So said Martin Heidegger, in an interview with Spiegel near the end of his life, in 1966. He’s talking about technological society and the danger it poses to our civilization:
HEIDEGGER: … Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all merely human meditations and endeavors. Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god.
SPIEGEL: Is there a connection between your thinking and the emergence of this god? Is there, as you see it, a causal connection? Do you think we can get this god to come by thinking?
HEIDEGGER: We cannot get him to come by thinking. At best we can prepare the readiness of expectation.
I thought about that when I read this essay by Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, decrying the facile and stupid atheism of the Ditchkins crowd, which destroys more than they know. Excerpt:
[R]eligion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his -latter-day successors fail to grasp at all.
Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. ‘An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be “unjust” as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.’ Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust.
This had nothing to do with him personally and everything to do with the logic of Europe losing its Christian ethic. Already in 1843, a year before Nietzsche was born, Heinrich Heine wrote, ‘A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardour of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again… the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak.’ Nietzsche and Heine were making the same point. Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.
Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that the idea that “individualism and relativism” can defeat Islamic fundamentalism “is naive almost beyond belief.” More:
Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.
You don’t necessarily have to be religious to be moral, Rabbi Sacks says, but, quoting historian Will Durant, the rabbi says there’s no historical example of a society holding on to moral life absent religion. He goes on:
I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.
I return to Heidegger from that same interview:
From our human experience and history, at least as far as I am informed, I know that everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home and were rooted in a tradition.
If, by the way, you missed Damon Linker’s column earlier this year on the naivete of the New Atheists, who, in his view, lack the philosophical and moral courage of Old Atheists like Nietzsche, Camus, Larkin, Beckett, and Cioran, be sure to read it.
The problem is that knowing that culture requires a cult, that civilization needs a religion, is not sufficient to make one acquire a religion. Nobody believes in God because they find it helpful. Notice that Heidegger didn’t say that “only God can save us,” but only “a god” can. We are going to have a god, one way or another. Which one?
I got back a short time ago from the funeral of Puddin Bankston, my landlady and really one of the grand Southern dames of West Feliciana Parish. Say what you will theologically about the Episcopalians, but they sure know how to have church. At least down South, they do. It was so beautiful to reflect on the fact that Puddin, who was 78 when she died from cancer, was baptized in Grace Episcopal Church, was married there, and, after services, was buried in its graveyard at noon. We don’t often think of Episcopalianism as a tribal religion, but it really is the tribal religion of a certain kind of Southerner. It was a pleasure to be among them this morning as they saw off one of their own.
John Podhoretz’s sister Rachel died of cancer earlier this month. His essay eulogizing her is, to my mind, the most beautiful and powerful thing he’s ever written, or probably ever will. It is a remarkable piece of work. He writes about how brilliant and creative she was, and how she lavished her love and creative energy not on being a professional of any sort — a decision that earned her some social scorn in career-obsessed Washington — but on being a mother:
She befriended [her children] and she watched over them and, yes, how she worried over them. And there was no greater joy in her life, even in the worst of her cancer-stricken days, than seeing them find their loves, and being present at the marriages that give off every sign of following in her uniquely happy path with Elliott, and liking their loves, loving their loves, and knowing deeply within her that her love, her bottomless and endless and enriching and revivifying and ennobling love, was what made possible their ability to love so well and so wisely.
So maybe this explains it:
The world would be a better place if it knew of Rachel’s marvels, if her extraordinary wall-length carvings based on biblical themes—drawn in pencil, grooved into the wood with awl and burned with soldering iron, and then stained meticulously by hand—had gotten the attention they deserved. Everyone who sees one gasps at it. She only made a few. I have two, and I expect they will be passed down in my family for hundreds of years.
The culture would be better if she had focused her energies on producing writing of length that would have assembled all her gifts in one place and allowed her puckish, brash, saucy, sizzling, wise, unforgiving, harsh, gimlet-eyed sensibility the space to roam across the literary landscape.But the thing is, Rachel might not have been the better for it. Maybe she didn’t reach for it because, in the end, she didn’t need it. Maybe she didn’t need it because she ended up with more than she ever thought she would have during those days when she was spending too much money on taxis and making foolish romantic choices and playing at being a kibbutznik (that was the 1970s) and later feeling invisible at stupid dinner parties unworthy of her (that was the 1980s).
She found what was most important.
What an extraordinary woman. May her memory be eternal, and a comfort to all those who mourn her.
You voted twice for Obama? You’re getting the policies of McCain and the Clintons, the candidates he defeated. I wish I could understand this – but, of course, my worry is that the pincer movement of Rice and Power is already pushing us into a war we do not need, and cannot win.
