Rod Dreher

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View From Your Table

Bologna, Italy

Our intrepid food traveler James C. is back in Italy after a holiday visit to the US. And look at him, tormenting low-carb me with that lovely photo of tagliatelle.

By the way, the low-carb diet is going well for me, notwithstanding looking at pornographic photographs of buttery noodles ooching all over each other. I feel great, and have tons more energy. Unfortunately, I still have significant back pain from the early December car accident, and can’t start exercising again. Nevertheless, I seem to be losing a bit of weight. I made it through the detox period, and am having no trouble staying away from bread, pasta, and sugar. But then, I don’t live in France or Italy.

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Capitalism, Community, Christianity

Alan Cross, a friend and Southern Baptist pastor, just posted this on another thread. It was so good I wanted to make it a post of its own:

Globalization is not the whole problem and nationalism is not the whole answer. That would assume that the problem is “out there” and the answer is that if we would just band together in smaller national units based on culture, race, ethnic identity, and shared memory, then we can rebuild and survive. One can take that approach and use power to assert yourself, but it is not the Christian approach and I don’t think that Christianity is neutral and that each country can just organize itself according to race, tribe, ethnicity and then subvert Christianity to the ethno-cultural impulse to serve it as a chaplain, so to speak.

Rather, what has been missing from capitalism for a long time is any sense of morality, care for neighbor and community, and love for the “other” that Christianity absolutely demands, but that this current iteration of capitalism says is foolish. I am a big fan of many of the basic tenets of capitalism, but that is not what has been at work in our country. When capitalism was taken over by Darwinian philosophy and Christianity just bowed the knee to pursuit of the profit motive over the survival and flourishing of local communities, then you had the beginnings of the moral rot that would flash up in the 2007-2009 Economic Collapse and that now threatens us again. When greed, a vice, became a virtue and Christianity in America followed along, the only possible result would be the destruction that we now see. Instead of standing prophetically against the separation of business and care for community, we just moved along with it and supported market forces – as long as they benefitted us. When they don’t, we howl.

Working with the African American community, I have seen people work hard, invest, buy homes in stable neighborhoods, and try to advance themselves into the middle class. In the city where I live, for example, a huge section of town was made up of black and white families living in neighborhoods together. Home values were strong and middle class black families invested their money in home ownership. This was in the 1990s and 2000s. But, white flight ensued and local businesses began leaving – not because of crime and real problems, but because real estate speculators and developers were throwing up new neighborhoods on the east side of town. The newly refurbished mall (at a $70 million price tag) began to lose tenants and the “new” outdoor mall on the edge of town began to attract them. Within 10 years what was once a vibrant and solid part of town with 50,000+ people – both white and black – saw its businesses and people of wealth, mostly white, move to other parts of town or to bedroom communities. Home values collapsed, people lost their investments, and mortgages were upside down. Businesses were boarded up and by 2005, what was once a vibrant part of the city just 5 years before was in complete decline. And, this was BEFORE the economic collapse starting in 2007. Minorities, who had believed that if you work hard and try to make it then you can, suffered first and were the “canary in the coal mine” prophesying what was to come. But, what happened with the loss of millions and millions of dollars of home owner investment in just a few years in the older section (homes built in the 1960s and 70s) was not because of the Chinese manipulating currency or immigrants or any of the things that get blamed these days. It was because of greed, racism, fear, a desire for the “new” thing, and speculators convincing people that they needed the new house and that businesses needed to “chase rooftops.”

I was a staff pastor in a church and I lived in this community that over a 10 year period was completely devastated economically, not by outside forces or closing factories or liberal Hollywood or the Federal government, but by the basic decisions of businesses and those who could move and pursue what they wanted apart from any kind of thought (or concern?) about how it might impact their neighbor or community. I went to the city government, community organizations, and churches and warned them of what was coming – blight, economic despair, and a collapse of a quarter of the city that at the time was a good place to live but in a decade it wouldn’t be. No one cared or believed me. Every decision was individual and there was no thought given to how one decision would affect another unless you were a real estate developer trying to get ahead of the wave. Money was to be made, and if that meant cannibalizing one part of the city so they could make some extra money by developing another part, then so be it. The law of supply and demand was ignored because there weren’t new people moving in to the city. They were throwing up houses and neighborhoods and developments to take from one area and to develop a new area – because they could and it benefitted them to do so. When I expressed my objections about how all of this would affect families and neighborhoods and all of those who had gone to school, worked hard, and invested in their homes thinking they had arrived, I was told by city leaders, church leaders, and Christians – well, that is how capitalism works and what, are you some kind of a liberal?

Of course, all of them already had the means to surf the wave, sell early, get out, and buy or build homes in the new up and coming areas. They were not concerned with what happened to those neighborhoods left behind. They would just build new churches to attract the wealthy who could manage these constant changes. And, it wasn’t like they were bad people who didn’t care about people. They just never even thought about it. You just take care of yourself and you do what you can for yourself and that’s it. And, you ask God to bless it.

Now that this type of capitalism eats itself and has for a long time and only benefits those who can navigate its ever-changing dynamics, we blame immigrants, globalization, liberals, and everyone we can think of without realizing that WE have been a part of the whole thing and have been benefitting from it for a really long time. And, not everyone can benefit or navigate these changes. Not just Liberals, but Conservatives (and I am one) who know how to navigate this ever-changing landscape and can do it well are the real elites in our society. And, we continue to want things to work in our favor and get mad when it doesn’t.

I still remember talking to the African American gentleman about 15 years ago in the parking lot of the mall that was at the center of the community that was failing. He told me how he went in to the military, got married, had children, served his years, saved his money, retired, got another job, his wife got a job, and they bought a home in this community. And, he told me that the changes in the community being wrought by the overdevelopment on the other side of town had caused their 30 year old neighborhood to crumble in home value and he lost his whole investment and now they were upside down and could not move. He thought he was doing everything right and at the end of the day, because he picked the wrong neighborhood (right at the time but wrong 5 years later) and because he was black and white people didn’t want to live near him, he came out an economic loser and now could not recover. This was around 2002. He was angry and fearful. I will never forget that conversation. The homes being built were monstrosities that were 3000-4000 square feet and his modest 1500 square foot ranch style home was no longer good enough to maintain its value. No political movement arose to represent his interests and call for a moral capitalism that had concern for neighbor and community.

