Jack Niewold's Blog

Viewing Church and Culture Through The Great Tradition

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An Interpretation

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is without a doubt one of the most significant American novels ever written. Its literary qualities are of the highest order while its historical effects stand beyond dispute. Authoress Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote this novel shortly after the promulgation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an act of legislation that overrode the distinction between slave and free states, thereby eliminating the possibility of a safe refuge for runaway slaves. Multitudes of Americans, in effect, became responsible agents for the enforcement of federal law, while a scourge of bounty hunters was loosed to prey upon the most helpless members of the population. The law sowed a wind of division between North and South that was to burst forth in the whirlwind of the Civil War.

Stowe composed a moving and entirely plausible book of fiction designed to heighten the consciousness of average Americans to the plight of the Negro slave. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is propaganda of the first water, intended to help abet the collapse of the cruel system of forced servility and human trafficking that lay at the heart of slavery. At the time of writing, the slave-holding South comprised the states south of the Ohio River: Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, the Atlantic piedmont and the area of the Mississippi delta. Perhaps no book has had such an immediate effect on historical events as this one, but not necessarily in the way intended by its author.

The story of poor Tom, a young father and husband living in Kentucky and (with his wife and children) owned by the lenient Shelby family, and his subsequent experience of being sold down the Mississippi River, is familiar. Perhaps it is too familiar, since for many generations of our nation’s history this book was required reading by school children.  As is the fate with so many standard-fare works of this caliber, a too-young exposure can often lead to contempt for the familiar, especially when the book was taught as abridged, summarized and thematized for elementary or grade-school children. Millions of Americans believe they have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when in fact all they retain of it are characterological stereotypes and general impressions of societal norms and perversions, many of which would be dispelled or corrected by a fresh reading as adults.

Let us first retell the story of the slave Tom, along with the other related personages both black and white, and then raise several themes for consideration.


As the novel opens, we find Kentucky farmer Mr. Shelby in conversation with a Mr. Haley, a buyer and seller of slaves. Mr. Shelby, a decent and well-meaning man, is in debt, and is forced to sell some of his slaves to settle his affairs. He reluctantly agrees to sell to Haley his factotum Tom and a small boy named Harry. The child is beautiful and talented, and Haley sees a good profit in marketing him as an entertainer. Tom, a recent convert to evangelical Christianity, is Shelby’s favorite worker and the owner is reluctant to let him go. But things being what they are, the transaction goes forward. Tom has been schooled by Shelby’s son George so that he is a rare slave who can read. We will meet George Shelby again in the novel.

Tom bids his wife Chloe, his children and friends a tearful goodbye and agrees to accompany Haley to the slave market in New Orleans. Little Harry’s mother, Eliza, however, takes her son and runs away with him. She will eventually escape the country with the help of Quakers and other Christians, after which her husband, George Harris, is reunited with them in Canada. George and Eliza will figure in the conclusion to the novel.

En route to New Orleans with Haley and other slaves, Tom makes the acquaintance of a precocious and pious little girl, Evangeline St. Clare. Little Eva, as she is called, leads Tom to her father, Augustine St. Clare, a rich, sophisticated estate owner. St Clare, as he is known, buys Tom from Haley and appoints him the personal valet of his daughter. When the trio reaches St. Clare’s estate, Tom enjoys a land of milk and plenty: the slaves are mostly content and semi-autonomous in their lives. Tom takes immediately to his duties in caring for the girl. St. Clare’s marriage, however, is another matter. His wife, Marie, is hypochondriacal and emotionally miserable, with little regard for the welfare of the slaves, or anyone else for that matter. Fortunately, St. Clare is boundlessly patient and indulgent with both her and the slaves, though he is an unbeliever.

Throughout the book Tom’s evangelical kindness is bent to the end of helping his fellow slaves and free find their salvation. Little Eva is easily won and becomes the most satisfying character in the book. Her Aunt Ophelia, meanwhile, has come from Vermont to live with the family and take care of the household. Ophelia is straight-laced in her New England Calvinism and sets out to bring order from the genteel chaos of St. Clare’s estate and affairs; she meets only middling success. Ophelia provides Stowe an occasion to contrast the mindsets of the two American nations, North and South. Though by no means a crone, “all her movements were sharp, decided, and energetic; and though she was never much of a talker, her words were remarkably direct and to the purpose, when she did speak… In her habits, she was a living impersonation of order, method, and exactness. In punctuality, she was as inevitable as a clock… The great sins of sins, in her eyes—the sum of all evils—was expressed by one very common and important word in her vocabulary—‘shiftlessness.’”

It is by means of conversations between Ophelia and St. Clare near the middle of the novel that Stowe portrays the clash of civilizations that defines the nation’s soul circa 1850. Ophelia, who in general loathes slavery (though she is no abolitionist), has objected to the intimacy between Tom and Eva. It strikes her as inappropriate. St. Clare remonstrates: “You would think no harm in a child’s caressing a large dog, even if it was black,” says St. Clare, “but a creature that can think and reason and feel, and is immortal, you shudder at; confess it, cousin. I know the feeling among some of you northerners well enough. Not that there is a particle of virtue in our not having it; but custom with us does what Christianity ought to do—obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice. I have often noticed, in my travels north, how much stronger this was with you than with us. You loathe them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; yet you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn’t that it?” Ophelia admits that her cousin lays his finger on real double-mindedness among the self-righteous northerners.

All too soon, little Eva takes sick. “The friendship between Tom and Eva had grown with the child’s growth. It would be hard to say what place she held in the soft, impressible heart of her faithful attendant. He loved her as something frail and earthly, yet almost worshiped her as something heavenly and divine.” She foretells her own death to him one night as they gaze at the stars. “I’m going there, to the spirits bright, Tom. I’m going before long.” She broaches the subject of her coming death with her unbelieving father, who, grief stricken, admits that she is all he has. The girl presses him to free Tom, which he promises to do after she is gone. Then she tells her father she wants him to be with her forever. “How I wish we could go together!” she whispers to him. “Where, dearest?”, he asks. “To our Savior’s home,” she replies. “It’s so sweet and peaceful there—it is all so loving there! Don’t you want to go, Papa?” “I shall come after you. I shall not forget you,” he whispers in reply. He recalls his own mother’s goodness and piety, her prayers and hymns, and, his heart breaking, sings her to sleep.

Days, perhaps a few weeks later, she takes a fever and lies dying, her father and Tom and all the household, at her side. The scene of the little girl’s death is of the profoundest pathos, and few will read these pages without tears. Her father asks her what she sees as she nears eternity: “O, Eva, tell us what you see! What is it?” “O! Love—joy—peace!” she said, as she “passed from death into life.”

Tom’s broken heart is scarcely on the mend when another hammer blow falls. His master, Augustine St. Clare, is carried home one night with a mortal knife wound. He had tried to break up a fight in a pub. He dies that same evening, in the arms of his servant Tom, singing one of his mother’s favorite songs. “His mind is wandering,” said the doctor. “No! it is coming home at last!” protests the dying St. Clare. “At last! At last!” “The sinking paleness of death fell on him,” writes the narrator, “but with it there fell, as if shed from the wings of some pitying spirit, a beautiful expression of peace, like that of a wearied child who sleeps.” St. Clare, long the skeptic and stoic, has found his Savior, or returned to Him, and to His peace.

