Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 2-6.
The seductive appeal of communism, according to Brian C. Anderson ("Capitalism and the Suicide of Culture," February), was its coupling of the "inherently incompatible ideas of human volition and the science of history." One could say that today the West offers a similar seductive antinomy in its coupling of cynicism and sentimentality.
One the one hand, the West proffers a tough, no–nonsense, pragmatic view of the world where spirited competition leads to a better and healthier society. On the other hand, it indulges in an orgy of sentimentality that seeks to harmonize all opposing points of view and to legitimize every right and every choice.
The great irony of the Cold War, considering that communism lost, was that it was, in the main, fought on Hegelian/Marxist–inspired grounds. It was our materialism against theirs. Both sides combined a blind confidence in science and progress with a negative attitude towards traditional values and authority. Is it any wonder that Solzhenitsyn was rejected by both the East and the West? And should we be surprised that the Hegel–inspired Francis Fukuyama is now seen as a prophet the world over? Rocco Buttiglione is right to see atheism as the dirty little secret behind both systems.
The three books (by François Furet, John Gray, and Fukuyama) so ably reviewed by Mr. Anderson each offered a valuable perspective on the twentieth century. But there have been many such books. What that century really needed was a writer like Dostoevsky who could unpack its soul.
Vancouver, British Columbia
I thank Brian C. Anderson for his analysis of recent books on whether markets can be blamed for the moral breakdown of modern society. His exposure of Francis Fukuyama’s unoriginal The Great Disruption as essentially reductionist Marxism is insightful. I agree that both business culture (advertising) and high culture (art, literature, philosophy, and theology) have become corrupted by opportunistic nihilism. These corruptions might be termed excesses of the market. Mr. Anderson offers antidotes such as the possibility of religious revival, the recovery of high culture, and "postliberal" policies for fighting crime, with all of which I agree.
But such cultural reforms will have limited effect unless government social policy is also reformed. Policy making in the Clinton era revolves around creating political constituencies that markets "discriminate" against. Thus, female college athletes, homosexuals in the military, professors of multiculturalism, affirmative action appointees, and pseudoscientific environmentalists are given political patronage that the market wouldn’t recognize. Social policy carves out "ascribed roles," whereas markets dictate "achieved roles." Conversely, the "professional class" of medicine, law, and accounting has been "deregulated," leaving its practitioners to push on the public dubiously beneficial cosmetic surgery, frivolous lawsuits, and financial planning.
If egalitarian social policy follows any one guiding "moral" principle, it is to justify government intervention to overcome "market failure." This creates a countercultural "new class" whose members must continually play the gender, race, class, and enviro cards to justify their existence because markets do not favor them. Along with this come falsifications and distortions about human nature, society, the physical environment, and Western Civilization. Any moral reawakening must be accompanied by a return to markets, truth–telling institutions, and neutrality as a basis of social policy.
The Clinton Administration was politically able to trade market reforms of social welfare programs (where there are fewer well–organized voters) for egalitarian policies in the labor market, college athletics, academia, and the military (where voters can be organized). However, Clintonian social policy has been to push markets (choice) when it comes to abortion. Although capitalism raises living standards, generally markets aren’t good for children or the unborn.
This marketizing of the micro level (families) and politicizing of the macro level (job programs) results in moral disruption and social suicide. Interestingly, the crucial mezzo level of culture and mediating institutions has often been corrupted by both markets and politicization. In this sense, to overcome social corruption we must instill a market component in social policy at the macro level. Conversely, we must reinstill religious/cultural values at the micro and mezzo levels.
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out decades ago, the historical breakdown of the black family resulted more from "government failure" than from market failure. And as Mr. Anderson correctly observes, we must rid the mezzo level of culture of market nihilism. Of course, markets and governments are imperfect, and we live in a fallen world that social policy can’t fix.
