The Dive - 5/1/22
Quote of the Month
"...the human race is ever laboring in vain, And fretting the years away in bootless worries. For it’s plain Man doesn’t realize that even having has its measure; There’s a point beyond which nothing can increase our real pleasure. And this is what has by degrees dragged Life so far from shore, And stirred up from the very depths the tidal waves of War." - Lucretius, The Nature of Things, V.1430.1-7
My Recent Writing:
What I’m Reading:
1. How we misremember the Marshall Plan - and the implications for Ukraine today
Why you should read it: In the New Statesman, economist Adam Tooze argues that our collective memory of the Marshall Plan bears little resemblance to the actual plan itself - in particular is scope and scale as well as the grinding political debates it occasioned.
“The common vision of the Marshall Plan is as much myth as historical reality. Historical myths can be inspiring. They can energise action. But they can also mislead us about what’s really possible. They may even refer us to the past when what is needed is something radically new… When we talk about the Marshall Plan today the first thing we think of is its size. The funds disbursed between 1948 and 1952 came to $13.2bn. This sounds like a lot, but as commonly presented it gives no sense of scale. Placed in relation to US GDP at the time it came to 1.1 per cent. The notional UN target for rich countries’ development aid is 0.7 percent. For the lucky states who received it, Marshall aid was significant. At their peak between 1948 and 1949, Marshall aid flows were as much as 14 per cent of GDP in Austria, 10.8 per cent in the Netherlands, 6.5 per cent in France and 2.5-2.6 per cent in West Germany and the UK… Considering the spending over the entire course of the Marshall Plan across all the recipient countries, it came to a rather more modest average of 2.6 per cent of those countries' GDP. In relative terms that is what ambitious European Nato members like the UK or Poland aspire to spend on defence. It is substantial, but less than what the US currently spends, and certainly far from an all-out effort.”
“Politics as much as economics were vital to the Marshall Plan. In geopolitical terms the aim was to consolidate the anti-Soviet front. To that end it was always intended as a cooperative programme. But it took work to produce that effect. The internal debates in the Marshall Plan committees were factious. How would coal be allocated and at what price? Who would receive US funding for new steel plants? Nursing a European programme into existence required constant attention. Not only were the Americans engaged in Europe long before the launch of the Marshall Plan. They remained engaged afterwards too… The Marshall Plan had the effect that it did not only because of America’s sustained military, political and economic commitment, but because of the place where it was applied. Other than the US, the west European economies were the most sophisticated in the world. Early 21st-century Ukraine is a very different proposition.”
Why it matters: “Given this history, when people propose a new Marshall Plan to fix a contemporary problem – that is, a gigantic economic package to transform the situation at a stroke – they are operating in the realm of myth, not historic reality. And in Ukraine we are already eight years into a period of deep Western involvement. Judged by the actual scale of the original [Marshall Plan], the sobering fact is that between the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February 2022, Europe, the US and the IMF already delivered a ‘Marshall Plan for Ukraine’ and the results have been underwhelming… Nevertheless, this comparison helps to bring our historical imagination down to earth. Rather than the magic wand of a ‘Marshall Plan’, think the trench warfare of EU budget negotiations and bitter stand-offs between Warsaw, Brussels and the rest of western Europe. That is what the politics of a future assistance package for Ukraine might look like… It will be a 21st-century struggle, but it will have far more in common with the actual Marshall Plan of 1947 than the myth of later making. This is what high-stakes international political economy has looked like all the way back to the peacemaking after the First World War. Less deus ex machina and more hard grind.”
2. How Putin’s war on Ukraine does - and doesn’t - echo Hitler’s war on the world
Why you should read it: Also in the New Statesman, historian Richard J. Evans details the similarities and differences between Putin’s war on Ukraine and Hitler’s genocidal campaigns against the world.
