Noah Millman

‘Only I Can Fix It’

Meanwhile, my own column at The Week offers the President a bit of empathy:

It’s so hard to get good help these days.

All the president wants in the people he hires is someone who he can trust, who understands him and what he wants to do, and who will be loyal. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently it is. And I feel your pain, Mr. President.

Read the whole thing there.

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Trumpism and the Politics of Distrust

Damon Linker’s latest column for The Week is a lament for Trump’s absurdly high approval rating:

President Trump’s approval rating has sunk to historic lows. No president has hit an average of 38 percent this early in his first term. Those of us who are prone to despair at the disaster of the Trump administration are told to take solace in this fact.

This is dead wrong — a product of analysts insisting on judging the 45th president by the same standards that applied to previous occupants of the White House when no such comparison is warranted.

The politically relevant, and profoundly disturbing, fact is precisely the opposite of the conventional wisdom: After six months of unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure, and credible evidence of a desire to collude with a hostile foreign government to subvert an American election, President Trump’s approval rating is astonishingly high — with something between one-third and two-fifths of the American people apparently liking what they see and hear from the White House. They approve of the constant ignoble churn and presumably want it to continue. This is the kind of politics they prefer.

That is simply stunning — and reveals just how precarious American democracy has become.

Linker goes on to ruminate on whether Americans have lost their “democratic habits” and become more authoritarian in orientation, and thereby become receptive to someone like Trump, or whether it’s the other way around. Either way, our republic is under serious threat.

I don’t minimize the threat myself, because I share much of Linker’s concern. We have lost some of our democratic habits — indeed, in many ways we are losing our very cohesion as a society. But I frame the question very differently.

I know a bunch of Trump supporters. Some of them are intellectuals who write for places like TAC. But most are not. Neither are any of them raving bigots or knuckle-dragging neanderthals, and all of them read the news, though with vastly less obsessiveness than people who work in the business.

None of them “like” things like “unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure” or collusion with foreign governments. Some of them minimize some of these things at least some of the time — and I myself have been known to derive a kind of pleasure from the absurdity of a figure like Mooch. But this isn’t what the people who I know who voted Trump voted for, nor is it why they continue to be happy with their vote  — which, however unhappy they are with how the administration is conducting itself, most of them still are.

Rather, the commonality among those who voted for Trump is their conviction that the Democratic party’s leadership is utterly bankrupt, and, to one degree or another, so is the Republican leadership. And that assessment hasn’t changed one iota since the election.

I have a friend who was a big Ron Paul supporter who voted Trump with firm conviction that he was the only alternative to the final destruction of what was left of the republic. Is he happy with Trump? No — he’s especially unhappy with the number of Goldman bankers Trump appointed to senior economic posts, but more generally he acknowledges that the government is in chaos and that Trump is not bringing the change he hoped for. But he doesn’t regret his vote, and he prefers the chaos of Trump to business-as-usual under either the Democrats or the Republicans. And if Trump winds up discrediting the Federal government generally, that’s fine with him.

I have another friend who is a successful former Wall Street trader who always votes Republican, was a fan of Romney and looks back fondly on George H. W. Bush. He surprised himself by voting for Trump in the primaries because it was “time for a change.” He had no doubts about voting for Trump in the general election, and while he thinks the reality show shenanigans are ridiculous, he thinks government in general is pretty ridiculous. From his perspective, the administration hasn’t done much yet, but it also hasn’t done anything really crazy — and he retains his conviction that Hillary Clinton would have been a truly terribly president, much worse than Trump is.

I have yet another friend who is a strong immigration opponent and opponent of America’s interventions in the Middle East who, for obvious reasons, voted for Trump with enthusiasm, and who is very happy at the way Trump has changed the terms of the debate and punctured the pieties of political correctness. He agrees that Trump is a sloppy manager and that there’s way too much drama, but he also thinks much of the drama is because of the press rather than uniquely due to Trump. He thinks everybody should calm down.

