The West is best

Tom Holland:

Declarations of hope that Notre-Dame can be resurrected have been much in evidence this Holy Week. Such is the lesson of Easter: that life can come from death. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, that other great emblem of Paris, Notre-Dame provides the French with evidence that their modern and secular republic has its foundations deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. Notre-Dame has always been more than just an assemblage of stone and stained glass. It is a monument as well to a specifically Christian past.

Last summer, one of the world’s best-known scientists, a man as celebrated for his polemics against religion as for his writings on evolutionary biology, sat in another cathedral, Winchester, in the United Kingdom, listening to the bells peal. ‘So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding “Allahu Akhbar”,’ Richard Dawkins tweeted. ‘Or is that just my cultural upbringing?’ A preference for church bells over the sound of Muslims praising God does not just emerge by magic. Dawkins — agnostic, secularist and humanist that he is — absolutely has the instincts of someone brought up in a Christian civilization.

Perhaps, then, the debt of the contemporary West to Christianity is more deeply rooted than many — believers and non-believers alike — might presume.

Today, as the flood-tide of western power and influence ebbs, the illusions of European and American liberals risk being left stranded. Much that they have sought to cast as universal stands exposed as never having been anything of the kind. Free-thinkers who mock the very idea of a god as a sky fairy, an imaginary friend, still hold to taboos and morals that palpably derive from Christianity. In 2002, in Amsterdam, the World Humanist Congress affirmed ‘the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others’. Yet this — despite humanists’ stated ambition to provide ‘an alternative to dogmatic religion’ — was nothing if not itself a statement of belief. The humanist assumption that atheism and a concern for human life go together was just that: an assumption. What basis — other than mere sentimentality — was there to argue for it? Perhaps, as the humanist manifesto declared, through ‘the application of the methods of science’. Yet this was barely any less of a myth than the biblical story that God had created humanity in his own image. It is not truth that science offers moralists, but a mirror. Racists identify it with racist values; liberals with liberal values. The primary dogma of humanism — ‘that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others’ — finds no more corroboration in science than did the dogma of the Nazis that anyone not fit for life should be exterminated. The wellspring of humanist values lies not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in the past, and specifically in the story of how a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal in a long-vanished empire emerged to become — as the great Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin has put it — ‘the most powerful of hegemonic cultural systems in the history of the world’.

The Easter story lies at the heart of this narrative. Crucifixion, in the opinion of Roman intellectuals, was not a punishment just like any other. It was one peculiarly suited to slaves. To be hung naked, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds, ‘long in agony’, as the philosopher Seneca put it, ‘swelling with ugly weals on shoulder and chest’, was the very worst of fates. Yet in the exposure of the crucified to the public gaze there lurked a paradox. So foul was the carrion-reek of their disgrace that many felt tainted even by viewing a crucifixion. Certainly, few cared to think about it in any detail. Order, the order loved by the gods and upheld by magistrates vested with the full authority of the greatest power on earth, was what counted — not the elimination of such vermin as presumed to challenge it. Some deaths were so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely.

The surprise, then, is less that we should have so few procedural descriptions in ancient literature of what a crucifixion might actually involve, than that we should have any at all. Nevertheless, amid the general silence, there is one major exception which proves the rule. Four detailed accounts of the process by which a man might be sentenced to the cross, and then suffer his punishment, have survived from antiquity. These accounts are to be found, of course, in the New Testament. There is no reason to doubt their essentials. Even the most skeptical historians have tended to accept them. In the words of one of the most distinguished, Geza Vermes, ‘The death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross is an established fact, arguably the only established fact about him.’

Altogether more controversial, of course, are the stories of what happened next. That women, going to the tomb, found the entrance stone rolled away. That Jesus, over the course of the next 40 days, appeared to his followers, not as a ghost or a reanimated corpse, but resurrected into a new and glorious form. That he ascended into heaven, and was destined to come again. Time would see him hailed, not just as a man, but as a god. By enduring the most agonizing fate imaginable, he had conquered death itself. ‘Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…’

The utter strangeness of all this, for the vast majority of people in the Roman world, did not lie in the notion that a mortal might become divine. The border between the heavenly and the earthly was widely held to be permeable. Divinity, however, was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself. Even Christians, in the early years of the cult, might flinch at staring the manner of Jesus’s death full in the face. They were as wise to the connotations of crucifixion as anyone. Paul, the most successful and influential of early missionaries, readily described Christ’s execution as a ‘scandal’. The shame of it was long felt. Only centuries after the death of Jesus did his crucifixion at last start to emerge as an acceptable theme for artists. By 400 ad the cross was ceasing to be viewed as something shameful. Banned as a punishment decades earlier by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, crucifixion had come to serve the Roman people as an emblem of triumph over sin and death. An artist, carving the scene out of ivory, might represent Jesus in the skimpy loincloth of an athlete. Far from looking broken, he would be shown as no less muscled, no less ripped than any of the ancient gods.

