Roughly two weeks after President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the 2,000-soldier U.S. ground presence in Syria, the Beltway remains in a state of shock. The resistance to the president’s pullout, from the television segments to the editorials, has seen the foreign policy elite sound dire alarms over an alleged comeback by the Islamic State.
According to them, a U.S. troop departure would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In a January Washington Post op-ed, Retired General John Allen—the former special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition under the Obama administration—wrote that while ISIS has lost almost all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, “the departure of U.S. forces leaves the door wide-open for the group’s resurgence.”
How relevant are these concerns? Will ISIS return to its previous strength if Americans pack their bags and leave?
Hardly. And we should not give such claims the benefit of the doubt.Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
There is a narrow-minded, and wrong, conventional wisdom in Washington that assumes that all problems are America’s problems and no problems can be solved unless America does the heavy lifting. In the case of an ISIS redux, however, this argument has a hole so large you can drive a tank through it: it presupposes that the rest of the region will allow such a resurgence to happen.
A useful reminder is in order: nobody in the Middle East views ISIS as a partner. Indeed, if there is anyone with an incentive to ensure that ISIS is ground down to a manageable level, it is the people who actually live in the region.
If those like General Allen and Senator Lindsey Graham are to be believed, ISIS today should be well on its way to a comeback as Arab governments sit on their hands. But this is not what is happening; precisely the opposite. Rather than shivering in fear, regional states are solidifying their own tactical arrangements to address a terrorist group that threatens them all.
Days after Trump made his announcement, the Iraqi and Syrian governments agreed to enhance their military and intelligence relationship against their shared enemy, ISIS. According to Syrian state media, Bashar al-Assad authorized Iraq to use military force against ISIS targets in Syrian territory without explicit approval from Damascus. And Baghdad, which has struck ISIS inside Syria before, was more than happy to oblige. Shortly after Assad granted approval, Iraqi F-16s bombed a building in the eastern Syrian town of Souseh that ISIS members were using as a meeting place. An ISIS presence along the Iraqi-Syrian border is a significant problem to the security of both nations, and so Baghdad and Damascus have formed a logical, mutually beneficial partnership.
Hundreds of miles away, a similar pragmatic relationship has persisted between Israel and Egypt, two countries that have had a long and sordid history of hot wars and cold peace. But for at least two years now, Jerusalem and Cairo have been collaborating against ISIS-affiliated terrorists in the expansive Sinai Peninsula.
In March 2018, The New York Times disclosed the arrangement, which includes everything from information sharing on mutual cross-border security dangers to formal Egyptian approval at the highest levels of Israeli airstrikes in the Sinai. In coordination with the Egyptian army, unmarked Israeli aircraft have struck terrorist targets on at least 100 separate occasions. In the view of Egyptian and Israeli officials, a counterterrorism partnership is a common-sense initiative—Cairo gets a force multiplier from the region’s most powerful military, and Jerusalem has more freedom to operate.
In case anyone doubted this arrangement, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi confirmed it to CBS’s 60 Minutes. Cairo, Sisi said, has “a wide range of cooperation with the Israelis.” There is no enemy against which such cooperation is more valuable than ISIS, thwarting its fantastical ambitions of establishing a caliphate.
The lesson is instructive: with or without the United States, other nations—even those that strongly disagree on other issues—will eventually discover that it is in their own interests to hold their noses and strike ad-hoc alliances in order to degrade common adversaries.
This is how great power politics works. Countries form necessary, short-term arrangements to protect their security and prosperity. It is Washington that no longer prioritizes its own interests when conducting foreign affairs, which has led it astray since the end of the Cold War to disastrous results.
With the U.S. military having successfully liberated ISIS-held territory, President Trump is rightly demanding that the region take more responsibility for its dissolution. The president expects Arab governments to continue America’s work and mop up whatever ISIS-controlled territory is left. Despite the hyperventilating in Washington, there is every reason for the Middle East to do so. And if the recent past is a guide, this is exactly what will happen.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
Older Americans love to typecast Millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 1996, as disengaged, indolent, and technologically hooked. For Millennials, social interaction involves hashtags, spiritual fulfillment requires podcasts, and a Sunday morning features cycles and yoga mats. They are also now the majority of America’s workforce, yet this Internet-raised demographic continues to puzzle employers. Millennials are voyagers in an economy whose future is unknown. Financial stability is their elusive goal, authenticity their wistful desire, fulfillment their constant endeavor. Insurmountable debt, a digital existence, and a disruptive labor market obstruct their idealistic path.
Millennials’ economic discontent is hardly imagined. To be 30 in 2019 is tougher than being 30 was in 1989. Imagine a Millennial streaming Thirtysomething, a tech-free ABC drama that ran from 1987 to 1991. The series featured a cast that often confronted self-involved and existential crises. Although it was considered groundbreaking at the time, it still followed traditional themes—marriage, raising children, maintaining a home, dealing with an office. That’s a far cry from Millennials, many of whom, as Axios reported last year, are living with their parents, crippled by student debt, postponing marriage, having fewer children, and skipping home ownership.
In 2016, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a report confirming that Millennials are not out-earning their parents’ generation. The report’s authors found that absolute mobility, a measurement comparing the inflation-adjusted income of parents to children, had declined to only 50 percent for Millennials born in the 1980s. For sobering perspective, consider that 90 percent of children born during the 1940s out-earned their parents.
Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), factors in the decade in which most Millennials were born when reviewing this dispiriting data. During the 1980s, the country experienced a massive loss of manufacturing jobs. This trend inevitably created unfavorable economic conditions for scores of Boomer parents, who passed their career and income instability on to their Millennial children. But Mathur notes that downward mobility is not the only cause. This same cohort of children graduated and had to search for employment during the Great Recession.Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
“While clearly many people suffered as a result of that economic downturn, the fact that many millennials were looking for their first, starting job at that time, suggests that they faced far more adverse consequences than workers who had had some work experience under their belt,” said Mathur. “Research shows that graduating in a recession impacts not only your current ability to get a stable job and income, but also affects lifetime income and career progression.” This effectively sentenced Millennials to dependence on their parents, struggles to pay rent, and the prospect of less rewarding employment.
In interviews, Millennials discussed their experiences with TAC. They shared similar challenges, especially the realities of student debt and an acceptance that life will require endurance and adaptation. They confirmed Mathur’s observations that downward mobility and the Great Recession’s legacy are dictating their financial fate.
Holly Pilcavage never thought she’d be sitting in a cubicle processing medical bills. But in 2015, she was submitting daily claims in a suburban New Jersey office. Pilcavage had earned a bachelor’s in business management and a master’s degree in higher education.
Her employment had instigated a quarter life crisis, common among Millennials. A Gallup study in 2016 showed that more than 21 percent of Millennials had reported switching jobs in the previous year, more than three times the rate of those from other generations. Millennials routinely find themselves open to new jobs or unsatisfied with their existing positions.
Fortunately, Pilcavage was able to plot an exit strategy, and eventually accepted a professional speaking position that required nationwide travel. Now she oversees operations and business development for a start-up digital marketing company based in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her new endeavor offers autonomy and creativity. She works long hours investing in her future. Yet the age-old expectations imparted to her during childhood are not on her radar. “I have never sat down and generally imagined my dream home or even owning a home because it doesn’t seem like something that would ever happen,” she says. “I don’t want to be stuck somewhere. You don’t have to be stuck.”
Pilcavage’s workdays require constant focus on pixelated screens, and so she welcomes digital detox in the evenings. Her apartment harkens back to a pre-Internet past. It is a space without wifi, streaming devices, and smart speakers. Pilcavage will pop in the occasional DVD, but she derives more joy from sewing and writing down her thoughts using antique typewriters. Her nightly routines are a welcome deviation from the habits of most American adults. As Nielsen found in 2018, adults now spend nearly half their days consuming media content.
Pilcavage is happy with her balanced lifestyle, but student debt remains a lingering burden. As a first-generation college graduate, she did not understand what paying back loans involved. She hopes her current pursuit pays off in her 30s. “I am hustling now for financial freedom, orchestrating my own life, not thinking about kids, and I have so many other things that I have to accomplish,” she said.
While Pilcavage embraces a start-up life for future returns, Jason Gebauer is taking drastic steps to attain financial liberation. Gebauer recently sold his condominium to pay off his student loans and outstanding debt. He’d bought that condo two years ago in Winter Park, Colorado, where he works in electrical maintenance at a ski lift and freelances as a professional photographer. Gebauer’s decision wasn’t a matter of necessity, but he struggled with the balance between paying student loans and living comfortably in a mountain town where winter always lurks. “I was getting by, but I was never getting ahead,” he says.
Gebauer joins the majority of Millennials who are burdened with some form of debt. A survey from NBC News/GenForward showed that a quarter of Millennials have debt exceeding $30,000. The most common form of debt involves credit cards, not student loans. Yet student debt continues to define the generation. According to the Federal Reserve, 12 million student loan borrowers between the ages of 30 and 39 collectively hold $408.4 billion in debt. As a former condo owner, Gebauer followed the national average of just two in 10 Millennials having a mortgage or home loan. Now he is living out of a Dodge ProMaster. His decision is compatible with his lifestyle: “I’m a rock climber, photographer, and skier who probably skis 150 days a year.”
Although Gebauer remains satisfied with his minimalist approach, he understands that he’s pursued a drastically different path than he’d expected since earning college degrees in journalism and international relations. “I grew up in a generation when you were told in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades that the only way you can get anywhere in life is through a four-year degree,” recalls Gebauer. “It was so ingrained and that’s what everybody did, and then the economy tanked in 2008, and now you have people competing for cashier jobs at Target with Ph.D.s.”
As a Pennsylvania native living 90 minutes from Denver, Gebauer is an anomaly among Millennials. According to the Pew Research Center, only 20 percent of Millennials between 25 and 35 reported living at a different address in 2015 than they had in 2014. Their stagnant migration patterns have departed from previous generations, which moved around with some regularity. But Gebauer is pleased with his drastic decision to reside in a van. “I thought about things and I didn’t want to waste my 30s being in this financial strap from student loans,” he said.
James Weber, a dual American-Canadian citizen, is another Millennial exception. Over the past decade, Weber has lived up and down the East Coast. He’s also followed a wide-ranging career and educational path. After earning degrees in environmental science and geography, Weber worked in laboratories in Pennsylvania and Maine. Now he lives in Oregon, where he helps run a cannabis extraction lab in suburban Portland.
Weber’s career hasn’t extinguished his financial worries. He is single, has student debt, and rents a room in a friend’s house. He emphasizes that Millennials are playing a game of economic survival. In the past, “you got the education, you got the job, you got the family,” he says. “But now you have to choose between any three of those options. If you’re lucky you may get two out of those three options.” “I went for the education,” he continues, “but now I’m so riddled in debt that I’m definitely not going to get the kids. I went for the second-best thing, which is to try and get the job that I love.”
Weber is learning to adapt to a disruptive economy. “We’re going to have to create our own thing because older people aren’t giving us anything we can build upon,” he declares. “Our jobs are being taken away, inflation is crazy, rents are getting crazy high, and our pay is staying stagnant. So we’re entering the cannabis industry and using technology to create apps.” He resents the media’s critical portrayal of Millennials: “You see these articles about how Millennials are destroying Applebee’s or destroying cable TV, but we’re not. We just can’t afford that stuff anymore.”
What does the future hold for Millennials? They are a lost generation without the booze and jazz. They are renters and borrowers, not owners. They live in rooms, not homes. They incur debt for financial survival. They consider appreciation a sentiment, not a term for monetary value. They are a group lacking the accoutrements of Baby Boomer affluence. They entered an economy ravaged by their parents’ generation, and now they must regroup, persist, and somehow prevail.
One long-term consequence of this is America’s declining fertility rate. Last May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics reported the lowest general fertility rate on record: only 3.85 million American babies were born in 2017. Millennials are electing to forgo marriage or children because they can barely support themselves.
From a policy perspective, AEI’s Mathur believes more skills training and paid apprenticeship programs are needed so younger workers can adapt to the new workforce. “Paid apprenticeships are beneficial because they don’t force kids to take on student debt, and the students get some pay while learning, and eventually get a job after training,” notes Mathur. “So it’s a win-win for both workers and companies that are often lacking workers with the right skills to employ to their vacant positions.”
But for now, Millennials must continue their fruitless march. This is not the economy that they expected. There are no car seats for young children, backyards for family dogs, or 401(k)s for retirement. Millennials are broke and disillusioned. They are foreclosing on their own future. We ignore their generational plight at our own peril.
Charles F. McElwee III is a writer based in northeastern Pennsylvania. He’s written for The American Conservative, City Journal, The Atlantic, National Review, and The Weekly Standard, among others.
It is commonplace for Americans to portray Russia as a dangerous country with nearly unlimited territorial ambitions. But the facts simply do not support such an alarmist view. Instead, Russia’s behavior is more consistent with that of a beleaguered regional power trying to fend off hostile intrusions from an American-led NATO.
The self-serving myth of a malignantly aggressive Russia, however, continues to grow—with potentially dangerous consequences for European and global peace.
Assertions that Moscow’s behavior pose a serious, even an existential, threat to Europe and the entire democratic West surfaced even before Donald Trump became president. They flared up in 2008 when fighting erupted between Russia and neighboring Georgia—even though the latter country had initiated the aggression. Senator John McCain asserted that “it’s very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian Empire.”
Such allegations became more pervasive when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 following the Western-assisted Maidan revolution that overthrew Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian government. Ultra-hawkish writer and media talking head Ralph Peters asserted that Putin had a detailed plan for reclaiming the Russian empire. “Make no mistake,” Peters warned, “Putin truly believes he’s entitled to reclaim Ukraine and a great deal more. In his view, independent capitals from Warsaw (yes, Warsaw) to Bishkek [the Kyrgyz Republic’s capital] are integral and natural parts of the Russian imperium. He regards them as property stolen from its rightful owner: Moscow.” Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric was even more apocalyptic: Putin’s actions, she contended, were “what Germany did back in the ‘30s.”Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
Such hyperbole has continued and even increased over the past five years on both sides of the Atlantic. In a March 2017 interview, Dalia Grybauskaitė, president of Lithuania, stated bluntly: “Russia is a threat not only to Lithuania but to the whole region and to all of Europe.” Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, was equally alarmist, insisting that Russia’s behavior posed an “existential threat” even greater than ISIS.
Russia’s conduct has been abrasive and aggressive at times, but there is no evidence that Moscow harbors expansionist ambitions remotely comparable to those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Kremlin’s actions suggest a much more limited, perhaps even defensive, agenda. As professors Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman observed in Foreign Affairs, “To many in the West, Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia seemed to prove the Kremlin’s land hunger.” But such a conclusion reflects poor logic: “Kremlin leaders bent on expansion would surely have ordered troops all the way to Tbilisi to depose [Georgia President Mikheil] Saakashvili. At the least, Russian forces would have taken control of the oil and gas pipelines that cross Georgia. Instead, the Russians left those pipelines alone and quickly withdrew to the mountains.”
Shleifer and Treisman raise a very important point. If Putin is a rogue leader with massive expansionist objectives, why would he relinquish territory that Russian forces had occupied? Indeed, with very little additional effort, Russia could have captured Tbilisi and the rest of Georgia. Yet it did not attempt to do so. Hitler never willingly gave up any of his conquests, and until the collapse of the Eastern European satellite empire in 1989-1991, the USSR disgorged only one occupied area: the portion of Austria it controlled at the end of World War II. Even that modest retreat took place only after laborious negotiations for a treaty guaranteeing Austria’s strict neutrality. If Putin truly harbors malignantly expansionist ambitions comparable to those of Hitler and Stalin, declining to conquer and absorb all of Georgia when that achievement was easily within reach showed curious restraint. His decision merely to perpetuate and consolidate Moscow’s treatment of Georgia’s two secessionist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russian protectorates suggests much more limited ambitions.
Another aspect of Russia’s behavior is decidedly inconsistent with a rogue expansionist power: its military spending is modest and declining, not robust and surging. True, Putin has sought to rebuild and modernize Russia’s military, and he has achieved some success in doing so. Russia’s navy once again deploys modern vessels, and its air force is now flying modern, even cutting-edge aircraft. Putin’s regime has also focused on developing and deploying long-range, precision-guided weapons, and is pursuing military research and development efforts with respect to hypersonic aircraft and missiles.
