I grew up in a pretty rough environment, and what the American dream meant to me was that I had a decent enough job to support my family and that I could be a good husband and a good father. That’s what I most wanted out of my life. It wasn’t the American dream of the striver. It wasn’t the American dream, frankly, that I think animates much of this town. I didn’t care if I went to an Ivy League law school, I didn’t care if I wrote a best-selling book, I didn’t care if I had a lot of money. What I wanted was to be able to give my family and my children the things that I hadn’t had as a kid: That was the sense in which the American dream mattered most to me.
That American dream is undoubtedly in decline. I want to talk a little bit about why I think that’s happening and what a conservative politics has to do in response, but I think a first step is to distinguish between a conservative politics and a libertarian politics. I don’t mean to criticize libertarianism. I first learned about conservatism as an idea from Friedrich Hayek. The Road to Serfdom is one of the best books that I’ve ever read about conservative thought. But in an important way I believe that conservatives have outsourced our economic and domestic policy thinking to libertarians.
Because that is such a loaded word, and because labels mean different things to different people, I want to define it as precisely as I can. So if you don’t consider yourself a libertarian under this definition, I apologize: What I’m going after is the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce. For example, in Silicon Valley, it is common for neuroscientists to make much more at technology companies like Apple and Facebook—where they quite literally are making money addicting our children to devices and applications that warp their brains—than neuroscientists who are trying to cure Alzheimer’s.
I know a lot of libertarians will say, “that is the consequence of free choices,” or “that is the consequence of people buying and selling labor on an open market and so long as there isn’t any government coercion in that relationship, we shouldn’t be so concerned about it.” But what I’m arguing is that conservatives should be concerned about it. We should be concerned that our economy is geared more toward developing applications than curing terrible diseases. We should care about a whole host of public goods, and should actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish some of those public goods.
Culture is centered around cult. To the extent that it binds us together, it is a form of religio. America was at the time of its founding an overwhelmingly Christian nation. It would seem, then, that a Chinese Christian dissident, or a Nigerian fleeing Boko Haram, has much less cultural distance from America and its founding than do most present-day Canadians or Swedes.
… It is doubtful that its affirmation of equal dignity can be sustained without belief in the God who made man in his image.
If this Christian vision is simply reactionary, it will fail. If it manages to be aspirational and forward-looking, it has a chance to succeed. In the 1960s, America belatedly chose its Christian identity – what Martin Luther King called “the sacred heritage of our nation” – over white supremacy. In the same period, America’s self-consciously Protestant and unashamedly anti-Catholic identity collapsed with the election of JFK. A truly Christian vision of America would build on these achievements, rather than seeking to revive a white Protestant past.
Such a vision leads to radically different conclusions on immigration than those reached by [Amy] Wax. Catholic migrants from Central America now have more in common with our Puritan forebears than do most Europeans. Their Church still proclaims the bodily resurrection of Christ, still believes in original sin and predestination, still opposes the evil of contraception. These are things the Puritans professed but many Protestant bodies, and many residents of formerly Protestant states – including Wax’s favoured “First World” countries – no longer believe. Central Americans should be favoured over Europeans under any immigration policy based on cultural distance.
That said, discussing immigration risks distracting us from our country’s most important divide. The greatest cultural distance is not between natives and migrants but between a religious, patriotic, multi-racial working class and a secular, progressive, and largely white elite. Our country’s opinion-makers hate faith, revile patriotism and contemn family. People loyal to what is most noble in the American heritage have less in common with them than with almost any migrant.
I was speaking with a Napa Institute friend from Los Angeles, and we started talking about St. Josemaria Escriva and Opus Dei. We hadn’t seen each other in two years, but conversation picked up as if it had just ended earlier in the day. We talked about our lives for a while, he asked about Washington, where he lived when he was younger. After a while he recommended I read Josemaria Escriva’s 1967 homily, “Passionately Loving The World,” which I’m excerpting here:
We are celebrating the holy Eucharist, the sacramental sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord, that mystery of faith which binds together all the mysteries of Christianity. We are celebrating, therefore, the most sacred and transcendent act which we, men and women, with God’s grace can carry out in this life: receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord is, in a certain sense, like loosening our ties with earth and time, so as to be already with God in heaven, where Christ himself will wipe the tears from our eyes and where there will be no more death, nor mourning, nor cries of distress, because the old world will have passed away.