We are the heirs to a later, much more unsettling way of portraying Christ’s crucifixion. The Jesus painted or sculpted by medieval artists, twisted, bloody, dying, was a victim of torture such as his original executioners would have recognized. The response to the spectacle, though, was far removed from the mingled revulsion and disdain that had typified that of the ancients to crucifixion. Christians in the Middle Ages, when they looked upon an image of their Lord upon the cross, upon the nails smashed through the tendons and bone of his feet, upon the arms stretched so tightly as to appear torn from their sockets, upon the slump of his thorn-crowned head on to his chest, did not feel contempt, but rather compassion, and pity, and fear. That the Son of God, born of a woman, and sentenced to the death of a slave, had perished unrecognized by his judges, was a reflection fit to give pause to even the haughtiest monarch. This awareness could not help but lodge in the consciousness of medieval Christians a visceral and momentous suspicion: that God was closer to the weak than to the mighty, to the poor than to the rich. Any beggar, any criminal, might be Christ. ‘So the last will be first, and the first last.’

Christianity had revealed to the world a momentous truth: that to be a victim might be a source of strength. No one in modern times saw this more clearly than the religion’s most brilliant and unsparing critic. Because of Christianity, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘the measure of a man’s compassion for the lowly and suffering comes to be the measure of the loftiness of his soul’. The commanding heights of western culture may now be occupied by people who dismiss Christianity as superstition; but their instincts and assumptions remain no less Christian for that. If God is indeed dead, then his shadow, immense and dreadful, continues to flicker even as his corpse lies cold. The risen Christ cannot be eluded simply by refusing to believe in him. That the persecuted and disadvantaged have claims upon the privileged — widely taken for granted though it may be today across the West — is not remotely a self-evident truth. Condemnations of Christianity as patriarchal or repressive or hegemonic derive from a framework of values that is itself nothing if not Christian.

Familiarity with the Easter story has desensitized us to what both Paul and Nietzsche, in their very different ways, instinctively recognized in it: a scandal. The cross, that ancient tool of imperial power, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of a transfiguration in the affairs of humanity as profound and far-reaching as any in history. ‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ It is the audacity of it — the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe — that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilization to which it gave birth.

Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead upon an implement of torture.

Jonah Goldberg:

The other day Ben Shapiro offered what should have been an utterly banal statement about the fire at Notre Dame:

Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing.

Now, I have no problem with quibbles (and neither does Ben) from Catholics who point out that Notre Dame was a monument to the glory of God and what Catholics believe to be the One True Church as delineated in the Nicene Creed. But, I doubt any of those Catholics took offense at what Ben said. And if they did, they should probably lighten up. I’d also point out that Cathedrals were the space programs of their day (“The Knights Templar were the first Space Force”: Discuss). Cities and nations constantly competed to see who could build the tallest Cathedral — which is why most are built on the tallest ground available. The idea was both theological and political. Theologically, the idea was to get as close to God as possible. Politically, it was a desire for, well, national greatness.

Anyway, what I have a huge problem with is the bonfire of asininity that ignited from people who think “Western civilization” is a term reserved solely for the alt-right and other bigots (David French addressed the point well here). In a piece about Ben’s excellent book on Western civilization — I’ll reserve my quibbles for later — The Economist labeled him an “alt-right sage” and a “pop idol of the alt right.” To The Economist’s credit, they retracted and apologized. But the immediate assumption that praise for, or pride in, Western civilization is a species of bigotry and racism is a perfect example of the sort of civilizational suicide I describe in my own book on the subject.

So adamantine is this absurdity that some Shapiro haters actually assume he’s not actually saying he thinks the West is superior, only “tacitly” suggesting it.

Ben might as well be standing in the center of Times Square waving a giant foam finger that reads “Western Civ #1” on it. But the idea is so offensive to some people they think he wouldn’t dare say it outright.

What’s So Great about Western Civilization?

I’ve covered much of this at length — book length but also in this G-File — elsewhere. So I’ll go in a slightly different direction.

