This Fourth, The Testimony Stands

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Things are so going so disastrously wrong, and so much damage is being done to our civic and social institutions, that as I sit down to compose my annual Independence Day reflections on hopeful realism, I feel like I should be having another “down year” like I did in 2014 (“a more realistic July 4”). But I’m not, and the man who is helping me most in that department is a chronic depressive who was convinced western civilization was doomed.

I think I would need to write ten thousand words at least to convey the effect upon me of reading Whittaker Chambers’ Witness for the first time (in 43 years I had never read it, shame on me!) earlier this year. I’ll try to keep it shorter here; I feel no doubt that I will produce the ten thousand word version in the coming year or not much longer.

Chambers is of course a very great man and I’m teaching my daughter to be like him, but that’s not what I want to talk about here.

Reading Witness has revealed to me new insight into how the moral narratives of conservatism were formed out of the mid-century anti-statist experience. This has showed me greater depths in both what was right with conservatism and why it went wrong and failed the way it ultimately did. Chambers himself was only a reluctant participant in the formation of those narratives, and never called himself “conservative.” He felt conservatism was too ideological and didn’t offer enough to the common man whose traditional ways of life were being destroyed by the technological developments of modernity. But he taught us that the key political quesiton is “God or Man?”; that all forms of statism are ultimately forms of the answer “Man,” differing only in the degree to which they have the courage of that conviction; and that our society was sliding toward statism because its leaders had decisively committed themselves to the answer “Man,” implying that a radical change of spiritual direction was what was really needed. The fight for God and against statism were the same fight.

This was not false then and is not false now. Where we went wrong was in conflating all objections to libertarian free markets with statism, adopting too political and too pugilistic a strategy for what was essentially a spiritual fight (Chambers famously had no hope for the west; less famous is his statement that this was because he could see no political solution to the problem – and he was right about that part, at least) and neglecting to take seriously, as Chambers always did, two historical realities that complicate the fight for God and freedom against statism: the congenital political schizophrenia of the American constitutional order due to racism and slavery, and the dependence of moral norms on social institutions that are destabilized in advanced modernity.

One of my themes in the past year has been “death of conservatism watch,” not in the sense that there will not be a Right, but in the sense that the complex and somewhat contradictory combination of ideas that we call “conservatism” is dying and something else will replace it. For those of us who were deeply attached to what we thought and hoped conservatism was and could be, the question now is 1) how to preserve what is worth preserving and 2) to what extent doing that has anything to do with the political Right now.

Interestingly, I think Chambers is a figure my friends on the Left would admire, if they knew his story. And I think the heat of the Cold War may now finally be far enough away for us to introduce him to them.

It could be part of the forging of a new trans-partisan moral consensus, in which responsible people on the Left come to terms with their failure to see statism for what it is – and their persecution of conservatives for the crime of seeing it for what it is – and responsible people on the Right come to terms with the schizophenia of the constitutional order caused by racism, i.e. our failure to relate ethnic identity to natural rights in a satisfactory way, given the interdependence in the human mind of reason (a universal human power by which we know about universal natural rights) and cosmic narrative (which are not universal but particular to ethnic and religious identities).

Part of that process should be some kind of Eulogy for Conservatism. It is dying now, dying of its own self-inflicted wounds. But it did great things for this country, saving this country from disaster and catastrophe again and again, and this country did nothing but spit on it. Before conservatism passes into history, the greatness of what it did for its country, in spite of all its country did to try to destroy it, should be entered into the record.

When Chambers died, a friend remarked: “The witness is gone, the testimony will stand.” I feel the same about what was good in conservatism.

And a eulogy for what is gone is followed by a return to the forces of life.

Need a sign of hope? The New Disney Animation continued to kill it this year.

We set a course to find a brand new island everywhere we roam; and when it’s time to find home, we know the way.

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Jesus the Disreputable Doctor

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It’s been a jolly few weeks on the conservatism deathwatch; George Will has chosen to cling to the dead husk of conservatism rather than a living hope that might animate whatever comes after conservatism. Ironically, in his very next column he deployed, in opposition to public funding for PBS, the very same kind of arguments that he had inexplicably denounced in Whittaker Chambers.

So let’s turn to something more cheerful – my latest for TGR:

The shepherd was very low in social rank, but quite respectable. The doctor was disreputable, like the publican or the prostitute.

This is probably related to the widespread presence of medical quackery and exploitation of desperate people in the age before the proper organization of medicine as a science. (Remember, the sick woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe had spent herself into penury hiring doctors in hope of alleviating her illness, to no effect. We need not assume the doctors she paid were honest men.)