Even those developments must be put into perspective, however. The restoration and modernization follows a decade of military decline and decay during the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. Moscow’s military budget is still a very modest $66.3 billion. Not only does the gargantuan U.S. budget of $716 billion dwarf that amount, it is far less than China’s $174.5 billion and only slightly more than the budgets of countries such as France and India. Moreover, in contrast to the sizable annual increases in U.S. spending levels, Russia’s military spending is declining, not rising. The 2017 budget was $69.2 billion, some $2.9 billion greater than the current budget. That is an odd trend for a government that supposedly harbors vast offensive ambitions.
The only undiminished source of Russian clout is Moscow’s large nuclear arsenal. But as various scholars have shown, while nuclear weapons may be the ultimate deterrent, they are not very useful for power projection or war fighting, except in the highly improbable event that a country’s political leadership is eager to risk national and personal suicide. And there is no evidence whatsoever that Putin and his oligarch backers are suicidal. Quite the contrary, they seem wedded to accumulating ever greater wealth and perks.
Too many Americans act as though we are still confronting the Soviet Union at the height of its power and ambitions. It will be the ultimate tragic irony if, having avoided war with a messianic, totalitarian global adversary, we now stumble into war because of an out-of-date image of, and policy toward, a conventional, regional power. Yet unless U.S. leaders change both their mindsets and their policies toward Russia, that outcome is a real danger.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 750 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements (2019).
A few months ago, I was having a few beers with TAC managing editor Matt Purple, and we ended up pondering the great question of our times: why did people vote for Trump?
After tossing around the usual answers (a reaction against Hillary’s hawkishness, his carefully curated aura of success, post-industrial blue collar angst), Matt told me about an acquaintance of his whose vote for Trump was pure belligerence. His justification for his vote, as relayed to me by Matt, was something like: “Look around you. These people want us gone” (“us,” presumably, being straight, white, conservative, religious people). He knew Trump was a cad and a moron, but he didn’t care because Trump would fight for him. He wasn’t concerned about losing his privilege; he was concerned about losing his freedom and even his life.
Liberals, progressives, and Never Trumpers tend to dismiss these concerns as nothing more than white paranoia in a country undergoing massive shifts in values and demographics. They claim to have “proven” that racism was the primary motivator for Trump voters. What the Washington Post article that presents those findings breezes over, however, is that, for each of the poll questions, Democrats have moved as far or farther in the direction of “wokeness” over time as Republicans have in the direction of “symbolic racism.” The right is becoming more extreme and combative, but it’s not happening in a vacuum.
As Rod Dreher observed just a few days ago, “liberalism…does not intend to tolerate [conservative, orthodox Christians] for one more minute than it has to.” Anyone who doesn’t agree with the progressives’ increasingly radical beliefs concerning sex, race, and gender belongs on the ash heap of history, and the sooner those backward hicks can be banished there, the better. Conservatives’ continued existence in the public square is not just an annoyance, but an ongoing act of violence against women, minorities, and the queer community.Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
Once this viewpoint, held almost universally among academics, becomes widespread, there is an immediate rush to the fringes. Angela Davis, the radical black activist, once aligned herself with the most murderous dictators the world has ever known, provided criminals with guns so they could murder a judge, and called for, as one commentator approvingly puts it, the “total epistemological and ontological undoing” of American society. Fanon Jackson, another black activist, put it more plainly: “The government of the U.S.A. and all that it stands for, all that it represents, must be destroyed.”
Both of these quotes come from an academic article I read in one of my graduate seminars. As we discussed these would-be revolutionaries who, if they’d ever gained power, might have rivaled butchers like Stalin and Pol Pot, the entire room full of mostly white, middle-class students nodded along. What choice did they have? To suggest that Davis and Jackson might be a bit too radical would be to affirm their own privilege.
Elie Wiesel wrote, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” And while those words do have their place, in contemporary discourse they often have the effect of pushing people toward radicalism. Once you’ve accepted that your adversaries are not just wrong but genocidal in their very identities and attitudes, it becomes acceptable to use any means necessary to overthrow them.
I recently read a thread of tweets from a user with over 20,000 Twitter followers suggesting that white people are genetically predisposed to violence and oppression, “[j]ust like dogs are bred for temperament.” The simile is no accident. If a dog is too aggressive, you use training to “reprogram” it. If that doesn’t work, you put it down. When I expressed a traditional Christian view of sexuality (while also denouncing violence against gay people and expressing sympathy for them), another Twitter user told me I was no better than ISIS. We kill ISIS. With drones.
Give these people their way, and those like me will end up in gulags, re-education camps, and gas chambers. Some intellectuals will attempt to defend these radical calls for violence with a combination of evasion and what-aboutism. The only way to deal with those apologists is to try to get them to admit the mass violence inherent in the beliefs of those they idolize. If they do eventually admit that they want to put you in a gulag, there’s no reason to continue the conversation. If they continue to uncritically praise their favorite iteration of Che Guevara while refusing to admit that they want to put you in a gulag, they’re being dishonest, and there’s no reason to continue the conversation. Best case scenario, they’ll denounce the calls for widespread violence while affirming that the radical’s message contains a kernel of truth. Then we can have a conversation.
It is, of course, impossible to reason with the true believers, the ones who don’t even try to hide their bloodthirstiness. For them, any attempt at disagreement is not just an opposing opinion, but an act of violence, and even dignifying a less-than-radical viewpoint with a response constitutes a betrayal of the revolution.
At that point, there’s nothing left to say, except “When you come for me, I’ll fight back.” Lefties post about guillotining the bourgeoisie, and right-wingers respond with the helicopter emoji (a reference to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s penchant for throwing Marxists out of helicopters), as all middle ground rapidly becomes uninhabitable. And so we retreat to our armed camps, sharpening our rhetorical and literal weapons.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.
Oh, dear sons of the twenty-first century, do not balk at those who call you to live up to your father’s reputation. Do not define yourself against him, as so many of your age have done. If you do, you will dash yourselves on the rocks and miss out on your greater calling…
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with we who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Homer: On Fathers and Sons
Greetings, sons of the twenty-first century. I see that the many years that separate your age from my own have removed from your shoulders a great burden: the burden of bearing your father’s name. In my day, our names did not stand on their own but were ever linked to the man who fathered us: Achilles, son of Peleus; Agamemnon, son of Atreus; Hector, son of Priam, Odysseus, son of Laertes; Telemachus, son of Odysseus.
That you are no longer named this way gives you great freedom to make your own way in the world. But that freedom, my sons, is fraught with peril. In my day, we knew who we were. We were tethered, not only to a culture and a family, but to a single man whose accomplishments and character helped determine our own.
You, in contrast, see yourselves as unique and separate individuals cut off from all the ties that bind and shape and delineate you as human beings. Too often you set out to define yourselves, when you should be more intent on discovering who you already are. You insist that you are blank slates on which you alone have the right to inscribe your own self-identity. But that is not what it means to be a man!
We are, all of us, circumscribed within a circle. That circle does limit and restrict us, but it also protects and preserves our humanity. Duties and responsibilities weigh down on us from every arc of the circle, but we meet those pressures with our own determination, our own giftedness, our own sense of self. Your true identity will emerge from the struggle between the two.
Too many of you want to step outside that circle. Indeed, you seem to think that you must leave the circle to become a full and functioning individual. I think the word you use is self-actualized. But your age is wrong about this. To step out of the circle is to cease to be an individual at all. A true individual is defined by his role in the family and the community. He can no more exist on his own than a vine can that has been cut off from the branch. He may seem strong for a day or a week, but he will eventually shrivel and die for lack of nourishment.
Consider my Telemachus. That poor young man grew up without his father, for Odysseus left Ithaca soon after Telemachus was born and spent ten years fighting at Troy and an additional ten struggling to get home. And yet, though Telemachus waited twenty years to see his father face to face, he knew well his father’s reputation for courage and courtesy, for being skilled in battle and mannerly in speech, strong with his arms and smooth with his words.
That was the legacy that Odysseus left to his son, and, although he was not there to instruct him in that legacy, it nevertheless exerted a shaping force on the raw young Telemachus. When tempted to leave the path of virtue, Telemachus called up the image of his father and yearned to follow in his footsteps.
As the day arrived for Odysseus’s long awaited return, the goddess Athena came to Telemachus in disguise and challenged him to be a man: not any man, or man in the abstract, but a man to live up to his father’s great deeds. She offered him more than a role model; she offered him a mantle to put on, an identity to step into. Not that he would be a carbon copy of his father, but that he would allow his own unique talents to be taken up into the path set for him by his absent father.
Telemachus did not balk at Athena’s challenge, as if it were an affront to his own individuality. To the contrary, he owned it, took pride in it, used it as a tool for building his true individuality. He now knew fully who he was: the son of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, Sacker of Cities. With that knowledge imbedded in his heart, he was finally ready to stand up and assert his role, his purpose, and his identity.
Advised by Athena, he immediately set out on a journey to visit his father’s war companions (Nestor and Menelaus) in order to learn news of his lost father. But that is surely not the only reason he took the journey. My Telemachus was hungry to meet those who had known his father firsthand. If anyone could tell him who he was, could assure him that he was indeed living up to his father’s reputation, it would be those men who had spent a decade fighting by Odysseus’s side.
In the end, Telemachus proved himself a worthy son and successor to his noble father. He even stood beside him and helped him to rid their home and their kingdom of the evil suitors who had been molesting his mother and devouring their property. He took up the destiny handed down to him by his father and added to it his own unique skills and passions.
Oh, dear sons of the twenty-first century, I encourage you to look to Telemachus as you shape your character and seek your way in life. Do not balk at those who call you to live up to your father’s reputation. Do not define yourself against him, as so many of your age have done. If you do, you will dash yourselves on the rocks and miss out on your greater calling.
No doubt your father has flaws—as even Odysseus himself was plagued by a haughtiness and impulsiveness that cost him dearly—but do not use that as an excuse to free yourself from the duty of identifying his strengths and making them your own.
Reject the lies of your age and step back into the circle. To do so may not give you an easier life, but it will give you one that has protective boundaries, that has a shape and a purpose, that matters.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus,” by Henri Lucien Doucet (1856-1895).
Distinguished scholar Eva Brann, of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, shares her thoughts, discusses how St. John’s is truly unique among American colleges, why students should read Homer first, how Aristotle speaks to us today, and why Yogi Berra is one of her favorite philosophers. The first part of the interview is below; a link to the full interview is at bottom. Ms. Brann is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative.
This video was originally published here in April 2014, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday.
We hope you will join us in The Imaginative Conservative community. The Imaginative Conservative is an on-line journal for those who seek the True, the Good and the Beautiful. We address culture, liberal learning, politics, political economy, literature, the arts and the American Republic in the tradition of Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Wilhelm Roepke, Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, M.E. Bradford, Eric Voegelin, Christopher Dawson, Paul Elmer More and other leaders of Imaginative Conservatism.
We address a wide variety of major issues including: What is the essence of conservatism? What was the role of faith in the American Founding? Is liberal learning still possible in the modern academy? Should conservatives and libertarians be allies? What is the proper role for the American Republic in spreading ordered liberty to other cultures/nations? We have a great appreciation for the thought of Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, Irving Babbitt and Christopher Dawson, among other imaginative conservatives. However, some of us look at the state of Western culture and the American Republic and see a huge dark cloud which seems ready to unleash a storm that may well wash away what we most treasure of our inherited ways. Others focus on the silver lining which may be found in the next generation of traditional conservatives who have been inspired by Dr. Kirk and his like. We hope that The Imaginative Conservative answers T.S. Eliot’s call to “redeem the time, redeem the dream.”
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Aristotle” (1811) by Francesco Hayez, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It is my pleasure to announce that Micah Mattix has returned to The American Conservative to serve as our literary editor. We will once again host his excellent and highly respected Prufrock newsletter on books, ideas and the arts. Micah will also work with the TAC team to ensure our cultural coverage remains strong, helping the Arts & Letters section reach new heights, and will write for our website and print magazine.
An associate professor of English at Regent University, Micah will be familiar to longtime TAC readers for his defense of the Great Books and searing critique of surrealism, among many other topics he has addressed. Prufrock has been praised as must-reading by smart thinkers ranging from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie. Micah’s writings have appeared in places as varied as The Wall Street Journal, First Things and The Weekly Standard.
Now more than ever we need to think beyond politics to find the intellectually enriching and aesthetically pleasing. “Politics is downstream from culture” has become as popular a phrase among conservatives as “ideas have consequences.” For Micah, these are not just cliches. We are beyond thrilled to welcome him back.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.
ROUEN, FRANCE – A large plastic garbage can ignites with a whoosh in front of the Church of Saint Joan of Arc in Rouen, Normandy. The smell of acrid plastic and waste fills the air, mixed with the odor of tear gas and pepper spray.
— Paul Brian (@paulrbrian) January 12, 2019Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
Joan of Arc was burned at the stake here in 1431; now this site and much of downtown Rouen is beset by furious protesters demanding the ouster of President Emmanuel Macron, lighting fires in the streets and hurling insults. “Your grandmother was a whore!” shouts one young man in his 20s, shaking his fist at a long line of police standing across the avenue in full riot gear.
"Your grandmother was a whore!" man shouts at line of police. pic.twitter.com/arNN6UIPvZ
— Paul Brian (@paulrbrian) January 12, 2019
His compatriots bellow in encouragement as hundreds of yellow vests of all ages—majority male—stream down the street, jumping over fencing and chanting in solidarity. They throw boards on a burning pyre by a barricade nearby, keeping a watchful eye on the advancing police and scrambling in retreat as a sudden hail of tear gas grenades clatter down around them. The projectiles make sounds like giant ping pong balls before exploding at extremely high volume.
Estimates hold that around 32,000 yellow vests marched on January 12 throughout France, including a full 8,000 in Paris, up some 6,000 from turnout estimates last Saturday. In Rouen, there were 3,500 yellow vests taking part. In total, 80,000 police were deployed Saturday to meet the protesters. Although the numbers of yellow vests have been waning overall since the uprising started last November following a fuel tax hike, enthusiasm appeared strong and aggression was not lacking.
— Paul Brian (@paulrbrian) January 12, 2019
Police chatted and joked amongst themselves as they prepared to run on the protesters with riot shields. On the other side, yellow vests shouted tips as they walked briskly. Some had scrawled messages on the back of their hi-vis vests: “Macron out,” read one; “No to Macron’s Rothschild France!” read another.
— Paul Brian (@paulrbrian) January 12, 2019
Macron has hinted at vague reforms to satiate the angry sentiments across his country. But the dislike of him by the yellow vests was still visceral, as was a consensus that he has failed on his promises and “done nothing” since his election. A new yellow vest song made by a supporter is gaining ground. It is directly aimed at Macron and has lyrics that say “Emmanuel Macron you are a c*nt! We will go into your house and throw you out!”
— Paul Brian (@paulrbrian) January 12, 2019
Despite ending the fuel tax, increasing the minimum wage by 100 Euros per month, lifting tax on overtime wages, and upping some welfare benefits, Macron has been hounded from all sides by a rising and vehement opposition. Yellow vest Angelique Loulou, participating Saturday in Rouen, told The American Conservative that she works two jobs and still barely has enough to get by. Her two children in their 20s are also having a hard time in the current economy. She blames Macron and the government as a whole, saying with a laugh that they can “kiss my ass.” Tof Lemon, who accompanied her, said they had met only half an hour before and that he too shares frustrations with the current political situation. Neither he nor Loulou said who they would like to see come after Macron, but both were upset by austerity policies and the conviction that elites like Macron are out of touch liars.
Another yellow vest, Antonie, who wished not to provide his surname, told TAC that he is apolitical but disgusted by Macron. He sees France’s government as fused with big business interests, leaving its people behind. “I’ve been involved in the protests from the very beginning,” Antonie said. “Macron has pursued a policy of austerity and big banks are getting all the advantages. It’s becoming a totalitarian regime.”