Wayne C. Lusvardi
Brian C. Anderson has it right that capitalism is part of our moral problem but, like Francis Fukuyama, follows up a discouraging diagnosis of modern liberal democracy with an optimistic remedy for its potentially fatal diseases. There is no question that capitalists are simply making money producing what our citizens have been corrupted to demand. But, as Mr. Anderson admits near the end of his article, it is the most influential classes of "intellectuals" that have been the corrupters, not the capitalists per se. Both Anderson and Fukuyama virtually blame "the bourgeois culture" for getting us into this mess, but both overlook or downplay other forces at work. Anderson’s best points are made in criticism of Fukuyama’s determinism and inexplicable faith in mankind, but he displays the same weaknesses.
Liberal democracy has not always been in this situation; the collapse of sexual morals is relatively recent. Nor has it been helpless in the face of previous challenges, whether the existence of chattel slavery in the United States or the later rise of communism and Nazism in Europe. The regime of equality and liberty is not bereft of moral and political resources to face down evils and ultimately end them. Does Mr. Anderson believe it is pure accident that those evils are in our past rather than in our present? Indeed, what is the basis for supposing that the revival of the arts and literature, of faith and reason, even of statesmanship, is possible? How are these going to emerge in a "dying culture"?
Perhaps Mr. Anderson should consider drawing upon the moral and political wellsprings of modern liberal democracy itself. On the basis of the natural rights of all human beings, and through the terrors of a long and bloody war, Americans finally abolished slavery. The same commitment saw them through the great wars and crises of the twentieth century.
It will be no easy task to restore moral virtue, but if we have the courage that derives from knowledge of the right then a solution to our moral crisis is possible. It will not do, as Mr. Anderson apparently does, to neglect the moral principles—"the laws of nature and of nature’s God," as the Declaration of Independence identifies them—of our American and Western tradition. No solution is going to pop out of a hat. It will arise, if it ever does, from our own sources of rectitude and prudence.
Richard H. Reeb, Jr.
Bob Hill commits the serious error of drawing a moral equivalence between the flawed liberal democracies of the West and the pervasive evil of communism in power. The West’s moral universe wasn’t—and isn’t—solely materialistic and hostile to tradition and authority. The liberal universe is pluralistic, made up of traditional and antinomian tendencies both. Most critically, it is open to self–criticism and reform in a way that totalitarian regimes, by definition, are not.
Wayne C. Lusvardi is right to underscore that certain things—unborn children, for instance, or body parts, or drugs—shouldn’t be subject to the logic of choice that prevails in a free market. He misunderstands me, however, if he thinks that I support postliberal policies only in the area of criminal justice.
As for Richard H. Reeb, Jr., nothing in my piece, which he seems not to have read carefully, suggests the impossibility of drawing on the best moral resources of the liberal democratic tradition—including the example of Abraham Lincoln, whose rhetoric he echoes, and the Declaration of Independence—to reform our culture. I do not hold that a "solution is going to pop out of a hat," as Mr. Reeb absurdly accuses me of thinking. But neither do I believe that intoning the Declaration is sufficient; such a project is oddly parochial and comes perilously close to ideological thinking, the affliction of the twentieth century.
As part of my research into the United Religions Initiative and its allies, I have been watching the development of the Earth Charter since 1995. Thomas Sieger Derr’s essay about the Earth Charter ("Global Eco–Logic," February) shows that the text of the Earth Charter has become somewhat less radical in its recent revisions.
But while the text has become more moderate with time, the philosophy of the Charter sponsors remains revolutionary and totalitarian. The website of the Earth Charter Campaign features a document from Mikhail Gorbachev’s Green Cross International titled "The Earth Charter: The Green Cross Philosophy." This document, written in 1996 and 1997 in Moscow and Geneva, does not mince words.