The greatest fear of the slave is the death of the kind master, for, unless the slave owner has arranged for the manumission of his slaves before his death, his survivors are free to dispose of them in any way desirable. Often, whole families are formed under the master’s years-long solicitude, only to be broken up when he passes. In the case of the young and healthy St. Clare, no arrangements seemed urgent nor had been formalized. When he died out of season, his unstable, self-absorbed and unfeeling wife Marie was left in sole possession. Her first and only instinct was to dispose of them. This she did with little concern for their welfare, over the objections of Ophelia, who has come to regard the slaves with compassion. They were all sent to the slave warehouses of New Orleans to be examined like livestock by potential buyers, parceled out like so many other objects from an estate sale.

At the slave warehouse, Tom gains the attention of a stout man, vulgar and sadistic, who buys Tom and a beautiful and cultured girl named Emmeline, who is torn from her mother and sister. The man takes them down to the wharf where they are put aboard a boat called “Pirate” to be taken up the Red River to a plantation. They have met their new master, one of the most infamous characters in all of literature, whose name is Simon Legree.

Legree is a godless wretch of a tyrant, whose greatest delight is “breaking In” his slaves. What that entails is a severe beating by two of his ghoulish acolytes, Sambo and Quimbo. Early on, Tom indicates that he will not be part of the cruel system that Legree has established; Legree has told him he must whip one of the girls, Lucy, who has been slacking off in the fields. Tom refuses, so Legree strikes him in the face with his whip, followed by a shower of blows. “There,” Legree said. “Now will ye tell me ye can’t do it?”  “Yes, Mas’r,” replies the bloodied Tom, “I’m willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breath in me, but this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do—and, Mas’r, I never shall do it,–never!” Legree turns the helpless Tom over to his two savages, who leave the poor man a bloody pulp.

During his recovery, Tom is ministered to by a mysterious woman, Cassy, a light skinned mulatto, who seems somehow to possess a strange power over Legree, with whom she lives. She reads the Bible to Tom at his request. Cassy is older, perhaps early middle age, and is quite beaten down, though still beautiful. Her desperate demeanor gives her a certain manic power over everyone around her, and Tom tries, unsuccessfully, to help her. “O, Missis, I wish you’d go to him that can give you living waters!” “Go to him! Where is he? Who is he,” she asks. “Him that you read of to me,” he replies. She tells him that she has had too much tragedy to believe, though as a younger woman she had a keen faith. She had once even had to end the life of a child to keep it from being separated from her as her former son and daughter had.

Cassie determines to kill Legree. She tells Tom, who begs her not to do it. She relents but comes up with another plan. She and Emmeline will escape through a subterfuge. Legree is superstitious and can be led to believe that an abandoned room upstairs in the derelict mansion is haunted. He will never go near the room, so it can serve as a redoubt for the two women if they can convince Legree they have escaped. One night, they run into the swamp, but loop back to follow a creek and return unseen to the room. In the morning Legree sets out to find them but returns home that night empty-handed and furious. He forces Tom to admit he knows the plot, but Tom refuses to betray Cassie and Emmeline. Once again Legree turns his two field hands on Tom, who proceed to beat him nearly to death. Mortally injured though still conscious, Tom reaches out to his two tormentors with forgiveness, an act that touches them to the quick. “Sartin, we’s been doin’ a drefful wicked thing!” cries Sambo. “O, Tom!” says Quimbo tearfully, “We’s been awful wicked to ye! O, Tom! Do tell us who is Jesus, anyhow… Jesus, that’s been a standin’ by you so, all this night!—who is he?”  “Why didn’t I never hear this before?” asks Sambo. “But I do believe!—I can’t help it! Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.!”

Tom lingers for two more days, during which time many of the other slaves come and tend to his wounds. Cassy had also sneaked into the shed where he lay to weep and pray over him. She has not been able to pray for years. Incidentally, the parallels between Tom and his Lord are well-etched throughout the novel. On the “third day,” a wagon enters the yard with a young man driving. The young man jumps down and approaches Legree, asking the whereabouts of Tom. This is George Shelby, now a strapping young man. He is responding to a letter that Ophelia wrote many months prior. He has come to redeem Tom. Legree points him to the shed. George, infuriated by the tyrant’s nonchalance, runs to see his father’s former slave. When the broken Tom is brought around to consciousness and recognizes his beloved visitor, he says: “O, Mas’r George, ye’re too late. The Lord’s bought me, and is goin’ to take me home,–and I long to go. Heaven is better than Kentuck.” With his final breaths, Tom tells George not to hate Legree. Then, citing Romans 8:38—”Who,–who,–who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”, he ‘falls asleep.’

George takes Tom’s body, and with the willing help of two young slaves, lays him in his wagon. Approaching Legree, who has been watching with contempt, George lays him low with a blow to the jaw. Cassy, watching from her hiding place, thrills to this act of courage. George then takes Tom’s body to a small hill outside the plantation, where he buries him. Kneeling down, George prays: “oh witness, that from this hour, I will do what one man can do to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!”

George returns to New Orleans and prepares to board a steamer that will take him up the Mississippi and back to Kentucky. Unknown to him, Cassy and Emmeline have also escaped the plantation and made their way to the same point of embarkation. Cassie has taken a roll of money from Legree’s desk, along with some of the clothes of her genteel youth, and has impersonated a lady of the south. She and her young charge Emmeline befriend George.

We leave the story at this point. The novel still has two or three surprises, which I will not disclose. They are of the happiest kind, however, and bring as much a happy ending as this tragic novel knows. Legree is left to his own fate, and the narrator indicates that he, suffering guilt and degeneration, dies a horrible death and reaps the perdition to follow.


One of the first impressions gained by reading this book is the deep evangelical piety of the writing. Indeed, one wonders whether the book is more an evangelistic tract in the form of a story of slavery than the other way around. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, was one of the principle figures in what has been called America’s Second Great Awakening. That religious phenomenon, with its surpassing influence on nineteenth-century America, had both a Puritan and a “popular” (Methodist/Baptist) branch, both with many sub-branches. One of the awakening’s societal bequests was the abolitionist movement and eventual emancipation, which was part of a greater humanitarian impulse implicit in the Gospels. The Second Great Awakening provided both form and substance to many civilizing movements and attitudes that we take for granted in today’s culture. But undergirding all of evangelicalism’s benefactions to America was the conversionist theology of the revival movements, whether the quiet conversionism of the Puritan Timothy Dwight, or the more expressive conversions of frontier Finneyism. The urgency of personal conversion of self and neighbor, not liberation, is the driving force of Tom’s life, and nobody can understand this novel without making this distinction.

Most commentators fail to take Stowe’s deep evangelical commitment seriously, as though her anti-slavery sentiments can be separated from her religious experiences. This kind of reductionism has hobbled a true understanding of many American traditions, and has led moderns to believe that the sheer march of history brings with it a relentless cessationism whereby earlier ideas, perceptions and institutions are rendered obsolete through natural or secular “progress.” But there was nothing inevitable in the ending of slavery; it was a constant social institution in many societies, and still is today. It did not “fall” on its own. It was pushed; by the very spiritual forces that are discounted wholesale in recent historiography and literary criticism.