This Saturday was the ninth round of protests, and French Interior Minister Laurent Nunez, speaking in Rouen Saturday, said police are going to have “an extremely firm response” if the yellow vests commit any “excesses.” A crackdown on the wearing of masks during demonstrations is also expected, according to French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. Left-wing French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon has strongly opposed the measure, saying it amounts to quashing the right to protest. But French Senator Bruno Retailleau said it was a good measure and demonstrators wearing hoods or masks should be “severely punished.” So far, six have been killed in incidents related to the protests and over 1,400 injured, some seriously. Yellow vests complain about police brutality, while police and detractors cast the rioters as irresponsible hooligans with no clear goal.
Rearguard arrives. pic.twitter.com/6rtYCXErdO
— Paul Brian (@paulrbrian) January 12, 2019
The owner of a chocolaterie near Joanne of Arc Church said she doesn’t like when protesters break windows or cause damage, which is hard to clean up and expensive, though she noted that her store has not been damaged. Another man looking at the march, who declined to give his name, said he did not support the yellow vests. “I work,” he said. “They break things.”
Nonetheless, current support for the yellow vests is around 60 percent, according to a poll from Elabe, and plenty of bystanders were more supportive. Ben Les of Rouen said he empathizes with the yellow vests position and does not see their protests ending anytime soon. “They have nothing to lose,” he told TAC.
Antoine Souali, 33, who owns a bar on Rue du Général LeClerc in downtown Rouen, also expressed some support for the yellow vests. “Most people work but at the end of the month they have nothing,” he said. “In France there’s a lot of taxes. We have good social security but the services are declining because the government puts the interest of the rich above the normal people and close hospitals and schools.” Souali added that while he sympathizes with the frustrations of the yellow vests, his bar has had its business negatively affected by the protests.
Souali said he leans right in some ways but is overall moderate and feels that the left and right wings in France, including the socialists and the National Rally (formerly Marine Le Pen’s National Front), do not have concrete plans or effective policies that can address the country’s problems. While he does not support the National Rally, Souali nonetheless believes they will dominate the European elections this May, swinging the balance of power away from Macron. He also thinks it is possible that the current administration will be dissolved prior to the EU elections.
France is not set for national elections until 2022, and Macron’s party, the Republique En Marche!, currently has a big majority in the 577-seat French parliament. So it will be difficult to successfully table a no-confidence motion to remove his government. Impeachment is highly unlikely. Macron will launch national debates next week and visit a town about 20 kilometers away from Rouen to talk with the mayor about how to address the disorder. They also plan to draft legislation, including a possible referendum.
In a very uncertain political and social climate, one thing is certain: France is once again the scene of a great drama that will help define the future of Western civilization. The amorphous and populist nature of the protests make them hard to contain—and to authoritatively explain as born of one main cause. But the high cost of living and the perception of a distant, uncaring elite clearly rank highly as motivating factors.
“Tell the world what is happening in France!” a young man exhorts me as he bounds down the street amid a throng of yellow vests in ski masks and hoods. He raises his fist as he passes by and begins singing at the top of his lungs, joined by a swelling chorus.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.
Gilbert T. Sewall, contributor: I receive at Christmas each year an armload of books that I would never purchase for myself. But they do get close inspection. The givers pay attention, as I do not, to splashy non-fiction books coming from the Intelligent Left. And yes, Ann Coulter, there is one.
Such a book, entitled Fear: Trump in the White House, came out in September from Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. I’ve never read any of Woodward’s accounts before, but I find his Washington-insider style intensely vivid and readable. The title refers to President Donald J. Trump’s belligerent exercise of power, but the word also reflects what elected Trump: middle-class decline and dispossession. Woodward’s portrait reveals an alarming imperial style, confirming what is well known. The voices of thoughtful White House officials who act to restrain the impulsive, anti-republican Trump and his entourage impressed me. The Mueller-related histrionics bored me to tears. A London banker told me years ago Trump is compromised financially by Russian money. OK, fine, I’ll take his word. But the long-running D.C. morality play is, Samuel Beckett-like, Waiting for Ivan. Trump is no doubt highly defective as an executive, but political writers like Woodward still can’t appreciate the yeoman anxiety that got Trump elected in the first place.
Another such book is Breaking News from Alan Rusbridger. I had never heard of Rusbridger before, but he was top editor at the U.K. Guardian for some 20 years. His sharply observed memoir recounts how the storied British newspaper adapted to shifts in journalism to become a huge global website. He reviews how media outliers Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald won the Guardian a Pulitzer Prize. In his book’s most compelling passages, Rusbridger considers how hard it has been for established journalists in the print world to internalize new media’s transformative power. Wikipedia came in 2001 and Google in 2002; Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in 2006; the iPhone in 2007. By 2018, a Twitter network of 340 million active users was also the nation’s premier political news venue. (This was stunningly evident to me during the Kavanaugh hearings.) As president, Barack Obama pioneered Twitter; Trump uses it as his megaphone. Rusbridger’s conclusions are not reassuring. Complex subjects—not least “climate change”—are easily sensationalized. Other topics are simply ignored when there’s no baited hook. What drives traffic? What makes money? What gets eyes? Quality reporting and writing cost money, and responsible news and editorial media have continuing trouble making it.Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
Grayson Quay, contributor: As Christmas break approached, I found myself growing tired of old books and hungering for some sort of contemporary fiction, so almost at random, I picked up Ohio by Stephen Markley.
It’s Markley’s first novel (though he has also written a travelogue, an experimental meta-memoir, and a book-length gonzo piece chronicling his experience of going to a 2012 Republican primary debate while tripping on hallucinogenic mushrooms), and it’s certainly an ambitious one.
Set in the fictional, postindustrial town of New Canaan in Northeast Ohio, the book is split into four novellas, each focusing on a different character who graduated from New Canaan High School in the early years of the millennium (though Markley often shifts temporarily into other characters’ perspectives). As is often the case in a small town, all four characters are aware of each other, and although none of them are good friends, their social circles intersect and collide in often surprising ways. All four move away but coincidentally end up back in town on the same night in 2013. And of course, as everyone who’s ever revisited their small town knows, they can’t help running into each other.
We begin with Bill Ashcraft, who provokes hatred by vocally condemning American imperialism while the rest of his classmates watch the Twin Towers fall. He has spent the 10 years since graduation working with a variety of nonprofits and NGOs trying to save everything from Louisiana wetlands to Cambodian child sex slaves to the ninety-nine percent. By 2013, he has nothing to show for it but a bad substance abuse problem and an acute case of leftist paranoia.
Then, grad student Stacey Moore (Bill’s friend’s ex-girlfriend) tells the story of the conflict between her evangelical upbringing and her budding homosexuality. Dan Eaton (who briefly dated a friend of one of Stacey’s friends) describes his three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as he devours history books, becomes convinced that history is nothing more than an accumulation of atrocities. And finally, there’s Tina Ross (Stacey’s childhood friend), whose life peaked when she dated the quarterback as a freshman and who now works at Wal-Mart. I haven’t finished reading her story yet.
Markley’s Midwest is practically post-apocalyptic. Casualties from our interminable wars send shockwaves of pain through the community. Opioid overdose deaths leave no one untouched. The steels mills have been empty husks for three decades. Religion offers no solace, and every character is forced to choose between legalistic evangelicalism, moralistic therapeutic deism, and edgy agnosticism. In politics, left-wing nihilism and right-wing jingoism seem to be the only options left, and characters frequently call for carpet bombing campaigns or anti-Muslim pogroms with the blitheness one only hears in white Rust Belt towns. It’s more or less the novel version of Hillbilly Elegy.
One reviewer observes that, in “Ohio,” “[n]early every character delivers a speech that wouldn’t feel out of place on ‘Rachel Maddow’ or ‘Tucker Carlson,’” and indeed, Markley often allows himself to become preachy, purple, or long-winded, especially in his more lyrical passages.
But despite these minor flaws, the novel feels authentic as both as a sociological document and as a portrait of small-town life. Every character felt familiar to me, and their stories seemed to resonate with my own hometown lore. When I was a senior, a girl from the local high school stepped in front of a train. In response, the entire football team beat her abusive boyfriend half to death. I had the same degree of removal from the main characters in that story as Markley’s character have from many of the events they recount, and I’m still just as haunted by my memories as they are by theirs.
Americans may not know much about their Supreme Court, but they do know about their “Notorious RBG.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, America’s best-known justice, has recently become a cultural figurehead among a certain set (and, among conservatives longing to replace her with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, an icon of left-wing judicial ideology). But regardless of what one thinks of her politics, it’s hard to deny her flair for memorable dissents and her inimitable sense of style.
These are clearly banner times for Ginsburg admirers. On the Basis of Sex, the new RBG biopic starring Felicity Jones, follows closely on the heels of the documentary RBG. But arriving as it does in a politically fraught moment, Basis is a surprisingly uncontroversial film—one much more interested in the warm conventions of mainstream Hollywood storytelling than in hard questions of justice.
We meet the young Ginsburg on her first day at Harvard Law School, where her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) is a second-year student. After graduating at the top of her class—and fending off plenty of derogatory comments along the way—she attempts to join a firm in New York. But as it turns out, that market is an old boys’ club par excellence: there’s no room for a female lawyer as talented as Ginsburg. Instead, she accepts a teaching position at Rutgers Law School, where she soon comes to realize that the U.S. Code is riddled with gender stereotypes.
With some assistance from the ACLU, Ginsburg launches her first attack on the status quo: Moritz v. Commissioner. It’s a fascinating case involving sex discrimination…against a man. Ginsburg’s client, serving as a full-time caregiver for his elderly mother, has been denied the tax break associated with nursing. The reason? Policymakers couldn’t conceive that any male would choose such a life. And so the battle lines are drawn.Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
In any “social change” drama like Basis, the temptation towards smug historical triumphalism is always close at hand. But intriguingly, the film is nearly as critical of radical progressivism as it is of “conservative” gender conventions. Midway through the movie, Ginsburg chides her daughter Jane for idolizing To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch—after all, Atticus does stretch the boundaries of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility. Jane lashes out in response, demanding to know why doing what’s right must take a back seat to the procedural strictures of the legal process. In the face of that indictment, Ginsburg’s defense of the process feels thin, both to herself and her daughter. (It’s worth mentioning that, perhaps to the chagrin of modern viewers, Robert Bork—that gray-bearded patriarch of the conservative legal movement—would surely agree with Ginsburg: “the political seduction of the law” is a force that must be eternally resisted.) But thin or not, it’s a principle that keeps her going.
Basis is a paean to a kind of liberal institutionalism, one that has fallen out of fashion in recent years. Instead of ferocious demonstrations or other forms of direct action, here we see change unfolding within the quiet decorum of courtrooms and offices. And limited though the appeal of norms and procedures may be, Ginsburg perseveres—to a point.
When the moment of truth arrives, RBG delivers a stirring soliloquy before the Tenth Circuit, unabashedly arguing that courts’ interpretations of the law ought to track the evolution of social attitudes. Surely, she challenges the all-male panel of judges, the rapid progress of women’s rights in the last century must inform how one understands the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. The Constitution may not speak of women’s rights—or even of “freedom” itself—but those elements must be in there nonetheless. (On that methodological framing, one might wonder whether the penumbras and emanations of Roe v. Wade can be far behind, but perhaps that’s beside the point.)
And so, for a film that stresses the importance of process, the most significant aspect of the democratic process feels neglected: if the populace is willing, why not simply change the offensive laws themselves? After all, what could be more disrespectful of process than overriding existing laws via judicial fiat?
Alas, no answer is forthcoming: Basis, from top to bottom, embraces a remarkably sanguine view of judicial power. The film’s judges—including, to be sure, Ginsburg herself—are cast as philosopher-kings of a sort, the vanguards of lasting social change. History suggests, though, that caution is warranted: it was, after all, the legal lion Oliver Wendell Holmes who penned the infamous eugenicist declaration that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” The far-left Critical Legal Studies movement may be only a shadow of its former self, but it at least understood this risk: unshackled judges, time and again, will wield their authority against the common good. And that is a very inconvenient truth.
It’s worth noting that there’s a surer, less fraught path to Ginsburg’s ideal destination. Federalist Society co-founder Steven Calabresi has argued at length that the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee “was from its inception a ban on all systems of caste,” such that under a proper reading of the text, sex discrimination was unlawful from the start. That argument is very different from the one we hear onscreen: it isn’t rooted in evolving social norms, but in text and constitutional history. Though admittedly, “text and constitutional history” aren’t exactly the stuff of gripping cinema.
As a film, Basis generally succeeds. It’s entertaining, well acted, and strikes all the right inspirational notes—even if its theory of jurisprudence doesn’t mesh well with its celebration of the legal process. In many ways, the movie feels tailor-made to capture the widest possible audience.
And that means it’s hard to know what to take away from Basis. Perhaps its inoffensiveness reflects a fundamental failure to capture the dynamism of its real-world subject. Perhaps, in a season of American rage, it’s an appeal to national unity that almost everyone can embrace. Or perhaps, unintentionally, it’s a partial explanation of how things ended up so polarized in the first place.
John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post and a graduate of Yale Law School.
After returning to Ohio after nine years away in the Marines, I found myself with a weekend of free time. So I decided to check out an event I had frequented as a young man: a gun show.
Sometimes called gun and knife shows, I was introduced to them by my grandfather in the early 2000s in a small Ohio town called Circleville. It was at that show that I purchased a Russian-made surplus Mosin-Nagant M44 carbine battle rifle for only $100 out the door. Complete with a folding bayonet and the Soviet hammer and sickle stamped on the barrel, the rifle was in unused condition (but made in 1946) and coated from steel butt plate to front sight in an oil-based rust preventative product called cosmoline. Cosmoline is sticky and has the consistency of wax, so for several hours with rags and gun oil I happily toiled to shine it up and ready it for the first firing. I still love shooting it. Every shot of Russian surplus 7.62x54R ammunition produces a 12-inch flame and sounds like a mini-cannon going off.
Despite the recent media focus on gun control and gun violence, gun shows—which number about 5,000 annually—have been in the sights of Congress for closure for quite some time. Between 2001 and 2013 seven unsuccessful attempts were made to close what is known as the “gun show loophole.” Federal law requires background checks for businesses who hold a Federal Firearm License (FFL) to sell firearms. However, per the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act, private sellers are defined as those who don’t generate their primary income through gun sales. These transactions do not require a federal background check (though 11 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring a background check for all sales, including private ones). A gun can be transferred through trade, by barter, or cash, all common sights at the shows.
So what is it like to go to one of these shows?Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
The show I attended on December 22 was held at the Clark County Fairgrounds in Springfield, Ohio. Thirty-eight miles west of Columbus along Interstate 70 in flat farm country, I made the trek on a stereotypically cold and grey Ohio winter day. Pulling into the lot for parking around 12:30 p.m., one out of every two vehicles was an American-made truck, varying in degrees of dilapidation. Scanning my surroundings there were numerous warehouses, one labeled arts and crafts, one a youth center, and a mercantile. To my six ‘o’clock were several hundred yards of open air animal stables covered by a 30 foot tall galvanized steel roof. Devoid of livestock at the moment, I could only imagine how many farming kids paraded their prized animals during the fair days.
As I was shuffling my cell phone and wallet and placing my loaded Walther PPS conceal carry pistol into my center console a fully packed minivan disembarked next to me. Two adult men were driver and passenger with four young men in tow, varying in age from ten to about eighteen years old. The driver promptly opened the tailgate to his van and removed a .50 caliber sniper rifle which was almost as tall as one of the younger men. The other man produced an AR-15 rifle from a black carry case. No cause for alarm, what might cause city slickers and urbanites a panic attack is just standard fare at a gun show.
The fee to enter was nine dollars cash, and for vendors each exhibit table was priced at sixty dollars. Prior to entering a large sign hanging above the entrance directed patrons that loaded weapons were not allowed into the show and no pictures were permitted either. A table before the entrance was manned by a worker who visually inspected each weapon’s chamber and then placed a plastic zip tie through the bolt or action and fastened it in place, rendering the weapon incapable of being loaded or fired. The show was split between two rectangular rooms conjoined by a small hallway, the first about 100 by 50 yards, the second 150 by 50 yards, with vendor tables being arranged in parallel to the longer side of the rooms.
