Alan Jacobs

The Six Axioms of Politico-Judicial Logic

Mesut Dogan /

These six axioms provide all you need to know to navigate the landscape of current debates about judicial decisions:

1) The heart wants what it wants.

2) The heart has a right to what it wants—as long as the harm principle isn’t violated.

3) A political or social outcome that is greatly desirable is also ipso facto constitutional.

4) A political or social outcome that is greatly undesirable is also ipso facto unconstitutional.

5) A judicial decision that produces a desirable outcome is (regardless of the legal reasoning involved) proof of the wisdom of the Founders in liberating the Supreme Court from the vagaries of partisan politics so that they can think freely and without bias. The system works!

6) A judicial decision that produces an undesirable outcome is (regardless of the legal reasoning involved) proof that the system is broken, because it allows five unelected old farts to determine the course of society.

From these six axioms virtually every opinion stated on social media about Supreme Court decisions can be clearly derived. You’re welcome.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd.

Here’s a puzzling report from the New York Times:

A recent report from UBS Wealth Management found that people with more money are generally happy, which probably doesn’t come as much of a shock. “I would say that millionaires in general are very happy,” said Paula Polito, chief client strategy officer at UBS Wealth Management Americas. “I wouldn’t confuse happiness with contentment or satisfaction or achievement.”

Got it. Happy but not necessarily satisfied or content.

The UBS report found that satisfaction rose in line with wealth: 73 percent of those with $1 million to $2 million, 78 percent of those with $2 million to $5 million and 85 percent of those with over $5 million reported that they were “highly satisfied” with life.

Oh. So they are satisfied. Satisfied and happy? Satisfied and happy but not content?

What piqued my curiosity was how conflicted the report’s respondents seemed to be about the source of their wealth. They often have jobs that entail long hours, high pressure and working vacations.

Are those things satisfying? Happiness-conducive?

‘Part of this pressure to keep going is less about greed and more about insecurity that might be self-imposed,’ Ms. Polito said. ‘If you ask people, ‘If you knew you had five more years to live, would you act differently?’ they say they would. That’s a showstopper.’

Happy and satisfied but insecure?

Money buys happiness, the report said. But what good is that happiness if the millionaires who have it cannot enjoy the freedom the money gives them, the freedom that most people would love to have?

But if the inability to enjoy freedom doesn’t make you less happy or satisfied, is it a problem? If so, why?

My takeaway from reading this article: no one involved, from the investigators to the respondents to the reporter, has any idea what they mean by “happy” or “satisfied” or “content” or “free.”

Let’s try to think about these things, starting perhaps with W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen.” Everyone’s assignment: read this poem, think about it for a month, and then try again.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

How I Became a Soccer Fan

Gazza via YouTube
Gazza via YouTube

In the last few weeks, a soft fog of nostalgia has settled over much of England as the country commemorates the 25th anniversary of Italia 90. It was one of the few times that the national team did better than expected. The Three Lions had been inept, or profoundly unlucky, for several years, reaching their nadir in losing every match in the 1988 European championships. One London paper shouted to Bobby Robson, the England manager, “IN THE NAME OF GOD, GO!”—a nice echo of Oliver Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament—and then, when the team was held to a draw by Saudi Arabia, “IN THE NAME OF ALLAH, GO!” But Robson didn’t go, and continued to lead the team through World Cup qualifying and into the tournament itself, where, to general astonishment, they made it to the semi-finals, losing to West Germany—of course—on penalties—also of course.

In the later stages of the tournament I was in London, visiting England for the first time in my life. At the time I knew nothing about soccer; had never really paid attention to it. I do not believe I even understood that the World Cup was going on. But one evening my wife and I were walking near Covent Garden and trying to understand why the streets were so empty. We had not been in London long, but we understand that this was not normal; was not anything like normal. Then we started hearing the shouts.

From time to time, from every pub in earshot, groups of people would cry out: in fear, in anticipation, in misery—and three times in ecstasy. The last two marked the moments when England’s brilliant forward Gary Lineker converted two penalties to bring England back from a deficit against Cameroon, sending them into the semi-finals. But at the time I didn’t know that. I had to get back to our hotel and turn on the TV, and then read the next morning’s newspapers, to piece together the events of the evening. Gradually it dawned on me that this World Cup thing was a pretty big deal.