Forget calling it Western civilization for a moment. Instead think of a kind of party platform with a bunch of planks:

  • Support for human rights
  • Belief in the rule of law
  • Dedication to democracy
  • Free speech
  • Freedom of conscience
  • Admiration for science and the scientific method
  • Curiosity about other cultures
  • Property rights
  • Tolerance or celebration of technological and/or cultural innovation

I’ll be generous and stipulate that 90 percent of the people who are offended by pride in Western civilization actually believe — or think they believe — in most or all of these things. They just have a problem connecting the dots, so I’ll try.

Where do they think most of these ideas come from? Where were they most successfully put into action? What civilization today or in some bygone era manifests these values more? Chinese civilization? Islamic civilization? Aztec? African? Indian? Persian? Turkish?

I’m not trying to belittle any of those cultures, nor deny their contributions to human history. I’m not even trying to argue – here, at least — that Western civilization is objectively superior in some scientific or God’s-eye-view sense. As with the debates over nationalism, there’s no arguing — and no reason to argue — with a French patriot about whether or not America is “better” than France. I would think less of a Spaniard who didn’t love Spain more than he or she loves France. It’s like arguing whose family is better, we love what is ours. As Bill Buckley liked to say, De gustibus non est disputandum.

But the weird thing is that many of the people who are outraged by benign nationalism or the benign pan-nationalism that is pride in Western civilization take no umbrage when someone from Iran or China says they think their civilization is best.  This of course is a manifestation of the ancient cult of identitarianism, which the best traditions of the West have battled internally at great cost for thousands of years. Saying Western civilization is great hurts the feelings of some people invested in some other source of identity. And it hurts the feelings of some Westerners because they think it’s a sign of enlightenment to get offended on other people’s behalf or to denigrate the society that gave them their soap box.

The irony is that the willingness to entertain the possibility that some other culture has something important to offer or say to us is actually one of the hallmarks of Western civilization (and the condescension with which many Americans treat other cultures is also a more regrettable side of Western culture). We “borrow” stuff from other cultures constantly, starting with Christianity itself.

This is particularly true of America, which is why our menus read like the requested meal plans from a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. This profound lack of self-awareness manifests itself most acutely among progressives who wear their Europe-envy on their sleeves. Oh, they’re so much more civilized over there. Well, what civilization do you think “over there” is part of?

Western civilization is a work in progress because that’s what civilization means. If you want a Cliff’s Notes version of what my book was about it’s simply this: Every generation, humans start from scratch. As Hannah Arendt said, every generation Western civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them “children.” As babies we come into the world with the same programming as Viking, Hun or caveman babies. These barbarians need to be civilized and that’s a job primarily done by families, which is why the days are long and the years are short. We teach barbarians how to be citizens in the broadest sense of the word, through formal education, religious teaching, social norms and the modeling of proper behavior. In other words, we assimilate people into a culture.

As Alan Wolfe writes in his discussion of Immanuel Kant:

As cultivating a field yields a better product, the arts and sciences cultivate us by improving the quality of who we are. No wonder, then, that when we look for a term that expresses the way we improve upon nature, we use “culture,” which has the same root as “cultivate.” And civilization—expressed in German not only as Zivilisation but also as Kultur — far from corrupting our soul, makes it possible for us to bring good out of evil.

The way you sustain and improve upon a culture is by fostering a sense of gratitude for what is best about it. You celebrate the good in your story while putting the bad in the correct context. Conservatism is gratitude, and as I noted on Fox the other night, one of the most compelling things in reaction the fire of Notre Dame was seeing how many people recognized their own ingratitude for this jewel of their own civilization. The Church was in peril because the French took it for granted. But, like that feeling one gets deep in the soul when a loved one in peril, millions were overcome with a sense of what they might lose. And now France is devoting itself to restoring what was almost lost.

Has Western civilization made mistakes? Sure (cue the Monty Python skit about Rome). Terrible things have been done in its name, a statement one can make about every civilization that has ever existed. But to say that the mistakes define us more than the accomplishments is suicidally stupid. And if you subscribe to those planks I mentioned above, I’d like to suggest that telling people they’re bigots for taking pride in the civilization that brought them forth better than any other is like taking a sledgehammer to the soapbox you’re standing on.

And to do it in the name of virtue tweeting is one of the purer forms of asininity.

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Presty the DJ for April 20

The number one single today in 1957:

Today in 1959, Goldband Records released a single that had been recorded two years earlier by an 11-year-old girl named Dolly Parton.

“Puppy Love” didn’t chart for Parton, but it did for other acts, including Paul Anka and Donny Osmond. And Parton had a pretty good career anyway.