I am saying all of this to say that a discussion on capitalism is really important. But, we had a chance to introduce a moral component to it and we chose to use it to advance our own interests wherever we could. Not everyone is capable of keeping up with that. We’ve been destroying our own communities and selling them off for parts for a long time now and the church (in the South where I live, anyway) has been blessing the transactions without even questioning (or knowing how to question or even that they should) if the whole approach was right, moral, or godly in any way. And, now we are paying the price.

That section of our city now is in massive decline, schools are failing, property values have collapsed, and social problems have arisen. Poor immigrants have moved in and the white people have left, leaving poor or lower middle class blacks behind. The major businesses all left and no one wants to invest there. And, you might drive through that area and blame the people who live there or outside forces in the economy, but having lived there and seen what happened, I can tell you that there was a lot more going on that the people involved in making it happen did not even have a framework to understand. The results were predictable, but what were the alternatives? Stay, build community, love your neighbor, and forego a nice, new home and large profits? That was never an option because we don’t think that way, largely. But, that is where the breakdown is, isn’t? Not “out there,” but “in here.” And, if no one tells that story, then how can things ever be different?

UPDATE: Out of fairness to Alan, I should point out that he is not, in fact, a communist, or even an anti-capitalist. The context in which he made this remark as as a comment to a long post I made about a German economist’s claims about the socially destructive nature of the form of capitalism we have now (and how there really aren’t any realistic solutions to it).

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The Left’s Identity Politics Poison

They’re all woke, all right (oneinchpunch/Shutterstock)

This is funny:

Many thousands of women are expected to converge on the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington the day after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. Jennifer Willis no longer plans to be one of them.

Ms. Willis, a 50-year-old wedding minister from South Carolina, had looked forward to taking her daughters to the march. Then she read a post on the Facebook page for the march that made her feel unwelcome because she is white.

The post, written by a black activist from Brooklyn who is a march volunteer, advised “white allies” to listen more and talk less. It also chided those who, it said, were only now waking up to racism because of the election.

“You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too,” read the post. “I was born scared.”

Stung by the tone, Ms. Willis canceled her trip.

“This is a women’s march,” she said. “We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand black women’?”

Read the whole thing. They’re eating each other alive. The activist who stung Jennifer Willis is ShiShi Rose, whose site is here. She does not appear to be a happy person.

I’m reminded of liberal professor Mark Lilla’s warning to his own side that identity politics means the death of liberalism. Excerpts:

The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

More:

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

A reader sent in this good piece by Noah Rothman at Commentary, talking about the women’s march and identity politics. Rothman says Lilla is right, but it won’t do any good because the contemporary activist left doesn’t understand the world except through the lens of identity politics. Here, he talks about the chronic virtue-signaling on the left:

These are secret handshakes designed to enforce exclusivity. This is not the stuff that makes for a broad-based political movement, but that is not the point. The left allowed itself to be consumed by the myth that a racially diversifying America would provide liberals with an enduring majority. In embracing this fiction, the far left’s most committed identitarians have erected a noxious racial hierarchy. Members of the identity-first left don’t seem to see how their obsession with hereditary traits has stolen from them personal agency and collective political potency. Perhaps they haven’t noticed it yet. They will soon enough.

Read the whole thing.

Meryl Streep is not a brave liberal. Michael Eric Dyson is not a brave liberal. Mark Lilla is a brave liberal.

UPDATE: I didn’t have time to post this last bit before taking one of my kids to a sports event, but I want to add something that the activist and academic left cannot seem to understand: the principles they uphold justify the Alt-Right’s identity politics too. If you believe that it’s fine to advocate for political advantage for members of your tribe, based on nothing more than their racial, sexual, or gender identity, then you have no standing to fault Alt-Rightists for doing the same thing.

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The Dark Benedict Option

From Adam Tooze’s take in the London Review of Books on a new book, How Will Capitalism End?, by the left-wing German economist Wolfgang Streeck:

In one disarming passage he describes capitalism as a ‘a non-violent, civilised mode of material self-enrichment through market exchange’. What makes capitalism toxic is its expansiveness, its relentless colonisation of the rest of society. Drawing on Karl Polanyi, Streeck insists that capitalism destroys its own foundations. It undermines the family units on which the reproduction of labour depends; it consumes nature; it commodifies money, which to function has to rest on a foundation of social trust. For its own good, capitalism needs political checks. The significance of 2008 and what has happened since is that it is now clear these checks are no longer functioning. Instead, as it entered crisis, capitalism overran everything: it forced the hand of parliaments; it drove up state debts at taxpayers’ expense at the same time as aggressively rolling back what remained of the welfare state; the elected governments of Italy and Greece were sacrificed; referendums were cancelled or ignored.

More:

It didn’t take long for [Jürgen] Habermas to pick up the gauntlet. In 2013 he accused Streeck of ‘nostalgia’ in favouring a retreat to ‘national fortresses’. Earlier this year Streeck retorted that Habermas favoured a ‘political universalism’ that vainly tried ‘to match the infinite universalistic advance of money and markets’; apparently Habermas regarded ‘the predetermined course of historical evolution [as] normatively desirable and technically necessary at the same time’. Why, Streeck demanded to know, should we fall in with ‘Angela Merkel and her frivolous claim that, “If the euro fails, Europe fails” – identifying a two-thousand-year-old cultural and political landscape of grandiose jointly produced diversity with a trivial utilitarian construction that happens to serve above all the interests of the German export industries’. Around the same time, dismissing Martin Sandbu’s vigorous defence of the euro, he vented his criticism of Merkel’s refugee policy. It was, in his view, another vain, modernist social-engineering project backed by Germany’s employers and the opportunistic Merkel. What’s more, it was an ‘object lesson in what other countries can expect from Germany acting European’, which means in practice an attack on national autonomy, as Germany’s elite identify ‘their control of Europe with a post-nationalism understood as anti-nationalism, which in turn is understood as the quintessential lesson of German history’.