I don’t agree with these friends of mine. I think things are much more serious than that, and that Trump is already proving to be a pretty catastrophic president. But my point is that these people aren’t frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics. Nor are they incipient authoritarians convinced that we need a strong man to wipe out the enemies of the state. They are, however, people who have lost trust in the individuals and institutions who are most alarmed about Trump: the political establishment, the press, etc. And so, on a relative basis, they’d rather continue to put their trust in Trump.

The challenge for those who oppose Trump isn’t to convince the American people that Trump presents a threat to democracy, or to wean them off the thrill of a reality show roller coaster in Washington. The challenge is to win back the trust of people who have tuned them out entirely.

The fact is that liberalism has always been an elite rather than a popular ideology, and we shouldn’t panic that our democracy will collapse if large numbers of Americans want to restrict speech they don’t approve of. What we should worry about is the mutual alienation between ordinary Americans and the elites that inevitably man the institutions of the state and civil society. That’s what fuels populism, whether of the left or the right. And populism by its very nature cannot build institutions, cannot govern, even if the populist leader is more competent than Trump is.

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Ross Douthat Throws In the Towel

Is there any other way to read this column than as a complete abandonment of the Reformicon fight?

In some alternate America, some Earth-2 (or Earth-27), there is a Republican Party capable of putting together a health care bill that isn’t incoherent and unpopular. In some distant, misty Neverland, there is a G.O.P. capable of balancing fiscal responsibility and limited-government principle with the creativity required to address working-class America’s social crisis.

But the world is what it is, and a party that offers nothing, whose ideological sclerosis and internal contradictions allow it to offer nothing, might as well just go pass a tax cut and call it a day.

Not tax reform, which would improve the efficiency of the code. Just a plain old tax cut. That’s all he believes this GOP is capable of:

I’m not saying that Republicans couldn’t still do a comprehensive and permanent tax reform in theory. Set health care aside entirely and there are still lots of clever and plausible ways to overhaul and improve the tax code without sacrificing revenue.

You could cap various perverse deductions that mostly benefit wealthy blue-state taxpayers, like the home-mortgage and state and local tax deductions, and use the savings to lower rates across the board. You could cut the corporate tax rate and raise the capital-gains tax rate to compensate, as Senator Mike Lee has proposed. You could even (gasp, heresy, gasp) raise the top income tax rate, as Steve Bannon reportedly wants to do, and use the savings to cut payroll taxes or fund a new child tax credit.

But Republicans don’t seem equipped to pull off anything complicated, they don’t look united enough to take political risks, and they aren’t ideologically ready to pass anything heretical. So barring a sudden transformation in the party and its leadership, a temporary, deficit-financed tax cut is the only thing that has a decent chance of happening.

Douthat goes on to say that while a tax cut wouldn’t be “not the greatest idea, neither is it a terrible one” — provided that Republicans “focus on corporate and payroll taxes, on business and workers, instead of just aiming for the lowest possible top income tax rate.” But what are the odds of that?

His rousing conclusion:

Personally I can live with a Trump administration that appoints conservative judges and fails at everything else, since judicial appointments are about the only thing I trust this G.O.P. to do.

But if Congress insists on continuing to try legislating, I will give a 10-year tax cut my official Trump-era seal of approval: They could certainly do worse.

And it’s true! A party that borrows from the Chinese to give tax breaks to Wall Street financiers and billionaire heiresses would be an improvement on a party that does those things and starts catastrophic wars in the Middle East. But what are the odds we won’t get more of those, too?

No wonder he longs for a king.

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A Euro-African West?

It’s no secret how much I admire the work that Ross Douthat is doing at The New York Times, and one reason is that, more than most columnists, he’s willing and able to write things that you have to chew on for a bit before you quite get them. His recent column about Africa and the West is one of those. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the setup:

[T]he years of decolonization that followed World War II, are the subject of a book by the anthropologist and historian Gary Wilder, “Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World.” Wilder follows two black intellectuals and politicians, Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, who shared a striking combination of anti-imperialist zeal and desire for continued political union with the French Republic.

