"But there is one principle which pervades all the institutions of this country, and which must always operate as an obstacle to the granting of favors to new comers.
This is a land, not of privileges, but of equal rights.
Privileges are granted by European sovereigns to particular classes of individuals, for purposes of general policy; but the general impression here is that privileges granted to one denomination of people, can very seldom be discriminated from erosions of the rights of others.
Emigrants from Germany, therefore, or from elsewhere, coming here, are not to expect favors from the governments. They are to expect, if they choose to become citizens, equal rights with those of the natives of the country. They are to expect, if affluent, to possess the means of making their property productive, with moderation, and with safety;—if indigent, but industrious, honest and frugal, the means of obtaining easy and comfortable subsistence for themselves and their families.
They come to a life of independence, but to a life of labor—and, if they cannot accommodate themselves to the character, moral, political, and physical, of this country, with all its compensating balances of good and evil, the Atlantic is always open to them, to return to the land of their nativity and their fathers."
-- John Quincy Adams
"I scarcely need to refer to the fact that the Houses of Congress, and so as I know the state legislatures, open their daily sessions with prayer.
The foundation of our independence and our Government rests upon basic religious convictions.
Back of the authority of our laws is the authority of the Supreme Judge of the World, to whom we still appeal for their final justification..."
All liberty is individual liberty...
The principle of equality is recognized. It follows inevitably from belief in the brotherhood of man through the fatherhood of God.
When once the right of the individual to liberty and equality is admitted, there is no escape from the conclusion that he alone is entitled to the rewards of his own industry...
It seems to me perfectly plain that the authority of law, the right to equality, liberty and property, under American institutions, have for their foundation reverence for God.
If we could imagine that to be swept away, these institutions of our American government could not long survive."
-- President Calvin Coolidge
"Whatever strikes at the root of Christianity, tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government."
- James Kent, Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court
"We contend that for a nation to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle."
-- Winston Churchill
You can count those of us here at Life and Liberty as a "NO" on the Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court.
Judge Kavanaugh is clearly a judicial supremacist who thinks judges make our laws, and that judicial precedent takes precedence over his oath to establish justice and support and defend the Constitution.
"These communities [the Fathers of the Republic], by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'
"This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to his creatures.
"Yes, gentlemen, to all his creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children, and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages.
"Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, or none but Anglo-Saxon white men, were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began, so that truth and justice and mercy and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.
"Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution. Think nothing of me — take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever — but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles. You may not only defeat me for the Senate, but you may take me and put me to death. While pretending no indifference to earthly honors, I do claim to be actuated in this contest by something higher than an anxiety for office. I charge you to drop every paltry and insignificant thought for any man's success. It is nothing; I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity — the Declaration of American Independence."
-- Abraham Lincoln, speech in Lewiston, Illinois, August 17, 1858, four days before his first historic debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Printed in the Chicago Press and Tribune.
“The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God … anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist.”
-- John Adams
“There remains the one standard that has not yet been universally used, namely, the choosing of candidates on moral grounds. A nation always gets the kind of politicians it deserves. When our moral standards are different, our legislation will be different. As long as the decent people refuse to believe that morality must manifest itself in every sphere of human activity, including the political, they will not meet the challenge of Marxism. Contemporary history proves that modern political leaders, devoid of a moral inspiration and relying solely on a mass basis (might makes right), proves ineffectual in time of crisis."
-- Fulton Sheen, “COMMUNISM and the CONSCIENCE of the WEST” -1948
"No country upon earth ever had it more in its power to attain these blessings than United America. Wondrously strange, then, and much to be regretted indeed would it be, were we to neglect the means and to depart from the road which Providence has pointed us to so plainly; I cannot believe it will ever come to pass."
-- George Washington, letter to Benjamin Lincoln, 1788
"Our liberty depends on our education, our laws, and habits...It is founded on morals and religion, whose authority reigns in the heart, and on the influence all these produce on public opinion before that opinion governs rulers."
-- Fisher Ames
"If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower
"Without God, there could be no American form of Government, nor an American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first -- the most basic -- expression of Americanism. Thus the Founding Fathers saw it, and thus, with God's help, it will continue to be."
-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, from remarks recorded for the "Back-to-God" Program of the American Legion, 2/20/55
Poland has a clever president. They have long wanted more of the American military in their country, as security against their neighbors to the east. But all they've been able to get to date is a few thousand troops rotating in and out.