Although each table and vendor are unique, you can classify each table generally between guns, ammunition, accessories, privateers and collectors, and small businesses. For the gun tables the largest presence are actual gun dealers that set up shop at the shows. One vendor had five tables, the first two completely covered by handguns laying directly on top of their carrying cases or boxes, all new. Each gun had a security wire running through the trigger guard which was then plugged into a larger system to alert the seller if someone tried to walk off with a gun, unlike at traditional gun stores where weapons are either held lock and key underneath a glass case or behind the counter in a rifle rack. I requested to inspect a Taurus Public Defender, a revolver that can shoot both .410 shotgun or 45 Colt rounds. On sale for $359 plus tax. The other tables were new rifles sitting atop their boxes with several more beneath each one. I spot a few Kel-Tec Sub 2000s, a lightweight rifle that can fold in half for storage chambered in 9mm that accepts Glock handgun magazines, some American-made AK-47s from Century Arms, and of course, AR-15s. At the end of this vendor’s table was a German MG34 machine gun, on “sale” for $9,000 and 1300 rounds of belted ammunition but only of course to a holder of a FFL. Capable of firing at 850 rounds per minute, you could get about a minute and a half of fun before you needed more ammo.
The other vendors selling guns were usually collectors with one or two tables, the standard display being about five or six used guns either laid out on a mat or in a simple wooden gun rack clamped securely to the table, some paramilitary weapons like the SKS, others older like double barreled shotguns, a bin of miscellaneous collector items such as knives or patches, and a few ammunition magazines of varying caliber. When I started going to the shows in the early 2000s they were still under the shadow of the 1994 assault weapon’s ban, which lasted for ten years, expiring without renewal in 2004. Imported assault rifles ran in the thousands of dollars and high capacity magazines, generally anything capable of holding over ten rounds, were banned. To score a thirty round magazine in the early 2000s was like finding a rare 1970s muscle car in an abandoned barn. Not so today, for sale on numerous tables were AR-15 drum magazines capable of holding 100 rounds, and thirty round MAGPUL magazines for the AK-47 were only 15 bucks. I bought three. One collector had amassed about a dozen muskets from the late 1800s, many over four feet long, the barrels had a patina of rust and the wooden stocks were darkened and smooth from years of handling. Known as Pre-98s, they existed before serial numbers were stamped on weapons and each one had the makers name engraved. One piece from Cincinnati was tagged for $1700 but the collector said he’d let it go for $1,000. I passed.
The clientele of the shows are fairly easy to describe. Out of hundreds of attendees, I counted three African-American men, about five females, and the rest where white men, half of whom were bearded or wearing either civilian hunting or military camouflage. Eavesdropping is easy in the narrow confines between tables. Many patrons who toted a weapon for trade or barter could be heard explaining to a total stranger the make of the gun, how it shoots, the new sights, the two stage trigger, what they’ll take for it, and of course, the occasional ranting about the Democrats, liberals, Obama, Second Amendment rights, and the coming revolution. A standard technique is to put a wooden or metal rod in the barrel of the rifle as it is slung on the shoulder, barrel up, and attach a small paper sign to the rod to function as a walking advertisement for the gun and the price the owner is asking.
Ammunition sales were booming as usual, raking in cash from dozens of clamoring customers. Hard-to-find calibers can sometimes be found at the shows, especially for paramilitary weapons. Surplus vendors arranged large plastic bins of camouflage clothing, canteen pouches, parkas, boots, and blankets. One even possessed military booklet manuals for first aid, booby traps, and improvised munitions. I even spotted a service manual for the famous Thompson submachine gun sitting next to copies of Serpent’s Walk. A coin collector was selling US silver dollars from the 1880s for 38 bucks.
The oddball small business tables pushing wares and merch reflected the customers’ tastes. One table was selling bumper stickers, printed in Dixie by proud Americans, one for two bucks, three for five bucks. Some memorable mottos: “If You Want Gun Control Move to Chicago” and “Go Green-Recycle-Reload Your Own Ammo.” Several knife sharpening blacksmith’s were grinding away, and one woman was selling female focused clothing with a twisted Oprah like phrase: “Coffee, Jesus, and Pepper Spray.” JJ’s Café was up and running as well at the far end of the larger hall, the menu organized by the type of meat in the sandwich: beef, chicken, pork, or fish. And if you want vegetarian, well grilled cheese was your only option, although I was pleasantly surprised to see an overweight gun collector break out a homemade iceberg lettuce salad, only to bury it in an avalanche of ranch dressing.
With my ammunition, high capacity magazines, and a new holster for my “truck gun,” a Springfield XDM .40, I headed for the doors around 2 p.m. Just outside several vendors were taking a smoke break, complaining they should be allowed to light up indoors, cursing the damned liberals who have made too many rules and are stealing our freedom. I love gun shows.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.
The Pentagon was not the only party pressing Donald Trump to keep troops in Syria last year. It turns out the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington were working very hard to get the Trump administration to use America’s military presence there to support an Israeli campaign of airstrikes aimed at threatening war with Iran.
The Israeli strategy was aimed at dividing Russia from Iran and thus putting pressure on Tehran to withdraw its military personnel from Syria. A campaign by a pro-Israel think tank actually succeeded in getting such a policy ready for Trump’s approval last fall—although it was not supported by some Pentagon officials.
The story of the Israel lobby’s latest attempt to capture American policy, recounted here for the first time, reveals just how far Israel was able to reach into the Trump administration before the president personally intervened.
Israel’s Strategy of Provocation in SyriaAdvertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
In early 2018, Israel had stepped up the pace of its airstrikes against Iran-related targets in Syria. The original rationale for the strikes had been to prevent Iran from transporting advanced, highly accurate missiles through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon (although Israeli military intelligence had admitted nearly a decade ago that Hezbollah had already received hundreds of such weapons). But by 2018, the IDF had added another reason for the attacks: to force Iran to give up its military presence in Syria altogether. This despite the fact that Israel had failed to cite any evidence of any permanent Iranian bases there.
To pursue that objective, the Israelis adopted an ambitious strategy to create the impression that war could break out in Syria between Israel and Iran if the Russians didn’t intervene and force the Iranians out. On April 18, Dror Michman, a senior member of Netanyahu’s staff who had been on leave as visiting fellow at Brookings Institute, outlined that strategy in public for the first time. Michman explained that Israel had stepped up its strikes in Syria, which he said might well provoke Iranian military retaliation.
Michman acknowledged that the Israeli ability to carry out such a bombing in Syria could freely disappear at any time because of a Russian decision to provide their most advanced air defense system to the Syrian government (which was reportedly completed in late November). His comments were meant as a spur towards an intensive effort to mobilize Washington on Israel’s behalf.
The think tank on which Israel had long depended to influence U.S. policy—the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), founded by the leadership of AIPAC in 1985—was already working on that problem. On April 13, a WINEP policy proposal by a senior fellow, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, cleverly welcomed Trump’s idea of pulling out U.S. troops—but not all of them. Jeffrey suggested that the United States could reduce most of its ground forces in Syria over nine to 12 months, and then rely mainly on airpower over Syria to carry out a mission he called a “show of force” to “shape Russian and Iranian decisions.”
In July, Jeffrey’s initial proposal was elaborated upon in a longer WINEP paper on a “New U.S. Policy in Syria,” co-authored by the entire senior leadership of WINEP. It called for the United States to “[s]upport Israeli efforts to drive wedges between Iran, Russia, and Assad, including Israeli strikes on Iranian military sites.” The paper described an Israeli policy designed to “present Russia with a dilemma: either reign in Iran’s aggressive stance of face the possibility of a war between Israel, Iran and Hezbollah fought on Syrian territory….”
The authors explained the role of the United States in that policy as being to able impose “constraints on Iran’s movements” in Syria by “retaining small numbers of U.S. troops and introducing a no-fly/no-drive zone across the northern territory currently controlled by the United States and Turkey.”
Crafting a Policy to Support the Israeli Strategy
In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was already on board with the general line of policy Jeffrey had advanced, created a small group of like-minded officials who supported Israel’s aggressive Syria strategy. He named WINEP’s Jeffrey to the newly created position of special representative to Syria. The Washington Post reported that Pompeo had tasked Jeffrey with creating a “coherent blueprint” for U.S. policy in Syria.
Jeffrey was already declaring in an early September interview with the Post that “the new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year.” Instead, he explained, the troop presence would remain to “ensure an Iranian departure” from Syria as well as the “enduring defeat” of ISIS.
In mid-October, NBC News reported that this new policy had been “drafted and is circulating and is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.” But it was never formally approved by Trump. NBC reporter Carol Lee noted on air that those who were critical of the draft policy—identified in the article as “Defense officials”—were concerned that “this is the first step toward trying to provoke Iran into a military engagement.”
Lee said those who had developed the policy denied that was their intention. But it was precisely the objective that Jeffrey and his WINEP co-authors had identified in their July paper for the larger Israeli strategy into which the U.S. policy was to fit.
While the pro-Israel contingent in the administration was awaiting approval of the new policy, however, the IDF was becoming even more provocative in Syria. On September 18, Israeli jets carried out missile strikes against targets near a Russian military base in Latakia province, the Alawi heartland of the Assad government in the country’s northwest. Syrian anti-aircraft missiles firing at the Israeli planes hit a Russian military aircraft, killing 15.
Russia responded by announcing on September 24 that it was selling S-300 anti-aircraft defense systems to the Syrian government—something it had threatened to do in the past. That was a serious challenge to Israeli strategy. Israel’s oldest ally in the Trump administration, National Security Advisor John Bolton, reacted immediately by declaring: “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”
In a State Department briefing on December 3, Jeffrey boldly restated Bolton’s position, asserting that the U.S. military would remain in Syria “until our conditions—enduring defeat of ISIL, as was said earlier, the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria, and an irreversible political process [are fulfilled].”
The pro-Israel hawks were walking on thin ice. To get foreign policy decisions approved, Bolton had substituted one-on-one conversations for formal meetings, enhancing his own power and pushing through a new policy in support of the Israeli strategy.
Nevertheless, Trump informed Mattis, Pompeo, and Bolton of his decision to withdraw from Syria on Monday, December 17, and the three officials tried to get Trump to change his mind on Monday and Tuesday before giving up Tuesday night. Netanyahu himself spoke with Trump once and Pompeo twice before Trump’s December 19 announcement.
So Trump knew that in going ahead with the withdrawal plan, he would face the wrath of not just the national security elite but Israel and its supporters. He went ahead with his announcement anyway, reflecting an important shift in his political priorities.
Gareth Porter is an investigative reporter and regular contributor to The American Conservative. He is also the author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.
T.S. Eliot reminds us that the answers to our soul’s depravity are all around us, in our collective culture—the books we read, the places we inhabit, the music we listen to—but also that culture can only survive if we remember it and keep it alive…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Nayeli Riano, as she considers the importance of memory in T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon.” —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
“These things I do within, in that vast chamber of my memory”:
From St. Augustine’s Confessions again. The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident.
T.S. Eliot’s remark above, his note to line 309 of The Waste Land, describes his intentional reference to St. Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s Fire Sermon. These two works offer a solution for the social and cultural problems that Eliot expresses in his poem. After the human soul is introduced in a natural state of depravity, Eliot creates his own “fire sermon” in Part IV of The Waste Land to explain how memory can remedy this flaw, an inherently spiritual problem, by leading men towards salvation. The Christian theologian and Buddhist ascetic’s texts are weaved together as Eliot alternates between them in what are short and seemingly disconnected phrases. These loose references and allusions, however, are prominent insofar as one bears in mind their contextual origin. It is through reading these texts in full that Eliot’s understanding of memory is elucidated. But in order to understand the role of memory, the reader needs to understand why it is that without memory the human soul is left alone and depraved. This essay will look at Eliot’s understanding of memory and the relationship between memory and salvation by focusing on two prominent references in “The Fire Sermon.”
The last five lines of “The Fire Sermon” read as follows:
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
These few words contain much more context than meets the eye. The first, third, and fourth lines above are references to St. Augustine’s Confessions, while the second and fifth lines refer to Buddha’s Fire Sermon. Eliot presents St. Augustine and Buddha as the exemplars of asceticism for their particular religious culture, but the texts from which he quotes require a separate reading if they are to be understood within the context of “The Fire Sermon” and of The Waste Land, and if the reader is to glean why Eliot emphasizes memory as the bridge over our soul’s depraved void.
As the note to line 309 indicates, Eliot’s choice to enumerate his references should not be considered a mere matter of literary or scholarly citation. Striking a tuning fork for those whose ears are not attuned to time, T.S. Eliot’s notes throughout The Waste Land help the reader notice his diverse allusions to texts, stories, thinkers, works of art, places, and even songs. Yet, interestingly enough, Eliot never does the work for us by explaining the meaning of his references or of his text. Both with the testimony of his poem itself and with his various cultural references, Eliot is contributing to the role of memory as an active and continued conversation with the past. The reader, therefore, is expected to read the works just as he did, and prompted to re-discover them if he is familiar with them already, in order to interpret the poem within a broader cultural and literary milieu, and thereby keep those works alive in our tradition.
To answer the primary question about the relationship between memory and the human soul, it helps to explore what becomes of the soul when it lacks a sense of remembrance. One consequence is that of uncontrolled passions. Eliot alludes to Buddha in order to point out that sensory experience without spiritual guidance is what ignites passions. The title of Part III itself, “The Fire Sermon,” is a direct reference to a sermon in which Buddha, wandering with a congregation of priests, eventually turns to them and says the following:
All things, O priests, are on fire. And what, O priests, are all these things which are on fire? The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire… The ear is on fire; sounds are on fire;… the nose is on fire; odors are on fire;… the tongue is on fire; tastes are on fire;… the body is on fire; things tangible are on fire;… the mind is on fire; ideas are on fire;… mind-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the mind are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the mind, that also is on fire…
And with what are these on fire? With the fire of passion, say I, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation; with birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair are they on fire. (The Fire Sermon, translated from the Maha-Vagga)
Buddha’s solution is complete and total aversion not only of our senses but also of worldly possessions (he calls them “things tangible” elsewhere in the sermon). Buddha expresses how fire is both a cause of vice and a solution for it: fire acts as a creator and a destroyer of passions, which generates a cyclical nature of life: while mankind’s problems start with the burning of our passions, they can also end with the burning away of them.
But Buddha ends his Fire Sermon with a proclamation that Eliot is not willing to make. Buddha stresses aversion to worldly things as the only path to spiritual enlightenment, which requires that we purge the senses that lure us to such vices. The solution, Buddha later states in his sermon, is that the “learned and noble disciple” reject all the things that are burning in order to become free. This freedom, according to Buddha, leads to self-knowledge which in turn leads to a holy life, resulting in a man that is “no more for this world.” Although Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” opens in a form that is parallel to Buddha’s sermon—because it presents a scene where the speaker is remarking on the physical and moral decay of the city by highlighting how it affects passions—Eliot’s solution to these vices is not entirely in accord with that of Buddha.
Eliot’s solution is encoded in the last five lines of”The Fire Sermon.” Buddha’s suggestion to reject the senses and the physical things of this world is an act that is antithetical to what Eliot does in his poem: The Waste Land is a poem of memory that contains several lieux de memoires, enlivened through their relation to the senses, which are meant to tap the mind of the reader and remind him of particular places in time, and the emotions that go along with them. The poet in”The Fire Sermon” and in the broader “waste land” is as much dependent on sensory experience in order to recall and describe these places as the reader is dependent on his own ability to perceive that sensory experience and form an idea of the place that is being described. Eliot converges the physical place, a worldly creation, with sensory experience of past and present, and that in turn permits him to create his narrative. Even amidst the moral and physical decay of the Thames River that is depicted in the first stanzas of “The Fire Sermon,” Eliot juxtaposes one physical place, the ruined river, with another place, the church of Magnus Martyr:
O City city, I can sometimes hear
beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandolin
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold. (259-265)
That Eliot is recalling an important church in London, the sounds associated with it (261), as well as the sights of the people that dwell there (263), is indicative of his strong attachment to senses and to memory. These seven lines are a brief digression from a section in The Waste Land that is dedicated entirely to describing the vices that are “on fire” in London as the consequences of excessive passions. But the few lines where the poet turns his eyes to Magnus Martyr display a shift in Eliot’s use of sensory experience: the senses, here, are used in a reverent way to remember and contemplate something transcendent of which the church is a vestige, even if the present use of Magnus Martyr no longer bears a connotation of Ionian splendor.