This profound and consoling truth, which theologians usually call the eschatological meaning of the Eucharist, could, however, be misunderstood. Indeed, this has happened whenever people have tried to present the Christian way of life as something exclusively spiritual – or better, spiritualistic something reserved for pure, extraordinary people who remain aloof from the contemptible things of this world, or at most tolerate them as something that the spirit just has to live alongside, while we are on this earth.
When people take this approach, churches become the setting par excellence of the Christian way of life. And being a Christian means going to church, taking part in sacred ceremonies, getting into an ecclesiastical mentality, in a special kind of world, considered the ante-chamber to heaven, while the ordinary world follows its own separate course. In this case, Christian teaching and the life of grace would pass by, brushing very lightly against the turbulent advance of human history but never coming into proper contact with it.
On this October morning, as we prepare to enter upon the memorial of our Lord’s Pasch, we flatly reject this deformed vision of Christianity. Reflect for a moment on the setting of our Eucharist, of our Act of Thanksgiving. We find ourselves in a unique temple; we might say that the nave is the University campus; the altarpiece, the University library; over there, the machinery for constructing new buildings; above us, the sky of Navarre…
Surely this confirms in your minds, in a tangible and unforgettable way, the fact that everyday life is the true setting for your lives as Christians. Your daily encounter with Christ takes place where your fellow men, your yearnings, your work and your affections are. It is in the midst of the most material things of the earth that we must sanctify ourselves, serving God and all mankind.
This I have been teaching all the time, using words from holy Scripture: the world is not evil, because it comes from the hands of God, because it is his creation, because Yahweh looked upon it and saw that it was good. It is we ourselves, men and women, who make it evil and ugly with our sins and unfaithfulness. Don’t doubt it, my children: any attempt to escape from the noble reality of daily life is, for you men and women of the world, something opposed to the will of God.
On the contrary, you must realise now, more clearly than ever, that God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary, secular and civil activities of human life. He waits for us everyday, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.
… the Christian vocation consists in making heroic verse out of the prose of each day.
… It is obvious that, in this field as in all others, you would not be able to carry out this programme of sanctifying your everyday life if you did not enjoy all the freedom which proceeds from your dignity as men and women created in the image of God, and which the Church freely recognizes. Personal freedom is essential for the Christian life. But do not forget, my sons, that I always speak of a responsible freedom.
St. Josemaria Escriva’s mandate to sanctify the ordinary intersects with the challenge of what Pope Benedict XVI has described as “the tiring pilgrimage of everyday existence”.
Carla Marinucci writes on what I consider to be surprising debate in California over a decision to spend an enormous amount of money on literal whitewashing:
A San Francisco school board decision to spend $600,000 to paint over a New Deal-era mural of George Washington as a slave owner is fueling a family feud among Democrats…
“I think of myself as liberal, progressive, and have been all my life — but I’m just sort of stunned by this,’’ veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said Sunday. “We have a little more important things to do — like defeating Donald Trump — than to whitewash a mural.” …
The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously last month to paint over all 13 panels of the 1600 sq. ft. mural “Life of Washington,’’ a historic work commissioned during the New Deal that depicts George Washington as a slave owner. The move came after several vocal protesters demanded the move at a public meeting, saying their children were “traumatized” by depictions of the nation’s first president standing over the images of dead Native Americans. …
Democratic strategist Mike Semler — who has advised Senator Dianne Feinstein and who has taught public policy at Cal State University Sacramento — this weekend sent out an emergency email alert seeking support for an effort to back a ballot measure to save the mural. He said the effort, dubbed the Coalition to Protect Public Art, aims to solicit funds to initiate a ballot measure designed to protect this art, “and perhaps other New Deal art in San Francisco’’ which may also be targeted. …
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, in a recent San Francisco Chronicle column, likened the school board supporters’ and tactics to the worst of Trump‘s backers. He noted the vocal group seeking to destroy the painting did so by bullying the recent school board meeting with a claim to be “traumatized by the mural.”