The number one single today in 1974:

Continue reading “Presty the DJ for April 20”

A week after eating a rock

An outstanding newspaper wrote a story and a column about last weekend’s UW Band concerts.

Photo by Gary Smith. Good thing this is only practice, but Leckrone always said you play like you practice. Toes not pointed, upper leg not at a 45-degree angle. What is the statute of limitations for being on the Dummy List?
For those who assume I’m making all this up, my cousin shot this photo as evidence that I indeed marched one more time with the UW Band.
The 50 alumni — 50 for 50 years, get it? — who played in the concert. Photo by Gary Smith.
The oldest trumpet players in the concerts. Photo also by Gary Smith.

If you look toward the lower right of the screen you will see more evidence that I did actually play:

Another band alum posted about the first time he met Mike Leckrone. Since my parents are football season-ticket-holders of long standing, and I generally got to go to one game a year, I saw the band starting in the early 1970s, and went to two concerts in the late 1970s. (A Madison TV station had a preview of the concert that night including video of practice with Leckrone not too happy with the band. That’s what we call foreshadowing.) The first time I saw him close enough to be recognizable was at a high school marching band practice, in which Leckrone exhorted us to march with a sense of confidence and pride and we’re-the-best-there-is. I didn’t get that until three years later when I made the band.

(About which: I survived 1983 Registration Week practices, thinking I was going to die 15 minutes into the first practice. The following Monday the list of those who made it and those who didn’t was posted. I went over, looked at the you’re-in list, and then found the trumpets, and there I was. I stared at it for a few minutes not believing my eyes. Then I called my parents and, after a pause for dramatic tension, told them that now they had a reason to go to the games.)

The funniest thing about Wednesday’s practice — other than Leckrone’s telling his band they weren’t going to practice more than twice so we wouldn’t get tired out — was that he indicated his displeasure with his band using the exact words he could have used on us 35 years ago, beginning with the band director chestnut, “Why are you talking?” after they stopped playing. (That might be a reality of even military bands.) That was followed by a criticism for lack of spacing while playing and a general observation that “you play like you practice.”

The UW Band Alumni Association Facebook page has a huge list of people’s favorite shows or music (in my case, the James Bond Medley from freshman year, Too Old for MTV sophomore year, West Side Story and the international On Wisconsin show from junior year, and Jesus Christ Superstar from first senior year), and people writing about the impact Leckrone and the band had on their lives.

All of the lasts of Leckrone’s final season …

The four days with the band were better than I thought possible. There were two marchers from Leckrone’s first band, in 1969. The most numerous marchers seemed to be from the group that started in 1979, which got not just bowl games …

… but NCAA hockey championships to go to and play.

There were a lot of tears Saturday night. I wasn’t one of them because I’m not built like that. (Recall the Dr. Seuss phrase, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”) Perhaps it’s because, like my last year in the band, all my lasts didn’t hit me as lasts until the following August when I wasn’t about to start Reg Week rehearsals.

(I am virtually certain I am somewhere in that video.?)

The Peace Corps calls itself “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” The term “love” is grossly overused today, but I loved being in the band. What did the band mean to me? Take your pick.

 

Happy (?) Tax Freedom Day, Wistaxsin

Wisconsin has arrived at Tax Freedom Day, which according to the Tax Foundation is …

… the day when the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay its total tax bill for the year. Tax Freedom Day takes all federal, state, and local taxes and divides them by the nation’s income. In 2019, Americans will pay $3.42 trillion in federal taxes and $1.86 trillion in state and local taxes, for a total tax bill of $5.29 trillion, or 29 percent of national income. This year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 16, or 105 days into the year. …

… Since 2002, federal expenses have surpassed federal revenues, with the budget deficit exceeding $1 trillion annually from 2009 to 2012. In calendar year 2019, the deficit is expected to increase from $981 billion to $1.09 trillion. If we include this annual federal borrowing, which represents future taxes owed, Tax Freedom Day would occur on May 8, 22 days later. The latest ever deficit-inclusive Tax Freedom Day occurred during World War II, on May 25, 1945. …

The total tax burden borne by residents of different states varies considerably due to differing state tax policies and the progressivity of the federal tax system. This means that states with higher incomes and higher taxes celebrate TFD later: New York (May 3), New Jersey (April 30), and Connecticut (April 25). Residents of Alaska will bear the lowest average tax burden in 2019, with Tax Freedom Day arriving on March 25. Also early are Oklahoma (March 30), Florida (April 4), and Louisiana (April 4).