It is not the sensory experience itself that has changed, then, but rather the way in which sensory experience is understood and appreciated by the speaker. To put it another way, Eliot’s use of senses in these lines is different in that the effect of the place on the senses is reverential when experienced through memory. Rather than to feed carnal pleasures that result in moral and physical pollution, Eliot is able to use his senses to evoke a sense of salvation by contemplating Magnus Martyr for what it was, and to consider it in the present as such. Burning for Eliot, therefore, does not imply that man ought to purge himself of his senses absolutely, since it is through our senses that we form the entirety of our memory. Instead, Eliot is advocating for memory as a vital factor in spiritual salvation, and it is upon this foundation that he is able to introduce St. Augustine’s Confessions as his solution to society’s moral problem.
“To Carthage then I came” (307) is a reference to The Third Book of the Confessions. The Third Book is part of the first nine books in the Confessions, in which St. Augustine recounts his biography. In this particular section young Augustine describes the first time he arrived in Carthage and saw how it was filled with worldly vices. Eliot, however is only quoting the first line of an entire section of the work, and he does not mention if his reference is supposed to evoke the entirety of The Third Book, or if it is supposed to reference only a particular part of it, and if so, which. Between Eliot’s first reference to Augustine (307) and the repetition of “burning” (308), it is important to note that the first line is separated from the line that follows it by a space, which might suggest that Eliot is leaving a space to indicate the reading of Augustine’s third book as a whole before interpreting the repetition of “burning” in the ensuing line. Even if this is not the case, the reader unfamiliar with Augustine must do a close reading of the passages from which Eliot quotes in order to understand Eliot’s interest in Augustine.
The temptations that Augustine sees in Carthage echo what Buddha is advising against in his sermon, and he makes use of the term “burning” in the same way that Buddha used it in his Fire Sermon: as a negative way to describe the vices that pull on the soul and lead it to temptation and sin.
TO CARTHAGE I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares. For within me was a famine of that inward food, Thyself, my God…For this cause my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense… For I was both beloved, and secretly arrived at the bond of enjoying; and was joyfully bound with troublesome ties, that I might be scourged with the burning iron rods of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and strife. (St. Augustine, Book III, Ch. 1 p. 1, emphasis added)
Carthage is a place that produced the worldly temptations to which Augustine fell prey, and he recognizes that his initial acceptance of these temptations was but a manifestation of a deep, spiritual crisis. Augustine states that these vices only served to distance him from his true desire: salvation through the search for God. Later on in his confession, Augustine eventually alters the way in which he uses the word “burning.” The sensation that was originally described as the effect of the soul that seeks passions—its misdirection towards worldly object—is, in reality, a lingering and inherent desire for God:
How did I burn then, my God, how did I burn to re-mount from earthly things to Thee, nor knew I what Thou wouldst do with me? For with Thee is wisdom. But the love of wisdom is in Greek called “philosophy,” with which that book inflamed me. Some there be that seduce through philosophy, under a great, and smooth, and honourable name colouring and disguising their own errors… (St. Augustine, Book III, Ch. 4 p. 8, emphasis added)
Burning as used by Augustine becomes an ardor that pushes man towards God, but, much like Eliot, he begins with the secondary explanation of burning as a soul pointed in the wrong direction towards vice before he can render it into something as complex as a spiritual crisis. The senses, once guided by a spiritual compass, can be used to recognize a religious calling.
After the “burning burning burning burning” cadence (308) that follows the reference to Book Three, Eliot makes another reference to the Confessions:
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest (309-10)
Eliot is now referencing The Tenth Book, which is the part of the Confessions that marks St. Augustine’s transition from the autobiographical part of his work to a more philosophical part that begins to delve into the larger implications of his spiritual journey. Once Augustine has established the importance of religion, namely Christianity, for spiritual salvation, he elaborates in the rest of the books in his Confessions on how to achieve salvation. The Tenth Book discusses the importance and power of memory throughout several of its chapters, but Augustine introduces a new facet of memory in the eighth chapter, titled, “Of the Nature and the Amazing Power of Memory:”
These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are near me heaven, earth, sea, and whatever I can think upon in them, besides those which I have forgotten. There also do I meet with myself, and recall myself—what, when, or where I did a thing, and how I was affected when I did it. There are all which I remember, either by personal experience or on the faith of others. (Book X, Ch. 8 p. 14. Emphasis added.)
It is interesting to note that Augustine does not limit his memory to himself. He understands that his own capability to remember is inadequate, and he explains that his ability to analyze and learn from his past is an action that he can do not only thanks to the matured wisdom that comes from experience, but also from “the faith of others.” This faith of others’ experiences creates a collective memory that Augustine is able to use to strengthen his faith because he knows the two to be connected. Religion cannot survive without memory because with memory comes a sense of reverence; this was a fact that Eliot also recognized all too well.
Augustine then adds another layer to the power of memory. Right after his aforementioned lines from chapter eight, he explains the relationship that a collective memory has with time as a coalescence of past, present, and future:
Out of the same supply do I myself with the past construct now this, now that likeness of things, which either I have experienced, or, from having experienced, have believed; and thence again future actions, events, and hopes, and upon all these again do I meditate as if they were present… Thus speak I to myself; and when I speak, the images of all I speak about are present, out of the same treasury of memory; nor could I say anything at all about them were the images absent. (Book X, Ch. 8 p. 14. Emphasis added.)
Memory, to Augustine, serves a greater purpose than mere recollection. Memory is grounded on experience formed through the senses, and his memory of the past is what permits St. Augustine to contemplate his past and future actions “as if they were present.” This concept might sound familiar to those who have read Eliot’s ethereal Four Quartets, where he expands on the philosophy of time and salvation to a greater length, but it is no coincidence that the book from which Eliot quotes St. Augustine for The Waste Land explores a very similar idea.
The last line in”The Fire Sermon” is the single word “burning” (311). In light of Eliot’s reading of Augustine and of the way in which he makes use of his writing at the culmination of”The Fire Sermon,” we might interpret the ambiguous, one-worded conclusion in a new way. The previous cadence of “burning burning burning burning” (308) has now slowed down in tempo, and what was initially strong imagery of fire and purging becomes a dampened flame, singular and moderate. It is as though Eliot is signaling to his readers that an absolute rejection of our senses, as Buddha advocated, should not be the solution to our depravity. Instead, our senses should be aided by our memory and our innate disposition towards the divine, much like Augustine did in his search for God.
It can be said that The Waste Land is a poem about memory and the lack thereof in our modern lives. Eliot uses The Tenth Book of the Confessions, which is the book about memory, in the part of his poem that is heavily reliant upon sensory experience. But, as we know from Buddha’s sermon, our sensory experience is on fire with passions. Augustine mentioned that memory—that is, collective memory—can salvage us from depravity. Accordant as he may be with this idea, Eliot presents a challenge to Augustine’s emphasis on memory. Our modern society’s “collective” memory is neglected, and Eliot uses the parts of The Waste Land that precede “The Fire Sermon” to convey a lost sense of memory that has inhibited man from looking beyond his worldly pleasures: Solemn and nostalgic, Part I. “The Burial of the Dead” tells us that we only know “a heap of broken images,” (23); patient but ticking, “Part II. A Game of Chess” tells the reader how Philomel’s call to us is in vain because we are no longer able to make out her song—“‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears” (103)—and another speaker grows increasingly restless with the poet’s indifference—“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” (141, 152, 165, 168, 169).
Upon arriving at “Part III. The Fire Sermon,” whose violent title contrasts the previous two sections, the reader might expect that the language and the imagery will become powerful and chaotic like that of fire. This is not at all what happens: While in the first part of The Waste Land there was “no sound of water” (24) and in the second part the reader found himself in a room filled of worldly possessions (77-110) resembling Brueghel and Reuben’s Allegory of Sight, it is now a river—a long-standing representation of time and memory—that placidly greets the reader in”The Fire Sermon.”
But the river is polluted, the same way that Eliot believes our memory of the past to be sullied. “Part IV. Death by Water” follows the river out into the open sea where Phlebas’ bones are being picked by a current (312-16). He is lost to time and memory because he “forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/ and the profit and loss” (313-14) and instead only looked forward (320). The poet’s admonition in this section to those who “turn the wheel and look windward” (320) is to remember (“consider”) Phlebas and his fate. Still the solution is not to look back—which a sailor ought not do—but to look down into the water, and remember what is carrying us to our destination, lest we forget that the very waters that aid us can also destroy us.
The second and third stanzas of “Part V. What The Thunder Said” are replete with the word “water,” but the poet concludes by stating that there is none (358); “empty cisterns and exhausted wells” (384) are all that’s left. A journey along The Waste Land is bleak, and the ending to Eliot’s analysis of society is a harsh truth that we can only hope is not prognostic. Still there are places throughout the poem, namely in “The Fire Sermon,” that reveal a remedy, if not a hope, for our ailing society. By using St. Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Eliot is reminding us that the answers to our soul’s depravity are all around us, in our collective culture—the books we read, the places we pass and inhabit, the music we listen to—but that culture can only survive if we remember it and keep it alive in our tradition. Without a collective memory, all we have are fragments to “shore against” our ruins (340). Memory to Eliot, then, is the salvation that we need. As memory is what saves man from depravity and loneliness, so reading the texts of time helps to keep our memory (and therefore ourselves) afloat in a sea of unknowing. There is an effect that comes from reading that taps into our sensory experience, which permits it to echo into the chambers of our memory. The senses, after all, create our ability to remember, and it is this remembrance that can free us from becoming prisoners of present by opening our memory to the past, where we might again hear the faint call of a familiar nightingale.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2017.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s note: the featured image is “Fluid Burning Fires Of The Underworld” by Mark Chadwick, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.
In order to truly serve their nation, true Americans must fearlessly criticize her for her waywardness. More importantly, we must evangelize her, bringing her to the fullness of faith in the God under Whom she owes her existence. Only when America kneels before her true God will she become truly civilized…
One of the mistakes of nationalism is the belief that nationhood takes precedence over God. We think of Henry VIII’s establishment of a national church and the spilling of the blood of the martyrs on its altars. We are reminded, in this context, of St. Thomas More’s insistence that he was the king’s good servant but God’s first. The saint had his priorities right and paid for it with his blood; the king had his priorities wrong and paid for it with his (eternal) life. The saint is in heaven; the king is heaven knows where!
Continuing our examination of nationalism’s war on faith, we think of the secular fundamentalism of the French Revolution and its idolization of the nation and desecration of the nation’s churches. We recall the nationalism of the Nazis and the patriotism of the Soviet Union. It is easy to see what happens when men worship the tribe and not the god of the tribe; and although it is true that many tribes have worshipped false gods, it is equally true that even false gods tend to be less destructive than man’s idolization of himself or his own people. More people have been killed by the guillotines and gas chambers of secular fundamentalism than by all the so-called wars of religion, the latter of which were usually motivated by secular ambition masquerading as faith.
These cautionary truths need to be remembered in any consideration of American faith and culture. The United States defines itself in its pledge of allegiance as one nation under God. As such, all Americans must put their nation under God in their list of priorities. Echoing the saintly Englishman, all good Americans must be Uncle Sam’s good servant but God’s first. Anyone who suggests otherwise, anyone who suggests that America must come first, above all else, is not merely wrong he is quite literally an infidel. He has abandoned faith at the altar of his American idol. Not only will such an infidel commit horrific crimes in the nation’s name, if called to do so as part of his “patriotic duty,” he will be betraying his nation even in the act of serving it. He will be helping to transform his nation into something unworthy of his or anyone’s respect.
G. K. Chesterton summed up this patriotic problem when he quipped that saying “my country, right or wrong” is like saying “my mother, drunk or sober.” Of course we should continue to love our country, even when she’s drunk, but we are not truly loving her if we encourage her drunkenness by becoming drunk with her. If we find our nation intoxicated with bad ideas, or addicted to bad habits, it is our duty to sober her up!
Today’s America is drunk with the intoxicating effects of materialism, worshipping Mammon as a god that gives her what she thinks she wants. In her addiction to consumerism and her idolization of gadgets, she is forgetting her duty to God. Indeed, she has forgotten the true God she is called to serve in favour of mere “godgets,” the trinket deities of trivia and trash.
In order to truly serve their nation, true Americans must fearlessly criticize her for her waywardness. More importantly, we must evangelize her, bringing her to the fullness of faith in the God under Whom she owes her existence. Only when America kneels before her true God will she become truly civilized; only when she kneels will she become the land of the free and the home of the brave; only when she kneels will American faith and culture become part of the faith and culture of Christendom; only when she kneels, will she rise.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Old Woman in Prayer” (c. 1656) by artist Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The apostle Paul counted all things as rubbish except for one thing: an intimate knowledge of Christ characterized by knowing him in the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his suffering, and an identification with his death. Immersion into the life and writings of St. John is a journey into the mind and heart of the apostle that Jesus loved…
While today’s orthodox Catholic in the West complains about a virulent secular culture outside of the Church and scandal and crisis within the pillar and ground of the truth, the apostle whom Jesus loved had his own formidable challenges. While we legitimately complain about the erosion of religious liberties in the U.S., he dealt with persecution, especially during the reigns of Nero and Domitian.
While we have grave concerns about the present scandal and crisis in the Church worldwide, John confronted his share of enemies of the gospel. Though the enemies that surface in his First Epistle are difficult to specifically identify, the apostle called them antichrists, liars, deceivers, and false prophets who denied that Jesus was “the Christ” (2:22; 5:1) and “the Son of God” (2:23; 5:5) who had truly “come in the flesh” (4:2).
In the biblical narrative, there is definitely a rhythm and relationship between the servant of God’s private and public ministry. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai (in private ministry), then came down off the mountain to, among other things, administer punishment (in public ministry) to the Israelites whom he found dancing around the golden calf.
Both John the Baptist and our Lord spent long periods of time in the desert fasting and praying before commencing their ministries. Jesus was known to regularly retreat to the deserted places during his earthly ministry to pray to the Father and replenish his inner resources.
Our own public ministry, which often involves marriage, family, friendships, work, local church involvement, etc., is like the house that is framed on a concrete foundation (which is our private ministry to God). Christians of all persuasions may find themselves cranky when the house they are building on the concrete foundation is twice as big as the foundation itself.
A common mistake in our day is to spend an inordinate amount of time in a prophetic mode criticizing the Church and not nearly enough time being refreshed internally by her immense resources. Some practicing Catholics do have a unique call and vocation to be in a prophetic mode much of the time, but unless this is counter-balanced by a devotional mode, they will eventually burn out.
Most of us cannot be in the prophetic mode 24/7. We put the prophetic mantle on when we are having coffee with friends and discussing the most recent revelation of corruption and depravity in a particular diocese, but then take it off when we go to Confession to confess our sins and get right with God.
This assertion is coming from someone who has recently written four articles in this magazine excoriating prelates and priests, especially in the U.S., who have wandered far from the sacred deposit of the faith, in both their teaching and behavior. There’s undoubtedly more where that came from, but, without a life of retreat and renewal, I am a man most miserable.
With today’s practicing Catholic facing opposition and turbulence from both without and within the Church, the life and writings of John the Evangelist can be a good place to retreat to, along with other devotional practices, as we finish one year and look with vigilance to the next. For example, in times of affliction, when there is a confusing cacophony of voices, I’ve never failed to be instructed and edified by reading the First Letter of St. John in one sitting—a time investment of about 30 minutes.
The theological left and other sophisticates, who are in love with moral ambiguity and shades of grey, would undoubtedly find the epistle “simplistic” and “binary,” but, for the earnest and faithful Catholic, it is instead profoundly simple and renders one with a new clarity of vision and purpose. Such reading can be like hearing the still, small voice, the wisdom of God that is almost completely absent in our institutions of higher learning and in some of our local parishes where heterodox priests reach into their groovy grab bag of social justice bromides and feel-good theology for their latest homily.
Immersion into the life and writings of St. John is a journey into the mind and heart of the apostle that Jesus loved (21:20, 24). Such a distinction leads one to ask, “Does God play favorites?” The well-taught Catholic might smile in response and answer, “Why, of course he does; we call them saints.”