A few days later an American couple then living in London invited my wife and me to have dinner at their flat and then watch England play the Germans. I was half-disappointed—I had wanted to find out first-hand what it would be like to watch such an event in one of those raucous pubs—but it was impossible to say no. It was also the Fourth of July, which it was sensible to spend with my fellow Americans (though our pre-match dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant was not, perhaps, fully orthodox). But whether I would have enjoyed the pub experience more or not, in that little flat in Bloomsbury I came for the first time to understand something of soccer as a game, and of its role in English society.

I remember the somber dignity of the pre-match commentary—it sounded to me as though they were announcing the beginning of a war—and then, once the game started, the occasional shouts and curses from nearby flats and the streets below. But mainly I remember Paul Gascoigne, whom I had already noticed in the Cameroon match: his long pass to Lineker—I didn’t yet know to call it a “through ball”—that led to the third goal gave me my first awareness of the beautiful geometries of soccer. In the match against Germany I couldn’t stop watching him: he didn’t look like what I thought an athlete should look like, with his chunky frame and long spindly legs, and he ran a bit like the Tin Man, upright and jerkily. Yet he made things happen, he caused constant trouble for the opposition. And when, on receiving the yellow card that would have kept him out of the final, he broke down in tears, my eyes filled also.

Of course, I didn’t really know what was going on: I assumed that Gascoigne had been dismissed from the match, and couldn’t understand why he was so upset if he could keep playing. (He would later say, “When things are good and I can see they’re about to end I get scared, really scared. I couldn’t help but cry that night.”) But the emotional intensity of the players and the fans, especially as the match moved towards the penalty shootout, and the utter devastation on the faces of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle when they missed their penalties, simply radiated from the screen, overwhelmingly.

When we left the flat to walk back to our hotel, there were angry drunk people on the streets of London, but not too many of them. (We would learn the next day that the more violent ones had congregated in Trafalgar Square, and were thankful that our walk home hadn’t taken us in that direction.) Most of the people we saw looked dazed, spent, and yet somehow exhilarated. It was clear that something of great import had just happened to them. And it was clear that for the rest of my life I would be a soccer fan.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.


Life in the Garrison

There is a wonderful extended passage near the end of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head that describes the highly traditional, and yet open-to-change, practices of a small organ-making company called Taylor and Boody. “They understand the long story of organ making as their own,” says Crawford, “and find for themselves a place in it.” Here is an especially powerful passage:

Some critics will say that these craftspeople have ‘retreated from the world.’ I think nearly the opposite. We have come to accept a condition of retreat from the world as normal. The point of the organ shop example is to help us see what it would look like to inhabit an ecology of attention that puts one squarely in the world.

This is a brilliant and vital point in itself, but I want to take a bit of a turn and show how it’s relevant to recent debates, on this site and elsewhere, about what Rod has been calling the Benedict Option.

Rod has written of the BenOp as a “strategic withdrawal.” And while I have argued that it’s better to speak of “strategic attentiveness,” in reality those are two sides of a coin: since attention is finite, one cannot increase attentiveness to one object without withdrawing it from another.

The BenOp recommends increased attentiveness to local communities, to the formation of Christians (young and old) in the traditional practices and habits (of thought and action) of the Church. Though what this might look like has yet to be clarified and codified, there are already a good many people describing it as a regrettable withdrawal from “the world.”

But the passage from Crawford encourages us to ask: What do the critics of the (nascent) BenOp mean by “the world”? And when you put it that way, it becomes clear that for them “the world” is inside the Beltway, and in the New York Times and Washington Post, and on Politico and HuffPost, and the tweetstreams of politicians and policy wonks, and on our biggest TV networks. But I would like to suggest that the building of a healthy society might depend on people who are willing to say that those vast public edifices — some made of stone, some of pixels — are not the world, that the world lies much closer to hand.

To think in this way — to think seriously in this way — is to commit oneself to slow and incremental change, to what W. H. Auden in one of his poems calls “local understanding.” It is also to acknowledge that the order and value you crave will not be handed to you by your environment; rather, you must build it ad hoc, improvising as you go with like-minded people, as you can find them.

