Witch hunt! “It’s dangerous to believe” –Part 2

Review: Mary Eberstadt, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies

Eberhardt’s understanding of our culture war is that it’s a moral panic—the same pattern as the Salem Witch Trials, the McCarthy hearings, and other purity crusades where people aflame with self-righteousness destroyed others without good evidence.

Proof of transgression resides not in actual evidence but whether the accusations issue from a socially-approved class of inquisitors.

Proof of transgression resides not in actual evidence but whether the accusations issue from a socially-approved class of inquisitors.

In chapter 2, she lays out that care, that attacks on Christians in contemporary America are similar to the day-care panic in 1983, or the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, or the witch trials of Salem in 1692. People believe things that are not true and act on the basis of imagined evidence. She cites Stacy Schiff, author of a recent book on the Salem trials: “We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of the ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous.”

She has in mind “ubiquitous shouts of ‘bigot’ and ‘hater’ aimed at people who harbor newly impermissible opinions about marriage.” She cites many examples of “the targeting of believers in workplaces, on campuses, and elsewhere,” noting that “today’s secularist campaign abounds with one element essential to all witch hunts: inquisitorial zeal.” Activists indulge in “moral irrationalism” to accuse people who hold unpopular beliefs in the name of making society a “safer” place. “Under this new dispensation, ‘bigot’ and ‘hater’ are the new ‘wizard’ and ‘witch.’”

Since the 1960s there has been a sea change of belief about the moral structure of the universe and a fundamental belief of the new morality is “self-will.” The master ethic is “doing what you want.” So it follows that “traditional moral codes represent systems of unjust repression.” Yesterday’s sinners “have become the new secular saints,” and yesterday’s sins are now virtues, “positive expressions of freedom.”

She sees that the primary battleground in the larger conflict between cultures is in attitudes about sex. Of the many movements swirling together in the cultural revolution of the 1960s, it is the sexual revolution that has become the absolutist core of the new faith. Most of the saints of secular modernity have been warriors in the sexual revolution:

. . .proselytizers for abortion and contraception, like Margaret Sanger and Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem; crypto-scholastics whose work is revered by generation after generation of the faithful and off-limits for intellectual revisionism, such as Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead; quasi-monastic ascetics, like the grim public priestesses of the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, fighting to end the pregnancies of other women; and even foreign “missionaries,” in the form of representatives within progressive charities and international bureaucracies—those who carry word of the revolution, and the sacraments of contraception and abortion, to women in poorer countries around the world.

The logic of the revolution is not exactly Aristotlean, Eberhardt says. “Syllogisms include ‘if you are against abortion, therefore you are anti-woman’; ‘if you believe in Christian teaching, therefore you hate people who endorse same-sex marriage.’” But fallacious reasoning has never been fatal to revolutionary passion.

Actors in the era of political correctness have become timid about doing anything that might inflame the anti-Christian forces that monitor them. Alastair Bruce, whose job it was to ensure the historical accuracy of the popular television series Downton Abbey, admitted that a paramount concern was hiding the religious practice that was so much a part of daily life in the early twentieth century. For example, the show never depicts the beginning of a because it would have been unthinkable for such characters to have begun eating without saying grace. But Bruce worried that showing such details would have induced a “panic.”

Religion is perceived “as menacing laissez-faire sexual morality.” Christianity’s historical morality has celebrated sex within marriage and condemned all sex outside of marriage, but “the sexual revolution. . .is the centerpiece of a new orthodoxy and a new morality that elevates pleasure and self-will to first principles. This has become, in effect, a rival religion.”

It is the religious zeal of the new faith that leads to Eberhardt to see parallels with old Salem. She observes that Facebook offers 58 gender options for American users but “priests cannot use the title ‘Fr.’ on their personal pages, and are shut down if they attempt to—even though Facebook’s official policy is that people should use the names they are known by, and even though most Catholic priests are known as ‘Father.’”

Such forms of banishment make sense to people under the influence of what psychologists and economists call “herd behavior,” where “large numbers of people act the same way at the same time.” Many universities have become zones of herd-like conformity: “99 percent of the faculty and staff at Princeton University who donated to presidential candidates gave to Barack Obama. In 2016, 91 percent of Harvard’s faculty donations went to Hillary Clinton.” Such plays are unified by their common mythology. Hugh Trevor-Roper said of the Eurpean witch craze that “the mythology created its own evidence, and effective disproof became ever more difficult.” People are believed to be “bigots” or “phobic” simply by virtue of being religious believers.

Once someone is accused by a Puritan minister or a crusading congressman, the accused faces the difficult logical task of proving a negative. It’s not simple to prove such claims as “I am not a witch.” “I am not committing ritual blood libel.” “I am not controlling the media/Pentagon/banks.” “I am not a hater.” And for true believers, such proof would not be persuasive. “In Western societies today, as in Salem, ‘proof’ of transgression—in this case, against newly built orthodoxy concerning the sexual revolution—resides not in actual evidence of wrongdoing; but rather in whether the accusations issue from a socially-approved, priestly class of inquisitors.”