And, in Streeck’s view:

We should be bracing ourselves for a prolonged and agonising decomposition of the entire social fabric. It has been said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: Streeck believes we may one day witness the proof of that. Capitalism will end not because it faces serious opposition but because over the course of the coming decades and centuries it can be relied on to consume and destroy its own foundations. We should expect ever intensifying stagnation, inequality, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and the escalating risk of major war, all of this accompanied by a pervasive erosion of social order, generalised social entropy. Indeed, according to Streeck we have at least since the 1970s been living in what he refers to as a ‘post-social society … a society lite’. We cope individually with conditions of increasing uncertainty, while at the macro level both society and economy become increasingly ungovernable. ‘Life in a society of this kind,’ he writes, ‘demands constant improvisation, forcing individuals to substitute strategy for structure, and offers rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords while imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others, in some ways like the long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE and is now called the Dark Age.’

Read the whole thing.  I think it’s obvious why the reader who sent me the link was thinking of the Benedict Option.

It’s my sense that many people think of the Benedict Option as a quasi-Chestertonian romantic exercise in Christian communalism and nostalgia. As this piece makes clear — and note again that Streeck is on the left — it is more deeply a matter of building the religious and communal structures that give us believing Christians a chance at holding on to the faith through the “long interregnum” to come. The struggle ahead for us is primarily one of holding on to faith through the fragmenting, scattering tumult upon us, but it is not only that, not by a long shot. I believe Streeck is right about economic life, which cannot be cleanly separated from spiritual and social life. The scope of this problem was far beyond the scope of The Benedict Option, and, to be honest, beyond my ability to write about meaningfully as an analyst. The work chapter is mostly about how Christians should prepare individually and communally for a world in which they are denied access to certain professions and lines of work because of their faith.

It is my fervent hope that Christian economists and political economists will take the basic Ben Op paradigm and write deeply on a Christian response to the crisis of capitalist civilization that Streeck identifies. What I find so interesting about the quoted passages above is that the socialist Streeck identifies the importance of holding on to national identity and solidarity around such in the face of a globalized capitalism and deracinated modernism that stands to dissolve a 2,000 year old tradition.

Notice what’s happening here: Wolfgang Streeck is taking on the Eurocratic postmodern, globalizing left (e.g., Jürgen Habermas) from the left, in defense of the nation. Similarly, we are seeing people emerge on the right taking on the globalizing right from the same standpoint. What is so difficult for many on both sides of the spectrum to understand is that the libertarian market über alles ideology that seeks to obliterate borders, and that cares nothing about the individuals, families, and communities disrupted by the “creative destruction” of capitalism is the same ideology that, applied in the social sphere, seeks to obliterate customs, traditions, and institutions like the family, for the sake of giving maximum liberty (“liberty”) to the atomized individual.

For a more accessible to the lay reader take on the thesis in Streeck’s book, try this review. Excerpt:

Not by a long shot, argues Streeck, as there’s no successor to our disintegrating capitalist system in sight, certainly not socialism. The progressive visions of social democracy or democratic socialism are simply no match for the disorder and reactionary currents that globalisation’s collapse enables.

“There is no such thing as a global socialist movement,” says Streeck, “comparable to the socialisms of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries [which] so successfully confronted capitalism in national power struggles.”

He cites as evidence the way the Greek leftist party Syriza buckled under pressure from the global financial institutions to accept austerity measures from which the country cannot recover.

Rather, a chaotic, violent interregnum will force the super-wealthy to fend for themselves, having given up any pretence to care about the social good or democracy, while the masses strike out blindly in anger. Oligarchs and populists, from both the left and the right, will rule the roost, riding discontent and further destabilizing “the post-war capitalist way of life without even a hint as to how stability might be restored”. Streeck sees the coming of an ungovernable Dark Age with rich opportunities for warlords and dictators.

This is a grim dystopia, even for a post-Marxist. Of course, we’ve heard before from leftist thinkers that the sky is falling on our heads, only to wake up to a new day and a new form of capitalism. Like Marx, Streeck is stronger in his critique of capitalism than in his vision for what might follow it.

But, make no mistake, the interregnum is upon us and there is no progressive alternative in sight. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s famous remark in the 1920s is just as valid today: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

One of those morbid symptoms’ names is Donald Trump.

This is important. Streeck does not believe that socialism is the answer. He doesn’t seem to believe that anybody has the answer. We are all flying blind. But the fact that neither Streeck nor I have a solution to the crisis we’re all facing now — and it’s by no means simply an economic crisis — does not mean that the crisis isn’t real. I offer The Benedict Option not as a “solution,” but as a model for thinking through and living out at the local level a stable, resilient, authentically Christian life, from which solutions may arise. Remember, the “solutions” to the problems engulfing Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which took down the economic, political, and social system that had ruled that part of the world since time out of mind, did not emerge for centuries after the collapse. But these solutions emerged out of the  patient, imperfect work of the Church, and especially of the monasteries.

The best we can hope for is to create the conditions for these things to happen. And note well: St. Benedict and his monks did not set out looking for “solutions” to the problem of how to live meaningfully and well amid the chaos of post-imperial Rome. They set out look for how to serve God and each other in Christian community. Everything else followed. So it will have to be with us. My point here is simply to highlight the fact that the Ben Op is not something for Christian hobbyists who love old liturgies and a romanticized Middle Ages. It’s key to our survival. In the introductory chapter to his book (the only part that can be read on Amazon), Streeck says the interregnum we’ve entered into is one in which the institutions that gave the individual some sort of collective protection have broken down, and we are now all on our own, more or less. What social protection there is will be accomplished on a local, ad hoc basis, driven by basic needs and desires — including fear.