Cain was the first radical egalitarian and proto-social justice warrior. He and Abel made decidedly different offerings to God and yet he demanded an equal outcome from the Almighty (Gen. 4:1-13).
Yahweh played favorites under the old covenant. Corruption and depravity were so rampant in Israel during the time of the Babylonian exile that he told Ezekiel that even if Noah, Daniel, and Job lived in the land, he would still judge the nation severely though these three luminaries would save their own lives by their righteousness (Ezek. 14:20).
One cannot help but notice that our Lord kept some of his followers at arm’s length (e.g., those who followed him for the loaves and fishes) while others he pulled especially close to himself. Peter, James, and John were in his inner circle.
At the Last Supper, John sat in the place of honor next to Christ (Jn. 13:23, 25). Such passages lead us to ask how one becomes like the apostle that Christ loved.
The answer to this question is certainly not that we need to already be a saint or close to perfection. The Gospels make it clear that both John and his brother James struggled with selfish ambition and anger.
The sons of Zebedee asked to be seated on his left and right when Christ would come into the full glory of his kingdom (Mk. 10:35-37) and they wanted to call fire down on a village of Samaritans when it did not receive Christ (Lk. 9:51-56). This should be encouraging to practicing Catholics who are fighting various sins and question if God is interested in intimacy with them or using them to advance his kingdom.
What God is looking for most of all is what Fr. Jacques Philippe calls “good faith.” Put another way, God is not only calling those to his inner circle who are already saints but also those who want to be saints.
I recently heard a practicing Catholic say, “I’m not entirely sure I’m on the straight and narrow, in comparison with the saints throughout Church history, but I want to be.” These Catholics may have their ups and downs but they are pursuing a single-minded devotion to Christ exemplified by the apostles who left family, homes, businesses, and friends to follow Christ.
Like John, they are pursuing Christ as an end in himself and not a means to an end (e.g., the loaves and fishes). They may get distracted now and then as John did but their modus operandi is characterized by pursuing the One Thing that is crystallized in Holy Writ:
King David only wanted one thing: “…that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27: 4b). Jesus told Martha that only one thing was needful and Mary had chosen it: to sit at his feet, listen to his voice and bask in his presence (Lk. 10:38-42).
The apostle Paul counted all things as rubbish except for one thing: an intimate knowledge of Christ characterized by knowing him in the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his suffering, and an identification with his death (Phil. 3:10). Like John, as practicing Catholics, we must not lose sight of the Forest (i.e., Christ) for the trees (i.e., the particulars of our faith).
The truth of our mission is captured in the title of a book by Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, and summarized in John’s final directive to the audience of his First Letter: “Little children keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). Idols become like adulterous lovers who defile our marriage bed with Christ our Bridegroom.
Someone might ask, “Is a utilitarian relationship with Christ really such a bad thing? Doesn’t he do things for us? Isn’t he our Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, Provider, etc.?”
This is an excellent question, and, yes, we no doubt receive the benefits of availing ourselves of a full sacramental life in Christ. However, this isn’t the whole picture.
The earnest, practicing Catholic is like a woman from an economically deprived background who marries a virtuous man who is well-off. She is grateful for her newfound financial security but her favorite part of the marriage is being with him.
Another important way to imitate the apostle whom Jesus loved is in his relationship to the Mother of God: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (Jn. 19:26-27).
Recently, on December 12, we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe where we see this same mutual affection between Juan Diego and Our Lady. She met his needs for nurturing maternal care:
Listen, and let it penetrate into your heart, my dear little son, do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your Fountain of Life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?
He, in turn, gave her the tender affection of a son and in aligning his life with her request—to build a shrine in her honor where she could “show him [Christ]… exalt him… make him manifest… give him to the people”—Juan Diego humbly participated in her work as Unifier in bringing the indigenous people and Spaniards together.
The Mother of God’s work was to help bring heaven to earth. This is what the apostle John, as an elderly man, saw in his heavenly vision in the Apocalypse: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9; emphasis mine).
Few of us are called to such a spectacular or consequential mission as Juan Diego or John, but we all are called, as St. Thérèse of Lisieux declared, to do small things with great love. This may mean, without sacrificing truth or integrity, bringing people together in small ways, whether it be at home, at work, in our local churches, or in the public square.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (December 2018).
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “St. John the Evangelist” (c. 1445-1450) by Juan de Juanes (1507-1579), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Nowadays we hear the Bible read in installments at our weekly liturgies, but sustained reading aloud is rare. Yet reading out loud is irreplaceable. It is a social act, incarnating the words and message in a personal way. In hearing the Bible read, the Word takes flesh before us…
When I was about thirteen my father bought an unusual Christmas present for the family: the Holy Bible on tape. It was read by a fine old-school actor, Alexander Scourby, and occupied some fifty cassettes (remember those?) in a royal-purple box. Scourby had the voice of a patriarch, rolling and resonant, and the recording brought much pleasure—even if the King James translation wasn’t ideal for this Catholic boy. In any case, I got to know a masterpiece of the English language and was richer for it.
More recently another famous actor has recorded the Bible: Englishman David Suchet. You may know him as detective Hercule Poirot in the popular British TV series. I have always thought him a brilliant actor. As it happens, Mr. Suchet is also a serious Christian—an Anglican—and has been quite public about his faith for many years. He has hosted the fine documentaries In the Footsteps of St. Paul and In the Footsteps of St. Peter. On YouTube you can watch him in discussion with an Eastern Orthodox group in London about having faith in the contemporary world. Mr. Suchet comes across as an intelligent, thoughtful, conservative Christian believer, someone who definitely “gets it.” You can also see a video of him reading the complete Gospel of Mark in St. Paul’s Cathedral, a mesmerizing experience.
Mr. Suchet’s complete recording of the Bible is available as an audio download; you can also obtain separately such parts of the Bible as the New Testament, the Poetry Books, or the Epistles. Mr. Suchet reads the New International Version, a translation which he admits will not please everyone. (At least it’s better than a 1970s paraphrase Bible I once owned. “Judge not lest ye be judged” was rendered as “Go easy on others.”)
I have downloaded the Gospels and am savoring them day by day. Mr. Suchet’s delivery combines force and gentleness—the phrase “power in reserve” comes to mind. He does not give us the nicey-nice Jesus of popular lore; there is an uncompromising sternness and irony in His speeches. When He denounces the hypocrisy of the scribes, the words sting. Never do you sense that Mr. Suchet is simply doing a celebrity gig, or offering the Bible as a literary monument; he truly believes in the words. There is in his reading a humility and directness likely belonging to Mr. Suchet himself.
I bet that the power of David Suchet’s Gospel reading derives, in part, from Hercule Poirot. Mr. Suchet has spoken in interviews about the appeal of the Belgian sleuth—of how he is a “great moral compass” who “when you’re with him, you feel everything’s all right in the world.” As a foreigner in England, Poirot is able to mix with all strata of society; he particularly gets along well with and has compassion for the servant class. He’s an excellent listener, able to see into the workings of a person’s psychology. In the denouement, when Poirot reveals the identity of the culprit, he becomes the instrument of divine justice, bringing what is hidden to light.
A good rehearsal, I should think, for embodying the Son of God and the poets and prophets of the Old Testament. Despite all his roles on stage, film, and television, Mr. Suchet’s Bible will stand as one of his signature accomplishments.
* * *
I would say that David Suchet is, in his low-key way, an evangelist—a rare thing in today’s world and especially in the acting profession. Drama and the faith are not often yoked together, but this is a mistake and listening to Mr. Suchet’s work reminds us of the relationship.
An actor—particularly a fine classical actor like Mr. Suchet—studies the context behind the words he speaks and attempts to enter into the spirit of the times when they were written. Not too dissimilar, when you think about it, from how a thoughtful person should approach the text of the Bible. Such a reader uses rational analysis to bring out proper emphasis, to pace and punctuate, to bring linguistic intelligence and psychological insight, to create audible rhetoric that leaps from the page. To read Jesus’ parables with these principles in mind is not unlike reciting a soliloquy of Shakespeare.
The experience of audible reading used to be an everyday part of our culture. In the nineteenth century American homes were furnished with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, and both were often read aloud by the hearth. Elocution was a widely taught art, and crowds willingly stood to hear lengthy speeches and debates. A stock of popular literature, passed on by voice, created a common literacy. Even more, it helped connect people to the physicality of words, making the text more than merely intellectual.
Nowadays we hear the Bible read in installments at our weekly liturgies (not usually by David Suchet, alas), but sustained reading aloud is rare. Most of our reading is silent and abstract. Yet reading out loud is irreplaceable. It is a social act, incarnating the words and message in a personal way. In hearing the Bible read, the Word takes flesh before us. In the Catholic tradition, the reading of the Word of God at Mass as essentially different from ordinary recitation. It is performative and sacramental—God acting through the reading. The Word changes the souls of those who hear it.
Even listening to the Bible in one’s home can have a similar effect, provided one invests the proper attention. Although many people listen to audio Bibles while exercising or doing chores, the Word of God should never become background noise. The aural Bible is best treated as a springboard for prayer and meditation.
My own love for the Psalms grew from listening to Alexander Scourby’s readings in the evenings. The emotions of the Psalmist were realized vividly in Scourby’s cadences. When I later came to read and pray them on the printed page, the emotion stayed with me and infused the reading. The experience brought out the sense that the whole Bible in its many parts was an organic unity, carried through by the same human voice which might be the voice of God, the prophets, King David, or Christ Himself.
At a time when eloquent speech is at a low ebb, we could all use fine biblical reading—whether in the flesh or in the simulacrum of recording. So here’s to biblical readers, from Scourby to Mr. Suchet to your parish lector. They are unique artists and apostles, without whom we would be poorer in spirit.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a picture of David Suchet, courtesy of Creative Commons 4.0.
A recent essay by Radomir Tylecote argued that we have turned our backs on the architectural traditions of our Western heritage, and in the process lost our connection to our own history and the generations that built it. Dr. Tylecote argues well, and makes a strong case for reintroducing beauty into architecture; but his opening salvo is not followed up by a strong definition of what kind of beauty we must reintroduce. Here, I aim to briefly identify the three core principles of architectural aesthetics that we must respect in order to return to our architectural traditions, and end with a short discussion on what those traditions look like. First though, I want to explain why beauty in architecture matters, as Dr. Tylecote all too quickly skimmed over.
Architecture is the only truly public form of art. All other styles of art exist in a dedicated space. Paintings adorn walls within galleries that we may choose to enter, just as we may choose to take replicas home with us; music is not constant, it must be played in order to be appreciated and, out of respect for one another, we confine our enjoyment of our music to our spaces, be it in communion in a concert, or alone in our bedrooms; television and film are much the same, and theatre performances even more so.
But architecture exists all around us all the time. When we walk down the street, we are surrounded by architecture—in the fact, the very existence of a street is a creation of architecture. Consequently, when we are forced to interact with art in our every day life, it is only necessary that we ask that art to be good; when we look at buildings, we want them to look back, to make us feel welcome, and not be faced with an impersonal, expressionless façade. Even the term façade is misleading, since a façade contains an expression within it.
The consequence of bad architecture, therefore, is to make us feel less at home, as if the buildings glare at us as we go about our business, making an urban space into a place where no one feels welcome. Even in these spaces, our eyes are not drawn up to marvel at the wonder around us, but instead forced down to stare at the pavement, or off into the distance.
So, what are the guiding principles of ‘good’ architecture? I’m certain we all have different conceptions of what a beautiful thing is, but we all yearn for beauty in our own ways. So the question is not to determine what beauty is in any substantial definition; rather, we must try to define architectural beauty in its form, in terms of what makes a building ‘look good.’ After all, the function of a building precedes any discussion of its appearance, so we are not concerned with form-as-function, but what I have determined elsewhere to be the “useless” element of the art of architecture.
The Principles of Architectural Aesthetics
The first principle is that of continuity with respect to surroundings. And, in this, there are two surroundings that matter: other buildings; and nature. First, with respect to the buildings surrounding it. When a building is constructed, its very shape is limited by the buildings around it, and so the influence of what has come before begins right from the outset. Following this, when the skeleton of the building has been constructed, the artistic element of the external brickwork, mouldings, gildings and so forth are then dictated by the direction of the building towards its neighbours. For example, if a house is built in a terraced street, it is natural that the front of the building should look inviting, with a well-adorned doorway, perhaps bay-windows, steps or a step leading up from the street to the door, and so on. In addition to direction, the materials should bear a resemblance to those already used around it; a house built from glass surrounded by brickwork would no doubt draw attention to itself due to its own distinction.
And it is this attention that continuity seeks to mitigate. When we look at a building surrounded by fellows with similar appearances, we feel at peace, as though all the voices of that street are speaking in harmony, and none makes pretence to be superior to those around it. The eye wanders across the house before us, and then from house to house, down the street until it reaches that natural point of termination, whether it is because we have lost sight of the end of the street, or the corner-house is in view, but carries on beyond it, offering us a satisfying completion of the street. This leads on to continuity with respect to nature, and it only takes some minor modifications to the above comments to understand. I shall not pretend we do not bend nature to our own will on many occasions; the reservoir at Rutland in England is a clear example of this, but for the most part and for the vast majority of human history, we have done our best to live with the world around us, not against it. For example, when we make a forest our home, we clear away some of the trees and build in such a way that our construct does not loom above the canopy; rather, we defer in awe to the majesty of such natural wonder, and humble ourselves by reflecting that deference in the size and decoration of that building.
The second principle, of which I have touched on, is of smoothness. Just as continuity is essential in regards to the surrounding environment, so too is continuity important in the architecture itself. But, as I show below, continuity must be distinguished from uniformity; a bland appearance of a simple uniform does not offer the smoothness and enjoyment I shall discuss.
When we look at a building that is beautiful, our eyes are invited to wander over it. As in the First principle, the very face of the building is an invitation to look at it, but once we begin to stare we are then offered continual, gradual changes that allow us to walk our gaze across it, pause, and carry on again, finding small changes here and there that make the enjoyment much fuller for their presence. In this sense, smoothness is a principle that dictates the rate of change between these variations; consider redbrick buildings, for instance. They typically begin in harmony with the street they find themselves on, sharing a roughly similar colour with the street itself, to give the appearance of continuity between themselves and the pavement, so the eye is drawn inexplicably up from the floor to the wall; at the end of this first layer, they blossom out like flowers, offering a gilded variance that indicates “here one thing ends, and another begins,” that other being the main body of the building; that main body then contains in itself sills, skirtings, and modest windows that offer both privacy for the inhabitant and curiosity for the outsider.
At the terminus of this building, the walls yield to a minor deviation in the form of a clearly identifiable roof, which has often different brickwork to further soften our view, and a satisfying display of artistic flair, as they show clearly where the building ends, to allow our curiosity a satisfying degree of completion. And in all this, there is a flow; the building begins, and in a way that is both clear yet subtle, often marked with steps or crenulations; the first layer yields to the main body, adorned with beautiful yet unassuming and soft decorations; before finishing with a satisfying moment of completion, where the roof slopes away from us and the decorations wink with an artistic confidence.
Contrast all this with, say, the glass blocks of the City of London, and we see where architectural tradition has been ignored to the loss of beauty; the building juts up from a street it offers no deference to, with a seemingly endless façade of repetitive, bland windows that offer no privacy to those inside, and an unsatisfying, almost embarrassing view to those outside—except maybe at the upper levels, where the beauty of all those buildings that came before cannot even be seen. Finally, the building does not ‘end,’ but rather ‘stops’—it has a terminus, but that point is hard and sharp, and offers no feeling of completeness, but feels painful to look at.
The third and final principle is humility. It is the necessary continuation of the above two principles, but it must be stated, for it is important. Where continuity asks that each building shares with those around it a certain appearance, and smoothness requests that building be pleasing to look at for longer than a moment, humility reminds the architect that what he is building will be here long after he is gone, and therefore he should make no pretence to the function of his building either dominating the appearance of it, or disrupting the harmony of the buildings around it.
Each building has a voice, and each city, town, or village is merely a collection of those voices. The more poetic among us might compare it to a choir; each voice has its own note, yet the harmony of the whole takes precedence; and so, when a new voice is added to the choir, it must remember this, and do its best to respect that harmony rather than disrupt it. This is the wider perspective of the continuity principle, and reminds an architect that he is contributing to the choir of the city.