This is one of the conditions of modernity, I think. The great scholar and thinker Mikhail Bakhtin believed that Dostoevsky had discerned this, and portrayed, with great compassion and psychological acuity, people who (primarily because they were intellectuals) had been displaced from any kind of organic community and had to rebuild their world from scratch. Here’s a beautiful desctiption:

To create a human community in the world, to join several people together outside the framework of available social forms, is the goal of Myshkin, of Alyosha, and in a less conscious and clear-cut form of all Dostoevsky’s other heroes…. Communion has been deprived, as it were, of its real-life body and wants to create one arbitrarily, out of purely human material. All this is a most profound expression of the social disorientation of the classless intelligentsia, which feels itself dispersed throughout the world and whose members must orient themselves in the world one by one, alone and at their own risk.

The bond Alyosha forms with “the boys” in The Brothers Karamazov is the perfect example of this: an improvised bond, a fragile and local one, but one with enormous strength and comfort for those who accept it.

A genuinely conservative — i.e., conserving — counter-culture of any kind, including the Christian kind, will be similarly improvisatory, small-scale, local, fragile. It will always be aware that “to inhabit an ecology of attention that puts one squarely in the world” is a task to be re-engaged, with more or less success, every day. Over its (imaginary) gates it will carve a motto, one taken from a late Auden poem, “The Garrison”:

Whoever rules, our duty to the City

is loyal opposition, never greening

for the big money, never neighing after

a public image.


Let us leave rebellions to the choleric

who enjoy them: to serve as a paradigm

now of what a plausible Future might be

is what we’re here for.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

In Praise of Private Colleges

Recently I noticed a comment on Twitter that the very idea of the poor being dependent on private charity, rather than being cared for by the state, is “monstrous.” It was a neat, if unremarkable, example of the hypermoral tone of much American political rhetoric. The question of whether the poor benefit more from state-funded and state-administered programs or by private charitable organizations strikes me as an empirical one, the sort of thing that people ought to be able to discuss rationally and peaceably while trying out new ideas and sorting through the available evidence; but clearly that is not how some (many, I think) on the left see it. It is for them simply an article of faith that the morality of a society must be manifested through its government, and that any other vehicle is not just inferior but … well, monstrous.

(This sort of thing happens on the right too, of course, as I’ve discovered when I’ve said that I don’t believe the Second Amendment says anything one way or another about private gun ownership. A topic for another day, perhaps.)

Many of my lefty friends are academics, and it seems to me that the current controversy over what’s happening to the University of Wisconsin system should cause them to rethink their reliance on the government to uphold academic values in particular. The legislative changes to academic governance in Wisconsin are complex, but most of the attention is focused on tenure, which, some say, the Wisconsin legislature has just abolished within its system. However, legislators insist that they have done no such thing, but have only shifted responsibility for the status of tenure from state law to the university system’s Board of Regents. Time will tell, I suppose.

In general, Republican legislators are not big fans of tenure, largely because they see it as a way for lefty professors to keep themselves in power. And many lefty professors agree that that’s what tenure is for. See for example this post by Michael Schwalbe of North Carolina State University, who celebrates “professors as a left force in U.S. society” but then complains about “the usual conservative attacks on professors.” Well, yes: if you teach at a publicly funded university and want to use your position to promote and consolidate a particular political stance, then legislators with different politics than yours will probably want to defund you. Sauce, goose, gander.

This raises the question of whether it’s reasonable for people who want their universities to be sites of resistance to “neoliberal ideology” to demand that a neoliberal government support their work. A question that answers itself.

Perhaps, then, the work that Schwalbe wants the university to do might better be done by private schools. This is, after all, a lesson those of us who work in Christian higher education learned a long time ago. We understand that we have a distinctive take on the world, a distinctive mission that won’t be shared by all Americans, and take advantage of this country’s rich and longstanding tradition of private education to pursue our own vision.

This is not to say that I don’t place a high value on public higher education. I was myself educated entirely in public schools, and am thankful for what I learned there. Nor is it to say that I support what the Republicans in Wisconsin are doing—I don’t. But I’m thankful for my own education in part because so few of my teachers thought it was their job to tell me what my politics should be. Certainly there are disadvantages to an educational model that tries to remain politically neutral and dispassionate; but one of the advantages, in the public domain anyway, is that it stands a chance of being funded no matter which political party is in power.

But if you want a college or university that has a strong ideological bent, that has a clear political purpose (using the term “political” in a broad sense), then perhaps you should not look to public institutions as the ideal venues through which to pursue your goals. There is a long tradition in America of intellectually powerful private universities with distinctive missions, and that tradition is worthy of our best efforts to sustain it. I hope it’s not monstrous to say so.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.