Milo on Generation Joker

Earlier this week, I finally had the opportunity to watch Joker, the movie that DC got right (I also watched black-and-white indie film The Lighthouse, which I also heartily recommend).  It’s one of those films that has stuck with me, as I keep contemplating its title character’s woeful arc.

That’s unusual for a superhero movie.  I’m not a film snob, and I enjoy the action-packed, high-gloss hilarity of [insert Marvel Cinematic Universe movie here].  But I’ve usually forgotten most of the details of those superhero movies by the time I get home from the theater.

Joker is different.  Indeed, I wouldn’t even call it a “superhero” (or even a super villain) movie.  Yes, it’s the origin story of the The Joker, Batman’s greatest rival.  It does follow some of the tropes of the standalone superhero flick:  the discovery of the character’s powers (in this case, a 38 Special and mental illness), his utilization of those powers, and his full acceptance of his new role.

But it’s more than a superhero flick.  It’s the brooding, angsty cry of a generation.

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SubscribeStar Saturday: Labor Day Weekend 2019 – The Beauty of Social Peace

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It’s Labor Day Weekend, which means a glorious three days of rusticating for yours portly.  The school year is back in full swing, but I’ve been slowly recovering from an extended cold that began as a sore throat, morphed into days of nose-blowing, and metastasized into a hacking cough.  The cough should—God willing—be the final phase, and it seems to be getting better with a combination of Mucinex, expired cough medicine, and rest.

The plan this weekend is—aside from some light grading—a lot of rest.  I’m also excited to watch the South Carolina Gamecocks play their season opener (kick-off is tantalizingly close as I write this post).  My girlfriend has come up to my little adopted hometown, and is feeding me all sorts of delicious things.  It’s a fairly idyllic weekend, minus the cough.

It’s these sorts of things—resting after a week of hard work, enjoying a good meal, reading interesting books, and watching college football (all with good company, of course)—that make social peace such a coveted prize, and so worth preserving.  There is so much hatred and insanity in the public square now, and I fear that the socket wrench of revolution is ratcheting up with ever-greater intensity.

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Ratcheting up Towards Civil War

I’ve been catching up on photog’s excellent blog Orion’s Cold Fire, and boy did I miss a doozy.  Good ol’ photog regularly presents his pick for American Greatness “Post of the Day,” and on August 7, he wrote about a sobering Angelo Codevilla piece, “Igniting Civil War.”

Meanwhile, Southern history think-tank The Abbeville Institute posted an essay Monday asking “Is Political Separation in Our Future?”  These pieces suggest that something cataclysmic is looming for the United States.  Are they right to be concerned?

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SubscribeStar Saturday: The State of Education Update

Today’s post is a SubscribeStar Saturday exclusive.  To read the full post, subscribe to my SubscribeStar page for $1 a month or more.

Back in February, I wrote about the “The State of Education” in the United States today.  The post detailed the travails of a New York City public school French teacher, Mary Hudson, and her often horrifying experiences trying to mold young minds in the worst of conditions.

Fortunately, I do not teach in corrupt, inner-city New York City public and magnet schools helmed by incompetent administrators; nevertheless, some of the underlying problems Ms. Hudson faced are universal for educators in all settings and all across the country.  I teach at a small private school in rural South Carolina—about as distant from the bustling, crammed schools of urban America as one can get—and still see some of the same issues that faced Ms. Hudson at work.

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Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mother Hive”

To start yesterday’s History of Conservative Thought class, I had students skim through Rudyard Kipling’s 1908 short story “The Mother Hive.”  I stumbled upon the reading in our class text, Russell Kirk’s The Portable Conservative Reader.

It is a grim little fable that warns about the perils of progressivism infiltrating a proud but weakened nation.  In the story, a deadly wax-moth sneaks into a large but bedraggled beehive during a moment of confusion.  She quickly steals away to the cell of the youngest bees, who have yet to take their first flight.  There, she fills their impressionable heads with gentle words and promises of a glorious future, all while covertly laying her eggs.