“Almost as soon as Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, political pundits began comparing him to Hitler. Both men had imposed dictatorial rule over their respective countries, both men suppressed dissent and eliminated independent media, both men had no hesitation in murdering people they considered a threat to their rule. Both Hitler and Putin invaded a series of neighbouring countries, both used lies and disinformation to justify their actions, both used a symbol – in Putin’s case ‘Z’, in Hitler’s the swastika – to advertise support for their aims. Both men had no hesitation in causing death and destruction on a massive scale to further their ends… Few things in Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, therefore, seem more absurd than his claim that Ukraine is ruled by a clique of ‘Nazis’, not least because the Ukrainian president is himself Jewish. Unlike Hitler, however, Putin does not think of Ukrainians as subhumans, let alone a malignant global threat to the existence of his country. He thinks of them as Russians. In March 2014, celebrating the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, he declared that Russians and Ukrainians were one people… Nato and the EU, bystanders when Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula and then the eastern borderland provinces of Ukraine, have surprised Putin by taking strong and concerted action to impose sanctions that are already damaging the Russian economy. The expected swift occupation of the entire country, followed by the rapid removal of Zelensky and his replacement by a Russian puppet, has not happened. For Putin and his regime, this is a military and political defeat of humiliating proportions. It now seems that Russian forces are recognising this embarrassing reality and are withdrawing from central Ukraine to consolidate their position in its eastern provinces.”
"It is here, if anywhere, that the parallel with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union can be found. For Hitler also expected a quick victory as he sent his armies – more than three-and-half-million men, with thousands of tanks, armoured vehicles, combat aircraft and artillery – into Soviet territory on 22 June 1941. So confident was Hitler that the edifice of Soviet society would collapse that he did not bother to equip his troops with winter clothes… Both Hitler and Putin were encouraged in their deadly illusions by subordinates who did not utter a word of criticism of their policies. This may well be because of fear of the consequences of disagreeing. The televised meeting of Putin with his leading advisers in late February showed him bullying them until he got the support he wanted. As for Hitler, anyone who disputed his policy of never giving an inch to the enemy was likely to find himself cashiered from the army and deprived of his pension. Both dictators surrounded themselves with true believers, men who had long since surrendered any independence of judgement and simply acted as an echo chamber for their leader’s views.”
Why it matters: “Both Hitler and Putin are consumed by a deeply held ideology rooted in false memories of world war. Hitler believed that the German nation was betrayed by socialists and Jews who stabbed the army in the back during the First World War. He was committed from the outset to reversing that defeat and resuming Germany’s ‘grasp for world power’, though on a far larger scale than before; and eliminating the ‘Jewish world-enemy’ was a precondition of success. Putin believes that the Russian nation was betrayed by leaders who abandoned its integrity after 1917 and again after 1989. He too is committed to reversing what he imagines to be historic defeats. Genocide is the result in both cases. The fact that Hitler’s was planned, and Putin’s is not, does not take anything away from the horror of what is happening in Ukraine today.”
3. How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could herald a new era of conquest
Why you should read it: International relations scholar Tanisha Fazel contends in Foreign Affairs that the fate of post-World War II norms against territorial conquest hangs in the balance of the war in Ukraine.
"What made Russia’s invasion [of Ukraine] so shocking was its anachronistic nature. For decades, this kind of territorial conquest had seemed to be a thing of the past. It had been more than 30 years since one country had tried to conquer another internationally recognized country outright (when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990). This restraint formed the basis of the international system: borders were, by and large, sacrosanct… Countries could rest assured that of all the threats they faced, an invasion to redraw their borders was unlikely to be one of them. With a main cause of war largely consigned to history, this particular brand of conflict became less common.”
“Slowly but surely, some leaders started pushing back against the practice of conquest. In the early twentieth century, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson emerged as a proponent of territorial integrity…The end of World War II heralded a new era. In the ensuing decades, the practice of territorial conquest did not go completely extinct; witness North Vietnam’s takeover of South Vietnam in 1975; Israel’s occupation of parts of its neighbors; Argentina’s attempt to take over the Falkland Islands; and Iraq’s thwarted invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But generally speaking, countries interfered in other states without attempting to redraw their boundaries. And they were especially unlikely to absorb other internationally recognized states wholesale. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, the aim was to prevent the Eastern European country from leaving the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets installed a new, more friendly regime in Budapest but did not lay claim to Hungarian territory. Similarly, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, it installed a puppet government but did not claim territory beyond a cluster of contested islands in the Gulf of Thailand… It is not an accident that the norm against territorial conquest emerged after World War II. The horrors of that conflict, combined with the dawn of the nuclear age, incentivized the great powers to avoid future wars. The era of bipolarity between the United States and the Soviet Union allowed for both regime change and the preservation of international borders. Globalization also reduced the economic benefits of territorial conquest: increased trade meant that countries could access other states’ resources without resorting to force.”
