The American Mind: Honor in a World Gone Mad

In this essay at The American Mind, Spencer Klavan talks about hypocrisy, dishonesty, political theater, and the need for public honors to go those with actual merit. Honor in a World Gone Mad

How to see clearly in the kingdom of the blind.

In the year 1711, behold: Justice descended from heaven to shine the light of truth on all mankind and “to restore and appropriate to every one living what was his due.”

With “darkness and clouds about her, that tempered the light into a thousand beautiful shades and colors,” Justice proceeded to reassign wealth, honors, and status so that they accurately reflected the merits and deserts of which they were supposed to be markers. “One might see crowds of people in tattered garments come up, and change clothes with others that were dressed with lace and embroidery.”

This is the fantasy scene described by Joseph Addison in his “Allegory of Public Credit” or “Vision of Justice,” an essay he published in the Spectator. The first time I read it, I thought it was sour grapes. Addison notes that “I was very well pleased to see that all my friends either kept their present posts, or were advanced to higher.” It’s meant as a bit of a troll, but it still felt to my younger self like the erudite lamentation of an outsized ego wounded by allegedly inadequate recognition.

Now I’m not so sure. Addison was wise to put the light of truth in the hand of Justice: it is justice, after all, that gives to each what he is owed. Suum cuique, to each his due: this is the golden thread that links Plato’s Republic to Aristotle’s Politics, running on down through the history of Western political and moral thought even to the present benighted day. Addison’s is no arbitrary imposition of power or equitable redistribution of wealth: the outcome of Justice’s intervention is not a Communist utopia in which all are of equal stature. It is a society which displays all the shades and gradations of rank that there were in 18th-century England, but rearranged to reflect the truth of every man’s heart.

In other words, what changes is that the outward marks of virtue—the titles, contracts, and positions which convey status—are aligned perfectly with the actual reality of virtue itself as it exists (or fails to) inwardly. So far as public honors and social class are concerned, that is true justice: a divinely accurate and precisely calibrated meritocracy.

That is not the world we live in. It wasn’t in the 18th century, and it won’t be until we find ourselves on a new earth under a new heaven. Only the most deluded optimist could imagine that it is possible to assign praise and blame according to the exact truths of the heart using merely human standards of measurement. That is why only God could pick David, the destined king of Israel, from a lineup of his older and more obviously regal brothers: for “the LORD does not see as man sees; man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Still, we do our best to approximate accuracy and give credit where credit is due. That’s the point of having public honors at all: we are trying to make what Catholics, describing Church sacraments, call “an outward sign of an inward grace.” To refrain from conferring such honors would be just as dishonest and unjust as to practice Communism, and for exactly the same reasons: merit exists. You either lie about it or you try, haltingly, to tell the truth.

But—and this is why I have revised my opinion of Addison’s essay—the older I get, the more I feel that American public honors have utterly and perhaps irredeemably ceased to serve their high purpose. With mounting horror, I have come to feel that all the degrees, titles, and positions of rank we bestow on people are at best irrelevant to, and at worst actively deceitful about, the real qualities of those who hold them. Some of my friends on the very online Right call this phenomenon Clown World. It is a serious problem.

Not long ago I absent-mindedly tweeted to ask people when their “radicalization moment” was—when they became so appalled or astounded at the state of affairs that they stopped trying to be moderate about politics. I got more than I bargained for in response. One of the most unexpected answers was also one of the most frequent and the most revealing. “In college,” as one poster put it, “I got an A for a terribly written essay because I took a position I knew the professor agreed with.”

I myself have similar memories, from as far back as grade school: for certain teachers, you knew that only a certain range of views would fly. How well or poorly those views were defended mattered little or not at all: what mattered was which ones you held. The intriguing irony is that those teachers were also always the ones who stressed “critical thinking”—some of them even had a reputation for being free-thinking mavericks.

This is hypocrisy at a very deep level. When you discover as a child that what adults say they want from you is not what they will in fact reward, you remember that. Maybe the people who commented on my Twitter thread hadn’t thought about those professors in years. But the memory and its lessons had seeped into their bones. It made enough of an impression on them that when pushed, they can now look back and realize: that is when they understood what it is to live inside a lie.

The Senators and the Judge

As I write this, the hearings to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett as the next Supreme Court justice have just concluded. They have embodied everything that is most demoralizing about the breakdown of American public honors. It saps one’s will to watch U.S. senators engage in forms of political theater premised on deep ignorance, real or feigned, about how American law works.

From Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, to New Jersey’s Cory Booker, to Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, Barrett was repeatedly forced to explain—calmly, as if to children—that no, she can’t say how she would vote on specific cases in advance, and no, her originalist philosophy doesn’t mean never amending the Constitution. In public statements after the fact, prominent Democrats from Hillary Clinton to Senator Ed Markey to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot implied that originalism means freezing the social customs and standards of the 1770s in time—as if the text of the Constitution itself doesn’t explicitly include guidelines for making alterations to laws that no longer fit the circumstances, from congressional legislation on up to constitutional amendment.

I suspect Clinton, at least, is well aware that her posture was absurd. This, of course, makes it worse. In the cases of Hirono and Lightfoot, the ignorance on display is probably quite genuine. In every instance, though, it is less and less possible to pretend that these people are worth our admiration or even our respect. Our new digital environment, contrary to popular belief, is actually quite hostile to performative self-curation. Online, only authentic self-exposure garners any attention worth speaking about (spare me your Jeffrey Toobin jokes here, please). Under such circumstances, it has become harder and harder for our supposedly leading lights to hide that they are either studiously cynical, alarmingly stupid, or both.

Perhaps the most dispiriting moment of the hearings was an exchange between Judge Barrett and Senator Kamala Harris, who, it will be recalled, might well be president of the United States someday soon. Rooting around in her big box of feckless rhetorical gestures, Harris told the weepy story of a young woman—whose medical condition, let it be duly conceded, elicits sympathy—before strongly suggesting that Barrett will deprive such people of their health care by striking down the Affordable Care Act.

Leaving aside the supreme unlikeliness of such an eventuality (of which, again, I suspect Harris is aware), it was equal parts grimly satisfying and bleakly depressing to watch Barrett brush off the senator’s empty questions. “Do you currently consider the consequences of your ruling on people’s lives?” Harris asked. “Well, Senator Harris,” replied Barrett with deadpan ease, “that’s part of the decision of every case.” “And so you do,” Harris responded lamely. Then again with a blank stare: “Every case has consequences in people’s lives, so of course I do in every case. It’s part of the judicial decision-making process.” In less gracious terms than Barrett’s: yes, you hack—that’s literally what being a judge is.

It’s an indignity for someone of Barrett’s seriousness and qualifications to undergo evaluation by buffoons of Harris’s caliber, as if it were they and not she who carries the full weight of authority in the room. And yet it was lost on no one with eyes to see that Barrett, if confirmed, will be the only sitting Supreme Court Justice who did not graduate from either Harvard or Yale. There is a growing percentage of the population for which this is a point in her favor and part of the explanation for her plainspoken, seemingly effortless brilliance.

Confidence in higher education generally has been plummeting for some time. It gets worse the more major universities simp for manifestly witless sophists like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi as they maunder dribblingly on about “white fragility” and “anti-racist discrimination.” Every day, in other words, it becomes harder to keep up the pretense that academic prestige has anything to do with academic achievement. COVID-19 has turned places like Harvard into $55,000-a-year webinars; and as the breakout sessions start to look more and more like struggle sessions, we approach the point at which only the most dedicated apologists can view an Ivy-League bachelor’s degree as anything other than a sublime triumph of empty credentialism.

What to Do

It is a bit of ancient wisdom that every society will produce more of what it honors publicly. This is one of the main arguments that is worked out over the course of Livy’s monumental history of Rome: it is because virtues such as prudence and frugality were “so highly and continuously honored,” as the historian says in his preface, that Romans became the kind of citizens who could make their homeland great. As long as “the state showed its gratitude” for war heroes like Horatius Cocles, it encouraged others to emulate his achievements (Livy 2.10). A cornerstone of Rome’s success was what is called aemulatio in Latin—a healthy competition among young men and women to outdo one’s forebears and one another in public honors.

The converse follows, of course: societies which award their highest honors to conformity and dishonesty will produce generations of cowards and liars. An America in which children learn to feign agreement with their teachers’ political views in exchange for the social capital afforded by a high GPA is an America in which, sooner or later, the worst kinds of people will proliferate and rule—as indeed they now do…(continues)

Cato Institute: Poll Finds 62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share

From the Cato Institute, Poll: 62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share

A new Cato national survey finds that self‐​censorship is on the rise in the United States. Nearly two-thirds—62%—of Americans say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. The share of Americans who self‐​censor has risen several points since 2017 when 58% of Americans agreed with this statement.

These fears cross partisan lines. Majorities of Democrats (52%), independents (59%) and Republicans (77%) all agree they have political opinions they are afraid to share.