One young bee, Melissa, who has just returned from her first flight, is suspicious of the beautiful stranger’s soothing words, but the wax-moth plays the victim and insists that she’s only spreading her “principles,” not the eggs of her hungry future children.

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History of Conservative Thought Update: Edmund Burke

A bit of a delayed post today, due to a busier-than-usual Monday, and the attendant exhaustion that came with it. The third meeting of my new History of Conservative Thought class just wrapped up, and while I should be painting right now, I wanted to give a quite update.

Last week, we began diving into the grandfather of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. Burke prophetically saw the outcome of the French Revolution before it turned sour, writing his legendary Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1789 as the upheaval began. Burke argued that the French Revolution ended the greatness of European civilization, a Europe that governed, in various ways, its respective realms with a light hand, and a sense of “moral imagination.”

To quote Burke reflecting on the Queen of France:

“I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroick enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”

What a powerful excerpt! The “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” indeed, reign in the West. What Burke was driving at here was that the rationalistic, abstract bureaucrats who would abandon tradition in their quest for a perfect society would sacrifice everything that made their country great, and life worth living.

Burke was also arguing that there is more to obedience to a government or king than the mere threat of power. People are invested in their country and society—and willing to submit to authority—because of organic culture from which it grows. Uprooting the great tree of tradition in favor of abstract foundations merely destroys the tree, and plants its seedlings in shallow ruts of stone. What grows will be anemic and pitiful by comparison.

Volumes could and have been written about Burke, but I’ll leave it here for now. Next week we’re getting into the development of Northern and Southern conservatism, which should make for some pre-Independence Day fun.

What is Conservatism?

Today I’m launching a summer class at my little private school here in South Carolina.  The course is called History of Conservative Thought, and it’s a course idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile.  Since the enrollment is very small, this first run is going to be more of an “independent study,” with a focus on analyzing and writing about some key essays and books in the conservative tradition.  I’ll also be posting some updates about the course to this blog, and I’ll write some explanatory posts about the material for the students and regular readers to consult.  This post will be one of those.

Course Readings:

Most of the readings will be digitized or available online at various conservative websites, but if you’re interested in following along with the course, I recommend picking up two books:

1.) Richard Weaver‘s Ideas Have Consequences ($6.29):  this will be our “capstone” reading for the summer.
2.) The Portable Conservative Reader (edited by Russell Kirk):  we’ll do some readings from this collection, including Kirk’s “Introduction” for the first week.

Course Scope:

I’ll be building out the course week-to-week, but the ultimate goal is to end with 2016 election, when we’ll talk about the break down of the postwar neoliberal consensus, the rise of populism and nationalism in the West, and the emergence of the Dissident Right.

After the introductory week, we’ll dive into Edmund Burke, then consider the antebellum debates about States’ rights.  I haven’t quite worked out the murky bit during the Gilded Age, but we’ll look at the rise of Progressivism in the early twentieth century, then through the conservative decline during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

After that, it’s on to Buckley conservatism and fusionism, as well as the challenges of the Cold War and international communism.  Paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and (if I’m feeling edgy) Sam Francis will get shout-outs as well.

Week 1:  What is Conservatism?

That’s the basic outline.  For the first day, we’re going to look at the question in the title:  what is conservatism?  What makes one a conservative?  Feel free to comment below on your thoughts.

After we see what students think conservatism is, we’ll begin reading through Russell Kirk’s “Introduction” in The Portable Conservative Reader.  It’s an excellent overview of the question posed.  The first section of the lengthy “Introduction” is entitled “Succinct Description,” and it starts with the question, “What is conservatism?”

