State of the Union

Woke Doctors

Dr. Woke loves you and has a wonderful plan for your health (Glow Wellness/Getty Images)

You might remember the post here about “Moralistic Therapeutic Med School,” in which medical schools are starting to remove or relocate images of white men affiliated with the school who accomplished great things. This is about something related, but much more serious.

A reader who is a physician sent me this WSJ op-ed column the other day. He said that this is bad news for the medical profession. The author is Stanley Goldfarb, a former administrator at Penn’s medical school. Excerpts:

A new wave of educational specialists is increasingly influencing medical education. They emphasize “social justice” that relates to health care only tangentially. This approach is the result of a progressive mind-set that abhors hierarchy of any kind and the social elitism associated with the medical profession in particular.

These educators focus on eliminating health disparities and ensuring that the next generation of physicians is well-equipped to deal with cultural diversity, which are worthwhile goals. But teaching these issues is coming at the expense of rigorous training in medical science. The prospect of this “new,” politicized medical education should worry all Americans.


The zeitgeist of sociology and social work have become the driving force in medical education. The goal of today’s educators is to produce legions of primary care physicians who engage in what is termed “population health.”

This fits perfectly with the current administrator-rich, policy-heavy, form-over-function approach at every level of American education. Theories of learning with virtually no experimental basis for their impact on society and professions now prevail. Students are taught in the tradition of educational theorist Étienne Wenger, who emphasized “communal learning” rather than individual mastery of crucial information.

Where will all this lead? Medical school bureaucracies have become bloated, as they have in every other sphere of education. Curricula will increasingly focus on climate change, social inequities, gun violence, bias and other progressive causes only tangentially related to treating illness. And so will many of your doctors in coming years.

Read the whole thing. At some point, reality will take its revenge, and the woke will be banished. But how much suffering will innocent people have to endure before it does? And how many people of faith will be deterred from seeking a medical career because the militant left has placed absurd barriers to keep out the politically incorrect.

This morning, on the drive to the airport (I’m on my way to New York City now), I heard a radio piece talking about the need for transgender health care, and how medical educators in Oregon are meeting it. There’s not yet a transcript available for the broadcast, but I can tell you that it begins with the reporter framing transgender surgery in a politically correct way — something like, “the patient had surgery to realign her body with her gender identity.” This, by the way, is an example of how the media re-engineers society by changing language. Later in the piece, a doctor says that in years past, people with gender dysphoria would typically have been referred for mental health treatment. Today, though, they get surgical intervention.

This is massively important! What if psychiatric treatment, or some adjacent treatment, is what is better for them than gender reassignment? What if that is what would restore them to health?

Here’s a little personal story that came to mind as I was listening to this piece.

The transgender person in the story says that he (a biological male presenting as female) always felt uncomfortable in his body. No doubt this is true. I think this accounts for the disproportionate number of autistic people among gender dysphorics. Autism is often accompanied by something called “sensory processing disorder.” Nobody knows why this is, but it is common.

As I learned about autism and sensory processing disorder in my own family, a number of things about myself became clear. I am confident that I would not meet the threshold for a formal autism spectrum diagnosis, but I am equally confident that I have many of the traits of people who are (and that includes a member of my family). In fact, the sensory stuff is fairly widespread in my family.

As a child, I had very strong legs. My father recalls me doing 400 deep knee bends when I was nine years old; he stopped me because he thought I would hurt myself. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not strengthen my upper body. I had poor muscle tone, and nothing could fix that. Decades later, I learned that this is something that people on the spectrum sometimes have.

I have never felt comfortable in my body, though I thought for most of my life this was simply neurosis. No, I have never had the faintest thought of gender dysphoria, but it manifested itself in something feeling … not right. Something hard to define. To be frank, one reason I drank so much in college — aside from the fact that LSU in the 1980s had a massive binge-drinking culture — was to overcome that sense of not-rightness, so I could talk to girls. The point is, when I read about officially-diagnosed autistic young people seeking sex changes because they say they don’t feel right in their bodies, I get that. I can’t pretend to know about that from a sexualized point of view, but that sense that things aren’t right is quite familiar to me. And it never goes away. You just have to learn how to cope with it. For me, it got better as I grew older.

I can remember in my childhood, how my mom had a big heart (still does), but was not particular physically affectionate. I couldn’t understand that at all, especially when our father was physically demonstrative. Once I started learning about autism and sensory processing a decade or so ago, and began to understand things about myself, and why I could be so prickly about ordinary bodily things, I understood her in a new way. This was almost certainly not an emotional disposition for her, but a neurological-sensory disorder. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but my mom and I are so much alike in so many ways that I think this is what was going on. It’s how it is with me. I can see this trait — sensory processing disorder — manifesting to some degree in most of my mom’s six grandchildren too.

I bring this up only to say that at least some of these young spectrum people who seek gender dysphoria treatment, including radical, irreversible steps (e.g., mastectomies, hormone treatment that arrests sexual maturity) could surely benefit from ordinary therapies to help them cope with their sensory issues. If I had known as a teenager and a young adult that what I was feeling in and about my body was due not to a character or psychological flaw, but probably due to neurobiology, it would have been much easier to manage it, and to learn how to live with it.

I’ve come to see, for example, the fact that I have unusual superpowers when it comes to taste and smell to be an advantage. This is why I love food and wine so much: I can experience aromas and flavors more intensely than most people. And I’ve stopped feeling so bad about my inability to tone my upper body, though I am also sure that I will never feel quite at home in my body (I have always been terrible at dancing and athletics; I can be a graceful writer, but in the flesh, am a shambling galoot). Fortunately for me, this is all relatively minor — discomforting, not tormenting. I wouldn’t judge the subjective experiences of spectrum people suffering from gender dysphoria.

My point here is simply this: for whatever cultural reasons, young people who report a serious disjunction between themselves and their bodies are being encouraged to express  and to affirm that disjunction in sexual ways — and now the medical profession is eager to confirm that concept. Often this results in permanent surgical or hormone-driven alteration to the body. Dr. Goldfarb’s column makes me afraid for those young people and their families, being driven by the popular culture and the culture of medicine into asking for life-changing procedures that will not actually cure them of their sense of alienation from their bodies, because it may not really be about gender.

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View From Your Table

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Short-order cook at the Baton Rouge Airport, to Self: “Baby, Imma put a lot of love into this biscuit.”

I love Louisiana people!

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That Helpful Kavanaugh Reminder

I remember where I was watching the last day of the Kavanaugh hearings last fall. I was not keen on his nomination. I didn’t oppose it, certainly, but he struck me as a standard-issue Republican nominee. No one to get excited over, certainly.

And then the Democrats went to work, attempting to destroy the man based on unconfirmed, and unconfirmable, allegations, and his sex and ethnicity.

Here is a link to all of the things I wrote about that mob, and how it stunned me (and a lot of others) back to reality. In one of those posts, I wrote:

In my own case, this is what made me come down hard for Kavanaugh (absent any credible discovery of serious sexual misconduct): that he was clearly being railroaded by liberal politicians and media, in a way that is frankly McCarthyite. Except this time, instead of Reds, we have White Male Conservatives. People like me, and my friends and family. The last two weeks have brought forth from the Left a concerted attempt not to get to the truth about what happened 36 years ago, and how to deliberate responsibly in the face of uncertainty, but rather to brutalize and destroy a man and all those of his despised cultural and ideological class.

And in another, commenting on an immediately post-Kavanaugh Washington Post story that framed Republicans as unfairly exploiting Democrats’ behavior to their own benefit in the coming election:

Here’s the thing: though there is no question that the GOP, like Democrats, play to the anxieties of its base — this is normal politics — there really were, and are, mobs out to get conservatives.

Conservatives didn’t just imagine the anti-Kavanaugh protesters filling the halls of Congress, harassing GOP senators. Conservatives aren’t imagining campus mobs shouting down conservatives. Republican political consultants didn’t invent the mob at Middlebury College last year that chased Charles Murray off of campus, and physically injured a (liberal) professor who was his host. Nor did the GOP conjure the Yale mob that abused the Christakises over Halloween costumes in 2016.

And on and on. More to the point, Republicans did not invent the mob-like behavior of the news media in the Kavanaugh affair. In the last 24 hours, I’ve heard from three friends — two Democrats, and one anti-Republican independent — who have written to express profound concern about this political moment, and the behavior of the liberal mob. One of the Democrats — no fan of Trump or Kavanaugh — told me that her party has lost her over all this. The independent told me he hasn’t voted GOP in 30 years, but that may change this November, because of the “malice” (his word) on the left. And the third remains a devoted Democrat, but he is agonizing over the demons now taking over his political side, and worries if they can ever be reined in.

Look, Republicans do not have clean hands here. But it is breathtaking to observe how so many in the news media appear to assume that Republicans who are looking at the world as it actually is, and drawing conclusions from it, are acting in bad faith.

A few months later, in January, the media and members of the liberal commentariat did the same kind of thing with the Covington Catholic schoolboys. They were white male conservatives, therefore they must have been guilty. Pitchfork ’em and burn ’em! Remember the NYT op-ed titled “White Women, Come Get Your People,” that denounced white women who defended Kavanaugh as “gender traitors”? That and the attempted Kavanaugh professional lynching were the kind of events that remind you what’s at stake in our politics, despite the clown in the White House. If we return the Democrats to power, this is what we’ll get.

The Left can’t let Kavanaugh go. Over the weekend, The New York Times published an op-ed essay featuring a supposed new Kavanaugh revelation, taken from a new book by two of its reporter. The new accusation accuses him — framed as a privileged white guy — of having been at a drunken college party, and having had his penis towards a non-privileged Hispanic female present. Mollie Hemingway, who co-wrote a book about the Kavanaugh case, tore into the story when it first appeared, pointing out that the accuser is an old enemy of Kavanaugh’s, and that the alleged victim, Deborah Ramirez, refused to talk about the alleged incident, though several of her friends say she has no recollection of it.

How does Hemingway know this? Because it’s in the two NYT reporters’ book!

But it is NOT in the Times’s story. The paper omitted this fact from its own published excerpt. The authors say that their “gut” tells them that Deborah Ramirez, the alleged victim, really was assaulted in this way by Kavanaugh, despite the fact that she will neither confirm nor deny it, and several friends told the reporters she can’t remember it. The Times published this “editor’s note” yesterday:

An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book’s account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.

That’s one hell of an omission from the original article, which went viral, by the way, without this vital information.

So, how did a couple of leading Democrats who aspire to replace Trump in the Oval Office respond to the Times piece?

I sat through those hearings. Brett Kavanaugh lied to the U.S. Senate and most importantly to the American people. He was put on the Court through a sham process and his place on the Court is an insult to the pursuit of truth and justice.

He must be impeached.

— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) September 15, 2019

Last year the Kavanaugh nomination was rammed through the Senate without a thorough examination of the allegations against him. Confirmation is not exoneration, and these newest revelations are disturbing. Like the man who appointed him, Kavanaugh should be impeached.

— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 15, 2019

You regular readers know that I’m working on a book about the rise of what I call “soft totalitarianism” — and focusing on the testimonies of emigres to the West from the communist world, who see what’s happening here now, and who are raising their voices in alarm. (If you’re one of these people I haven’t yet talked to, e-mail me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com, and let’s talk.) The first person I talked to about this, back in 2015, told me that the way the Left will flat-out lie about you in an attempt to destroy you personally and professionally when you get in their way — that, for him, is a clear sign that we are turning into the kind of country from which he defected in the 1960s.

Eyes wide open, people. We perhaps should be grateful to the Times for reminding us of the stakes. Look:

The Kavanaugh railroad is the most politically clarifying event in my life, and it is why, as the New York Times seems intent on reminding us, I will crawl over broken glass to vote for a guy I don’t particularly like next year.

— John Ekdahl (@JohnEkdahl) September 16, 2019

(Note to readers: I’m traveling this morning to NYC for Tuesday night’s TAC event at St. Agnes Church. 6 to 8 pm. Duncan Stroik, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Self will talk about the meaning of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, its destruction, and why it should be rebuilt. It’s all free — and MBD is buying the first round of drinks for errbody. Or so I hear.)

UPDATE: Sorry, it’s not free — it’s $25. My bad.

UPDATE.2: A reader points out that I have written something confusing above. Ramirez is NOT the alleged victim in the new Times piece. That woman has not been named. Sorry for the error.

UPDATE.3: Sam M. comments:

I was at Yale a few years after Kavanaugh left. Let me tell you something about drunken parties there.

When I showed up, there were a few school sanctioned events such as “Exotic Erotic.” It was a HUGE party, I think it Timothy Dwight College. (Colleges being something like residential dorms at Yale.) The premise was, the less you wore, the less you paid to get in. People who were totally nude paid no cover. And you got a cup. There were kegs.

Now, this was not some anti-woman event dreamed up by right-wing neanderthals. It was seen as the apex of forward-thinking progressivism about sex. Anybody who might have objected would have done so FROM conservative reservations about decorum, or aversion to the kind of hedonism being on display.

Hedonism was the point. Lowering barriers was the point. Creating an environment in which stuffy, un-enlightened undergrads could loosen up and let go of their hang-ups was the whole purpose. Putting a penis in someone’s hand? I’d be surprised if he did it and was not memorialized as a hero for his rejecting his backward upbringing.

And Exotic Erotic was only one of many, many such events. Read this article about the demise of a few of them, which stemmed more from concerns about property damage than improprieties.…

Note that the article points out how lowering inhibitions was the point. It’s lie something out of the first 10 pages of Decline and Fall.

So sure. Yale alumni might take a look back at this debauchery and reassess, and maybe think that they were actually victimized by all this. OK. Fair enough. But the idea that the culture at the time was driven by nascent conservatives seizing their privilege, please not that conservatives were not in charge of the culture at all when Brett Kavanaugh was there.

In other words, Exotic Erotic was not, in fact, an event sponsored by young Calvinists and Orthodox Catholics.

It was the progressives.

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View From Your Table

Reims, France

Don’t forget to drink Champagne in Reims!

Another one from France, this one taken by Fred, this blog’s Paris bureau chief. It’s a limoncello & Prosecco cocktail, enjoyed on the rooftop at the Foundation Louis Vuitton, in Paris:

Paris, France

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The Exorcist As Family Allegory

Here’s a really interesting piece from Quillette about William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist as a cautionary tale about the damage done from the family’s dissolution. The author, Kevin Mims, ties it to Mary Eberstadt’s important and provocative new book Primal Screams: How The Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. 

Mims notes that Eberstadt doesn’t mention Blatty’s early Seventies blockbuster, but that it’s highly relevant to her thesis. Mims:

Those who have never read the novel, or are familiar only with its 1973 cinematic incarnation, probably believe the book to be a potboiler about demonic possession. But it is also an allegorical warning about the importance of the traditional family unit and the devastation wrought when it breaks down. Curiously, this aspect of the novel went largely unnoticed by the book’s earliest reviewers.

Back in 1971, the advent of no-fault divorce laws in the United States was seen in liberal circles as an unalloyed benefit for society. Thus, the book critics for most of the mainstream publications that bothered to review The ExorcistTime, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, etc.—treated the book as either a modern day pastiche of Poe and Mary Shelley, or else as a traditional story of the battle between Good and Evil. What’s odd about this is that Blatty made no effort to hide his social conservatism. You don’t have to be a postmodern literary detective to find it in the subtext. Blatty was not a subtle writer, and he set his message out on the page for all to see, although very few have ever remarked upon it.

I’ve never read the novel, but saw the film about 20 years ago. The scariest movie I’ve ever watched. I would not watch it again. Interestingly, I had always assumed that because the Catholic Church condemned it when it was released that The Exorcist was an anti-Catholic movie. Nothing could be further from the truth! Blatty was a bad Catholic as a younger man (Mims recounts this), but became more faithful as he aged. The movie is a deeply Catholic film — though it is as terrifying as you imagine. If you haven’t seen it or read the novel, it’s about the possession of an adolescent girl, Regan, who begins to suffer after her father Howard abandons the family. Her mother Chris, a successful actress, seeks psychiatric help for Regan, but in the end turns to an exorcist in desperation.