The rationale for the Charter is apocalyptic: "The prevailing development patterns in both the South and the North are leading the Planet to an economic, social, and environmental crisis which threatens the existence of human life and the integrity of Nature." In response, Green Cross calls for immediate radical change: "Current problems cannot be solved by piecemeal measures. . . . Radical change from the current trajectory is not an option, but an absolute necessity. Fundamental economic, social, and cultural changes that address the root causes of poverty and environmental degradation are required and they are required now."
Part of this revolution will entail "Stabilization of the World’s Population." In 1997, Gorbachev told Green Cross that "for a certain transitional period families should limit themselves to one child"; once the world’s population is stabilized, the former Communist premier would consider upping our ration to two children per family. The revolution will also require "Zero–Growth of Material Economy"; the needs of the world’s poor will be met by "reducing material overconsumption by the rich minority."
To reach these goals, human rights and national sovereignty must move aside, and values must change: "The protection of the Bio sphere, as the Common Interest of Humanity, must not be subservient to the rules of state sovereignty, demands of the free market, or individual rights. The idea of Global Sovereignty must be supported by a shift in values which recognizes this Common Interest."
Green Cross calls for "Global Sovereignty" with total power and universal jurisdiction. The "international body for the Sustainability of Human Life on the Earth" requires "the independence and power to facilitate agreement between all societal actors to support the protection of the Biosphere as the Common Interest of Humanity." Democratic institutions must not delay the Earth Charter revolution; at the 1995 State of the World Forum, Maurice Strong said, "We shouldn’t wait until political democracy paves the way. We must act now."
Therefore, even though the recent drafts of the Earth Charter are less extreme than they once were, the philosophy of the Charter movement continues to be totalitarian.
San Francisco, California
I have no quarrel with Thomas Sieger Derr’s favoring of the United Nations’ more sensible approach to environmental matters. People and bugs aren’t on the same level of importance. However, Professor Derr posits a false alternative between anthropocentrism and pantheism. The late Francis Schaeffer argued that these were merely two manifestations of the same error: the placing of the perceived needs of a creature, rather than the will of the Creator God, at the center of one’s worldview. The best approach, Schaeffer argued, was a biblically informed theocentric approach. Pantheism’s error is obvious; anthropocentrism degenerates into utilitarianism by reducing God’s creation to nothing more than a tool for satiating man’s desires. Holy Scripture testifies that before humans appeared God repeatedly called the creation good; it seems that even a bug has intrinsic value.
In J. Budziszewski’s review of Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey’s How Now Shall We Live?, he expresses surprise at Francis Schaeffer’s inclusion as a primary inspiration. The surprise comes from Schaeffer’s presuppositionalism, which means that after you reach the bedrock assumptions, there is nothing more to which you can appeal.
That is not strictly true about Schaeffer. Presuppositionalist he was, but there are two things he would point to further: the coherence of the presuppositions in matching the world outside of the person, and the fit between the presuppositions and the human life as the holder lives it. False presuppositions will always betray the one who holds them. A musician may say there is no law that music has to be beautiful, but his humanity will kick against his false belief. Schaeffer would tell that musician, pay attention to what your own humanity is saying, and you’ll see your beliefs are false. Ordinary presuppositionalism does fall victim to Budziszewski’s charge, but not Schaeffer’s.
At the time when writers from Augustine to Aquinas to (even) C. S. Lewis were domesticated insiders speaking religio–speak to the choir, Schaeffer was saying, "Yes, you [postmodernists] have something there . . . lets see where it goes. Oops, it doesn’t work. Ah, here’s just the thing—."
Bruce C. Meyer
I thank Bruce C. Meyer for his correction concerning Francis Schaeffer. Since writing the review of the Colson and Pearcey book, my understanding of what Schaeffer was trying to do has been sharpened by reading a 1948 Bible Today article in which he argued that the controversy between evidentialism and presuppositionalism presents a false alternative. Presuppositionalists, he held, are right to assert that the ultimate premises of Christian and anti–Christian systems of thought are utterly at odds. On the other hand, evidentialists are right to assert that between Christian and anti–Christian systems of thought there is always a point of contact. The reason for this point of contact, he argued, is that nonbelievers cannot bring themselves to be completely consistent with their own presuppositions, and this inconsistency is a result of common grace. "Thus, illogically," he wrote, "men have in their accepted worldviews various amounts of that which is ours. But, illogical though it may be, it is there and we can appeal to it." Well put.