Why it matters: “Russia’s war in Ukraine is about much more than Russia and Ukraine. Allowing the norm against territorial conquest to wither away would mean taking the lid off territorial disputes around the globe and making millions of civilians more vulnerable to indiscriminate targeting. Right now, the immediate effects of the war are largely contained to Ukraine, Russia, and the countries taking in Ukrainian refugees. But further down the road, if the norm against territorial conquest ends up as another casualty of this war, states would be wise to carefully tend to their borders.”
4. Why America should emphasize competence over grand strategy
Why you should read it: Strategist Eliot Cohen makes the case for a renewal of basic competence in the conduct of American foreign policy over the promulgation of new, highfalutin notions of grand strategy in Foreign Affairs.
“In the previous era, the United States was strong enough to get away with less-than-perfect implementation of its big ideas. Its unrivaled power granted it a wide margin of error, enough space so that Washington could get most of what it wanted, no matter what its level of competence. Today, when it is much harder for Washington to call the shots, the problems it faces demand not more abstruse strategies. They require something far earthier: skill… It is of course essential to have some organizing ideas about the world—that the United States should pursue both its interests and its ideals, for example, or that it faces challenges from the rise of competitors and such developments as climate change and state failure. Decision-makers can call such ideas ‘grand strategy’ if they must, but they should not ascribe excessive importance to them, because such general principles offer limited help when it comes to formulating specific policies. Grand strategy relies on simplifications, and yet the world is complex… Grand strategy abstracts policy from the contingency of personalities and unforeseeable events. The doctrine of containment, for instance, offered no particular guidance on how to manage the crises in Berlin and Cuba or the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Yet the study of history reveals the overwhelming importance of unpredictable characters and events. U.S. policy toward China must contend with the personality of Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose methods and aims go well beyond those of his immediate predecessors. An unforeseen global pandemic has caused the United States to look either pathetically weak (because it failed to stop the spread of the disease and vaccinate enough of its population) or remarkably strong (if its looser approach allows it to open its economy faster than China opens its own). And foreign leaders can take everyone by surprise. To adapt the former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson’s adage about boxing, that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, one might say that everybody has a grand strategy until Russia invades Ukraine.”
“Ideas matter, but they do not matter as much as intellectuals and politicians think they do. What matters far more is statecraft, which is about sensing, adjusting, exploiting, and doing rather than planning and theorizing… Too often, however, Washington has incompetently executed its foreign policy, rendering any aspirations of grand strategy meaningless. The best example is the calamitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. On grand strategic grounds, one might have argued the case either way: cut U.S. losses and avoid the distractions of Afghanistan to focus on more important interests in East Asia or, alternatively, sustain a low-cost engagement in the country to maintain credibility and undermine radical Islamist movements in South Asia. Like most decisions in foreign policy, there were good arguments on both sides. What resulted, however, was an appalling failure of statecraft, and that is what really mattered.”
Why it matters: “The United States is unique by virtue of many things—its values-based national identity, its massive size, its favorable geographic position, its overwhelming power, and its quarter-millennium history as a flawed but successful democracy. Today, however, it is entering a period of challenges for which grand strategy, with its penchant for grand simplifications, will not be very helpful. The country must navigate its way through a difficult world, manage crises, and incrementally do good where it can and confront evil where it must.”
5. Why Germany is perpetually scared of itself
Why you should read it: For Foreign Policy, popular historian James Hawes posits that Germany remains unsure of its global role because its main center-left party, the SPD, lacks a core sense of its own - and therefore Germany’s - identity.
