Category Archives: Politics

Solzhenitsyn: A World Split Apart

For a long time I have admired Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  Years ago I even thought about going to where he lived in Vermont in the hopes of meeting him.  Of course he eventually returned to his homeland, and now is gone.

The June 25 National Review has printed his own critique of the Harvard speech he gave in 1978 (reprinted from his memoir Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile).  He says that “what was mainly expected of me (they later wrote) was the gratitude of the exile to the great Atlantic fortress of Liberty, singing praises to its might and its virtues, which were lacking in the USSR.”  That was not what they got.  Solzhenitsyn:

I had given my speech the title “A World Split Apart,” and it was with this idea that I had opened the speech,that mankind is separated into original and distinct worlds, distinct independent cultures that are often far removed from one another and frequently unfamiliar with one another (I had then listed some of them).  One has to renounce the arrogant blindness of evaluating these different worlds merely within the context of their development toward the Western model.  Such a benchmark is the result of a misunderstanding of the essence of those different worlds.  Also, one has to stand back and look soberly at one’s own system.

Western society in principle is based on a legal level that is far lower than the true moral yardstick, and besides, this legal way of thinking has a tendency to ossify.  In principle, moral imperatives are not adhered to in politics, and often not in public life either.  The notion of freedom has been diverted to unbridled passion, in other words, in the direction of the forces of evil (so that nobody’s “freedom” would be limited!).  A sense of responsibility before God and society has fallen away.  “Human rights” have been so exalted that the rights of society are being oppressed and destroyed. And above all, the press, not elected by anyone, acts high-handedly and has amassed more power than the legislative, executive, or judicial power.  And in this free press itself, it is not true freedom of opinion that dominates, but the dictates of the political fashion of the moment, which lead to a surprising uniformity of opinion. (It was on this point that I had irritated them most.)

There is more which is worth reading!  This particular chapter was written shortly after his speech in 1978.

No Middle Way

I have not been able to accept the prevailing notion that “if only the right people were in office legislating against…evils, everything would be pretty much fine in the land of the free and the brave.” This article about the philosophy of David Schindler helped me think about why that is or is not true.

Two recent books by and about Schindler—Ordering Love and Being Holy in the World, respectively—show how Christians ought to feel liberated to engage the culture in a deeper and ultimately more faithful way.

Schindler certainly agrees that abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and the like are evils. However, unlike our partisan “realists,” he does not regard these as corruptions of a liberal worldview otherwise rightly ordered but as the ironic fruit of liberalism’s unwitting metaphysics. By showing how the achievements of America and liberalism in general are grounded in the same intellectual foundations as their failings, and by showing how virtually all parties in the public square embrace the same metaphysical misconceptions, he turns down the apocalyptic culture-war’s heat while putting the ephemera of electoral politics in their proper context.

…To live well, Schindler argues, is to live in a way that is proper to our being. Conversely, when a misapprehension of being structures our thinking and actions, we experience unhappiness, brokenness, and poverty in its deepest sense—the absence of meaning. He believes that the modern liberal project from Descartes to Rawls is based on a radical misunderstanding of the nature of reality.

Specifically, liberalism fails to apprehend that “love is the basic act and order of things.” Love brings all there is into existence, it is through love that all there is continues in existence, and it is for love that all things exist. Reality is, in this sense, triadic: all things are in, through, and for love. Being might therefore be said to be an order or “logic” of love.

…..As you might imagine, understanding reality as an order of love has profound implications. Among these are that being is a gift, and our proper response to being is in the first place one of receptivity and gratitude.
…. Another implication of the idea of being-as-love is that being is intrinsically relational, not individualistic. The individual is real, to be sure, but included within individuality, and lying at its core, is relationality—to God, to whom the individual is constitutively related as a created thing is to its creator, and to others to whom the individual is related through a common relationship to God.
Now, the first thing to note is that Schindler believes that limited government, the separation of church and state, human rights, and religious freedom are legitimate achievements that ought to be preserved. But he simply does not believe (1) that liberalism, or any other conception of order, can successfully prescind from metaphysics (he quotes philosopher Etienne Gilson: “metaphysics always buries its undertakers”), or (2) that these achievements can be preserved if they are grounded in the unwitting metaphysics of liberalism rather than in the metaphysics of love.
….Schindler’s argument is multifaceted, but as his son David C. Schindler draws it out in Being Holy in the World, on one level it goes like this: by asking Christians to “bracket” their metaphysical commitments for purposes of public order, liberalism essentially asks them to accept a different metaphysics—indeed, a different theology. Christianity does not present itself as just one pre-critical commitment among others, but as the matrix or “paradigm” of rationality itself. One either rejects that claim, and is therefore not a Christian, or one accepts it as a Christian as the basis for reflection and understanding. There can be no middle, “bracketing” way.
Read it all.