So, Poland's president, Andrzej Duda, has proposed to finance and build a facility for American troops called "Fort Trump," in order to ramp up the U.S. presence there. President Trump is, of course, "considering the proposal." And I can tell you from reading around the web where Trump supporters hang out, they think this is a grand idea.
Now, if a real case can be made that this is in our national interest, that's one thing. But we shouldn't be setting our national defense policy based on stroked egos. It's just plain crazy to say otherwise.
There is a little sticking point, however.
From Fox News:
"A 1997 NATO-Russia agreement technically forbids U.S. or NATO troops from being permanently based in former Warsaw Pact countries, including Poland. Over the summer, the U.S. ambassador to NATO told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” that the Trump administration was considering the move anyway. "
Read the rest of the story at the Fox website ....
by Niv Elis
Weeks before the midterm elections, conservatives in the House are gaining little traction on fiscal issues as Congress passed one spending bill after another in bipartisan votes.
It's a significant shift from the last few years, when the House Freedom Caucus often threw a wrench into appropriations plans with demands to cut mandatory spending and advance other conservative priorities.
“It’s a little bit frustrating right now,” said Rep. Mark Walker, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest GOP caucus in the House.
Walker issued a warning last week that some RSC members may vote against a package of spending bills the House is due to consider when it returns to session. The package includes defense and labor appropriations, and a continuing resolution to keep the parts of the government not yet funded by spending bills running past Oct. 1.
But Walker admits that he and other RSC members opposed to the package would seem to have little hope in blocking it.
The package passed in the Senate on Tuesday in an overwhelming 93-7 vote. In the House, an earlier package of spending bills passed in a 377-20 just last week, with both Democrats and Republicans backing it.
“I don’t know that conservatives have a whole lot of leverage here, so I haven’t given it as much thought as I have given to other things, because most of the Democrats will vote for this and smile very big,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
Read this story at thehill.com ...
by Raul Bedard
Nearly half of the residents in the nation’s five biggest cities do not speak English at home, choosing instead their native language, according to the latest Census Bureau data that details the impact of a decade of soft immigration policies.
Overall, a record 67 million do not speak English at home, said the bureau. That is nearly double in 27 years.
In its just-released analysis of the Census data, the Center for Immigration Studies said, “As a share of the population, 21.8 percent of U.S. residents speak a foreign language at home — roughly double the 11 percent in 1980.”
The Center added, “In America's five largest cities, 48 percent of residents now speak a language other than English at home. In New York City and Houston it is 49 percent; in Los Angeles it is 59 percent; in Chicago it is 36 percent; and in Phoenix it is 38 percent.”
Read more at washingtonexaminer.com ...
"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other."
-- John Adams
"Conscience is the most sacred of all property."
-- James Madison
"I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence."
-- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison (6 September 1789) ME 7:455, Papers 15:393.
"Let us enter on this important business under the idea that we are Christians on whom the eyes of the world are now turned… [L]et us earnestly call and beseech Him, for Christ’s sake, to preside in our councils. . . . We can only depend on the all powerful influence of the Spirit of God, Whose Divine aid and assistance it becomes us as a Christian people most devoutly to implore. Therefore I move that some minister of the Gospel be requested to attend this Congress every morning . . . in order to open the meeting with prayer.
For nearly half a century have I anxiously and critically studied that invaluable treasure [the Bible]; and I still scarcely ever take it up that I do not find something new – that I do not receive some valuable addition to my stock of knowledge or perceive some instructive fact never observed before. In short, were you to ask me to recommend the most valuable book in the world, I should fix on the Bible as the most instructive both to the wise and ignorant. Were you to ask me for one affording the most rational and pleasing entertainment to the inquiring mind, I should repeat, it is the Bible; and should you renew the inquiry for the best philosophy or the most interesting history, I should still urge you to look into your Bible. I would make it, in short, the Alpha and Omega of knowledge."
-- Elias Boudinot, President of Congress; Signed The Peace Treaty to End The American Revolution; First Attorney Admitted to The U. S. Supreme Court Bar; framer of the Bill of Rights; Director of the U. S. Mint
"Assenting to the "self-evident truth" maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights -- among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. In Park-street Church, on the Fourth of July, 1829, in an address on slavery, I unreflectingly assented to the popluar but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this opportunity to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice and absurdity. A similar recantation, from my pen, was published in the Genius of Universal Emancipation at Baltimore, in September, 1829. My conscience in now satisfied.