“What, then, was the problem with Germany, which was serious four years ago but is facing life or death now? To put it simply: It is the fearfulness of Germany and, more specifically, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is now the senior partner in government… It does not, surely, require a doctorate in psychology to suggest that a nation that seems so terribly scared of everything is, at bottom, scared of itself. By way of proof, look what Germans are splendidly not scared of. Compare Germany’s and Britain’s responses to Ukrainian refugees. The British government acts as though terrified that it might ignite unstoppable xenophobia in its voters. No such fear in Germany: There, politicians clearly assume that the Germans will fearlessly welcome their desperate fellow humans. Germany’s national fearfulness is not xenophobic but Germanophobic: They—or rather, a specific, large group of them—are worried that the moment they stop being absolutely on their guard, terrible things will happen. To put it polemically: These Germans seem to fear (or, at any rate, their politicians assume they fear) that if they do not insist on being the hardest-saving, most carefully consuming, most ecologically responsible, most pacifistically inclined, least nationally patriotic people in Europe, they will suddenly flip into Nazis.”
“… it’s important for foreign onlookers to realize that German politics is as geographically split as U.S. politics—and always has been… [T]he social milieu that provides the SPD with most of its voters—in Venn diagram terms, the larger circle around the SPD vote—is northern Germans of Protestant cultural tradition. They suffer from that great German fearfulness of many things but, above all, of Americanization to a peculiar degree because they suffer from the most culturally debilitating thing of all: lack of a firm identity. No wonder Scholz’s SPD insists that Germany can’t take any unilateral actions, and seems to doubt that its homeland can cope socially with the modest economic shock that would result from stopping gas imports and bankrupting Putin’s Russian within a month or two."
Why it matters: “It is time for modern Germany—and above all, for the SPD—to stop being scared of a Nazi shadow that is not its own but is the projection of something that for the most part is long dead and gone. The Germany of today is not only cleared by history, properly understood, to be a geopolitical actor but is required to be so… Germany has been saving hard for many years. If not for now, for when? If not for this, for what?”
6. Why it’s time for a new Bretton Woods
Why you should read it: Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar says that the United States and its allies need a new Bretton Woods-style international economic arrangement that reconnects trade and liberal democratic values.
“In the future, US trade policy would no longer involve merely leaving markets to their own devices, but rather would uphold certain principles — from national sovereignty and a rules-based order to security and labour rights. As [Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen] put it, America’s objective should be not just ‘free but secure trade’… Yellen coined a new word for this post-neoliberal era: ‘friend-shoring’. The US would now favour ‘the friend-shoring of supply chains to a large number of trusted countries’ that share ‘a set of norms and values about how to operate in the global economy’. It would also seek to create principles-based alliances in areas like digital services and technology regulation, similar to last year’s global tax deal (which she spearheaded).”
“This isn’t America Alone or even America First. But it does acknowledge the existence of a political economy in which free trade can only really be free if countries are operating with shared values, and an even playing field… Today’s crossroads is not unlike the one that faced the neoliberal thinkers who crafted the original Bretton Woods system. They started not with an idea of laissez-faire markets operating for their own sake, but rather with a very human problem — how to patch together a war-torn world to make a safer, more cohesive society, one in which freedom, liberty and prosperity would be guaranteed. Markets couldn’t do it alone. New rules were needed.”
Why it matters: “That’s just where we are now. One may argue, as I would, that a pendulum shift is overdue. Global capitalism has, over the past 20 years in particular, simply run a bit too far ahead of the domestic concerns in some individual nation states. Countries with wildly different political, economic and even moral frameworks have not all played by the same global rules… The process of crafting a new Bretton Woods has only just begun. But starting with the values that liberal democracies want to uphold is a good place.”
7. Why China faces an era of slow economic growth in the years and decades ahead
Why you should read it: In Foreign Affairs, Daniel Rosen predicts that China will face an era of slowing economic growth, due in large part to Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping’s drive to consolidate power and subordinate the economy to the political prospects of the ruling Communist Party.