I admire the overarching thesis of M. Francis Mannion’s "The Church and the City" (February) that "Jesus’ ministry of inaugurating the holy city of God within the conditions of the human city continues in the life of the Church, and stands at the very heart of what the Church must do in history"; that, furthermore, "that ministry, like all others, is symbolically condensed in the liturgy"; and that a renewed emphasis on the aesthetic implications of an orthodox Christian theology (in the most general sense) would be profoundly beneficial if it permeated our broader cultural discourse.
I believe, however, that the author’s sound theological points are accompanied by a very narrow perspective regarding the history and meaning of the Western city along the way, and this undermines his thesis to the extent that it distorts the "centrality" of the Church to the city’s evolving form.
Any examination of the development of urban form would reveal forces easily as influential as the Church’s, and I would argue usually more so. Monsignor Mannion habitually draws on sources that employ the image of the city within the context of some particular systematic approach toward interpreting the world, wherein the city becomes a very static idea. Factors such as trade routes, the order of military encampment, property divisions, farming practices, building practices, economics and technology, and social stratification—not to mention a vast array of ritual processions and gatherings that might have only a tenuous connection to the type of conscious and coherent cosmology that Msgr. Mannion presupposes to have existed in these cultures—all coexisted with whichever form of religious devotion was particular to a given place and people.
I believe that the author’s theology would be greatly enriched if the operative concept of the city therein embraced more of the "complexity and contradiction" inherent in great human endeavors; it might engender in it a sensibility that much of what is beauty is perplexing, and is meant to stay that way.
Richard John Neuhaus’ essay ("Forget the Bilderbergers," Public Square, February) on United Nations officials’ interest in promoting transnational sovereignty and Non–Governmental Organizations’ role in support of their effort was, as is everything he chooses to comment on, instructive.
But as I read what he had written, thoughts of our nation’s Founders’ work and public attitude during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century kept intruding. Much of the society for which they labored was not particularly well–educated or informed even by the standards of the day. Yet the Founders incorporated in the structure that became an exemplar for mankind their certainty that a republican government, contrived to be democratically receptive to the wishes of its citizens, could meet the nation’s political and societal needs into the indefinite future.
In one sense, I suppose Father Neuhaus is simply deploring the lack of that breadth of vision among the leaders of the UN and the NGOs. But in another sense, he seems to share the UN/NGO leaders’ elitism. "Forget," he says twice, "the Bilderbergers, the Masons, the Trilateral Commission, and the black helicopters."
Okay, I’ll try, though I confess to not knowing what a "Bilderberger" is. I’ve had friends who distrusted the Trilateral Commission on broader grounds than Rockefeller involvement and currently claim at least one friend who fears black helicopters. While I’ll not disown them, on the good Father’s advice I’ll parse what they say carefully.
But what is Fr. Neuhaus warning us of? Smalltime politicians of limited experience and one–note organizations, elitists who would rule us through creeping assumption of sovereignty, or right–wing nuts?
Seems to me that the right–wing nuts sensed the UN/NGO problem considerably before Fr. Neuhaus. Gun show habitués have muttered about black helicopters for years. Now, First Things remarks on the underlying concern. Perhaps black helicopters connote John Birchers and militiamen in First Things’ circles, and we are urged to forget them to avoid the taint of associated guilt. But might not the perception of them as symbols of looming danger be an occasion for acknowledging right–wing prescience?
In short, should we forget those who accept black helicopters as symbols because they lack perception, or merely because they lack skill in articulating their fear?
T. A. Cramer
Eagle Rock, Virginia