Indeed, it is one of the enduring lessons of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that slavery is the natural estate of mankind, and that it is ended only by the spread of liberty, and that liberty comes at great sacrifice when religiously-motivated people push back against the powers and principalities that shackle most peoples, past and present.

So, the reply to the question whether Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a political tract cast in a religious guise or a religious summons in the form of a story of the horrors of slavery must tilt to the latter. This, of course, does not relativize slavery and reduce its profound wickedness, but it does make of slavery a moral issue universal in its scale: humans are curiously attracted to both the temptation to enslave others as well as the paradoxical opposite, to be themselves enslaved. We are each of us grasping tyrant and craven helot, and only genuine submission to transcendent truth can rid us of this double curse. The reality of slavery as metaphor of the human condition is what makes this work so relevant today.

A word or two on the literary and linguistic style of the book is necessary for the modern or postmodern reader. Uncle Tom’s Cabin uses the word “nigger” at every turn. It is the term by which slave drivers identify their wares, slave masters their property, and by which black Americans define themselves. For some reason, this word has taken on talismanic powers in our time, as though by the mere intonation one is tainted with the sins of the fathers. This is silly presentism, the notion that we have so far superseded the benighted state of our ancestors hat we cannot even use the words they used. Every ethnic group elicits pejoratives from its supposed superiors, so to single out one such instance for special execration, especially when the word is used descriptively rather than vocatively, is infantile.

Finally, we find it necessary to address modern attitudes to this novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been called “sentimental,” as though it can thereby be dismissed from the category of great literature. In fact, although Stowe often approaches sentimentality she rarely crosses the line into pure maudliness. If sentimentality can be defined as emotion in excess of its object, it is clear that the boundary is never crossed. If the death of little Eva is sentimental, what of Jane Eyre’s friend Helen Burns, or Richard’s death in Bleak House? As noted above, there is profound pathos in this novel, and even the most hardened of critics must feel something when reading it. Such emotion, however, is never adduced on the cheap, so to speak, as though it could be had without the suffering that leads to it.

Akin to the charge of sentimentality is the slander of Tom himself that has become de rigueur among black-power and “woke” partisans of the political left. Strangely enough, the more radical abolitionists of Stowe’s day might have popularized the “Uncle Tom” slur long before Ta Nehisi Coates and others had they thought of it. The “Yes, Mas’r” stereotype of Uncle Tom is a product of the minstrelsy that emerged in the latter nineteenth century and changed the public perception of black antebellum life. It is a shame that such a perception lingers today.

Tom himself, as portrayed in the novel, is a true hero and a man with a firm grip on his destiny. His piety was a function of his sense that his life mattered as a sign of transcendence made immanent. He was deeply imbued with the belief that the Incarnation did not end with the resurrection of Christ, but that the life of Christ lives on in those who repent and believe and obey the call of their risen Lord. He himself rises far above the evil of his time and so he has the power to call others to such a life.

Tom might’ve spoken to his cultured despisers much the way St. Paul spoke to the Galatians: ‘O foolish people! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much suffering in vain?” (Galatians 3:1-4).

Though now out of fashion, this book is every bit as moving as it ever was. In our time, progressive social programs and political movements have done little to truly liberate millions of America’s black citizens. Welfare has destroyed the black family quite as effectively as slavery ever did. The plantation mentality is as much alive now as it was 170 years ago, and whole generations continue to struggle with the shackles forged by ideologies that have enslaved them by dependence and victimology. The “Yes, Mas’r” mentality has merely shifted from the lords of the land to the Democratic Party. Tom pointed the way: If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed. It is only then, as a son of God yourself rather than as a member of an identity group, that you are fit for this world and a candidate for the next.





Natura non facit saltum: There are no gaps in nature.

Jay Austin and Lauren Geogehan were two 29-year-old professionals. Both graduated from Georgetown and had high paying jobs in the Washington DC area. Both were political progressives and moral postmoderns. They carried the typical credentials of multiculturalism, anti-Americanism, gender fluidity, religious syncretism, and a bedrock belief that their own culture and traditions had failed them and most of the rest of the world.

They were members in good standing of the parlor socialism that defines today’s power elites.

With all this sophistication, they did not understand the real world. They quit their jobs (sure they could pick them up at some point in the future) and set out on a year of bicycling around the world. They cycled through large swaths of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

They carried no personal protection, assured by a breathtaking naivete that the world would live up to their highest estimations of themselves.

Heading to some of the most dangerous corners of the world against the advice of friends and relatives, they encountered reality in Tajikistan, a wild and ungoverned outback nestled between China on the East and Pakistan and Afghanistan on the south and west.

There, they and two temporary cycling companions from Europe were killed by five members of ISIS who ran them down with a car.

Their naivete had led them to believe that their own countrymen were evil and that the unnamed and unknown “other” was their friend. They disdained the here-and-now of their American lives and romanticized the there-and-then world of their cosmopolitan ideology. Their worldview, based on breezy generalizations about the goodness of nature and their fellow man, especially those somehow different, along with their trendy disparagement of their native civilization, blinded them to the dark lessons of history. Now they are dead.

Where have we heard of this kind of thing before?

I am reminded of Lisa Polito’s 2008 Oregon Quarterly article on the James Kim family’s decision to leave an Oregon freeway for a logging road on a Thanksgiving weekend several years ago. Driving a Saab four-wheel-drive sedan and with cellphones at the ready, wearing fashionable North Face-style shirts and vests, James and his wife Kati mistook their imagined world as the real one. Heading across the Rogue River Wilderness to the Oregon Coast, they became lost as blizzard conditions swept through the area. Days later, the wife and children were rescued, but James Kim died of exposure after they ran out of gas and discovered that much of the world has no cell coverage.

Polito writes that the Kims, like many of their generation and social class who were well to do professionals, were unable to distinguish between Here and There. Her story, titled “Everywhere is Here,” is a cautionary tale for millions today who have no sense of place, lacking what was once a part of mankind’s protective gear: an elemental fear of the unknown.

Timothy Treadwell was another postmodern sophisto who thought it was the height of human consciousness to live among Grizzly Bears. He disregarded warnings of others who had studied bears that he should use precautions. He disdained modern society and the culture that had nurtured and protected him, preferring the company of bears, which he called his “people.”

Quotes from Treadwell’s writings tell how the man thought. “How I hate the people’s [humanity’s] world,” “I’m struggling against civilization itself,” “I’m in love with my animal friends… and I’m very troubled,” and, most telling, “Why is there pain in the world? I’m confused.”

Both he and his girlfriend, Ann Huguenard, perished one October, 2003 afternoon on Alaska’s Katmai Peninsula when the “friendly” grizzlies, among which they had so foolishly carried on their lives, turned on them. In fairness to Ann, she had never trusted the bears, but (like Lauren Geogehan) was dragged along on a risky adventure by a strong-willed man.

There are always those who disregard danger and bring tragedy on themselves and others. But what we see in the cases just cited is something else. It is the repudiation of human experience gained at great cost over long periods of time and a corresponding embrace of an imagined reality based on ideology.