I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
It is pretended, that I am retarding the cause of emancipation by the coarseness of my invective, and the precipitancy of my measures. The charge is not true. On this question my influence, -- humble as it is, -- is felt at this moment to a considerable extent, and shall be felt in coming years -- not perniciously, but beneficially -- not as a curse, but as a blessing; and posterity will bear testimony that I was right. I desire to thank God, that he enables me to disregard "the fear of man which bringeth a snare," and to speak his truth in its simplicity and power. And here I close with this fresh dedication:
Oppression! I have seen thee, face to face,
And met thy cruel eye and cloudy brow;
But thy soul-withering glance I fear not now --
For dread to prouder feelings doth give place
Of deep abhorrence! Scorning the disgrace
Of slavish knees that at thy footstool bow,
I also kneel -- but with far other vow
Do hail thee and thy hord of hirelings base: --
I swear, while life-blood warms my throbbing veins,
Still to oppose and thwart, with heart and hand,
Thy brutalising sway -- till Afric's chains
Are burst, and Freedom rules the rescued land, --
Trampling Oppression and his iron rod:
Such is the vow I take -- SO HELP ME GOD!"
-- William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator, January 1, 1831
“We are perpetually being told that what is wanted is a strong man who will do things. What is really wanted is a strong man who will undo things; and that will be the real test of strength.”
-- G.K. Chesterton
"Too many Christians in this country have forgotten what true leadership even looks like. Instead of being God's flock, LED by shepherds who deserve their trust, who truly care for their well-being, they're being DRIVEN, COERCED, BLUDGEONED, into the political chute by a bunch of unprincipled, uncaring, brutal, Republican cowboys. With hardly a bleat of protest."
-- Tom Hoefling, September 18, 2012
"We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties, and history bears witness to the fact that a just nation is trusted on its word when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others."
--Thomas Jefferson, Second Inaugural Address, 1805
The glossary of inadmissible words in 21st-century American society has shrunk to what seems, at times, a null set. Deprecations and excretory references that once got kids' mouths washed out with soap are dropped with aplomb and immunity, and not just in Quentin Tarantino films. On the rare occasions when the Federal Communications Commission chastises a broadcaster for letting an expletive pass uncensored or unbleeped, cries of repression ricochet from sea to shining sea, quickly followed by passionate defenses of the First Amendment.
But the set of inadmissible words is not quite null just yet. For, to paraphrase St. Paul, there still abideth metaphysics. Indeed, 21st-century post-modern culture does not simply shun the word "metaphysics." It dismisses out of hand the very notion that there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, discloses certain truths about the way we should live. In 21st-century America, and throughout the 21st-century West, what the founders would have called "the pursuit of happiness" has become a function of the autonomous will of the individual, and that willfulness can legitimately attach itself to any object so long as no one gets hurt.
The drastic attenuation of these three great ideas — that there are truths built into the world, into human beings, and into human relationships; that these truths can be known by reason; and that knowledge of these truths is essential to living virtuously, which means living happily — has taken place over a very long period of time. A good argument can be made that one of the prime villains of the piece was the 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham, whose voluntarism shifted the locus of Western moral reflection from the intellect (which was to discover moral truths in reality) to the will (which could impose, or even invent, its own moral reality). The wedge that the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume tried to drive between "is" and "ought" — an effort that accelerated Western philosophy's lurch into subjectivism — was surely part of the problem, as was the failure of Immanuel Kant's "categorical imperative" to meet Hume's challenge and re-ground serious thought and moral judgment in something other than the insides of our heads. Twentieth-century analytical philosophies that reduced thought about the human condition to a variety of language games didn't help matters either.
But if the philosophers had gotten themselves caught in what Polish thinker Wojciech Chudy once called the "trap of reflection," what about the impact of reality itself? One might have thought that the mass slaughters perpetrated by the mid-20th century totalitarianisms would have compelled a general cultural revulsion against a will to power unchecked by ideas of true and false, good and evil. But even that experience of awfulness doesn't seem to have bent the curve of cultural history away from self-absorption and willfulness, as that cultural history is manifest in the world of ideas.