Some people played along with the trials in Salem hoping to avoid being accused themselves. Something similar is likely true in America today. And those who are not immediately in the dock have reason to be afraid. An interesting fact about revolutionary purges or witch hunts, is that formerly “safe” inquisitors do end up facing the accusers. Revolutions do devour their children, as a journalist watching the end stages of the French Revolution observed. The revolutionary fervor either advances or it dies, and the way it advances is by expanding the list of sins and the list of enemies. In Salem at the end, Minister Samuel Parris found himself the object of the fury he helped unleash.

At the present moment, we see the transgender activists turning their ire toward formerly esteemed feminists, such as Germaine Greer, for her brazen insistence that surgery cannot make a man into a woman, thus violating the new orthodoxy. Andrew Sullivan, one of the first leaders of the same-sex marriage movement has recently argued that “religious freedom is fundamental to this country,” for which a Twitter mob named him “offensive, misogynist, and transphobic.”

Eberhardt uses history to better grasp what is happening, and her knowledge of history also gives her faith that the current moral panic will pass. “Within just a few years of hanging the last witch, a new social consensus formed according to which the entire episode had been a massive injustice,” she said. “Less than a hundred years later, John Adams would write that the trials were a “foul stain” on the country, and almost everyone else would henceforth agree. Cotton Mather, for all his other accomplishments—he was the first to introduce inoculation to the New World, among other innovations—would nonetheless go down through the centuries as one of history’s villains.”

Reading “It’s Dangerous to Believe” – Part One

Review: Mary Eberstadt, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies

We are living through (another) period of intense conflict over religion. The opposite of both love and hate is apathy.

We are living through (another) period of intense conflict over religion. The opposite of both love and hate is apathy.

Mary Eberhardt wrote It’s Dangerous to Believe in response to the “anti-religious fusillade now riddling popular culture via movies, books, videos, cartoon and related popular fare that denigrates people of faith.” She focuses on charges that religious people are “haters” and “bigots.” Religious people sense that they are being attacked in ways that are “like nothing that has happened before.” The question she addresses is where religious people go from here, in a society that has rapidly shifted from admiring religiously-motivated people to disparaging and attacking them. In chapter 1 she makes the claim that the attacks on traditional religious are fundamentally illiberal.

She introduces her topic with numerous examples drawn from current events: the CEO of Mozilla and creator of Javascript lost his job when it is revealed that he donated $1000 to Proposition 8 in California, a Catholic theology teacher in New Jersey was fired for Facebook posts expressing Catholic teachings about same-sex marriage, a visitor was ordered to remove a pro-life pin before entering the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the city of Houston subpoenaed pastors to turn over sermons that mentioned homosexuality or gender identity, a street preacher in Texas was cited for disorderly conduct when students complained that his words about STDs offended them, a fire chief in Atlanta was suspended for self-publishing his book professing Christian beliefs such as that homosexual behavior is wrong, a marine was dishonorably discharged for posting a Biblical passage (“No weapons formed against me shall prosper”) near her office computer.

Headlines provide an endless stream of such events, many from Great Britain, where progressivism is more institutionalized than in the US: a teacher was fired for praying for a sick child, a delivery truck driver was fired for leaving a crucifix on his dashboard, a preacher was sent to jail for speaking “threatening” words from Leviticus.

Eberhardt draws on the widespread sense among Christians that they are facing intolerance that is unprecedented in the West, and she notes the irony that the ideological brigades who despise Christianity have inscribed “tolerance” on their banners. The problem is global. Though in America and Europe the repression is mainly social, at this point, it has descended into bloodshed farther east. She cites historian Robert Royal’s claim that more people died for their Christian faith in the twentieth century than in any other.

In this environment, Christians are openly discussing the “Benedict Option proposed by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre of withdrawing from society, to form smaller communities where they might be safe. In describing how we reached this point, she cites two epochal events that emboldened those who want to drive Christianity out the public sphere. First, the “moral catastrophe” of the Catholic priest sex scandals beginning in 2002 dealt a crippling blow to the Church’s moral authority. Second, the religious fanaticism of the radicals who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center on 9/11 created a receptive audience for the writings of “the new atheism” and a series of tracts that linked the jihadists to Christian believers. Foremost was biologist Richard Dawkins, who characterized Judaism as “a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.”

Dawkins was followed by other writers taking a similar tack, such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. It was true that in the 1980s and 1990s traditional Christians still had “a place at the table in Washington, D.C.,” but that is no longer the case.

Andrew Bretbart’s observation that “Politics is downstream from culture” is quoted often by those who are nostalgic for an America which had a shared moral center, and the shift is obvious in Hollywood, where the “big” movies once assumed a shared Judeo-Christian heritage among members of the mass audience, with productions such as Ben Hur, The Robe, and Quo Vadis?

That shared moral consensus was supported big government. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that free speech did not extend to motion pictures, and to ward off censorship legislation the film industry implemented “The Hays Code” which included such “Don’ts” as depicting profanity, licentious nudity or ridicule of the clergy. Caution was urged against showing sympathy for criminals, cruelty to animals or children, men and women in bed together or the seduction of girls.

