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The End of Progressivism by Peter Lawler

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Since the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed “Progressive,” many American conservative intellectuals have become convinced that resistance to Progressivism is the essence of their cause. They believe the American political tradition, flowing from the philosopher John Locke, is grounded in the immutable “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—and preeminently in the God-given equal rights of free individuals to give or withhold consent to government. Progressivism, by contrast, is the poisonous fruit of European (that is, un-American) post-Darwinian and post-Hegelian speculations about society as an evolving organism in which the free individual is reduced to a cog in a Historical process that trumps both nature and natural rights. In principle, therefore, Progressivism can recognize no fundamental limits to state power. This message of the conservative intellectuals is reflected in the convictions of the admirable members of America’s Tea Party: Obama’s “change we can believe in”—his attempt to expand the welfare state during an economic crisis—is the latest episode in a longstanding and increasingly successful effort to displace our Founders’ vision of limited government.
There is some truth in this conservative message, but it is not the whole truth. And it distracts us from the real challenges we now face as a nation. The truth is that, whatever our Progressive president might want to do, our welfare state is imploding, and the era of Big Government is necessarily coming to an end.

Locked in combat against Progressive thought, conservative intellectuals have neglected the fact that there is an idea of progress in John Locke’s political theory, too. Locke wrote to promote the liberty achieved by the labor of individuals who progressively “humanize” an otherwise indifferent natural world. The most convincing narrative of the history of our country is that of the individual freeing himself (or herself) from nature for an ever-more-secure and self-determined pursuit of happiness. The truth is that Lockean or individualistic progress (with a small “p”) is in the process of achieving an overwhelming victory over Historical or Big-Government Progress (with a capital “P”). The idea that the free individual is the bottom line has defeated the idea that individuals or persons could ever be mere cogs in any statist or Historical vision. This has had, and will continue to have, big consequences in American political and social life.

Individualism and the Birth Dearth

Change in America over the last generation or two has largely been progress in Locke’s sense. The change we can actually see has been in accordance with Locke’s basic individualistic insight about who we are or might become—though sometimes in ways Locke himself did not anticipate. It didn’t occur to Locke, it seems, that so many free persons would become so self-absorbed that many would choose to stop having enough children to replace themselves. The main reason for the “birth dearth” among our sophisticated classes is not merely the transfer of dependence from family to government, but a kind of choice for radical personal autonomy over being “species fodder.” Nature may intend me to be replaced by my children, but we Lockeans are more concerned with living for ourselves—and so, among other things, with thwarting nature’s intention by staying around as long as possible, however great the health-care cost.

When Alexis de Tocqueville described the emotional withdrawal of “individualism,” he was mainly concerned that individuals would lose the spirit of resistance characteristic of citizens, and so create the preconditions for democratic or soft despotism. He thought that the natural limit to individualistic self-absorption would be the family: even in a democracy, free individuals would persist in thinking of themselves as parents and children. He had a kind of sociobiological faith that the limit to individual liberation would be the natural social inclinations that lead the species to perpetuate itself. Locke seems to have had that faith too. He thought people would continue to have children, and their natural inclination, supported by law, would cause them to stay together long enough to raise them.

But, in principle, Locke couldn’t have rejected the conclusion of our Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) that women have an equal right with men to be free individuals and so to define for themselves their personal identities. On this view, a right to abortion can be justified as what’s required for women (when other contraceptive methods fail) to be liberated from the natural inclination to be moms, so that they can become equal participants in the nation’s economic and political life. Individuals saddled by nature with female bodies have the right not be species fodder or reproductive machines for the state. They have the right, as autonomous beings, not to be determined by their natures, not even their bodies.

Until well into the 1960s, the Republicans were the relatively Lockean or pro-business party, and for that reason the Republicans were the party that pushed the Equal Rights Amendment. The Democrats were the more “paternalistic,” union-enabling, welfare-state party that aimed for a family wage earned by a husband-breadwinner. That position presupposed the dignity of “unproductive” motherhood. The liberation of women to become wage slaves just like men began in the 1960s, and that liberation became identified more as Democratic than Republican only because the Democrats became the feminist party, the party more dedicated to liberating women to be Lockean individuals. But neither party objected to women flooding into the workforce—which ended the dream of the family wage for most Americans, made it much more difficult for women to find dignity without earning money, and inevitably reduced the average size of the American family. With our Lockean premises, nobody denied for long that justice demanded equal opportunity for women as free individuals. Our two parties reached a consensus that government would have little to do with the encouragement of virtues untethered to productivity, and the Democrats fairly quickly ended their flirtation with “welfare rights”—which is to say, the right not to be productive.