Put another way, Wisconsin has the 16th highest federal, state and local taxes in the U.S., up from 17th one year ago.

This blog follows Tax Freedom Day every year — April 12, 2010, April 16, 2011April 21, 2012April 20, 2013April 22, 2014April 25, 2015April 27, 2016, April 27, 2017, and April 19, 2018. The first eight years were under Democratic presidents, and Democrats raise taxes as often as the sun rises in the east. On the other hand, Republicans controlled the executive and legislative branches of state government from 2011 to 2018, and yet this state’s tax burden got worse, not better.

The difference between 2017 and 2018 is not, sadly, because of major tax cuts; it’s because of a difference in the Tax Foundation’s methodology. As it is, with a Democratic governor and a Legislature apparently hell-bent on increasing gas taxes despite a majority of the public not favoring gas tax increases, our 2020 Tax Freedom Day will probably be later than this year’s.

Given the reality of our overtaxation, this from Yahoo! Finance isn’t a surprise:

As the tax deadline nears, residents of some states are bearing the brunt of it more than others. …

WalletHub looked at four different types of taxation: Real-Estate Tax, Vehicle Property Tax, Income Tax, and Sales & Excise Tax.

Here’s a breakdown of each, based on WalletHub’s data:

Being a homeowner in New Jersey isn’t cheap at all — in fact, NJ residents see the highest effective real-estate tax (otherwise known as property tax) rate in the country, at 8.13%. Trailing behind are Illinois (7.71%), New Hampshire (7.33%), Connecticut (6.89%), and Wisconsin (6.47%). WalletHub calculated these rates by dividing the effective median real estate tax in that state to the median income. …

And if property taxes are an issue, note that Hawaii has the lowest rate at 0.90%. Alabama, Louisiana, D.C., and Colorado aren’t far behind, all under 2%.

In terms of taxing residents income states like Alaska, Florida, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming all have a 0% rate. Yet, in Kentucky, residents pay a 5.01% tax on their income. Maryland, Oregon, and Pennsylvania are pricey too, with tax rates above 4% on their residents.

That is, again, after eight years of Republican control of state government. The GOP and former Gov. Scott Walker deserve complete blame for failing to campaign into the state Constitution Taxpayer Bill of Rights-like permanent controls restricting spending and taxes.

The sins and sin of socialism

Today is, depending on the Christian church, Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper before Jesus Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday.

This weekend concludes Lent, during which Christians are supposed to ponder our sinful natures. The Episcopal Church, of which I am a member (though I sometimes wonder why given the actions of the national church and some of its bishops), often uses its Rite I for Lenten Masses, which uses “thee” and “thou” that wasn’t contemporary even last century.

(Aside: More presidents have been Episcopalians than members of any other religion, including most recently George H.W. Bush. The two things I have in common with Franklin Delano Roosevelt is that he too was an Episcopalian, and he was the senior warden of his church, St. James in Hyde Park, N.Y., as I have been and am now. FDR was senior warden even when he was president, which makes one wonder how many Vestry meetings he attended, or perhaps he attended via radio from the White House.)

I have yet to hear this version of the Confession of Sin in an Episcopal church, even during Lent:

… We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins
and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.

Both of the two Episcopal churches of which I was a member used language that differs little from the more contemporary Rite II:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.

The currently most famous Episcopalian is Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., and for some reason one of the herd of Democratic presidential candidates. Independent of his sexuality, he, like nearly every current presidential candidate (including the Democrats not as famous as Comrade Bernie Sanders), claim to support socialism.

Any of those socialists who are practicing Jews or Christians are promoting sin. Jesus Christ, recall, was a devout Jew, and all of Christianity comes from Judaism. Whether your description comes from Exodus or Deuteronomy, two of the 10 Commandments are to not steal and to not covet.

Everyone who lies about socialism (for instance, denying its death toll of upwards of 100 million among the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, or claiming that socialism hasn’t worked because it hasn’t been done correctly) commits a third sin, lying. (A recent letter to the editor in southwest Wisconsin newspapers claimed there was little difference between socialism and Christianity. Fortunately a Catholic priest corrected her manifold errors in a later letter.)

The Quran agrees:

  • The thief, male or female, you shall mark their hands as a punishment for their crime, and to serve as an example from GOD. GOD is Almighty, Most Wise.
  • … incur GOD’s condemnation upon him, if he was lying.
  • Do not withhold any testimony by concealing what you had witnessed. Anyone who withholds a testimony is sinful at heart.
  • You shall regard the parents, the relatives, the orphans, the poor, the related neighbor, the unrelated neighbor, the close associate, the traveling alien, and your servants.