“They’re clearly traumatized by something,’’ he wrote. “They’d be horrified by the comparison, but they’re really no different from the most boorish of President Trump’s supporters.”
Brown said that his own daughter, Sydney, a Washington High graduate “was never traumatized by Arnautoff’s painting — as a matter of fact, it generated conversations at home that otherwise would not have occurred. It was a learning experience for her, and for me.” …
“Was Washington a slave owner? Yes. Did he command troops that killed Native Americans? Yes,’’ says Shrum. “But George Washington — it seems stupid to have to say it — performed an incredible service for this country. We wouldn’t be here without him.’’
This brings me back to Michael Brenden Dougherty’s prediction that, even before the last of the Confederate monuments are removed, the next step in the logic of civic whitewashing will be the removal of the founders. An unacknowledged aspect of this attempt to reshape the public landscape is that it works against a “knowledge of self” for future Americans, who will simply be ignorant of certain key aspects (both good and bad) of our country’s past.
Political taboos, to the extent that they set parts of American history as “off limits,” have the effect not simply of destroying awareness of those off-limits aspect, but also of destroying knowledge broadly, in the sense that fluency with one’s past is impossible if there are gaps in one’s memory.
Americans are suffering from a bad case of loneliness. The number of people in the United States living alone has gone through the studio-apartment roof. A study released by the insurance company Cigna last spring made headlines with its announcement: “Only around half of Americans say they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions.” Loneliness, public-health experts tell us, is killing as many people as obesity and smoking. It’s not much comfort that Americans are not, well, alone in this. Germans are lonely, the bon vivant French are lonely, and even the Scandinavians—the happiest people in the world, according to the UN’s World Happiness Report—are lonely, too. British prime minister Theresa May recently appointed a “Minister of Loneliness.” …
Still, the loneliness thesis taps into a widespread intuition of something true and real and grave. Foundering social trust, collapsing heartland communities, an opioid epidemic, and rising numbers of “deaths of despair” suggest a profound, collective discontent. It’s worth mapping out one major cause that is simultaneously so obvious and so uncomfortable that loneliness observers tend to mention it only in passing. I’m talking, of course, about family breakdown. At this point, the consequences of family volatility are an evergreen topic when it comes to children; this remains the subject of countless papers and conferences. …
The [20th century social/demographic] transition helped shape a social ecology that would worsen some of our most vexing social problems, including growing inequality. Throughout the Western world, wealthier, more educated parents tend more often to be married before they have children, and to stay married, than do their less advantaged fellow citizens. Their children benefit not just from their parents’ financial advantages, with all the computer camps and dance lessons that a flush checking account can buy, but from the familiar routines and predictable households that seem to help the young figure out the complex world they’ll be entering. The children of lower-income, less educated parents, by contrast, are more likely to see their married parents divorce or their cohabiting parents separate, and then to have to readjust to the strangers—stepparents, boyfriends or girlfriends, step- or half-siblings—who come into their lives. Some children will be introduced to a succession of newcomers as their parents divorce or separate a second or even third time.
Why, after the transition, did the rich continue to have reasonably stable and predictable domestic lives while the working class and poor stumbled onto what family scholar Andrew Cherlin calls the “marriage-go-round”? Observers typically point to deindustrialization and the loss of stable, decent-paying low-skilled jobs for men. True enough. A jobless man, especially one without a high school diploma, is no one’s idea of a good catch. But there’s more to the marriage gap than that. While the loosening of traditional rules gave women freedom to leave violent or cruel husbands, it also changed the cultural environment for couples trying to weather less dangerous stresses and disappointments, including a pink slip. Lower-income men and women are bound to have more financial anxieties, more work accidents, and more broken-down cars and evictions, and they lack the funds for Disneyland vacations, massages, and psychotherapists that might take some of the edge off a struggling marriage. And they see few, if any, long-term married couples who could offer a successful model. With single parenthood and cohabitation both on the lifestyle menu, what they see instead is an easy out.