This is worse than a mistake. It’s a betrayal – delivered casually. Maybe he thinks his supporters will treat this declaration of war just as casually. In which case, he’s in for a big surprise.
David Rieff predicted this day a short while back when he greeted Obama’s elevation of Susan Rice and Samantha Power by saying, “Save us from the liberal hawks!” In an essay written before Obama’s Syria decision, Jacob Heilbrunn explains:
The chaos in Libya has chastened Obama, who is resisting attacking Syria militarily. But Libya’s travails aren’t stopping a chorus of warrior intellectuals from denouncing what they consider his morally culpable passivity. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for example, complains, “Liberals, once characterized as bleeding hearts, seem now to have none at all.”
Will Obama remain aloof in Syria, or will a liberal president once again accede to the cries of the hawks? His elevation of Rice and Power suggests that the pressure will be on from within his own administration. Both Rice and Power are personally much closer to the president than Kerry and could seek to undermine him. Even as Rice controls foreign policy from the White House, Power will occupy a potent pulpit at the United Nations, historically a highly visible platform for moralistic defenses of America and denunciations of evildoers abroad.
In naming Rice and Power, Obama, you could say, is staging his own potent intervention on behalf of the liberal hawks.
My poor friend The Mighty Favog is tortured by his home state of Louisiana. He loves it and he hates it and he just can’t quit it, even though he lives in the Midwest. We provide such entertainment for him about the human condition. Last night he brought me news of our state’s most dynamic and exciting municipal politician, Deedy Slaughter, the new mayor of the town of Port Allen, across the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge.
Slaughter was elected in November, and since then, she has brought a certain flair to city government. Some party poopers have filed a recall petition against her, because they just can’t handle her bold governing style. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, the haters are all up in her business about:
Hiring her brother-in-law, Ralph Slaughter, for a nonpaid chief of staff position.
Litigation over her alleged wrongful termination of the city’s chief financial officer, Audrey McCain.
A running debate over whether she should have boosted her own salary by $20,000 a year to $84,960 annually.
Asking taxpayers to cover the cost of her $2,500 trip to Washington, D.C., to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Now, the city attorney has resigned, and Mayor Slaughter, after having taken away the CFO’s ability to write checks, issued herself a direct deposit, in apparent violation of procedure, and maybe even the law. Whee!
Print reporting cannot bring you the full glory of Mayor Deedy Slaughter in action. Go to Favog’s blog for more. Follow Deedy before this glorious new political talent tragically flames out. Let this report from a Baton Rouge TV station (watch to the end) whet your appetite for her Ciceronian oratory, which includes the immortal phrase: “I been witch hunt since Day 1. I been fighting acquisitions after acquisitions.”
I do love my state, but sometimes I think the reason Louisiana exists is so the rest of America won’t have to feel so bad about itself.
That’s my girl Nora, on her way to fish frogs out of the neighbor’s pool drain this afternoon. She’s wearing a t-shirt that was mine when I was about her age. I can’t explain the rubber boots. She thought they would look fashionable.
Just so you know, we’re doomed. She’s all about attitude now. Yesterday, trying to make her teen geek brother go away and stop bothering her with facts about space, she sniffed, “Science impresses nobody under 12!” Last night she advised me to hire a lawyer to sue the movie studios to compel them to make a film of Little Way. So, y’all watch out. This one is trouble.
Did you see that Barack Obama has decided that the US is going to intervene militarily on the side of Syrian rebels? Sen. Paul speaks out. Excerpt:
“It is clear that American taxpayer dollars are being used to enable a war on Christianity in the Middle East and I believe that must end,” Paul said to a packed luncheon during the three-day Faith and Freedom Conference, an event hosted by the socially conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“The Senate is attempting to arm the rebel forces in Syria, many of whom are al Qaeda or affiliates. They do so out of a misguided attempt to stop the violence in Syria,” Paul said. “Instead their actions will bring more violence and more persecution of Christians, who have long been protected in Syria.”
Andrew Sullivan says that Paul is wrong to bring up Christianity as a reason to oppose US siding with the Syrian rebels, on the grounds that to use Christianity as a reason to stay out of war implies that Christianity is a reason to get involved in a war. I don’t buy the logic there, but more importantly, I think Sen. Paul makes a tremendously important point that is rarely heard in mainstream American political discourse.
Middle East Christian communities are anonymous in American political life. We never pay attention to them. American Jews understandably focus their concerns about the Middle East on the welfare of Israel. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame American Muslims either for prioritizing the interests of Islamic countries when it comes to US foreign policy.
But why is it that the only time American Christians speak out on Mideast affairs, it’s in support of Israel? To be sure, I count myself as pro-Israel, but I had no good answer, as a Christian, 13 years ago when I was in Israel, and was asked by Arab Christians why so many of their American brethren ignore them and their plight in our deliberations about the Middle East.