Mims writes:

Although Howard never makes an appearance in the novel (we hear a few words from him but never see him), The Exorcist, a book about fatherlessness, is filled with fathers. The most prominent of these is Father Damien Karras, a psychiatrist and Jesuit priest who teaches at Georgetown. Chris turns to him in desperation when she begins to suspect that Regan might be possessed by a demon. The priest, who has no experience with exorcism, tries for a long time to convince himself that psychiatry holds the answer to Regan’s problems, instead. Karras has been scarred by his own fatherlessness. He grew up with only one parent, his impoverished mother. They were almost incestuously close, and when, much later, his mother lost her mind and Father Karras had her committed to Bellevue sanitarium, she saw it as a betrayal. The look on her face as she was locked into her padded cell haunts Karras throughout the book. His life, Blatty implies, as well as that of his mother, would almost certainly have been better had he not been fatherless.

Mims talks about how unhappy Blatty’s own fatherless childhood was, and how Blatty was himself a poor example of a husband and father. But there was something deep inside Blatty that intuited the spirit of the times, and prompted his literary response:

Clearly, he wasn’t anybody’s idea of a family-values conservative. But if his id was in charge of his Hollywood playboy lifestyle, his superego seems to have been firmly in control of his literary imagination as he cranked out The Exorcist over nine months.

Notwithstanding the Church’s reflexive condemnation, The Exorcist is a deeply religious novel in which Catholic priests play the most heroic roles, martyring themselves to save the life of a little girl who isn’t even Catholic.

Read Mims’s entire article. I hope it sparks you to buy Eberstadt’s book, which is not not not a typical social-conservative condemnation of the Sexual Revolution, but in fact a profoundly insightful work of sociologically-informed cultural criticism about sex, family, and identity.

A Millennial friend of mine told me recently that she’s become somewhat alienated from her friends, who are full of advice about how difficult situations with her husband and children are a sign that she should get rid of them — that is, leave her husband, put her kids in day care, stuff like that. The willingness of people in her generation, she told me, to find any kind of personal suffering or sacrifice to be intolerable grieves her. My friend said she and her husband are having normal struggles with marriage and kids, but her (female) friends believe that her personal sense of well-being should be the most important thing of all. My friend is a believing Christian, and knows they’re wrong, but it frightens her for the world her own young children will inherit. She says there is little to nothing in the culture around her to support family formation and stability. It’s all about liberating the individual from any obligations or ties that inhibit personal liberty and happiness.

This is our culture today. As I wrote in an afterword for Eberstadt’s book, the only real way I see to fight it is to immerse oneself in countercultural communities and practices that provide resistance to this destructive narrative and the forces it unleashes. That is going to be the Church, for all its faults and failings. I hadn’t thought of it this way until reading Mims’s essay, but the Church is exactly where one would go to take refuge from these demonic forces.

I’ve done research in the past on the phenomenon of demon possession, and it does seem to be tied closely to intense childhood trauma, especially in the family — sexual trauma in particular. There is something about trauma that cracks the psyche; sometimes, that crack is big enough for evil spirits to come in. It is certainly not the case that everyone who experiences childhood trauma become possessed! (Actual possession is rare.) But as Mims points out, The Exorcist can be read as an allegory for the fury, chaos, and destruction that emerges when the family structure that forms us, and give us a sense of order, wholeness, and meaning, fall apart — or to be precise, are torn down by human selfishness and spite. You don’t have to believe in God, or in demonic possession, to grasp Blatty’s core point — which, as Mims indicates, is also Mary Eberstadt’s point.

When Sohrab Ahmari refers to Drag Queen Story Hour, whose organizers explicitly intend to break down sexual identity in children, as “demonic,” I believe this is what he’s getting at. And he’s right.

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Brexit For Americans

Boris Johnson: Is his cause getting a fair shake in the media? (TIME screenshot)

In the third item of his Friday column, Andrew Sullivan offers a pretty strong explainer on the psychological politics of Brexit, to help Americans understand it by analogy. He says that it’s frustrating to read about Brexit in the US media, because they never seem to explain to Americans why Brexit happened in the first place. They simply assume that it’s foolish and bad. Well, says Sullivan — who says he would have voted against Brexit — consider what it would have meant in American terms with this thought experiment:

The U.S. negotiated with Canada and Mexico to create a free trade zone called NAFTA, just as the U.K. negotiated entry to what was then a free trade zone called the “European Economic Community” in 1973. Now imagine further that NAFTA required complete freedom of movement for people across all three countries. Any Mexican or Canadian citizen would have the automatic right to live and work in the U.S., including access to public assistance, and every American could live and work in Mexico and Canada on the same grounds. This three-country grouping then establishes its own Supreme Court, which has a veto over the U.S. Supreme Court. And then there’s a new currency to replace the dollar, governed by a new central bank, located in Ottawa.

How many Americans would support this? How many votes would a candidate for president get if he or she proposed it? The questions answer themselves. It would be unimaginable for the U.S. to allow itself to be governed by an entity more authoritative than its own government. It would signify the end of the American experiment, because it would effectively be the end of the American nation-state. But this is precisely the position the U.K. has been in for most of my lifetime. The U.K. has no control over immigration from 27 other countries in Europe, and its less regulated economy has attracted hundreds of thousands of foreigners to work in the country, transforming its culture and stressing its hospitals, schools and transportation system. Its courts ultimately have to answer to the European Court. Most aspects of its economy are governed by rules set in Brussels. It cannot independently negotiate any aspect of its own trade agreements. I think the cost-benefit analysis still favors being a member of the E.U. But it is not crazy to come to the opposite conclusion.

Well, if you put it that way, Brexit is a no-brainer, at least to me. I cannot imagine non-elite Americans  accepting such a loss of sovereignty.

I get the same feeling reading US media coverage of the politics of European populism, both in western and central Europe. So much of the coverage takes for granted that the only reasons anybody votes for populist parties is racism or nativism. When you actually go there and talk to ordinary people — at least this has been my experience, in both western and central Europe — the picture gets a lot more complicated.

Earlier this week in Vienna, I met some Austrians in a cafe, and fell into a conversation about Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s relationship with media in his own country. I told my Austrian interlocutor that I found the Hungarian government’s approach to media (for example) pretty troubling. He said yes, he understands, but what Americans usually don’t understand is how completely left-wing European media are.

You think this is true in America, he said, and it is, but not nearly to the extent that it is in Europe. Most countries have some form of state media, and its directors are political appointees. They are uniformly leftist. Even right-of-center governments typically don’t even bother trying to put their own people into politically appointed positions, because there are almost no conservative journalists in Europe, period. The Austrian explained that media culture there is not only dominated by the Left, but is wholly leftist.

The Austrian told me he wasn’t defending what the Orban government does, but only trying to help me understand why it’s not as alarming to many Europeans as Americans think it should be. If you are on the political or cultural right in Europe, he said, you know that you have next to no hope that your side will receive accurate and balanced coverage, in part because the European media don’t understand how uniformly leftist they are. In other words, they think that they are nonpartisan truth tellers, but right-of-center Europeans will tell you otherwise.

I had not thought about it from that point of view. To be clear, it doesn’t make what the illiberal ruling party in Hungary is doing right — from what I’ve been able to discern, its Fidesz-supported media law really is pretty awful — but it does make one realize that the story is more complicated than we in the US are likely to realize. (As a matter of fact, the first, and longest, item in Sullivan’s column is about how The New York Times has traded in old-fashioned liberalism for militant progressive activism.)

If you are any kind of religious or social conservative, you know well that you have little chance of being covered fairly, or at all, by the American media, given its liberal convictions. I think we have much more to worry about from the state restricting the media than we do from media bias, but to borrow a line from Sullivan, it’s not crazy to come to the opposite conclusion.

I would like to ask conservative European readers — Hungarians and otherwise — to come up with a Sullivan-like analogy to help us Americans understand what the media environment is like where you live.


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The Annoying Part Of The First Amendment

Aided by a large charitable donation, Tulane University is opening a First Amendment law clinic. More:

The clinic is launching with a $1 million gift from the Stanton Foundation, an organization created by former CBS News President Frank Stanton, a founding figure of modern broadcast news. The foundation supports innovation in civics and U.S. history education.

Students will work under the supervision of faculty members in representing clients seeking to defend their rights to a free press, to free speech, to petition and to assemble, Meyer said. In accordance with the guidelines of the foundation, it will not handle religious liberty cases, he said.

Hypocrites. They want the First Amendment, but not the religious liberty part. Look, it’s the Stanton Foundation’s money, and it can do whatever it wants with it. But spare me the civic do-gooder First Amendment claptrap.



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The Progressive Dystopia Of NYC Schools

Sure, they look happy now, but by the time the NYC school bureaucracy gets through with them, they’ll be ignorant and full of hatred (Image Source/Getty Images)

You have to read this long Atlantic piece by George Packer, in which he describes the disillusioning of him and his wife — good urban liberals — by the militant wokeness that overtook the New York City public schools that their children attended (and that their son still attends). The piece begins with Packer recounting the insane competition among the rich and connected to get their kids into private schools. The Packers ultimately opted out of that, and searched for a good progressive public school for their son (and later, their daughter).

They found an ethnically diverse one that satisfied them, though it was not without its challenges. All seemed relatively well. Until five years ago:

Around 2014, a new mood germinated in America—at first in a few places, among limited numbers of people, but growing with amazing rapidity and force, as new things tend to do today. It rose up toward the end of the Obama years, in part out of disillusionment with the early promise of his presidency—out of expectations raised and frustrated, especially among people under 30, which is how most revolutionary surges begin. This new mood was progressive but not hopeful. A few short years after the teachers at the private preschool had crafted Obama pendants with their 4-year-olds, hope was gone.

At the heart of the new progressivism was indignation, sometimes rage, about ongoing injustice against groups of Americans who had always been relegated to the outskirts of power and dignity. An incident—a police shooting of an unarmed black man; news reports of predatory sexual behavior by a Hollywood mogul; a pro quarterback who took to kneeling during the national anthem—would light a fire that would spread overnight and keep on burning because it was fed by anger at injustices deeper and older than the inflaming incident. Over time the new mood took on the substance and hard edges of a radically egalitarian ideology.

At points where the ideology touched policy, it demanded, and in some cases achieved, important reforms: body cameras on cops, reduced prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, changes in the workplace. But its biggest influence came in realms more inchoate than policy: the private spaces where we think and imagine and talk and write, and the public spaces where institutions shape the contours of our culture and guard its perimeter.

Who was driving the new progressivism? Young people, influencers on social media, leaders of cultural organizations, artists, journalists, educators, and, more and more, elected Democrats. You could almost believe they spoke for a majority—but you would be wrong. An extensive survey of American political opinion published last year by a nonprofit called More in Common found that a large majority of every group, including black Americans, thought “political correctness” was a problem. The only exception was a group identified as “progressive activists”—just 8 percent of the population, and likely to be white, well educated, and wealthy. Other polls found that white progressives were readier to embrace diversity and immigration, and to blame racism for the problems of minority groups, than black Americans were. The new progressivism was a limited, mainly elite phenomenon.

Politics becomes most real not in the media but in your nervous system, where everything matters more and it’s harder to repress your true feelings because of guilt or social pressure. It was as a father, at our son’s school, that I first understood the meaning of the new progressivism, and what I disliked about it.

I cannot even begin to do justice to the destructive insanity Social Justice ideology brought to this school. I’ll let this one example from Packer’s story stand for all of them. It began when a little girl in second grade began to identify as a male, and demanded to use the boy’s restroom.

Within two years, almost every bathroom in the school, from kindergarten through fifth grade, had become gender-neutral. Where signs had once said boys and girls, they now said students. Kids would be conditioned to the new norm at such a young age that they would become the first cohort in history for whom gender had nothing to do with whether they sat or stood to pee. All that biology entailed—curiosity, fear, shame, aggression, pubescence, the thing between the legs—was erased or wished away.

The school didn’t inform parents of this sudden end to an age-old custom, as if there were nothing to discuss. Parents only heard about it when children started arriving home desperate to get to the bathroom after holding it in all day. Girls told their parents mortifying stories of having a boy kick open their stall door. Boys described being afraid to use the urinals. Our son reported that his classmates, without any collective decision, had simply gone back to the old system, regardless of the new signage: Boys were using the former boys’ rooms, girls the former girls’ rooms. This return to the familiar was what politicians call a “commonsense solution.” It was also kind of heartbreaking. As children, they didn’t think to challenge the new adult rules, the new adult ideas of justice. Instead, they found a way around this difficulty that the grown-ups had introduced into their lives. It was a quiet plea to be left alone.

When parents found out about the elimination of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms, they showed up en masse at a PTA meeting. The parents in one camp declared that the school had betrayed their trust, and a woman threatened to pull her daughter out of the school. The parents in the other camp argued that gender labels—and not just on the bathroom doors—led to bullying and that the real problem was the patriarchy. One called for the elimination of urinals.

Yesterday, talking about Drag Queen Story Hour, I explained how and why it’s a “condensed symbol” of the progressive-led sexual radicalization of our society, even at the level of little children. Degenderizing the toilets at a public elementary school is another.

Like I said, that’s only one thing that happened at Packer’s kid’s school. Read the whole thing. It gets crazier and crazier, as identity politics comes to control not only that school, but the entire NYC public school system. The authoritarianism and radicalism of progressive ideology has destroyed what schools are supposed to be, and, in the liberal writer’s anxious view, are kicking the supports out from underneath liberal democracy.

Is there anything that the new woke progressivism touches that it doesn’t destroy? If it weren’t for the fact that one of the parents at that school is a nationally known journalist with a prominent platform, would any of us know what a disaster the militant left has made of the nation’s largest school system, all because of identity politics?

Seriously, read it. It’s a warning.

UPDATE: A great comment from reader Mr. Squires:

I am a product of NYC public schools and even though I live in DC now, I’m disgusted by what DeBlasio, Carranza, and the Grievance Industrial Complex in education are doing to the school system. My parents came here from the Caribbean and were fortunate enough to get me into a gifted program (another thing those two are trying to destroy)–a foundation that laid the path for a solid K-12 education. The worst part of this story is that it’s not just a New York problem. The same militant wokeness can be seen in DC’s government and public charter schools. You see it in the desperate push for “diversity” above achievement, as if black kids need white classmates more than quality schools. I don’t know how the Left can see a black girl in 12th grade at an all-black high school as being subjected to the evil forces of segregation but celebrate her acceptance into Spelman College or Howard University as an opportunity for a culturally-enriching education experience.

The biggest threat, however, is in the curriculum. For example, the DC Educators for Social Justice supports the early education curriculum includes having pre-schoolers watch a video from I am Jazz and teaches THREE YEAR OLDS the meaning of “non-binary” and “transgender”. And here’s the thing, this ideology is smuggled in through the front door during Black Lives Matter at Schools Week. Most people think of BLM as being against police violence directed at African Americans but the words “police” and “brutality” don’t appear once in any of their 13 principles. You know what else doesn’t? “Father”, “husband”, or “son”. In fact, here’s the text of BLM’s “Black Villages” principle:

“We are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.”

Is this what anybody thinks of when they hear the proverb about taking a village to raise a child? And does anyone think that the biggest problem in the black community is TOO MANY nuclear families? This stuff is desperately wicked. And not a single person I’ve talked to about it (and there have been many, lol) even knew that BLM had 13 principles, let alone their content. I fear for the state of public education in our country, especially in large urban school districts. I finally see why many Christians have such deep skepticism of “government schools”. And in cities like NYC and DC where the majority of black students are doing math and English below grade level, why does anyone think a second of school time should be spent reading A is For Activist? What good is teaching Jamal to be a protestor if he has to go to Brad to write his signs?

