocked and disappointed to learn over the last few weeks that a colleague I am fond of personally has engaged in behavior towards women that is unacceptable. I consider Senator Franken to be a friend and have enjoyed working with him in the Senate in our shared fight to help American families.

But this moment of reckoning about our friends and colleagues who have been accused of sexual misconduct is necessary, and it is painful. We must not lose sight that this watershed moment is bigger than any one industry, any one party, or any one person.

The pervasiveness of sexual harassment and the experience women face every day across America within the existing power structure of society has finally come out of the shadows. It is a moment that we as a country cannot afford to ignore.

While a lot of the media focus has been on high-profile cases with powerful leaders in politics, Hollywood, and the media business, we must recognize that this is happening every day to women everywhere, up and down the economic ladder. For many women, including hourly workers in offices, stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, or on farms, with bosses who aren’t famous enough to be held accountable publicly, calling out their abusers is still not an option. To achieve lasting change, we will need to fight this everywhere on behalf of everyone by insisting on accountability and working to bring more women into leadership in each industry to fundamentally shift the culture.

In politics, of course, the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault is not limited to any one party. There have been Democrats and Republicans accused of misconduct, and I have no doubt that there will be more because Congress is not immune to this scourge. The question is what are we willing to do about it when courageous women and men come forward.

We have to rise to the occasion, and not shrink away from it, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. That is what this larger moment is about. So, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on Senator Franken’s behavior. Enough is enough. The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them. While it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated by those of us who are privileged to work in public service.

As the mother of two young boys, we owe it to our sons and daughters to not equivocate, but to offer clarity. We should not have to be explaining the gradations between sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping. And what message do we send to our sons and daughters when we accept gradations of crossing the line? None of it is ok and none of it should be tolerated.

We should demand the highest standards, not the lowest, from our leaders, and we should fundamentally value and respect women. Every workplace in America, including Congress, needs to have a strong process and accountability for sexual harassment claims, and I am working with others to address the broken and opaque system in Congress.

While Senator Franken is entitled to have the Ethics Committee conclude its review, I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve.

In the wake of the election of President Trump, in just the last few months, our society is changing, and I encourage women and men to keep speaking up to continue this progress. At this moment, we need to speak hard truths or lose our chance to make lasting change.

She’s not the only Democratic senator to take this stand against one of their own:

Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Patty Murray of Washington state and Claire McCaskill of Missouri joined Gillibrand in pressing for Franken to quit.

Well. Whether or not Franken is guilty or is being railroaded, this act will make quite a useful contrast if and when Republican Roy Moore takes the open Senate seat from Alabama next year.

UPDATE: More Democratic names now:

Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), the highest-ranking woman among Senate Democrats, along with Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio).

UPDATE.2:  Here we see a political nightmare brewing. Sen. Sasse gets it:

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Harvey Weinstein’s Mafia

Meryl Streep and Harvey Weinstein (Joe Seer/Shutterstock)

If The New York Times doesn’t get the Pulitzer Prize for its work on the Harvey Weinstein case, there will be no justice. Here is a devastating report on the web of film and media industry enablers that helped that rapist do his dirty work for decades. Excerpts:

In the weeks and months before allegations of his methodical abuse of women were exposed in October, Mr. Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, pulled on all the levers of his carefully constructed apparatus.

He gathered ammunition, sometimes helped by the editor of The National Enquirer, who had dispatched reporters to find information that could undermine accusers. He turned to old allies, asking a partner in Creative Artists Agency, one of Hollywood’s premier talent shops, to broker a meeting with a C.A.A. client, Ronan Farrow, who was reporting on Mr. Weinstein. He tried to dispense favors: While seeking to stop the actress Rose McGowan from writing in a memoir that he had sexually assaulted her, he tried to arrange a $50,000 payment to her former manager and throw new business to a literary agent advising Ms. McGowan. The agent, Lacy Lynch, replied to him in an email: “No one understands smart, intellectual and commercial like HW.”

Mr. Weinstein’s final, failed round of manipulations shows how he operated for more than three decades: by trying to turn others into instruments or shields for his behavior, according to nearly 200 interviews, internal company records and previously undisclosed emails. Some aided his actions without realizing what he was doing. Many knew something or detected hints, though few understood the scale of his sexual misconduct. Almost everyone had incentives to look the other way or reasons to stay silent. Now, even as the tally of Mr. Weinstein’s alleged misdeeds is still emerging, so is a debate about collective failure and the apportioning of blame.

Executives at Mr. Weinstein’s film companies who learned of allegations rarely took a stand, cowed by their volatile boss or worried about their careers. His brother and partner, Bob, participated in payoffs to women as far back as 1990. Some low-level assistants were pulled in: They compiled “bibles” that included hints on facilitating encounters with women, and were required to procure his penile injections for erectile dysfunction. His lawyers crafted settlements that kept the truth from being explored, much less exposed. “When you quickly settle, there is no need to get into all the facts,” said Daniel M. Petrocelli, a lawyer who handled two agreements with accusers.

More:

If Mr. Weinstein built his wall of invulnerability from many varied bricks, it was covered with a sheen of celebrity. He created stars through his movies, but he also acquired famous friends through his other activities, including in the Democratic politics that dominate Hollywood.

Chief among them were Bill and Hillary Clinton. Over the years, Mr. Weinstein provided them with campaign cash and Hollywood star power, inviting Mrs. Clinton to glittery premieres and offering to send her films. After Mr. Clinton faced impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he donated $10,000 to Mr. Clinton’s legal defense fund. Mr. Weinstein was a fund-raiser and informal adviser during Mrs. Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, a guest in her hotel suite when she won and a host of an A-list victory party. He was an early backer of both her presidential bids.

Mr. Weinstein’s political activity — he provided consistent support for Mr. Obama as well — boosted his image as a man with friends in high places and close ties to the country’s leading female politician. It is not clear if rumors of his record of sexual misconduct had ever reached them.

But two prominent women said they warned Mrs. Clinton’s team. In 2016, Lena Dunham, the writer and actress, said she was troubled by the producer’s visible presence during Mrs. Clinton’s presidential run, hosting fund-raisers and appearing at campaign events. She had heard stories, both directly and secondhand from other actresses, about disturbing encounters with him, she said. So in March last year, Ms. Dunham, a vocal Clinton supporter, said she warned the campaign.