This will not be a happy time. Streeck — again, from the secular left — says that one thing that is preventing people from realizing the seriousness of what’s happening is their unwillingness to confront the depths of the crisis. Streeck:

Life under social entropy elevates being optimistic to the status of a public virtue and civic responsibility. In fact, one can say that even more than capitalism in its heyday, the entropic society of disintegrated, de-structured and under-governed post-capitalism depends on its ability to hitch itself onto the natural desire of people not to feel desperate, while defining pessimism as a socially harmful personal deficiency.

Hope, which is grounded in realism, is not the same thing as optimism. While the world is collapsing around us, the church leaders are making shoeboxes and staging pantomimes. Let them make shoeboxes and wish upon a star, and let left-wing celebrities bleat and Donald Trump tweet. You and me? Let’s get serious. Let’s prepare. 

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Lift High The Shoeboxes

Take a look at this ecumenical hippie exercise involving shoeboxes:

Directions/Material: Building up and tearing down the Wall

Division due to our sin”: after a brief introduction some members of the congregation will construct a wall of separation representing the sins and division that we confess. The wall remains standing during the service until the section headed “Respond in faith – live in reconciliation.” At this point the stones will be removed from the wall and placed in the shape of a cross.

Depending on the size of the worship space, the following materials will be necessary for this symbolic action: 12 boxes of the same size (i.e. shoe boxes, transport boxes) covered in packing paper to make the “stones.” On the front side of each box a key term will be noted (lack of love, hate and contempt, false accusation, discrimination, persecution, broken communion, intolerance, religious wars, division, abuse of power, isolation, and pride). As each sin is named the stone is brought forward to build the wall. Following a moment of silence, the stone bearer makes the plea for forgiveness, to which the congregation responds “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

After the proclamation of God’s word which concludes with the sermon, a prayer for reconciliation follows. As the wall is dismantled and the stones are laid in the form of the cross, a song of reconciliation or a hymn of the glory of the cross is sung.

For worship services in small groups, an alternative liturgical action could be either to expand upon or to replace the wall with personal testimonies. These testimonies in the first part should name situations which have been hurtful to others. In the second part concerning the faith response, stories about reconciliation and acts of healing could be told.

Know where that comes from? You’re not going to believe it.

Or maybe you will.

The Vatican website. 

It’s part of a ceremony suggested for Christian unity. It was composed by an ecumenical German committee. All the hot religious passions of the Reformation have cooled to the point where Catholics and Protestants make shoebox walls together. I’m grateful that Christian folks don’t hate on each other anymore, but honestly, who could participate in such a rite without giggling?

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The Left Doubles Down On ‘Who? Whom?’

A young ethnic Serb boy watches his house burn in 1999, the victim of Kosovo Albanian rampage after NATO forces occupied the former Yugoslav territory (Northfoto/Shutterstock)

As depressing as it is to face, we may as well get used to the fact that for at least the next four years, we live in a permanent freakout culture. Look at this:

The Cathedral is taking Streep’s relatively mild, faintly annoying (to me) anti-Trump speech as a Gandalf-Against-the-Balrog moment. And the Teenager-In-Chief is taking time out of preparing to lead the most powerful nation on earth to respond petulantly to a liberal movie star’s moaning:

In my post last night about Streep’s speech, I noted that actress Patricia Heaton had said on Twitter that she had hoped Streep would talk about acting. Some who follow her immediately attacked Heaton (who said she did not vote for Trump) for being insufficiently onside against the Balrog. This is how it’s going to be, isn’t it? The Twitterization of life, in which we are all permanently flipping out about everything.

I had a slim bit of hope that the left would be chastened by the results of the election, and would at least try to understand why we are where we are as a country. Nope, not gonna happen. Take a look at this tweet:

The author is a prominent Silicon Valley consultant. She later expressed regret over this tweet, by the way. Meanwhile, this guy describes himself unironically as a “professional bisexual.” He also an activist Evangelical. Here’s his take on the Golden Globes:

And there’s this, which is just an extraordinary thing.

I would love to see a SNL skit featuring Ned Resnikoff and his plumber, based on this clip from Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer goes to Easter dinner with Annie’s goyishe family.

Now, none of these three liberals cited here are nobodies. They all have some power and standing. And yes, you can find their right-wing counterparts. We all know this. What’s interesting to me, though, are indications that the Cathedral — that is, the formal and informal cultural-liberal power structure — is going to double down on demonizing whites as a race. Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who is black, has a new book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon To White America, that sounds like the ne plus ultra in garment-ripping, race-baiting crackpottery, which is to white liberals what a bottle of Roxies are to a hillbilly. Carlos Lozada at the WaPo gives us an idea of what’s in the book. Excerpt:

But there is little comradeship in these pages, and if there is love, it is of the toughest kind imaginable. Dyson makes clear that he regards much of white America as a pernicious force. “We can do nothing to make our tormentors stop their evil,” Dyson laments to the Almighty. “How can we possibly combat the blindness of white men and women who are so deeply invested in their own privilege that they cannot afford to see how much we suffer?”

He likens law enforcement officers to terrorists (“We think of the police who kill us for no good reason as ISIS”) and slave drivers (“The police car is a mobile plantation”). He admits that he’d like to pay violence back in kind. “Lord, Dear Lord, I don’t want to feel this way, but I swear to you I want to kill dead any Godforsaken soul who thinks that killing black people is an acceptable price to pay for keeping this nation safe. But then, am I any better than that soul?”

