Consider the lilies

John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf shares the stories of his travel from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, which started in 1867—just two years after the Civil War’s end. Muir was 29 or 30 at the time of the encounter below, near the Cumberland Mountains leaving Tennessee:

As I turned to leave, after bidding her goodbye, she, evidently pitying me for my tired looks, called me back and asked me if I would like a drink of milk. This I gladly accepted, thinking that perhaps I might not be successful in getting any other nourishment for a day or two. Then I inquired whether there were any more houses on the road, nearer than North Carolina, forty or fifty miles away. “Yes,” she said, “it’s only two miles to the next house, but beyond that there are no houses that I know of except empty ones whose owners have been killed or driven away during the war.

Arriving at the last house, my knock at the door was answered by a bright, good-natured, good-looking little woman, who in reply to my request for a night s lodging and food, said, “Oh, I guess so. I think you can stay. Come in and I’ll call my husband.” “But I must first warn you,” I said, “that I have nothing smaller to offer you than a five-dollar bill for my entertainment. I don’t want you to think that I am trying to impose on your hospitality.”

She then called her husband, a blacksmith, who was at work at his forge. He came out, hammer in hand, bare-breasted, sweaty, begrimed, and covered with shaggy black hair. In reply to his wife s statement, that this young man wished to stop over night, he quickly replied, “That’s all right; tell him to go into the house.” He was turning to go back to his shop, when his wife added, ” But he says he has n’t any change to pay. He has nothing smaller than a five-dollar bill.” Hesitating only a moment, he turned on his heel and said, “Tell him to go into the house. A man that comes right out like that beforehand is welcome to eat my bread.”

When he came in after his hard day’s work and sat down to dinner, he solemnly asked a blessing on the frugal meal, consisting solely of corn bread and bacon. Then, looking across the table at me, he said, “Young man, what are you doing down here?” I replied that I was looking at plants. “Plants? What kind of plants?” I said, “Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns,—almost every thing that grows is interesting to me.”

“Well, young man,” he queried, “you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?” “No,” I said, “I am not employed by any one except just myself. I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible.”

“You look like a strong-minded man,” he replied, “and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms does n’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”

To this I replied, “You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls.

“Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I’ll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies how they grow,’ and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them. It isn’t worthwhile for any strong-minded man.’”

This evidently satisfied him, and he acknowledged that he had never thought of blossoms in that way before. He repeated again and again that I must be a very strong-minded man, and admitted that no doubt I was fully justified in picking up blossoms. He then told me that although the war was over, walking across the Cumberland Mountains still was far from safe on account of small bands of guerrillas who were in hiding along the roads, and earnestly entreated me to turn back and not to think of walking so far as the Gulf of Mexico until the country be came quiet and orderly once more.

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Culture as ‘legitimate naming’

Mark Regnerus’s “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy” is worth reading for its raw data alone. But Regnerus offers plenty of analysis of the data surrounding relationships, marriage, and commitment that is illuminating. Here’s a bit that particularly stood out to me:

Almost all of us take birth control for granted, and almost all of us alive today never inhabitated a world before it. How did it change things? Giddens asserts that its uptake has, among other things, fostered the idea of sex as an “art form” and injected that into the heart of the conjugal relationship, which then made the achievement of reciprocal sexual pleasure a key element in whether the relationship is sustained or dissolved. The cultivation of sexual skills, the capacity of giving and receiving sexual satisfaction, on the part of both sexes, has become organized reflexively via a multitude of sources of sexual information, advice, and training.

Sarah could be a case study. Despite all the sex and relationships she has had, she has never pursued pregnancy or become pregnant. The prospect of mutual sexual pleasure animates her dating life, even first dates. Sexual interest, or its absence, commonly dictates what happens next, even though her ideal relationship, she claims, would develop and mature before sex, not because of it. And all of these comparatively new achievements, Giddons asserts, have been sealed in language: how we talk about sex and relationships. And that is significant.

Once there is a new terminology for understanding sexuality, [then] ideas, concepts, and theories couched in these terms seep into social life itself and help reorder it.

What he means is that when we name something in the social world, unlike in the natural world, we are not only mentally mapping it, but we are also providing the idea with a reality that then allows it to act back upon us and the wider social world, altering how we then must subsequently navigate it. Thus, the world after something has been named is not as malleable as it was before it. To identify something socially is to give it life and power, not just a name.