Lastly, I’d like to say thank you. This blog introduced me to classical Christian education and I am trying to pay off debt and save to put our kids in a CCE school close by. Our oldest is in what seems to be a social justice-neutral public charter school but I see private and homeschooling as the only ways to provide our children with the Christ-honoring education they need.

UPDATE.2: Another good comment from Another Dave:

I have 2 kids in the NYC school system, and although his experiences are certainly reflective of certain schools in certain neighborhoods, it does not match my experience thus far.

First let me say, Carranza is detestable, and many folks, both in the system and outside of it, are pushing back hard against him and his cabal of wreckers. Unfortunately, he will do real damage before his day is done.
DeBlasio and Carranza are exactly the type of disruptive midwits one gets when one votes for “progressive” candidates. They are incapable of either true leadership or true innovation. All they know how to do is ridicule, castigate and then spend millions on pet projects that produce no genuine results.

That being said, much of what this writer experienced is a result of his own poor choices, filtered through his insatiable, upper middle class desire to virtue signal and strike all the right poses.

Our son, now in 5th grade, took the state exams in 3rd and 4th, and did exceptionally well with only the preparation given in class, and home review with Mom and Dad, which was extensive, but not overwhelming. Although no kid loves testing, he was not unduly stressed, and we didn’t add to it, despite knowing his scores would determine placement in the admittedly competitive middle school application process.

He attends a blue ribbon school, and our experience so far has been great.
I am not exaggerating when I say that in a school with approximately 500 students, about 75% of the kids have at least one parent that is a physician, although frequently both parents are. The school is mostly white and Asian, but many of the white kids are either Jewish or Israeli, or have parents from Europe, both East and West. Many kids are from China or India.

The parents at this school are driven, high achieving people who would never tolerate a curriculum that didn’t focus heavily on test prep and the basics, however watered down Common Core has made the basics, and that aspect has been frustrating, but not insurmountable. The kids respond by consistently producing some of the best scores in the city and state.
The parents also contribute both time and money, making this school one of those “public privates” the author of the article mentions.
No one makes any excuses about doing what is best for their child, and no one would let their political stance interfere with their child’s ability to learn.

The author of the article, while obviously well meaning, has allowed his avowed principles to interfere in making good choices, ultimately placing his kids in underperforming schools with activist staff, thus creating stress and drama where none was needed.

I’m familiar with the type of schools he’s referring to, and quite frankly, they suck. It’s like a day care center for adolescents, with many kids barely capable of reading and writing proficiently well into third grade. These types of schools are well known and easily avoided.

The author is the type of guy to vote for a DeBlasio, and then wring his hands endlessly of over all the destruction this woke Godzilla unleashes.
He reaped what he sowed, and then some. Many liberals are now waking up to what their passive alliance with the left has created.

All of this is to say that the problems highlighted are real, and no one should rest while bigoted maniacs like Carranza are at the wheel, but motivated parents can provide an excellent education for their kids through the NYC public school system if they do their homework and stop virtue signaling. There are great teachers and excellent schools all over the city.

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Adventures In Christian Grift

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University (WSLS TV screengrab)

Did you see Brandon Ambrosino’s deeply reported Politico piece on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s empire at Liberty University? 

If not, you should. It’s about how Falwell Jr. runs the Christian college as a family fief, a de facto dictatorship, and a vehicle to enrich the family’s coffers, even at the expense of the university’s mission and reputation. The piece once again forces the question: where on earth is the university’s board of trustees? They remind me of a colorful phrase of my late father, who was once a farmer:  “useless as teats on a boar.”

Well, apparently some of them are speaking to Ambrosino. From the piece:

But these new revelations speak to rising discontent with Falwell’s stewardship. The people interviewed for this article include members of Liberty’s board of trustees, senior university officials, and rank-and-file staff members who work closely with Falwell. They are reluctant to speak out—there’s no organized, open dissent to Falwell on campus—but they said they see it as necessary to save Liberty University and the values it once stood for. They said they believe in the Christian tradition and in the conservative politics at the heart of Liberty’s mission.

Most of the long story is about business shenanigans that appear to violate, or come close to violating, the university’s tax-exempt status, and certainly are at odds with the school’s Christian mission. But the juiciest stuff has to do with Jerry Jr.’s life as a player. Ambrosino got his hands on 2014 shots of Jerry Jr., his wife Becki, their son Trey and Trey’s wife partying at a Miami nightclub. Ambrosino writes:

According to several people with direct knowledge of the situation, Falwell—the president of a conservative Christian college that frowns upon co-ed dancing (Liberty students can receive demerits if seen doing it) and prohibits alcohol use (for which students can be expelled)—was angry that photos of him clubbing made it up online. To remedy the situation, multiple Liberty staffers said Falwell went to John Gauger, whom they characterized as his “IT guy,” and asked him to downgrade the photos’ prominence on Google searches. Gauger did not respond to requests for comment.

Jerry Jr. denied to Ambrosino that the photos were real, and claimed that his image had been photoshopped. The photographer who snapped them was so incensed by the claim that he released more of them the next day. 

And there’s this:

In May 2019, Reuters reported that Cohen helped Falwell contain the fallout from some racy “personal” photos.Later that month, Falwell took to Todd Starnes’ radio talk show to rebut the claims.

“This report is not accurate,” Falwell said. “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me.”

Members of Falwell’s inner circle took note of the phrasing.

“If you read how Jerry is framing his response, you can see he is being very selective,” one of Falwell’s confidants said. Racy photos do exist, but at least some of the photos are of his wife, Becki, as the Miami Herald confirmed in June.

Longtime Liberty officials close to Falwell told me the university president has shown or texted his male confidants—including at least one employee who worked for him at Liberty—photos of his wife in provocative and sexual poses.

At Liberty, Falwell is “very, very vocal” about his “sex life,” in the words of one Liberty official—a characterization multiple current and former university officials and employees interviewed for this story support. In a car ride about a decade ago with a senior university official who has since left Liberty, “all he wanted to talk about was how he would nail his wife, how she couldn’t handle [his penis size], and stuff of that sort,” this former official recalled. Falwell did not respond to questions about this incident.

More than simply talking with employees about his wife in a sexual manner, on at least one occasion, Falwell shared a photo of his wife wearing what appeared to be a French maid costume, according to a longtime Liberty employee with firsthand knowledge of the image and the fallout that followed.

Ewgh. If you think Politico is just making this stuff up, let me assure you that charges like this don’t make it into print unless they’ve been lawyered to death. That doesn’t mean that they’re true, but it does mean that Ambrosino and his editors almost certainly had to prove to the publication’s lawyers that these allegations could withstand a court challenge. If you’ve ever had to deal as a writer with your newspaper or magazine’s lawyers — I have — you know that they are a very conservative (not necessarily in the political sense) bunch who try to rein their clients in to reduce their potential legal exposure. Again, the fact that Politico published these allegations do not make them true, but it does show that the magazine is so confident in their factual accuracy that they are prepared to face down a very wealthy plaintiff in a libel suit, if it comes to that. That’s not nothing.

Read the whole thing. The final paragraphs are harsh. You should know, if you don’t already, that unlike his father, Jerry Jr. is not a preacher. But he is the head of an Evangelical Christian university. So, here:

One source pointed to a tweet Jerry Falwell Jr. sent out in June 2019 criticizing David Platt, an evangelical Virginia pastor who apologized for welcoming Trump to his church. “I only want to lead us with God’s Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God,” Platt said. “Sorry to be crude,” wrote Falwell in a since-deleted tweet, “but pastors like [David Platt] need to grow a pair.”

After Falwell came under criticism for his tweet about Platt, he responded to critics with a two-part Twitter thread, which, in the words of one current high-ranking Liberty official, “a lot of people found troubling.”

“I have never been a minister,” Falwell tweeted. “UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs. Univ president for last 12 years-student body tripled to 100000+/endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.6B new construction in those 12 years. The faculty, students and campus pastor @davidnasser of @LibertyU are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world. While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.”

To those who worked for Liberty under the late Rev. Falwell, the sentiment appeared to signal a serious departure from his father’s legacy. “Bragging about business success and washing his hands of any responsibility for spiritual life at the university—that was frankly a pretty Trumpian line of commentary,” said one former university official with longstanding ties to both Liberty and the Falwell family.

Jerry Jr. says he has asked the FBI to investigate whether employees who leaked his e-mails to journalists broke the law. He’s not denying their content, so I guess that’s all he has left — that, and claiming that he’s being targeted from within because he’s a defender of Donald Trump.

Today, Reuters reported on a new leak of Jerry Jr. e-mails to Liberty U. employees. Excerpts:

As he complains of being targeted by critics, Reuters has found that Falwell himself was disparaging Liberty students, staff and parents for years in emails to Liberty administrators.

The several dozen emails reviewed by Reuters span nearly a decade-long period starting in 2008. In the emails, Falwell insults some Liberty students, calling them “social misfits.” In others, he blasts faculty members and senior Liberty staff:

-Ronald Sones, then the dean of the engineering school, was “a bag of hot air” who “couldn’t spell the word ‘profit,’” Falwell wrote in 2011. Sones is no longer the dean and could not be reached for comment.

-Richard Hinkley, the campus police chief, was “a half-wit and easy to manipulate” and shouldn’t be allowed to speak publicly. Hinkley could not be reached for comment.

-Of Kevin Keys, then Liberty’s associate athletics director, Falwell wrote in 2012: “Only get Kevin involved in something if you want it not to work.” Contacted by Reuters, Keys said: “I don’t know anything about that and I would prefer not to comment.”


The selection of emails provides a glimpse of the management style Falwell employs to run the nonprofit Christian university, which reports $2.8 billion in assets. Several of the emails take a derogatory tone toward Liberty parents, students, and other university officials.

In one 2012 email, Falwell dismisses Liberty parents who begged the school not to move their kids from on-campus dorms to off-campus housing in the middle of their freshman year when Liberty sought to raze some dorms to build new ones.

In response to one mother’s letter expressing concern for how the move could affect her daughter, emails show, a top Liberty administrator sent a reassuring letter. Falwell struck a less sympathetic tone. “Tell them, if they keep complaining, we’ll tear them down over Thanksgiving break!” Falwell wrote to Liberty officials.

Who wants their kid to attend a Christian (!) college under the stewardship of a creep like that? How can you be president of a Christian university, but then claim that you have nothing to do with its spiritual quality? Falwell Jr. may not be a pastor, but he is unquestionably a Christian leader. Seems to me that the board of directors ought to be doing more to defend the university than speaking without attribution to reporters, and leaking e-mails.

Meanwhile, in other Religious Leaders Behaving Badly, the Washington Post has a new piece up about the lush life of former Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling, W. Va. It begins like this:

It was billed as a holy journey, a pilgrimage with West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield to “pray, sing and worship” at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Catholics from remote areas of one of the nation’s poorest states paid up to $190 for seats on overnight buses and hotel rooms.

Unknown to the worshipers, Bransfield traveled another way. He hired a private jet and, after a 33-minute flight, took a limousine from the airport. The church picked up his $6,769 travel bill.

That trip in September 2017 was emblematic of the secret history of Bransfield’s lavish travel. He spent millions of dollars from his diocese on trips in the United States and abroad, records show, while many of his parishioners struggled to find work, feed their families and educate their children.

 Pope Francis has said bishops should live modestly. During his 13 years as the leader of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield took nearly 150 trips on private jets and some 200 limousine rides, a Washington Post investigation found. He stayed at exclusive hotels in Washington, Rome, Paris, London and the Caribbean.

Last year, Bransfield stayed a week in the penthouse of a legendary Palm Beach, Fla., hotel, at a cost of $9,336. He hired a chauffeur to drive him around Washington for a day at a cost of $1,383. And he spent $12,386 for a jet to fly him from the Jersey Shore to a meeting with the pope’s ambassador in the nation’s capital.

You have to read the whole thing. This Bransfield is extravagantly corrupt — and the diocese’s own investigation (the source of the Post‘s report) documents it with receipts. His reputation from his lengthy tenure at the Basilica in DC was that of a player, and not just in matters of luxury. Matthew B. O’Brien’s powerful, detailed First Things piece back in April, detailing the corruption at the Papal Foundation involving then-cardinal Ted McCarrick, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and Bishop Bransfield, explains how sexual corruption is tied up with financial corruption in the Catholic hierarchy. Along these very same lines, one prominent Catholic layperson who worked at a very high level within the Church (though not with Bransfield) told me earlier this year that they had never imagined that there was such a close connection between sexual and financial corruption until they took a job working closely with the hierarchy.

It’s about the sex and the money. It was like that with Bishop Bransfield, it seems, and in a different way, it might be about that with Jerry Falwell Jr. Though no one has alleged that he has committed adultery, the weird photo thing with his wife (supposedly photos of her in a position unbefitting the wife of a conservative Christian university president), and this allegation that Jerry Jr. brags in the workplace about his sexual prowess, indicates profound moral and spiritual disorder.

How can the churches, and church institutions, minister to the world when they cannot clean up their own messes, and hold their own leaders accountable? It’s a more than fair question. It’s also a necessary one.

UPDATE: A Catholic reader sends me updates I missed about the unfolding gay sex scandal engulfing the Diocese of Buffalo and its bishop, Richard Malone. Here the successor of the apostles in Buffalo meets the press to discuss the disclosure of a love letter between Father Ryszard, his assistant, and a seminarian with whom Father Ryszard was intimate:

In the midst of an ongoing crisis surrounding Bishop Richard Malone’s governance of the Diocese of Buffalo, newly revealed correspondence suggests a romantic relationship between the bishop’s priest secretary and a former diocesan seminarian who resigned last month.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Malone called the content of the letter “a bit concerning” and the entire situation “a very complex, convoluted matter.”

Yeah — it involves a gay love triangle with two priests and a seminarian. You can read the entire 2016 love letter here. 

Meanwhile, Father Ryszard leaked a recording he made secretly in a meeting with the bishop. From that report:

It’s the morning of Friday, Aug. 2, and Bishop Richard J. Malone hasn’t slept for two nights.

“We are in a true crisis situation,” Malone said. “True crisis. And everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop. It could force me to resign if in fact they make a story…”

Malone is at his sprawling residence on Buffalo’s East Side for a one-on-one meeting with his trusted secretary, Rev. Ryszard Biernat, and the embattled bishop is concerned about a brewing story regarding Christ the King Seminary, allegations of love letters and claims of sexual harassment by a diocesan priest.

“I think we’re gonna blow this story up into something like an atom bomb if we start talking about that. You know?” Malone said to Biernat. “Cause then it sounds like, it sounds like a soap opera. It sounds like a love triangle. And you know what the media can do with that.”

Biernat goes on to say that he made the secret recording and released it because the bishop sees these messes, but never acts on them, or acts too late. It turns out that the third member of the alleged love triangle was a Father Nowak, at the seminary, who tried to blackmail Biernat’s apparent lover, seminarian Bojanowski, into having a sexual relationship with him. The blackmail allegedly included going through Bojanowski’s private things, finding the love letter, and photographing it.

Get this: even though Malone knew back in January what Nowak was up to, and is on tape worrying that a guy he believed used information gathered in the confessional for sexual blackmail might be dangerous to leave in parish ministry … he left him in parish ministry.

The big thing that Bishop Malone is worried about, according to the August 2 recording, is whether or not he will be allowed to keep his own job.

So: three clerical queens are engaged in a knife fight, and the do-nothing bishop is worried that the people will find out what’s really going on, and push him out.

Why would anybody want to be priest of that diocese? Why would anybody want their sons to be a priest of that diocese? Why do people still believe that the Catholic Church scandals are only incidentally about gay men having sex behind the veil of holy orders?