“The police car is a mobile plantation”? Really? More:

Dyson recounts what he calls the stages of white grief, pulled out whenever white Americans fear their dominance is threatened. They plead ignorance of black life and suffering; appropriate black culture; or simply deny, rewrite or dilute America’s racial history. So please don’t show up with tales about the economic insecurity of the white working class; for Dyson, the 2016 election was entirely about the revenge of whiteness, “how it is at once capable of exulting in privilege while proclaiming it is the least privileged of identities . . . and how it howls in primal pain at being forgotten while it rushes to spitefully forget and erase all suffering that isn’t its own.” The presidential election was also a reaction to fear, Dyson writes. Donald Trump, “more than anything else, signifies the undying force of the fear unleashed by Obama’s presidency.”

At times, though, there seems to be a built-in irrefutability to Dyson’s case. Any effort by white people to disassociate themselves from charges of privilege, to bypass or mitigate guilt, is dismissed as just another case of “innocent whiteness” — of reckless, blind denial. “You are emotionally immature about race. . . . You have no idea that your whiteness and your American identity have become fatally intertwined,” Dyson accuses. “Your resistance to feelings of guilt is absurdly intense.”

Any argument against Dyson is then, by definition, confirmation of his point. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong. But it does little to invite dialogue.

Ya think? Sounds like this Sermon is preached entirely to the Cathedral choir. Dyson’ll probably win the National Book Award for the thing. Read Lozada’s entire piece. He’s not enthusiastic about the book. Based on the parts quoted, the book reads like a parody. Here’s an excerpt from a NYT interview with Dyson from over the weekend:

At the end of your sermon, you do a “benediction” section, in which you talk about making reparations on the local and individual level: donating to groups like the United Negro College Fund or a scholarship program, but also, to cite your example from the book, paying “the black person who cuts your grass double what you might ordinarily pay.” That gave me pause! Good! I used to say in church, “If the sermon ain’t making you a little bit uncomfortable, it ain’t effective.” Look, if it doesn’t cost you anything, you’re not really engaging in change; you’re engaging in convenience. You’re engaged in the overflow. I’m asking you to do stuff you wouldn’t ordinarily do. I’m asking you to think more seriously and strategically about why you possess what you possess.

I agree with reparations, but maybe this is my white privilege speaking: I can’t imagine actually doing that. That is what I meant by an I.R.A.: an individual reparations account. You ain’t got to ask the government, you don’t have to ask your local politician — this is what you, an individual, conscientious, “woke” citizen can do.

I wonder if Dyson asked his interviewer for a twenty dollar bill at the end of the conversation. If he did, I wonder if she gave it to him.

Michael Eric Dyson is a man of enormous privilege. He teaches at Georgetown. He has written 19 books, four of them bestsellers. He’s got a national media platform. And he uses it to say outrageous, racially charged, indeed arguable racist things. The New York Times published this MED column in response to the racist murder of five Dallas police officers by a black man over the summer. Did you know that that mass murder was really about white privilege? Now you do, thanks to the Cathedral and Michael Eric Dyson.

By contrast, Milo Yiannopoulos is an alt-right outrage merchant who happens to be white (and gay). When he got a big book deal recently with Simon & Schuster, the editor of the Chicago Review of Books decided that the magazine will not review S&S titles this year in protest. As that editor said in a Guardian op-ed:

Some writers, editors and publicists have pointed out that our decision isn’t fair to hundreds of other Simon & Schuster authors who had nothing to do with the publisher’s decision to sign Yiannopoulos. I agree. It’s unfair. Simon & Schuster will publish some wonderful books in 2017 through imprints I admire, such as 37 Ink, Salaam Reads and Touchstone. But I strongly believe the literary community must hold the publisher accountable.

Why? Because rhetoric like his – which targets racial, religious and cultural minorities – invites discrimination. It arguably encourages people such as Omar Mateen and Dylann Roof to think of entire groups of people as less than human. And in his 2012 book The Harm in Hate Speech, legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron writes that hate speech sends a clear message to its victims: “Don’t be fooled into thinking you are welcome here.”

In a statement, Simon & Schuster assured readers they “do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form”. But how is handing a purveyor of hate speech a $250,000 megaphone not condoning his rhetoric? And as an editor and book critic, how is giving Simon & Schuster free publicity not condoning their decision?

Where does one even begin with this? The point I want to make here is that publishing Michael Eric Dyson’s racialized ranting “invites discrimination” and “arguably encourages people … to think of entire groups of people as less than human.” It makes people like Ned Resnikoff scared of his white Southern plumber. It makes people — white, black, and otherwise — who are sympathetic to Dyson’s point of view inclined to give in to their suspicion and hatred of white people who are not part of their tribe, and to think of their loathing of these “deplorable” people as a manifestation of virtue.

The thing that is clear to many of us on the right is that many (not all) on the left, at least in the Cathedral, have no intention of trying to see the complex and difficult humanity of all of us, and that they’re engaged in tribalism, and building tribal solidarity through hatred, as much as the figures on the right that they hate. (And let’s not fool ourselves: there are figures on the right who do this very thing.)

The language of fairness and respect, when deployed by many on the left (especially in the Cathedral), is not about fairness and respect at all, but is a cover for a naked power grab, in classic Marxist-Leninist “Who, Whom?” style. In the case of race, the Cathedral and its favorite sermonizers demand that white people behave more humanly, while simultaneously denying their capacity to do so. And it holds academic and media elites like Michael Eric Dyson up as oppressed, simply because of the color of his skin, while framing poor and dispossessed whites as oppressors, solely because of the color of their skin.

(This, by the way, is why Meryl Streep’s speech got on my nerves: the way she began it by flattering herself and her audience as “vilified”; it takes real nerve to tell a room full of Hollywood millionaires that they are in league with the oppressed.)

I don’t believe the alt-right’s view of the world any more than I believe the Cathedral’s. If the alt-right’s racist ideas are going to gain ground in American politics, they aren’t going to do it through my agency. But here’s what the Cathedral left needs to know: you aren’t going to be able to count on conservative people like me to help you oppose the alt-right, because you are their “respectable” left-wing mirror image. 