Strong liberals stand out, however, as the only political group who feel they can express themselves. Nearly 6 in 10 (58%) of staunch liberals feel they can say what they believe. However, centrist liberals feel differently. A slim majority (52%) of liberals feel they have to self‐​censor, as do 64% of moderates, and 77% of conservatives. This demonstrates that political expression is an issue that divides the Democratic coalition between centrist Democrats and their left flank…

Self‐​censorship is widespread across demographic groups as well. Nearly two‐​thirds of Latino Americans (65%) and White Americans (64%) and nearly half of African Americans (49%) have political views they are afraid to share. Majorities of men (65%) and women (59%), people with incomes over $100,000 (60%) and people with incomes less than $20,000 (58%), people under 35 (55%) and over 65 (66%), religious (71%) and non‐​religious (56%) all agree that the political climate prevents them from expressing their true beliefs…

Click here to read the entire article at the Cato Institute.


James Kunstler: Things Have Changed

Author of The Long Emergency James Howard Kunstler has written a blog post Things Have Changed on our immediate plight and what’s ahead.

At least in wartime, the bars stay open. That’s how you know this is a different thing altogether from whatever else you’ve seen in your lifetime. Even those of us who signed up for this trip — that is, who expected a long emergency — may be a little bit in cosmic awe at just how much s#@t is flying into the ol’ fan. I know I am. The gods must have glugged down a mighty draft of Dulcolax.

Did you get the feeling, as I did, watching the Sanders-Biden debate last night — the inadequate versus the irrelevant — that the world they were blathering about possibly doesn’t exist anymore? The world of institutions that actually function? Like, the ones that conjure up whatever sum of money you demand to keep all the wheels spinning? Remember that Hemingway line about the guy who went broke? Slowly, then all at once. That’s us. Medicare for all now? Really? More like, a year from now every physician in America may be the equivalent of the old country doc toting a black bag around to home visits. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough horses left in America, and the few buggies we’ve got are all in the museum.

The mega financial bubble-of-bubbles is deflating with frightful velocity precisely because of the efforts since 2008 to artificially inflate it. The Federal Reserve gave it one final blast Sunday night — while everybody else was counting their rolls of toilet paper — and the effect was like blowing hot air into a shredded Zeppelin. Stock futures are “limit down” as I write, before the Wall Street open. Gold is getting pounded into the ground like a grape stake and silver is so low it looks like the hedge fund managers are down to pawning grandma’s table service. (Hint, the PMs will bounce back hard; the rest, probably not so much.)

Nobody really knows how deep and how harsh this gets (and perhaps the ones who have a clue ain’t sayin’). But the situation presents two salient questions: how much disorder is entailed in this ordeal? And what does the world look like when the convulsion phase of this thing is over?

Americans have never been through anything remotely like this. The disorders of the Civil War were sharp and horrendous military operations conducted mostly in cornfields, pastures, and woods (yes, and some small cities like Richmond, pop. 38,000, and Atlanta, pop. 10,000). When the smoke cleared, battered Dixieland emerged to numb civil order. Up in Yankeedom, the New York draft riots ran for a week around the small patch of Manhattan island, but everybody else went along with Mr. Lincoln’s program. After all that, America got on quickly with the lively business of the 19th century: railroads, mines, factories, and all that. The world wars took place in foreign lands, and the home-front scene of the 1940s now looks nostalgically idyllic.

The stresses mounting on the national scene today reflect the extreme fragilities of the way-of-life we constructed since then, and an awful lot of bad choices we made in the process, like suburbanizing the nation and making everybody a hostage to happy motoring. I won’t belabor that point, except to ask how are those vast regions of the country going to manage daily life as the supply chains wobble? I’d say a shortage of toilet paper may only be the beginning of their problems.

The cities — at least, the few that didn’t already implode from the inside out — made assumptions about how big and tall they could grow which don’t jibe with the new circumstances chugging ferociously down the line. Just think what a lockdown of the global economy will do to all those residential skyscraper projects lately hoisted up in New York, San Francisco and Boston? I’ll tell you: They are assets instantly converted into liabilities. And how will these cities even begin to pay for maintaining their complex infrastructures and services when the money for all that no longer exists and there’s no way to pretend that it will ever come back? Answer: They won’t be able to keep borrowing and they won’t manage. These cities will depopulate and there will be battles over who gets to live in the parts that still may have some value, like riverfronts.