When so many marriages melt into thin air, lower-income kin networks, a source of job connections, child care, and family meals, attenuate as well. Your mother’s sister’s husband—your uncle by marriage—might give you a tip about a job opening at a local machine shop; an uncle separated from your aunt and living with a girlfriend with her own kids in the next town over, maybe not. Communities flush with fatherless households tend to be troubled. In his landmark study of county-level social mobility, economist Raj Chetty discovered that places thick with married-couple families created more opportunity for kids, regardless of whether they were living in a married or single-parent household; places with large numbers of single-parent homes, on the other hand, pulled kids down—including those living with married parents. It’s hard to imagine more concrete evidence of the truth of the old cliché that family is the building block of society.
No leader, party or ideology can credibly be presented as serving the common good. There are only factions battling other factions. Meanwhile, the priorities of the national newspapers and broadcasters seem increasingly out of sync with those of the electorate, who can now turn to a plethora of online sources. Business lobbies have rarely been so powerless over the fundamentals of economic policy. …
The internet is an anti-hegemonic technology. It grants far more power to the consensus-breaker than to the consensus-maker. As the data analytics industry understands, it is a brilliant machine for mapping unusual clusters of feeling and behaviour, but far less suited to establishing averages and generalities. The internet fragments the ‘middle ground’ as a space of political argument, and grants a disproportionately loud voice to the niche and the crank. There are illusions galore here, but no sanctuary for the crucial synecdochal one on which representative democracy depends. Notions of ‘common sense’ and ‘the average voter’ lose their sway.
These trends may be good for the vitality of democracy in various ways, but not necessarily for parliamentary democracy, and less still for effective government in the traditional sense.
The cultural and political revolutions of a century ago make today’s factionalism seem like no big deal by comparison—though there are echoes of the past in the present, and the anarchists that were fighting and rioting in some American streets a century ago are back, at least in Portland. Increasing factionalism suggests a weaker body politic, or at least a less united one; one less sure of itself. And that suggests instability.
If it’s true that the trends William Davies identifies make for less effective government in “the traditional sense,” it should be asked, first, what “traditional sense” of effective government are we walking about, and second, what sort of non-traditional (but nonetheless effective) government might be possible?
It does seem counterintuitive that the connectivity the internet makes possible might be bringing about more factionalism and less unity—a more connected, but less united, society.
Modernity was born 116 years, 11 months, two weeks and two days ago, at a printing plant in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, when a junior engineer named Willis Carrier devised a contraption that blew air over water-filled pipes to dry out the humidity that was gumming up the pages of a humor magazine called Judge.
And in that moment (well, within a few decades), entire industries and geographies were transformed, and new technologies made possible, including, terribly, the internet: Without cooling, there would be no server farms.
Nearly 90 percent of American households now have some form of air-conditioning, more than any other country in the world except Japan, though that will change as global warming alters more temperate zones, and swelling populations and rising incomes in hot zones mean the folks there will clamor for AC, too.
On an overheated planet, air-conditioning becomes more and more desirable, solving in the short term the problem it helped create.
It is another paradox that even as architects and engineers are making ever more efficient buildings to meet energy standards set by cities like New York, where a new law says that buildings over 25,000 square feet must reduce their carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, we are still freezing in our offices and fighting with our partners over whether to turn on the Friedrich.
Parts of Germany and France were recently steaming through record temperatures — during last week’s heat wave,police officers in Paris used tear gas on climate change protesters — while I was southbound on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, shivering in the quiet car, rugged up in a scarf, jacket, long pants and boots.
So were my fellow travelers, like Solange Singer, a 41-year-old fashion stylist muffled in similar gear, with a red wool scarf laid out on her lap like a blanket. The conductor seemed puzzled when I asked him what temperature the thermostat was set to. There is no thermostat, he said: “It’s either off or on.”