The common thread of all these stories is that they involve people whose lives have been largely spared adversity and penury, who have come to believe that traditional attitudes about the world are somehow mistaken, and who think that their presence in the world is to some extent salvific and therapeutic.

Belief in providence is alive and well on the political and cultural left, but it is a secular providentialism. We are awash in people today whose greatest intent is saving us from the attitudes, beliefs and traditions that have always defined us. Such people seem to hold that they are free from the paranoias and phobias that others of us suffer. They even imagine themselves immortal, which is why transhumanism flourishes among the elites and bien pensant. Having transcended the surly bonds of earth that hold the rest of us in shackles, they float in a zone of intellectual and spiritual superiority that spares them the exigencies of space and time.

Sometimes such ideas and attitudes prove deadly, if not for those who hold them then for those subject to them.


Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure:” A Summary and Comments

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was one of the greatest nineteenth-century novelists and poets. His work is ranked with Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert. He lived his life in the southwestern area of England known as Dorsetshire. This geographical area became the fictional “Wessex” of his later novels, the setting for the novel at hand as well as The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hardy was a writer in the tradition known as naturalism, where the forces of nature are arrayed against the intentions and plans of mankind, often overwhelming the latter. The influence of the pessimist philosopher Schopenhauer as well as the gloomy predictions of Thomas Malthus are at work in his novels.

Unlike the novels of Eliot, Tolstoy or Dickens, Hardy’s have few characters, and the landscape is much more compressed than in most literature. Yet there is a constant movement between the various towns and regions. Hardy was writing on the cusp of the Twentieth century, and a kind of restlessness and uprootedness characterize his leading figures. This novel was his last great fiction success. It attracted critical hostility because of its undertones of blasphemy and marital dysfunction. Hardy soon turned to poetry.

Jude the Obscure is the story of a young man, Jude Fawley, who begins his life as a bit of a dreamer and visionary. Jude from his childhood imagines that he will attend the university in the semi-mythical city of Christminster, which lies northeast of his home in Marygreen. He wants to be a clergyman-scholar. His station in life—he is both a commoner and an orphan—militates against such a dream, but he believes that he can teach himself what he needs to know in order to pass the entrance exams of the university. A man from his childhood, a Mr. Phillotson, who has encouraged Jude’s academic aspirations, has moved to Christminster, and Jude makes it his purpose to join him there.

Jude is beset by self-doubt. Like Mr. Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (a major literary influence for this book), Jude cannot really believe in himself. His face wore “the fixity of a thoughtful child’s who has felt the pricks of life somewhat before his time.” He is hired to frighten the birds from a farmer’s cornfield, but cannot put his heart into the work. “They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them.” When the farmer punishes him and sends him packing, “Jude went out, and, feeling more than ever his existence to be an undemanded one, he lay down upon his back on a heap of litter near the pig-sty.”  Later in the novel, Jude will have a son with many of his own psychological features.

The city of Christminster, as already seen, will hold a special place in Jude’s mind and heart. “Through the solid barrier of cold cretaceous upland to the northward he was always beholding a gorgeous city—the fancied place he had likened to the New Jerusalem… And the city acquired a tangibility, a permanence, a hold on his life, mainly from the one nucleus of fact that the man for whose knowledge and purposes he had so much reverence was actually living there.” That would be Mr. Phillotson. Again, one hears the echoes of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim with his gaze set on the Celestial City off in the mountainous distance.

Jude lives with his aging Aunt, a stern but kind-hearted woman named Drusilla. Both his parents have died. He is a bookish boy, given to daydreaming. Often, at night, he goes to the top of a hill to view the lights of Christminster in the distance. The years pass, and in time he is a young man of about seventeen.


Walking along the road between Marygreen and another village one day, he is hit by an object thrown at him by a girl in a neighboring yard. Jude turns to talk to the girl, who plays him along until he is intrigued enough to return to see her. Not long after that, she seduces him and feigns pregnancy in order to make him marry her. Her name is Arabella. Jude is a stonemason, and takes up that vocation to support her. Subsequently, she tells him that she is not pregnant after all. Their marriage is quickly unhappy, and soon she goes off to Australia with her parents to seek greater fortune.

One day, Jude passes a milestone on the old Marygreen-Christminster road and remembers that years back he had inscribed a simple message on the back: “Thither, JF,” and a hand pointing towards Christminster. He exhumes the old milestone, reads his inscription, and decides to resume his plans and finally go to the ancient city of learning. Before leaving, his old aunt warns him not to associate with his cousin Sue, who some years earlier had been taken to Christminster. The Fawleys are not meant for wedlock, she warns him.

Jude heads out to Christminster, “in the final direction of the elementary town” as Dylan Thomas would write. Once there, having surveyed the landscape and mystically communed with the spirits of the past—Gibbon, Pope, the martyrs of Protestantism, Jonson, Newman, the recently deceased Browning, the still present Swinburne—he settles into his trade and walks daily the city of his dreams. “He had the whole aged city to himself.”

He soon realizes that his dreams and self-education had prepared him for a place that was no more. The great university is in the midst of changing in ways that bring him consternation and unease. Then he remembers his cousin Sue Bridehead, and his prospects improve. When they finally meet, Jude is struck by her skeptical character. In many ways, Sue represents a more modern, liberated way of thinking and believing. Physically, she is nothing that Arabella was, swarthy, buxom, seductive and elemental. Sue, to the contrary, is nymph-like, pale and cerebral, possessing “a strange unconsciousness of gender,” a reader of Swinburne and Gibbon like Jude, but also enamored of the Greeks, whereas the young man is a student of the Church Fathers.

So far we have met Jude, his Aunt Drusilla, Mr. Phillotson, Arabella and Sue. These are the main characters of the book that now stands before us. There are a few other characters, but they are all minor and serve the purposes of these five. Jude and Sue fall in love, but unlike Arabella, Sue is somewhat distant and guarded. Unhappy in her work in a church supply store, she is taken by Jude to meet Mr. Phillotson, who runs a school outside Christminster. There she goes to work for him, and becomes coiled in Phillotson’s professional as well as personal life. He offers to send her to a “normal” (teacher’s) school in Melchester, another town of Wessex, where she will learn become certified to teach in his school. The understanding is that in return for this chance at a career, she will marry him. Phillotson is some two decades older than Sue, and she seems not to take the arrangement seriously.

Jude, back in Marygreen for a time, and unaware of the informal agreement between Sue and Phillotson, receives a letter from Sue. She is unhappy and has run away from the school. She wants Jude to come to her rescue, providing he does not ask her to abandon her paganism or compromise her chastity. When Jude arrives he sets her up in quarters he has rented in yet another Wessex town, Shaston.

The reader will find that keeping one’s geographical bearings in this novel is a challenge; perhaps Hardy has a method here, a presentiment that the world is changing around his young heroes, who are being stripped of older customs and familiarities such as set places in the firmament. One of the common adjectives used to describe many young people today is “homeless,” a consciousness of which our author may have had intimations. The constant movement of Jude, Sue and, soon, Arabella around the cities and towns of Wessex reminds us that our postmodern rootlessness is not an entirely new mindset.