Césaire’s tiny Martinique did indeed become a French département. But in Senegal and Africa and the once-colonized world writ large, their project never had a chance. Once the age of empire ended, political separation became inevitable.

Yet against critics who deemed both men sellouts and self-haters for desiring to remain in some sense French, Wilder argues that their vision was complex and potentially prophetic.

They were Western-educated Francophones who read deeply in the European canon, who believed in the “miracle of Greek civilization,” who drew on Plato and Virgil and Pascal and Goethe. At the same time, they argued for their own race’s civilizational genius, for a negritude that turned a derogatory label into a celebration of African cultural distinctiveness.

And finally they believed that part of the West’s tradition, the universalist ideals they associated with French republicanism and Marxism, could be used to create a political canopy — a transnational union — beneath which humanity could be (to quote Césaire) “more than ever united and diverse, multiple and harmonious.”

This vision was rejected by both the colonized and the colonizers. But in certain ways it was revived by global elites after the Cold War’s end, with neoliberalism substituted for Marxism, and a different set of transnational projects — the European Union, the Pax Americana — taking the place of the pan-ethnic, multicultural French Union envisioned by Césaire and Senghor.

Of late, though, this project has run into some of the same difficulties that made theirs an impossibility. The cultural reality that Césaire and Senghor grasped — that civilizational difference is real and powerful and lasting — has a way of undoing the political unity for which they fondly hoped.

But, after a detour into descriptions of our burgeoning populist-nationalist moment, Douthat winds up in an interesting place:

[The] nationalist argument comes in racist forms, but it need not be the white nationalism that Trump’s liberal critics read into his speech. It can just be a species of conservatism, which prefers to conduct cultural exchange carefully and forge new societies slowly, lest stability suffer, memory fail and important things be lost.

As such, it’s a view I endorse. But in the European case I don’t necessarily believe that it will prevail. I certainly don’t believe in Trump as its paladin — not when his entire career makes a mockery of faith, family, tradition, virtue. Nor do I have much confidence that the present burst of European nationalism is more than a spasm, a reflex — not when religious practice is so weak, patriotism so attenuated, the continent’s birthrate so staggeringly low.

What’s more, I can read the population projections for Europe versus the Middle East and Africa, which make ideas like “managed migration” and “careful cultural exchange” seem like pretty conceits that 21st-century realities will eventually explode.

Which brings me back to Césaire and Senghor, men who loved their African heritage and yet also knew European civilization better than most educated Europeans do today. Their fantasy of a post-imperial union between north and south, white and black, was in their times just that.

But as a striking sort of African-European hybrid, as prophets of a world where the colonized and the colonizers had no choice but to find a way to live together, the West’s future may belong to them in some altogether unexpected way.

That feels not so much like an ending as a beginning, and I hope Douthat returns to it. Because ultimately, what he’s talking about isn’t a question of political structures but of cultural self-conceptions. The thing about the West is that it’s an exceptionally malleable concept. But it’s not infinitely malleable. A civilization — like China’s, say — with a long history of its own, an acute consciousness of its own distinctiveness, and the power to maintain that distinctiveness is not ever going to think of itself as Western. So the effort to recast Western civilization as simply “civilization” or “liberalism” or even “modernity” undermines our relationship with our own heritage without truly embracing a universal humanity.

But it’s not obvious to me that all of that applies equally well to Africa and its relationship with the West, for a host of historical and cultural reasons. Which is the subject of my latest column at The Week:

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron could have talked about any number of topics over dinner last night. In many ways, they are perfect complements to one another, each grasping opposite ends of the same stick. Both leaders took unlikely and previously-untrodden paths to their respective countries’ highest office, and they have a shared Napoleonic appreciation for the role of spectacle and performance in the establishment of authority.

They’ve both also recently made provocative comments about “civilization.” I doubt they talked about it over dinner last night, but I hope they did. Because this is another area where the two leaders have grasped the same stick from opposite ends.