It has been occurring for decades in the study of sexuality, Giddens holds. The Kinsey reports, like others following on, aims to analyze what was going on in a particular region of social activity, as all social research seeks to do. Yet as they disclosed,, they also influenced, initiating cycles of debate, reinvestigation and further debate. These debates became part of a wide public domain, but also served to alter lay views of sexual actions and involvements themselves. No doubt the scientific caste of such investigations helps neutralize moral uneasiness about the propriety of particular sexual practices. Sociologist James Davison Hunter asserts similarly when he defines culture as the power of “legitimate naming.” That is, to classify something in the social world is to penetrate the imagination, to alter our frameworks of knowledge and discussion, and to shift the perception of everyday reality.

In the domain of sexuality, fraught as it is with great moral valence, this can make all the difference. It’s why there is often poignance and bitter struggle over words and terms around sex, and the politics of using them or avoiding them.

… what is very unlikely is a return to the patterns witnessed prior to the sexual revolution.

I think the most fascinating conclusion that Regnerus draws from American relational/sexual practices is that marriage will diminish as a normative force. In other words, marriage is/will no longer be understood as the natural or obvious thing that young men and women do, and he concludes that it is already in the process of becoming a “minority practice” that is in the “throes of de-institutionalization.” It will come to be seen as simply one option among many in a socially and sexually pluralistic culture, and those who pursue it seriously are likely to decrease in number.

Slower generational change

Another excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, this time on the friction between faster technology and the faster sense of change that it brings on the one hand, and the longer lifespans that the past century has brought and consequently the slower generational change that results:

Accelerating change has practically become a religious belief in Silicon Valley. It often begins to seem to us as though everything is speeding up along with the chips.

Broadly speaking, Moore’s law can be expected to accelerate progress in medicine because computers will accelerate the speeds of processes like genomics and drug discovery. That means healthy old age will continue to get healthier and last longer and that the “youthful” phase of life will also be extended. The two go together.

And that means generational shifts in culture and thought will happen less frequently. The baby boom isn’t over yet, and the 1960s still provide the dominant reference points in pop culture. This is in part, I believe, because of the phenomena of Retropolis and youthiness, but it is also because the boomers are not merely plentiful and alive but still vigorous and contributing to society. And that is because constantly improving medicine, public health, agriculture, and other fruits of technology have extended the average life span. People live longer as technology improves, so cultural change actually slows, because it is tied more to the outgoing generational clock than the incoming one.

So Moore’s law makes “generational” cultural change slow down. But that is just the flip side of neoteny. While it is easy to think of neoteny as an emphasis on youthful qualities, which are in essence radical and experimental, when cultural neoteny is pushed to an extreme it implies conservatism, since each generation’s perspectives are preserved longer and made more influential as neoteny is extended. Thus, neoteny brings out contradictory qualities in culture.

“People live longer as technology improves, so cultural change actually slows, because it is tied more to the outgoing generational clock than the incoming one.”

Portals to strange philosophies

Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto against the utopian desire for achieving an abstract broader sort collective knowledge. Why? Because that knowledge would be fragmentary, and because it would denude the distinctive voices, perspectives, and spirit of the individual in favor of a bland “consensus” perspective, akin to the ways that the most alienating aspects of foreign cultures are reduced or destroyed by the empires that incorporate them:

An impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship. This was as clear as ever when John Updike and Kevin Kelly exchanged words on the question of authorship in 2006. Kevin suggested that it was not just a good thing, but a “moral imperative” that all the world’s books would soon become effectively “one book” once they were scanned, searchable, and remixable in the universal computational cloud.

The approach to digital culture I abhor would indeed turn all the world’s books into one book, just as Kevin suggested. … If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video. A continuation of the present trend will make us like various medieval religious empires, or like North Korea, a society with a single book. …

The one collective book will absolutely not be the same thing as the library of books by individuals it is bankrupting. Some believe it will be better; others, including me, believe it will be disastrously worse. As the famous line goes from Inherit the Wind: “The Bible is a book … but it is not the only book.” …

One of the first printed books that wasn’t a bible was 1499’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” an illustrated, erotic, occult adventure through fantastic architectural settings. What is most interesting about this book, which looks and reads like a virtual reality fantasy, is that something fundamental about its approach to life—its intelligence, its worldview—is alien to the Church and the Bible.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate history in which everything that was printed on early presses went through the Church and was conceived as an extension of the Bible. “Strife of Love” might have existed in this alternate world, and might have been quite similar. But the “slight” modifications would have consisted of trimming the alien bits. The book would no longer have been as strange. And that tiny shift, even if it had been minuscule in terms of word count, would have been tragic.