One thing liberal Christians fail to grasp about the Gospel is that everything Jesus Christ tells us Christians to do — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, showing strangers hospitality, visiting prisoners — is an individual responsibility. Jesus didn’t tell churches to do those things, and He didn’t tell the Roman government to do those things; He told us Christians to do those things.

I got into a brief social media argument — I’ll pause briefly to allow readers to get over the shock of that — when someone (potentially a former Facebook Friend) posted about Tiger Woods’ winning last weekend’s Masters golf tournament, and how wonderful it was that Woods overcame his addiction to painkillers and his back problems. To that I asked if Woods had un-done his dalliances with women to which he wasn’t married after his marriage. The writer really didn’t care for that, and she really didn’t care for my next statement that our society might be less screwed up if we were more judgmental of each other and each other’s wrong actions. (She also didn’t care for my opposition to worshiping athletes — in addition to celebrities and politicians, though I didn’t mention them — and also accused me of being priggish and probably thought I suffer from excessive self-regard. I know my sins and flaws.)

Anyone who points out bad behavior of others may be reminded of the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery whose stoning is thwarted by Jesus’ suggesting that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. What you hardly ever hear is what He said at the end of that incident: “Go and sin no more.” Even if no longer sinning is impossible for us fatally flawed humans, that does suggest we should at least make a sincere effort to avoid that specific sin and sinning generally. You see that decreasingly often in our sinful, permanently flawed world, and I bet you haven’t heard that in church any time in your recent memory. And yet it applies in our world even after the Resurrection. Jesus Christ didn’t die for our sins so we could go on blithely sinning without consequences.

This being a world full of people who suffer from excessive self-regard who don’t like to be reminded of their sinful nature, that might explain decreasing attendance in church. But our failure to “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” well explains our world continuing to spiral into a toilet. Don’t like that statement? Well, as Jesus Christ said, a prophet is without honor in his own house.

 

A cathedral as metaphor

Devin Fole:

Nine-hundred years of heritage and beauty were left in smoldering ashes [Monday] after a fire consumed the once-great Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Back in college, and before I converted to Catholicism, I had the great fortune of visiting the Cathedral. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate it nearly enough. As a typical college kid, I went in and looked around, but I did not savor the moment. No, it was just one of several things planned for the day before I was free to drink wine with my buddies in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

I had always hoped to revisit the Cathedral. I knew I failed to properly appreciate her beauty, grandeur, and heritage the first time. That opportunity is now lost as rebuilding will probably take the remainder of my life — and it won’t be the same.

We men of the West have come to take our civilization for granted. We believe in perpetual progress and continuous revolution in pursuit of the perfection of man. We see little need for appreciation of the past or defending our traditions and principles. Rather, always onward, always forward.

Much as I foolishly did at Notre Dame, we fail to appreciate what we have and what is required to maintain it. We assume that it will always be there, despite our neglect.

Construction on Notre Dame was begun by Pope Alexander III in 1163. It took nearly 200 years to build with completion occurring in 1345 under the reign of King Philip VI of France and Pope Clement VI. Notre Dame survived countless wars, plagues, and revolutions, always there as a reminder of the Christian Faith that served as the foundation of France and Western Civilization.

But now she is a burned-out relic, much like the Christian Faith in France and most of the West. In 2017, La Croix published the results of a study commissioned by the Bayard Group that reported only 5% of French Catholics attend Mass regularly. Once the great defender of Christianity, France is now a secular state. Her leaders and her people have lost the Faith.

In America, too, it looks like we are following in the path of France. According to a study released just last week, “No Religion” is the largest identity-group for Americans, with 23.1% of respondents claiming that title. Catholics have fallen to only 23% of the population and evangelicals are at 22.5%.

The question before us, and one that we will likely see answered in our lifetimes, is whether or not Western Civilization can survive without its foundational beliefs.

In pondering this question, I am reminded of Whitaker Chambers’ Letter to My Children:

Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies…

…It is our fate to live upon that turning point in history.

… Few men are so dull that they do not know that the crisis exists and that it threatens their lives at every point. It is popular to call it a social crisis. It is in fact a total crisis – religious, moral, intellectual, social, political, economic. It is popular to call it a crisis of the Western world. It is in fact a crisis of the whole world.

The beauty of Notre Dame was inspired not by materialism or consumerism or Socialism, but by the desire to erect something that celebrated the eternal. For nearly 200 years, men toiled and sweat to build something that few would ever see completed. Who among us now has such Faith and dedication?