This new consensus was not about letting people live as they pleased in any 1960s “do your own thing” sense; it was about perfecting our meritocracy grounded in productivity. Insofar as “neoconservatives” worried about the family, they were mainly concerned with fending off dysfunctional behavior that undermined individual liberty and economic prosperity. We can affirm that the liberation of women was more good than not, without denying the downside in terms of sustaining the safety nets that used to constitute the minimalist American welfare state that had its heyday in the 1960s.

One result of the liberation of women—and of men, who were given a license to behave badly—is an explosion of the number of lonely single moms who desperately need the welfare state to get by. What they need, government is going to be less and less able to provide. And the routinization of divorce (far beyond Locke’s or Tocqueville’s expectations), with the individual’s pursuit of happiness in mind, has also produced lots of lonely men. The fastest growing demographic category today is men over sixty- five who aren’t close to either a spouse or children. They, too, are going to need public help as they increasingly fade away into chronic forms of age-related debilitation, but it is clear that we won’t be able to afford what those individuals need either.

Working Hard to Stay Around

Locke probably would not have been surprised that so many free and sophisticated individuals would so prudently attend to the health-and-safety risk factors that threaten to extinguish their very being as individuals. Given Descartes’s big promise about free individuals employing modern science to produce indefinite longevity for particular persons, it would have surprised Locke even less that medical technology has been so successful in keeping so many persons alive for so long. More than ever, free individuals regard their health and safety as something under their own control, and not in the hands of either God or fortune. Given what we now know and can do about risk factors, we increasingly regard death as an evil to be avoided through prudent calculation. And so, more and more, we consider death as the product of stupid, unsafe choices. We used to think only the good die young; now, we think it’s the ignorant and self-indulgent who do. Sophisticated individuals are increasingly repulsed by people feckless enough to be fat, and we even think there should be a law or a tax to discourage their irresponsible behavior.

Lockeans are often criticized for reducing personal morality to health, safety, and consent, but they are very serious—very puritanical—when it comes to that individualist trinity. Our individualism is not about living as you please, but rather about doing what’s required to secure one’s own personal future. And our so-called transhumanists give us an unprecedented incentive: with the right regimen of diet, exercise, and lots of supplements, they say, young people can reasonably hope to stay around until the “singularity” arrives and something like personal immortality becomes possible. St. Augustine was right that it’s most important not to screw up when eternal life is on the line, but what was wish fulfillment for Augustine is now something we can do for ourselves, according to some of our Lockeans. Certainly we are not told to relax and enjoy ourselves when it comes to eating or sex. In some ways, we are more preoccupied than ever with the bad things both of those natural processes can do to free beings with bodies.

The sustainability of Social Security and Medicare depended on people being more easygoing about eating (or health in general) and the natural consequences of sex than sophisticated people are now. Those programs depended on the demographics of the 1950s and the 1960s, with men often dying in their late fifties or early sixties (and so, not drawing a dime from entitlement programs for the elderly), while having three or more children to pay for those programs in the future. Our welfare state depended, in other words, on the risky behavior displayed for us as insane on the television show Mad Men.

Our Demographic Trend

By thinking of ourselves more and more as free individuals who are responsible for ourselves, we have produced an aging society with a growing number of old people and fewer young ones. The result is that the ratio between productive and unproductive Americans continues to tilt in favor of the later, despite the fact that we put more of a premium than ever on being productive. (One reason among many why viewers are appalled by the advertising executives on Mad Menstaggering back to the office from multiple-martini lunches is the loss of a half day’s productive work.)