I mean, look: if anybody tweeted that white actors deserved to win awards solely because they were white, he would have by that fact destroyed his career. Eliel Cruz tweets the same racist garbage, but see, he’s engaging in Bigotry For The Left™, so I expect him to continue to be able to publish on platforms like The Washington Post, and I bet you a bottle of Bulleit there’s not a senior editor in that entire news organization who can grasp the galling hypocrisy. What’s more, increasingly fewer people on the right are going to listen to conservatives like me, because they see us as holding to outdated principles that are incapable of stopping the left-wing power grab. The Cathedralized left sees no reason to be fair, so why should they?

I’ve been saying for years that the cultural left, with its infatuation with race, sex, and gender politics, and with demonizing all the opposition, is making the world a safer place for the alt-right. It’s happening right now — and they have no idea what they’re doing. They will, though. They will.

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Defending Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry and a young admirer (McConnell Center/Flickr)

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but it keeps slipping my mind. Writer Jeffrey Bilbro disagreed with an essay I blogged about earlier — the essay is by Tamara Hill Murphy — in which Murphy, an admiring reader of Wendell Berry — criticizes Berry for having rose-colored glasses about agrarianism and the agrarian past. Bilbro, who is co-editing a collection of essays on Berry’s fiction, writes a robust defense of the great Kentuckian. Excerpt:

It is precisely this sense of a complex, multifaceted heritage that Berry’s fiction conveys. Port William’s past is riven with violence, anger, and sin, yet it also carries love, forgiveness, and beauty. This sense of an irreducibly entangled inheritance is poignantly articulated by Margaret Feltner after the funeral of an alcoholic relative. The drunken sprees of Andy’s great-uncle Leonidas Wheeler, known as “Uncle Peach,” cost his family great time and sorrow. They also had real costs for himself; one memorable night he fell asleep in the front yard and lost several toes to frostbite. On the way back from Uncle Peach’s funeral, Andy’s father’s stern sense of justice leads him to amend the preacher’s rosy confidence regarding Uncle Peach’s eternal state: “‘If Uncle Peach is in Heaven,’ Wheeler said, ‘and Lord knows I hope that’s where he is, then grace has lifted a mighty burden, and the preacher ought to have said so.’”

Read the whole thing. I really appreciate Bilbro’s response. If I didn’t emphasize it before, let me say so now: I have read very little of Berry’s fiction (though a short story about Uncle Peach I did read, and shame on me for not recalling it), so my impression of his worldview is almost totally dependent on his nonfiction. Murphy’s essay resonated with me, in large part because I try to be vigilant against my own tendencies to romanticize the past. But it seems to me that Bilbro, in his short but detailed essay, has provided a strong rebuttal. I’m eager to read what you readers of this blog who are also close readers of Berry’s fiction have to say.

UPDATE: Great comment from reader Mister Pickwick:

I’ve read all of Berry’s fiction, and I think that Bilbro is mostly right. Berry really doesn’t whitewash Port William.

And yet….what has bugged me for a long time is that a certain type of character that Berry depicts seems to have largely disappeared from rural America.

I’m thinking about Wheeler Catlett, a major character in various pieces of Berry’s fiction. A small town lawyer and farmer, Catlett is (in his rural, Kentuckian way) one of the most genuinely sophisticated, erudite, articulate and learned men from American literature.

I think back over my 30-year career in the environmental/natural resources field in the West, which involved a lot of work in rural communities (mostly in Montana and Oregon). I fold in my experiences living in Central Montana for the past five years. And I also include recollections from visits to the rural areas where my parents and my wife grew up. Based on all this, my view is that the Wheeler Catletts have all but vanished from rural America.

My grandfather (my mom’s dad) was a mill worker in a lumber company town up high in the Sierras in California. In the evenings, he and my grandmother read Dickens aloud to each other. Very rarely will one encounter such a person in rural America these days.

My theory is this: when the Depression forced folks like my parents to leave their rural communities and seek jobs in the city, this skimmed off most of the rural “Wheeler Catlett” class and transferred it to urbanized areas.

Upshot: those familiar with the rural America of 2017 will rarely see there the full range of characters that Berry depicts in his fiction. That isn’t due to any fault in Berry’s vision. Rather, it’s a result of the social upheaval that occurred during the Great Depression, and which to some extent hollowed out rural communities.

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Book News

Hey readers, I wanted to update you with some good news. The galleys of The Benedict Option are being mailed out today from New York. These are also known as “advance reader copies,” and are the next-to-final version of of the book. It goes out to journalists, reviewers, and others who for whatever reason the publisher judges need to see the text as soon as possible.

Usually, what’s in the galley is 99.999 percent what’s going to be in the final hardback copy, but sometimes we find errors — typographical, grammatical, etc. — that we change before the book goes to printing. I’ve been on the receiving end of other people’s galleys for years, and never really took seriously the pro forma warning to journalist readers not to quote the galley copy without checking with the publicist to see that it accurately reflects the final version. Then I started writing books of my own, and discovered that no matter how hard and how diligently the writer and the team of editors working on a given book do their job, errors often slip through. It really is incredible how several sets of eyes can have gone over the same text over and over, and still, errors will get through. Readers don’t get to see how the sausage is made regarding book production, but let me tell you, it’s hard, grinding, often tedious work, and very little is more depressing to the writer and editors than to have gone through it all so many times, only to discover at publication that we missed an error of spelling, grammar, or punctuation.

All of which to say is that it may seem easy-peasy on the outside, writing and publishing books, but it takes immense and concentrated effort. I used to read books and, when finding a misspelled word or something like it, would think, “Aha! Carelessness! Disgraceful!” Now my heart falls and I pity the book production team, because I know how hard they all likely worked to prevent that from happening, but how it nevertheless did happen, because we are human.