Plain Speaking and Lack of Pretense

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From the forward to the 2006 reprinting of President Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography:

When he [Coolidge] assumed the presidency following the 1923 death of President Harding, Calvin Coolidge rapidly won public approval for his integrity, plain speaking and lack of pretense….He became extremely popular, even though he was in style and temperament the antithesis of the conventional view of the “Roaring Twenties.”
    …He repeatedly exhorted the American people to respect public service, to exercise civic responsibility, to value education and character and to reject materialism and prejudice…He was convinced that government, especially the federal government, should first encourage citizens to solve problems at the state and local level.”
My kind of president and man.
And here is Coolidge, commenting on the press and the importance of the President choosing words carefully:
    I have often said that there was no cause for feeling disturbed at being misrepresented in the press.  It would be only when they began to say things detrimental to me which were true that I should feel alarm.
    Perhaps one of the reasons I have been a target for so little abuse is because I have tried to refrain from abusing other people.
    The words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.
    It would be exceedingly easy to set the country all by the ears and foment hatreds and jealousies, which, by destroying faith and confidence, would help nobody and harm everybody.  The end would be the destruction of all progress.
    While every one knows that evils exist, there is yet sufficient good in the people to supply material for most of the comment that needs to be made.
    The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good.  The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies.
Wouldn’t this mindset be helpful today!  And wouldn’t a return to it be a sign of real progress?

Compassion and Politics

For a long time I have had a suspicion that one of the reasons we demand more social service programs is because we can feel we are “helping” without doing anything ourselves.  I’ve wondered, too, why the most vocal supporters of welfare programs seem to have no interest in actual outcomes and efficiency of the systems.

William Voegeli, a political scientist, in an article for Imprimis says that his book Never Enough:  America’s Limitless Welfare State,

…offered an answer to two of the journalist’s standard questions: What is the liberal disposition regarding the growth of the welfare state? And How does that outlook affect politics and policy? But it did not answer another question: Why do liberals feel that no matter how much we’re doing through government programs to alleviate and prevent poverty, whatever we are doing is shamefully inadequate?

On closer study this is what he concluded in answer to the Why question:

The whole point of compassion is for empathizers to feel better when awareness of another’s suffering provokes unease. But this ultimate purpose does not guarantee that empathizees will fare better. Barbara Oakley, co-editor of the volume Pathological Altruism, defines its subject as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” Surprises and accidents happen, of course. The pathology of pathological altruism is not the failure to salve every wound. It is, rather, the indifference—blithe, heedless, smug, or solipsistic—to the fact and consequences of those failures, just as long as the empathizer is accruing compassion points that he and others will admire.

….Even where there are no material benefits to addressing, without ever reducing, other people’s suffering, there are vital psychic benefits for those who regard their own compassion as the central virtue that makes them good, decent, and admirable people—people whose sensitivity readily distinguishes them from mean-spirited conservatives.  “Pity is about how deeply I can feel,” wrote the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. “And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”

It follows, then, that the answer to the question of how liberals who profess to be anguished about other people’s suffering can be so weirdly complacent regarding wasteful, misdirected, and above all ineffective government programs created to relieve that suffering—is that liberals care about helping much less than they care about caring. Because compassion gives me a self-regarding reason to care about your suffering, it’s more important for me to do something than to accomplish something. Once I’ve voted for, given a speech about, written an editorial endorsing, or held forth at a dinner party on the salutary generosity of some program to “address” your problem, my work is done, and I can feel the rush of my own pious reaction. There’s no need to stick around for the complex, frustrating, mundane work of making sure the program that made me feel better, just by being established and praised, has actually alleviated your suffering.

    Read the rest here.