Be that as it may, Sue informs Jude that she is engaged to be married to Phillotson soon. Her leaving the normal school has accelerated this development, and she asks him if he will give her away. Though stunned by this announcement, he agrees to do so. After the ceremony, Jude provides a simple meal for the new couple. As Sue is leaving, she drops a handkerchief. When she returns alone to pick it up, her eyes meet his and some unspoken words are exchanged.

At some point following these events, and while in Christminster, “there returned upon him that feeling which had been his undoing more than once—that he was not worth the trouble of being taken care of either by himself or others.” This ressentiment is a leitmotiv throughout the book. In this state of mind, he meets an old friend who takes him to a bar for a drink. There he sees, to his astonishment, Arabella, who is a server. She has returned from Australia, having left her second, bigamous husband behind. She and Jude spend a night together, an experience that leaves him with “an indescribable consciousness of Arabella’s midnight contiguity, and an sense of degradation.”

Concurrent with these events, Jude and Sue meet, and she confides in him her unhappiness at being married to Phillotson. They make a five mile walk together (reminiscent of Christina Rossetti’s poem “Up Hill”) to visit their aunt, who is, they believe, at the point of death. Sue returns to Phillotson at Shaston, he to Melchester, towns that are but a few miles apart.


We are halfway through the novel. Jude’s life enters a kind of intermezzo. His aunt has not died after all, he loses his desire to be in Christminster, Sue seems to be drawing closer to him, and he heeds a sudden call that comes to him through a hymn that he hears in a church service. He determines to track down the hymn writer, who is said to live in Kennetbridge, another Wessex town. The hymn’s title: “The Foot of the Cross.”

Mid-life crises, though Jude is only in his early twenties, are important episodes in the lives of young men. The “Nel Mezzo Camin” (“In the middle of life’s road”) theme occurs in Dante and in Longfellow, and no doubt other literature. It concerns a moment when it is possible for a protagonist to turn away from a course that may be leading to tragedy. Coming in the Easter season, the idea is perhaps that this is a moment for a possible resurrection of the young man’s faith. But in Jude’s case, when he meets the author of the hymn he finds him dismissive of the hymn and of music in general. Disappointed and dispirited, and feeling the recent spiritual flame extinguished, he leaves with a sense of growing bitterness towards Providence, an apostatic course that will determine the rest of his life.


Thus begins the second half of this novel where human intention is foiled again and again by the weakness of the flesh and diffidence in the face of one’s calling. Jude’s fatal acedia is set in motion. He and Sue now see each other on numerous occasions in a flitting subterfuge of both their lives. More and more, Jude deserts his faith, confessing to Sue that “my doctrines and I begin to part company.” He burns his theological books, while she, independently, asks Phillotson for a divorce.

Phillotson, aware of Sue’s profound unhappiness, grants her request at the very moment that Arabella seeks a divorce from Jude. Their marriage was never legitimately dissolved, even though she had “remarried” in Australia. Her husband is returning to England, she argues, and so it is best that they make a legal break. Jude grants this request.

Now that Sue and Jude are finally free from their former entanglements and are free to marry, Sue temporizes and puts the ceremony off again and again. Her old froideur angers Jude, who says “I do love you Sue, but I have danced attendance on you so long for such poor returns.”

Suddenly, a letter arrives from Arabella informing Jude that a son of theirs was born in Australia and will be coming to his father soon. She cannot take care of him. Jude was unaware of the child’s existence until now, and he decides to take in this son. By now, Jude and Sue are living together, still unmarried. Jude moves increasingly in the direction of unbelief.

The relationship between Jude and Sue is anything but harmonious, though it involves much passion. Both parties sense some guilt that they have disrupted each other’s careers, and a sense of doom seems to haunt them. Phillotson’s character is developed more fully at this time. His career too has been ruined by his accommodation of Sue. He has a friend, Gillingham, who counsels him to claim Sue back as his lawful wife, in spite of his legal divorce from her.

Meanwhile, the child arrives. He is more a force of nature than a person. Jude and Sue call him “Little Father Time” because of his constant melancholy. “He was Age masquerading as Juvenility, and doing it so badly that his real self showed through crevices. A ground swell from ancient years of night seemed now and then to lift the child in this his morning-life, when his face took a back view over some great Atlantic of Time, and appeared not to care about what it saw.” Sue remarks that she clearly sees Jude in his son.

Sue continues to sidestep the commitment of marriage, and as the couple moves about the fairs and events of Wessex, they are noticed by Arabella, who is now with her husband, Mr. Cartlett. Observing them on one occasion, Arabella comments to a friend that she regrets not having stuck it out with Jude. Arabella will come to play a more central role in Jude’s life from this point on.


The last hundred pages of the novel lead to a climax of horror unrivalled in most literary tragedies. Sue and Jude seem to trade places, she becoming more devout, he more reprobate. As their life together spins into misery and self-reproach, and as Phillotson and Arabella move in to claim their former spouses, Jude slips further and further into a cycle of self-destruction. They move back to Christminster. On their first day back, Jude encounters some friends in a crowd and is inspired to make a public confession in the form of a powerful speech. “It do seem like the Judgment Day,” comments Father Time as a weather front moves in.

In this seminal speech-confession, Jude recounts his early hopes in coming to Christminster. He has concluded that his poor heritage led to his failure. Echoing Shakespeare’s Romeo, he says “it was my poverty and not my will that consented to be beaten… I may do some good before I am dead—be a sort of success as a frightful example of what not to do, and so illustrate a moral story… I was, perhaps, after all, a paltry victim to the spirit of mental and social restlessness, that makes so many unhappy in these days.”

Sue remonstrates. “Don’t tell them that! You weren’t that. You struggled nobly to acquire knowledge, and only the meanest souls in the world would blame you..” The crowd loves his disquisition, however: “Well preached,” exclaimed his old friend and drinking partner. “And this only a working man!”

Christminster proves once again to be a setting of profound disappointment and final disintegration of the dreams and ideals of Jude’s and Sue’s youth. In the end, Sue goes back to Phillotson, more as a lifelong penance than as a wife, while Jude is once again seduced by Arabella, whom he remarries. “We’ve both remarried out of our senses,” he tells Sue. “I was made drunk to do it. You were the same. I was gin-drunk; you were creed-drunk.”


Jude dies of pneumonia at the age of 30. Before he dies, he confesses to Mrs. Edlin, a friend of his departed Aunt. “And now the ultimate horror has come—her [Sue] giving herself like this to what she loathes [Phillotson], in her enslavement to forms!—she, so sensitive, so shrinking, that the very wind seemed to blow on her with a touch of deference… As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago—when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless—the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us.” As Jude lies dying in his bed, the words of scripture come back to him, this time from the book of Job. “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.”

Soon afterward, Jude passes away, alone in his room. “All was still within. The bumping of near thirty years had ceased.” On his shelf, an old copy of Virgil and his Greek New Testament stood side by side, books he had not burned. “There seemed to be a smile of some sort upon the marble features of Jude.” As for Sue, Arabella comments later to Mrs. Edlin that “Sue has never found peace since she left his arms, and never will again till she’s as he is now!”