::::bows head, has a moment, faces for a split-second the possibility that this is going to happen to him, gathers fragments against the possibility of his ruin, carries on::::

Now, where was I? Yes, anyway, the news that the galleys are in the mail makes me aware like nothing else to this point that the Benedict Option project is finally coming to fruition in book form. Two or three years ago, my friend and reader of this blog Leroy Huizinga, a Catholic theologian, wrote to say that I really needed to write the Ben Op book already. I told him quite honestly that I’d love to do that, but I didn’t see a market for it. We both knew that the realities that the Ben Op idea seeks to address were very much in play, but from my perspective, the concept seemed too radical for the moment, in terms of finding an audience.

The Indiana RFRA debacle, followed by Obergefell, changed everything. That is, those two events both revealed something that was present but hidden from the sight of many millions of Christians, and also concretely changed things such that maintaining illusions about the religious and moral state of America is no longer possible. Many, many small-o orthodox Christians (the word I used instead of “conservative,” because I don’t want political thinking to confuse things) have come to see that we are into dark days, days that are getting darker, and the believers who persist in the illusion that we are in more or less normal times, and react likewise, are like the people who mocked Noah and his sons, telling them to relax, that this rain was bound to pass.

If you’re a Christian who believes Trump’s surprise election is going to halt anything, you’re making a dangerous mistake. At best — at best — he will give us via his court appointments some breathing space, and a few more years to prepare. But even if Trump were a saint, he could not hold back the historical, economic, technological, and cultural forces carrying the West towards the shoals. Look at Pope John Paul II. He was, in fact, a saint, and a religious leader of towering character and vision. Look at his legacy. My belief is that he planted seeds of resistance that are maturing right now all over the world, but you would be hard-pressed to look at the Catholic Church’s situation in the West and see that St. John Paul II turned things around.

Then again, you would have said the thing about St. Benedict of Nursia a decade or so after his death. God knew otherwise, and we saw over the next few centuries the spectacular fruit that Benedict’s life and work bore. I believe it will be the same with John Paul, though I don’t expect to live to see it, and perhaps not even my grandchildren will live to see it. The point I’m making here is that the depth and magnitude of the crisis we’re all in forces us to alter our vision and our expectations. We must build the resistance in our hearts, our homes, our churches and communities — and the resistance must be built to last. It can be done. It has been done before. Christians like the Copts have been doing it for centuries, and are doing it right now. This is what the Benedict Option — and The Benedict Option — is about.

I want to tell you readers that I’m aware of complaints in the past from some of you that when a book of mine comes out, I post too much about the book in this space. Trying to be mindful of this, my publisher, Sentinel, and I have created a Benedict Option book blog that will soon be going live. Most of the blogging I do about the book will appear there, though not all — this, to give readers who don’t want to hear about the dang Benedict book again a break. I’ll cross-post some of those early blog entries here, but when it goes live, if you are a fan of the book, I’ll ask you to bookmark that blog too. It’s not ready yet, but it will be later this week, so heads up.

Also, I recently learned from the publisher of How Dante Can Save Your Life that the paperback edition will be in bookstores on March 14, the same days as The Benedict Option release (and the Feast of St. Benedict on the Orthodox New Calendar, which is a nice synchronicity). This is good news, in part because it makes the book affordable for classrooms and study groups. Here is a link to pre-order the paperback copy, the cover of which looks like this:

That was the original cover design of the hardback, and I thought it was pretty great. But the publisher, Judith Regan, went back to the drawing board, and what she came up with — what was the eventual designs of the cover and endpapers — was a masterpiece. I do encourage readers who have put off buying the hardcover copy to get one right now, though. Here is the link to order a hardcover copy.  To be clear, there will be no differences in the text of the hardcover and the paperback. I had hoped to add a new chapter to the paperback, but for various reasons that wasn’t possible. So why should you spend the money on a hardback? Because it is one of the most beautiful books — in terms of a physical object — you’ll have in your personal library. It won a design award, and if you look at the cover and the endpapers, you’ll instantly know why. Take a look at these snaps I just took from my copy:

It is an awesomely designed book. It’s not going to make a difference to my bottom line whether you get the hardcover or the paperback. I’m only alerting readers who would prefer to have the hardcover that now is the time to buy it, before it gets remaindered.

 

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Meryl Streep’s Speech

Did you see Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes Awards? They gave her a (well-deserved) award for lifetime achievement, and she took the opportunity to talk about how brave Hollywood is, “vilified” by much of the country, and what an ass Donald Trump is. Here’s her speech in toto:

Please sit down. Thank you. I love you all. You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend. And I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year, so I have to read.

Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press. Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said: You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.

But who are we, and what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island; Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids in Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in London — no, in Ireland I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a girl in small-town Virginia.

Ryan Gosling, like all of the nicest people, is Canadian, and Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, and is here playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.

They gave me three seconds to say this, so: An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that. Breathtaking, compassionate work.

But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. 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 kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose. O.K., go on with it.

O.K., this brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re gonna need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

One more thing: Once, when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something — you know we were gonna 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 proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight.

As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art.

I don’t strongly disagree with anything Streep said in the speech, aside from her praising her own colleagues for their virtue, and the fact that Trump almost certainly did not mock a disabled reporter for his disability. For the record, I didn’t vote for Trump (or Hillary), and think he’s a pluperfect ass.

But did people really need to hear one of the world’s great actresses use time that she might have reflected on her art and her craft to instead gripe about Trump, however much he may have deserved it?  Actress Patricia Heaton didn’t think so, and tweeted:

Immediately she drew criticism on Twitter for being insufficiently woke. According to Twitter, to wish a great actress being rewarded for her great acting had used her time in the spotlight to talk about acting instead of Trump is to side with the enemy. It was astonishing how they jumped on her for this. It looks as if we are becoming a culture where if you aren’t 100 percent in favor of something, then you are ipso facto the enemy. It reminds me of Milan Kundera’s writing about “kitsch” in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch. When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mother who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree “Be fruitful and multiply.”

… In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.