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Penguins For Penguins’ Sake

The gender-neutral Gentoo penguin chick with its lesbian mamas (Sea Life Aquarium photo)

The story of the gender-neutral Gentoo penguin chick at the London aquarium, is the kind of weapons-grade liberal bullsh*t that is entirely characteristic of our time. The lefty loonies in charge of a scientific institution have decided to use animal biology to make a statement about social engineering. As I was passing through Heathrow airport yesterday, I read in one of the English papers — I think it was the Times, though I see that their story is behind a paywall now — someone from the aquarium quoted as saying the institution wants the baby penguin, who has not yet been named, to help child visitors realize that they don’t have to be limited to whatever gender society “assigns” them.

Incidentally, the supposedly gender-neutral penguin chick is being raised by a lesbian penguin couple (“Come with meeeee, lesbian penguin…”). As you can see if you follow that link, and watch the straight-faced Sky News interview with an aquarium employee, this entire stunt is a put-up job by the institution to advance left-wing cultural politics, especially among children. We’re all laughing at stupid crap like this … well, not all of us: an English actor has branded Piers Morgan as a “transphobic” terrorist for making fun of it:

Whatever. Anyway, look: this kind of thing is a punchline, but I kind of agree with James Moore. It may be idiotic, but it ain’t funny, in that this is part of a never-ending progressive campaign to deconstruct the human personality around sex.

People — including conservatives like David French — love to make fun of Sohrab Ahmari for getting wound up about Drag Queen Story Hour, but it’s the same kind of thing: a communal institution advancing socially destructive progressive cultural politics in ways that appear trivial, but really aren’t.

It’s true that DQSHs aren’t the end of the world. Why is Ahmari so triggered by them, then? (And for the record, I share his views.) Because they are a condensed symbol of totalitarian aspect of progressive cultural politics. Here’s what I mean. In the Soviet Union in the early Stalinist years, some members of the Soviet chess community complained that chess was becoming politicized. The cry went up that chess should be left alone, that “chess for chess’s sake” ought to be the rule. The head of the chess institution responded by saying that it’s naive to believe that chess can be apolitical. Everything is political, is part of the struggle.

In her 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt says that the “chess for chess’s sake” problem is a sign of totalitarianism. Why? Because it’s a signal that a society is becoming so politicized that not even chess can escape forced ideologization by authorities.

Not even animals at the zoo.

Not even children’s libraries.

So what’s the ideology? From the “about” page at the Drag Queen Story Hour site:

DQSH is explicitly not about mere entertainment. It is intentionally designed to inspire children to identify as queer and genderfluid, and to “present as they wish.” 

Similarly, the ideological content of this stupid penguin stunt is intentionally to provoke children into doubting their gender identity. The American Library Association, the professional guild of librarians, is militantly behind this stuff.

You can’t go to the zoo or to the library with your kids without being confronted by this radical gender ideology. David French has an important point when he points out that Sohrab Ahmari doesn’t have a clear answer about what, exactly, he wants government to do about Drag Queen Story Hour. French, an experienced religious liberty litigator, writes that to abandon “viewpoint neutrality” to stop DQSH would mean disaster for Christians, who maintain access to public spaces despite being hated by many administrators, precisely because of the First Amendment’s viewpoint neutrality. This is why even though my heart is completely with Ahmari in the Ahmari-French dispute, I can’t fully endorse him over French because I fear that abandoning First Amendment jurisprudence in an increasingly anti-Christian culture would make any local victories over things like DQSH Pyrrhic ones.

I’ll be writing about that in a different post. In this one, I simply want to point out that Ahmari is not at all wrong to point to things like DQSH — and, should he so desire, to the London aquarium’s abolition of penguins-for-penguins’-sake —  as a more serious threat to the moral order than people think.

Ever notice how progressives are never, ever satisfied with the status quo on sexual politics? How they are always finding new things to “queer”? Well, if you think Ahmari is a screaming-meemie on the DQSH topic, I have bad news for you. Hannah Arendt points out that another element of the totalitarian — something that both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks engaged in  — is to keep everything in constant motion. Authoritarian regimes only want a monopoly on state power. Totalitarian regimes want to control everything — and this is not something that can be done solely through state power. This can be accomplished only by intimidating people from within, “by a movement that is constantly kept in motion: namely, the permanent domination of each single individual in each and every sphere of life.” In the DQSH context, it amounts to bringing radical sexual politics even to children’s reading hours at public libraries, and bringing opprobrium on those who criticize it.

The point is not the library events. The point is to destroy traditional sexual identities in children during their formative years by normalizing transgressive sexuality. The First Amendment is one means; mass media and popular culture is another. Ask yourself: how did we get to the point where at public libraries across America, transvestites appear to read to child audience books that encourage the children to embrace queer identities — and this is considered perfectly normal, even good (and those who disagree keep their mouths shut for fear of being condemned as bigots)?

Again, Hannah Arendt, from The Origins Of Totalitarianism:

There is a great temptation to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations. In each one of us there lurks such a liberal, wheedling us with the voice of common sense. The road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages for which we can find numerous analogies and precedents. … What common sense and ‘normal people’ refuse to believe is that everything is possible.

To update Arendt for our situation: What normal people refuse to believe is that goofy things like Drag Queen Story Hour and gender-neutral zoo animals are intermediate steps on the way to a soft-totalitarian society in which normality is stigmatized, even forbidden. In Europe last week, I heard about a seminary in which seminarians could publicly deny the existence of God, and that would mean no impediment to ordination, but publicly criticizing homosexuality or transgenderism would cause instant dismissal. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Common sense and “normal people” refuse to believe is this is possible, and therefore sit like inert lumps when the impossible becomes reality.

To conclude: things like DQSH and gender-neutral penguin chicks are what the anthropologist Mary Douglas called “condensed symbols” — practices that stand for an entire worldview. Reader Raskolnik had a great comment here a few years ago using Douglas’s term to explain why conservative Christians tend to be triggered by things like this, and not about things that are a more serious threat to the moral health of this society, like pornography (which Raskolnik says that he too is more worried about). He wrote, in part:

[Douglas] used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.

I bring up the notion of “condensed symbol” because I think that’s the best way to understand what’s going in (what you perceive to be) the “freakout” about homosexuality. The freakout isn’t about homosexuality per se, it’s about the secular world shoving its idea of sexual morality down the throats of orthodox Christians. If you haven’t read Rod’s piece Sex After Christianity, you really should, and if you haven’t, I think you should be able to connect the dots between the Christian cosmology of sex and the Christian opposition to same-sex marriage as a “condensed symbol” of Christian resistance to secularism writ large.

Both Drag Queen Story Hour and Gentoo the Gender-Neutral Penguin are condensed symbols of a worldview that sees sexual identity as at the core of the human person, and that says that identity should be fluid, governed only by the individual’s will; and further, that this sexual radicalism should be taught to small children in public institutions.

It is a separate question as to whether or not it is practical or wise to use the mechanism of the state to combat this. But the meaning of this cultural assault on normality ought to be completely clear to anyone, Christian or otherwise, who has a sense of moral awareness.

I cannot believe that I have written an entire post invoking Hannah Arendt to explain why people really should care about some ridiculous stunt by wokesters running an aquarium. But these are the times in which we live. Everything is possible. The liberal within people (even many conservatives) rationalizes that it’s only about storybooks and baby birds, what’s the big deal? Haha, those right-wingers think that baby penguin is gonna turn children into drag queens! I’ve told you what the big deal is. The Left knows that it’s a big deal, which is why they’re always doing things like this, while at the same time pretending that these things are basically harmless. They understand how cultural politics works; conservatives are basically cowards and suckers when it comes to this stuff.

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Pope Francis Says The S-Word

Giulio Napolitano/Shutterstock

Hello, I’m on the flight back home from Yurp, and as I’ve not been asked to give a press conference, I’d like to dwell for a second on the one Pope Francis gave yesterday, flying back from Madagascar. Here’s the full transcript. Look at this:

An anecdote, the first thing that I found yesterday, entering the chancery, was a bunch of beautiful flowers. Who sent them? The grand imam. To be brothers. The human brotherhood that is at the base and respects all believers. Religious respect is important. For this, to missionaries I say: do not proselytize. Proselytizing applies to politics, to sports, “come on my team,” but not to faith.

But what does it mean for you, pope, what does evangelization mean? It is a phrase of St. Francis that has illuminated me a lot. St. Francis of Assisi said to his brothers: “Preach the Gospel, if necessary also with words.” That is, to evangelize is that which we read in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Witness. And that witness provokes questions. But why do you live like this? Why do you do this? And I explain to them: For the Gospel. The proclamation comes after the testimony. First to live as a Christian and if they question you, you say it. Witness is the first step. The missionary is not the protagonist of evangelization, it is the Holy Spirit that allows Christians and missionaries to give a witness. Then questions come or they do not come. But a witness of life. This is the first step. It is important to avoid proselytism. When you see religious propositions that go the way of proselytism, they are not Christian. They look for proselytes, not adorers of God and truth, of witness. I use [this moment] to say this about your interreligious experience, that it is very beautiful, and also that the prime minister told me, when they ask for help for one, we give the same to all and no one is offended because they feel like brothers. And this creates unity in a country. It is very important. Very, very important. Even at the meetings there were not only Catholics, but Muslims, Hindus, and other religions. Everyone was there, brothers.

I saw in Madagascar, somewhat, in the act of peace of the young people that the youth of different religions wanted to express how they live the desire for peace. Peace, fraternity, interreligious coexistence. No proselytism. They are things that we should learn for coexistence. This is a thing that I should say. Then, it touched me, and I made a reference.

I don’t get this at all. I agree that people of all religions should work hard to live peaceably together, but what on earth is a Pope doing telling people not to proselytize? I must be misunderstanding something. It seems clear from his words that he’s drawing a distinction between proselytism and evangelization. I don’t see the difference, except as a matter of politeness. If his had been the approach of the Catholic Church through the years, would the faith have ever spread? I certainly have encountered Christians whose pushiness in evangelism was quite off-putting, but I wouldn’t go as far as this pope does, and call what they did “not Christian.” As usual, I don’t get this guy. He would have condemned John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul as proselytes, it sounds like.

You can bet that the Evangelicals and Pentecostals who are drawing so many Latin American Catholics into their folds aren’t as fussy as Francis about proselytism.

But here’s the big news from his press-trip commentary. I’m going to quote the whole passage so there’s no confusion. The highlights below are mine:

Jason Horowitz (New York Times): Good morning, Holy Father. On the plane to Maputo, you acknowledged being under attack by a sector of the American Church. Evidently, there are strong criticisms, and there are even some cardinals and bishops, TV [stations], Catholics, American web sites — many criticisms. Even some very close allies have spoken of a plot against you, some of your allies in the Italian curia. Is there something these critics don’t understand about your pontificate, or is there something that you have learned from the criticisms [coming from] the United States? Another thing, are you afraid of a schism in the American Church and if yes, is there something that you could do, dialogue to help avoid it?

Pope Francis: First of all, criticisms always help, always, when one receives a criticism, immediately he should make a self-critique and say this: to me, is it true or is it not true, until what point? Of criticisms, I always see the advantages. Sometimes you get angry, but the advantages are there.

Then on the trip going to Maputo, one of you came… it was you who gave me the book?… One of you gave me that book… in French… yours? In French… The American Church attacks the pope… the Americans… No, the pope under attack by Americans… [Ed. note: he refers to the French book “How America Wanted to Change the Pope” by Nicolas Seneze of La Croix]. [A reporters’ voice: “How the Americans want to change the Pope”]. This is the book that you gave me a copy of, I’d heard of the book, I’d heard of it, but I have not read it. The criticisms are not only from Americans, they are a little from everywhere, even in the curia, at least those who tell me, who have the advantage of honesty to say it, and I like this. I do not like it when critics are under the table. They smile, they let you see their teeth and then they stab you in the back. This is not loyal, not human. Criticism is an element of construction and if your critic is not right, you [must be] prepared to receive the response and to dialogue, [to have] a discussion and arrive at a fair point. This is the dynamic of the true criticism instead of the criticism of arsenic pills, which this article that I gave to Fr. Vuela was talking about — throwing the stone but hiding the hand. This isn’t necessary, it doesn’t help, help the little closed groups that don’t want to hear the response to the criticism. A criticism that does not want to hear the response is throwing a stone and hiding the hand. Instead, a fair criticism, I think this, this, this… It is open to a response, and you build, help.

Before the case of the pope, “But I don’t like this of the Pope,” I criticize and wait for the response, I go away from him and I speak and I write an article and I ask him to respond. This is fair, this is love for the Church. To criticize without wanting to hear the response and without dialogue is not wanting the good of the Church. It is to go backward to a fixed idea, to change the pope, to change the style, to create schism, this is clear no? A fair criticism is always well received, at least by me.

Oh, brother. It has been years, but he still hasn’t answered the dubia, which were formal requests, made through the Church’s system, for theological clarification. And he has not explained in any detail his role in rehabilitating Ted McCarrick, or answered any of Archbishop Vigano’s pointed, detailed criticisms. The media have allowed him to get away with it, of course, but it is impossible to take Pope Francis seriously when he spites his Catholic critics while ducking legitimate criticisms and questions they offer (and yes, some of them are in bad faith).

More Francis:

Second, the problem of schism: in the Church there [have been] many schisms. After Vatican I, the last vote, that of infallibility, a significant group left. They separated from the Church, founded the Old Catholics, to be really honest to the traditions of the Church. Then they discovered a different development and now ordain women, but in that moment they were rigid. They were going backward to an orthodoxy that they were thinking the council had gotten wrong. Another group went without voting, silent silent, but not wanting to vote.

Vatican II created these things, maybe the best known break is that of Lefebvre. There is always schismatic action in the Church, always, no? It is one of the actions that the Lord always leaves to human freedom. I don’t fear schisms, I pray they don’t exist because there’s the spiritual health of many people [to consider], right? [I pray] there will be dialogue, that there will be correction if there is some mistake, but the path of schism is not Christian.

Schism is always and everywhere to be regretted … which is not the same thing as saying “to be avoided.” What about the matter of Truth? If schism is ruled out in principle, then how is that not saying that maintaining church unity is more important than standing for the Truth?

More Francis:

But let’s think back to the beginning of the Church, how the Church began with many schisms, one after another, it is enough to read the history of the Church. The Arians, the Gnostics, the Monophysites, all of these. Then it comes to me to recall an anecdote that I have told a few times: it was the people of God who saved [the Church] from schisms. Schismatics always have one thing in common: they separate [themselves] from the people, from the faith of the people, from the faith of the People of God. And when, at the Council of Ephesus, there was a discussion on the maternity of Mary, the people — this is historic — were at the entrance of the cathedral and when the bishops entered for the Council, they had sticks, they showed them the sticks and yelled: “Mother of God, Mother of God.” As if to say, if you do not do this, here’s what awaits you. The People of God always mend and help.

A schism is always an elite condition of an ideology separated from doctrine. An ideology may be right, but that enters into doctrine and separates and becomes ‘doctrine’ in quotes, but for a time. For this, I pray that there are no schisms. But I am not afraid.

This is a weird way of putting it. As I understand it, the US Catholics he has in mind as fomenters of schism are not criticizing him because they advocate some new doctrine. They criticize him because they believe that he has broken with, or is at grave risk of breaking with, the settled, authoritative doctrine of the Catholic Church. That Francis is disrespecting the “democracy of the dead” that is Tradition. Granted, in a hierarchical ecclesial polity ruled by an absolute monarch, it’s weird for anybody, especially that absolute monarch, to invoke “elitism” as a put-down.


To help, but what I am saying now, you are not afraid I respond to criticism, I do all this, maybe if someone comes to him, something I have to do, I will do it. To help.