Another consideration of humility is of size; monstrously tall skyscrapers make us crane our heads up, making it difficult to observe the entire building in one view, leading us irrevocably back to what I mention at the start: looking only ever done, since there is no reward in the enterprise of looking up.
How to Reintroduce Beauty
Finally then, what do these architectural principles mean for the return of beauty in England? The relativistic nature of beauty from culture to culture is significant, as art in all settings is an expression of the values of that culture, and the same consideration must be kept in architecture as well. But what about the English tradition? As I have shown above, the redbrick style is definitely one that should be respected here, as it offers that feeling of completion and flow that makes viewing such buildings a pleasure rather than a chore. But this is not the only one available to us: The terrace tradition of townhouses offers a similar aesthetic experience, beginning conterminously with the street, rising slowly out of it with crenelated brickwork, leading the eye up to the well-framed door, where the eye then wanders across the façade, enjoying minor details here and there that flow seamlessly from house to house, both vertically and horizontally, stretching off into the distance, ending comfortably with a definite terminus at the roof.
And from the modest, we can step slowly out to the grand: indeed, the declining use of columns is something to mourn. Roger Scruton has written endlessly on the necessity of architectural beauty, and his comments on columns offer a glance into the utility of an otherwise useless thing; they create, argues Dr. Scruton, a place of calm in a public forum, where the noise of the busy street can be warded against, without committing oneself to entering the building itself: and in creating the sphere of calm they do, they prepare us for entering the building proper, where we can leave the busyness of city life behind and commit to the real business ensconced in that place.
But our focus must be the common house, as it is these places that people will make their homes. The Prime Minister spoke of feeling proud to live in a council house and, in an effort to keep this article relatively politically neutral, I believe she can only achieve this if we make council houses a work of beauty, not a labour of necessity. For when people find beauty in their homes, they want to look after them, protect them and improve them for the next generation.
I have attempted to spell out the necessary principles for the reintroduction of beauty in English architecture. Such an endeavour is possible; movements are already forming around this rallying call, and I believe it is a goal achievable in our lifetimes. But I have talked about beauty: I have only momentarily mentioned the grand, which lends itself to a different subject, that of the sublime, for an introduction to which I recommend Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful. This subject, which is the realm of palaces, cathedrals, government buildings, and so on, is not my concern. I believe beauty resides in the everyday, and I wish to see it be reintroduced there.
1 Tylecote, Radomir. “To Make Britain Richer, Make Britain Beautiful.”
2 Scott, Jake. “In Defence of Useless Things.”
Editor’s Note: The featured image is courtesy of Creative Commons 4.0.
Christians invented the classical curriculum; it is as much part of the broader Western inheritance as it is specifically part of the Christian inheritance…
Why study old books? How do dusty old books written by dead men and women thousands of years ago grow my faith? Such can be common thoughts when the Christian is faced with encountering the works of antiquity. But Christians should not shy away from the study of the classics. After all, Christians invented the classical curriculum; it is as much part of the broader Western inheritance as it is specifically part of the Christian inheritance.
The study of the classics, then, is tied to the preservation of that multifaceted inheritance. An inheritance that runs through Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome and comes together in Christianity. It is true that the Greeks and Romans were not Christians, but the cheap attacks against the pagans for not being Christians is a modern phenomenon—and a tacitly anti-Catholic one at that (which tried to link Catholicism as being a new sort of paganism). St. Paul wrote that in the beginning all knew God but slowly slipped away from this, and thus glorified God as an image rather than incorruptible truth. St. Augustine, following the Apostle Paul, said that truth, wherever it is found, belongs to God and Christians shouldn’t be ashamed in admitting this and making use of such truths.
Christianity has an indissoluble relationship with Greece and Rome. The New Testament was written in Greek. The Romans occupied the Holy Lands during Christ’s ministry and were partly responsible for his death. As Pascal wrote in Pensées, “How fine it is to see, with the eyes of faith, Darius and Cyrus, Alexander, the Romans, Pompey and Herod working, without knowing it, for the glory of the Gospel.” The apostles, Peter and Paul, founded communities in Rome—where they both died—and those communities which they established and ministered eventually conquered the city that had conquered much of the known world. Rather than conquer by the sword, however, Christians conquered the heart which transformed the mind.
It is precisely because of this reality that the classics ought to have an even more pertinent relationship to the Christian. The classics are a window into the ancient heart, but as the heart does not change in its desires, it is also a window into ancient wisdom and its shortcomings. Through the classics one sees the eternal values on display: faith, family, and fatherland. Through the classics one also sees the shortcomings of these values when not subordinated to the love of God reigning over all.
C.S. Lewis famously, and infamously, described Christianity as “a myth which is also a fact.” What Lewis meant by myth was a story, a proclamation, an annunciation. Such myths, in its traditional origo, are replete throughout the classical world. Homer’s Odyssey. Virgil’s Aeneid. The Epic of Gilgamesh. But Christianity brings to life what these pagan classics never achieved: Eternity. Christianity’s “myth” is also a fact because of the Incarnation—the revealing in flesh and blood the invisible God who calls us to sacrifice and love. The ordering of our families, fatherlands, and faith to the Author of family, nations, and prayer gives greater sustenance to families, fatherlands, and faith.
The pagan classics praised the virtue of fidelity to family and fatherland, which also entailed fidelity to the household gods. Hector is dutiful in his prayers; as is Aeneas who brings the household gods of Troy with him to Rome. Despite the servile anthropology of the Sumerians, the sacred rite of marriage is honored and dedications to the gods always visible despite their mischief towards humans.
However, the purely ephemeral nature of pagan stories is their shortcoming. We are not part of the divine family. We are mere puppets of the gods despite our fidelity to them. The sacrifices we make, in one generation’s time, may be nullified and forgotten. Nevertheless, this is what human life is about and that is what brings meaning to human existence—and to some extent that is true. There is a pious fatalism to the pagan outlook, perhaps best represented by the stoics, who dutifully labor and suffer but have no hope in their labor and suffering.
Despite this, the classics all have their brief revelatory moments which point the way to Christ. What is held up by the ancient writers are the virtues that all serious Christians know; and by serious Christians I am not referring to those happy and hapless activists who reduce Christianity to mere social activism who utter the words “love” and “toleration.” Sacrifice, love, and revealing—quasi-incarnational moments leading to comfort—are all present in the classical texts, which, read through the prism of Christian faith, reveals the Christ of Christianity.
Christianity is the supreme religion of sacrifice; and as the stories and philosophies of sacrifice grew throughout the Greco-Roman world this prepared the Greeks and Romans for their reception to the gospel. Hector is bound by his duty to family and country. He sacrifices and suffers to the point of death for others. Aeneas sacrifices much to save his father, his people, and even his own desires (with Dido) to bring security and new life to the migrant Trojans as they sail to found Rome. Aeneas’ story intertwines with Christianity’s story in the westward propagation of the gospel by the apostles.
Moreover, there are revelatory moments when the classical heroes show a faint glimpse of Christ. As G.K. Chesterton knew and stated, the most human moments bridge us to Christ and help construct the “everlasting man.” In one of the most touching moments of the Iliad, Hector approaches his son clad in armor. He is unrecognizable and menacing; as such, Asynatax is terrified and weeps in fear at the “sight” of his father. Hector, moved by love and want to nurture his son, reveals himself as he removes his helmet and armor to hold his son in his arms. It is an intimate moment—a quasi-incarnational moment—where the unknown and seemingly frightful warrior reveals himself also to be a tender shepherd and lover. In his father’s arm Asynatax is comforted and lulled to sleep by his father’s self-giving love to him. It is this moment that the faint glimpse of Christ is revealed in Homer. Homer provides one moment, and one face, in the revealing portrait of the everlasting man.
The shortcomings of the classics are testified by the classics themselves, but the true Christian reads them as signs to eternal truth and not as the truth in-of-themselves. The classical stories are, from Augustine’s insights, signifiers of truth but not the Object of Truth. There is no trace of the eternal apart from the demand of men to embody the sacrificial lives in the classical stories. Love of family which draws people together despite the oceans of separation between them, the sacrifice demanded of persons in fidelity to preserve life, and the call to unclothing to the point of bodily revelation to comfort and love others all get half of the law right: The call to love one another. What the classical sources missed was the subordination of this love, sacrifice, and intimacy, to the very Author of Love which magnifies the love of others tenfold.
The mythological consciousness of the pagans is redeemed and elevated to new heights through Christ and the Christian story. It is in Christianity that the stories of family fidelity, duty to homeland, the honoring of parents, prayers to the divine, self-sacrifice, and struggle, all reach their climax and fulfillment. The story doesn’t end with Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope, Hector’s death for his countrymen, Aeneas’ establishment of a city, Gilgamesh’s return to serve his citizens, or the cynic’s renunciation of material idols. The story continues through the bearing of one’s cross (sacrifice) and ascent into heaven. We become part of the story; the divine story, rather than detached listeners whose sacrifices dissipate with the passing generations. And that is what C.S. Lewis understood when he declared Christianity as the fulfillment of the pagan stories. The glimpses of truth in the classics were brought to truthful realization in, and through, Christianity.
Christians should be able to read the classics not only because it is part of the Western heritage, but because it is part of Christianity’s inheritance. The classics are a gift received which enriches our lives and gain even greater meaning through Christ. The classics also help form and prepare man for his ultimate reception of the gospel. The sacrifice, love, and quasi-incarnational moments of the classics do not direct one away from the True God but point to the God who is Love, the Bread of Life, and the Chalice of Salvation.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer” (1653), by artist Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In past years, Congress has become notorious for adding dubious items we call “pork” to spending bills. That way, senators and House members can advertise themselves to their constituents as bringing home the bacon, while picking up a few campaign contributions from thankful contractors along the way.
This practice was particularly notorious in defense bills, especially, and only became worse during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After they were exposed spending billions of taxpayer dollars for earmarked projects like museums, artificial lungs, and VIP air transports for senior generals, bureaucrats, and lawmakers, Congress supposedly reformed the practice of earmarking—first in 2007 by the Democrats in the majority, and again in 2011 by the Republicans in the majority, who claimed to have banned them altogether.
In truth, both parties in Congress have simply swapped the pork system for a scheme that is even more venal and underhanded. They’ve circumvented their own rules and are putting even more pork in defense bills than before. They hypocritically proclaim that their bills are earmark-free, while simultaneously boasting about the pork to constituents. They deceptively pay for the hidden earmarks by raiding essential accounts for soldiers’ pay and military readiness, and they readily accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from the very contractors who received huge chunks of the billions of dollars that Congress added.
The new pork system is deceptive and complex. It took all of my 31 years of experience on Capitol Hill to fully unravel it, with the help of some excellent research from two outstanding watchdog groups, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
To explain, let’s start with one of the more brazen acts of hypocrisy.
On October 22, Niels Lesniewski reported in Roll Call that 10 senators from both parties announced in a letter to the House and Senate leadership that they wanted to strengthen the existing ban on earmarks and make it impossible for anyone to “bring back earmarks” as President Donald Trump and others have suggested. Their new bill, they said, would impose even more serious procedural blocks on any earmark in any bill. But the bill, the senators’ press release, and their letter are a sham. Another Roll Call reporter pointed out that gimmicks and various porky items in a new Department of Defense appropriations bill gave the lie to the idea that contemporary bills were free of earmarks. And Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance noted at the same time that the new DoD appropriations bill, just signed into law, was already stuffed with hundreds of earmarks costing billions of dollars.
The explanation of Congress’s new, more deceptive and expensive pork system starts with Trump declaring that “America is being respected again” on September 28, while signing an appropriations bill into law that provided $675 billion to the Pentagon. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives with the vote of four of every five House members and in the Senate with almost nine of every 10 senators.
Speech after speech credited the bill with solving the problem of planes that cannot fly, ships with repairs delayed for years, and pay increases for soldiers who deserve more for their service.
Notably, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the top-ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, praised the bill he helped to write, saying, “The priority of this defense bill is supporting our troops…. This bill shows what Democrats and Republicans can accomplish when we work across the aisle to solve problems.” The chairman of the subcommittee, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who had an even larger hand in shaping the bill, said, “I am proud to present this legislation to my colleagues and urge their strong support.”
The issues they didn’t talk about
Despite numerous speeches in the congressional record praising the defense spending bill, important details attracted not one word of discussion. The bill was riddled with earmarks, and the very pay and military readiness accounts that member after member praised were being raided to pay for it. This is hardly new. In my three decades on Capitol Hill, this behavior was typical—and even self-styled “pork busters” including, I regret to say, the recently passed Senator John McCain, were known to participate. Despite the rule changes in 2007 and 2011, nothing ultimately changed for the better. Today, the money flow for earmarks has greatly increased, and the process that was once evident with a little inspection has been almost totally obscured.
What earmarks? The legislation has none; it says so. The joint explanatory statement (JES) for the defense spending bill, which purports to clarify the statutory text, contains the following on page two: “The conference agreement does not contain any congressional earmarks…as defined by clause 9 of rule XXI of the Rules of the House of Representatives.”
That rule defines an earmark as spending specifically requested by a member of Congress for “an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or congressional district….” But simply fuzz up the authorship, recipient, or location of an added spending item, and it transforms from an earmark to a “congressional special interest item.” There are hundreds of those, most of them buried in sparsely worded tables in the JES.
But these congressional special interest items are important: the conference committee that wrote the JES went to some length to cite them to the Pentagon for special treatment; they made the congressional special interest items subject to special rules to prevent DoD from reducing the amount to be spent. That conference committee, appointed to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, consisted of senior members of the same House and Senate defense appropriations subcommittees who wrote the original bills, such as Senators Durbin and Shelby.
Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) reported that 68 procurement programs in this defense bill received $7.5 billion in new, unrequested spending, a large portion going to the Lockheed Corporation. These are blatant earmarks, as explained by TCS, which also pointed out that the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee added $5.6 billion to the procurement account for these items, while its Senate counterpart added a more generous $6.2 billion. The bill was “compromised” by the conference committee at a level above both: $7.5 billion.
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) tabulated all the add-ons in the bill—not just the 68 in Procurement—above the Pentagon’s request. Again, the Senate Defense Subcommittee proved more generous than the House, and again the final conference was higher than either subcommittee’s recommendation. TPA found 679 earmarks costing $19.3 billion.
Pigs in a poke
Are these earmarks all pork, that is, poorly justified spending slipped into bills to enable a member to boast that he or she can “bring home the bacon” for jobs back home or to appease defense corporations?
The authors of this bill don’t want you to know. In the past, earmarks would specify things like “Intrepid Naval Museum,” “Fort Richardson Running Trail,” or “Fort Huachuca Readiness Center” as the recipient, and for a short period, committee reports identified them and their House or Senate sponsors.
Now, none of that is done. Instead, sparsely worded tables contain vague entries like “Program Increase.” Many add a hint such as designating the increase for “modernization” or “silicon fiber research.” But there is nothing to indicate the state or district, the contractor, or any other specifics. Hence, they do not technically qualify as “earmarks.” However, after the bill is law, congressional staff contact the Pentagon to make sure it knows where the money is to go—and what will happen if it doesn’t.
The rules meant to reform earmarking have made the practice worse. It is now more opaque, and it gobbles up more money than ever. The $19.3 billion TPA found in 2019 absolutely dwarfs the amounts that I and others, such as the Congressional Research Service and the Committee Against Government Waste, found in these bills before the so-called reforms took hold.
Perhaps the biggest joke is the recent debate on whether it would be a good idea to “bring back earmarks.” They never went away. The hypocrisy of the members who opine on this is only exceeded by the cluelessness of the press and the president, who raised it as something to ponder. Then there’s the mendacity of those 10 senators who designed their phony legislation to pretend earmarks are gone and must not be allowed to come back. The last section of their bill reads as follows: “(e) APPLICATION.—This section shall not apply to any authorization of appropriations to a Federal entity if such authorization is not specifically targeted to a State, locality, or congressional district.”
Yes, you are reading that right: the bill exempts any earmark that fuzzes up the targeted location, and under the existing system that would be all of them. The 10 authors of this fraud are the following: Senators Claire McCaskill, Jeff Flake, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, Rob Portman, Joni Ernst, James Lankford, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz.