Serious breaches of the code arose during the 1960s, and in 1960 the code was abandoned, replaced by a film rating system (G, M, R). This was later modified to include PG, and then PG-13 and X). The “X” rating was replaced by NC-17 because it was not copyrighted and producers were assigning their own “X” ratings as a marketing device.

Today, children have access on their phones to whatever porn they want. It can even find them when they are not looking for it.

Politicians were quick to move into the space created by the culture of opposition to traditional religion. Hillary Clinton in a keynote at the “Women in the World” summit in 2015 made what is by now the cliched claim that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” In other words, religion must bow to politics. In this new world, according to Eberhardt, “There is no mercy in slandering millions of men and women—citizens, colleagues, acquaintances, schoolmates, neighbors, and fellow members of the human family—by saying that people of religious faith ‘hate” certain people where they do not; or that they are ‘phobes’ of one stripe or another when they are not.”

In broad terms, the culture has shifted away from traditional religion and toward the newer faith of the progressives. In recent years it has been a commonplace to hear religious believers slurred as “theocrats,” as “traitors and fifth columnists.” Eberhardt observes that “all these kinds of slander. . .have insinuated themselves into the accepted conversation of our time, with objections from practically no one.”

Eberhardt declares that what we are experiencing at present follows a familiar pattern. It’s a witch hunt, with Christians now playing the part of witches. “Some would have Christians punished because the teachings against sex outside of marriage have offended and continue to offend sexual minorities. Some would say punishment is in order because churches have burned heretics, or built Renaissance palaces off the backs of peasants—or promoted motherhood, or stood against abortion and infanticide. There is no shortage of people who have been wounded, or believe themselves to have been wounded, by sinners or others wearing the Christian label.”

She sees such lines of attack as “today’s version” of a recurrent and malignant dogma: collective guilt. “Punishing believers today for crimes committed by other believers yesterday—like seeking to punish members of any other group for what a small subset of them, if any, have actually done—is logically and morally bankrupt.”

She argues that these attacks are nothing less than attacks on free speech and freedom of association. If the attacks on the pulpit, on Christian schools, and Christian charitable enterprises—if the logic which has already been set in motion continues—then the free societies of the West will fast become unrecognizable.

Her central argument is that “The enemies of religious freedom are the enemies of liberalism.”

Montana Nature Narratives (at the Missoula Book Festival)

“New York is about power and status. Seattle is about having stuff. But Montana is about the place you live.” —E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.

Nature Writing Panel Discussion

The “nature narratives” panel at Fact & Fiction featured authors Russ Beck, Don Thomas and John Clayton. It was moderated by Read Trammel from UMs MFA writing program.

This was the first session I went to at the Book Festival, held on a gorgeous September Friday in downtown Missoula. By the time the day was over, I had come to distrust any author presuming to talk about “narrative” or “story.” Those venerable terms have apparently become cliches, intended to evoke “big ideas” and revolutionary thinking. Alas, few people up are up to such billing.

For a long time I participated in such events, supported by the hope that Montana could practice self-governance, using education and public conversations to fend off the stifling growth of ideology that had made so many places so unfree and so unbeautiful. Like every community in every time and place, Montana faces troubles that, if we are to survive in a state of civilization, we need to engage.

The three writers in this session all managed to be thoughtful and interesting, in the sense that they added a few fresh details to the old story of new money and new fashions displacing older money and older fashions. They spoke at Fact & Fiction, an independently-owned bookstore in downtown Missoula. The store hosted a series of presentations by authors published by The History Press—a national publishing company based in South Carolina that specializes in publishing local history for local audiences. The company has published about 2000 books since their startup in 2004, including several titles in Montana, including books by the three authors who participated in this panel discussion: John Clayton (Montana’s Enduring Frontier), Don Thomas (Montana: Peaks, Streams and Prairie) and Russ Beck (On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies: Essays and Dubious Advice).

The writers discussed an array of ideas, including the idea of writing in personal narrative. “The stories that stay with us are personal narratives,” said Beck. “If I’ve done my job, the complex processes in nature that have influenced my life and thinking in complex ways” are communicated to the audience in ways that reveal those complex interactions.

Clayton observed that “personal stories are a great way to connect people to science.” He noted that as a journalist, he’s always been reluctant to write about himself or to give personal opinions, since for him, writing is mainly about the narrative structure—the way a story and plot itself conveys the truth about things. But as he used his experiences to illustrate truths he had observed, he found that “Oh no! I’m expressing a lot of opinions.”

Thomas agreed. He uses his experience to communicate quite a lot of scientific and political knowledge. Much of the work of writing is knowing things, and putting that knowledge in service of others—but also of nature itself. “Wildlife needs constituents,” he said. He sounded what was probably the dominant theme in the session: in the West today, nature is facing many political and cultural threats.

All the writers gave illustrations of the ways the West has always been a difficult place to live. “Nothing is easy in the west.” He noted that we live in a very dry landscape but with Kentucky bluegrass lawns. “We’re doing a lot of things wrong,” he said, “which ends up being good for writing.”