This is what happened when elements of indigenous cultures were preserved but de-alienated by missionaries. We know a little about what Aztec or Inca music sounded like, for instance, but the bits that were trimmed to make the music fit into the European idea of church song were the most precious bits. The alien bits are where the flavor is found. They are the portals to strange philosophies. What a loss to not know how New World music would have sounded alien to us! Some melodies and rhythms survived, but the whole is lost.

I thought of Valya Balkanska’s “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin” as an example of something strange-sounding to Western ears, but that is probably just a pale echo of whatever songs and sounds mankind offered up in the millennia before recorded histories.

Ralph Waldo Emerson on books

Ralph Waldo Emerson on books:

The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar is the mind of the Past,—in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth,—learn the amount of this influence more conveniently,—by considering their value alone.

The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him life; it went out from him truth. It came to him short-lived actions; it went out from him immortal thoughts. It came to him business; it went from him poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

Or, I might say, it depends on how far the process had gone, of transmuting life into truth. In proportion to the completeness of the distillation, so will the purity and imperishableness of the product be. But none is quite perfect. As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to contemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.

And on a problem with disordered love of books:

Yet hence arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation, the act of thought, is instantly transferred to the record. The poet chanting was felt to be a divine man. Henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit. Henceforward it is settled the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly the book becomes noxious. …

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution…

Thinking, not simply consuming. Although good thinking tends to require lots of consuming.

Capitol building and rebuilding

Last week I read David McCullough’s “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For”, which is a great collection of his speeches. Here’s McCullough in the chapter “A Building Like No Other”, speaking in 2016 to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in Washington, D.C.:

Two all-important lessons of history stand clearly expressed in this our national Capitol. The first is that little of consequence is ever accomplished alone. High achievement is nearly always a joint effort, as has been shown again and again in these halls when the leaders of different parties, representatives from differing constituencies and differing points of view, have been able, for the good of the country, to put those differences aside and work together. …

The second lesson to be found here is that history is about far more than politics and war only. So much that is most expressive of American life and aspirations and contributions to the human spirit is to be found in the arts—in architecture, paintings, sculpture, and engineering genius. We Americans are builders at heart and in what we build we often show ourselves at our best. You have only to look around at so much to be seen in this great building.

In view of the current political climate, let me point out, too, how much of what we see throughout the building was the work of immigrants. William Thornton, a physician who won a design competition for the Capitol in 1792, was a native of Tortola in the British West Indies. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first professional architect to take charge of the design of the building, including this hall, was born and educated in England. James Hoban, the architect who restored the White House after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812, and who also worked on the Capitol, was from Ireland. And Collen Williamson, the stone mason who oversaw the laying of the foundation of the Capitol, was a Scot.

Then there was amazing Constantino Brumidi, the artist whose vibrant frescoes fill the uppermost reaches of the great Rotunda under the Capitol dome and whose decorative genius brightens the corridors and hallways of the Senate wing in such a manner as rarely to be seen. A tiny figure who stood only five feet five inches tall, he was exuberant in spirit and produced work here of such monumental scale as had never been seen in our country.

There was also Carlo Franzoni, the sculptor who did the statue of Clio, the muse of history, over there, above the main door keeping note of the history taking place here.

Brumidi and Franzoni, as you might imagine, were both from Italy, as were any number of workers, skilled masons, and stonecutters.

It might also be added that our capital city, Washington, was itself the design of an immigrant, the French engineer Pierre L’Enfant, and that the two finest, most famous movies ever made about Congress, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Advise and Consent, were directed by immigrants, Frank Capra and Otto Preminger, respectively.

And yes, there were the African American slaves who did much of the work on the Capitol—how many in all will never be known, but play a large part they did. Notable evidence of their labors are the pillars that stand all about us here. “Hired out” by their owners, they cut the marble in the quarries.

Building and rebuilding the Capitol took more time and labor and patience than many might imagine.