“I just want you to let you know that Harvey’s a rapist and this is going to come out at some point,” Ms. Dunham said she told Kristina Schake, the campaign’s deputy communications director. She recalled adding, “I think it’s a really bad idea for him to host fund-raisers and be involved because it’s an open secret in Hollywood that he has a problem with sexual assault.”

The other woman was Tina Brown. More:

While Ms. Dunham says she has “an incredible allegiance to Hillary,” and does not believe the reports ever traveled to Mrs. Clinton, she remains troubled by what had happened. “A year and a half ago, on one of the most progressive campaigns in history, this wasn’t a problem,” she said, referring to the allegations about Mr. Weinstein.

Imagine that: prominent Democrats willing to overlook credible warnings that someone important to their game plan to acquire power was a rapist. Shocked, I tell you, shocked. (And do I really have to point out that there is no room for Republican Schadenfreude?)

Here’s how demeaning it was to serve Harvey:

Others stayed quiet because they felt like they shared a shameful secret. “You become more and more aware of everything going on, then you realize what it is you’re cleaning up, and you don’t ever want to tell anyone that — friends, family, my parents — what kind of job this is,” Ms. Rehal said. She and Ms. Franklin said they were tasked with procuring injectable erectile dysfunction drugs, Caverject and alprostadil. Mr. Weinstein paid with his company card and gave Ms. Rehal a $500 bonus for supplying the medication, she said. Ms. Rehal said she had to keep a supply of the shots at her desk, dispense them to him in brown paper bags and sometimes deliver the medication to hotels and elsewhere before his meetings with women.

Read the whole thing. Every last syllable, every damning detail. And think about how many people in power knew that Harvey Weinstein operated this way, and let it happen.

They knew. 

I never want to hear another pompous, moralistic screed from another Hollywood bigmouth again. Here was what Meryl “Friend of Harvey” Streep had to say in her famous anti-Trump Golden Globes speech earlier this year. Excerpt:

And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, was raping, molesting, and humiliating women for decades before Donald Trump ran for office. And they all knew about him. More Streep:

Once when I was standing around on the set one day whining about something, we were going to work through supper, or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor. Yeah, it is. And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight.

Streep said earlier this fall that she had no idea her friend Harvey treated women like this. Maybe so. But now she does, and now, thanks to reporters and brave victims willing to speak out, everybody knows. Harvey was not the only Harvey in show business, I’m sure. This thing isn’t over yet, nor does it need to be.

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Might Religious Liberty Actually Win This Round?

Justice Anthony Kennedy ponders the buttercream frosting (Rob Crandall/Shutterstock)

Well, Think Progress thinks things went regressively at the Supreme Court today, in oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Excerpt:

Things quickly turned south, however, not long after Colorado Solicitor General Frederick Yarger stepped up to the podium to defend Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. Up until this point, everyone in the courtroom treated the case as a free speech case. Waggoner and Francisco’s arguments rested largely on claims that Phillips was being forced to express a view that he does not hold. The question of whether Phillips’ right to practice his faith was somehow implicated largely went unmentioned.

But this question sure mattered to Kennedy. Pointing to a state commissioner who claimed that the idea that religion could be wielded to justify discrimination is “despicable,” Kennedy all but demanded that Yarger disavow that statement. This one commissioner’s statement, Kennedy suggested, displayed such hostility to religion that it could justify invalidating the entire ruling against Mr. Phillips.

Chief Justice Roberts and Neil Gorsuch, who occupies the seat that Senate Republicans held open for a year until Donald Trump could fill it, quickly piled on. Gorsuch, for his part, claimed that a second commissioner showed improper bias when they said that a person with religious beliefs that conflict with a civil rights laws may have to compromise those beliefs.

And then things got even worse for Colorado and for supporters of anti-discrimination laws. “Tolerance is essential in a free society,” Kennedy lectured Yarger. The state, Kennedy continued, has not been particularly tolerant towards Mr. Phillips. “There are other shops,” Kennedy concluded, suggesting that same-sex couples should be forced to go door to door to other bakeries until they find one willing to serve them.

Well, gosh. If Think Progress, home of Zack Ford, the world’s screamingest meemie,  is upset, something good must have happened at the Court today.

Here, from the Supreme Court’s website, is a PDF file of the transcript of this morning’s oral arguments. I encourage you to read it, for a couple of reasons. First, to get a sense for the challenge facing the Justices here; it is not an easy case when you get down to the nitty-gritty. Second, to get a sense of how anxiety-producing it must be to argue in front of the Supreme Court.

You know my own bias in this case, but it does seem to me that the conservatives had the better day (but that is by no means open-and-shut). Look at this excerpt of an exchange between Justice Anthony Kennedy and the lawyer for the State of Colorado, which attempted to punish the cakeshop owner:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Suppose we thought that in significant part at least one member of the Commission based the commissioner’s decision on — on — on the grounds that — of hostility to religion. Can — can your -­ could your judgment then stand?

MR. YARGER: Your Honor, I don’t think that one statement by the commissioner,  assuming it reveals bias -­

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, suppose we -­ suppose we thought there was a significant aspect of hostility to a religion in this case. Could your judgment stand?

MR. YARGER: Your Honor, if — if there was evidence that the entire proceeding was begun because of a — an intent to single out religious people, absolutely, that would be a problem.

And:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, but this whole concept of identity is a slightly — suppose he says: Look, I have nothing against — against gay people. He says but I just don’t think they should have a marriage because that’s contrary to my beliefs. It’s not-

MR. COLE: Yeah.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: It’s not their identity; it’s what they’re doing.

MR. COLE: Yeah.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: I think it’s — your identity thing is just too facile.

He also said later:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Counselor, tolerance is essential in a free society. And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual. It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.

Not sure where that has anything to do with the law, but it does indicate where Kennedy’s sentiments lie.