Trump’s Warsaw speech proclaimed the urgent need to defend Western civilization from threats from the “south” and “east” — but most especially from within, from a lack of will to defend it and pass it on. Critics from the left expressed alarm, as if any defense of specifically Western civilization was necessarily a variety of white supremacy; critics from the right objected that the problem was not so much the message as the messenger. But regardless, the question was put on the table: Is there such a thing as Western civilization. If so, does it need defending? And of what would that defense consist?

Macron, meanwhile, got into trouble talking not about the West but about another civilization. Asked by a reporter from Côte d’Ivoire about the prospect of a Marshall Plan for Africa, Macron said that the Marshall Plan was a bad model because Europe already had stable structures and just needed to be rebuilt, while Africa?

The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilizational, today. What are the problems in Africa? Failed states, complex democratic transitions, demographic transition, which is one of the main challenges facing Africa, it is then the roads of multiple trafficking which also require answers in terms of security and regional coordination, trafficking drugs, arms trafficking, human trafficking, trafficking in cultural property and violent fundamentalism, Islamist terrorism, all this today mixed up, creates difficulties in Africa. At the same time, we have countries that are tremendously successful, with an extraordinary growth rate that makes people say that Africa is a land of opportunity. [Macron]

Macron went on to talk about high birth rates as another source of instability, all leading to a conclusion that a simple cash transfer would be ineffective without first tackling these pervasive social, political, and governance problems.

Of course, the Marshall Plan itself did much more than transfer cash; it tackled important social, political, and governance problems too. But leave that aside, and the question remained: Could Africa’s problems be plausibly described as “civilizational?” Or is it problematic to even talk of “African civilization” as opposed to distinguishing between the many, highly distinct countries and cultures on the continent of Africa?

One might say that both men spoke out of a history of Western fear and disdain for non-Western peoples. But I see something different, much more interesting and, in a way, more hopeful.

The rest of the column goes rather far out on a limb. I wonder on some level whether it isn’t informed by a kind of nostalgia for the time when the most important country in the West was led by an African. But: read the whole thing there and let me know if you think I went too far, and came crashing to the ground.

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Reagan’s Aliens and Climate Change

My latest column at The Week is the only column published anywhere today that is not about Donald Trump Jr.:

President Ronald Reagan famously used to discomfit his advisors by bringing up a favorite thought experiment. What, he wondered, would the nations of the world do if extra-terrestrial aliens invaded our planet? Wouldn’t we put aside our differences and unite against the common threat? And if that is true, then shouldn’t we put aside our differences now, to unite against that which threatens all of life on earth, the scourge of nuclear weapons? . . .

Of course, Reagan’s vision never came to pass. The Cold War ended, not because America and the Soviet Union put aside our differences but because the Soviet side collapsed. Far from abandoning nuclear weapons that they could ill afford, the Russian Federation has clung to them as a vital signifier of superpower status, while the United States has, under Bush and Obama and now Trump, explored ever more-seriously using them on the battlefield. Worst of all, nuclear technology is now in the hands of a regime as terrifying as North Korea. If the fear of a general nuclear exchange has receded considerably, the prospects of international cooperation to actually end the threat feel further away than they were at the height of the Cold War.

I was thinking about this history in light of the much-discussed recent doom-crying article on climate change by David Wallace-Wells for New York magazine.

Wallace-Wells’ premise in writing the article is similar in its way to Reagan’s: that if people understood the nature and scope of the common threat, they would unite against it. Most people probably don’t realize just how catastrophic the consequences of climate change could be, just as most people probably didn’t realize that mutually-assured destruction really did mean that the human race itself was at risk if deterrence ever broke down. While much of the press since Wallace-Wells’ article came out has cautioned that the worst-case scenarios are unlikely and that real progress is actually being made, it’s also true that the composition of the atmosphere has already changed enough that some serious consequences are already baked in, and that predictions get harder the further out into the tail of the probability distribution we get. Even under more hopeful scenarios, the potential consequences of climate change are severe enough to outweigh virtually any of the petty concerns that dominate our politics.