Things went wrong. There were angry differences of opinion over matters of all kinds. There were accidents, numerous injuries, and one dramatic, narrow escape.

At work one day on his frescoes in the upper reaches of the great dome, Brumidi slipped from his scaffold and only just managed to catch hold of a rung of the ladder and for fifteen minutes hung for dear life with both hands some fifty-five feet above the marble floor until a Capitol policeman happened to glance up and rushed to the rescue. Brumidi by then was seventy-two and had been at work in the Capitol for twenty-six years.

The great dome famously took form through the Civil War and remains as intended the colossal commanding focal point of our capital city. It is primarily the work of two exceptional Americans, architect Thomas U. Walter and structural engineer Montgomery C. Meigs, each a story. Walter started out as a bricklayer. Meigs, a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, was all of thirty-six when he took on one of the most challenging engineering assignments ever and created what stands as a masterpiece of nineteenth-century engineering with inner and outer cast-iron shells weighing nearly nine million pounds.

A great lover of the arts and an artist himself, Meigs also had much to do with the art that was to fill the building—including the part played by Brumidi and the choice of the American sculptor Thomas Crawford to create the nineteen-and-a-half-foot-high Statue of Freedom that would stand atop the dome.

Completed in 1868, the gleaming dome remains the focal point of our capital city and though there have been modifications and additions to the building in the years since, it remains essentially as it was then, a symbol of freedom, the structure bespeaking more than any other our history, our American journey, evoking and encouraging powerfully pride in our system and, yes, patriotism.

And now we are in the midst of another election season, which like so many before will determine much to follow—more than we can possibly know.

Over there above the door, on the side of Clio’s chariot, is the work of the Massachusetts clockmaker Simon Willard. It has been doing its job a long time, since 1837, one hundred and seventy-nine years ago. It ticks on, still keeping perfect time.

My feeling is Clio, too, is attending to her role now no less than ever, taking note of the history we are and will be making.

On we go.

What incredible vignettes from our Capitol’s creation. I’ll never be able to see the Capitol dome again without thinking of 72-year old Brumidi, hanging for fifteen minutes from the rafters above the marble floor. To speak with him after his rescue, and to learn what sort of things a person thinks about in that situation.

Saint Francis, the realist

I’m reading G.K. Chesteron’s “Saint Francis of Assisi”, and this section on Saint Francis’s love of nature is conveyed in a sort of fullness:

Saint Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely what he was not. The phrase implies accepting the material universe as a vague environment, a sort of sentimental pantheism. In the romantic period of literature, in the age of Byron and Scott, it was easy enough to imagine that a hermit in the ruins of a chapel (preferably by moonlight) might find peace and a mild pleasure in the harmony of solemn forests and silent stars, while he pondered over some scroll or illuminated volume, about the liturgical nature of which the author was a little vague. In short, the hermit might love nature as a background. Now for Saint Francis nothing was ever in the background. We might say that his mind had no background, except perhaps that divine darkness out of which the divine love had called up every coloured creature one by one. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. A bush could stop him like a brigand; and indeed he was as ready to welcome the brigand as the bush.

In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for the trees. Saint Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man. But he did not want to stand against a piece of stage scenery used merely as a background, and inscribed in a general fashion: “Scene; a wood.” In this sense we might say that he was too dramatic for the drama. The scenery would have come to life in his comedies; the walls would really have spoken like Snout the Tinker and the trees would really have come walking to Dunsinane. Everything would have been in the foreground; and in that sense in the footlights. Everything would be in every sense a character. This is the quality in which, as a poet, he is the very opposite of a pantheist. He did not call nature his mother; he called a particular donkey his brother or a particular sparrow his sister. If he had called a pelican his aunt or an elephant his uncle as he might possibly have done, he would still have meant that they were particular creatures assigned by their Creator to particular places; not mere expressions of the evolutionary energy of things.

That is where his mysticism is so close to the common sense of the child. A child has no difficulty about understanding that God made the dog and the cat; though he is well aware that the making of dogs and cats out of nothing is a mysterious process beyond his own imagination. But no child would understand what you meant if you mixed up the dog and the cat and everything else into one monster with myriad legs and called it nature. The child would resolutely refuse to make head or tail of any such animal. Saint Francis was a mystic, but he believed in mysticism and not in mystification. As a mystic he was the mortal enemy of all those mystics who melt away the edges of things and dissolve an entity into its environment. He was a mystic of the daylight and the darkness; but not a mystic of the twilight. He was the very contrary of that sort of oriental visionary who is only a mystic because he is too much of a sceptic to be a materialist. Saint Francis was emphatically a realist…

“Saint Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man.”