Perhaps it should not have been surprising that American higher learning shifted gears rather readily from John Dewey to Jacques Derrida — from the anorexic philosophy of pragmatism to a post-modern insouciance about (and indeed hostility to) any notion of deep truths embedded in the world and in us. The native-born American professoriate hadn't been scarred by the experience of gulags and extermination camps, and in any event American higher education, largely dissenting-Protestant in origin, had never been securely grounded in the classic verities of the metaphysical sensibility that grew out of Aristotle as mediated by Catholic medieval thinkers like Aquinas.
What is surprising, though — and what ought to be deeply disturbing — is the rapidity with which university life behind the old Iron Curtain turned on a dime from Marxism to post-modernism in the aftermath of the Cold War. It took the University of California, Berkeley, a full century to become Berkeley. It took the venerable Jagiellonian University in Kraków (founded in 1364) less than a decade to become a Central European simulacrum of Berkeley in its adherence to post-modern canons of epistemological skepticism, moral relativism, and metaphysical nihilism. That blink-of-an-eye transformation suggests that there is a deep cultural turbulence beneath the surface of Western civilization in this second decade of the 21st century. To describe it in the terms above, however, is not to suggest that this disturbance is a problem for philosophers only. Quite the contrary.
That Western democratic bodies ranging from the Greek Parliament to the Italian Chamber of Deputies to the United States Congress and the California State Assembly find it impossible to craft and adopt public policies that meet the pressing demands of the moment (while frittering away their time in various forms of political theater) suggests that the deterioration of Western thought about Things As They Are has had dramatic public-policy consequences and could eventually have the gravest civilizational consequences. That the politics of the Western democracies are often in gridlock is not simply because there are deeply different views of personal freedom and public goods in competition in public life; that has always been the case. The difference today is that there are no agreed-upon, reality-based reference points to which the contending parties can appeal in order to settle the argument about whose concept of the public good, and how it ought to be achieved, is the course to be followed.
Public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities. When a culture loses confidence in its capacity to say, with conviction, "this is The Way Things Are," its capacity to devise ways and means of addressing The Way Things Ought To Be is severely eroded. In a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness. And then, because politics is an expression of culture, both the citizenry and its political leaders increasingly come to resemble Lewis Carroll's White Queen, who "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Reality contact, it seems, is important not only for personal mental health. Reality contact is essential to making democracy work. Yet an insistence on avoiding reality is more or less the organizing principle of our political life these days. It lies at the center of a great many of our public problems, and it connects them to one another.
The desire to separate those problems and handle them individually — say, to "put aside the social issues" and just worry about the budget deficit, as many a well-meaning advisor to today's Republican Party now suggests — is no less naïve and unreal an approach to political life than is the desire to ignore the substance of each problem and pretend we can inhabit a world of our own imagination. Responsible, democratic self-governance, and effective public policy that addresses rather than postpones problems, begins by accepting reality. That this seems awfully difficult for many of our fellow citizens these days is perhaps the most grave of our problems.
THE NEW GNOSTICISM
There is another, parallel, way to think about these deeper cultural currents that are helping make it extremely difficult for even serious political leaders (with which the West is not exactly replete in 2013) to connect the dots between, say, certain public goods (financial security for increasingly elderly populations and quality medical care for all) and certain fiscal realities (this is how much money we can raise through taxation without destroying economic initiative and this is how much we can responsibly borrow). And that is to understand that, for the past half-century or so, the United States and the rest of the West have been living through an intense Gnostic revival: a powerful recrudescence of an ancient heresy that has erupted time and again over the past two millennia and that is very much with us today.
Gnosticism is a protean cultural virus that has taken many forms over time. Wherever and whenever it has appeared, however, Gnosticism has sought the good outside of reality as we perceive it through the materials of this world. In the Gnostic view, human flourishing (to reach for a contemporary term) comes from the possession of a gnosis, a knowledge, which will lift men and women out of the grubbiness of the quotidian and into the purified realm of truth. Reality, in the Gnostic view, is antithetical to "the pursuit of happiness"; reality is to be rejected, and thereby overcome.