So why can’t we unite against this threat?

Read the whole thing there for my answer.

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Burn After Reading

I have nothing to say about the latest revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s emails, because Ross Douthat has said it all in pictures. Or, rather, the Coen Brothers did:






This Kevin Drum post is also worth reading, if you are still capable of caring about anything in this regard, and haven’t adopted eastern fatalism in defense of the West.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat’s perfectly-titled post on the subject is an excellent rejoinder to the various and in-isolation-convincing arguments that the smoking gun wasn’t really loaded:

[W]hile this is not direct evidence that the president of the United States was complicit in a virtual burglary perpetrated against the other party during an election season, it’s strong evidence that we should drop the presumption that such collusion is an extreme or implausible scenario.

Instead, the mix of inexperience, incaution and conspiratorial glee on display in the emails suggests that people in Trump’s immediate family — not just satellites like Roger Stone — would have been delighted to collude if the opportunity presented itself. Indeed, if the Russians didn’t approach the Trump circle about how to handle the D.N.C. email trove, it was probably because they recognized that anyone this naïve, giddy and “Burn After Reading”-level stupid would make a rather poor espionage partner.

Read the whole thing.

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Does the West Have a Civilization?

I’m frankly flabbergasted by this Peter Beinart article about Trump’s speech in Warsaw. Specifically, I am flabbergasted that he wants to let the alt-right define Western Civilization:

The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.

The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.

The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim.

Ok, then! So, India has a civilization. Japan has a civilization. China has a civilization. And inasmuch as the West has a civilization, it can only be defined in racial and religious terms.

There are really only three ways to take this that I can think of:

  • Either the folks on the alt-right are correct, and our civilization can only be preserved if we preserve white Christian dominance. I am pretty sure that Beinart doesn’t mean this, but if I agreed with them myself it would be pretty easy to point to Beinart’s piece and say: see? Even Peter Beinart thinks we are right.
  • Or having a distinct “civilization” is something that the West has transcended, unlike the lesser breeds in China and Egypt who still cling to their particularism, though hopefully one day they will join us in the sunny progressive uplands in their own good time. I rather suspect Beinart does believe something like this, though I am using deliberately inflammatory language to characterize what those beliefs imply.
  • Or the West has a uniquely odious civilization that must be repudiated to avoid the taint of racism. I don’t actually think Beinart thinks this at all, but I understand why someone like Rod Dreher might take his language to mean he does.

You don’t have to believe that Western Civilization is under any kind of serious threat to believe that it exists. Nor do you have to believe that Western Civilization is readily defined  and delimited within borders to believe that it exists. I mean, ask someone from China or Japan or India or Egypt if they believe Western Civilization exists. I’m confident they will say yes.

But they won’t define that civilization in exclusively or even primarily racial or religious terms. Indeed, a major point of debate for much of the 19th and 20th centuries in the non-western world was whether modernization required westernization — that is to say, did you have to adopt the institutions, cultural habits and lifestyle of Europe to become modern, industrialized countries able to compete with the countries of Europe in economic and military terms? The modern history of countries like Japan and Turkey is dominated by this debate, a debate that is still not over. And that debate was never about whether they needed to convert to Christianity, much less alter their genes.

Western Civilization aspires to universality precisely because it is not limited to a particular race or religion — and it was that way from the beginning, as Alexander and his successors  sought to forge a new Hellenistic civilization out of the combination of Greek, Persian and Egyptian civilizations. But this universality is aspirational, not actual. “The West” is not coterminous with “the developed world” or “the global community” — and we’d get along better with countries like China if we didn’t behave as if it were.

Will Europe still be “Western” if it becomes a quarter African, or a quarter Muslim? I don’t know — and neither does Beinart. I imagine the answer is path-dependent, that is to say: how that demographic transformation takes place will have a great deal to do with what the continent looks like on the other side of it. There is a great deal of difference between replacing the boards of a ship one by one until none of the original boards remains, and simply building another ship from scratch and asserting it’s the same as the original — much less deciding that “ship” is an oppressive term! That’s one of the reasons we are having a debate about immigration, globally: because the sheer scale of migration is appropriately causing people to ask these kinds of questions. But why on earth should anyone with Beinart’s political commitments concede that the alt-right is correct, and that the answer is unquestionably “no”?