It is impossible to overstate the extent to which our existing entitlement programs were premised on “Baby Boom” demographics. As long as the population and the economy were both growing briskly, we could easily afford to sustain and even expand benefits for the elderly. Public policy deliberations in the late 1960s and early 1970s were also informed, however, by deep concerns about overpopulation. So President Nixon’s Commission on Population Growth and the American Future (1969) actually endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment as a way of discouraging female fertility—a way to get women to think of themselves less as mothers and more as free individuals. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that our experts were intent on undermining the demographic foundation of the welfare state. If it were reasonable to hope we could soon be anywhere close to returning to Baby Boom birthrates, there would be no talk today of entitlement reform.

Lockeans might begin to attempt to solve our demographic problem by saying that the old should just become more productive: we need to push the retirement age back—way back. If the elderly are healthy, they should keep working. We can expect that to happen, and responsible experts say many or most people might well be stuck working as long as they can. But there are obvious limits to that remedy. A high-tech society is full of preferential options for the young; the old might be healthy, but they still often lack the mental agility required to keep up with incessant techno-change. Even in college teaching—not a demanding profession—there’s plenty of complaining that the abolition of mandatory retirement is keeping around the ineffective and out-of-touch at the expense of scholarly productivity and consumer (student) satisfaction. The aging, overpaid professorate is probably the most compelling argument against tenure, one that will prevail soon enough in our techno-meritocracy. If the old keep working, we will quickly realize, it will have to be in less productive and (much) lower-paid positions. After all, we value the wisdom connected with age less than ever, and we’re getting more skeptical of the thought that being old means being entitled.

Some of our Tea Partiers—especially those in the rural South—believe that the dissolution of the welfare state will restore the situation that prevailed in most of our country’s history of liberty. The elderly, like on The Waltons, will return to live in the homes of their children and grandchildren. I actually favor government programs that would facilitate that change, but again there are limits. A Lockean or techno-productive society has dispersed families throughout the country and the world. The ties that produced extended families are weaker than ever. It seems less natural or normal for parents and their grown children to share the same place.

Throughout most of our history, the health-care system has been dependent on most caregiving being done voluntarily by women. But that isn’t usually possible in a Lockean country where women have become productive individuals just like men, and where there are fewer young people to provide caregiving, whether paid or voluntary, for the burgeoning number of elderly. Not only that, health care will remain far too costly for ordinary families to afford, and techno-progress by itself cannot make it cheaper. We are getting better and better at keeping the old and frail around, but our wonderful success in sustaining their biological being often takes decades of expensive medical intervention. The good news is that we are steadily pushing back cancer and heart disease. The bad news is that the default form of dying is becoming Alzheimer’s, which is a long, predictable, costly, caregiving-intensive disease for which there is no cure. For young women compelled by duty or circumstances to care for a parent with such a disease, there will be less opportunity than ever to become a mom, and so the situation they face will be worse still for the generation to follow.

Locke himself rather coldly suggested that the only compelling tie parents will have on their grown children will be money. He wanted to free individuals from the constraints of patriarchy; he didn’t want parents to be able to rule their adult children. And he didn’t want the relations of free individuals to rely on love—except the love for little children (who are temporarily incapable of taking care of themselves). If you’re going to get old—which Locke was in favor of—you’d first better get rich. Our libertarians aren’t wrong to say that we should do what we can to encourage people to save for their own futures. But our 401(k)s can no longer be counted on to produce returns that outpace inflation. The average person is less sure than ever that his money will last as long as he will, but nonetheless he surely knows that he’ll be stuck depending largely on his own money to live well.

The implosion of the welfare state, which is caused most of all by our aging society, doesn’t look like a new birth of freedom for old folks. As we learn from Socrates’s musings in The Republic, there may be nothing more difficult than being old and poor in a democracy, a regime which has no idea what old people are for. That is not to say that we are going to begin euthanizing the elderly or even “rationing” them to early graves. We know that the elderly are free persons—they’re not nothing—and so we’re committed to helping them stay around as long as possible. To say the least, however, we don’t know much about how they might have purposeful lives in our increasingly individualistic world.