Jude the Obscure is a book profound in its symbolism and keenly reflective of the anxieties of fin de siècle Europe. Recall that the book was published in 1895. The geographical features of Wessex seem to symbolize the desolate sense of the world prior to WWI. As Hardy wrote in his famous poem “The Darkling Thrush,” The land’s sharp features seemed to be / the Century’s corpse outleant / …The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry, / And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervorless as I.” The bucolic horizontality of the countryside contrasts with the willful verticality of Christminster, yet both lose their meaning at the approach of the new century.

Critics remark at the singularity of meaningless suffering in the novel. Conventional wisdom had dictated that suffering was redemptive and meaningful, but Jude and Sue do not find this to be the case. Blind chance, uncontrollable physical urges and lusts overwhelm intellectual and moral intentions, while their youthful ideals and worldviews are inverted by the relentless march of tragedy and chance. The constant restlessness, the presence of geographical and spiritual movement, the phenomenon of orphanhood on the part of both Jude and Sue, are all factors in creating lives born fifty years too soon (or, perhaps more poignantly, too late), or, as Jude comments to Sue, “fractions always wanting their integers.”

The novel is deeply moving to me. It is in many ways close to my own story. Born poor and destined to a working class life, I still harbored a dream of significance. Early religious piety and longing for the life of a scholar-pilgrim Christian, my plans and intentions were sidelined by a loss of orientation and rebellion in my twenties. A close brush with a life-changing moment that I let pass by took me yet further afield from youthful devotion. Years spent in pursuits far beneath my aspirations and gifts characterized much of my adult life. Only yet another opportunity to seize my birthright saved me from a slow decline into intellectual and spiritual mediocrity.

To me, the moral of Jude the Obscure is simple: guard any dream that is God-given and make it your life-long pursuit to realize, ignoring momentary failure and the obstacles of seeming chance and careless flesh. Believe in God’s kind Providence in all things, and come as near to achieving your goal as possible, knowing you have fought the good fight. I know there are many other interpretations of this signal book, but none speak to me as clearly as Jude did himself in his speech in Christminster, when in closing he quoted the book of Ecclesiastes: “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life? And who can tell what shall be after him under the sun?”



Liberal Christians and Immigration

Nearly every morning, my wife Marilyn and I read from the scriptures and other books of interest. This morning I read from Malachi 3 and she from Matthew 25. Both of these passages have to do with helping the orphan, the widow and the stranger, among other things.
With the subject of immigrants in the news, many of us who oppose unlimited immigration are being subjected to lectures by our liberal Christian friends about our duty to get on board the cause of massive acceptance of “refugees.” I put the word in quotes, because most of these people are not strictly speaking refugees. They are groups of people seeking a better life.
But who isn’t? Does that desire make me a “refugee” within my own country?
It is impossible for the US to take in huge numbers of these foreigners without disrupting the institutions and traditions of our nation, and without degrading the standard of living of those already citizens by birth. This obvious truth doesn’t seem to affect those who are quoting the Bible to (at) us.
I am a student of the scriptures, and as I read those many Old and New Testament passages about the stranger and the neighbor, I have some thoughts about this subject.
Apart from the question of whether “the stranger” and “the alien” that we encounter in the Bible are interpretively analogous to the masses of economic immigrants clamoring for entry to our shores, there are other things that concern me.
For one, I have to ask how it is that those who do not really hold the Bible to be the inspired Word of God (most of these scolds are LIBERAL Christians, after all) now find it convenient to quote it in this context. There are many other truths of scripture that they seem to have thrown away as outmoded, such as its clear teachings on homosexuality, abortion, bestiality, general sexual immorality and that most pestiferous of biblical injunctions, “be not conformed to this world.”
Why is part of it authoritative to them, while much of the rest is not?
This selective and tendentious quoting of scripture carries little weight on this matter when we see that our liberal gentry have no problem with gay marriage, transvestism, or what we now call “body art,” but which the scriptures call Canaanite paganism.
How is it that we are under moral imperatives to practice their version of social compassion when they have so little inclination towards the final and most significant teaching of Christ, to tell their neighbors to repent and believe in His Name? How many of their friends and neighbors have our liberal Christians sought to lead to the Savior?
More poignantly, do these people care about the spiritual destinies of the people they are welcoming? If they claim to believe the Lord’s words on welcoming the neighbor and the alien, do they hold to his words on the necessity to evangelize them?
Those of us who believe the Word of God to be authoritative in our lives find enough to keep us uncomfortable and penitent without our well-meaning but hypocritical liberal friends trying to heap guilt on us for not joining them in their singular political obsession with immigrants.

Should Christian Churches be Tax Exempt?

Recently, a reader of my local newspaper The Bend Bulletin posted an “In My View” column arguing that churches should be subject to property taxes. Since this is a perennial argument of the political Left I thought the column warranted a rebuttal. Many Christians are partly or totally ignorant of this issue and its importance. What follows is what I wrote.

If I understand Ms. Dupree correctly, she says that the long-standing custom of exempting Christian churches from property taxes has outlived its usefulness because those churches no longer help the homeless. Therefore, their assets should be taxed so that the proceeds could be put in a “general fund” that would then be used to “address” the homeless problem. Churches to Ms. Dupree are plush but empty extravagances that effectively embezzle monies that would otherwise eliminate the homeless problem.

Ms. Dupree indicts all churches for greed, for persecution of the homeless, and for offering nothing of value to society now that those churches no longer aid the homeless. ”Millions of people,” she writes, “now sit in plush church buildings once a week that sit empty the rest of the week while the number of homeless people in this county is increasing.”

Before turning to her charges against American churches, let’s take a brief look at the origin of the tax exempt status to churches.

One of the traditional rationales for granting tax exempt status to churches (and to synagogues, museums, madrassas, foundations, charitable organizations, Elks and Rotary Clubs, and to countless other non-profit organizations) was that they added something of value to society that was much greater than anything that might be gained from taxing them. This has been called the “social benefit theory,” among other names. It is not specific to America, nor is it anything very new. Our founding fathers may not have enshrined social benefit theory per se in our Constitution, but it was a part of their everyday worldview. They took it for granted.

Well, what about those “greedy” churches that so distress Ms. Dupree?.

First of all, to tax many churches would be to effectively close them down. The vast majority of churches are poor, small and hardly the plush and decadent shrines Ms. Dupree says they are. Most pastors make between $30,000 and $70,000 per year. Their properties, if they could be sold at all to pay taxes, would be worth very little. Many churches do not even own the facilities they worship in. Furthermore, the tax structure is in reality nothing like the “general fund” she mentions. If taxed, most profits from church properties would be spent on government agencies and used for purposes that have little to do with helping the homeless. Property taxes go for police, schools, fixing highways and other municipal essentials. The idea that all the proceeds that might accrue from taxing churches would end up rectifying the homeless problem is ludicrous.

Then there is the irony inherent in her reasoning. In many cities and towns across America, the only homeless shelters that exist are funded and operated by churches or groups of churches. In Redmond, OR where I live, the homeless have a haven from winter weather precisely because Ms. Dupree’s selfish Christians give some of their money to make it possible.