But this is one of the results of Vatican II. It is not from this Pope or from another Pope or that other pope. For example, the social things that I say are the same that John Paul II said, the same. I copy him. “But the Pope is very communistic, huh?” Ideologies and doctrine enter, and when the doctrine strays into ideology, there is the possibility of schism.

And also there is the behaviorist ideology, that is, the primacy of a sterile morality over the morality of the People of God, who even the pastors should guide, the flock, between grace and sin. This is evangelical morality.

Instead, a morality of ideology, such as Pelagianism, to put it that way, makes you rigid and today we have many, many schools of rigidity inside the Church. They are not schism, but they are pseudo-schismatic Christian paths that in the end finish badly. When you see rigid Christians, bishops, priests, behind them are problems; there isn’t the holiness of the Gospel. For this we should be meek, not severe, with people who are tempted by these attacks, because they are going through a problem, and we should accompany them with meekness.

Yes, Holy Francis, meek and mild. The man brutalizes those he sees as his enemies. He’s eviscerated the John Paul II Institute in Rome. And now the new team will include an Italian priest and moral theologian who favors contraception, and who has recently said that sex within gay relationships can be a moral good. Even if you agree with that position, you have to be honest enough to admit that it is very nearly a 180 degree reversal from what the Catholic Church has authoritatively thought since forever.

Yet theologically conservative American Catholics are the ones fomenting schism? Wow.

Phil Lawler wrote the other day about Francis’s new additions to the College of Cardinals, who, after their October 5 reception, will signify that Francis will have appointed a majority of those who will elect his successor. Lawler writes:

Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former worldwide leader of the Jesuit order, reported that Pope Francis once told him that he hoped to remain as Pontiff until “the changes are irreversible.” Packing the College of Cardinals with like-minded electors is an obvious step in that direction.

The liberal Jesuit columnist, Father Thomas Reese, wrote in 2016 that the Pope’s selections to the College were “the most revolutionary thing Francis has done in terms of Church governance.” He admitted that if he were a conservative Catholic, looking at the Pope’s selections, “Frankly, I would have been outraged.”

Now, two consistories later, the pattern is even more unmistakable. In his analysis of the Pope’s choices, John Allen of Crux underlines the salient point:

This is a consistory in which Francis is elevating a cohort of like-minded churchmen, positioning them to help advance his agenda right now and also to help ensure that the next pope, whoever it may be, isn’t someone inclined to roll back the clock.

Read the whole thing. I had no idea that some of the men Francis is elevating to cardinal rank on October 5 were so radical.

Who could have predicted that the Catholic Church would go from the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to a pope who raises the possibility of schism. I remind you that two cardinals have warned in the past year or so that the Catholic Church may be facing the Great Apostasy expected in the Last Days. Here are some jaw-dropping words from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who, until he was dismissed by Francis, was the Catholic Church’s chief doctrinal watchdog:

To keep silent about these and the other truths of the Faith and to teach people accordingly is the greatest deception against which the Catechism vigorously warns. It represents the last trial of the Church and leads man to a religious delusion, “the price of their apostasy” (CCC 675)  it is the fraud of Antichrist. “He will deceive those who are lost by all means of injustice, for they have closed themselves to the love of the truth by which they should be saved” (2 Thess: 2-10).

He was speaking back in February in his “Manifesto Of Faith,” clearly written in response to the doctrinal confusion emanating from this pontificate.

Let me ask Catholic readers of all theological orientations some questions:

  1. Do you think there will be a schism over Francis’s teachings? If so, what form will it take? and
  2. Do you think there should be a schism if things continue like this? Obviously schism is a grave condition, not to be desired. My question is whether or not you think that this Pope has erred, or will have erred, so much that he has ceased to be the Pope.
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The Flag & The Forgetting

Marcia Straub/Getty Images

Claire Berlinski posted to her blog a sober, even grim, 9/11 reflection from one of her readers, who asked to remain anonymous. The reader writes, in part:

With the forgetting comes the loss of emotive content. It is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the falling-away of emotion means we lose the felt sense of the only silver lining of the whole blood-soaked affair: the flowering of patriotism in the immediate thereafter. Those of us who lived through the bright autumn of 2001 witnessed the last mass expression of a common American patriotism of the twenty-first century. No moment like it has come since, and it is unlikely to reappear. If in this vein we are the people we were two decades ago, the evidence has yet to present itself.

That said, we should not over-valorize the people we were two decades past, either. The best of us rushed into burning towers in September or descended upon Afghanistan in October. The rest of us watched in stupefaction or satisfaction, or perhaps both. That goes even for direct witnesses of the great massacre, including me. We spectated. It was not two years later that the phrase emerged, not from Afghanistan but Iraq, that in the post-9/11 era only the American military was at war: the American people were at the mall.

It’s not a long piece, but it’s a gut punch. Read the whole thing. Except for the Pakistan part, about which I have no idea, I find it hard to disagree with any of it.

As regular readers know, I was living in New York City on 9/11, and through the bright sadness of that autumn. I’ve told people since then that as unspeakably horrible as that season was, it was also beautiful in a way I find hard to adequately describe. You really did have to be there. The sense of solidarity was overwhelming. I’m not talking about in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. I’m talking about for months.

Like Berlinski’s reader, I can’t imagine that we’ll ever see that kind of thing again. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trust it. Having seen what our government at the time did with that feeling — I’m talking about the catastrophically mistaken Iraq War, which like most Americans, I supported back then — I would not trust anything that the president during some future 9/11 had to say about it.

Then again, people forgot the lessons of Vietnam too, and off we went to the Middle East. As Berlinski’s reader says, we’re going to get out of Afghanistan soon, and the Taliban will once again rule that miserable country. We will be right back where we started.

I once wrote the following on this blog. It seems appropriate to revive it today, in the spirit of Claire Berlinski’s reader’s thoughts:

On the morning of September 11, 2002, I walked over to Ground Zero for the solemn observation of the anniversary. I stood on the north side of the hole, at the perimeter, waiting for the service to start. The crowd was behind a fence; none of us had access to the site itself, which was reserved for families and dignitaries. It was important, though, to be there.

Suddenly, at the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, a powerful wind descended from the same direction of that plane. It was from Hurricane Gustav, which had come ashore in the Carolinas, and was rolling up the East Coast. Still, I was there, and the timing was very, very weird. It blew a fairly steady 60 mph all morning. A friend who had been watching the services live on TV said that one of the commenters called the wind “Biblical.” If you were down there in that wind, as I was, it seemed apt.

The wind was still blowing later that morning when I went into Trinity Church Wall Street for a memorial service celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. At some point during the church service, we could hear a signal from adjacent Ground Zero, indicating that all the names of the dead had been read, and that the ceremony there was ending. Shortly after, the church liturgy ended, and I emerged outside to calm. The winds had stopped. I don’t know when the ceased to blow, but I can tell you it was in the relatively short time between the start and end of the church service.

If I had to bet money, I’d say that the winds stopped blowing when the last names were read at Ground Zero. It was that kind of morning.

Later in the day, I received a call from a friend I had run into at Ground Zero that morning. She was fairly freaked out, and asked me to come over at once. I made my way to her apartment. She led me into her tiny home office, and showed me a small American flag, so old and threadbare that you could see through it, framed and under glass, hanging on her wall. A tear ran through it, almost from top to bottom.

It wasn’t obvious to me what the issue was. Then she told me: she’s had that flag on the wall for years, and it was fine. It was position right across from her desk. She looked at it every day. But that morning — September 11, 2002 — while she was out in the crowd at Ground Zero, something happened to it. It had torn down the middle, even though it was sealed under glass, and nobody had come into her home.

This really did happen. I have lost contact with that friend, but I wonder what she thinks of it today. Both of us are believing Christians, and we could not help seeing it in light of the Biblical account of the tearing of the veil in the Temple when Jesus died on the Cross. That event has multiple meanings in Christian belief, and among them is a prophecy of the ultimate destruction of the Temple itself, which took place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD. I left my friend’s apartment wondering if the tearing of the flag — assuming that there was symbolic meaning behind it — meant that there was a withdrawal of God’s favor on the US, and that 9/11 was the beginning of our end.

Granted, I have an apocalyptic mindset, and even if I didn’t, it was very easy to think in apocalyptic terms in those days, living so close to Ground Zero. On the other hand, I was also primed to think that 9/11 was going to summon up the strength of our great nation, and goad us to assert ourselves on the world stage. The United States was at that moment the sole hyperpower on the planet. We were at the peak of our strength. We would soon be going to war in the Middle East, that was clear by then. Now, finally, we would set the world to right. I was not eager to believe in portents that cast doubt on that project. I was in those days filled with patriotic righteousness — which is why the tearing of the flag was so eerie, and unwelcome to me.

That’s what I saw on 9/11/2002. Maybe it was just a fluke. Maybe that flag had come apart earlier, and my friend only noticed it on that morning. But: in light of everything that has happened since then — and that continues to happen — that torn flag seems to me like the omen I feared it was at the time.

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Vienna Postcard

This morning I left Budapest, headed to Vienna. I’m flying out of the Austrian capital early tomorrow morning (9/11 — ugh), so had to get over to the city today. I didn’t have much time at all, unfortunately, but I did have the opportunity to pay a call to the European headquarters of Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious liberty law organization, and take my friend Andy Thonhauser, ADF’s director of external relations, to lunch. ADF does terrific, indispensable work for religious liberty in the US, but did you know they also work internationally? Vienna is their base.

Andy is Austrian, and Vienna is his city. I asked him to choose a restaurant for us where we could have a proper Wiener schnitzel, and a dessert mit Schlag (with whipped cream). Andy took me to Café Landtmann, a Viennese landmark. It was Freud’s favorite cafe. Mahler drank his coffee here, as did Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig. I could have sat there all day, to be honest. I got my schnitzel for sure, and washed it down with a cold local Helles:

Vienna, Austria

You have seen above that I indeed received a slice of Apfelstrudel mit Schlag. Truly, no matter how doomy-and-gloomy I can get about the storm-and-stress of the world, nothing restores my inner harmony like good food. It’s the hobbit in me.

Speaking of Tolkien, how about this pipe I saw in the window of a shop (the one on the bottom):

It was so lovely that I almost wish I smoked so I could buy it and sit outside on a crisp autumn day puffing on it and drinking whisky. I didn’t notice until I saw the photo, but this pipe was designed with Tolkien in mind. There’s a whole line of LOTR-inspired pipes from Vauen, including this model. Any pipe smokers in this blog’s readership? Would it be difficult to smoke a pipe with such a long stem?

Oh, I forgot to mention that at the cafe, I met Andy’s boss Mike Farris, the CEO of ADF and a longtime hero to the homeschooling movement, and Kristen Waggoner, the top ADF lawyer who successfully argued the Masterpiece Cakeshop case at SCOTUS. They happened to be in the city on ADF business, and came by the table to say hi to Andy.

After lunch, Andy took me on a stroll of Vienna’s center. We stopped by the Capuchin Crypt, the resting place of Habsburg emperors, empresses, and high-ranking family personages since 1618. It was stunning to see the elaborate funerary designs on the tombs. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Look:

Did you know that the Viennese have long been cultish about death? I did not until Andy told me during our visit to the Capuchin Crypt, when I was agog over the morbid aesthetics. Here’s an article about it. Mozart, the greatest Austrian, once wrote to his dying father, to cheer him up: “Death is the key to our true happiness.” Mozart was 31 when he wrote that!

We walked over to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the gorgeous Gothic heart of Catholic Austria, and I marveled over the priceless architectural and artistic gifts Europe has to offer to the church worldwide. The faith is in deep trouble on this continent, but nowhere in the world can you see the depths of Christianity made visible in stone and glass and color as in Europe. If you are a Christian believer, and visit Europe with eyes and hearts open to the immensity of the beauty that bears witness to the Age of Faith, it will deepen your own awareness of how we mortal creatures are immersed in holiness. At least I have found it to be so.

Andy and I said goodbye so he could keep his appointment with the dentist. I went off to buy presents for my kids. As I meandered through the center of town, I came across two noble dogs:


Eventually, I made my way back to the ADF offices to pick up my luggage — I’m so grateful to the staffers who offered to stay late so I could leave my bags there — and Ubered out to an airport hotel (my driver, Kevin, was a nice young guy who dreams of going to America to work, because he’s sick of being taxed to death, and driven nuts by Austrian bureaucracy). Now I have to figure out how I can pack my bags to get home the kids’ presents, as well as the honey, the apricot preserves, the chocolate, the books, and the DVDs that people I met along the way on these past nine days gave me. There is no greater gift than having renewed old friendships and made new ones. That, and to have been trusted by men and women who lived through some of the hardest days of the 20th century, to be a teller of their stories.

More later, when I have the time. For now, I’m going to approve comments and then go off to bed — gotta be up before daylight. I am eager to return to Vienna, when I have time to explore at length the city of Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Andy gave me a book that features facsimiles of Zweig’s handwritten letters. If you haven’t read Zweig’s 1940s memoir The World Of Yesterday, you’re in for a melancholy treat. And Roth’s novel of the decline and fall of the Habsburgs, The Radetzky March, is one of my all-time favorites. In fact, I wish I had brought my copy to read on the long flight home.

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Caldwell Explains Orban

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, in a meeting Friday afternoon with select attendees at a Budapest Christian conference

For those eager to learn more about Viktor Orban, I recommend this excellent primer from Christopher Caldwell, who is one of the best informed journalists on European matters. Orban is hated by the European political and media class primarily because of the stance he took towards migrants in 2015. Caldwell writes:

No English-language newspaper reported on it at the time, nor has any cited it since, but the speech Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán made before an annual picnic for his party’s intellectual leaders in the late summer of 2015 is probably the most important by a Western statesman this century. As Orbán spoke in the village of Kötcse, by Lake Balaton, hundreds of thousands of migrants from across the Muslim world, most of them young men, were marching northwestwards out of Asia Minor, across the Balkan countries and into the heart of Europe.

Let me break away from Caldwell’s article to quote directly from Orban’s speech, a transcript of which is here. Orban said in 2015:

I think that the phenomenon I’ve just described is no more or less than identity crisis. This seems to be bad news, but it is the first good identity crisis I’ve ever seen. Earlier we have talked about identity crises among ourselves: the Christian identity crisis, or the national identity crisis. But now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are witnessing the liberal identity crisis. Viewed from the right perspective, the whole issue of asylum and mass migration, the whole problem of economic migration is nothing more than the identity crisis of liberalism. I’ll try to broadly summarize what it consists of. People in general – not only Europeans, but definitely Europeans – want to see themselves as good; but people can define “good” in a wide variety of ways. Liberals also want to see themselves as good. They also have an idea of ​​what it means to be a good person. And liberals can only live with themselves if they see themselves as good people. However, the liberal notion of what is “good”, as I described earlier, only exists at the level of phenomena: freedom of movement, universal human rights, and so on. Now this is producing disastrous consequences. But the particular quality of liberals is that while they want to be good people, they do not want to see their levels of welfare spending and standards of living falling; and so a crisis develops. This is the truly great challenge facing liberalism today: how to see themselves as good people according to their own principles, and at the same time how to protect the standard of living which they have achieved so far.

I am convinced that it is no longer possible in Europe to both see ourselves as good in the liberal sense and to live in prosperity. I might say that the most dangerous combination known in history is to be both rich and weak. There is no combination more dangerous than this. It is only a matter of time before someone comes along, notices your weakness, and takes what you have. This will definitely happen if you are unable to defend yourself. The liberal philosophy is a result of a Europe which is weak and which also wants to protect its wealth; but if Europe is weak, it cannot protect this wealth.