Fire, the saying goes, made us human. Does air-conditioning make us less so?
I like climate controls, and like electricity and plumbing and internet, I want air conditioning in my life. But there also tends to be a dismissiveness whenever climate control’s relative merits are brought up that I think obscures the fact that climate control fanaticism sometimes makes it difficult to enjoy summer for what it is—a warmer time of year.
When we use technology to systematically alienate ourselves from experiencing the natural world, we’re using that technology in a way that generally makes us less resilient and more reliant we make ourselves more comfortable but less familiar with the world of our ancestors. And without wanting to un-invent any particular technology, it should be simple enough to understand why too much alienation from this world, and from a natural experience of it, risks a kind of havoc.
Especially when a technology becomes ubiquitous should its use be intentional.
W. James Antle writes on Rep. Justin Amash’s leaving the Republicans:
What came after in the form of the Tea Party brought together fiscal and social conservatives in defense of the Constitution… At its peak, this new movement helped elect two important skeptics of military interventionism, Rand Paul and Justin Amash. With fellow traveler Mike Lee and such later additions as Thomas Massie, they outnumbered more hawkish newcomers like Marco Rubio, even if they remained a minority among congressional Republicans overall.
It looked like a free market populism could take hold of the GOP. Instead populism without the modifier took over via Donald Trump and Amash is now out of the party, declaring his own independence on the Fourth of July. While Amash’s frustration with partisan politics had been growing for years, it was his break with Trump that made this move seem inevitable.
To some extent, we’re witnessing a fight between those who want conservative leaders to be good and those who want conservatism itself to be less individualistic and more oriented toward the common good. …
The federal government keeps getting bigger no matter which party holds the pursestrings. There’s a case to be made that fusionism as practiced by the GOP and mainstream conservative movement shortchanged both libertarians and social conservatives.
But tax cuts and deregulation happen more frequently than any real progress on social issues, even though evangelicals and conservative Catholics supply most of the votes for Republican candidates. The most electorally viable economic conservatism is really a form of social conservatism, a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic. Yet even making tax cuts more family-friendly, whether through child tax credits or incentives for parental leave, inspires considerable pushback.
Moreover, atomistic individualism, if not real libertarianism, has played a role in social conservative setbacks on abortion and marriage, among other issues, without producing similar gains for religious liberty. This has led many traditionalists to question at a more fundamental level the concepts of personal autonomy at least partially fueling trends they dislike.
All this has occurred amid shrinking libertarian influence over Republican voters in general. A The Hill/Harris poll conducted in June found Republicans resistant to cutting federal spending in all 19 categories tested. This includes not just traditional GOP priorities like law enforcement or defense, but also education, infrastructure, health care, and unemployment insurance.
Many libertarians have doubled down in the face of this resistance. It would be better to abolish the welfare state than to regulate immigration, they say, without identifying a political constituency for such plans.
This phrase could describe an incredible number of advocacy groups and lobbyists in Washington: “…they say, without identifying a political constituency for such plans.“
Happy Independence Day! I was in Washington last July 4th, when I shared the Oneida Indian Nation’s narrative of their role as America’s first ally, and John Paul the Great’s reflection on America from his 1995 visit in Baltimore. This year we’re at the National Mall for President Trump’s “Salute to America” address.
I’ll share Charles G. Mills’s reflection on the Declaration of Independence:
The main draftsman of the document was Thomas Jefferson, probably a Deist, but it blended the thinking of Deists, Puritans, Anglicans, and a Catholic, all of whom shared a belief in natural law and of traditional English liberty.
This day, however, did not come in a vacuum or suddenly.
Englishmen, after a few unsuccessful attempts, founded a permanent colony in Virginia in 1607, and in Massachusetts in 1620. For about a hundred years the inhabitants of the English colonies thought of themselves as Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen, and Irish. In the early 1700s, they all began to think of themselves also as Britons. Indeed Georgia, the last of the colonies, was created as a British, not an English colony.