One of Clayton’s goals as a writer is “tell stories that no one has heard before.” He said he’s been tempted to write about “Buffalo Bill and the Copper Kings” and other topics common among western writer, but that he’s more interested in finding bits of history that have been ignored. For example, in 1933, some men stole a train as a protest and headed east toward Washington, D.C. “At each stop along the way, they were greeted warmly by people.” It was an act of political protest, and “they were supported by the unemployed people.” Clayton said this was a surprisingly urban story, rather than the more typical story of country people and country issues.

All the writers commented on changes that are occurring in the West today—revisiting familiar talk about “the old west” and “the new west.” Clayton was skeptical that things were changing now much more than they always had. He suspected that all the talk about a “new west” of “microbreweries and espresso” might just be a symptom of the Baby Boomers’ fascination with themselves. He cited an article entitled “Old West and New” published in 1932, which was about the way a new kind of westerner was crowding out the original cowboys.

Thomas acknowledged that there was some truth to that, but he also argued that things were changing in important ways that writers needed to address because people needed to think about them. An astonishing number of ranches in Montana have sold for more than $10 million in recent years, he said. “Those ranches aren’t being bought by farmers or ranchers,” he said. They are being bought by “silicon valley money.” He said that big money is attacking Montana’s game laws and, specifically, stream access laws. The changes that are possible could have far-reaching effects on how we live in Montana. The “public trust doctrine” we are used to in Montana, that prevents people from owning the wildlife, “is unique to North America,” he said. The idea that wildlife can’t be owned but must be managed for the public has been rare in the context of world politics. “That doctrine is one of the reasons we have all this wildlife in Montana,” he said. “And some very rich people want all that to go away.”

Beck’s experience has been mainly in Utah, and he agreed that Montana has been blessed with stream access laws that have made Montana a world mecca for fly fishing. “It’s not like that in Utah,” he said. “We don’t have stream access laws there,” so people can fence off rivers and streams and deny the public access. “The best fishing in northern Utah,” he observed, “is in southern Idaho.”

Thomas did observe that interesting people are coming to the state, and some changes are welcome. “In Livingston, you used to have a choice of two topics for conversation,” he said. “You could discuss the weather or beef prices.” That is no longer the case.

But he was quite passionate that Montana is facing huge changes driven by big money, and Montanan’s would have to engage if they wanted to preserve some of what is best about living in Montana. He said there’s constant pressure to transfer public land to private ownership. The extractive companies—oil companies—want free of regulations on mining and drilling. Part of the strategy involves a two-step. First, federal land is transferred to state ownership. But after “one bad fire season, that’s over,” he said. The cost of managing the lands will create enormous pressure to sell it off to private owners. The state has already passed a nonbinding resolution to study the idea of privatizing state lands, he said.

These are real problems, to be sure. The hoary way of responding to them is to join the partisan fray, and, for most writers, that means to enlist in the army of one or more of the big corporate environmental associations to disparage oil companies, capitalism and private ownership. If that way of conceptualizing the problem seems stale and unfruitful to you, you might have gained little from this session, beyond new details in a very old story.

I was interested enough to buy books by two of the presenters. They’re on my desk right now, along with a couple dozen other books I’ve bought but not yet read. I’m not sure when or if a day will come when reading them seems the most pressing thing I could do right then. I’m doubtful, at the moment, that the literary crowd is going to lead Montana out of the desolation of modern ideology. Our most serious environmental threat today is that our narrative environment is becoming toxic. I wish I thought Montana’s literary gang was part of the solution.

End of the line

The Cave

In The Republic, Plato argues that the enlightened have a duty to return to the cave to help the prisoners there. The older Plato no longer believed they could be helped. When bands of ideologues get control of the state, they eliminate dissidents from public life and bring children up in the new creed. Such regimes can be toppled by force, but the philosopher has only the authority of the spirit. Any attempt to restore order by violent means defeats itself. Having made his offer and been refused, the philosopher leaves the cave for good.

Will the fed reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, AKA NCLB) or will the process break down again again in endless spirals of argument and counter-argument? The controversies remind me of a parable told by the stranger from Elea in Plato’s Statesman. It’s about what happens when “the people” start to regulate those with experience and knowledge. The problem is that it’s impossible for ordinary laymen to judge the work of experts, which ends up meaning as ordinary people get more influence on government, the decisions tend to get worse.

The Eleatic Stranger tells about the plight of a pilot and a physician. With the layman’s dim insight, he sees only that the physician causes him pain, charges more for his cures than the material substance is worth, and often does not effect a cure. Similarly, the pilot causes damage at sea and throws his merchandise overboard during storms. Both the physician and the pilot may save lives, but this doesn’t spare them harsh judgments in the view of indignant “victims.” If we suppose that such victims form a special interest group, we can easily imagine them, completely ignorant of the true arts of navigation and medicine, creating a set of laws to regulate the future conduct of pilots and physicians, with the shrill confidence of Bill O’Reilly in his campaign for “Jessica’s Law,” which leaves no room for future discretion.