David Brooks had a good column this morning lamenting that this was even a court case. Excerpt:

If you want to know why we have such a polarized, angry and bitter society, one reason is we take every disagreement that could be addressed in conversation and community and we turn it into a lawsuit. We take every morally supple situation and we hand it over to the legal priesthood, which by necessity is a system of technocratic rationalism, strained slippery-slope analogies and implied coercion.

Legal conflict is a clumsy tool to manage the holy messiness of actual pluralistic community. The legal system does not deal well with local and practical knowledge, the wisdom to know when a rule should be applied and when it should be bent. It does not do well with humility, tolerance and patience — virtues that are hard to put into a rule and can be achieved only in a specific situation. It inevitably generates angry reactions and populist uprisings.

Readers of this column know that I fervently support gay marriage, but I don’t think bakers like Jack Phillips are best brought along by the iron fist of the state. I don’t think the fabric of this country will be repaired through the angry confrontation of lawyers. In this specific situation, the complex art of neighborliness is our best way forward.

He’s right about that, but I don’t see how we turn back now. A Christian reader who works in the science-and-tech field e-mailed today to tell me about the atmosphere where he works. He asked me not to publish any of his e-mail, for fear of it being traced back to him. He talked about how anxious he is to hide that fact that he dissents from the dominant ideology. After the James Damore firing from Google, he believes that if he wants a career in his field, he cannot afford to be identified in any way with sentiments that could be construed as “anti-LGBT,” and censors himself in public all the time.

He said he is tired of people talking about the Benedict Option on the question of whether or not it is too retreatist. The reader explained that Christians like him in the tech world are staring down the barrel of serious, real-world consequences from institutional authorities eager to weaponize cultural difference to suppress what they consider to be intolerable evil. This is not theoretical. It’s really happening, and will continue to happen.

Remember a decade or so ago, when people raised these issues, and were met with the rejoinder, “I don’t see what my gay neighbors’ marriage has to do with me”? Today at the US Supreme Court, advocates for a small-town cakeshop owner had to defend not their client’s unwillingness to sell his wares to a gays — he’s perfectly willing to do that — but their client’s unwillingness to bake a wedding cake for them. Extremism in the hounding of religious conservative “bigots” is no vice for the left.

I hope that the Supreme Court rules in favor of the cakeshop owner, of course, but if it does, don’t for a minute think that this fight is over, or that your job and livelihood will be safe if you are known to dissent.

UPDATE: Don’t miss this comment from a lawyer reader:

I don’t know if people read the same oral arguments transcript. How do you get the idea that Kennedy is going to vote with Masterpiece Cake Shop?

His reference to the possibility of bias on the part of one commissioner was meant as an “out” – to avoid deciding the case on the merits. It’s funny to see the Left erupting in worry and the Right with hope. Both sides are wrong. To begin with, remember that no one on the court, whether liberal or conservative, entertained the idea of a religious freedom exemption. That itself is worth pointing out. There is only one vote on the current Supreme Court for suspending generally applicable anti-discrimination laws for religious reasons, which is the only reason why this became a First Amendment argument. But this approach also inherently limits the scope of any “win” because most products and services that are being sold to gay couples for gay weddings (catered food, venues, dresses, suits) won’t be expressive enough under any standard to be counted as speech for the purposes of public accommodations. The worst case scenario for LGBT folks is actually pretty tame.

But there is actually no way Masterpiece Cake Shop will prevail, and the oral arguments show this if you read the questions closely.

For Masterpiece to prevail, the justices will have to find a principled way to limit this case to wedding cakes or a very small segment of wedding service providers. And if the justices really wanted to rule for the baker, then why did none of them, apart from Gorsuch, seem interested in exploring a specific standard for how to do this? Recall that in the gerrymandering case, Kennedy was all about specific standard-setting questions. Here, none of the conservative justices, save Gorsuch, was interested in exploring the specifics of what constituted compelled speech. Gorsuch seemed annoyed, in fact, that none of his colleagues was pursuing precisely the line of enquiry that would ground an opinion in favor of Masterpiece. He was not aided by Waggoner, who could not provide a principled way of what counted as coerced speech. She went so far as to suggest that chefs cooking a gay anniversary dinner would not be protected, but bakers baking a gay wedding cake ought to be. When Alito tried to be helpful by suggesting architectural art would also be covered, she swatted away the suggestion and said it wouldn’t because architecture was functional and not expressive! What?! Any guesses how many votes there are on the Supreme Court for protecting bakers but not chefs?

Second, if you look beyond the comments about the specific commissioner, all the substantive legal questions were thrown at the Christian baker. When it came to Masterpiece, Kennedy wanted to know how the line would be drawn, if siding with the Christian baker would send a signal of encouragement for a broader denial of services to gay couples. The justices were asking: even if we are sympathetic with your coerced speech arguments, how do we find for you without also finding for the baker who has black friends but doesn’t want to bake a cake for an interracial couple? No such line is possible.

Finally, and I don’t think people get this enough. All justices are human and mindful of how their biographies will be written when they are at that age. The Supreme Court justice who authored Lawrence, Windsor, Obergefell isn’t going to end his career by voting for Masterpiece.

Finally, remember that Kennedy concurred in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which presented an even greater affront to Christian objections to homosexuality than this baker case. (Schools aren’t even public accommodations.)

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How Power Works: The James Levine Case

James Levine (Ralph Daily/Flickr)

If you don’t read The New York Times or keep up with arts and culture news, you may have missed an extremely important development the other day: the Metropolitan Opera has suspended its legendary conductor, James Levine, following multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse. The names in classical music don’t get much bigger than Levine’s. Excerpt from the NYT piece:

The accusations of sexual misconduct stretch back to 1968.

Chris Brown, who played principal bass in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for more than three decades, said that Mr. Levine masturbated him that summer — and then coaxed him to reciprocate — when Mr. Brown was 17 at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan. Mr. Levine, then 25, was a rising star on the summer program’s faculty. James Lestock said that Mr. Levine also masturbated him there that summer when Mr. Lestock was 17 and a cello student — the first of many sexual encounters with Mr. Levine that have haunted him. And Ashok Pai, who grew up in Illinois near the Ravinia Festival, where Mr. Levine was music director, said that he was sexually abused by Mr. Levine starting in the summer of 1986, when Mr. Pai was 16 — an accusation he made last year in a report to the Lake Forest Police Department in Illinois.