Robert Caro: On Power

Robert Caro’s “On Power” is a great 100 minute reflection on what has basically been the theme of his entire, extraordinary writing career. I transcribed this particular excerpt from his narration, where he talks about the impact of one of the most colorful stories from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I read earlier this year:

For James Roth, Robert Moses would not move the [Northern State] Parkway one foot. Jimmy Roth, who had watched his father and mother sweating side by side on the land, told me about how in years to come his father would keep talking, over and over, about what had been done to them. “I don’t know that I blame them for talking so much about it,” Jimmy said. “I’ll tell you, my father and mother worked very hard on that place, and made something out of it, and then someone just cut it in two.”

Ina found some of the other families who were dots on the map, and I talked to them, so over and over I heard similar stories, about how Robert Moses’s Northern State Parkway had ruined their lives, too. The injustice of it. The wrong of it. There had been no need for the Parkway to run through the Roth’s farm. Looking at the maps it was clear that the route could have been moved south a tiny distance that would have saved the Roth’s farm and their lives, and the farms and lives of 22 other families with very little difficulty. To the south of their farms was an empty area of farmland. Robert Moses just hadn’t wanted to be bothered moving it, and because the Roths didn’t have any power, he hadn’t had to be bothered. And that was a lesson for me: regard for power implies disregard for those without power.

And the Northern State Parkway is very clear demonstration of that. The map of the Northern State Parkway and Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, is a map not only of a road, but of power, and what happens to those who are unwitting caught in power’s path.

In the moments when I learned about James, Helen, and Jimmy Roth, things changed for me. My idea of what the book should try to be changed. I saw what I hadn’t seen before. If my book was to analyze power fully and honestly, in all its facets, when I got to the Northern State Parkway, the story, if it was to be an honest story, could not only be about the construction of the consequences of the Northern State Parkway and the power of the robber barons. The story of the farmers was a part of the story of the Northern State Parkway, part of the Robert Moses story, part of the picture of power I was trying to learn how to draw, and not an incidental part, either.

And that, I saw now, in that moment, was what I wanted my book to me. What I guess I always wanted my book to be. What my book had to be, if it was to accomplish what I wanted it to accomplish.

In order to write about power truthfully, it would be necessary to write not only about the man who wielded power, and not only about the techniques by which he amassed power and wielded it, but it would be necessary also to write about the effect of power, for good or for ill, on those on whom it was wielded, on those who didn’t have power. It would be necessary to write of the effect of power on the powerless.

There are, of course, personal implications in a decision like this.

It took Caro seven years to write The Power Broker, necessitated the sale of his house, involved desperation, and ultimately came to fruition to some degree from sheer luck. The Power Broker manuscript numbered more than one million words, in telling the truth of both the triumphant genius of so much of New York and Robert Moses, as much as it tells the truth about the true human costs of achieving the New York that today we think of as having been there as long as anyone remembers.

Robert Caro spoke with Jeff Slate about On Power, which was assembled from two recent speeches, specifically addressing the question, “Do we need a Robert Moses today?” His answer:

Well, the quick answer to your question—“Do we need someone like Robert Moses?”–I would say no. He caused such immense human hardship, many times when he did not have to. It was a use of power that ruined the lives of people where there was really no reason to, except that they didn’t have power and he did, so he could run over them.

On the other hand, as I tried to show in the book, we do need someone with vision. You know there are very few people who saw this immense vision that Robert Moses had. Put it this way, in each of his twelve offices he had a huge map. There’s a picture of one of his offices in The Power Broker, and the map takes up a whole wall. And when I was interviewing him–when he was 78 or 79, but had boundless energy–he’d jump up with his pencil in his hand and he’d start sketching in the air, saying, “Can’t you see, we’ll put a highway here to Fire Island that’ll hook up back to Long Island there.” He saw this entire Metropolitan Region–New York, Long Island, Westchester, and the parts of New Jersey near New York City–as one picture and he was uniting it all. Because he had that vision and he put that energy behind all of his work.