Furthermore, churches have benevolent funds to help the poor, food pantries for those in hardship, and serve meals to the elderly and indigent. They provide counseling and recovery services to aid the confused, distraught and marginalized. Preaching and teaching from pulpits and in Sunday School classes probably impacts more lives for good than all social programs combined. In short, few churches I know resemble the one-hour-a-week caricature that Ms. Dupree adduces.

It is equally ironic that it is the American Left that was instrumental in de-institutionalizing the mentally retarded and similarly impaired population that makes up a large portion of the homeless. This is a neglected story that represents a disgraceful blot on the record of the political Left. That these political actors now insist that those of us who had little to do with creating this problem become liable for it is a pattern that has become all too familiar to us.

Perhaps Ms. Dupree and those who think as she does should visit a church sometime. They would learn that the common people who worship there are far more generous in supporting social programs than is often realized. Indeed, according to Arthur C. Brooks in his book Who Really Cares?, conservative Christians give much more than liberals, and not simply to their own churches.

One can’t help but suspect that those who insist that churches pay property taxes aren’t really so concerned with the homeless after all. Perhaps they have some other agenda in mind.


GMOs and Me

As an advocate for genetically-modified food and other organisms, I find that my views often set off a firestorm. Friends, even conservative friends, have very settled opinions on this matter. I wish to state here why I am a proponent of GMOs and why I am critical of those who oppose them.

First, some stipulations will be in order.


My first stipulation is this: Up front I admit that I am no expert in genetics, nor in agriculture. Neither are most of the people who oppose my views. This is as it should be. Most of us are laymen and get our information as we can, but we are not scientists or academics. We have strong feelings on the matter of food and its relation to society and should express those ideas and should subject ourselves to the critique of others who see things differently.

This entire controversy would benefit immensely from a good measure of epistemic humility. This is, alas, often in short supply.


My second stipulation is this: The anti-GMO movement is driven primarily by partisans from the political Left. That does not mean that my conservative friends are of that camp in general. It only means that in this instance, on this matter, they have subscribed to doctrines and arguments that exist not for the purpose of improving the food supply for humankind, but for the purpose of undermining the political and economic order that has long been the norm in America.

It is entirely possible that there are authorities on genetically-modified foods who operate from other assumptions than those of the Left. I have not found them in my reading on this matter, but then again I am not a food researcher. Those whose views I do trust on these matters, who are themselves authorities in this field, have not found such disinterested anti-GMO sources either. Insofar as they take note of the arguments of the other side, my conservative sources have not referenced a specifically conservative anti-GMO body of thought. This makes me suspect that few such credible sources exist.

There are other reasons for this conclusion.

In nearly every controversy over GMOs in which I have participated, the name of Monsanto and its alleged “crimes” have surfaced right away. I am no spokesman for Monsanto, but the identification of the GMO discussion with the imputed greed and collusion that are routinely brought against Monsanto is an indicator of just how political the anti-GMO argument is. My interest in this subject has to do with the feeding of up to 9 billion people. That is not the focus of the anti-GMO party, which seems to have a number of other purposes, none of which concern the possibility of feeding a planet-wide population that is growing rapidly.

The central gravamen of the anti-GMO indictment  against Monsanto et al. is that large corporations of this type are evil in intent as well as in effect and that they must be stopped from doing what they are doing, even if it means the destruction of the company and the industry involved. Once that motive is understood, all the other activities of the  anti-GMO movement come into clearer focus.


My third stipulation is that “organic” farming will never be able to feed a world population projected to be 9 billion by the year 2030. Neither will traditional farming methods. Since organic farming is what the anti-GMO movement is advocating, it is crucial to understand its limitations. Indeed, organic farming is not  capable even now of safely feeding those who can afford its high prices, as the recent Chipotle restaurant E.coli crisis has demonstrated.

On a broader basis, organic farming simply costs too much for most of the world’s people to afford, produces too little to lift large numbers of the hungry, and contributes so much of its own pollutants to soil and water that it is not viable as a large-scale food source. Furthermore, organic farming relies on wholesale tillage, which is bad for soil, and the use of “alternative” chemicals that are high in sulfur and copper, both poisonous to humans and animals.

Henry Miller, the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, writes that most fruits, vegetables and grains that proudly wear the label “organic” are themselves GMOs resulting from “wide-crossing” and other breeding techniques of the past that were scatter-shot and in some cases potentially  dangerous. Golden Promise barley, so favored by organic micro-brewers, is itself a GMO, but one that was created using mutational breeding that consisted of chemical or radiological scrambling of genes. Miller notes an irony: organic farming is built on now-discredited genetically-modified practices of the past while making war on modern techniques that are targeted and extremely safe.

In short, according to Miller and others, “organic” farming is unsustainable as a model for feeding a world as populous as ours. As a personal choice, few of us have a problem with some people wanting the marginally better taste and textures that may be available through local organic farming. But one wonders why the political Left is unhappy with organic foods as one alternative among others. Certainly, they have to know that organic farming cannot keep up with population growth, and indeed would be unable even to supply the food necessary at present levels.


Before his death in 2009, Norman Borlaug, often called the “Father of the Green Revolution, “ lamented the fact that some European countries were withholding financial aid to African nations until those nations banned the importation of genetically-modified foods. He called this trend “tragic and grossly irresponsible.” Just recently, the Marxist leader of Zimbabwe, the poorest country in Africa and possibly the world, has banned GMOs for his desperate people, who are suffering a years-long drought. Greenpeace and other ecological groups have destroyed fields of genetically modified grain in the Philippines and have done all they can to terminate shipment of GMOs to nations that cannot feed themselves. Why?

The short, almost unthinkable answer is that many Leftist groups do not want a world of nine nine billion people, and may be unhappy with the current number of 7 to 8 billion.  Perhaps the spirit of Margaret Sanger, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot lives on in the sophisticated  salons of the anti-GMO political Left. None of these historical figures balked at cleansing the world of “undesirables.” Neither did Adolf Hitler.

In its more extreme precincts, is the anti-GMO movement nothing more than a cruel attempt at global population control dressed up in elite, progressive platitudes?


The facts surrounding GMOs are few and simple. But one has to be willing to believe them, or at least willing to suspend one’s disbelief for the period needed to become acquainted with them. Here are a few of the highlights.

GMOs have been part of the global diet for more than 25 years without a single reported case of injury or death directly attributable to them. The possibility of their future impact on humans is unknown, but surely by now some deleterious effects should have become evident. The Future is always the eminence gris of the radical Left. The historical present is to radical movements forever hostage to the apocalyptic future, as in both the GMO controversy and the climate change scenario.

As author and UK House of Lords member Matt Ridley writes: “Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living, and it’s a competitive market, so they exaggerate. Virtually every environmental threat of the past few decades has been greatly exaggerated at some point. Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic, as Rachel Carson claimed; acid rain was not devastating German forests, as the Green Party in that country said in the 1980s; the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind, as Al Gore warned in the 1990s.”

There is almost certainly more likely harm in the constant use of cellphones by millennials than in the ingestion of “Frankenfoods” such as the Arctic Apple that resists bruising and browning when it is sliced, or the Simplot “Innate” potato that takes less water to grow, resists bruising (less waste), and has eliminated much of the carcinogen asparagine.