    The Dictatorship of Relativism

    You would think that refusing to believe there are moral absolutes might reduce tension and result in everyone getting along….”I’m ok, you’re ok.” Obviously it doesn’t work like that. Instead, what we see in a society that has adopted relativism, is increased indifference, rage and violence.
    Dwight Longenecker writes that “relativism, this non-philosophy [is now] the mainstream, default setting in our society…The way you can tell that relativism is mainstream is that there is no such thing as rational debate.  In the absence of objective truth, there can be no debate, for a debate is dependent on the assumption that there is something to debate.  A debate can only take place if there is such a thing as truth to be debated, and without that basic assumption, one person’s opinion on a matter must be as valid as the next person’s.  In the absence of objective truth, the only way to make a decision is utilitarianism or sentimentality.” He then asks that if three people have differing opinions on a subject and “the only thing [they] agree upon is that there is no such thing as truth….who will prevail?”  The answer: the loudest or the strongest.
    Longenecker says that, in the face of relativism, society’s general response is first indifference, then emotional anger, and eventually the use of force.
    The cause of this indifference, rage, and ultimate violence is the lack of any objective truth; but lest we become too intellectual in our analysis we should make it clear that by “objective truth,” we do not simply mean verbal propositions that we believe to be factual. By “objective truth” we mean more than a philosophical treatise, a theological creed, or a political constitution. Instead, by “objective truth” we mean a cohesive and integrated system of thought which makes sense of every aspect of reality. This cohesive system of thought even makes room for that which is unpredictable and inexplicable by allowing for certain uncertainties. Finally, this “objective truth” is not only a statement of truth propositions and a cohesive system of analysis and integration, but it is also a model for life, a code of behavior, a chart for relationships, and a blueprint for community co-existence. In other words, for this truth to be true it must wear working clothes. It does so not only to prove its practicality, but also to prove its durability. The truth must work and keep working. It must be alive and active and real.
    This cohesive, integrated system of thought which we regard to be true is what has been destroyed by the poison of relativism, and the result of relativism can only be dictatorship. The strong must prevail. Nietzsche was right in a way he did not foresee. Nihilism will produce the übermensch not because it should, but because it must. It must because there is no other alternative to the nihilism of relativism than the triumph of the superman. If all is relative who wins the argument? The strongest.
    The most terrifying aspect to this truth is that the indifferent will cry out for the domination of the superman. Most dictatorships are welcomed for what they offer. In the lack of objective truth and objective morality what the strongman says is true and what the strongman does is good. Suddenly out of the quicksand of relativism salvation comes. A light shines in the darkness. If the dictator cannot bring meaning out of the mindlessness, at least he can bring order out of the chaos. If he cannot bring beauty out of the beastliness, at least he can promise security in the midst of terror. If he cannot bring morality out of the morass at least he can impose law on the lawless.
    It is alarming, and familiar.

    C.S. Lewis and Political Thought

    I’ve finished reading the recently released book, C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law.  At the same time I had to spend time refreshing my memory about such things as classical liberalism, natural law, and Mill’s harm principle, so it took me longer than it should have.  It is not a large book, less than 150 pages.
    One of the things I like about C.S. Lewis is his ability to explain complicated or subtle things simply and clearly.  This book reflects that skill.  Because Lewis wrote little directly about politics the authors teased his political thought out of his letters, lectures, talks, and books.  It is organized into seven focused chapters that build on each other.   It left me wondering what Lewis would have thought about our last national election cycle.  I’m going to think on it.
    In a section titled “The Dangers of Overbearing Government” the authors relate Lewis’ dislike of theocracy [in Lewis’ words]:
    I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others.  And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects.  Hence, theocracy is the worst of all governments…the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.
    And this, from the authors:
    As dangerous as theocracy could be, however, Lewis was not so short-sighted as to think religion was the primary pretext for totalizing government aspirations.  At the particular time in which he wrote, Lewis thought the greatest threat to Western civilization and Christianity was not theocracy (which holds almost no purchase in the modern West) or nationalistic fascism (which had been largely defeated in the late war), but scientific technocracy.  As Lewis confessed:
    I dread government in the name of science.  That is how most tyrannies come in.  In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent.  They “cash in.”  It has been magic, it has been Christianity.  Now it will certainly be science.