So Robert Moses’ don’t come along very often, and you need the genius of a Robert Moses, and I tried to show that in the book. But you also can’t let someone like that have power, unfathomable power, with no check on him, because look what happens. I think his career is an example, among other things, of what happens when you give power with no check on it to somebody.

What’s so revealing about The Power Broker is that Robert Moses seized upon the unrealized power of public authorities to do more than any elected official ever could, due to the traditional limits and checks on the power of elected officialdom. In this way, Moses’s power was inexplicable and impossible to anticipate.

Discovering how to effectively empower someone with the scope of Moses’s vision—while at the same time limiting his power—is consequently a riddle.

Secular totalism

A fourth and final excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.” This time on secular public engagement and the necessity for mutual respect and true pluralism in order to avoid a lame secular mono-culture:

In 2005, in a lecture at the University of Lodz in Poland on “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas posed another question (again I abbreviate): Are secular men and women ready to admit that toleration is always a two-way street? Religious persons must be ready to learn toleration not only for each denomination’s convictions and commitments, but also for those of atheists, agnostics, and other secularists. In a similar way, nonbelieving secularists must learn to appreciate the creeds, reasoning, and convictions of their fellow human beings who are believers. “For all their ongoing dissent on questions of worldviews and religious doctrines,” says Habermas, “citizens are meant to respect one another as free and equal members of their political community.” Those on all sides must be ready to stand in the shoes of the other, in order to see the other’s point of view “from within.”

As Pierre Manent has pointed out, the history of the last six or seven generations seems to show that Christianity has had an easier time identifying with democracy, and done so more successfully, than secular people have done in recognizing the contributions Christians and Jews have made to the intellectual comprehension of rights. The question Habermas poses is succinctly summarized: Is there sufficient moral energy among secular peoples to overcome this failure to take religion seriously?

Civic Duties of Religious Persons

On the side of religious people, Habermas also poses a test. Among themselves, they may explain their convictions in the language of faith, and even of the Bible. But in public life, at least those believers who enter into politics or activism have a special obligation to employ a “neutral” secular language. Perhaps Habermas is thinking more of the situation of France or other secular European nations with high proportions of Muslim citizens, where he wants to put pressure on Muslims to become more open to Western views, not to stay closed within their own. Perhaps he believes that the preponderance of peoples in European nations is secular, so that among them secular speech is most readily accessible to the largest number. Whatever his motives, his warning is that language in the public sphere (specifically, governmental offices) should be solely secular, lest religious language invite social divisiveness. Yet Habermas is far more open than John Rawls on these matters.

In his lecture “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas writes:

“The citizens of a democratic community owe one another good reasons for their public political interventions. Contrary to the restrictive view of [John] Rawls and [Robert] Audi, this civic duty can be specified in such a tolerant way that contributions are permitted in a religious as well as in a secular language. They are not subject to constraints on the mode of expression in the political public sphere, but they rely on joint ventures of translation to have a chance to be taken up in the agendas and negotiations of political bodies. Otherwise they will not “count” in any further political process.”

In “Faith and Knowledge,” Habermas adds, “The liberal state has so far imposed only upon the believers among its citizens the requirement that they split their identity into public and private versions. That is, they must translate their religious convictions into a secular language before their arguments have the prospect of being accepted by a majority” (emphasis added).

For his part, Habermas does not want to put believers at a disadvantage, although he holds that all parties, including believers, must do their best to give reasons understandable to the other parties. So he lays burdens on both believers and unbelievers: “But the search for reasons that aspire to general acceptance need not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from public life, and secular society, for its part, need not cut itself off from the important resources of spiritual explanations, if only so that the secular side might retain a feeling for the articulative power of religious discourse.”

By contrast, the assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually “neutral.” In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies. It penalizes or even quarantines those with religious points of view, whose insights and public arguments are not given due weight by narrowly secular officials. Curiously, in a set of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1928, Walter Lippmann made a parallel observation about the famous Scopes trial three years earlier. In a lecture framed as a conversation, the “Fundamentalist” says to his counterpart the “Modernist”:

“In our public controversies you are fond of arguing that you are open-minded, tolerant and neutral in the face of conflicting opinions. That is not so…Because for me an eternal plan of salvation is at stake. For you there is nothing at stake but a few tentative opinions none of which means anything to your happiness. Your request that I should be tolerant and amiable is, therefore, a suggestion that I submit the foundation of my life to the destructive effects of your skepticism, your indifference, and your good nature. You ask me to smile and to commit suicide.”