There are some out there. We either join them to confront the burning crisis before us, or, sadly, we will have to rebuild on the ruins.

It’s the culture … unless it isn’t

David Brooks:

Four years ago, in the midst of the Obama presidency, I published a book called “The Road to Character.” American culture seemed to be in decent shape and my focus was on how individuals can deepen their inner lives. This week, in the midst of the Trump presidency, I’ve got another book, “The Second Mountain.” It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.

College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.

Here are some of them:

Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.

The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.

It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.

Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.

By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.

The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.

The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

No wonder it’s so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder our society is fragmenting. We’ve taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we’ve made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live.

We talk a lot about the political revolution we need. The cultural revolution is more important.

To this ray of sunshine, Robert Samuelson responds:

As a rule, I rarely respond directly to other columnists. Many columnists do the same. It’s a good rule because, if abandoned, it would make commentary even more personal and shrill. But sometimes rules need to be broken. This is, I think, one of those times.

So, David, let me respectfully suggest: Lighten up.

To be sure, most of your insights are true. But they’re also utopian. You argue that we’ve lost our moral compass and have surrendered to delusional beliefs that rationalize a cultural emptiness. You seem disappointed that we haven’t arrived in some Garden of Eden paradise where almost everyone is happy, fulfilled, responsible and respected. I yearn for this as well, but I have reconciled myself to the inevitability of imperfection.

Our job as journalists is not simply to point out untruths, injustices and societal problems. It is also to illuminate the inconsistencies, contradictions and confusions of our national condition. It is, in short, to be realistic, especially when being realistic is politically and intellectually unpopular — as it is now.

We have a culture of complaint, where nothing works, selfishness is rampant, disillusion is widespread and hatred — practiced across the political spectrum — is common. There is no virtue in feeding this frenzy of pessimism, just because it fits the temper of the times. We need to recognize the limits of our condition. Many legitimate problems can’t be solved, and some problems aren’t worth solving.

It is also worth acknowledging that things could be worse. Most Americans who want jobs have them; we are not engaged in a major war; millions of households are doing the difficult work of balancing the duties of child-rearing with the rigors of their job schedules. The Trump presidency has turned up the heat on public and private discourse without (yet) leading to a breakdown of debate. Crudely, the nation’s institutions seem to be working.

David, here are a few comments on the “lies” that you describe as polluting today’s American dream:

● Ambition is America’s blessing and curse. It is a blessing because it encourages people to try new things, to stretch their abilities and to see how much more they can achieve. It fosters a vibrant economy, even if the most ambitious people are often unattractive as human beings. That’s the curse. Great ambition often causes great character flaws. Obsessed with their projects and themselves, people mistreat co-workers and family. They’re creatures of their ambitions, which can be both frustrating and fulfilling.

● Happiness is not a practical goal of public policy, even if governments sometimes reduce or eliminate some conditions that make people unhappy or miserable. But if some sources disappear, others may arise. There are too many factors (personality, religion, schools, luck, parents — or lack thereof — and much more) that determine outcomes. Pursuing happiness should remain, mostly, a personal responsibility. Making it a public responsibility would ensure failure.

●The meritocracy — frequently criticized — is not nearly so sinister as it’s portrayed. Of course, it creates stress among its members. They’re constantly being measured and prodded to do better, or to lose out to the students, workers and athletes next door. But the meritocracy’s principles, even if sometimes violated, are the right ones to govern our institutions. We want people who know what they’re doing; competition is not a bad way to make the selections. What are the alternatives? Would we be better off if social connections, race or political affiliation assumed a larger role?

Finally, there’s the matter of work. Everyone complains about it, but without it, most of us would die of boredom. Learning new stuff, the essence of journalism, is inherently rewarding, and, David, you and I are paid to do it. The virtues outweigh the vices.

So, let’s keep perspective. We don’t live in an ideal world and never will. But things could be worse, maybe quite a bit worse. Let’s try to avoid that.

On Assange

Tucker Carlson:

If you watched a lot of the coverage of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s arrest on television Thursday, you likely came away with the understanding that he is some kind of Russian spy who is in trouble because he stole classified documents from the U.S. government.

That is not true. It’s factually incorrect, and saying so is not a defense of Assange. We’re not here to promote him or excuse any number of things he said over the years that we disagree with quite a lot.

But just so it’s clear, whatever his sins, Assange did not steal documents from the United States government. He did not hack the DNC servers. He didn’t break into John Podesta’s Gmail account.