I thought Trump’s speech was awful, because it is based, like his politics generally, entirely on fear. But so is Beinart’s article, only with the values reversed. And nothing — not Western Civilization nor liberalism — will be saved by stoking fear and calling for the will to resist. The only call with any power to save is the call to love.

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God and Man in the Times

Oh, boy. This is really, really good.

A little while ago the prolific and intellectually-promiscuous Tyler Cowen solicited the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and then with some prodding followed up with a post outlining some of his reasons for not being a believer. I can’t match Cowen’s distinctive mix of depth and pith, but I thought I’d take the liberty of responding to some of his reasons in a dialogic style, with my responses edited in between some of his thoughts. Nothing in here should be construed as an attempt to make the Best Argument for God, and the results are rather long and probably extremely self-indulgent, so consider yourself forewarned. But here goes.

I am going to write about this again at greater length when I have more time. For now, I first want to applaud Douthat for opening the kimono as wide as he does in this artificially-constructed dialogue. I feel I know him better, and appreciate him better, and I am genuinely humbled by the combination of seriousness and humility with which he has approached his subject, and his sort-of interlocutor.

I’m going to react to one bit here:

What I’m looking for when I gamble on a world-picture is something that makes sense of the four major features of existence that give rise to religious questions – the striking fact of cosmic order, our distinctive consciousness, our strong moral sense and thirst for justice and the persistent varieties of supernatural experience. The various forms of materialism strike me as very weak on all four counts, and the odds that what Thomas Nagel called “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature” is true therefore seem quite low. All these numbers will be a little arbitrary, but for the sake of the game I’ll set the probability that a hard materialism accurately describes reality at 2 percent (and I think I’m being generous there).

So what does? Well, if you decide treat every religious revelation as essentially equally plausible or implausible and decline to choose between them, the best world-picture candidates are either a form of classical theism as it would have been understood by most pre-modern thinkers and continues to be understood by many theologians today (again, read David Bentley Hart for a recent and compelling case), or else a form of pantheism or panentheism or panpsychism in which God/consciousness/the universe are in some sense overlapping categories, and all spiritual/supernatural experiences are partial and personal and culturally mediated glimpses of a unity.

Both of these possibilities seem to have more explanatory power across my four categories than does, say, a hard deism (which makes the varieties of religious experience a lot harder to explain) or a dualism or a gnosticism (both of which seem a little unparsimonious, and also somewhat poor fits for the “data” of religious experience) or a literalist polytheism (which begs too many questions about cosmic order, which is why philosophically-serious polytheists often tend to be pantheists or classical theists at bottom). And the latter possibility, some sort of pantheism, seems to be where a lot of post-Christians who are too sensible or too experienced to accept a stringent atheism are drifting – it shows up in different forms in writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, Sam Harris, Thomas Nagel, Anthony Kronman, even Philip Pullman, and it pervades a great deal of pop spirituality these days. Indeed it might be where I would end up if I radically changed my mind about the credibility of the Christian story; I’m not entirely sure. (It would probably come down to questions of theodicy; I’ll spare you the provisional thought process.)

For now, I’ll give odds as follows (again, treating all revelations equally): Classical theism 45 percent, the pantheistic big tent 40 percent, gnosticism 6 percent, hard “no supernatural” deism 4 percent, dualism 3 percent. Which still leaves that 2 percent chance that Daniel Dennett has it right.

I’m genuinely touched that Douthat has let panpsychism into the tent of religion, as I have pronounced inclinations in that direction myself. But I’m not totally sure it’s earned. At a minimum, to my mind, religion is the conviction that whatever we term the entity responsible for the fact of existence has a mind, and that is mindful of us. For a panpsychist, that entity is the universe itself, and it has the property of mind inasmuch as consciousness is understand as a universal property of being. But can one truly have a relationship with that universal consciousness? Maybe Bill Murray can, but for the rest of us I’m not sure.