“China’s rise is far from inevitable; in fact, a long-term economic slowdown is unfolding. Rather than willfully disregard this reality, the United States should talk about it. Policymakers across the world have taken Washington’s silence about the risks to China’s economic outlook as evidence that Chinese President Xi Jinping is telling it straight when he says that the CCP is in control and has a 100-year plan to put China on top. Exposing the far less rosy reality would temper China’s appeal to middle powers as a reliable security partner and draw attention to the systemic economic risks of partnering with China on development projects. China’s brand of lending to developing countries risks undermining governance, saddling countries with debt, and obscuring hard-learned lessons about economic liberalization… There is no basis for the belief that China, or any country, can deliver high, politically determined growth targets in perpetuity without completing basic fiscal, financial, and other market reforms. Pointing out the weakness of China’s economic model and the riskiness of the path the CCP has chosen is a chance for the United States to demonstrate geopolitical leadership that like-minded partners can follow”
“Unlike Japan in the 1990s, which was one of the wealthiest nations in the world on a per capita basis when it downshifted to low growth, China is relatively poor. Per capita income in China is about one-fifth of that in the United States, at around $12,000 a year. Nine hundred million Chinese citizens are not yet living comfortable urban lives and are waiting for their turn. Given that unmet potential, one would expect China to return to a faster growth rate after a bad year such as 2022. But the problems contributing to the current malaise will weigh on China’s economy for years… Further, the most important driver of economic growth in the very long term is technological innovation. China has absorbed more technology from abroad, and benefited from it, than perhaps any country in history. But foreign firms and other countries are now taking a far less permissive stance. It is unclear if truly indigenous Chinese innovation can take the baton and drive future growth. Firms that have innovated have frequently been the target of reasserted state control, for fear of independent actors. Other firms are building out a massive technology base, but only with support and subsidies from the state, which calls into question how efficient they are at research and development and how much longer the state can afford to support them… These are structural problems; they are embedded in the system. They could be remedied. From 1978 to 2012, structure impediments were more often than not remedied, unleashing the growth and development of the past 35 years. But such problems are not being remedied today, and at best it will take years to make a credible dent.”
Why it matters: “A great deal of global economic sentiment hinges on the widespread belief that, like diamonds, Chinese growth is forever. Once confidence in that narrative slips, the implications will be significant… For countries that see China not just as an economic rival but also as an engine of their own growth, a diminished Chinese outlook means a weaker outlook for them, too. This applies to the 55 or so nations that have a trade surplus with China, the 139 countries that have signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative, and others that depend on Chinese tourists (France), corporate services demand (Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Kingdom), or other China-dependent growth drivers… Last but not least, a slower Chinese economy means the CCP will have less room to maneuver at home. With less spending power, Chinese leaders will have to worry more about social stability. Less fiscal capacity means fewer resources for outbound investment and official development assistance. Choices about public expenditure priorities will become more difficult. Officially, in 2019, China’s $261 billion in military spending represented 1.4 percent of GDP and was growing at around six percent annually, but many observers think that spending is higher and growing faster. Support for industrial policy, especially for technology deepening, runs to hundreds of billions of dollars a year. These numbers pale in comparison to the growing perennial expenditures on education, health care, infrastructure, government salaries, government debt service, and other obligations. Fiscal promises made assuming five percent or higher GDP growth will have to be scaled back. Beijing can’t do everything it hoped. The party has built authoritarian tools to suppress discontent, but these have been tested only during the long period of high growth.”
8. “Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid”
Why you should read it: In The Atlantic, social scientist Jonathan Haidt holds social media responsible for the “structural stupidity” into which American society has descended over the past decade.
“The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past… But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families… Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people.”
"Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics… The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking… It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side… When people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the stories told by those institutions. That’s particularly true of the institutions entrusted with the education of children. History curricula have often caused political controversy, but Facebook and Twitter make it possible for parents to become outraged every day over a new snippet from their children’s history lessons––and math lessons and literature selections, and any new pedagogical shifts anywhere in the country. The motives of teachers and administrators come into question, and overreaching laws or curricular reforms sometimes follow, dumbing down education and reducing trust in it further. One result is that young people educated in the post-Babel era are less likely to arrive at a coherent story of who we are as a people, and less likely to share any such story with those who attended different schools or who were educated in a different decade… What changed in the 2010s? Let’s revisit that Twitter engineer’s metaphor of handing a loaded gun to a 4-year-old. A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly 1 billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since… Finally, by giving everyone a dart gun, social media deputizes everyone to administer justice with no due process. Platforms like Twitter devolve into the Wild West, with no accountability for vigilantes. A successful attack attracts a barrage of likes and follow-on strikes. Enhanced-virality platforms thereby facilitate massive collective punishment for small or imagined offenses, with real-world consequences, including innocent people losing their jobs and being shamed into suicide. When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth. “
Why it matters: “Part of America’s greatness in the 20th century came from having developed the most capable, vibrant, and productive network of knowledge-producing institutions in all of human history, linking together the world’s best universities, private companies that turned scientific advances into life-changing consumer products, and government agencies that supported scientific research and led the collaboration that put people on the moon… So what happens when an institution is not well maintained and internal disagreement ceases, either because its people have become ideologically uniform or because they have become afraid to dissent?… [America’s key institutions] got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted. The shift was most pronounced in universities, scholarly associations, creative industries, and political organizations at every level (national, state, and local), and it was so pervasive that it established new behavioral norms backed by new policies seemingly overnight. The new omnipresence of enhanced-virality social media meant that a single word uttered by a professor, leader, or journalist, even if spoken with positive intent, could lead to a social-media firestorm, triggering an immediate dismissal or a drawn-out investigation by the institution. Participants in our key institutions began self-censoring to an unhealthy degree, holding back critiques of policies and ideas—even those presented in class by their students—that they believed to be ill-supported or wrong… American politics is getting ever more ridiculous and dysfunctional not because Americans are getting less intelligent. The problem is structural. Thanks to enhanced-virality social media, dissent is punished within many of our institutions, which means that bad ideas get elevated into official policy.”
9. Why “Christianism” poses a clear and present danger to America
Why you should read it: Liberties journal founder and editor Leon Wieseltier dissects the illiberal and authoritarian ideological fantasies of the “post-liberal" and “integralist” Catholic far right represented by the likes of Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule - it’s a long read but well worth it.
“As in all doctrinaire writing, the writings of these post-liberals, of all post-liberals, has a settled and self-congratulatory tone, and expresses the mutual admiration of a quasi-conspiratorial fraternity. (Are there are any women among them?) They are the club of the just. The motto of The Josias [an integralist journal] is non declinavit ad dextram sive ad sinistram, ‘to incline neither right nor left.’ This may sound like an invigorating assertion of intellectual independence, until one recalls that it is also the title of the definitive historical study of the rise of fascist ideology in France. ‘Neither right nor left’ was the motto of a crack-up, of a philosophical desperation. The purpose of The Josias, its founding editor has written, is ‘to become a ‘working manual’ of Catholic political thought.’ But not all Catholic political thought. It is the organ of a particular school, known as integralism… Premises, premises. The Catholic post-liberals are animated by a crushing sense that we, America and the West, have fallen. The feeling of fallenness is not theirs alone: it is one of the few things that unites this disunited country, though we differ in our preferred heights. For the integralists, whose very name suggests that the rest of us are disintegrated, what we have lost is the magnificent unity of church and state. That is the fissure that infuriates them, that they wish ruthlessly to repair. They are wounded holists; yet another bunch of moderns with a burning hunger for the whole. They detest ‘the personalization of religion,’ as if there are no religious collectivities and religious institutions and religious movements in our liberal polity, as if social domination and political control are necessary conditions of spiritual fulfillment. It is important to understand who were the authors of the abomination that the American integralists wish to repeal. Whereas some of them can live with aspects of Karl Marx — neither right nor left, remember — it is finally James Madison whom they cannot abide. He, after all, was the diabolical author of the separation, and Jefferson, and Mason, and the other founding fathers of the American dispensation. (And Roger Williams, the founding grandfather, whose banishment from the highly integrated Massachusetts Bay Colony marked the inauguration of the separation.) Integralism as an ideology originated in late nineteenth-century Europe, particularly in France, in the Action Francaise of Charles Maurras (the American integralists remind even the editor of First Things of Maurras, and also of the Catholic phalangists of Franco’s Spain); but now Maurras has been pitted against Madison. What a villain Madison was!”