American intervention in Iraq has resulted in the destruction of many Christian communities, and their exile. As evil as Bashar Assad is, his regime has been a defender of Syrian Christians. If Assad falls, it will likely be a bloodbath for the country’s Christians, at the hands of Islamists. Even so, I don’t advocate intervening in Syria on behalf of the Christians. We cannot and should not fight every fight. That said, it is important for American Christians to understand what’s at stake in this fight. Sen. Paul was speaking to a Christian audience. It is perfectly legitimate, even necessary, for him to point out to that audience that by taking the side of the Islamist rebels, the US would be aligning itself against the interests of the country’s Christians, who have been a constant presence in Syria since the very beginning of the Christian faith. The baptism of St. Paul, one of the most consequential events in world history, happened in Damascus, on the street called “Straight,” which is still there.
America’s conduct has been disastrous for the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East, as Andrew Doran wrote in TAC recently. The surprise isn’t that Sen. Paul stood up for Christians in the Middle East today, against his own government’s policies; the surprise — the scandal, really — is that he’s the only one of his status who has.
I’ve said this before but conservatives often perceive liberal attachment to diversity as a kind of “everyone’s a winner” cuddle party, where we sit around exchanging rice-cakes and hating on the military. But the great strength of diversity is it forces you into a room with people who have experiences very different from your own. It’s all fine and good to laugh at Sherrod Brown dancing to Jay-Z. But dude is outside his lane and he’s learning something. M.C. Rove should be so lucky.
TNC’s point that we benefit from learning perspectives different from ours is perfectly valid, even anodyne. But it’s simply untrue that “diversity” in practice means what liberals say it means. If liberals meant what they said, they would push for “diversity” to include political conservatives, Southern Baptists, and others unlike themselves. How often does that happen? It seems that ”diversity” only applies to racial and sexual minorities. Conservatives understand perfectly well that the concept of diversity is an ideological construct that implicitly marginalizes them. That is the essence of the conservative resistance to “diversity” — that it’s a racket and a sham. TNC’s post prescribes diversity to conservatives to get them to be less “stupid,” and again, I agree that it’s always good to try to understand the perspective of others. But: every conservative has heard liberals say incredibly ignorant, stupid, untrue things about conservatives, but one rarely hears liberals worry about their own epistemic closure resulting from their monocultural liberalism. As I’ve written here before, conservatives are extremely wary when they hear calls for “diversity” and for “racial dialogue,” not because either is a bad thing in and of itself, but because they are code words for, “We liberals are going to tell you conservatives why you are wrong, and what we expect you to do about it.”
I would say that half, and maybe even most, of my friends in my Red-America town are liberals. We never talk about politics, and if we did, I bet we could have an intelligent exchange, because we see each other as people, not ideological constructs. Living in a small town compels you to see the other as a subject, not an object. It doesn’t make you a more moral person, necessarily, but at least it gives you more opportunity to see people as more than the sum of their ideological commitments.
I have never learned a thing from official diversity programs, except to be extremely cynical. What I’ve learned from living among people not like myself is to be more careful in the judgments I make — and to separate the political beliefs of a person from my assessment of that person’s character. I’ve learned the truth of Solzhenitsyn’s observation that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of each person’s heart. As a political and cultural conservative living in New York City, and working in newsrooms, which are overwhelmingly liberal environments, I’ve learned what it’s like to be an outsider. But I’ve also learned, I think and I hope, to see how one’s outsiderness can corrupt one’s judgment as well. I have learned a lot about how people are basically the same, and how people really are different in some consequential ways.
The point is that learning to see the world as it is does not result in adopting one ideological platform or another, but rather training oneself to see the complexity in society, and within individuals, and to render judgments based on a more empathic understanding of how people are, and why they think the things they do. Too many people assume that those who believe the opposite things arrive at their convictions in bad faith, e.g., out of bigotry, malice, desire for personal gain, etc. It’s true for some, but true less often than you might think. This is not to say that becoming more widely exposed to different people makes you into an automatic egalitarian, or a liberal (or a conservative), but it should make you more discerning in your own approach to the world, and quicker to question yourself.
It could well be the case that being exposed to the Other hardens one in one’s dislike for them. We shouldn’t assume that “diversity” automatically leads to more tolerance, wisdom, and comity. I once knew a guy from Europe who lived for a while in America, and was glad to go home. He got to know a lot of Americans, and appreciated our good qualities, but in the end he felt like an alien here, and found that the bad aspects of our culture outweighed the good. I think that’s a shame, but I didn’t begrudge him that judgment. He thought ours was an inferior culture — and given the things he valued most of all, he was right. I can live with that. Can’t you?