Americans began to think of themselves as American, not British. In 1753, the French in Canada invaded what is now Ohio. This led to the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. This left the Americans with a bad taste in their mouths from the British Army. Americans played a major role in our victory. George Washington won one of the major battles. The colonies sent large militias to war. Massachusetts alone sent eight regiments and two generals. The British Army, however, did not recognize the ranks of American generals, colonels and majors, treating them as mere captains. The conduct of the British soldiers was a scandal to the pious American militiamen.
The British government wanted to keep its troops in America after the war but wanted the colonies to pay for them. In 1765 it passed the Stamp Act, which repudiated the long-established practice of having American taxes determined by colonial legislative bodies and replaced it by taxation by the British Parliament. The Stamp Act was so unenforceable in enough of America that it was repealed and replaced by laws giving a monopoly of the tea trade in America to the East India Company and taxing the importation of tea into America.
This led to a number of hostile acts on both sides. Some Bostonians threw a shipload of tea into the harbor and burned a ship. The British cancelled the Charter of Massachusetts, blockaded Massachusetts, and fired on and killed several people on the streets of Boston. The Americans convened a Continental Congress to provide some America-wide policy. At that time, it decided not to declare independence or to elect an American Parliament.
Open war broke out in 1775. By the summer of 1776 it was clear that America and Great Britain should go their separate ways. A Continental Congress was reconvened. Most of it favored independence, but America’s leaders wanted unanimity. With some difficulty it was achieved. There were a number of Americans who would remain loyal to Britain for the rest of their lives. Some went to Canada, some found a way to get along with an independent America.
There was probably a pro-British majority in Georgia, but Georgia decided to send the only Georgian who was familiar with the question of independence to the Continental Congress, thereby achieving unanimity of the states. In the end three Georgians signed the Declaration.
On July 4, the Declaration of Independence, mostly the draftsmanship of Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was signed. Virginia, New York, and New England provided most of the main spokesmen for independence. Charles Carroll of Maryland, the most prominent Catholic layman in America, signed, probably one of the reasons that religious liberty would grow so quickly after independence.
The war would continue until 1783, when Great Britain finally decided that the cost of continuing it was too great. It would take more than another five years for us to get a Constitution and Bill of Rights. It would take another war (1812-1815) with Britain before Great Britain decided to leave us alone.
The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary idea, but it was also a carefully written justification of American independence under both natural law and English Common Law. It is over 250 years old, but it has aged well and deserves careful study by not only students but all Americans.
Fr. George Rutler, of the Church of Saint Michael in New York, writes in his weekly column:
A remarkable quality usually taken for granted, is that humans can laugh and cry unlike other creatures. “Risibility,” the ability to laugh or smile, is a defining trait of humanity. The moral challenge is to identify the right causes of happiness and sadness.
All sane, moral behavior has the pursuit of happiness as the goal of life. Sadness is the recognition of what impedes that goal. As long as we are in a broken world, happiness will be elusive to a degree, and at best will be “felicitas,” which means real but impermanent happiness.
Ancient Greeks … spent time studying human dispositions. They were good psychologists. Their gods and goddesses were essentially symbols of human characteristics. There were many deities who represented varying attempts at happiness, although some of their philosophers, like the Cynics and Stoics, did not think there was much of a chance at felicity. There were, for instance: Bacchus – drinking; Hypnos – drugs; Hermes – sports; Dionysius – partying; Aphrodite – sex; Tyche – good luck; Hygieia – health; Thalia – comedy; Momus – silliness and gossip; and Nemesis – revenge on enemies.
Saint Paul was familiar with that ghostly pantheon and politely confronted their clients in Athens. He did not mock or insult them. But he did declare to them that he knew the one true God who is the source of all true joy and for which those idols were lame substitutes:
Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:29-31)
Most of the philosophers were unmoved because they liked hearing themselves and none other. But one of them, Dionysius, and a woman named Damaris, and “a number of others” accepted Christ. Their stories are unrecorded, but as Christ never lied, we know that they inherited a happiness higher than felicitas, and that is beatitudo—the endless joy of God’s presence.
“The moral challenge is to identify the right causes of happiness and sadness.”