Not being one to reinvent what others have done better—surely that is part of being a conservative (see Principle #3 below)—I wanted to unpack his six major points.  Kirk argues that though conservatism “is no ideology,” and that it varies depending on time and country, it

“may be apprehended reasonably well by attention to what leading writers and politicians, generally called conservative, have said and done…. to put the matter another way, [conservatism] amounts to the consensus of the leading conservative thinkers and actors over the past two centuries.”

Kirk condenses that grand tradition into six “first principles,” derived largely from British and American conservatives.  To wit:

1.) Belief in a Transcendent Moral Order – conservatives believe there is higher authority or metaphysical order that human societies should build upon.  As Kirk puts it, a “divine tactic, however dimly descried, is at work in human society.”  There is a need for “enduring moral authority.”  The Declaration of Independence, for example, draws on the concept of “natural law” to complain about abuses of God-given rights.  The implication is that a good and just society will respect God’s natural law.

2.) The Principle of Social Continuity – Kirk puts this best:  “Order and justice and freedom,” conservatives believe, “are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.”

As such, the way things are is the product of long, hard-won experience, and changes to that social order should be gradual, lest those changes unleash even greater evils than the ones currently present.  Conservatives abhor sudden upheaval; to quote Kirk again:  “Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills.”

3.) The Principle of Prescription, or the “wisdom of our ancestors” – building on the previous principle, “prescription” is the belief that there is established wisdom from our ancestors, and that the antiquity of an idea is a merit, not a detraction.  Old, tried-and-trued methods are, generally, preferable to newfangled conceptions of how humans should organize themselves.

As Kirk writes, “Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste.  It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality.”  In other words, there is great wisdom in traditions, and as individuals it is difficult, in our limited, personal experience, to comprehend the whole.

It’s like G. K. Chesterton’s fence:  you don’t pull down the fence until you know why it is built.  What might seem to be an inconvenience, a structure no longer useful, may very well serve some vital purpose that you only dimly understand, if at all.

4.) The Principle of Prudence – in line with Principles #2 and #3, the conservative believes that politicians or leaders should pursue any reforms only after great consideration and debate, and not out of “temporary advantage or popularity.”  Long-term consequences should be carefully considered, and rash, dramatic changes are likely to be more disruptive than the present ill facing a society.  As Kirk writes, “The march of providence is slow; it is the devil who always hurries.”

5.) The Principle of Variety – the “variety” that Kirk discusses here is not the uncritical mantra of “Diversity is Our Strength.”  Instead, it is the conservative’s love for intricate variety within his own social institutions and order.

Rather than accepting the “narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems,” conservatives recognize that some stratification in a society is inevitable.  Material and social inequality will always exist—indeed, they must exist—but in a healthy, ordered society, each of these divisions serves its purpose and has meaning.  The simple craftsman in his workshop, while materially less well-off than the local merchant, enjoys a fulfilling place in an ordered society, one that is honorable and satisfying.  Both the merchant and the craftsmen enjoy the fruits of their labor, as private property is essential to maintaining this order:  “without private property, liberty is reduced and culture is impoverished,” per Kirk.

This principle is one of the more difficult to wrap our minds around, as the “variety” here is quite different than what elites in our present age desire.  Essentially, it is a rejection of total social and material equality, and a celebration of the nuances—the nooks and crannies—of a healthy social order.  “Society,” Kirk argues, “longs for honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences among people are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.”

Put another way:  make everyone equal, and you’ll soon end up with another, likely worse, form of inequality.

6.) The Principle of the Imperfectibility of Human Nature – unlike progressives, who believe that “human nature” is mutable—if we just get the formula right, everyone will be perfect!—conservatives (wisely) reject this notion.  Hard experience demonstrates that human nature “suffers irremediably from certain faults…. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.”  An Utopian society, assuming such a thing were possible, would quickly devolve into rebellion, or “expire of boredom,” because human nature is inherently restless and rebellious.