Contemporary Gnosticism, which is most powerfully embodied in the sexual revolution, has given all of this a new twist by masking its essential deprecation of The Way Things Are by what appears, at first blush, to be a hyper-materialism: a cult of sensuality über alles in which sexual gratification, in any form among consenting adults, is the highest of goods and the most inalienable of personal liberties. But the deeper dimension of the new Gnosticism, especially as it manifests itself through the sexual revolution, is the conviction that there are no Things As They Are. None. Everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable. Everything can (and ought to be allowed to) be bent to human willfulness, which is to say, to human desire. As for the notion that some desires are untoward, even wicked, because they lead to self-degradation and thus frustrate the natural quest for happiness: Well, if there are no Things As They Are, how can anyone say that this desire or that is unnatural, dehumanizing, or wrong?
In this respect, the most powerful expression of the ancient cultural toxin of Gnosticism in the 21st-century West is the ideology of gender — the body of thought that quite naturally occupied the cultural vacuum left when metaphysics and any sense of reality-grounded thinking about the human condition collapsed, when technology made it possible to sunder sex from procreation readily and inexpensively, and when the law built a high wall of protection around sexual encounters between consenting adults. The sexual revolution imagined itself, at the outset, to be liberating men and women from hoary religious constraints and their attendant psychological catarrhs. Yet the cultural transformation that the sexual revolution unleashed would turn out to have far more profound consequences than those imagined by its early propagandists, who seem to have imagined sex as just another contact sport.
For within a very short span of time, less than two generations, two aspects of the human condition that had been understood for millennia to be the very quintessence of givenness — maleness and femaleness — were no longer taken to be given at all. "Male" and "female" were not The Way Things Are. "Male" and "female" were "cultural constructs," usually manipulated by those in power for purposes of domination (Gnosticism thus adding a soupçon of Marxism to its ideology of plasticity).
The beginnings of this path of radical, Gnostic cultural transformation may have been marked by Playboy and the pill. Where it was all heading became clear when Spain's Zapatero government enacted, in 2007, legislation allowing men to change themselves into women (and vice versa) by a simple declaration at a Civil Register office (and without any surgical folderol) — after which affirmation a new national identity card, noting the new gender, would be issued. It is hard to imagine a more explicit expression of personal willfulness overpowering natural givenness.
Gnostic anthropology — the Gnostic view of the human person and the human condition — is the antithesis of the Biblical view of men and women and their possibilities, which has long been one of the foundation stones of the Western civilizational project. Thus it was no accident — although it seemed to many a happy and perhaps strategically important cultural development — that when the premier intellectual in early 21st-century Christianity took up the cudgels against the radical cultural transformation wrought by the new Gnosticism and raised a warning flag about its public implications, he cited the anti-Gnostic critique of the ideology of gender by a prominent Jewish leader.
As French president François Hollande pressed a same-sex marriage bill in the National Assembly in the fall of 2012, the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, offered the French government a detailed critique of Hollande's proposal in a 25-page essay that caught the attention of Pope Benedict XVI. Then, when Benedict gave his annual Christmas address to the senior officials of the Roman Curia on December 21, 2012, he noted the dramatic decline of the marriage culture of the West, warned that this presaged a social world in which "man remains closed in on himself and keeps his ‘I' ultimately for himself, without really rising above it," and then buttressed his argument by adopting Rabbi Bernheim's critique as a summary of the counter-case to the Gnostic gender revolution.
"While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family," Benedict told his audience, "it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being — of what being human really means — is being called into question." He continued:
[Rabbi Bernheim] quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: "One is not born a woman, one becomes so" [On ne naît pas femme, on le devient]. These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term "gender" as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature that man has to accept and personally make sense of: It is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.
The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: "male and female he created them" [Genesis 1:27] no longer apply. No, what now applies is this: it was not God who created them male and female — hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will.
To imagine that we live in such a self-created world is not only to imagine that we owe nothing to our given nature but also to believe that we owe no attention or response to the problems that arise when we ignore that nature. Such a warped sensibility not only makes any moral order impossible: It makes political order untenable, too.
GOVERNING AN UNREAL WORLD
Some who share the concerns of Pope-emeritus Benedict and Rabbi Bernheim will nonetheless suggest that these are essentially matters of the private sphere, with little discernible consequence for public policy and public life beyond some adjustments to civil-marriage law. Others, perhaps also sympathetic in theory or sentiment, will sigh and argue that the debate has been lost, that the sexual revolution has won, and that arguments about public policy — on issues ranging from tax reform to entitlement reform to health care to foreign policy — must now be conducted on their own merits, absent the distractions of these fevered questions of sex, gender, and so forth. This idea that the "social issues" can be put aside so that other issues can be taken up has been frequently championed as the prudent course for American conservatives and for the Republican Party in the wake of last November's disastrous election.