There is of course also a Christian misunderstanding. Like a sixteenth-century heretic, I must be careful in my comments on this, because I do not want to run the risk of offending our Catholic brothers and sisters; that would not be right, but all the same, if I consider the truly Christian voices – the really powerful Catholic voices – from the viewpoint of economic logic they confuse two different things. For if someone gives someone else something from their personal wealth, this is not only morally right, but it will not weaken the national economy. So to give someone something from my personal wealth will not cause economic problems. But if instead of giving from my personal wealth, I want the state to give something – for it to give care, welfare, jobs and benefits, and to guarantee a certain level of prosperity – I am ruining that which is ours, and I am likewise ruining our prosperity. Because the state has to either raise taxes or make cuts elsewhere in the usual social, welfare, cultural or other budgets; and the result of this is a shrinking economy. Helping others from one’s own pocket can also benefit the economy, but if we look to the state for this, and if we want redistribution by the state – shifting funds away from the state’s productive sphere and its economic resources – there can be no other result than weaker economic performance.

Therefore those Christian demands which are currently expressed as spiritual obligations are in my opinion correct when directed at citizens, but mistaken when directed at the state. And unfortunately I do not see a recognition of this difference in most of the statements from our spiritual leaders. Yet this is an important distinction, because the liberals are seeking to make sure that financial and moral expectations placed on individuals are instead placed on the state; this would, however, crush and destroy these states. It is therefore important to distinguish between personal, individual responsibilities, and those which belong to a modern state. We need to draw this boundary, because morally we will not find our way – we will not be able to both fulfil the Christian duty to help others – while at the same time expecting our state to defend what we have.

More — this is important, because it outlines why the Christian’s moral responsibilities begin with his family, and those closest to him:

Then came the need to incorporate another word, another term alongside Christian compassion: the expression of responsibility. It should be clarified that we did not do this from a liberal point of view – we know that the liberal feels responsible for the whole world because they are a good person, everything happening in the world causes them pain, and their soul feels heavy with the burden. In opposition to this approach, how does our identity stand up? I think that the Christian identity – although there are some here who can express this with greater theological accuracy than I can – reveals to us a completely clear order of importance or priority. First of all, we are responsible for our children, then for our parents. This comes before all else. Then come those with whom we live in our village or town. Then comes our country, and then everyone else may come. Christian thinking is not reflected in the kind of politics which invokes compassion and understanding, but which does not recognize this order of priorities; it is not reflected in the kind of politics which, in the name of responsibility for the world, destroys that which we can nurture in our children, the dignified old age we can give our parents, and, when possible, the protection we can give our country and culture.

Here Orban touches the third rail of liberal politics:

The second lesson. Hungary – and now I do not want to speak for other countries, but I would like to think that most of Europe thinks as we do – must protect its ethnic and cultural composition. This needs to be explained, because in the eyes of liberals today this is the main sin. Allow me to mention a conversation I had with a talented, experienced, but not very hopeful European politician, who was no longer in frontline politics, and who asked me to explain what I meant when I said that we do not want a significant Muslim community in Hungary. I said that the meaning of this sentence was the normal, everyday one. The reply I received was that one cannot say such a thing. I asked why not. Why can we not talk about the right of every state and every nation to decide on whom they want living on their territory? In Europe, many countries have decided on this – for example the French or the British, or the Germans with regard to the Turks. I think they had the right to make this decision. We have a duty to look at where this has taken them. We cannot even say whether the results are good or bad. We only have the right to say that this is something which we do not want – but we do have the right to say this. And we can say that we like Hungary just as it is. It is colourful and diverse enough.

I am convinced that Hungary has the right – and every nation has the right – to say that it does not want its country to change. One can argue whether or not this is the correct position; on whether or not this is fair; on whether or not this is humane. One can argue about many things. But we should not argue about whether a community has the right to decide if it wants to change its ethnic and cultural composition in an artificial way and at an accelerated pace. And if Hungarians say that they do not want this, no one can force them to do so. In the end – and keep this in your sights – in the very end this will be the battle which we must win. The question is whether there will be enough of us in Europe who say that every country has the right to change its ethnic and cultural composition as it likes, and no country or the Union has the right to force others to do this. We are now in a good position, and we must defend this position. In the end this is what will decide this entire battle. It is therefore very important who comes in. In the modern spirit of the age, if someone has come in and if you have let them in, from that point on what they represent is seen as a value. You will have to relate to the new situation, you will have to live with it and establish a form of coexistence, and you must also respect it and accept life alongside it.

And this part:

Finally, the fourth thing, which I think follows on from all this. Do not misunderstand me when I put it like this: everyday patriotism. This is not something of an intellectual nature, but a vital instinct, a daily routine: going into a shop and buying Hungarian products; when I want to employ someone, employing a Hungarian. It will not work if we cannot make this an everyday instinct, and if it simply remains a spiritual need for our national-minded intellectuals on the right. It will not work without you, of course, because for something to become everyday, it must be formulated to a high degree, something which can be expressed, and which will give us, its representatives, dignity, strength and self-confidence. But then it must be implemented on a daily basis, as I said: in workplaces, in shops, in conversations, and so on. I do not know in how many areas we have retreated; I do not know where, instead of healthy patriotism, some unrestrained, liberal, confused babble has taken over, and where we ourselves are unable to say why we make the decisions we do, rather than right, patriotic, national everyday ones.

The bad news is that when we do this, it must be characterized by the following words: modern, cool, trendy, sexy, upmarket. If we also try to cultivate everyday patriotism in language to the same level as that we use when talking to each other here, then the correct etiquette would be for us to all make the sign of the cross and simply look forward to the afterlife. But this is about the young generation. Our generation is fine the way we are, thank you very much, we have survived; but the situation is different for those coming along after us. If we cannot bridge the communication, cultural and other gaps, and if we cannot make everyday nationalism attractive to young people, rather than something chaotic, smelling of bad breath and the radical right, which sends shivers down people’s spines and puts them in a bad mood, if we cannot make it different from this with fresh and youthful language, then this is a battle we will not win. This is the biggest task. I cannot say exactly who are able to do this, because if I could, we would have already done it over the past few years; but the truth is that in this regard we have achieved the least success. We do not speak this language, this culture as we should, and those coming after us are somehow not strong enough or – heaven knows why – not effective enough. In this world, patriotic, nation-based, everyday life instincts, life advice and thoughts – together with the public opinions based on them – are not present in the debate. But we cannot avoid this battlefield, and if we do not rally to the call, it will be decided on the battlefield anyway.

Read the entire Orban speech here. It’s really important.

Now, back to the Caldwell essay. Caldwell says that Europe will either be ruled by Angela Merkel’s vision, or Viktor Orban’s.

As I said in yesterday’s post, the unexpected meeting my small group had with Orban on Friday was the first time I had ever heard him speak in English, or seen how he operates in person. I don’t follow Hungarian politics, but I know enough about European politics in general, and about how totally unreliable Anglo-American news media are on the subject, to assume that Viktor Orban had been unfairly presented by that media. The Anglo-American press portrays him like the Trump of the Magyars: brutal, aggressive, prejudiced, and so forth. I figured this was a lie, but I was not prepared for how much of a lie it is.

What I observed for 90 minutes was an extraordinary performance by a visionary politician who possesses raw intelligence and a palpable willingness to grapple with ideas, and their political implications, without diplomatic politesse. Caldwell writes:

He is blessed with almost every political gift—brave, shrewd with his enemies and trustworthy with his friends, detail-oriented, hilarious. …

His secret weapon, though, is his intellectual curiosity. As Irving Kristol did when he edited the Public Interest in the 1980s, Orbán urges his aides to take one day a week off to devote to their reading and writing. He does so himself, clearing his Thursdays when he can. Raised poor in a small town west of Budapest, preoccupied early by politics, he has had to acquire much of his education on the fly, as a busy adult. His ideas are powerful, raw, and unsettled. Orbán has changed his mind about a lot of things—unregulated free markets above all. Out of a regime of deep reading and disputation come his larger theories about the direction of Western civilization, and many people probably find voting for Orbán satisfying in the way that reading Jared Diamond or Yuval Noah Hariri is satisfying. Orbán believes that Western countries are in decline, and that they are in decline because of “liberalism,” which in his political vocabulary is a slur. He uses the word to describe the contemporary process of creating neutral social structures and a level playing field, usually in the name of rights.

Caldwell summarizes Orban’s problem with normative procedural liberalism like this:

This project of creating neutral institutions has two problems. First, it is destructive, because the bonds of affection out of which communities are built are—by definition—non-neutral. Second, it is a lie, because someone must administer this project, and administration, though advertised as neutral, rarely is. Some must administer over others.

Indeed, Orban told the small group of visitors of which I was a part that his core conflict with Europe’s liberal establishment is that they think it is a good thing for Europeans to become part of a godless, borderless, rootless mass — and he does not.

He might have added that when you put it that way (“liberals want Europe to become godless, borderless, and rootless”), it offends liberals, many of whom will deny it in good faith (that is, uncynically). Orban would reply that it doesn’t matter what their intentions are; this is the unavoidable effect of contemporary liberalism.

In his essay, Caldwell helpfully provides the economic back story for why Orban became so popular. First, Caldwell explains that the years 2002-10 saw the young Communist elites whose careers had been derailed by 1989 come to power in a new guise, led by Socialist multimillionaire Ferenc Gyurcsány . They wrecked the economy. Caldwell:

In 2006, Gyurcsány was captured on tape at a party congress explaining that “we lied, morning, noon and night” to stay in power. Protests arose. Police repressed them violently. Orbán’s detractors rarely mention any of this when they complain about the lack of an alternative to him. For most Hungarians, 2006 is the alternative.

Orban returned to power in 2010, and gained the trust and gratitude of ordinary Hungarians when he refused to accept the EU’s austerity plan, and kept banks from foreclosing on the houses of Hungarians who couldn’t pay off their loans. Orban’s Fidesz Party passed radical economic reforms, and began to buy back Hungarian industries that had earlier been sold to foreign investors at fire sale postcommunist prices. As one Hungarian explained to me, Orban did this to strengthen Hungary’s control of its own economic destiny.

Caldwell discusses in detail various constitutional controversies around Orban, and his party’s battles with the media. This is an interesting graf:

The opposition now turned to denying the legitimacy of the constitution altogether. Whenever thwarted in local political give-and-take, it summoned imperial help from outside the constitutional system: from the European Union and (when Barack Obama was in office) the United States. Last year the Dutch Green-Left party member Judith Sargentini submitted a motion to the E.U. Parliament alleging corruption and the violation of the rights of minorities and migrants. The Parliament condemned him for “a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded.” Orbán saw it differently: There was no clash of values, only of classes. He had kept Hungary from being bullied by bankers, bureaucrats, and other powerful rule-making foreigners. This naturally upset the powerful rule-making foreigners and their allies within Hungary.

I interviewed a pro-Orban intellectual this week in Budapest. He spoke about Hungarian politics in the language of culture war, though for him — and, clearly, for Orban — the culture war is much broader than the bounds we Americans place on the concept. The Orbanistas see Hungary as a little nation whose very existence as a distinct people is at stake. The Hungarian state was dismembered after World War I, and after World War II, the nation was dominated by a foreign power (the USSR) and a totalitarian ideology that attempted to destroy Hungarian national consciousness in the name of communist universalism.

So yeah, they’re sensitive. A Hungarian man I interviewed on Saturday afternoon recalled the communist propaganda films they were subject to in his 1960s youth. He said that they were all designed to make viewers hate Hungarian history, religion, and any source of identity outside of communism. Reading the Caldwell piece, I thought about this man’s words, and how Euroliberalism — which entails globalism, multiculturalism, and rigid secularism — is trying to accomplish the same thing, though not at the end of a Soviet bayonet. We in the West can’t see this clearly, because we think our own norms are neutral. The Hungarians don’t see it that way at all. For them, or at least for those who follow Viktor Orban, they are in a fight for their national life.

More Caldwell:

Still, since there would not be enough imported Hungarians to man the Hungarian economy, it seemed Hungary would need to do what western European countries had done: open the doors to mass immigration from the Arab world and Africa.

On this, Orbán would not budge. As he saw it, the combination of Anglophone Hungarian businessmen and waves of manual laborers disinclined to learn the beautiful, impossible Magyar language would mean the end of Hungary. Migration from the south, he believed, whether orderly or disorderly, would produce a special kind of country, of the sort that did not exist in western Europe until the most recent decades but which had been the norm in Hungary’s Balkan neighborhood until quite recently—not just in the Habsburg and Romanov empires but also in 20th-century Yugoslavia. Such countries, he told a group of Christian intellectuals in 2017, run the risk of having their culture wiped out:

They will become countries with mixed populations, with a Christian element and a non-Christian element which has a strong religious identity. And if I judge the laws of biology and mathematics correctly, the ratio between these two elements will continuously shift away from Christianity and towards the non-Christian religious communities…. [H]ow this will end is mathematically foreseeable.

Here’s a strong point:

Liberals in the immigrant-sated western E.U. countries found it bizarre that Hungary (like Poland) opposed immigration despite having very few immigrants by 21st-century measures. Orbán countered that it was perhaps only in low-immigration countries that one any longer had the freedom to oppose immigration. When he spoke with the leaders of western European countries where the migrant population exceeded 10%, they often confided that they were too fearful of rousing inter-ethnic hatred, or losing votes, to broach the subject. “If you’ve had such conversations,” he explained to a roomful of mocking journalists this winter, “you will have heard that they no longer talk about whether or not there should be migration. That is no longer a question for them: that ship has sailed.”

As I’m writing this, I see that my train is about to pull into Vienna’s main station, so I’ll need to wrap up. Caldwell talks about the George Soros controversy. Orban famously demonizes Soros, the megabillionaire investor and philanthropist who devotes his fortune to spreading liberalism internationally. Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish refugee from Nazism, was in a position to spend a lot of money to dominate Hungary’s intellectual life — and was doing it. More Caldwell:

Soros personified opposition to the nationalist outlook Orbán had wished for in his 2015 Kötcse speech. In the wake of Merkel’s invitation to migrants in 2015 Soros published a plan to bring a million refugees a year to Europe and distribute them rapidly among neighboring countries for settlement. The plan would, Soros wrote, “mobilize the private sector,” but only to run the project, not to pay for it. The funding of it would be done at taxpayer expense, through a €20 billion E.U. bond issue. Orbán published a six-point plan of his own, focused on keeping migrants out. Soros complained that it “subordinates the human rights of asylum-seekers and migrants to the security of borders.” That description was exactly accurate —provided one understands human rights as global philanthropists, political activists, and the United Nations have defined it in recent decades. But there is a competing understanding of human rights in the old law of nations, which makes any right to immigrate dependent on the consent of the receiving nation.


Orbán was very worried about the role of foreign money in his country’s politics. Some have mocked him for this. But obviously, when the most powerful country on earth has just brought its democracy to a standstill for two years in order to investigate $100,000 worth of internet ads bought by a variety of Russians, it is understandable that the leader of a small country might fear the activism of a political foe whose combined personal fortune ($8 billion) and institutional endowment ($19 billion) exceed a sixth of the country’s GDP ($156 billion), especially since international philanthropy is (through the U.S. tax code) effectively subsidized by the American government. An early version of the Stop Soros law proposed taxing foreign philanthropies.

Caldwell points out that the anti-Soros campaign arguably did traffick in anti-Semitic rhetoric, even though there was a strong element of truth in them:

Archetypally, the ads did resemble anti-Semitic campaigns of yore. They showed Soros as a puppet-master, a power behind the scenes. Of course Soros was a power behind the scenes. But Hungary was a country where 565,000 Jews—more than half the Jewish population—had been murdered after the Nazi invasion in May 1944, and a bit more circumspection was expected from its politicians.