I guess just about everybody can now see the idiocy of concentrating the nation’s commercial life in super-gigantic organisms like Big Box stores. It seemed like a good idea at the time, like so many blunders in history, and now that time is over. Any ecology thrives on redundancy — a lot of players doing similar things at the appropriate scale — and America’s chain retail model for a commercial ecology was an obvious fiasco waiting happen. The people who run that, and other people who run other things in our society, must be wondering whether those supply-chains from China will come back. It’s no different than the cargo cults of the Solomon Islanders circa 1947, after the military airplanes stopped landing with all their magical goodies: time to go back to fishing from the dugout canoe.

The foolish, idiotic identity politics ginned up by the Left and their racially-inflamed, sexually-disturbed scribes in the Thinking Class, have successfully destroyed the last shred of an American common culture that held the country together through earlier vicissitudes. So, one concludes that we’ll be left stewing in poisonous tensions, and perhaps some violent conflicts, before those matters head toward some sort of resolution.

Where does this all lead? Eventually, to a land and a people who operate their society in a very different way at a much more modest scale. The task of reorganizing our national life is immense. (There will be plenty to do, so don’t worry about that.) You can forget about the grandiose techno-narcissistic visions of electrified motoring and a robotic nirvana of perpetual sex-crazed leisure. Everything we do has to be downscaled, from whatever manufacturing we can cobble back together to rebuilding commercial ecosystems at a finer grain from region to region — in other words, what we now call small business, geared locally.

Expect giant AgriBiz to founder on a shortage of capital, especially, and expect smaller farms to organize emergently, worked by more humans working together. That is, if we want to keep eating. Expect the small towns in the well-watered parts of the country to revive while the groaning metroplexes spiral down into entropic sclerosis. Consider the value of our vast inland waterway system and the opportunities to move goods on them, when the trucking industry unravels. Consider lending a hand at rebuilding the railroad system in this country.

There will be economic roles and social roles for all those willing to step up to some responsibility. Young people may see tremendous opportunity replacing the wounded economic dinosaurs wobbling across the landscape. It’ll be all about going local and regional and making yourself useful in exchange for a livelihood and the esteem of others around you — aka, your community. Government has been working tirelessly to make itself superfluous, if not completely ineffectual, impotent, and rather loathsome in the face of this crisis that has been slowly-but-visibly building for half a century. Something old and played-out is limping offstage, and something new is stepping on. Aren’t you glad you watched all those debates?

Fr. John Peck: The Forgotten Rule

Fr. John Peck has a nice article up on the golden rule and its disappearance from society, The Forgotten Rule.

A rule so forgotten that we have a generation that doesn’t even remember that they forgot it.

A look at the mess of American society reveals a dearth of honest, respectful discourse which revels in the freedom to speak and enquire freely without fear of abuse or belittlement by a multitude whose basic thoughts are generated in 140 characters or less. They have forgotten the most important rule of human society, and they have forgotten it precisely because they have aligned and associated themselves with those who have abrogated this rule from their lexicon of desirable behavior, morality, and even their thoughts.

I mean, the Golden Rule.

For those of you reading this who might not know the Golden Rule without Googling it, it can be found in its most perfect form in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, as follows:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

We are inundated daily with trumped up accusations about the origins of our opinions, and good order, decency, and good judgment are replaced with the worst kind of propaganda – from vagina hats and lewd ‘rights’ marches which no parent or child should have to endure in public, to pro-fascist groups calling themselves antifascists and acting precisely in the manner of young socialist revolutionaries, to outright lies all the way up the chain of public discourse. Sure we expect politicians to lie, but we had hoped that our journalists would study journalism more than socialism, and that our teachers would teach the Golden Rule rather than class warfare.

The reason for our rapid decline is easy to see. Paid protesters, organized riots, and public figures loading their own pockets with millions and millions literally stolen from the mouths of the hungry and the homeless in their time of greatest need; all these have excited the shallow minds of witless followers with the promise of the power to do as they will, to remake the world in their own shattered, shallow, distorted image. And the closer they get to their goal, the more they get their way, the more rabid and miserable and angry they become.

Forget the amorality of current science, which forges its vision based on whatever they think may be possible, rather than that which can serve and benefit mankind. Forget the wanton destruction of cultural and historical landmarks and memorials which etch the character – good, bad or both – of a nation and a people, and reduce future generations to drones. Forget the inability to call one’s associates to account because they’re ‘on our side’ even though evil deeds have been done, and accountability needs a reckoning to set a people on their proper course again.

Loyalty has trumped principle in the minds of most of our people. This is a darkness from which there is little chance of coming back.

Click here to read the entire article at Fr. John Peck.