Now, with all that in mind, imagine in your mind how shocking this scene must have been: The Pharisees attack Jesus for associating himself with sinners – with disreputable people – and his response is to identify himself as one of the most disreputable kinds of people: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

Coming soon: God the farmer, potter, counsellor, warrior/king . . . and a surprise finale.

Imagining God as a Worker

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I’m remiss in notifying HT of my new blog series at TGR, in which I invite the faith and work movement to imagine God in new ways based on our insight that we are made for work because we are made in God’s image and God is a worker (John 5:17).

In the first post, I describe how the way we imagine God has far-reaching effects on our lives:

Do we imagine God as a worker? Or do we imagine him as a passive force? A Zeus sitting atop Olympus, commanding us to work so he can recline and drink ambrosia? A huge Neo-Platonic light bulb at the center of the universe, obvious to the rays of illumination he broadcasts? C.S. Lewis once received a letter from a young girl who said she imagined God as a vast tapioca pudding; to make matters worse, she hated tapioca…

If we picture Zeus reclining atop Olympus, it’s not long before we picture him chasing skirts, and then we do the same. If we picture God as a light bulb, it’s not long before “he” becomes an “it” and the light we really chase after is the will-o-the-wisp within.

In the second, I explore the implications of the scriptural image of God as a shepherd:

The first thing that stands out to me here is Willard and Black’s suggestion that God’s omniscience includes practical knowledge. Like many, I tend to think of God’s omniscience in terms of his knowing things in the abstract – he knows all the facts, he knows all the principles, he knows all the logical connections. But although God does know all things in the way a computer or a philosopher knows things, God also knows all things the way a shepherd knows things. That is, he also knows those kinds of things. In our cultural terms, he knows how to change a tire, analyze a chemical sample or mow the grass. He knows the right way to phrase a delicate inquiry or when is the right time for a difficult conversation.

As we learn and practice these kinds of knowledge – “know-how” – we are delving into the mind of God.

Future installments will consider God as presented in the Bible through images of other kinds of workers, from farmer to king.

Today, on “Death of Conservatism Watch”…

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I will admit I was surprised when not only the usual opportunistic blowhards, but even a number of very respectable and impeccably anti-Trump people among those who call themselves “conservatives,” were disgusted with Ross Douthat’s suggestion that our constitutional order is built on the assumption that political leaders (“elites”) have something unique to contribute that hoi polloi desperately need, and don’t have of themselves. It’s not simply that these so-called conservatives disagreed with the wisdom of recognizing a role for elites in our constitutional order. They were appalled. And they identified Douthat’s heresy as a betrayal of “conservatism,” rather than an expression of conservatism (which is what it was, insofar as that word still has a meaning).

So now conservatism is identified with populism not only among the blowhards, but among respectable Never Trumpers.

But don’t worry. “This Is Not a Crisis.”

The Right Owns Trump’s Betrayal (or, Conservatism Death Watch Part CLXXVII)

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So apparently Trump is not only handing vital intelligence to the Russians, who intend our destruction, and doing so for no purpose other than to feed his own ego, but in doing so stabs in the back the allies upon whose cooperation we depend.

Not the first time, or the tenth, in the past several generations that America has unconscionably betrayed vulnerable allies, from South Vietnam to Iraq to Syria to Iraq again, and many more. (That anyone is dumb enough to help us is a perennial surprise to me. When in living memory have we ever not betrayed our allies?)

But we usually do so either for intelligible reasons of realpolitik or sympathetic reasons of progressive guilt. That doesn’t justify it, but does excuse it to some degree.

Now we do it because we elected a man who is little more than a slave to his momentary egoistic impulses.

When the Clinton impeachment went down to defeat, one conservative commentator (I forget who) said something like: “From now on, if anything worse comes out, no matter what it is, the Democrats own it. They chose to keep this man in power, knowing what he is.” I thought so then and I still think so.

You know who owns Trump?

  • All the “conservative” broadcasters and the undead remnant of the Religious Right, whose job it was to warn their people
  • All the GOP bigwigs who were handed repeated opportunities to deny Trump the nomination, and tossed them away
  • Cruz, Rubio, Perry and all the other former Trump opponents who sold their souls

Related: “This Is Not a Crisis,” Republicans Say as a Large Spider Slowly Devours Them

Ironically, the people who don’t own Trump – the people who have my sympathy – are the people with subject matter expertise (foreign policy, economics, education, health care, etc.) who work in his administration so they can minimize the damage. Those people are choosing crucifixion. I honor and admire them, and can empathize.