Here’s a detailed account from the story:

Mr. Brown, the former bass player in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, said that he had been surprised in the summer of 1968 when Mr. Levine made him principal bass at Meadow Brook, given that Mr. Brown was only 17 and had just finished his junior year of high school, while other players were older and more experienced. He said that he was initially flattered when Mr. Levine, the conductor of the school’s orchestra and the director of its orchestral institute, began to invite him to his dorm room late at night.

At their third meeting, Mr. Brown said, Mr. Levine began talking about sex.

“At that point I think it was basically a combination of fatigue and being young that allowed me to go to the bed — it was the bottom bunk — and have him masturbate me,” Mr. Brown said. “And then, almost immediately, he asked for reciprocation. And I have some very, very strong pictures in my memory, and one of them was being on the floor, and he was on the bottom bunk, and I put my hand on his penis, and I felt so ashamed.”

“The next morning I was late to rehearsal,” said Mr. Brown, who had been raised a Christian Scientist and recalled that he had received little sex education. “I was in a complete daze. Whatever happens when you get abused had happened, and it wasn’t just sexual.”

At their next meeting, Mr. Brown said, he told Mr. Levine that he would not repeat the sexual behavior, and asked if they could continue to make music as they had before.

“And he answered no,” Mr. Brown said, adding that Mr. Levine hardly looked at him for the rest of the summer, even while conducting him. “It was a terrible, terrible summer.” (That fall, after he returned for his senior year of high school, at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Mr. Brown told his roommate about Mr. Levine’s sexual advances at Meadow Brook, the roommate confirmed in an interview.)

You see what (allegedly) happened there? From a position of power, Levine began to groom the younger man. The younger man eventually surrendered to him, to the young man’s great shame, and the next day said that’s not going to happen again. After which Levine cut him off professionally.

This is how it happens. A man like James Levine had the power to make or break the careers of people in classical music. As one of his alleged victims says:

“Once I started to break down and cry, he continued to try to hurt me,” Mr. Lestock said of Mr. Levine, who was music director of Ravinia from 1973 through 1993.

But Mr. Lestock said he felt powerless to leave. “If I had left the group at the point, I would have had no career, no income, no friends, and have been totally alone in the world,” he said. After following Mr. Levine to New York in the early 1970s, Mr. Lestock, who is now 67, eventually left the group, and music.

There is now a real question about how much the Metropolitan Opera board knew about James Levine, and how much it chose not to know. A friend tells me that her classical musician pal says, “This is just the tip of the iceberg in the classical music world.”

Another friend said to me on the phone this morning, “I don’t know how these people value their careers so much that they would be willing to do these things.” Well, Lestock tells you: it might not only cost you your career, but also your livelihood and all your friends.

I’ve mentioned here before the case of a powerful Catholic bishop who was able to compel seminarians to share his bed, and able to expect silence from those within the institutional Church who knew about it, because he controlled the fates of everyone under his authority. Ought they have spoken up? Yes. Ought they speak up today? Absolutely. But it’s easy to say that from the outside, when you have nothing to lose.

The Levine story brings to mind a case that came to my attention in 2002, involving a Benedictine monk. The monk’s brother reached out to me as a journalist for help. Without violating confidentiality, I can say that the monk had come across some damning information about sexual abuse going on within his own monastery. He wanted to go to the police with the information, but the corrupt abbot ordered him not to. The monk was so grieved by the stress of it all that he had to be hospitalized. In the end, the abbot convinced him that going to the police, or going public in any way, would betray his monastic community, and leave him all alone in the world. The monk submitted, and never told his story publicly.

Again, you may wish that monk had had more moral courage, and may wish Lestock would have had more moral courage. But imagine losing everything for the sake of telling the truth — with no guarantee that people will believe you.

In the Levine case, there must be a serious investigation into what the Metropolitan Opera’s leadership knew, and what they ought to have known, but preferred not to. The only way to lessen the chances that something like this will happen in the future is to hold strictly accountable those who ought to have been exercising responsible leadership. As I’ve said here before, anybody who covered or read deeply into the way the sex abuse scandal played out in the Catholic Church cannot be surprised to see the same patterns replicated in other institutions. Power usually corrupts.

UPDATE: A very strong Wall Street Journal column on Levine today by its theater critic, Terry Teachout. Excerpt:

[R]umors that Mr. Levine is a pedophile have circulated for the whole of my adult life. I first heard them in Kansas City in the ’70s. I have yet to meet anyone in the world of opera who was unaware of these rumors. In that sense, everybody really did “know” about him—and now, the whole world knows it as well.

The Times reported over the weekend that a spokesman for Mr. Levine had no comment on the specific allegations that have now emerged, and that he has twice denied to Met executives, in 1979 and a year ago, any sexual misconduct. But the company is taking the accusations seriously enough to have suspended its relationship with the conductor, who served as its music director from 1976 to 2016. Over the weekend, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, canceled all of Mr. Levine’s scheduled performances and commissioned Proskauer Rose, an outside law firm, to conduct an investigation.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of these developments. In a very real sense, James Levine is the Met. He is the public figure most closely associated with the company, the one who has been central to its fortunes for more than four decades, and the first truly great artist to be swept up in the current maelstrom of sexual-harassment accusations. If it is proved that he did what his accusers claim, there can be no doubt that his extraordinary career will come at once to a shameful end.

Beyond that, much will hang on what Proskauer Rose’s investigation finds about Mr. Levine and what “everybody”—that is, those inside the Met—did in fact know. For this is no ordinary scandal: It is an existential crisis, one that threatens the survival of a financially beleaguered organization that had already spent years struggling with the problem of Mr. Levine’s declining health.

Will more accusers now come forward? If so, how many? And were attempts made to control, bury or cover up the damage? If the number of accusers continues to grow, it will appear increasingly likely that others, at the Met and elsewhere, knew more about Mr. Levine’s alleged behavior than has previously been acknowledged. Should this prove to be the case, then the poison will have spread beyond a single individual to the institution as a whole.