    Men Without a Chest

    I’ve frequently been told that the problem with our political parties today is that they are not moderate enough, they are too liberal or too conservative.  In an article titled Betraying Politics: The Mystique of Public Life John Schweiker Shelton disagrees:

    “Everything begins as a mystique and ends as a politique,” observes French essayist Charles Péguy. In other words, that which begins as a pure idea—mystic, even transcendent—devolves into profane politics, the slow grind of policy divorced from any sort of sanguine idealism. The politique politician is an automaton, swayed by the slightest breeze of public opinion and party leadership. Such a man considers himself to be “eminently practical.” If he is always choosing an evil, at least it is the lesser of two. He takes what he can get; he desires the possible and worries not over the good, the beautiful, the true. He scoffs at Plato, even Aristotle. His man is Hobbes—Machiavelli, if he is forthright. He esteems them not for their realism but their cynicism. Such humdrum pessimism is fit cover for this man without a chest.
    The mystique politician is not the philosopher satirized in Aristophanes’ The Clouds: staring up absentmindedly into the starry night, falling into a well. He is instead the philosopher of The Federalist Papers, the man who, if he stares up into the starry night, does so not unto stumbling but because he will soon travel there upon Apollo 11. He articulates the natural rights of humanity and believes in them sufficiently to fight till liberty or death. His is a lusty romanticism that purges the will to power of Nietzschean materiality with the fires of Platonic idealism. He is a Kierkegaard and not a Foucault; a martyr and not a critic. Where is such a person today?
    ….In the American political tradition, two fonts of mystique and politique predominate: the liberal and the conservative—each a scion of the Western Christian tradition in its own right. The liberal mystique enunciates the eternal dignity of each individual, purposed for transformation and glorification; the conservative mystique praises the divine vocation of the church, the family, the nation, and other institutions, each tasked with preserving the moral order and transmitting knowledge of truth and human virtue.  That there are two major streams of mystique driving the American experiment, embedded in its constitution of rights and laws, is not insignificant. Were there only one, a solipsistic individualism would reign—or a fascist collectivism. That there are two streams is definitive of American politics and is necessary for its weal. This is why libertarianism is the death of politics just as much as authoritarianism. Rights must always be balanced with responsibilities; without a shared community, there can be no shared justice. And without justice, the experiment fails.

    …The wisdom of the day reports that all of our problems arise because our nation is too ideological. But the wisdom of the day is no wisdom at all. Our conflicts arise, not because we are too ideological, but because we are insufficiently so.  The wisdom of the day reports that there is no reconciling those who believe abortion is murder and those who believe a woman has the right to decide this for herself. Though they may be right that the culture war between will never end, they are wrong to think this is a problem of ideology. The battle between pro-life and pro-choice lobbies is not a battle over mystique, it is a battle over politique. No doubt, these positions emerge from mystiques but they are not mystiquesthemselves. Rather, the conflict arises because politique has devoured the mystique from which it came. It is the loss of mystique in politics, not its presence, that has led to the trench warfare we have seen in Washington, DC.  Péguy proclaims, “All parties live by their mystique and die by their politique.” For some long time now, the Republicans and the Democrats have both been dying of a politique shorn of mystique. The liberals are not liberal and the conservatives are not conservative! Inside of the Beltway this is painfully obvious.


    And his conclusion reaffirms my decision not to vote for Clinton or Trump:

    Péguy offered an alternative to the destructive politiques of his day: to betray the Machiavellian calculations of politics. We will be called ‘traitors’ for our refusal “to enter into the derivative, parasitical, devouring politique.” And yet we must be such ‘traitors’ so that we do not become true traitors: those who sell their faith, their souls, and give their very selves up. We must not betray our faith, our ideals, or our values for a political victory. We must discern the dividing line between mystique and politique and refuse to budge over it. We can go no further, for, as Péguy warns,

    Continuing, persevering, in that sense, is all that is most dangerous to justice and to intelligence itself. To take one’s ticket departure in a party, in a faction, and never to bother where the train is rolling to, and above all, what it is rolling on, is to put oneself resolutely in the very best situation for becoming a criminal.

    In our desperation to win the culture war, we must not follow the path of wicked Saul, who called upon the Witch of Endor to shore up his position. We cannot afford the disastrous, Pyrrhic victory that awaits us there. We must be better conservatives. We must be better liberals.