Though Plato knows that the neither the pilot’s nor the physician’s knowledge can be summarized in exceptionless rules that will serve well in all situations, the Stranger doesn’t stop here. He further suggests that the aroused people will demand that from now on physicians and pilots will be chosen by elections, and after the election they will need to heal the sick and navigate the sea according to written rules. Not only that, but at the end of each year, the incumbent pilots and physicians will face a people’s court, where anyone will be free to lodge accusations that the letter of the law was not precisely followed. Those found guilty by the people will face fines or jail sentences.

Plato thought only fools would enter those occupations under such conditions. And that’s not the end of the matter. No one will be allowed to question the law. One who offers new discoveries will be accused of playing politics, trying to corrupt the system, for “nobody should be wiser than the law.”

Plato knew, of course, that it was just such lawfulness and democracy that culminated in the murder of Socrates–the death of philosophical reason, if you will. He spoke directly to the deadening power of laws and democracy possible in a place that has become corrupted, so that skilled practitioners are over-regulated by ignorant congresses: “The arts would utterly perish and could never be recovered; and life which is a burden even now would then no longer be worth living.”

In contemporary America we see such processes at work clearly in those parts of society most governed by political bureaucracies: law enforcement, education, and (increasingly) medicine.

The more congress argues about education at the federal level, the more meaningful conversations at the local level, the only place any actual teaching takes place, are drowned out.  As new mandates flood the system, busy administrators are overwhelmed with compliance issues and tend to look on questions or reservations as little more than trouble-making. So teachers are mandated to collaborate, but they are discouraged from identifying things that aren’t working or proposing solutions.  A popular reform program claims that teachers are free to think whatever they want, as long as they do what they are told. It’s called a “tight-loose” approach. On some matters, the reins are held tightly by the system, and on others they are quite loose. Most things that matter are defined tightly, though whether or not they are defined sanely or correctly is deemed above the pay grade of practitioners.

Can we fight evil without imitating it?

A review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1

Katniss discovers a white rose, which unlike the other flowers has not wilted. It's a message from President Snow, who cultivates the flower to mask the smell of blood. Flowers are ephemeral, symbolizing the hope of beauty. Now they have become ominous, unnaturally enduring.

Katniss discovers a white rose, which, unlike the other flowers, has not wilted. It’s a message from President Snow, who cultivates the flower to mask the smell of blood. Flowers are ephemeral, symbolizing the hope of beauty. Now they have become ominous, unnaturally enduring.

Several critics have noted that although Mockingjay–Part 1 was largely exposition, lacking the action of the first two Hunger Games movies, they liked it anyway. It may be a satisfying art form for an age that often understands itself as poised in a pre-apocalyptic moment, dangling between the trouble we have known and a greater trouble that has to be coming. A film about the calm before a storm feels right.

But there’s more, I think. The real struggle we are engaged in will not be settled, this time, by missiles and bombs. Our disagreements are ontological and epistemological, so language is the arena in which this generation’s epic battle is being engaged. The Hunger Games gives that struggle accessible form by casting it as a war between Katniss’s impulse to love and Snow’s compulsion to control. The battle goes beyond physics–bullets and bombs–into the realm of spirit, and all outcomes at lower levels will fail to be decisive.

So some in the audience may want a story that moves beyond fighter jets and lasers. This third film centers on that contest between the President and the Mockingjay, and this penultimate chapter of their epic contest is waged in words and images. We stranded in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the Capitol’s subjects. To be sure, we see that we are fated to move quite beyond words into a bloodier realm of earthquake and thunder–there are constant skirmishes that leave fields strewn with corpses–but compared to earlier episodes the war is now waged in rhetoric. For the moment, antagonists struggle to give form, words and images, to our understanding of what is at stake, the meaning of good and evil.

The moral tone of the story has grown darker. Snow is clearly evil. Snow’s hypocrisy is vivid. The Capitol’s rhetoric about the common good and human flourishing is mere stratagem to perpetuate an oligarchy of masters who control a vast system of subjugation and poverty, where the suffering of individuals means nothing. Snow’s nihilism is total. Just before switching off the telescreen and pivoting to air strikes, he tells Katniss that “it is the things we love most that destroy us.” Love makes us vulnerable.

Yet hope abides, and Katniss bears hope’s burden. Her beauty inspires hope even after great disillusionment. Abernathy claims we need to see her without makeup, we need to go past appearance and manipulation. Her unfeigned moments of emotional candor keep the rebellion going. Her trainer, Haymitch Abernathy, makes explicit that contrived images lack the force of Katniss’s raw responses to horrors perpetrated by Snow’s military. He gets her out of the studio and to the front, where her image can be projected by capturing unstaged moments where her hatred of the Capitol is caught on camera in unscripted emotional outbursts. Authentic passion, not contrived images, are the keys to better propaganda. But, of course, it remains contrived propaganda.

How can we fight evil without imitating it? This story has been wildly popular with today’s youth, who sense that they are entangled in orchestrated contests with each other for advancement in a dark and hollow world void of ultimate meanings. The consequences of the games they must play are real enough, but winning is only a temporary reprieve in a larger game which no one wins.