The Entitlement Implosion

The primary experience of most ordinary Americans these days is the erosion—with the prospect of implosion—of the various safety nets of our relatively minimalist welfare state. The change we can actually see has been, and will continue to be, from defined benefits to defined contributions. Private and even public pensions are done for. They will continue to be replaced by 401(k)s. That kind of change will also be true of health care, as employer-based plans become unsustainable. It will also soon be true of Medicare and probably Social Security—if not quite as soon as Representative Paul Ryan thinks. Ryan, it is already obvious, will come to be known as a man just slightly ahead of his time. In that sense, just as obviously, he is the real progressive—the prophet of the more or less inevitable world to come. And his opponents, who are called Progressives, are just as obviously the real reactionaries.

The good news here, the new birth of freedom celebrated by the Tea Party, is more choice—a lot more choice—for individuals. The bad news is that risk is being transferred from the employer and the government to the individual. All of our entitlements will have to be transformed in a Lockean or individualistic direction in what might nevertheless be futile efforts to save them. Other, related changes that Lockeans should believe in include the fact that unions, both public and private, are also done for—despite President Obama’s efforts to prop them up. Their reactionary attempts at protectionism have no place in a globalized and rigorously competitive marketplace. The same can be said of the ideal of employer and employee loyalty. People will be able to be—and will have to be—a lot more entrepreneurial and self-employed. One reason among many that employer-based health care cannot survive is that it depends on an increasingly obsolete model of employment. The present health-care system is actually not particularly good for the self-employed—which is to say, for more and more of us. Fear of losing insurance shouldn’t be a reason for passing up an entrepreneurial opportunity, and guilt about an employee’s health-care situation shouldn’t be a reason for not firing superfluous or inadequately productive employees.

All these economic changes have, of course, both good and bad aspects. We might say that they are changes we can sort of half believe in. The Tea Partiers are enthusiastic about a new birth of freedom and a return to the Lockean Constitution of our Founders. And there really is a lot of good to be said about a renewed emphasis on individual responsibility, just as there is a lot of good to be said about perfecting the productive meritocracy that is the main source of our prosperity. Perhaps there will also be a new birth of voluntary associations—such as the extended family, the church, and the neighborhood—and voluntary caregiving for the social support even free individuals need to live well. Lockean political and economic reform is not incompatible with Christian charity, and anxious, lonely individuals futilely pursuing an ever-elusive happiness and even more futilely trying to cheat death might have more reason than ever to turn to the organized and relational religion of the personal Creator. Certainly the usually solidly churched, big-family, and otherwise communitarian Tea Partiers don’t really share the comprehensive libertarianism of our sophisticated autonomy freaks.

Status Quo Conservatism

It would be wrong, however, to call these changes popular. The Tea Party has peaked, and it never got anywhere near to a majority of Americans. People can’t help but be conservative when it comes to preserving the entitlements on which they have come to rely. Consider that, at present, the Republicans continue to dominate the debate on health care; people remain convinced that Obamacare will wreck their employer-based plans without replacing them with anything nearly as good. Republicans are mostly campaigning against the president’s bigger-government change without offering a clear alternative. They know, of course, that the employer-based schemes don’t have much of a future. The Republicans’ advantage over the president might fade quickly if they were to begin emphasizing the reasonable view that there is really no alternative but to have each individual buy his own private insurance, and have means-tested subsidies to make it possible for everyone to be covered. Individuals would have their own insurance; they would have more choice and could be cost-sensitive consumers; but they probably wouldn’t get the coverage they have now at (to them) such a low cost.

When it comes to health care, most people are neither Progressives nor Lockeans. They are status quo conservatives, believing that change in any direction will not be progressive in the sense of serving their personal interests. But like it or not, change in the Lockean direction will come, and the institutionalization of Obamacare over the next few years will only delay the inevitable in a needlessly costly way. For now, however, this is a message no one seems prepared to hear.

With Medicare, the Democrats now have the advantage. They seem to be the status quo conservatives, defending the existing, defined-benefit, fee-for-service program. Americans have forgotten, for the moment, that one source of funding for Obamacare will be cuts in Medicare. And the Democrats don’t deny that sustaining the current program will depend on waves of cuts. Newt Gingrich was clearly wrong when he called Representative Ryan’s Medicare reform plan “radical social engineering”—branding it with the kind of attack Republicans usually reserve to describe Progressive experiments in bigger government. Payments under the Ryan plan would go to private insurance companies, and the resulting competition might well drive costs down (as they did in President Bush’s unfairly maligned prescription drug benefit program). The Ryan plan would likely stretch the government dollar in ways which give people the best deal they can get in a time of diminished resources. But Gingrich did play to the true popular mood when he created, in effect, a moral equivalence when it comes to any significant change in the present entitlements regime. People think all change is risky and undesirable. Although everyone really knows that Medicare and Social Security as we now know them cannot last, devolving responsibility to the prudent calculations of the individual is, at best, ambiguous news.