Too big to be hidden
Despite the carefully applied opacity, some of the biggest giveaways and their authors are clear. The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairwoman, Texas Republican Kay Granger, was widely identified as behind $726 million added for six additional F-35Cs to be built by Lockheed in her Fort Worth congressional district.
But is this an example of pork? Granger and official Pentagon witnesses would surely testify that more F-35Cs are urgently needed. Others, including myself and colleagues at the Project on Government Oversight, will tell you that the F-35 is an ineffective boondoggle and is not ready for initial operational testing, let alone expanded production. However, despite many critical Government Accountability Office evaluations and embarrassing official and leaked reports from the Pentagon, the majority of Congress rejects such advice and welcomes more F-35 spending. Pork is in the eye of the beholder.
However, such easily identified earmarks are few and far between.
Trump requested $676 billion for the defense bill; the final Conference Report reduced that by $1.1 billion to $674.9 billion. How was the additional $19.3 billion found by TPA for 679 earmarks stuffed into a bill that cut spending?
While publicly touting the “largest pay raise for troops in nearly a decade” and claiming the bill “improves military readiness,” Defense Subcommittee Chairman Shelby, Ranking Member Durbin, and other authors actually cut the budget for both.
They reduced the Pentagon’s request for military pay, the Military Personnel account, by $2.1 billion. That’s right: while praising themselves for supporting higher pay, they actually cut the budget for it. The request was $148.2 billion; the bill provided $146.1 billion.
Praising their handiwork on supporting military readiness, they cut the Operation and Maintenance (O&M) request from the Pentagon by $5.8 billion. O&M is a huge diverse account, but it is also the heart and core of spending for training, maintenance, spare parts, military depots, and everything else that means “readiness.” The Pentagon requested $199.5 billion; it got $193.7 billion.
The way they cut both the Military Personnel and O&M accounts was notably duplicitous. A veteran journalist, John M. Donnelly, reported in Roll Call that most cuts were obtusely justified with explanations such as “Revised Estimate,” “Historical Unobligated Balances,” and “Not Properly Accounted.”
My own research shows $809 million of cuts in those “Revised Estimates.” They are completely unexplained in any text and neither committee report from the House or Senate appropriations committees mentions any such reduction. They appear to have been an invention of the conference committee.
When I worked for a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee member (Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico), I observed staffers being instructed to phony up reductions with just such a ruse. In one case, to make room for all senators’ earmarks, the subcommittee chairman, Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, directed the staff to use the earmark dollar total to determine the cuts to be announced. I suspect this crude offset technique underlies the “revised estimates” that appeared out of nowhere.
In both R&D and Procurement, they cut $1.5 billion using “Historical Unobligated Balances” or “Historical Unobligations” as a reason. An unobligated balance is money that DoD has planned but not yet spent: the program may be behind schedule, or it may be on schedule, but the timetable for sending out the money has not occurred yet. Here, some unidentified actor took the money away without a word of explanation as to what parts of the program were being lost or why.
The “Not Properly Accounted” justification meant $706 million in unexplained cuts.
Another term in the bill is “Rate Adjustments”; they cut $124 million. How is this different from “Revised Estimate” or “Historical Unobligated Balances?” The House Defense Subcommittee contains not a word of explanation. The Senate Defense Subcommittee report contains assertions of “Improving funds management: Rate adjustments,” but that is all the explanation you get.
Further indecipherable cuts included “Unjustified Growth,” another $1.1 billion; “Excess Growth,” $468 million; “Underexecution,” $134 million; and “Insufficient Justification,” $35 million.
Yet another ruse was to transfer $2 billion out of the O&M budget to Title IX of the bill that funds the “Global War on Terrorism.” But there, only $1.4 billion of the transferred $2 billion is actually retained. The transfer is a shell game.
There are other ruses in other parts of the bill; the details are mind-bending, but you get the point.
They were cutting military pay and readiness accounts so they could add to the DoD Research and Development (R&D) and the Procurement accounts. That’s where the vast majority of the earmarks—rather, congressional special interest items—are.
In R&D they added $3.9 billion to the Pentagon’s request. The account went from $91 billion to $94.9 billion. In Procurement, they added $4.8 billion to the Pentagon’s request of $130.6 billion. Some of the earmarks in these accounts were huge. The controversial F-35 got over $2 billion in several earmarks, the notorious Littoral Combat Ship got $950 million, unrequested C-130s got $640 million, and so on.
Other unspoken consequences
While money over the years was being redirected to earmarks, something very different was happening at the other end of the world—among our operating military forces.
On January 8, 2014, 29-year-old Liuetenant Wes Van Dorn died when his MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, beset with maintenance problems the Navy had deferred, caught fire due to frayed wires and a leaking fuel line. He had been battling for three years to get adequate spare parts and much-needed refurbishment work to bring these old and unreliable helicopters up to minimally safe flying condition. His was only one of several lethal accidents involving the MH-53E resulting from inadequate maintenance, as reported by Mike Hixenbaugh and others in the The Virginian-Pilot and in a new documentary by investigative reporter Zachary Stauffer.
Such accidents resulted from raiding O&M money, such as in 2010 when, for example, Democratic Defense Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha of Pennsylvania cut O&M by a net $2.3 billion to stuff money into earmarks.
Advertising the earmarks they said didn’t exist
Though their legislation proclaims earmarks banned, the authors of the defense bill changed their tune when they self-advertised to constituents.
In a press release from his personal office, Senator Dick Durbin declared, “From Rock Island Arsenal to Scott Airforce Base and Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois…[t]his bill safeguards…Illinois defense jobs by continuing investments in our state’s defense installations and initiatives.” Durbin took credit for funding nine programs in Illinois, costing $2.8 billion, most of it for Boeing—headquartered in Chicago and the producer of the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and MQ-25 Stingray refueling drone.
Subcommittee Chairman Shelby claimed he helped acquire $8.3 billion for 25 projects in Alabama.
Granger claimed she helped win over $12.3 billion for Fort Worth—including $9.4 billion for Lockheed’s F-35, $1.8 billion for Lockheed’s C-130J, and $1.1 billion for the Bell Boeing V-22.
Note that they each claimed credit not just for their add-ons but for the entire program expense, including both the Pentagon-requested money and money spent outside their states or districts. For example, the C-130 is assembled in Marietta, Georgia, not Durbin’s Illinois, and the F-18’s engines are contracted by General Electric in Ohio. In fact, the entire F-18 is fabricated in Missouri; Durbin is advertising himself not to workers but to the Boeing headquarters.
The ranking member on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Pete J. Visclosky of Indiana, did not participate in these overblown claims. His website shows no press release listing defense budget goodies for his Indiana district.
The under the table incentives
On the other hand, Visclosky was no shrinking violet when it came to accepting campaign contributions from the corporations benefiting from the legislation’s earmarks. OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics that documents federal campaign contributions, shows that for his 2018 reelection campaign, Visclosky accepted $347,933 from defense-related donors, $59,800 of it from Lockheed. The $347,933 constituted 27 percent of Visclosky’s total campaign contributions, reported as of November 2018. For these and other efforts, Visclosky is getting a promotion: with the Democrats taking over the House next year, he is slated to be defense subcommittee chairman.
Chairwoman Granger accepted $397,560 from defense aerospace and electronics donors, constituting 17 percent of her larger total of $2,371,044 in reported contributions. Granger’s contributions from Lockheed were more than twice Visclosky’s: $136,360.
The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member, Senator Durbin, does not run for reelection until 2020. The OpenSecrets.org data on his last election in 2014 show that Durbin accepted $236,549 from defense aerospace donors, making him the Senate’s top beneficiary of such donations at the time. Adding other defense contribution categories, he took in $455,799.
Senator Shelby’s total reported defense-related contributions for his reelection in 2016, before he became defense subcommittee chairman, were $334,800. Commensurate with his elevation to chairman in 2018, he received $1,048,000, nearly tripling his defense-related total, and he is four years away from his next campaign in 2022.
Granger, Durbin, and the others will resent any implication that their actions are influenced by the generosity of Lockheed or other defense contractors, lobbyists, and PACs. Indeed, campaign finance laws, as written by Congress, make it hard to conclude that contributions illegally influence congressional decision-making, and a recent Supreme Court ruling makes it even more difficult.
The bottom line
All this adds up to a Pentagon budget process in Congress that is:
- Dishonest: The bill and its authors proclaim it is free of earmarks, but it has 679 of them costing $19.3 billion according to research from an independent group.
- Deceptive: The bill’s authors, with huge support from the rest of Congress, proclaim their dedication to better pay for the troops and military readiness, and yet cut those very accounts by almost $8 billion. The reductions are arbitrary and vague, and are used to offset those 679 earmarks. The senators and representatives circumvent their own rules on earmarks by fuzzing up sponsors, recipients, and locations, making the entire process opaque.
- Hypocritical: Imagine the gall of nine Republicans and one Democrat with their bill to profess earmarks gone and making sure they don’t “come back.” There is nothing new about members of Congress posing as pork reformers and actually being pork enablers; however, these 10 assume an unprecedented level of cluelessness among the press; in some but not all corners, they were right to do so.
- Mercenary: $19.3 billion in earmarks makes rich material for senators and representatives to advertise themselves, with considerable exaggeration, as successful porkers for their states and districts. They also accept hundreds of thousands of dollars from the contractors, lobbyists, and PACs that benefit from the millions, if not billions, of dollars that the Pentagon never requested.
All this is not illegal, but according to common English, it is venal.
Winslow T. Wheeler worked in the U.S. Senate for Republican and Democratic senators and in the Government Accountability Office on national security issues for 31 years. After he left the Senate in 2002, he ran the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, which moved to the Project on Government Oversight in 2012. He retired in 2016.
Over the holidays, two developments in Europe’s immigration and multiculturalism battle stood out particularly.
First to France, where there occurred what might be dubbed the Zineb El Rhazoui affair. El Rhazoui, 36, is a French-Moroccan journalist and a former reporter for Charlie Hebdo. Born in Casablanca, she came to Paris for college. She’s engaged in both France and Morocco in various forms of culturally left and secularist activism against the harassment of women in the street and the power of the patriarchy. Ni Putes ni Soumises and Mouvement alternative pour les libertés individuelles (which organized a public picnic during Ramadan) are part of her biography. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack four years ago, she gained attention as a critic of Islamofascism and the larger part of the French elite that she called its collaborators.
The affair erupted after she was a guest on the well-established internet TV station CNews. She appeared there in the aftermath of the attack on the Christmas market in Strasbourg, where five people were killed by a “lone wolf” Islamic militant. Islam, she exclaimed, must subject itself to criticism. Islam must subject itself to humor. Islam must subject itself to the rights of the Republic and to French law. She added that no one would ever get to the bottom of the ideology that drives terrorism by telling people that Islam is a religion of peace and love.
Within hours, El Rhazoui was subjected to a barrage of rape and death threats on French social media. Undeterred, a few days later, she unapologetically reaffirmed her views. Several commentators took note of an absolute silence from the establishment Left, supposedly committed to freedom of expression, who would never hesitate to defend a critic of Christian fundamentalism. Her words, direct, to the point, coming from a French-Moroccan woman in a bright pink dress, struck a certain nerve in France where there is a center-left establishment consensus that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. As the new year arrived, she was under police protection, while her lawyer was seeking to bring charges against some of those who threatened her.Advertisementgoogletag.pubads().definePassback("/339474670/ADN_Players/TAC_Player", [1, 1]).display()
Across the channel in Great Britain, another personality of non-European ethnic origin was in the headlines. This was Sajid Javid, the 49-year-old rising star in Britain’s Conservative Party, currently home secretary in Theresa May’s government. Javid, one of five children of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver, won a seat in Parliament in 2010. He combines extreme intelligence with a drive that would be exceptional anywhere—the youngest ever vice president of Chase Manhattan at the age of 24, a managing director at Deutsche Bank, and head of their emerging markets desk 10 years after that. A politically active young Thatcherite (and a volunteer in Rudy Giuliani’s highly contentious and nationally important 1993 mayoral campaign), Javid was selected to be culture minister several years after his election to Parliament. Long before last month, he had achieved semi-legendary status in Tory circles.
Then reports that dozens of migrants were setting off in small boats from the coast of France to reach Britain and claim asylum brought him back early from his Christmas vacation (a safari in South Africa). He was soon photographed aboard one the coast guard cutters he had summoned for migrant monitoring duty.
Perhaps more important than anything the home secretary does or doesn’t do about migrant channel crossings is what he says. And Javid asked simply, “If you are a genuine asylum seeker, why have you not sought asylum in the first country you arrived in? Because France is not a country where anyone would argue it is not safe in any way whatsoever.” This straightforward and indisputable statement earned Javid harsh criticism from Labour’s shadow home secretary, who called it “a disgrace.”
Javid has a history of remarks that trigger the multicultural left. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015, he observed:
There is no getting away from the fact that the people carrying out these acts call themselves Muslims. The lazy answer would be to say that this has got nothing whatsoever to do with Islam and Muslims and that should be the end of that. That would be lazy and wrong. You can’t get away from the fact that these people are using Islam, taking a peaceful religion and using it as a tool to carry out their activities.
In its full context, the statement is obviously not “Islamaphobic” and conforms to standard establishment multicultural discourse. But for a senior European politician from a mainstream party, it passes very close to actual truth telling. Earlier this summer, Javid ordered research into the ethnic origins of the child rape gangs uncovered in Rotherham and other British cities—gangs that are disproportionately of Pakistani origin—a fact that was shrouded by the British press, which invariably refers to them as “Asian.”
Javid wrote that understanding their particular characteristics was essential to understanding the problem. Again, the actual statement was fairly banal—who could object to research?—except that in multicultural Britain there is more or less a taboo against probing too deeply into why Pakistani men form gangs to rape white British girls. And now a high-ranking Tory, not coincidentally of Pakistani origin, was asking precisely that.
There is much from a quick perusal of Javid’s career that gives one a good deal of pause. He is exceedingly, and probably excessively, pro-Israel, and seems to reflexively take neoconservative positions on foreign intervention. But that is not the issue here. What does matter is that his Muslim immigrant background seems to have inoculated him from fear of transgressing the boundaries of multicultural political correctness, and allowed him to raise questions—about asylum seekers, Islam, Pakistani grooming gangs—that conservatives and all responsible politicians ought to be raising. Yet outside the “populist” Right, few have raised them.
In this sense, Sajid Javid and Zineb El Rhazoui, though of different political statures, have a good deal in common. Both are figures who have been somewhat liberated by their ethnic backgrounds to speak more candidly than the vast majority of their countrymen.
An important new book is coming out, Whiteshift by Canadian-British scholar Eric Kaufmann, that analyzes the politics of white demographic decline in the Western countries. Kauffman is somewhat more optimistic than I am that things will work out. But one of his major points is that a considerable portion of the new immigrant population identifies with the history, institutions, and values (which are, of course, white dominated) of their new countries. The roughly 30 percent of Asian Americans and Latinos who voted for Donald Trump presumably fall into that category, but the percentage is probably a good deal higher than that.
Kaufmann is not claiming that these folks admire some anodyne civic nationalist version of Western pluralism, but that they at least to some extent identify with and embrace as their own the larger achievements of Western history, the good with the bad. They came to the West not in spite of our history, but to some degree because of it. Part of this immigrant cohort have intermarried with whites, or have children who will. Kauffman’s argument is that they comprise part of a sort of “whitish” dominant majority culture that will successively see the Western countries through a difficult transition. It’s obviously a far more appealing scenario than the one favored by white multiculturalists, whom Kaufmann calls left modernists, in which people of color, in alliance with progressive whites, demographically overwhelm the racist, colonialist, old world, rooting out and destroying the evil uniquely associated with it.
I’ve certainly oversimplified a more complicated argument, but I think Kaufmann is largely correct about this. From my perspective, in different ways, El Rhazoui and Javid are playing a critical part in the defense and rejuvenation of the West. Their ethnicity gives them more license to speak freely than is permitted a typical beneficiary of “white privilege”—and perhaps, in subtle ways, more motivation. As such they are more than valuable; they are necessary. And we can hope that they and others like them play a big part in the battles ahead.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.