The Hunger Games story takes place in the godless world of modern imagination–our world–a place in which human power is constrained mainly by the opposition of other human power. The Capitol’s tyranny is enforced by technology and propaganda, and the revolution can imagine no opposition but its own technology and its own propaganda. The film approaches transcendence only in moments when Katniss inspires hope that she represents another way. She resists the flat-souled utilitarianism of the advisers who would turn away from the plight of individuals to focus on the big battles. She demands that Peeta be pardoned and that a cat be tolerated, and she ignores attempts to discuss propaganda strategy in those moments when she is filled with sorrow for what has happened to the particular people she loves. She suggests a larger game, a different world. Eddy asks, “Are you here to fight with us?” “I am,” says Katniss. “I will.” And so we have hope.

Are love and authenticity enough? Or are they too vulnerable? When we learn that Peeta has been conditioned to hate Katniss, it seems that personal love has roots too shallow to survive the manipulations of evil. How can goodness win against a sadistic ruler who seeks ever more cruel modes of action, capable of feeling only the harshest and most primitive passions, a being nearly dead to all that makes life wonderful, committed to destroying whatever does not wither before his numb gaze, breeding deathless roses to mask the stench.

Does Katniss’s love draw on a power sufficient to restore a good order? Is the people’s faith in Katniss enough? Is there more?

A lot is at stake.

The spread of ideology and dogmatism in the school reform movement

"We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it:  ideologies are finished.  Each one in his way has taken this or that ideology and criticized it so that nothing is left of it.  Nevertheless, he does not quite see what to do afterwards, so we have a peculiar fence-straddling generation.  These people are very serious;  but their having seen that all is wrong still doesn't mean they know what is right. . . ." —Eric Voegelin

“We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it: ideologies are finished. Each one in his way has taken this or that ideology and criticized it so that nothing is left of it. Nevertheless, he does not quite see what to do afterwards, so we have a peculiar fence-straddling generation. These people are very serious; but their having seen that all is wrong still doesn’t mean they know what is right. . . .” —Eric Voegelin

Much of teaching can be quite routine because both the material and the sorts of difficulties commonly encountered by people new to the material are familiar. But if the classroom is not to become merely another spiritual desert in the institutionalized existence of children born to late modernity, the teacher needs to maintain an openness both to the material and to the students. In the classroom, the language through which curricular knowledge lives combines with the minds of students to constitute a field of experience in which the teacher must act as a participant if he is not to rigidify and die, hardening into a mere enforcer of a system.

Symptoms of such a death include the repetition of linguistic formulas in response to questions, the assertion of bland moralisms by way of escaping uncomfortable facts, and the inability to provide concrete illustrations of whatever he is talking about and talking about and talking about. Dogmatism and refusals of the Question are the hallmarks of ideological systems, which are never true but always opposed to truth.

All our systems are wrong, to the extent that they obscure reality by erecting between us and the real world a second reality of language, routinely protected by interdictions on the asking of questions. Nearly all school reform programs are, of course, such systems.  Schooling in the age of reform has made both the life of the mind and the life of the spirit increasingly difficult, and we have few public forums where people can discuss education at the level of reality.  A staff that has been sufficiently cowed into unreality will, at the end of enervating hour or two of what is called professional development, have no questions. Institutions governed by ideology do not entertain questions aimed at the premises or the telos. Experienced practitioners recognize this and suffer the scotosis in silence.

The school change industry recruits participants who yearn to be a stars in the professional society which their studies or their position have opened for them. The usual panoply of goods is available to those who are willing to play: travel for conferences and site visits, release from mundane chores to sit at the big table, public praise, professional opportunities. Successful school reform leaders and consultants often have a fascination with conceptual schemes, and they mistake their ability to become fluent in such schemes for a grasp on reality.

As they master a second reality—the linguistic machine that underlies the reform plan—their sense of truth begins to shift and deform. Instead of accurate representations of the situations that practitioners actually face, they begin to judge as true those statements that are coherent with the conceptual scheme they have adopted. It can take considerable cognitive power to master complex conceptual schemes, such as Marxism or positivism, and some consultants find real intellectual pleasure in knowing their complicated things and in putting their knowledge on display.

Still, dogmatism is a formidable obstacle to anyone looking for truth and it is also the eternal enemy of teaching and learning.

The local always includes the global (in ways ideologues may not grasp)

Experts who discuss education fluently at the level of abstractions but cannot or do not regularly think through how their designs "work" (or don't work) in the minds of particular students may not know, actually, what they are talking about--and may not know that they do not know.

Experts who discuss education fluently at the level of abstractions but cannot or do not regularly think through how their designs “work” (or don’t work) in the minds of particular students may not know, actually, what they are talking about–and may not know that they do not know.

I’ve worked on encouraging local studies at the secondary level for years. In thinking about a label for our work, I finally decided on “community-centered” since the real work has to do with slipping out of ideological abstractions to include the actual as we can only experience it locally–using community in a broad sense to include plants and animals as well as persons and families–in whatever universal and global phenomena we examine.