The Change We Can Actually See

The progress of American individualism in the past generation has not been toward apathetic contentment (Tocquevillian individualism) but toward the intensification of personal self-obsession (Lockean individualism). People are more detached from others than ever, or less animated by personal love or less moved by thinking of themselves as part of a whole greater than themselves. That means that, in the Lockean sense, we are thinking more personally or individually; we believe that the “bottom line” is keeping the free person alive as long as possible. The result can only be, we now see, the increasing anxiety of individual responsibility. Americans have not been living any Progressive or Marxist dream of having freed themselves from scarcity for unalienated self-fulfillment. And they know, now more than ever, that such a dream can never become real in some postproductive age.

In this respect, the vision of our libertarians (or Lockeans on steroids) turns out to have been, to a point, most realistic. The Marxian idea that the modern techno-conquest of nature could allow people to live unobsessive, and so unalienated, lives was naïve—a naïveté present, for example, in the 1960s version of our Progressivism. Naïve, too, was the idea that government planning could remove worry and anxious planning from individual lives. People are, it turns out, stuck with working. And the demands of productivity actually accelerate as technology progresses. They are also in some ways more future-obsessed than ever. Free individuals tend to believe that their own deaths are the extinction of being itself, but as Lockeans we are less whiny-existentialist and fatalistic about that than we are powerfully resolved to do what we can to stay around as long as possible. (We can exempt our religious minority of observant believers from this view of who we are, just as we can notice that they are actually the ones who are mitigating our birth dearth with their many babies. It is always possible that there could be a religious solution to the crisis of our time.)

Our libertarians were wrong, however, to think that we could flourish in abundance by understanding ourselves with ever-more-perfect consistency as free and productive individuals progressively untethered by biological direction. It turns out that it is not free individuals but men and women in touch, so to speak, with who they are by nature who have enough babies to secure our productive future and so to pay for our minimalist entitlement programs. So it also turns out that the hyper-Lockean attempt to detach individual autonomy from birth and death and love is the wrecking ball of the welfare state. The least that can be said is that the free individual has triumphed over the feckless dependent.

Our demographic “crisis” has destroyed the Progressive dream of a schoolmarmish social democracy humanely enveloping us all. The good news is that Tocqueville was wrong to worry that we would slouch into subhuman contentment. The road to serfdom, we see now, will never get to serfdom. The bad news is that to the extent that we understand ourselves as free individuals (and nothing more) we pursue happiness, as Locke himself explains, but hardly ever find it. The next stage in American progress, we can hope, is that we will discover, or rediscover, the truth that the free or personal being is necessarily a relational being. That would, however, take us a step beyond Locke in thinking about who we really are.

Why our Constitution Can’t “Live” by Bruce Frohnen

Why our Constitution Can’t “Live”

by Bruce Frohnen

Constituion

For more than a half century, now, we have heard that we have a “living” constitution. And it has always been difficult to argue with this position. After all, the opposite of a “living” constitution is a dead one.  And who wants to be seen defending the dead hand of the past? Wouldn’t we all want to be defenders of life, breath, progress, and all good things?

But the question we have to come to grips with in considering our Constitution is not “do you like living, breathing, and other good things?” It is, rather, “do Constitutions breathe?” Or, if you prefer, “do we have to treat our constitution as a living, breathing being in order to support the good things we want to have come out of our political system?”

After all, we all have people, and even pets, we want to make certain breath so that they can live. We love our families, and even our pets. And most of us are rather fond of our Constitution as well. But a constitution does not live or breath, nor should be made to jump around as if it did.