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The Pyrrhic Roy Moore Victory

Roy Moore’s greeting card (Screen grab from Washington Post video)

Most official Republican Washington is now back on board the Roy Moore express:

President Trump on Monday strongly endorsed Roy S. Moore, the Republican nominee for a United States Senate seat here, prompting the Republican National Committee to restore its support for a candidate accused of sexual misconduct against teenage girls.

Mr. Trump’s endorsement strengthened what had been his subdued, if symbolically significant, embrace of Mr. Moore’s campaign. At Mr. Trump’s direct urging, and to the surprise of some Republican Party officials, the national committee, which severed ties to Mr. Moore weeks ago, opened a financial spigot that could help Mr. Moore with voter turnout in the contest’s closing days.

Meanwhile:

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Oh, I think that left a while back, mister.

In related news, more evidence emerges that Roy Moore is lying:

Debbie Wesson Gibson was in her attic hauling out boxes of Christmas decorations last week when she noticed a storage bin she said she had forgotten about. Inside was a scrapbook from her senior year of high school, and taped to a page titled “Those Who Inspire” was a graduation card.

“Happy graduation Debbie,” it read in slanted cursive handwriting. “I wanted to give you this card myself. I know that you’ll be a success in anything you do. Roy.”

Gibson earlier told the Washington Post that she had dated Moore openly when he was 34 and she was 17. Moore acknowledged this initially.

But at two campaign events in recent days, Moore has backtracked.

At a Nov. 27 campaign event in the north Alabama town of Henagar, Moore said, “The allegations are completely false. They are malicious. Specifically, I do not know any of these women.”

At a Nov. 29 rally at a church in the south Alabama town of Theodore, Moore said, “Let me state once again: I do not know any of these women, did not date any of these women and have not engaged in any sexual misconduct with anyone.”

There’s more information in Gibson’s high school yearbook backing up her claim — and the Post has photographs. Watch the short video clip of her here. The thing is, Gibson did not accuse Moore of doing anything improper with her when they dated, and said their physical relationship never went beyond kissing. But now he’s flat-out denying that he ever knew her. He’s clearly lying. He might not be lying when he denies sexually assaulting the 14-year-old and the 16-year-old, but Roy Moore is not on intimate terms with the truth.

He’s going to win this Senate race. Here in TAC, Gracy Olmstead — a Millennial Christian conservative and lifelong pro-life activist — warns what will likely happen to the pro-life cause if he does. Excerpts:

Why are so many Alabamans determined to vote for a man who allegedly harassed a 14-year-old girl? The simple—yet frightening—answer is this: Roy Moore votes pro-life. And if Moore were elected, as Pat Buchanan recently pointed out, there’s a chance (slim at best) that Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Other Republicans have urged conservatives not to let Moore’s bad character prevent them from voting—he’s not a moral leader, they argue, just a political pawn. To them, the ends justify the means.

But in this battle for an illusory Supreme Court victory, other vital components of our political and cultural moment are being set by the wayside. From a political perspective, as Georgi Boorman recently pointed out, voting for loathsome politicians will distance swing voters from the GOP—and, more importantly, from the pro-life cause most often associated with it.

She argues Trump and Moore will be deadweights hung around the neck of pro-lifers:

The politicization of the religious right has led to a dangerous cultural blindness, in which Christian conservatives often ignore societal and even moral warning signs in order to make tiny political gains. Many seem completely oblivious to the long-term ramifications of their actions. Unless and until pro-lifers realize their battle is first and foremost a cultural one, they will turn the entire nation against their cause—and likely lead to its doom, for at least the next few generations.

I don’t know that I would say that the pro-life cause would be doomed, but I agree that the setback would be massive, though it won’t be fully felt until older voters move on to that great Mar-a-Lago in the sky.

The seating of Sen. Moore by the Senate may well cause a schism in the Republican Party, which has been badly strained by the Trumpist takeover of the party. It probably wouldn’t be a serious schism at first — only the kind of Establishment wets that hate Trump anyway. — and I don’t know where they would go, anyway. Nobody’s talking about starting a third party, but the idea that there would be any kind of popular groundswell for a Bloombergist party (which is the fantasy of a lot of these third-way types) is nuts. My guess is that it will be a de facto schism, one that plays itself out in a much more contentious Senate, and perhaps House too, as many Republican members worry about facing voters with Trump and Moore dangling from their necks.

Take a look at these results from the new PRRI poll. Emphases are mine:

Donald Trump gets low marks from the public on his job performance as president. About four in ten (41%) Americans approve of the job he is doing, while a majority (54%) disapprove.
• Among those who approve of Trump’s job performance, nearly four in ten (37%) say there is almost nothing the president could do to lose their approval.
• Among those who disapprove of Trump’s job performance, approximately six in ten (61%) say there is almost nothing the president could do to win their approval.

The poll also shows that Trump enjoys strong support among GOP voters — though obviously there aren’t enough of them to get the president’s approval ratings to 50 percent, and neither side is changing its mind.

Here are the full results from another recent poll, this one taken by NBC News of 18 to 34 year old voters — Millennials. Overall, the GOP is at a serious disadvantage with this group. Look:

Got that? Almost twice as many white Millennials think the GOP doesn’t care about people like them as think it does. And you can see what a disaster it is for non-white Millennials. More:

Even if Republicans drew every single Independent vote, they would still be below Democrats in party identification among Millennials.

Ask yourself: do you think the existence of Sen. Roy Moore is going to move the needle in the GOP’s direction with these voters?

Note too, via the chart below, which issues Millennials pick as the most important facing the country:

The biggest one by far is health care. Nothing else is close. With the exception of racism, the second tier issues have mostly to do with economic concerns, broadly speaking. Not gay rights or women’s rights, note well (Millennials apparently understand that the major battles there have been won), but also not abortion, “morality and religion in society,” or military strength. Two pillars of the Reagan coalition — social conservatism and defense conservatism — hardly exist for Millennials. That leaves health care, education, and the economy as the defining political issues of that generation.

Again, I gotta ask: do you think having Roy Moore in the US Senate is going to make it more likely that Millennials trust the GOP on these issues, or less likely?

Is Sen. Roy Moore, who now enjoys the full support of the President, a sign that the Republican Party is going in the right direction? If so, how?