Instead, conservatives believe that the best one can hope for is “a tolerably ordered, just and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering continue to lurk.”  Prudent trimming of the organic oak tree of society can make gradual improvements, but the tree will never achieve Platonic perfection (to quote Guns ‘n’ Roses:  “Nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain”).

Conclusion

Kirk stresses in the rest of the introduction that not all conservatives accept or conform to all of the six principles again; indeed, most conservatives aren’t even aware of these principles, or may only dimly perceive them.

That’s instructive:  a large part of what makes one conservative is lived experience.  “Conservatism” also varies depending on time and place:  the social order that, say, Hungary seeks to preserve is, of necessity, different than that of the United States.

Conservatism, too, is often a reaction to encroaching radicalism.  Thus, Kirk writes of the “shop-and-till” conservatism of Britain and France in the nineteenth century:  small farmers and shopkeepers who feared the loss of their property to abstract rationalist philosophers and coffeeshop radicals, dreaming up airy political systems in their heads, and utterly detached from reality.

If that sounds like the “Silent Majority” of President Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 elections—or of President Trump’s 2016 victory—it’s no coincidence.  The great mass of the voting public is, debatably, quietly, unconsciously conservative, at least when it comes to their own family, land, and local institutions.  Those slumbering hordes only awaken, though, when they perceive their little platoon is under siege from greater forces.  When they speak, they roar.

But that’s a topic for another time.  What do you think conservatism is? Leave your comments below.

–TPP

The Decline of Religion in America

A frequent topic of this blog is religion, specifically Christianity, and its influence on American society and Western Civilization.  Many of the problems we face as a nation are the result not only of bad government policy or dangerous ideologies, but are metaphysical and spiritual in nature.  As Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (KJV)

As such, two pieces caught my eye this week, both dealing with the decline of religion in the West generally and the United States specifically.  One is from Dissident Right blogger Z Man, “Religion Versus Capitalism“; the other is a syndicated column by Daniel Davis, “America is Still Highly Religious, So Why Do We Keep Liberalizing?”  Both offer different answers to the question posed by the latter question.

For Davis, the problem is that, while Americans are more religious than our European counterparts, and that we say we want a greater role for religion in society, our theology is bad—infected (my term) by the social justice and Cultural Marxist platitudes of our age.

Americans embrace “feel-good Christianity,” what I call the “Buddy Christ” version of our faith:  Jesus was just a cool hippie who wanted everybody to love each other, man.  In this distorted version of the Gospel, sin isn’t a grave threat, but simply “missing the mark”—you’ll do better next time, kiddo.  Keep practicing sinning and eventually you’ll hit that mark!

(I’ve actually heard this argument from some Evangelical preachers, mostly of the hip, non-denominational type.  They get so caught up in the root of the word “sin” as “missing the mark” in the context of target practice, they inadvertently give blanket license to sin, as grace is abundant, so God will forgive you—an early heresy that the Apostle Paul addressed directly.  “Missing the mark” trivializes the gravity of sin, making it sound like “oops! My bad!”  If the “mark” is righteousness, then missing the mark is pretty serious.)

Davis points out the pitfalls of this “feel-good Christianity,” and our propensity to make God fit our worldview, instead of us trying to accept and embrace His:

What we have in America is a radical separation of God from “reality”—the real world that we claim to live in. It’s not that we reject “God” per se, but we reject a God who comes with a certified worldview package—a God who orders the universe, sets moral norms, defines our being, and binds our consciences to a moral code in this world—today.

We’ve kept God, but jettisoned the traditional package.

The problem is, this is almost the same as rejecting God completely. If believing in God has no impact on the way we view realities in this world—whether they be gender, marriage, or who counts as a person worthy of dignity and respect—then what God are we even worshipping?

Could it be that the atheists are right when they accuse us of worshipping a God of our own making?