“I call these Christians Christianists, in the way that we call certain Muslims Islamists. Christianism is not the same as Christianity, just as Islamism is not the same as Islam. (There are Jewish parallels in Israel.) Christianism is a current of contemporary Christianity, of the political Christianity of our time, a time in which religions everywhere have been debased by their rampant politicization. The Christianists, who swan around with the somewhat comical heir of an avant-garde, are in one respect completely typical of their day: they are another group in our society that judges governments and regimes and political orders by how good they are for them. This selfishness, which is a common feature of identity, is as tiresome in its religious versions as it is in its secular ones; it is an early form of contempt, and extremely deleterious to the social unity that the Christianists fervently profess to desire… The Christianists can do anything they wish with their church, but they cannot do anything they wish with their country. They must respond to the objections and the anxieties of their non-Christian and non-integralist brothers and sisters. When I see them palling around with Viktor Orban and extolling Nigel Farage as ‘the defining mind of our era,’ their business becomes my business… The scanting of individuation, the attempts to amalgamate the individual soul out of its distinctiveness and to dissolve it into an imaginary whole, all the communitarian ideologies of integration, have often brought misery into the world. Surely there are recesses of the soul that public affairs ought not to reach — or is that the ‘privatization of religion’? So many innocent people have been hurt by other peoples’ feelings, and theories, of loneliness."
Why it matters: “Premises, premises. I have always envied people who find too much reason in the world. My view of what hobbles the world is different. Whatever the limits of reason, we are a long way from reaching them. When rationalists seem to be acting imperialistically, they can be challenged rationally, on their own grounds, and a rational argument for humility or restraint can be made; but no argument can be made with anybody who dissociates reason from truth, who repudiates ‘intrinsic grounds,’ who demands of authority that it be ‘external.’ The integralist enemies of reason are Rortyans with chalices… There is something pathetic about faith that seeks the validation of power, that needs to dominate a state to prove its truth. Such a faith is too easily rattled. It has forsaken the still small voice. Why is community not enough for the Christianists? Why must they have society? They will have to learn the art of absolutes without absolutisms. To my Christian friends, I say: neither Benedict nor Louis, please. I say also that America was not designed for integralism, because it was founded on the wisest intuition in modern political history — that conflict is an ineradicable characteristic of human existence, that a perfectly harmonious state of affairs is a sign of freedom’s waning, that unanimity is the program of despots, that social consensus is not the condition of social peace. This is even more sharply so in a religiously and ethnically heterogeneous society, in which commonality cannot be complete but only sufficient to the purposes of a fair and decent polity, and differences may overlap but never coincide. The overlap is where the common good, whatever it is, may be found. The overlap is where democracy flourishes. We will never rid ourselves of the tensions of our complexity, and we should be alarmed if we did… There is nothing that this country needs more than a common good. In the name of liberalism, and more often of progressivism that is mistaken for liberalism, the American commonality has likewise been severely damaged. The intolerance of the godless is fully the match for the intolerance of the godful. Progressives are attempting to regulate thought and speech and behavior as if they were integralists. What unites all the varieties of contemporary American integralism is that freedom is not what moves them the most. The Christianists have nothing of interest to say about it, and neither do the secular enforcers on the other side. Yet it is this, the inalienable freedom of the mind in matters of belief, its immunity to compulsion, that will eventually defeat them all, as it defeated Josiah. His reformation failed. The people deceived him. The midrash tells that the king sent out pairs of students to survey the success of his campaign against the idols. They could not find any idols in the houses that they inspected, and the king was satisfied with their report. What they did not know was that the dwellers had painted half an idolatrous image on each of the doors to their homes, so that when they closed them upon the departure of the thought police they beheld their forbidden images. The fools, we must learn to respect them.”
Odds and Ends
A neat little interactive on Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York…
Why the Israeli Christian Arab village of Mi’ilya literally digs into its past as a Byzantine and Crusader stronghold…
How the An-225 Mriya, the world’s largest airplane, became a casualty of the war in Ukraine…
The pleasures of traveling to Italy solo…
How paleontologists found a dinosaur fossil in North Dakota that could possibly have been killed on the very day the dinosaurs were wiped out by a killer asteroid…
What I’m Listening To
Three songs from Peter Gabriel’s ethereal and exquisite 1989 soundtrack album Passion: Music for the Last Temptation of Christ:
Image of the Month