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Ghost Photobombs Plantation Selfie

This photo was taken at the Myrtles Plantation in my hometown, St. Francisville. The Myrtles, built in 1796, has a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in the country. It’s a B&B; you can book a room there, as these young women apparently did. Trouble is, you gotta stay with Chloe.

Who is Chloe? She’s a slave woman who legend has it accidentally poisoned the children of the house’s owner. You can see another photo of her here. The problem is that there’s no record of a slave named Chloe having been in bondage there. Some of the other ghost stories attached to the plantation are dubious. Whatever the names or the provenance of the unquiet spirits, I’m pretty confident that the Myrtles has them.

There are lots of stories about the place, though it’s certainly true that not everybody who stays there has a paranormal experience. I was in the house once talking to the then-owner when a candlestick on a mantel fell over. Nobody was near the thing. A local woman who was once my landlady told me a story about how she was sleeping upstairs there one night in the 1940s, when one of her kinfolks owned the house, and heard a bunch of voices and tinkling glasses coming from the living room downstairs, as if a party were going on. Of course nothing was actually happening in the house.

Maybe the photo above is some kind of fake. Or maybe it’s an image of one of the spectres haunting the grounds. If you want to stay there on Walker Percy Weekend 2018 (June 1-2), better make your reservation, and bring your holy water.

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Education For Liquid Modernity

A great e-mail from a reader:

Had a very interesting conversation with a guy at my church today whose daughter babysits our children, about their problems with things they ran into in education (curriculum and content), and the alternatives they’re pursuing. The universities no longer have any claim to learning and are just running short of credibility with people like this family, and they really are just dropping out and pursuing other ways to get degrees – online and independent study, low-residence things, all sorts. The kids of theirs pursuing something technical like nursing or engineering, of course, have to attend an accredited program, but with liberal arts, you really don’t have to — and in his opinion are better off if you don’t.

The two of the four of his kids I’ve met are just quality young people. All of theirs were homeschooled, and the two I know are confident, competent, and responsible.

Even with some apprehension, they tried sending a couple to large public universities in our state, and they ran into the sort of radical Left-leaning agenda that we see on so many campuses, and it pushed them away. The really respectable part about that is that it was their kids’ judgment and decision a couple of different occasions to switch programs, even schools. Liberal Arts programs though, they’re just done in this family’s opinion, just utterly destroyed by this stuff, though they still see so much value in what they should be teaching. English departments, from what I can tell, don’t just teach literature any more without this huge overlay of critical theory and an obsessive focus on the race and gender element – and this is in Shakespeare classes, I can’t imagine newer works. One of his daughters started as an English major at a large state university, and ended up switching — even if that meant losing some scholarship money, but with her Dad’s blessing – after the sort of junk they were having them read. After one semester the daughter was distraught and decided to give it one more — was slated to take some sort of course that was supposed to be about children’s books for future teachers, and sure enough, front and center was tons of stuff — for kids — about gay and lesbian families and gender fluidity on the syllabus. She just quit the program, changed majors and decided if she wanted to read, she didn’t need to sit through these awful lectures about their social agenda, all under the guise of “inclusivity”. (And If you want to see the future of English departments, go look at a large university’s website where they show the Ph.D. Thesis topics of future professors).

This dad just told me straight up, “We’ve invested too much into our girls to send them to a university that is actively trying to undermine and undo everything we tried to do right.” It’s true. I have a long way to go before we have to think about this, but I’m more and more mistrustful of public education, especially when I think about what teachers in my very progressive city school districts will be teaching. Even now, with our toddlers, there arw bilingual and math pre-schools here friends of mine have kids in, and I’m interested, but just skeptical of all the other non-sense that comes with it.

This, I think, is the whole problem with public education, that public schools don’t just teach math, science, reading, and writing any more, it’s been co-opted by the Left to push a social agenda, and people like me are just not going to go along with it. It’s not like my small town where my friends’ parents were on the school board, and most of our teachers were probably at least church-goers. My parents didn’t have to worry about this, and didn’t see the school as potentially adversarial, we all had the same general values of respect for adults, showing up on time, completing work, and teaching an agreed upon set of knowledge. The pro-gay marriage and ‘non-judgmental’ attitudes about all permutations of gender and sexuality, I expect, will just be in the water. I think I’ve said this before, but I’m surprised we haven’t had more of a clash so far with public universities and conservative state legislatures. My guess is that legislators aren’t aware of what exactly is being taught.

I’m committed to getting my kids a decent education, but not at the price of sacrificing their character. And more and more the people I see that have followed that model have benefited from it, and even if their kids aren’t getting the accolades and getting to go to prom, they’re going on to live really thoughtful, meaningful lives as adults, or at least have a shot at it.

I see too many examples of people that didn’t think about this stuff, trusted the education system and culture, and their kids are doubting their faith. And in this good example of these faithful, competent young people, they definitely have a vigilant dad, who I’m going to be seeking out for lots of advice and see as an example.

This to me is the heart of what you’re articulating as the Benedict Option, people who just can’t go along with the mainstream culture having to be a little bit more vigilant and creative so that the culture — and now unfortunately institutions of public education – don’t undo everything you’ve tried to do right, in critical thinking, character, and in behavior.

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Gay Wedding Cakes Vs. The 1st Amendment

A day before SCOTUS oral arguments in the gay wedding cake case, Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis argue make the case that Jack Phillips, the Masterpiece Cakeshop baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, ought to have that constitutional right. Excerpts:

Our point is not that forcing people to sell a product or service for an event always compels them to endorse the event. It’s that forcing them to create speech celebrating the event does. And it’s well-established that First Amendment “speech” includes creative work (“artistic speech”) ranging from paintings to video games.

Unlike folding chairs or restaurant service, custom wedding cakes are full-fledged speech under the First Amendment. Creating them cannot be conveniently classified as “conduct, not expression” to rationalize state coercion.

After all, the aesthetic purpose of wedding cakes — combined with the range and complexity of their possible designs — makes them just as capable of bearing expressive content as other artistic speech. Mr. Phillips’s cakes are admired precisely for their aesthetic qualities, which reflect his ideas and sensibilities. A plaster sculpture of the same size and look would without question be protected. That wedding cakes are edible is utterly beside the point. Their main purpose isn’t to sate hunger or even please the palate; it is aesthetic and expressive. They figure at receptions as a centerpiece and then part of the live program, much like a prop in a play. And no one denies that forcing artists to design props for plays promoting a state-imposed message would be unconstitutional.