But, if a constitution can’t breathe, then why is the metaphor so prevalent, and seemingly powerful? Because it is useful. It presents us with a stark choice, between standing on the side of old, bad things like slavery or segregation, or insisting that the government ought to act in a fashion that is, in essence, moral. Continue reading

Night of the “Living” Constitution by Bruce Frohnen

living_constitution_by_kiwiNight of the “Living” Constitution

by Bruce Frohnen

Senator Ted Cruz’s 2013 fillibuster didn’t do much to change the dynamic of politics in Washington or to stop Obamacare from becoming the last brick in the wall of social democracy separating Americans from their traditions of self-reliance and local community control. But, to someone interested in the constitutional basis of such things (there are a few of us left), it serves as of a reminder of how we got to this point.

First, what point exactly? The point at which a significant number of members of Congress feel compelled by angry “activist” constituents to oppose a program they may or may not like, but generally see as the natural, inevitable extension of decades of government expansion. The point at which “responsible” members of Congress openly criticize and threaten their colleagues for “obstructing democracy” by putting constituents’ demands above the demands of the mainstream media and academe to “make Washington work.” The point many of us recognize as the point of no return, at which we cease to be the Constitutional republic we once were. Continue reading

Football: Bastion of the Republic by John Wilson

Football: Bastion of the Republic

footballI came across this the other day, from theWashington TimesKids flee football in light of NFL violence, Pop Warner participationplummeting.

The author is Nathan Fenno, and I hasten to say that I am the last man in the world to wish to kill the messenger. His article is on the whole fair, although the subject itself leans to the feminization of our culture. The gist is this:  Football is violent and dangerous, lots of boys and men get concussions which have bad consequences, and therefore many parents, including those who have come from a football culture, want to protect their sons from football’s consequences, at least until they are in high school.

The latest round of anti-football picks up again on the original complaint. Young men get killed being gladiators. John J. Miller’s wonderful book, The Big Scrum, tells the first part of this story, how Teddy Roosevelt saved football just over a hundred years ago, the subtext saying,how football was saved from itself. It is true that people, mostly young men, die from doing dangerous things. Thank God.

Please allow me to regress for a moment. It is reported that 243 young men died from football injuries in the years 1990-2010. That’s not good. But the last time I looked at another statistic, there had been 292 murders in south Chicago this year alone. Are people fleeing Chicago, or is the population plummeting? About the same number of young men play football as live in south Chicago. Have we seen calls for reform comparable to the number of concerns expressed about football’s concussions?

Mr. Fenno rightly points out that many people who understand football are concerned that very young boys are not being taught to play the game very well, that they are taught only to turn themselves into human torpedoes that strike from the head. When I was a boy there was noPop Warner football, thank the Lord, and therefore we played without pads and helmets and learned early how not to be stupid. When William Wallace returned to his home town inBraveheart, he and his old pal threw stones at each other’s heads, but knew very well what the limits were. They had more serious things to do later, and would not lead with their helmets.

Young men must learn war. When they do is a matter of culture, and how they do it is part of the quality of that culture. Joe Paterno, one of my great heroes, knew that football and Virgil’s epic poem built civilizations. A true republic cannot survive without football, or something very much like it.

Let us take one larger step. The ancient Greeks praised their athletes, and the Olympics defined their culture as much as their theater, poetry, and philosophy. In fact, as their games declined, so did the rest of the culture. Is it an accident that the United States achieved their greatest prosperity and happiness as their sports began to define them? Zane Grey is well known as a writer of the American west, a creator of tales that help us to remember our shared qualities of self-government and courage and loyalty. His best books, I submit, are about baseball, which add to the western novels the virtues of community, of humility, of being willing to be obedient to a larger purpose than mere individualism, or mere democracy.

Mr. Fenno’s proper concern should not be about safety, but about character. Men protect their families because they learn in various ways (especially in Genesis) that there is something more important than themselves. The Romans, of course, took their games too far, and their gladiatorial slaughters became a sign of their decline rather than their robust health. Mr. Fenno and others are probably correct to warn us about that same tendency. We must remember, however, that sports in general, and football in particular, in how they grew and what they mean, are bastions of the republic.