Yet if politics really is an expression of culture (as political theory is an extension of ethics), then the Gnostic revolution and the decline of cultural confidence in The Way Things Are must be, in fact, at the very center of our politics. A people convinced that all is plastic and malleable in the human condition — that nothing simply is, even when it comes to such seemingly elementary givens as maleness and femaleness and their natural complementarity — is going to perceive politics in a distinctive, and likely distorting, way. For even those who have never heard of Gnosticism, much less imagined themselves as its adherents, are nonetheless going to think in Gnostic categories.
The most obvious example of this is the course that has been taken by the same-sex marriage debate. Now, to be sure, the Human Rights Campaign and other same-sex marriage advocates have been shrewd in battening on the American civil-rights movement as the icon of their own activism and in not publicly pressing that activism toward its logical conclusion (which is the legalization of polygamy and polyandry, already being bruited in elite law journals). But these shrewd political tactics have worked because the political culture had been previously softened up (and dumbed down) by the new Gnostic revolution.
Thus a patently false analogy — legal bans on gay marriage are exactly the same as the anti-miscegenation laws of the era of racial segregation — has been successfully sold because a culture unaccustomed to the idea that some realities just are will easily swallow the rhetorical bait. Such a culture is then utterly befuddled when the most intellectually sophisticated Catholic bishop in American history, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, writes in his archdiocesan newspaper that Illinois's proposed same-sex marriage legislation "is less a threat to religion than it is an affront to human reason and the common good of society. It means that we all are to pretend to accept something we know is physically impossible. The Legislature might just as well repeal the law of gravity."
But the new Gnosticism warps our politics in other ways that ought to concern those thinkers, commentators, and politicians now counseling their fellow conservatives to admit that the sexual revolution has triumphed, to get over it, and to move on. For that counsel prompts an urgent question: Move on how? If people are prepared to believe (or, even worse, if people are prepared to insist as a matter of fundamental civil rights) the unreal claim that marriage can encompass two men or two women, why should those same people not believe that America can continue to run trillion-dollar deficits with impunity? Or that the centralization and vast regulatory apparatus to be created by Obamacare will not inevitably lead to the rationing of end-of-life care? Or that the federal budget deficit has primarily to do with the wealthy not paying "their fair share"?
Every serious analyst of the impending federal fiscal crisis, from the right and the left alike, understands that there are very hard choices to be made in building an American future that combines financial responsibility with justice and compassion. But how can such difficult choices and policies be sold, on the basis of the realities that are self-evidently clear from the numbers, to a population culturally conditioned to think that nothing is as is, that everything is malleable and plastic? Why, for example, should a population that thinks of children primarily as a lifestyle choice aimed at enhancing parental satisfaction take seriously the grave moral problem of saddling future generations (as well as current ones) with unpayable, and perhaps even unserviceable, amounts of public debt?
Foreign policy is also imperiled by the new Gnosticism and its reality-denying effects on personal and public perceptions. Putting aside the question of whether the World War II generation was the greatest American generation — what about the founders? — surely the greatness of the generation that fought and beat Nazism and Japanese imperialism was that it accepted the duty to do just that as an imperative imposed by reality. Throughout World War II, there was very little of the flag-waving, chest-thumping, martial romanticism that had characterized the American entry into the First World War. As William Manchester, Paul Fussell, and others have observed, Americans approached the Second World War as a dirty, necessary job that had to be done, period. That same generation understood, when given serious political leadership by reality-grounded men like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, that more sacrifices were required to fight what John Kennedy called "the long twilight struggle" against another totalitarian threat. But today?
If Americans perceive the world through cultural lenses that are distorted by Gnosticism, how can we think strategically and wisely about the normality of conflict in international affairs? How can we grasp that foreign policy is a matter of crafting incentives and disincentives to get others to behave as we would like them to behave? How can a people accustomed to thinking of the world as fungible and elastic possibly comprehend the threat posed by religiously-inspired apocalyptics whose idea of changing the world is to end the world as we know it? The link between the new Gnosticism and foreign policy "resets" may not immediately be evident, but the dots are there, and those dots can be connected if "resetting" has become a deeply ingrained (and publicly celebrated) cultural habit.