More:

If wedding cakes are expressive, whether by words or mere festive design, what’s their message? We can tell by their context since, as the court notes, a symbolic item’s context “may give meaning to the symbol.” Thus, the court found that an upside-down flag with a peace sign carried an antiwar message — protected as speech — because of the context of its display. Likewise, a wedding cake’s context specifies its message: This couple has formed a marriage. When the specific context is a same-sex wedding, that message is one Mr. Phillips doesn’t believe and cannot in conscience affirm. So coercing him to create a cake for the occasion is compelled artistic speech.

Note that this argument wouldn’t cover all requirements to make artistic items. The law may force photographers to do photo portraits for Latinos as well as whites since that doesn’t yet force them to create art bearing an idea they reject, which is all the compelled-speech doctrine forbids. But custom wedding cakes carry a message specific to each wedding: This is a marriage.

George and Girgis point out that the State of Colorado, which sanctioned Phillips, on three different occasions supported the right of pro-gay bakers to refuse Christian requests to make cakes expressing opposition to same-sex marriage. The state has a problem here. I hope SCOTUS fixes it. Read the entire column. 

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Little Dutch Oasis On The Prairie

Performers in Orange City, Iowa, a historically Dutch town (Ali Eminov/Flickr)

So many of you sent me Larissa MacFarquhar’s great New Yorker piece about a small Iowa town that’s thriving in an age when so many are dying. It is so perfect for this site that, ironically, I almost forgot to blog about it. Bullet dodged. Here’s how the piece begins:

Orange City, the county seat of Sioux County, Iowa, is a square mile and a half of town, more or less, population six thousand, surrounded by fields in every direction. Sioux County is in the northwest corner of the state, and Orange City is isolated from the world outside—an hour over slow roads to the interstate, more than two hours to the airport in Omaha, nearly four to Des Moines. Hawarden, another town, twenty miles away, is on the Big Sioux River, and was founded as a stop on the Northwestern Railroad in the eighteen-seventies; it had a constant stream of strangers coming through, with hotels to service them and drinking and gambling going on. But Orange City never had a river or a railroad, or, until recently, even a four-lane highway, and so its pure, hermetic culture has been preserved.

Orange City is small and cut off, but, unlike many such towns, it is not dying. Its Central Avenue is not the hollowed-out, boarded-up Main Street of twenty-first-century lore. Along a couple of blocks, there are two law offices, a real-estate office, an insurance brokerage, a coffee shop, a sewing shop, a store that sells Bibles, books, and gifts, a notions-and-antiques store, a hair-and-tanning salon, and a home-décor-and-clothing boutique, as well as the Sioux County farm bureau, the town hall, and the red brick Romanesque courthouse.

There are sixteen churches in town. The high-school graduation rate is ninety-eight per cent, the unemployment rate is two per cent. There is little crime. The median home price is around a hundred and sixty thousand dollars, which buys a three- or four-bedroom house with a yard, in a town where the median income is close to sixty thousand. For the twenty per cent of residents who make more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, it can be difficult to find ways to spend it, at least locally. There are only so many times you can redo your kitchen. Besides, conspicuous extravagance is not the Orange City way. “There are stories about people who are too showy, who ended up ruined,” Dan Vermeer, who grew up in the town, says. “The Dutch are comfortable with prosperity, but not with pleasure.”

You will have guessed by now that the “Orange” in Orange City comes not from citrus but from the Dutch who founded the town in the 19th century. Until recently, it was almost entirely Dutch. The townspeople today have embraced their Dutch heritage. Here’s what makes Orange City so different:

Every June, a couple of weeks after Tulip Festival, another ritual is enacted: a hundred of the town’s children graduate from the high school. Each of them must then make a decision that will set the course of their lives—whether to leave Orange City or to stay. This decision will affect not just where they live but how they see the world and how they vote. The town is thriving, so the choice is not driven by necessity: to stay is not to be left behind but to choose a certain kind of life. Each year, some leave, but usually more decide to settle in—something about Orange City inspires loyalty. It is only because so many stay that the town has prospered. And yet to stay home is to resist an ingrained American belief about movement and ambition.

MacFarquhar writes about why so many Orange City young people either never leave, or come back shortly after they do. The town is quite conservative, but it is not angry, nor is it economically stagnant.

The stories people in Orange City tell MacFarquhar about why they left, and why they returned, are fascinating. I’m not going to summarize them here, because I want you to read the story. But the gist is the sense of being anchored in community:

But, while this was for some kids a reason to leave, for others it was why they wanted to stay. In Orange City, you could feel truly known. You lived among people who had not only known you for your whole life but known your parents and grandparents as well. You didn’t have to explain how your father had died, or why your mother couldn’t come to pick you up. Some people didn’t feel that they had to leave to figure out who they were, because their family and its history already described their deepest self.

And this too, describing why so many Iowa small towns are dying, but not Orange City:

The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted to leave—they were pushed.

In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places.

Orange City forms the kind of kids who grow up to care about things other than career success. Even if they go out into the world, some of them turn their back on corporate success and the prospect of wealth to return:

“I said to myself, ‘What is all this about?’ ” he says. “ ‘Is it just about me and where I can take my career, or is there something bigger?’ Here, you feel like you’re connected—that you belong someplace.”

This comes at a price … but you also get things you can’t get in any other way of life. The story of Julie Vermeer’s leaving and returning resonated so very deeply with me. Here’s MacFarquhar on what Julie learned by going away and coming back:

Imagining that moving home could resolve your conflicts and fulfill your longings was as misguided as imagining that leaving would do the same thing. Home should not be idolized, she believed—only loved.

Read the whole thing.  Please, please do.

I’ve read the piece twice now, and am struck by how much Orange City’s stability depends on cultural homogeneity. The author makes it clear that there’s an effort underway to reach out to the Latino immigrants who have moved into the area to work in the agricultural sector. I wonder, though, if that can succeed. Orange City is overwhelmingly Protestant (descendants of the Dutch Reformed Church); the immigrants are Catholic. Midwestern niceness is doing a lot of good work there, and I hope they are able to integrate the newcomers.