Richard Weaver, the Gospel, and the Restoration of Culture by Bradley G. Green

richard weaverWeaver, the Gospel, and the Restoration of Culture

by Bradley G. Green

Somewhere along the way, many twentieth-century pilgrims have found inspiration and insight from the pen of Richard M. Weaver(1910-1963).[1]  More than one friend cites Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences when they recount their own intellectual journey, and when they describe when and how they began really to “think.”  Best known as the author of Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1948), Weaver was a southerner who has had a significant impact on political thought in the United States in the twentieth-century.  Born and raised in North Carolina, Weaver did his undergraduate work at the University of Kentucky.    A leftist-liberal during his undergraduate days in the 1920s, after a year of graduate work at Kentucky, he moved on to Vanderbilt for graduate study (early 1930s).  During his time at Vanderbilt, Weaver was greatly influenced by the Nashville Agrarians (often called the Southern Agrarians, or the Vanderbilt Agrarians), which included such persons as Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and his thesis advisor, John Crowe Ransom.  Weaver would eventually do doctorate work at Louisiana State University (1940-1943), where he would write his dissertation on southern culture (eventually published posthumously as The Southern Tradition at Bay).  By the time he began doctoral work, Weaver had become disillusioned with the Left, and had become a southern partisan.  A conservative, agrarian, southern framework would be the general framework in which he would work during the remainder of his life. Weaver would go on to a teaching career in English at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1944 until his death in 1963.

Christian theological themes are found implicitly and explicitly in the work of Richard M. Weaver.  Weaver would eventually see his work as a “restoration of culture,” or of civilization, and he relies extensively on Christian themes as he writes about the restoration of culture.  In this essay I seek to explore how the following Christian theological themes appear consistently in Weaver’s work, and how these themes serve as the necessary substructure or precondition of this intellectual program.  The key themes I explore are: creation, the Logos, faith seeking understanding, and eschatology and the importance of history.  I argue that Weaver’s use of such Christian themes are both too extensive and intensive to be simply peripheral to his thought.  However, I ultimately argue that there is something key missing in Weaver’s use of such themes—the Christian gospel—and I try to elucidate the ways in which this lacuna may weaken an otherwise very penetrating criticism of modernity, and may hamper an otherwise brilliant attempt at the restoration of a meaningful culture.

Christian Themes in the Thought of Richard Weaver

Creation

In his attempt to articulate what is necessary for civilization, or for a genuine and meaningful culture, Weaver repeatedly emphasizes the importance of a doctrine of creation.  Weaver contends that a doctrine of creation is essential to an affirmation of the reality of knowledge.  If this is indeed a created world, there is something outside of us, something there to be known. Continue reading

The Greatest Moral Film of All Time by Timothy Gordon

The Greatest Moral Film of All Time

3:10 to YumaStricken with infirmity of the helpless visceral sort this Christmas, I wrapped myself in blankets…and list making. As I convalesced and my thoughts clarified, I undertook to make an infallible list of my twenty-five favorite movies of all-time, a vast errand if done properly.

As the reader can see clearly below, not all of my top twenty-five are “great” films. This was no cardinal ordering of the best movies ever. Many are simply relentlessly entertaining movies and nothing more. In fact, the primary criterion for my list boiled cinematic history down to scenes: these twenty-five films should have no boring scenes, wire to wire. This means that any “great” films happening to appear by accident on my list of favorites inform a special sort of greatness—being both entertaining andwhatever makes for greatness. And they could in theory be grouped together into a second list comprising “top great films without a single boring scene.”

I never got around to making the second list. But at this point, with a view to my first, I could do so easily.

More importantly, I can tell you which film would sit near or at the top of that second list. Sharks with lasers, arachnid men, “special effects,” and the prurient interest aside, pretty much all that has ever interested me is morality. In that sense, the greatest film of all time may very well be James Mangold’s 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma.

Unsure (and unheeding) whether “the experts” have ever made just such a claim, I’m actually eager to stick my neck out for 3:10 to Yuma. (I don’t even think this movie even makes perennial “top conservative movie” lists, sadly.) I’m no film critic concerned about “sets” or “props” or “costumes.” But it does all these very well. Far more importantly, it accomplishes something antedating all the glittering trappings of cinema: it tells a profound moral tale. It credibly explicates the irresistible moral impulse in man to do the good, even with—especiallywith—the countervailing likes of an aesthetically primeval villain like Ben Wade (a rolerequiring Russell Crowe) on the other side making wickedness look spuriously sharp.