Fair enough. Still, that completely justifiable circumspection should in no way justify averting one’s eyes from the fact that Soros really is using his considerable fortune to liberalize Europe, and to dilute European peoples. From Douglas Murray’s great book The Strange Death Of Europe:

In October 2015 the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, criticised Soros publicly as one of a circle of activists who “support anything that weakens nation states.” Soros responded publicly to confirm that the numerous groups he was funding were indeed working for the ends described by Orban. In an email to Bloomberg, Soros said that it was his foundation which was seeking to “uphold European values,” while he accused Orban of trying to “undermine those values.” Soros went on to say of Orban: “His plan treats the protection of national borders as the objective and the refugees as an obstacle. Our plan treats the protection of refugees as the objective and national borders as the obstacle.” The dialogues ceased before anyone could ask Soros how long those European values might last once Europe could be walked into by people from all over the world.

In 2016, I wrote about how Soros’s Open Society Foundation teamed with the US Agency For International Development to translate Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals into the Macedonian language, and distribute copies there to undermine the conservative government and the conservative values of that society. Again, to many Westerners, this kind of thing looks like value-neutral liberalism. But to these small, weak, relatively poor countries, they’re fighting for their national existence against cultural imperialists.

Read the whole thing. Yes, Viktor Orban — democratically elected, and re-elected — is a self-described illiberal democrat. When you take stock of what he and his country are up against, it’s much easier to understand him, and why he does the things he does.

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Viktor Orban Among The Christians

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, in a meeting Friday afternoon with select attendees at a Budapest Christian conference

I arrived in Budapest on Friday to deliver a speech at a conference for Christian communicators from around the world. At the last minute, conference organizers alerted some of us that Prime Minister Viktor Orban would like to meet with us privately at the end of the event. We boarded a bus and headed to Buda Castle, where he received us in a salon. I assumed it would be a quick meet-and-greet. Hardly! He spoke with us for about 90 minutes, and answered our questions frankly. Here’s a shot of the group, whose number included John O’Sullivan and Philip Blond, two names familiar to Anglo-American conservatives:

Mind you, I think I John O’Sullivan and I were the only professional journalists in the room, so this was not a press conference. I did not know that we would be offered to opportunity to speak to the PM beyond saying hello, much less that we would be able to ask questions. Therefore, I didn’t prepare for an interview, and in any case I only had the chance to put a single question.

I tell you this so you readers don’t ask me why I didn’t challenge Orban on this or that policy of his government. I am perfectly aware that he is a controversial figure who has done things and pursued policy goals that are highly controversial for a number of reasons. However, this was a completely unexpected opportunity to be in the presence of one of the most extraordinary world leaders of our time, and to get a sense of his mind.

If the only thing you know about Viktor Orban is from Western media accounts, you would think that he was nothing but some kind of mafia thug. The Viktor Orban you encounter in person is very, very different from the Viktor Orban shown to Americans by our media. In Orban — who speaks good English — was energetic, fiercely intelligent, funny, self-deprecating, realistic, and at times almost pugilistic in talking about defending Hungary and her interests. Orban is what Trump’s biggest fans wish he was (but isn’t), and what Trump’s enemies think him to be (but isn’t). If Donald Trump had the smarts and skills of Viktor Orban, the political situation in the US would be much, much different — for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.

Orban begin our session with extended remarks about Hungarian and European politics, and the role of his Fidesz Party in them. He said that when he was elected in 2010, he had one mission: to save Hungary from economic ruin. By the time Orban’s 2014 re-election bid rolled around, the economy was stable, and he described the mission of his second terms as “to say what I think.”

“I realized in 2014 that I was the only free man among the prime ministers of Europe,” he said, explaining that by “free,” he meant that he had a strong, united parliamentary majority behind him. He added, “In Western political life now, you can’t say what you think.”

When the migration crisis hit Europe in 2015, Orban famously shut Hungary’s borders to Middle Easterners. Orban said that Hungary’s was the only government in Europe to respond to the crisis in its own interests, and in the interests of Christianity in Europe. With a population of only 10 million, and as a country where Christianity, as elsewhere on the continent, is fragile, the Hungarians concluded that allowing large numbers of Muslims to take up residence here would mean the death knell of Christianity in time.

This scandalized the European political class. Orban doesn’t care. He told our group that he understands that he is dealing with elites who believe that being a post-Christian, post-national civilization is a great and glorious thing. Orban rejects this. He said the main political question in the West today is how fractious pluralities can live together peaceably. He said, “Here the most important question is how not to have the same questions as them.”

Orban pointed out that the UK and France were once colonial powers in the Middle East. He added, “But Central Europe was colonized by the Middle East. That’s a fact.” He’s talking about the Ottoman occupation of Hungary, from 1541 to 1699. Orban told our group that the room we were sitting was part of a Church building that had been turned into a mosque during the occupation.

Explaining his decision to shut the borders to Muslim refugees, Orban said what tipped the scales was consulting the Christian bishops of the Middle East. Orban: “What did they say? ‘Don’t let them in. Stop them.'”

Middle Eastern Christians, said Orban, “can tell you what is the [ultimate] end of a society you have to share with Muslims.”

Sitting at the table listening to the prime minister was Nicodemus, the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Mosul, whose Christian community, which predates Islam by several centuries, was savagely persecuted by ISIS. Archbishop Nicodemus spoke up, thanking Orban for what Hungary has done for persecuted Christians. Nicodemus said that living with Muslims has taught Iraqi Christians that they can expect no mercy. “Those people, if you give them your small finger, they will want your body,” he said.

“The problem is that Western countries don’t accept our experience,” the prelate continued. “Those people [Muslims] pushed us to be a minority in our own land and then refugees in our own land.”

Under the Orban government, Hungary frequently extends a helping hand to persecuted Christians.The archbishop exhorted Orban to stay the course in defense of Christians. For 16 years, he said, Iraqi Christians begged Western leaders to help them. Addressing Orban directly, Nicodemus said, “Nobody understands our pain like you.”

Philip Blond, the British political economist, suggested to the prime minister that he has a mission to re-Christianize Europe. Orban, who is 56 and part of the country’s Calvinist minority, said that his generation’s mission was to defeat Communism. Religious rebirth is a task for Millennials, he said.

According to 2017 Pew research, though 59 percent of Hungarian adults say they believe in God, only 16 percent pray daily. As Hungary-based writer Will Collins wrote in TAC earlier this year, only 12 percent of Hungarians go to church — a number that is no doubt much smaller among Hungarians under 40. In my on the record interviews and background conversations with Hungarian Christians these past few days, there is an acute sense that the Christian faith is fast fading among the young, who, like their co-generationalists across the former Soviet bloc, are far more drawn to Western materialism.

Orban spoke frankly about the post-communist religious state of his country. “It’s still not a healed society,” he said. “It’s still not in good shape.”

I asked the prime minister if he saw evidence of a “soft totalitarianism” emerging in the West today, and if so, what are the main lessons that those who resisted communism have to tell us about identifying and resisting it.

He said that the Soviets and their servants in Central Europe tried to create a new kind of man: homo Sovieticus. To do this, they had to destroy the two sources of identity here: a sense of nationhood, and the Christian religion. In order to survive, said Orban, “we have to strengthen our national identity and our Christian identity. That’s the story.”

Western peoples have decided to create a post-Christian, post-national, multicultural society. Peoples in Central Europe do not.  For Orban, re-establishing a sense of national identity and the Christian faith are the same project. It’s an attempt to reverse the damage done by Communism. The danger, obviously, is that Christianity becomes emptied of its spiritual and moral content, and is filled with nationalism. On the other hand, if a pro-Christian politician like Orban can at least keep the public square open and favorable to the ancestral religious beliefs of the nation, religious leaders can step into the space politics creates, and do their work of recovery.

Orban said that he wants Westerners and others who share these values to come to the Hungarian capital, where they will be free to speak their minds, and establish a base. “I’m trying to create a free place in Budapest,” he said. “Please consider Budapest as a kind of intellectual home.”

Last week, Orban’s government played host to a demography summit here. Reporting on it, the Guardian, as usual, called Orban a politician of the “far right.” Orban is certainly nationalist and populist (and popular here), but smearing him as some kind of right-wing extremist only demonstrates how cut off the liberal Western media are from common sense. One can certainly take issue with Orban’s illiberal methods of pursuing his policy goals — and the prime minister does not deny that he is an illiberal democrat — but the man understands his small country to be in a fight for national survival against globalist, anti-Christian multiculturalism coming from Brussels and other Western capitals. How, exactly, is he wrong?

Put in terms of contemporary American conservative politics, it seems to me that Viktor Orban’s party and movement is what you would see if Sohrab Ahmari’s side of the Ahmari-French debate actually won a mandate to govern. Ahmari’s integralism — as distinct from French’s classical liberalism — is a very hard sell in the United States, which is a truly pluralistic nation. Hungary, however, is far more culturally and ethnically homogeneous. As Orban told us, one of his goals is to make sure that the kinds of questions that are breaking multicultural Western polities never arise here. Again: is he wrong to want to protect Hungary from the disintegration that comes with Western-style liberal identity politics? Hungary has a million problems, but Parisian-style banlieues filled with angry and unassimilable Muslim migrants, vicious institutional combat around so-called “white privilege,” and endless fights in locker rooms and libraries over gender ideology are not among them.


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Maria Wittner Fears Nothing

Maria Wittner, anti-communist hero

I spent part of this afternoon sitting with Maria Wittner, a hero of Hungary’s failed 1956 Revolution against Communism. I interviewed her for my book project on how to resist the coming soft totalitarianism. Like every other person I’ve interviewed who lived through “hard totalitarianism” (that is to say, Communism), Mrs. Wittner believes that we are well on our way to a new and very different version of the same.

“Back then, you knew where your place was, and where the enemy’s place was,” she said, of the Communist years. “Those two were opposing each other. The present situation is a bit like when a young child has Play-doh. Originally there are distinct colors, but if the child keeps mixing them together, it all becomes one big brown lump.”

This is a familiar refrain from my interviews with former dissidents: that it’s much more difficult today to discern the enemy lines. This was not a problem for 19-year-old Maria Wittner when the anti-Soviet rebellion broke out in Budapest in 1956 (read her history here). She took up arms against the Communists.

She carried shrapnel lodged in her back for nearly 25 years. She spent 11 years in prison for her role in the Revolution.

She recalled jail thus:

Every single day we could hear the people being brought for execution. There was an execution either every day or every other day, by hanging. The people who were being brought to the execution, each one said their name aloud, and left some sort of message in their final words. Some sang the national anthem, others praised their country, there were people saying ‘avenge me’. There were days when several people were hanged, even seven a day. My friend Catherine was also sentenced to death. We spent our last night together in the cell. We said our goodbyes in the morning. The guards took her. The last sight I saw of her was that she straightened herself up, and went with her back ramrod straight. The door closed, and then I was left alone. I started to bang on the door, shouting, “Bring her back!” even though I knew perfectly well that it wouldn’t matter. Then I fainted. When I came to my senses, I swore to myself that I will never be silent about what I have seen, if I have the opportunity to bear witness.

Maria went on.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, as such. What is fear? Someone who is afraid is going to be made to do the most evil things. If someone is not afraid to say no, if your soul is free, there is nothing they can do to you”

She looks at me hard, with piercing blue-gray eyes.

“In the end, those who are afraid always end up worse than the courageous.”

When you see politically correct bullshit, Maria Wittner, who went to death row in a communist prison because she wasn’t going to tolerate their lies, believes you should stand up and speak out. She put her finger in my face today to say so. She’s right. What a tough, tough lady.

This city has more than a few women like this. God, I love it.

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Saturday In Budapest

Mrs. Erzsèbet Kelecsènyi and Anna Salyi, in Mrs. K’s grand old Budapest apartment

Isn’t that a pretty image? It’s a shot of Mrs. Erzsèbet Kelecsènyi, a retired Budapest lawyer, speaking to my friend and interpreter Anna Salyi, in the living room of Mrs. Kelecsènyi’s grand old apartment near the city center. It’s a pretty magical place, I think; I kept thinking of the room — those ceilings must be 20 feet! — decorated for Christmas and filled with her grandchildren. I interviewed her today for my book about communism.

Here’s a portrait of Mrs. K., who was so welcoming to us:

She was the first interview of the Hungary part of my trip — if you don’t count the question I got to ask Viktor Orban in a Friday afternoon meeting at Buda Castle, but that’s a forthcoming post. The interview was arranged by Anna, who is coordinating them and translating for me. She and I met up at Central Cafe for lunch before heading over to Mrs. K’s. Here’s Anna, whose hard work for my project I especially appreciate because she’s pregnant with her and her husband Ormos’s second child, and it can’t be easy taking a visiting writer around Budapest:

If you must know, I had the chicken paprikash and a crisp Hungarian Riesling:

Alas, they didn’t have the full menu for lunch, just a short one. Too bad, because I would have eaten the pooyah out of the duck liver mille feuille. For dessert, Self ate the flodni, a traditional Jewish Budapest cake made from layers of apple, walnut, poppy seeds, and plum, separated by sweet pastry. It tasted like autumn:

What a great city this is! This evening I interviewed Anna’s parents, Tomas and Judit, both of whose fathers were political prisoners under Communism. It’s hard to reconcile the beauty and grace of these Budapest meals and domestic interiors with the hideous suffering Communists inflicted on the people of this country.

Judit’s father, for example, was diagnosed as insane by Communist physicians, because under the principles of Soviet psychiatry, political dissidents were by definition crazy. What had he done? In 1968, after visiting northern Romania and witnessing how horribly oppressed the ethnic Hungarians there were under the Ceausescu regime, Judit’s father tore down an image of the Romanian dictator on display in Budapest, and stomped it. For that, he was thrown into prison and administered 50 electroshocks over the course of his imprisonment. This left him mentally incapacitated, and permanently disabled. It destroyed his life.

Judit, who teaches at a local Catholic university, told me:

It has been a constant struggle for me to make people acknowledge what happened to my father. People don’t want to listen. They don’t want to know about that. Whether you live under oppression or not, it’s an ongoing and constant struggle for truth. Most people, or at least the average person, regards courage and high moral standards as a glitch, or a defect, or as superfluous. It has always been the privilege of the few to live by these values.

She added that she always tells her father’s story to her students at the university, because she considers it a sacred responsibility to tell the young what Communism meant. She had this message for my readers:  Tell these stories. 

More interviews tomorrow.

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What Pope Francis Unveils

Guido Napolitano/Shutterstock

The always-interesting Catholic writer Arturo Vasquez explores the meaning of Pope Francis’s “apocalypse.” No, he’s not talking about the End of the World. He’s talking about “apocalypse” in the sense of “unveiling.” He begins his analysis with an observation once made by Cardinal Ratzinger (later, Benedict XVI): that the Second Vatican Council was the French Revolution of the Catholic Church. Vasquez runs with it, and eventually arrives at this point:

The shock that conservatives have at Pope Francis, akin to the shock of the “forces of order” at 1848, is the nightmarish inverted mirror of the idea of the Papacy that Bonapartist John Paul II created: “L’Eglise c’est moi” (I am the the Church.) As in the game of chess, the conservative was always comforted that no matter how many pieces fell, as long as the king was still on the board, the game was not lost, indeed, they were winning. However, once the “other side” is in endgame against the king, a sense of foreboding finally emerges. There are those in the Church (the radical traditionalists, perhaps) who saw all of this ten moves ago. You cannot keep the Papacy clean when the rest of the Church has fallen into revolutionary chaos.