More, as I say, when I have time for more.

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Independence Day Movies

Damon Linker has a list of five movies to watch this Independence Day:

I love my country. But I want to love it truthfully, thoughtfully — for what it is, in all of its moral and historical complexity, not as a purified object of imagined perfection.

The best way to seek out this understanding is through reading history. But other forms of creative expression can be helpful, too. Fiction, poetry, theater, song — and of course the modern age’s most viscerally powerful and technologically advanced form of creative expression: film.

Picking just a handful movies that shine a revealing light on the meaning and struggles of American life can be a challenge. But here are five that fit the bill. All are enduring works of art, and all would make excellent selections for inclusion at a Fourth of July film festival for thoughtful patriots.

His five films include two released in 1989, two starring Robert De Niro, two that are about Vietnam, and three that are about people from New York. If I made a list, it would probably look similar, which just proves we’re both northeastern white guys born around 1970. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Myself, I’m in a more dyspeptic mood, so this Independence Day I’d choose to re-watch “Foxcatcher,” a film I wrote about back when it came out, but which I suspect will cut a bit more to the quick in the current political context.

(Meanwhile, if I don’t make progress on this essay, I’m going to have to do what I usually do when blocked, and re-watch the great writer’s block triptych: “Barton Fink,” “Adaptation” and “The Shining.” Wish me luck; I’m already part-way down that rabbit hole, and I really don’t want to go all the way.)

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Chesterton’s Defense of Patriotism

On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. For the first of all the marks of love is seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid counsellor the best.

–G. K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Patriotism”

I got into a discussion on Facebook with a friend yesterday about how to teach patriotism to your children, if you want them to understand their country’s crimes and failures as well as its achievements. Here’s what I said:

There’s a question behind the question, and that is what the basis of patriotism should be at all? And it feels to me like that’s only a question because of the size of our political communities.

People feel an attachment, and a willingness to fight to protect, their homes, and their communities. That can take noble and ignoble forms — sometimes fighting to defend your community means committing injustice (as, for example, if you band together with your neighbors to prevent someone from a disfavored ethnic group from moving to the neighborhood). But the feeling is rooted in a direct experience, not an abstract attachment.

For any political community larger than a city, though, that attachment necessarily becomes abstract. So you need to teach your children why they should care about that larger community, be proud of it, and treat it as constituent of their identity.

Chesterton famously quipped that the sentiment, “my country, right or wrong” is like the sentiment, “my mother, drunk or sober.” But the thing about the latter is that she is your mother whether she’s drunk or sober — it’s just that your obligations change based on her condition. If she’s drunk, you won’t let her drive — instead, you’ll make sure she gets home safely.

The question, then, is how you teach your children to see their country as, in some sense, like a mother when their relationship is necessarily abstract rather than directly felt. A love of country based on the lie that your mother is never drunk will be too brittle to survive any kind of honest encounter with reality. But it seems to me equally problematic to say that you should love your country because it is on-balance a good one. Does anyone say about their mother that they love them because on-balance they are sober?

Filial love is first and foremost rooted in gratitude for existence itself. That applies to adopted children as well; we are not born able to fend for ourselves, but radically dependent on others’ love and care, and however imperfectly it was provided if we survived at all then it was provided in some measure. And that gratitude extends to the larger society. None of us were raised in the wilderness; whoever we are, we are because of the world that shaped us, and we are grateful to be ourselves even if we are not always happy being ourselves.

So the central question of how to teach patriotism is not “how do I teach my child that my country is deserving of love when it has done terrible things” but “how do I teach my child that they owe a debt to an entity as abstract as their country, and that in the fullness of time they will discharge that debt by taking responsibility for its well-being.”

Anyway, that’s what prompted me to look up the larger context of the Chesterton quote. Appropriate for every season, sadly only more appropriate as time goes on.

Happy Independence Day.

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