Patricia Heaton offered no opinion on the content of Streep’s speech, only that she wished it had been about acting. But Heaton’s failure to immediately declare the speech brave and necessary, or whatever, revealed that there was only one possible correct stance toward Streep’s address: 100 percent whistling-and-stomping in favor. Otherwise, you empower the Enemy of the People. You might even be an Enemy of the People yourself. More Kundera:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

Two tears flowed in quick succession in that room last night. The first tear said: How nice to see Meryl Street praising us and denouncing Donald Trump. The second tear said: How nice to be moved, together with all decent-thinking people, by Meryl Streep’s praise of us and denunciation of Donald Trump. It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

My opinion is that Streep’s speech in this context was inappropriate. It doesn’t make me mad or anything, but it was another example of celebrity moral preening and virtue signaling. Hell, Meryl Streep could have used her Golden Globes time to appeal to all viewers to come to Jesus and buy Rod Dreher’s books, and in this context, I still would have thought it an unfortunate waste of time at best.

But me and my molto pretentioso invocation of a Mitteleuropäische postmodern novelist have nothing on this guy Nick Searcy, who got the gist of what was so irritating about the Streep speech, though:

UPDATE: From reader Alan Cross:

I guess that I just tend to focus more on content than all of the other things like setting, time, place, etc. Because of that, this is the section that really stood out to me and I hope that it is heard by everyone and applied everywhere, no matter your politics or whether you are on the Right or the Left or in between:

“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 kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”

After a few years of battles over pizza places and photographers and wedding cakes and florists and speech on college campuses in the public square, a wise approach might be to take these words coming now from Hollywood and other bastions of the Left and say, “You know, you are right and this is what we’ve been saying. We will apply this to you if you apply it to us so we can all respect one another, get along, and not use our power to punish those who disagree with us – or with you.”

Perhaps we are at a moment where, before things get worse, we can be gracious and say that this appeal by Streep and others is fundamentally true and is worth being lived out by all of us and we should listen to it – all of us. It should be applied to those in power and those without power and through it, perhaps we can have a more civil and free society.

That was the part I focused on and I was thankful to hear it from her, as I am whenever truth comes from any source. I think that we have an opportunity here to bring peace and to forge a way forward in the culture wars that could benefit us all – if we could see it. Just a thought.

Like I said, I agree with most of what Streep said, minus the self-congratulatory Hollywood guff, but as reader Kgasmart explains in his comment, context is everything:

We are going to endure 4 (or maybe 8) years of this, “resistance” speeches from the left lamenting the “hate” of those who dare to vote inappropriately, etc.

But the question I’d ask is this:

Who was actually converted by what Streep said last night? How many laid-off workers in Ohio or Michigan actually re-thought their political position based on the emotional plea from this old liberal white woman who absolutely marinates in a privilege they will never know?

The flip side of this is Fiat’s announcement that it will invest $1 billion in Michigan and Ohio, creating 2,000 jobs. This, just after Ford announced it was scrapping plans to build a facility in Mexico and instead reinvest in Michigan.

We can argue how much Trump had to do with any of this, but the timing, at least, is very convenient for him.

And I suspect the impression that Trump did this, that his election is behind industry’s seeming sudden interest in reinvesting in America, will change **far** more minds, and votes, than anything said by Streep.

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Nat Hentoff, Z”L

A great man has passed. From a speech he gave in 1986:

I’ll begin by indicating how I became aware, very belatedly, of the “indivisibility of life.” I mention this fragment of autobiography only be cause I think it may be useful to those who are interested in bringing others like me – some people are not interested in making the ranks more heterogeneous, but others are, as I’ve been finding out – to a realization that the “slippery slope” is far more than a metaphor.

When I say “like me,” I suppose in some respects I’m regarded as a “liberal,” although I often stray from that category, and certainly a civil libertarian – though the ACLU and I are in profound disagreement on the matters of abortion, handicapped infants and euthanasia, because I think they have forsaken basic civil liberties in dealing with these issues. I’m considered a liberal except for that unaccountable heresy of recent years that has to do with pro-life matters.

It’s all the more unaccountable to a lot of people because I remain an atheist, a Jewish atheist. (That’s a special branch of the division.) I think the question I’m most often asked from both sides is, “How do you presume to have this kind of moral conception without a belief in God?” And the answer is, “It’s harder.” But it’s not impossible.

For me, this transformation started with the reporting I did on the Babies Doe. While covering the story, I came across a number of physicians, medical writers, staff people in Congress and some members of the House and Senate who were convinced that making it possible for a spina bifida or a Down syndrome infant to die was the equivalent of what they called a “late abortion.” And surely, they felt, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Now, I had not been thinking about abortion at all. I had not thought about it for years. I had what W. H. Auden called in another context a “rehearsed response.” You mentioned abortion and I would say, “Oh yeah, that’s a fundamental part of women’s liberation,” and that was the end of it.

But then I started hearing about “late abortion.” The simple “fact” that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.

And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying – this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island – at a forum, “I don’t know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women’s reproductive freedom rights, women’s right to control their own bodies.”

That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row – due process, equal protection of the law. So for the first time, I began to pay attention to the “slippery slope” warnings of pro-lifers I read about or had seen on television. Because abortion had become legal and easily available, that argument ran – as you well know – infanticide would eventually become openly permissible, to be followed by euthanasia for infirm, expensive senior citizens.

And then in the New York Review of Books , I saw the respected, though not by me, Australian bio-ethicist Peter Singer boldly assert that the slope was not slippery at all, but rather a logical throughway once you got on to it. This is what he said – and I’ve heard this in variant forms from many, many people who consider themselves compassionate, concerned with the pow erless and all that.

Singer: “The pro-life groups were right about one thing, the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make much of a moral differ ence. We cannot coherently hold it is alright to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive. The solution, however,” said Singer, “is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite, to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth.” Which, of course, the majority of the Court had already done in Roe v. Wade.

Read the whole thing. If ever there was an atheist beloved by the God in whom he did not believe, it was surely the brave and good Nat Hentoff. May his memory be a blessing.

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