You cannot have a “Benedict XVI” Papacy in a “Pope Francis” rest of the church. That contradiction was bound to manifest itself eventually. That is the real “unveiling” of the Franciscan papacy: the actual church in its vast majority was closer to Pope Francis than it ever was to Pope Benedict XVI or even John Paul II. Pope Francis is the church you get in the confessional when the confessor doesn’t want to “hurt anyone’s feelings”. Pope Francis is the church where the one priest has six Masses on Sundays with the Ladies’ Altar Society constantly plotting against him due to a passing comment about a flower arrangement made three years ago. Pope Francis is the church of overflowing crowds of faithful at Christmas and Easter who disappear the next Sunday not to be seen again for months. And so on…

In other words, Francis is what you get when the actual church is Moralistic Therapeutic Deist. Vasquez’s insight makes a lot of sense to me in my own experiences. I mostly read my way into Catholicism in the early 1990s, and was therefore truly shocked to discover that the church of John Paul II, so to speak, was hard to find outside of books and my favorite religious magazines. Real parish life was way more like what we see today in Pope Francis. Understand I’m not making a theological statement here — I recognize that it’s the same church — but rather a statement about the phenomenon of Catholic churchgoing in contemporary culture.

I wonder, though, if there has ever been a time when the Pope was much like the rest of the Catholic Church, one way or the other. Vasquez goes on:

To be Catholic in our day is to have selective amnesia: What part of Tradition are you willing to forget? You can be consistent and jettison the whole thing. You can be slightly less consistent and believe that Thomas A Kempis and St. Therese also came to their views of the world singing bad Top 40 from 1972 knock-off songs in church every Sunday. You can be a little less consistent and think that maybe a little Latin is a good idea, and go even further and believe that the Sacred Liturgy was divinely handed to the Pope in 1962 only to be destroyed two years later. Or you can just descend into full consistent madness and believe the real Pope was locked in a basement at some point and replaced with an impostor. Spoiler alert: none of these is a good look.

Read it all. 

I used to read Vasquez years ago, but lost touch with his stuff. I can’t remember whether he stopped blogging, or I drifted away. But I’m glad to have discovered him again. Here he is writing last month about the churchgoing habits of the poor.

He says there’s a difference, especially in the First World, between “concern for the poor” and the “religion of the poor.” In Mexican-American barrios, says Vasquez, when poor people either get religion or return to religion, they usually don’t go, or go back to, Catholic churches; they go to storefront Protestant churches, or megachurches, or just pick up the Bible and start reading. More:

A lot of this is colored by my own personal experience, and some will protest of their own experience or that of loved ones. But demographics don’t lie. Numbers don’t lie. Half of Guatemala didn’t become evangelical Protestant because of deep dives by the masses into Reformation theology and the five solas. It became almost majority Protestant because Catholicism ceased being a “rock bottom” religion and became either a faith of the rich, a faith of social conscience (that doesn’t seem to solve anything), or a rote faith that one practices mindlessly.

Most of the Catholic conversion I have encountered on social media and the Internet over the past 20 years has been either very cerebral or zealously aesthetic. I count my own conversions as being of this nature. Seldom do I see people turning to Catholic Jesus in prison or because their wife left them or because they needed to kick their dope habit. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the Catholic intellectual and aesthetic convert, but they seem way more put together than many of the people I have known who became religious after a rough patch in their life. That’s why I am very pessimistic about the future of Catholicism in all of its forms in the First World. Even Pope Francis and his defenders seem to obsess about the poor and the outcasts when the poor and the outcasts are really obsessing about the megachurch pastor who might be one part prosperity gospel, one part self-help.

Is it possible that the Church of the Poor can obsess too much about being poor (in an act of “virtue signaling”) and not actually be something the poor want to be part of? Once you hit rock bottom, you don’t want to dwell about the societal and theological reasons you are there. You just want to climb out.

That goes a long way in describing how God pulled me out of my spiritual ruin as a Catholic, through Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy in the West is far more of a rarefied draw than Catholicism — I mean, something that attracts people who are cerebral and/or aesthetic. It’s not always that way — I know working-class folks who are Orthodox converts — but in the West, most of the converts I know are more or less middle class people who are unusually interested in theology. There’s nothing wrong with that. If it hadn’t been for the Orthodox church when I crashed and burned in Catholicism, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I’m not saying that to put down Protestantism, please understand; it’s only that intellectually and aesthetically, Protestantism left me cold.

I have discovered that Orthodoxy offers intellectual profundity and aesthetic beauty without parallel, but insists that there is only one way to know God: through personal prayer and repentance. You can master all the theological content in the world, but if you don’t pray, fast, and actively repent, it’s in vain. I have found that Orthodox Christianity is like learning how to play a musical instrument: you can read books to help you more deeply understand musical technique, musical history, and so forth, but there is no substitute for practice. This, as it turns out, is exactly what I needed to start the healing from the deleterious spiritual effects of my intellectual pride.

There are still some Catholics who want to take issue on an intellectual level with why I left Catholicism. I don’t deny that they have a legitimate case, but I can’t seem to convince them that for me in 2005, after three years of being jackhammered by scandal, I was at rock bottom as a Catholic, and didn’t want to dwell on the theological reasons why I ought to have stayed. I just wanted to climb out. Orthodox spirituality gave me a lifeline.

That whole experience gave me a different outlook on faith. It shattered the intellectual arrogance that had been far too much a part of my Catholic faith — a fault that belongs entirely to me, not to the Catholic Church. I’m serious: it was my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. It was a fault of a man who had come to believe in God primarily as an intellectual and aesthetic adventure. I had never really suffered a dark night of the soul until confronted the abuse scandal. All those beautiful theories didn’t help me when I had fallen into a deep well and broken both of my legs, spiritually speaking. I learned through a lot of pain the limits of intellection in matters of the soul.

It’s why I don’t want to argue with people about why they ought to be Orthodox, or anything else. It’s not that I disbelieve that these theological reasons are important. They are important. It’s not that I devalue apologetics as a practice; thank God for effective apologists. It’s partly that I know how weak I am, and how I’ve blown any credibility I have for making intellectual arguments about faith. But mostly it’s just that I don’t care anymore. If you want to know how I hit rock bottom and God put me back together through praying and worshiping as an Orthodox Christian, I’m happy to tell you. If you want to know why I can’t imagine being anything else, I’m happy to tell you. Seriously, I am — and I do, though I don’t write about it in this space, because that’s not what this blog is for.

I told some Catholics in Slovakia this week that I hope I’m not a false ecumenist, but that I see my role as trying to build up Christians who are struggling to live faithfully within the Great Tradition (or, within C.S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”) in a post-Christian world. Life is long and life is hard. I know Christians in every one of the traditions who are suffering, some of them greatly, under the weight of their particular crosses. I am too.

Reading Dante’s Purgatorio helped me understand how I should go about getting on with life after rock bottom. The pilgrims struggling up the mountain are weary and burdened, but they’re all so grateful to have been given God’s mercy, and so willing to help each other move forward. Nobody on the path up the mountain of Purgatory (which in the poem symbolizes the Christian journey in the mortal life) wants to stop and debate theology. They just want to talk about the love and mercy of God, and to help each other in their repentance.

Anyway, thank you, Arturo Vasquez, for making me think tonight. Here’s a link to Arturo’s page. His most recent post is about the meaning of the Eucharistic “Real Presence” in the Catholic faith, and the crisis of belief in it. I could write a whole post on it, but you just go read the original. I think what he says in his final paragraph is true. What an interesting and thoughtful writer on religion he is. I wrote about him here back in 2015, and about his belief that Christianity has to refuse modern rationalization, and become more “pagan,” if it wants to survive. First World Catholicism, he says, has become “politicized deism with props.” The man knows how to turn a phrase.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I am always interested in anything you bring up around Catholic conversion, because I explored the topic from an educational angle in my master’s thesis, which I am currently trying to publish. And I am currently working on a Ph.D, planning to continue some of that research at a deeper level. Needless, to say I have spent a lot of time studying this topic from an academic perspective.

It is interesting that Vasquez states that most conversions he has encountered “are very cerebral or zealously aesthetic”, your apparent agreement with that assessment.

It seems that way, because of their out-sized voice, but it is in fact very wrong. The USCCB did some research some years back on the topic, and based on their study (which is by a long shot the best data available), the overwhelming majority of converts do so because they are married or engaged to a Catholic and most of them primarily come at it for mostly marital harmony reasons.

This ‘banality’ has actually an upside and a downside which I will get to. But the most important point I want to get at is that, understanding this context paints a very different picture from contrasting the two ends of the spectrum, which Vasquez does:intellectuals vs the ‘turn my life around’ crowd. Both sides of that extreme constitute a small, but very vocal type of conversion. And the reality in most converts is there might be a mix of little, a lot, or none of both. It’s really a false dichotomy. It doesn’t help clarity the actual situation any more that dividing Americans into “Trump fanatics” and “Bernie Sanders socialists” would paint a very good picture of US politics.

The fact is most people who convert are mostly catalyzed by their spousal relationship. They enter the church without particularly grandiose expectations or opinions, and for the most part don’t talk much about their conversion. I have met quite a few devout Catholic converts, who I otherwise never would have known it without prodding (including my own wife). These people internalized it, and moved forward with varying degrees of gusto.

So let’s talk about the good and the bad of that. Bad first: Most of those people who convert, (again, via the USCCB study IIRC), don’t really ever darken the door of a Catholic Church again after a few weeks. The ordinary circumstance of their conversion, leads not to a quiet, ordinary life of faith, but a checkbox to be moved on from. And why? Maybe they never cared, sure. But faith is a gift from God, and there’s no reason God wouldn’t have planted in them a seed of faith. The real question is were those seeds watered? The Catholic Church had them as a captive audience for a year or more during RCIA in addition to their attendance at Mass. By day I am actually a sales trainer, and this is what you call a hot lead! More than that even, these are people who actively inquired and agreed to go through the entire buying process.

But here’s the good. That’s actually easier to fix than the if it were the other way. Here is someone who throws money on the table and says feed me. They’re not saying, “Prove to me that you are the greatest chef in the world”. Just “feed me”. If good converts only came out of the stocks of “turned my life arounders” and “intellectual rigorists”, who had to be dramatically won over, wow what a small chance we would have.

I understand your shock at discovering what life in the pews was like after your intellectual conversion, but most people don’t come in with that expectation.They have a modest openness to hearing the power of a kind of “Little Way”. An orthodox Catholic faith etched simply onto their lives. Instead they are treated to worthless modernist, MTD rubbish, and they find themselves the door. Meanwhile the trads, explain that if only they had been blasted with Latin and splendor, they might have stayed. And the Evangelicals win over their crowds with a weekly rock show. But this problem is not really about that. It’s about tremendous wasted opportunity, because the fact is, for most people, a holy Christian life, should and could be a very modest, authentic, and unassuming existence.

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French-Ahmari: A Report From The Scene

Sohrab Ahmari, moderator Ross Douthat, and David French (CUA Institute for Human Ecology screenshot)

[Note from Rod: I am in Yurp, and because of the time difference, could not watch the livestream of the David French/Sohrab Ahmari match-up at Catholic U. last night. My CUA professor friend and sometime TAC contributor Jon Askonas was there, and at my request, filed the following report for this blog’s readers. Thanks, Jon! — RD]

Last night, Sohrab Ahmari and David French met to debate the future of cultural conservatism, moderated by Ross Douthat and hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. The large lecture hall packed over five hundred people (many standing) in to listen, with the air and energy of a Vegas prize fight. The debate wasn’t just philosophical — Ahmari’s original column had had something of a personal tinge, and you could tell that French was there not just to vindicate his position but to defend his name.

Much of the conversation revolved around Drag Queen Story Hour, as Ahmari’s original motivation and as a paradigmatic example of the “cultural crisis and a moral emergency” that Ahmari argues “David Frenchism” is unprepared to handle. It was a bit annoying that the debate didn’t much move off of this terrain, but revealing in a number of ways.

French’s response was, effectively, to categorize DQSH as something he might personally abhor but with which it was necessary to abide in exchange for “viewpoint neutrality” as a hard-fought principle of public access, which a tremendous variety of Christian organizations draw on (in order to, say, book rooms at a library to hold a Bible study). He also labeled it a fringe phenomenon, with only a few dozen chapters around the country.

Ahmari’s pushback was that French was underselling DQSH as a cultural phenomenon (or what you might call a condensed symbol) indicating who really controls the commanding heights of American cultural institutions, and that “viewpoint neutrality” was a sham if people engaged in self-censorship, which Ahmari held to be the real goal of the left, not formal legal censorship.

In the conversation that ensued, French defended the First Amendment, “viewpoint neutrality,” and due process as fundamental rights that protect Christians and religious groups more than anything (based on his legal work), even if it also protects things Christians don’t like. He pushed Ahmari to be specific about the legal tools he would use to fight against things like DQSH, to which he (Ahmari) did not have a great response.

French believes that these legal norms, vigorously defended, are enough to make a public space in which Christians can worship and evangelize freely. He sees a more-or-less upward trajectory in religious rights, based on decades of hard-fought battles, and sees any attempt to use the state to promote a cultural moral consensus as both unethical (he invoked the Golden Rule) and likely to backfire.

Ahmari, for his part, was strongest when he returned to a sense of cultural and moral emergency which suggests that something is wrong in American life, and when he focused on the conditions of belief or morality for the masses, not just the devout. He poked some holes in French’s originalist jurisprudence (hard to believe the Founders would have found DQSH to be protected speech), but struggled with the details, or to mount a sustained offense. It seemed like Douthat, the moderator, made most of his best points for him (in the form of “summations” of Ahmari-ism posed as questions to French.

In the ensuing hours, a few conclusions have congealed:

  • There was near-universal consensus that French mopped the floor with Ahmari, even if he wasn’t particularly persuasive for his position. He stuck to the legal and constitutional arguments he is most comfortable with and knowledgeable about, revealed legal flaws in Ahmari’s claims, and consistently pressed Ahmari to be specific in his proposals, which revealed a shallowness of thought in Ahmari’s arguments. Amongst the French-skeptical folks I spoke with afterwards, a main topic of conversation was who else might have represented the post-liberal/national conservative position better (Patrick Deneen was the most frequent name to come up).
  • There seemed to be something of an age divide. The older folks in the room seemed to more likely to be in French’s corner, whereas all of the Millennials and Gen Zers I talked to instinctually agreed with Ahmari (even if they didn’t think he’d acquitted himself well).
  • This was obviously personal for French, and Ahmari seemed far less prepared than French. (“You come at the king, you best not miss.”)
  • In some ways, the debate itself was emblematic of the divide in American conservatism. The classical liberal (French) was polished, rehearsed, and supported by the conservative establishment, arguing that we need to stay the course and not throw the baby out with the bathwater (or in French’s memorable analogy, not storm the cockpit United 93-style and choke out the pilot over a bit of turbulence). The postliberal (Ahmari) was combative, passionate, and full of spleen, but relied more on bravado than argumentation and didn’t seem to have a concrete sense of what he was for, rather than what he was against.
  • There was a palpable Catholic and Protestant difference in their arguments. French was explicitly concerned with Christians’ ability to preach a life-giving Gospel, even without equality in the public sphere. Ahmari was concerned about public religiosity and practice, and the impact of the public sphere not on firm believers but on the marginal, overworked working class family that can’t afford to put their kids in Christian school and maybe isn’t particularly educated or sophisticated about their faith.
  • The conversation revolved much too much at the highest levels of culture and law. Ahmari would have benefited from pushing the conversation towards the role of professional associations and “woke capital”: the American Library Association, American Bar Association, medical review boards, college accreditation agencies, HR departments, etc. What practical or ethical limits does David French see in rooting out the post-liberal Left in these institutions that actually shape the public space on a day to day basis?

Thanks again, Jon. Here’s a video of the event, which lasted 90 minutes:

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Happy Birthday Werner Herzog

It’s September 5, the birthday of irreplaceable German film director Werner Herzog. That means it’s Tweet Like Werner Herzog Day — also known as #Twertzog — so proclaimed by the irreplaceable Twitter account @wernertwertzog (it’s not really Herzog, but a parody tribute).

Here are some of this year’s better ones from the master himself. Nobody comes close:


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