There is no proof that he is working for the Russian government or ever has worked for the Russian government. Assange has never been charged with any of that and wasn’t on Thursday, no matter what they tell you.

If you’re upset about the theft of classified documents from the U.S. government — and there is reason to be — we already know who did that.

A 22- year-old Army private named Bradley Manning, now called Chelsea Manning. In 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to stealing secret material and got 35 years in prison for it.

Shortly after that, President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence. This allowed Manning to leave jail decades early, go back on television as a commentator, and then run for political office.

So if your real concern is America’s national security, you have someone to be angry at — Barack Obama. And yet strangely, nobody is.

Instead, they’re furious at Julian Assange for posting the documents that other people stole. “Julian Assange has long been a wicked tool of Vladimir Putin and the Russian intelligence services,” wrote professional moralizer Ben Sasse, who also serves in the U.S. Senate. “He deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Wicked? The rest of his life in prison? Idi Amin ate people and never faced this kind of scorn.

Not even close. Nor, for the record, was Amin ever extradited. He died at 78 years old in his own bed, leaving behind 43 loving children.

So what’s going on here? A couple of things. First, Julian Assange embarrassed virtually everyone in power in Washington.

He published documents that undermined the official story on the Iraq War and Afghanistan. He got Debbie Wasserman-Schultz fired from the DNC.

He humiliated Hillary Clinton by showing that the Democratic primaries were, in fact, rigged. Pretty much everyone in Washington has reason to hate Julian Assange.

Rather than just admit that straightforwardly – that he made us look like buffoons, so now we’re sending him to prison — instead, they’re denouncing him as, you guessed it, a Russian agent. “Justice should come to Julian Assange for his role in Russian meddling in our election and the sooner the better,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Okay, so once again, just to be totally clear, no one has ever shown that Julian Assange is a Russian agent. The indictment against him does not say that; t doesn’t mention Russia at all.

But that has not stopped virtually every politician in Washington from repeating Senator Blumenthal’s line, including many Republicans. Robert Mueller nearly killed the Russia collusion hoax. Julian Assange is allowing them to keep it alive.

You’d think journalists would say something about this. Assange is, after all, one of them. What do you call a man who publishes news for a living?

Assange is no sleazier than many journalists in Washington; he’s definitely not more anti-American. He’s broken stories the New York Times would have won Pulitzers for. And yet many of his colleagues have disowned him.

So why all the hostility to Julian Assange? Assange’s real sin was preventing Hillary Clinton from becoming president.

“Oh, please,” wrote Alexia Campbell of Vox. “Assange is no journalist. We know who he works for. ” (Meaning Russia.) “Julian Assange is not a journalist,” explained Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker, without actually explaining. Ken Dilanian of NBC, who doesn’t so much cover the national security state as he writes memos on its behalf, noted that, “Many believe that if Assange ever was a journalist, those days ended a long time ago.”

At NBC when they tell you “many believe” something, it means they believe it.

So why all the hostility to Julian Assange? Assange’s real sin was preventing Hillary Clinton from becoming president.

Former Democratic staffer and current CNN anchor Jim Sciutto explained it this way: “He is central to several cases. He is central to Russian interference in the election. The U.S. intelligence views him as a middleman, a cutout that he was in effect part of this interference.

He’s central to questions about what the Trump administration or Trump campaign, I should say, knew prior to the release of those materials, right? What were the communications between Roger Stone, et cetera? It’s possible that this has something President Trump himself is not particularly excited about.”

It’s remarkable to watch this. It’s bewildering, actually. There was a time, not so long ago, really, when reporters didn’t applaud the arrest of other journalists for publishing information.

In 1971, the Washington Post and the New York Times published a trove of stolen classified documents about the Vietnam War.

It was called the Pentagon Papers. Remember that? Liberals loved it. Books were written celebrating their bravery.

As recently as 2011, the Washington Post saw the connection: “A conviction of Julian Assange would also cause collateral damage to American media freedoms.”

A Post op-ed said that year, “It is difficult to distinguish Assange or Wikileaks from the Washington Post.” And that’s true.

But that was before the Trump election and the total war that followed, a war in which the media have definitively chosen a side.

Press freedom?

Sure, as long as we agree with your politics. The First Amendment? Well, that all depends. Who did you vote for?

The guardians of speech or now the enemies of speech.

The people charged with policing power are now colluding with power.

There’s a reason you see John Brennan on NBC all the time. They’re all on the same team now.

We’re not saying any of this to defend Julian Assange.

We just want to be absolutely clear about who hurts this country more — and it’s not him.