Over on Front Porch, Charles Carman contemplates the difficulty of separating local concerns from global concerns:

The problem with emphasizing localism over globalism is that this emphasis is harder to prescribe than it is to identify in our own experience. Understanding localism primarily as against globalism does not define localism (or globalism). Living locally cannot not mean joining a tribe, completely isolated from the outside world. Local and global are permeated by each other. Every town is local and global. Coffee is not local to anywhere in the lower forty-eight, even if the coffee shop is. Consider a trader on the New York Stock Exchange. His job is the global markets and yet he knows when to tip his favorite bartender generously. He spends much on the local economy. He has small talk at his favorite halal cart, knows his tailor by name. He changes the price of aluminum in Europe in the morning and asks for the usual in the evening. Granted, a city in Idaho does not have a community of stock brokers, but more likely a community of farmers. Nonetheless, whether a place is a port city or Midwest town, it participates in varying degrees of global and local integration. And however localism is understood, surely it is must be hospitable to the stranger.

The local always includes the national and global, but those who think about the national or global do not always manage to consider the local. Their thought and their ideas are dangerously incomplete. A simple test for experts: ask them to translate their thoughts into particular, concrete illustrations. Someone who understands something deeply and thoroughly knows how it appears at a conceptual level, but also what it looks at the local level–which is to say, in the actual world inhabited by practitioners.

Saving a remnant: most children left behind?

If the larger system will not make something similar to the classic trivium its priority--grammar, logic and rhetoric as exemplified in great texts--should parents and students seek other paths of learning? Courtesy Grace College

If the larger system will not make something similar to the classic trivium its priority–the grammar, logic and rhetoric as exemplified in great texts–should parents and students seek other paths of learning? Courtesy Grace College

The idea of a “saving remnant” recurs throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Such remnants are presented as small groups that understand, apply and carry forward the truths and practices of a higher order of community. John in the New Testament quotes Isaiah in the Old Testament: “Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore, only a remnant will be saved.” The idea suggests that, at times, the most important knowledge will be lost to the world, and most children will be left behind….In our pop culture, the current “big” story that might treat this theme is the Hollywood retelling of the Noah story. It will be interesting to see what they make of it.

The Athens that Socrates and Plato knew was similar to the society Noah left behind. Athens in their lifetimes was on the brink of a destruction that did in fact occur. It was a time and place of political turmoil, corrupt politicians, and a virulent desire for individual gain, an unbridled lust for wealth and power. In that dark time, Plato also turned to the idea of a saving remnant, trying to imagine how correct principles might survive in such an ignorant and nihilistic society:

[Socrates:] . . . the worthy disciples of philosophy will be but a small remnant: perchance some noble and well-educated person, detained by exile in her service, who in the absence of corrupting influences remains devoted to her; or some lofty soul born in a mean city, the politics of which he contemns and neglects; and there may be a gifted few who leave the arts, which they justly despise, and come to her. . . .Those who belong to this small class have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen enough of the madness of the multitude; and they know that no politician is honest, nor is there any champion of justice at whose side they may fight and be saved. Such an one may be compared to a man who has fallen among wild beasts –he will not join in the wickedness of his fellows, but neither is he able singly to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore seeing that he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and reflecting that he would have to throw away his life without doing any good either to himself or others, he holds his peace, and goes his own way. He is like one who, in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along, retires under the shelter of a wall; and seeing the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content, if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good-will, with bright hopes. –-The Republic

In our own time, Alasdair MacIntyre concluded After Virtue, one of the most influential works of moral philosophy in recent decades, with a suggestion that, at this point, the good life might be preserved by small communities that withdraw from the larger society in order to keep alive among themselves the ideals of civility and morality:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead–often not recognizing fully what they were doing–was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.

Needless to say, such visions are anathema to today’s heirs of the revolutionary ideologies of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who envision an egalitarian society formed by subjecting everyone to universal principles, as discerned and articulated by a governing elite. One hallmark of their thinking is the idea that everyone needs to ordered into one large and centrally-administered system. Their recurrent attempts to ban and suppress dissent grows out of their sense that their plans won’t work if those outside the inner party are allowed to leave the plantation.

The obvious products of this vision include such laws as “No Child Left Behind,” which moves toward a nationalized and centralized education system and leads to the Common Core State Standards, which begin to put teeth in the vision by instituting a national testing regime, and by “The Affordable Health Care” law which in a similar way brings much of the health care industry under the control of a governing elite. The original founding vision of America, which George Washington and others communicated by citing Micah, is quite distant: “. . .they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”

The standards movement as it has played out in the state where I work, Montana, has communicated a fundamental incoherence: while the law has promoted the belief that literacy and numeracy come first–since they are the subjects that are actually tested and reported–this has been unaccompanied by any clarity about how schools might accomplish significant improvements in these subjects.

In the case of English, this has remained one class among six or seven in each student’s schedule–which amounts to less than an hour a day for most students. Within that hour, teachers are expected to teach the full range of writing, from basic conventions such as pronoun antecedent errors and parallel structure, to proficient writing in several modes–persuasive, narrative, and expository–demonstrating their ability to write essays comparing various works, exhibiting insight into how point of view affect structure and meaning, and so on. That would be quite a lot, but the standards don’t stop there. Students are also expected to gain considerable background in English and American literature from the seventeenth through the twenty-first centuries in all the major genres, including poetry, fiction, and the varieties of nonfiction.