The most Dilbert-y of all entities within a corporate structure is the Human Resources Department. At least that’s been my experience. Readers Darwin’s S-list writes about his (her?) experience with HR departments, on the “Adventures In Disparate Impact” thread from yesterday:
I work at a company of at least comparable size to those being sued. During my time there, I’ve both interviewed for jobs and interviewed applicants for positions reporting to me. And it has a similar stance regarding prior criminal history, which I agree is too strict.
But the key thing to understand about companies of this size is how deeply risk averse their HR departments are. At my employer, all candidates interviewed for a position must be asked the exact same questions. Further, those questions have nothing to do with how the candidates’ experience and skills match the job requirements. Instead, they’re “behavioral history” inquiries wherein the applicant is asked “Tell me about a time you had to [work as a team, overcome an obstacle, pull together information from different resources, etc.], what did you do, and what was the result?” The smart applicants learn to work the process by asking the interviewers questions, which gives both parties a little more leeway to discuss matters of relevance.
We go even further in that we prevent employees from acting as a reference for either current or former employees. Anything that entails someone exercising judgment is looked upon as potential litigation exposure.
The irony is that while all of these safeguards are ostensibly designed to ensure that all applicants are on an even playing field, the end result is that by restricting the ability of hiring managers to learn more about applicants, it effectively encourages them to hire those they already know.
With respect to the present controversy about prior criminal history, the problem with the company instituting a 7, 10, or 15 year cut off is that doing so is arbitrary. Some lawyer or HR risk manager likely decided that doing that would itself expose the company to more potential liability. So, you bring in all of them.
It’s part of a broader trend of institutions not trusting their employees to use discretion in doing their jobs. In that, it’s of a piece with the elementary school principal who disciplines a kindergartner for biting his pop tart into the shape of a pistol and “threatening” others with it. If the principal tries to be reasonable about it and just tell the kid to stop, then the concern becomes how he’ll handle the next kid, has a toy gun, and the next with a pocket knife, and so on. If the cases differ too much, then plaintiff’s lawyers can make better cases.
Boy, is this ever true. In places I’ve worked before, the HR department, on advice from counsel, instructed managers never to give a bad reference to anybody. An employee might have been fired for very good cause, or resigned amid a difficult situation, but managers were strictly told never to speak ill of the fired employee when potential employers called to check references. If you can’t say something nice, then give a neutral statement. Anything else could open the company up for litigation.
Consider how difficult that makes the job of finding good people to work in your company. Consider how difficult that makes the task of finding another job if you’ve lost your previous one under circumstances that are complicated, but not that hard to explain. For example, let’s say that Bob quit his job at Acme Widgets and applied for a position at Jones Sprockets. The manager considering hiring Bob calls his old manager at Acme Widgets to find out some background on him. In a reasonable world, that manager would be able to say:
“Bob had a lot of potential, and is an intelligent man with a strong work ethic, but he never meshed with the team here because of certain personality conflicts. I understood it when he resigned, and was not sorry to see him go, because the situation here really was untenable. He couldn’t get along with a couple of key members of my team, both of whom are demanding and very particular. Others have had trouble with them too, and it’s an ongoing situation here at the office. I’m working on it. Most of this wasn’t Bob’s fault, but I have to say that if he were more patient, it might have worked out better. If you hire Bob, you will get an honest and talented employee, but that hire wouldn’t be without risks. Bob’s a quiet, methodical, responsible guy, but if you put him in a situation with co-workers who are argumentative by nature, it throws him off.”
That would give the future employer a real sense of Bob’s strengths and weaknesses. It could be that Bob, despite his weaknesses, would thrive in a different environment. But if the HR department constrained the manager from saying anything negative, all the manager could do would be either to be dishonest, or give a cryptic evaluation that plants suspicion in the potential employer’s mind: “What did Bob do at Acme Widgets? He’s a risky hire; let’s pass.”
In previous places I’ve worked, HR had policies requiring extensive documentation of an employee’s missteps — this, to provide a paper trail in case the employee was fired, because the paper trail would be useful in case of litigation. Avoiding litigation seemed to be the highest goal of the HR department. If you understood that Human Resources wasn’t about helping you, but rather was designed to manage the relationship between the company and its employees in a way to minimize the legal exposure for the company, then things became more clear. For example, we weren’t all going to mandatory diversity training because people had complained about discriminatory attitudes in the newsroom. We were going to it because if a disgruntled employee filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the company, the company’s lawyers could show that the company had taken reasonable actions to educate its employees about diversity, thus limiting its liability.
I’m not saying this is entirely unreasonable in our litigious society. But I am saying that it leads to entirely unreasonable effects, e.g., firing a 14-year employee because of a misdemeanor conviction.