I’d been misreading and underestimating the moral of the tale until my most recent viewing this Christmas: formerly I’d misread the film’s message as more postmodern than that which is truly buried there. Only when I realized what the message was—a call for the person to do the right thing even unto death—did I begin to think about this film as the greatest ever. It manages to make such an unpopular moral mandate…fashionable. And realistic.

One finds the plot structure uncommonly simple, meaning the plain moral theme of the film rests on the mantle in front of the viewer’s very eye like a purloined letter. Evans (Christian Bale), whom I like to call simply “the rancher,” finds himself—as the viewer meets him in medias res—and his family in a dire situation. In the opening scene, the rancher’s creditors burn his barn over missed payments, and threaten to remove the family from their land within a month. To make matters worse, the rancher’s youngest son has tuberculosis and must live there. Against such exigency, the rancher and his sons begin to search for their scattered cattle (also an effect of the creditors’ bullying) when they come upon the famous outlaw Ben Wade, immediately after a stagecoach robbery. Through happenstance, they become involved in Wade’s capture, and the rancher insinuates himself for the price of$200 into the transport posse charged with getting Wade to the prison train, running out of nearby Contention.

The task is to be infinitely dangerous because Wade’s infamous gang will surely track the posse, intercept Wade, and kill his captors if they can. The rancher agrees to take on such a task, of course, only on account of his issues with solvency.

The film’s theme of moral realism could not be instantiated nearly as starkly as it is had the crippled, desperate rancher not had every excuse to knuckle under to Wade’s sustained “buy out” proposals throughout the trek. Even the party from whom Wade stole—the “railroad man” commissioning Wade’s capture—eventually encourages the rancher, at a certain peak in the danger, to opt out and to save his own skin. “There’s no shame in it.” By the end, the accomplishment of the task has come to lie beyond even the railroad man’s expectations, because it has come to jeopardize his and the posse’s safety. Continue reading

Reinvigorating Culture by Russell Kirk

CultureReinvigorating Culture

by Russell Kirk

Anyone who pushes the buttons of a television set nowadays [written in 1994, Ed.] may be tempted to reflect that genuine culture came to an end during the latter half of the twentieth century. The television set is an immense accomplishment of reason and imagination: the victory of technology. But the gross images produced by television are symptoms and causes of our civilization’s decadence: the defeat of humane culture.

The contrast between the success of technology and the failure of social institutions is yet more striking when we look at any large American city. Some time ago I spent a day in Detroit, once styled “the arsenal of democracy,” latterly known as “America’s murder capital.” I have known Detroit ever since I was a small boy, and have observed the stages of the city’s decay over the decades. Except for some financial and political activity, and a little surviving commerce, about the foot of Woodward Avenue near the river, old Detroit is a dangerous wreck. The length of Woodward Avenue, up to Eight Mile Road and beyond, one drives through grim desolation: Beirut in the midst of its troubles might have seemed more cheerful. One passes through Detroit’s “cultural center,” the Institute of Arts on one side of the avenue, the Public Library on the other. Immediately north or south of those splendid buildings, immediately east or west, extends the grimy reality of a broken and dying city. “Culture” has become something locked into an archaic museum.

Detroit’s technology has produced immense wealth in goods—and still does so, if at a diminished rate. Detroit’s society has produced an inhumane quasi-anarchy. Take Detroit as an ugly microcosm of America, and one may perceive the pressing need for a recovery of humane culture.

Our inherited culture is involved in great difficulties. I suppose that most people nowadays will assent to that statement. Forty years ago, not long after the Second World War, I often encountered people who waxed indignant at my venturing to suggest the possibility of cultural decadence among us. It is otherwise now.

Sometimes, true, I come upon men and women who profess to be well satisfied with our world, and with their diversions—rather nasty diversions, not infrequently—therein. Yet these are not tranquil people: instead they bring to mind a poem by Adam Mickiewicz:

Your soul deserves the place to which it came, If having entered Hell, you feel no flame.

As marvelous innovators in the physical sciences, as wondrously efficient creators of technology, we moderns surpass our ancestors. But as for humane culture, we seem bent on destroying our civilization. Can anything be done by way of reinvigoration? Continue reading

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