Davis also links to a website, The State of Theology, which highlights the disconnect between professions of faith and what Christians—including Evangelicals!—actually believe.  Part of the problem is “feel-good” theology, but a big part is simple biblical ignorance.  Americans pay lip service, according to The State of Theology, to core precepts of Christianity, but don’t seem to understand them at a deeper level or apply them to their daily lives.

Z Man—who I believe is Catholic and Catholic-educated, though he stated in one podcast that he hasn’t been to church in years—approaches the problem from a different angle.  He argues, essentially, that the proliferation of capitalist materialism is at odds, fundamentally, with Christianity and other religions, and the West has embraced materialism as its true faith.

He also links the decline of religion to a decline in fertility rates, and notes that as nations have become more integrated in the global economy, they’ve become less religious and less fertile.  There are myriad possible explanations for declining birthrates in developed societies, but Z Man’s theory is intriguing.  As material wealth increases and the profit motive becomes the “highest good,” religiosity declines.  With the decline of traditional religious values comes less of an emphasis on family formation.

For Z Man, the problem is that we worship materialism—he argues that libertarianism is the irrational, passionate “religion” of capitalistic materialism—in place of God.  To quote his piece at length:

In a system where the highest good is a profit, then all other considerations must be secondary. Lying, for example, is no longer strictly prohibited. The seller will no longer feel obligated to disclose everything to the buyer. The seller will exaggerate his claims about his product or service. Buyers, of course, will seek to lock in sellers into one way contracts based on information unknown the other seller. The marketplace, at its most basic level, is a game of liar’s poker, where all sides hope to fool the other.

Religion, in contrast, also assumes certain things about people, but seeks to mitigate and ameliorate them. Generally speaking, religion assumes the imperfection of man and sees that imperfection as the root cause of human suffering. While those imperfections cannot be eliminated, the negative effects can be reduced through moral codes, contemplation and the full understanding of one’s nature. Religions, outside of some extreme cults, are not about altering the nature of man, but rather the acceptance of it.

I would argue that capitalism does not necessarily lead to liars—how do you build business if you gain a reputation for dishonesty?—but capitalism definitely needs the traditionalism of orthodox religion to work for long.  In the absence of the moral framework that socially and religiously conservative values supply, capitalism can easily become an orgiastic free-for-all of mendacious exchanges and swindling.

Indeed, China’s autocratic capitalism is a prime example of a state using the mechanism of capitalism in a moral vacuum to aggrandize its own power.  Wags and particularists will argue that China’s system is not true capitalism, but rather a corporatist perversion, which is certainly accurate—but the United States has its share of cronyistic arrangements.  To be clear, there is a world of difference separating China’s increasingly totalitarian brand of corporatism and America’s more mundane system of well-heeled lobbyists, but the Chinese example clearly demonstrates what happens when you value pure materialism at the expense of everything else.

While I don’t completely accept Z Man’s analysis, I do think he makes a solid point.  Christians should never subvert true faith in Christ to the false god of capitalist materialism.  Indeed, such faith is merely the more benign face of a two-sided Marxist coin.

Both unbridled libertarianism and full-throated Communism are premised on a materialist worldview that discounts the metaphysical.  The former allows religion to exist as a largely private, subjective concern, so long as it doesn’t get too insistent about its truth claims.  The latter seeks to destroy any loyalty to anything other than the state—or the “Party,” or “Dear Leader,” etc.  The former is certainly preferable to the latter, but both ultimately will leave followers unfulfilled.

The Church—Orthodox, Catholic, High Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, etc.—needs to commit itself fully to foundational biblical Truth.  We should be reading and debating Augustus and Aquinas, not to mention the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles.  Preachers need to move beyond the mega-church formula of glossy advertising campaigns, Sunday morning rock concerts, and blandly inoffensive, pop-culture-laden sermons.

Instead, unabashedly proclaim the Gospel.  Denounce abortion from the pulpit.  Call out homosexuality.  Call out radical Islamism and progressivism as the existential threats they are to Western Civilization.  Deus Vult!