Still, it’s hard to imagine how you would live there happily if you didn’t share a lot of the values of the community. I suppose you can’t entirely separate out ethnicity from the picture, but look, I’m a white guy of northern European stock, and I can’t say that I would fit in there. Aside from my distinctly non-Protestant religious beliefs, I am culturally of the South, not the Midwest. And, to be fair, I so admire and envy the sense of stability and continuity the people of Orange City have — such an oasis in liquid modern America! — that I would not want to be the interloper who upsets what they have by not being able or willing to conform to their way of life.

Orange City would be very hard, maybe impossible, to duplicate. But I think it’s possible to build a meaningful semblance of that community. Here’s what I mean.

Reading this profile of the town reminded me of what Marco Sermarini and the Tipi Loschi are trying to do in San Benedetto del Tronto (I wrote about them in The Benedict Option). They are Catholics, and they have a rather different sociological base than the Orange City folks do. San Benedetto is a small, modern city of 50,000 — about ten times bigger than Orange City, so not nearly as close-knit. But the Tipi Loschi have built a tight-knit community within the city. From The Benedict Option:

The story of how Sermarini and his lay Catholic community began in San Benedetto del Tronto, a small city on the Italy ’ s Adriatic coast, inspires because of its improvisational quality. 

Sermarini, who is also head of Italy ’ s G. K. Chesterton Society, and his community began as an informal group of young Catholic men inspired by the example of Pier Giorgio Frassati, a twentieth – century Catholic layman and social reformer who died at the age of twenty – four . The Blessed Pier Giorgio (he has passed the first stage of canonization, earning the title) was known for helping the poor — and that ’ s what Sermarini and his friends did in college, reaching out to at – risk youth.

After college, the men found they enjoyed each other’s company, and helping the needy, so they stayed together. As they married, they brought their wives into the group. In 1993, encouraged by their local bishop, they incorporated as an official association within the Catholic Church, an association of families they jokingly called the Tipi Loschi — Italian for “the usual suspects.” 

Today the Tipi Loschi have around two hundred members in their community. They administer the community school, the Scuola libera G. K. Chesterton, as well as three separate cooperatives, all designed to serve some charitable end. They continue to build and to grow, driven by a sense of spiritual and social entrepreneurship and inspired by a close connection to the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, just on the other side of the Sybilline Mountains. As the Tipi Loschi’s various initiatives succeeded (and despite some that didn’t), the association of families came to regard each other as something more organic.

They began helping each other in everyday tasks, trying to reverse the seemingly unstoppable atomization of daily life. Now they feel closer than ever and are determined to keep reaching out to their city, offering faith and friendship to all, from within the confident certainties of their Catholic community. This is how they continue to grow.

“The possibility to live like this is for everyone,” says Sermarini. “We have only to follow an old way to do things that we always had but lost some years ago. The main thing is not to go with the mainstream. Then seek God, and after that, look for others who are also serious about seeking God, and join them. We started with this desire and started trying to teach others to do the same, to receive the same gift we were given: the Catholic faith.”

It’s becoming clear, Sermarini says, that Christian families have to start linking themselves decisively with other families. “If we don’t move in this direction, we will face more and more crises.”

The first time I visited them, I asked Marco how the parents of the community hope to keep their kids at home in the city after they graduate high school. This is a hard question, he conceded. These days, if you want to succeed in your career, and make a lot of money, you have to go to places like Milan, Rome, and so forth. The only way San Benedetto can compete is by introducing the children of their community to a different way of life, and encouraging them to choose to settle there, and become part of the next generation of Tipi Loschi. The way of life that the kids are being raised in puts faith, family, and active community life first — not wealth and professional success. Those kids are not groomed for departure by their parents.

I can’t say this for sure, but my sense is that they are not necessarily groomed to stay. They are groomed to value faith, family, and community above other goods that liberal individualism prizes. In order to have those things, you have to be willing to sacrifice a certain degree of wealth, individual liberty, and professional advancement.

It’s also the case that the community must have metaphorical walls, as a monastery has literal walls. That is to say, it must retain a strong sense of what defines it, and maintain that focus to the exclusion of those people and practices that would distract it from its mission. In the case of the Tipi Loschi, theirs is a voluntary association based on shared Catholic faith — of an orthodox kind — and living that faith out palpably in community. Anybody is welcome to join their group, but they have to be willing to live by the group’s values. True, it’s hard to see why you would want to join the group if you weren’t an orthodox Catholic, but the point here is that the liberal value of “inclusion,” understood as “here comes everybody, so let’s accommodate them” would mean the dissolution of the community.

A town is not a voluntary association — and this is the difference between the Tipi Loschi and Orange City. As a legal matter, as well as a moral matter, it cannot decide who it will allow to settle there. One would not want Orange City to have the right to decide that only northern European Protestants could settle there. Yet it’s still a reasonable question to ask: how far can the people of Orange City go to accommodate newcomers, as well as hometown dissenters from the conservative status quo, without losing what makes their community so strong?

Or, to put it another way, how liberal can Orange City afford to be? (I mean “liberal” in the sense that most of us are broadly committed to liberal values of tolerance, individual freedom, equality before the law, and so forth.) Do the goods that are so strongly and beneficially present in Orange City depend on a culturally illiberal foundation that no one there talks about, and may not be fully aware of?

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Sunday Morning On Capitol Hill

That’s my daughter Nora reading the paper at table with David Brooks. David and his wife Anne opened their home to us, and brought this 11-year-old girl’s Washington dream trip to a warm, beautiful conclusion. We are at the airport now, headed home. And this brings to a close my project of observing my 50th birthday year by taking a special vacation with each one of my kids. All three have lots of stories and cherished memories. None of it could have been done without generous friends of mine who opened their hearts to us (and sometimes their homes). Thank you to all.

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Dégenération Américaine

Watch — seriously, watch, and listen — to David Mathewes translation of the French Canadian song below. Powerful, powerful stuff. The Quebecois original:

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Washington DC December 2017

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