Where are the serious conversations about how such ideals might be realized? They do not seem to be occurring within the one, big system.

Teaching in the post-literate age

Poetry is revolution

Revolutionary ideology created its own literature, and this literature for the most part became the official literature of state schools.

Thomas F. Bertonneau continues his analysis of the phenomenon he has labeled “post-literacy.” It may be worth noting that though the students in his sample all praise diversity, they do as they fall into line, all slouching in step toward the same god. It’s become a cliche to describe adherents of modern ideology as forming a mob or a herd, but one may still pause when confronted by a herd of nonconformists.

Early in my teaching career, when I was beginning my study of the meanings of literature and the intersections between language and culture, I came across many statements–ranging from Confucius to Orwell–about the connections between maintaining civilization and preserving the language from corruption. It seemed obvious that to teach English was to be on the frontlines of the contest between civilizational order and decadence–I fancied myself as joining a vanguard.

Alas, there was no army. What seems obvious to me now is that any regime intelligent enough to dissolve an Ancien Regime would be clever enough indoctrinate its teachers. That was easy enough. They are, after all, mostly low-level civil servants licensed by the state. Education courses based on such as Benjamin Bloom and Abraham Maslow, with no mention of the world’s great thinkers, helped keep cognitive horizons near and vague for teachers in general. The powerful formative texts of Western Civilization were displaced by trendy social science tracts, excerpted into polemical textbooks drafted for the market.

For English teachers in particular, literary culture itself was dominated by intellectuals drunk on nihilism. Consider such as Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, of whom M.D. Aeschliman observed:

Their aesthetic/ethical style of “upward psychopathic mobility” was a demotic, demonic mix of the nativist narcissism of Walt Whitman (the “barbaric yawp” of “Song of Myself”) and the exotic literary/behavioral immoralism of the French “flowers of evil” — the criminal-as-hero, atheistic/existentialist lineage from Sade through Stendhal and Flaubert to the “accursed ones” (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine), to the rich rentier-pervert André Gide, to the Dadaists and Surrealists, to Sartre and the criminal-pimp-homosexual “Saint,” Jean Genet.

There were others, of course, but in general, “raw, spontaneous, willfully anarchic and pornographic” self-expression spread like a new religion through university literary culture during and after the sixties, extending and celebrating the sensual narcissism of Whitman, completing the cultural turn of Emerson and Thoreau away from the authority of the past, the canonized traditions of such civilizational ideals as self-restraint, discipline, hard work, decency, and personal fidelity, and forward! into the sexual-social liberation of the authentic self with all the primitivism and anti-cultural rage that took form in the intertwined mass movements of the sixties.

At this point, the ideological capture of the teaching profession has been nearly total. English teachers–who are agents of the state–love to scream “censorship!” when some ordinary citizen musters a weak kickback against the low standards of some required book. Ironic. An addiction to striking revolutionary poses can be hard to break–even for officials. The habit of feeling engaged in heroic opposition to thought control makes for a comfortable alternative to the rigors of thought. What Bertonneau says of students is generally true of their teachers: “post-literacy collaborates with ideology in motivating students to invoke topoi such as ‘uniqueness’ and ‘diversity’ to defend themselves against the internalization of a genuinely literate, a non-personal and non-emotional, point of view.” Critical thinking, as it is practiced among teachers, usually means slamming the door on thoughts that challenge received ideology.

For some time I’ve been trying to understand the precise structures of consciousness that serve to inoculate young minds today from meanings and understandings that classic texts once communicated to new generations. It’s not just that students have not been taught the civilizational ideals that once formed the basis of public education, it’s also true that their consciousness has been formed in ways that tend to recoil at contact with many of those ideals. To speak plainly, the authority of the past that revolutionary ideology targets for debunking is morality–the common decency of ordinary people. The monotonous standardization of thought that these students display is triggered by the threat of some standard of goodness, which, if they understood it, might compel obedience. They have been trained through monotonous, repetitious, and explicit teaching that morality is bunk. Only authenticity matters.

I’m still at a loss as to what could be done, given the constraints of a public school classroom, where the gods of political correctness preside–mostly in the background but never far away–, or should be done, given the beliefs now held by many parents.

The mendacity is the meaning

Obama Liar Poster

No lasting cultural progress can be based on lies.

The extensive lying by Obama about ObamaCare is well-established. Those who follow such things know that the lying is not limited to this one program–it’s endemic to his governing approach.

The leaders of this government don’t envision a common world where they can discuss with their subjects shared objects and ends, in the manner of a self-governing republic. They hide their real plans and replace democratic discussion with propaganda.

The meme of the week among advocates of OCare is that morality requires us to care for the poor–to provide for those who need healthcare.

I think it’s true that to the extent that we can, we should assist those who have less than we do. I support organizations that are honestly making such attempts. But it’s folly to empower and enrich liars.