The Modernist does not grasp the total surrender he is asking the person of faith to make by submitting one source of knowledge (faith) to another (reason), when the latter seems to him inferior.

The parallel challenge that Habermas throws down for secular people, then, is an even newer one: that they, now, live in a “post-secular” age and must not be content with understanding social realities in a solely secular way. They, too, must enter into the two-way dialogue by stepping into the shoes, horizon, and viewpoint of those who are believers, just as is expected of the believers vis-à-vis the secularist.

If the tender roots of something like universal democracy are ever to survive and spread around the world, these conceptions—these breakthroughs for a universal ethos of public communication, and mutual reaching out to understand others from within—make an indispensable contribution. But these new rules for public discourse also renegotiate the historical preeminence that “the enlightened” assign themselves, and the language of contempt by which they have taken believers less than seriously. These rules call upon secularists, too, to be learners, and to master the new morality of communicative discourse. It is a morality that calls for mutual respect.

“[T]he assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually ‘neutral.’ In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies.”

Everything isn’t permitted

A third excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time concerning the strange fact that in human nature we find that “everything isn’t permitted”—not everything is condoned in our heart, and not everything is approved by our conscience:

One of my favorite parts of the Sam Harris book is his attempt to explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union and Asia. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered still more horrifically under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than at any other time in Jewish history. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. First he directs attention away from the ideological character of the regime, toward the odd personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. No, the problem is the ideology, the regime, the millions of believers in atheism. Harris ignores the essential atheism of the ideologies of the regime, “scientific secularism” and “dialectical materialism.” Yet it is these ideologies, not just a few demented leaders, that bred a furious war on God, religion, and clergy. The nature of a regime and its ideology matter more than mad leaders. Yet here is Harris, limping: “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional…The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.” In other words, delusional atheists are not really atheists.

Would Harris accept a claim by Christians that Christian evildoers are not really Christians? The real problem is not that tyrants reject the “dogma” of religion, but that they derive their furors from a dogmatic atheism that brooks no rival. They build a punitive totalitarian regime far more sweeping than their own personal madness.

Enthusiasts such as Harris may dismiss the argument that atheism is associated with relativism. Sometimes it isn’t. Some atheists are rationalists of a most sober, moral kind. Nonetheless, the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoyevsky’s: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” There will be no Judge of deeds and consciences; in the end, it is each man for himself. Widespread public atheism may not show its full effects right away, but only after three or four generations. For individual atheists “of a peculiar character,” brought up in habits inculcated by the religious cultures of the past, can go on for two or three generations living in ways hard to distinguish from those of unassuming Christians and Jews. These individuals continue to be honest, compassionate, committed to the equality of all, firm believers in “progress” and “brotherhood,” long after they have repudiated the original religious justification for this particular list of virtues. But sooner or later a generation may come along that takes the metaphysics of atheism with deadly seriousness. This was the fate of a highly cultivated nation in the Europe of our time, Germany, before it voted its way into Nazism.

George Washington considered this risk in his Farewell Address: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” If morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached, since philosophers vehemently—and endlessly—disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear moral signals. Adds Alexis de Tocqueville:

“There is almost no human action, however particular one supposes it, that does not arise from a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties toward those like them. One cannot keep these ideas from being the common source from which all the rest flow.

“Men therefore have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them; for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence….

“The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions is to furnish a solution for each of these primordial questions that is clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very lasting.”

This extremely practical contribution is one reason Tocqueville saw religion as essential to a free people, and unbelief as tending toward tyranny.

Moreover, in times of stress distinguished intellectuals such as Heidegger and various precursors of postmodernism (including deconstructionist Paul de Man) displayed a shameless adaptation either to Nazi or to Communist imperatives—or to any other anti-Hebraic relativism. Even the elites may lose their moral compass.

Everyone worships. In other words, the question isn’t whether to worship, but who or what ideas or things we will worship. Every culture, similarly, has a viewpoint it seeks to achieve and so can never be neutral in its structure. If we’re interested in pluralism, it’s necessary to guard against creating a monoculture that stifles concrete difference while pursuing abstract universalism.