America tried a flight from harsh international realities in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, which was the first significant embodiment of the Gnostic temperament in the history of the presidency. The result was the chaotic, ghastly, and still unresolved dissolution of Yugoslavia, the refusal to see reality for what it was in the Rwandan genocide, the scuttle from Somalia, the naïveté of "Oslo" as the magic solution to the Middle East's problems, the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack of the U.S.S. Cole — and, ultimately, 9/11.
That same flight from reality, shaped in part by the same Gnosticism (filtered in this instance through certain New Left confusions), led in [Alleged] President Obama's first term to a revival of Russian power and a new Russian aggressiveness east of the old Iron Curtain. It produced the betrayal of American allies like Poland and the Czech Republic, the expulsion of American pro-democracy groups from both the Middle East and Russia, continued Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, and no discernible change of perspective among the Palestinian political leadership. Ultimately, this unwillingness to accept Things As They Are brought about the murder of a U.S. ambassador and American diplomatic staff in Benghazi.
Reality may be, and often is, unpleasant. But policies rooted in a failure to grasp reality are dangerous, and too often deadly. Those conservatives who imagine that there is no linkage between the unreality embodied in the sexual revolution and the ideology of gender and the unreality embodied in the fiscal, health-care, social-welfare, and foreign policies they oppose might well think again. A culture convinced that everything is malleable and that there are no givens in personal or public life is not a culture likely to sustain serious debates about serious public-policy options. Those who find such debates lacking at the beginning of [Alleged] President Obama's second term — which is to say, anyone paying serious attention — had best start thinking about the deeper roots of the problem that lie in the loss of a cultural grip on Things As They Are.
THE GRAMMAR OF THE HUMAN
In 2006, the distinguished French philosopher and historian of ideas Rémi Brague made a suggestive proposal for periodizing modern Western political history. The 19th century, he argued, was a period focused on good-and-evil: The "social question" — prompted by the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, mass education, and the demise of traditional society — shaped the public landscape.
The 20th century, meanwhile, had been the century of true-and-false: The totalitarian ideologies, built on the foundations of desperately wrong-headed ideas of human beings, their origins, communities, and destiny, defined the contest for the human future that drove history from the aftermath of World War I (the event that began "the 20th century" as an epoch) through the Soviet crack-up of 1991 (the event that ended "the 20th century" as a distinctive political-historical period).
And the 21st century? That, Brague proposed, would be the century of being-and-nothingness — the epoch of the metaphysical question. This might seem, in comparison to Brague's descriptions of the 19th and 20th centuries, a rather abstract notion. Yet Brague, in his French way, was being very practical and concrete in defining our times in those terms. For if there is nothing received and cherished by our culture that might be called the "grammar of the human" — if there are no Things As They Are — then everything is up for grabs, cacophony drowns out intelligent public debate, and politics is merely the will to power.
Having spent decades immersed in the study of Islamic philosophy and law, Rémi Brague was hardly unaware of the threat posed to the West by jihadism, both externally and internally. But he insisted that there was a prior "enemy within the gates" of our own making. It was nihilism: a kind of soured cynicism about the very mystery of being and its goodness. Such cynicism drains life of meaning, foreshortens horizons of expectation, and renders sacrifices for the common good risible.
Brague found it foreshadowed in the Enlightenment intellectual (left unnamed) who once said that he did not have children because begetting children was a criminal act, a matter of condemning another human being to death. A similar nihilism may be found at the root of today's diminishing marriage culture, in the treatment of children as lifestyle accessories, in the trivialization of sexuality in advertising and entertainment, and in so many other expressions of the Gnostic ideology of gender and the sexual revolution.
The question, then, is being. Serious thought about the political future of the Western democracies will not end, or perhaps even begin, with metaphysics. But serious reflection on the future of America and the West cannot ignore the grammar of the human, because it will be impossible to address what ails us — our politics and our civilization — without first accepting the reality of Things As They Are.
George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of, more recently, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. This essay is adapted from his 12th William E. Simon Lecture, delivered in Washington on February 5, 2013.
"Hence as a private man has a right to say what wages he will give in his private affairs, so has a Community to determine what they will give and grant of their substance for the Administration of public affairs."
--Samuel Adams, A State of the Rights of the Colonists, 1772
Published by Siena Hoefling