GMOs have lifted millions of people in the “third world” from poverty into the middle class. With improved diets of Golden Rice, which helps prevent blindness, India was spared famine in the 1980s, according to genetic scientist Robert Zeigler. With longer life spans, better diets, and crops that are easier and more sustainable to grow, farmers in Asia and Africa do not need to hedge their bets by having so many children. The result is rising prosperity, natural population control, and increased human thriving.

Julie Kelly, a cooking instructor and a contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project, says that genetic advances go well beyond grains, vegetables and fruit. The AquAdvantage salmon carries a gene that helps it grow faster with less food, leading to less pressure on overfished stocks of wild salmon. She points to a genetic modification that will prevent the development of avian flu in chickens, and another that helps piglets fight off a viral respiratory disease. She calls these “farmaceuticals.” Think what such advances would mean to the world’s livestock production and the cost of meat, especially to the lower classes.

At the end of the day, GMO evangelists such as Michael Pollan, Urvashi Rangan, Wendell Berry, The Environmental Working Group, The Center for Food Safety, celebrity chefs such as Tom Colicchio, and movements such as Greenpeace and Earth First appear to be concerned only with disrupting these efforts and stopping them through litigation. They have turned large numbers of an entire generation into food police and nutrition scolds who constantly tell us what is wrong without proposing any realistic solutions.

Why can’t they just do their thing and let us do ours? Ah, grasshopper, to do that would be for them to abandon their very calling and identity.



Robinson Crusoe: A Summary

Author Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) lived a life almost as adventurous as the one he depicts for his fictional character Robinson Crusoe. Defoe was a political man, a bit of a swashbuckler, a pamphleteer, and an English Dissenter. That is, he was one of those like John Bunyan before him whose family dissented from the Church of England. Some call Robinson Crusoe (1719) the first real English novel. That distinction is sometimes accorded to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). But Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory rather than a novel proper, and resembles medieval literature more than it presages the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The full title of this book is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty years, all alone in an uninhabited island on the Coast of America, near the mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account of how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pirates.

We usually think of Robinson Crusoe as a children’s book, but no child would sit still for a straight reading of this novel. Like Treasure Island, it has been many times recreated in an abridged and simplified form for children. The book is best understood as an adult adventure story, of which it is one of the best. In reading this novel for the first time in recent days, I could hardly put it down from evening to evening. I was reminded of those times in my youth when I sat for hours with the novels of Jules Verne. I had not realized that serious literature could ever again engage me at such a level of joy and wide-eyed fantasy. After back to back readings of Moby Dick and Madame Bovary, Robinson Crusoe was a rip-roaring read of the first order, and a deliverance from 19th-century Sturm und Drang.

Crusoe’s adventures begin when as a young man he disregards his pious father’s advice to stay at home and assume his predestined role in society. No life could be better lived, his father told him, than one at the upper level of the common class. Nobody would ever covet what he had, and he in turn would live a placid life of more than enough. A life on the sea, his father warned, would risk God’s wrath. But Crusoe, in his late teens, had his mind made up, and was off to sea to grasp his fortune.

The first eight years of Crusoe’s life on the sea were harrowing and rewarding in turn. He suffered shipwreck off the coast of England when he had barely set out, but soon embarked again to the coast of Africa. Here he was captured by Moorish pirates, who enslaved him for two years. Crusoe made an escape at last and was picked up by a Portuguese ship headed for Brazil. The captain of the ship showed him great kindness. In Brazil, Crusoe met another Englishman, and the two of them joined in establishing a sugar cane plantation. Prosperity came quickly and effortlessly, and it appeared that the young man had his future settled.

But wanderlust struck Crusoe once more, and he determined to go aboard a ship that was a slaver to the coast of Africa. “I went on board in an evil hour—the 1st of September 1659, being the same day eight years that I went from my father and mother at Hull in order to act the rebel to their authority and the fool to my own interest.” Somewhere off shore from the Orinoco River in modern Venezuela, they encountered a storm and abandoned the ship. They entered a small boat and made for an island. Of the eleven aboard, only Crusoe made it to land.

Here his real adventure begins. “I had nothing about me but a knife, a tobacco pipe, and a little tobacco in box.” Frightened, not knowing where he was, or what dangers lay at hand, he spent the first night in a tree. The next day he discovered that his ship had washed ashore nearby and that he could get many items off of it for his survival. He provisioned himself with guns and ammunition, clothes and tools, as well as some food stuffs. He realized that it he and his fellows had stayed with the main ship rather than trying to land with the boat they would all have been saved.

Crusoe soon began to make the island his home. He found that it contained goats and tortoises for food. He crafted a kind of dugout for his stores and pitched a tent nearby, as he set out to explore his domain. He soon realized that he was alone on this tropical island, and that it contained most of what he needed to sustain life. He began to keep a journal and a calendar, not knowing how long he was to be stranded in this “Island of Despair,” as he called it. His greatest fear was that his island would be visited by tribesmen from the mainland, whose outline he could only just descry from a high point. He knew that the tribes were cannibals and that he must remain hidden if they should come. His main residence was thus masked with rows of trees which he planted to shield him from view from anyone coming to shore.

During his first few months there he experienced an earthquake and a hurricane. By June of the year following his arrival, he became deathly ill. This proved to be a turning point in his life. As he reflected on the events that led to his hopeless condition, he entered a period of deep repentance that led to a religious conversion. “I began to reproach myself with my past life, in which I had so evidently, by uncommon wickedness, provoked the justice of God to lay me under uncommon strokes.” He remembers his father’s words, and he cries out: “Lord, be my help; for I am in great distress.”

Crusoe’s life begins to change for the better. He recovers, but more than that, he finds a new meaning in his ordeal. He begins reading the scriptures (three Bibles were among the things he salvaged from the ship) and praying regularly. His recovery complete, he establishes a “country house” in another part of the island. This was a kind of stockade which he could visit when he was travelling over the island. It is difficult to tell how large the island is from his description, but it seems to be at least ten or twenty square miles, perhaps larger.

Among the things Crusoe rescued from his ship were some rice, corn and barley seeds. These he cultivated so that by the end of several years he had grain for fashioning into loaves. He domesticated the goats, and kept them for meat, milk, butter and cheese. He tamed a parrot he called Poll, which proved to be a constant companion to him. He drew comfort from the words of scripture: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Joshua 1:5). “From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition, than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world.”

Over the next several years, Crusoe essentially reinvents the semblances of civilization. He discovers by accident how to create earthenware so he can bake bread. He learns to weave baskets for transporting his produce, including a crop of grapes that were his staple fruit. He realizes the futility of earthly possessions beyond those necessary for his sustenance and comfort. “All the good things of this world are no further good to us than they are for our use; and that whatever we may heap up indeed to give others, we enjoy just as much as we can use, and no more… I had no room for desire.”

Five years pass. Crusoe builds a small boat to circle the island. He is nearly swept out to sea when he miscalculates the currents, and once making it back to shore puts the boat up and gives up the idea of sailing to the mainland. By the eleventh year he has refined his dairy and enclosed his granaries. One day, walking along the beach on the west side of the island, he comes upon a footprint. This terrified him, and changed his life to one of apprehension. “Thus my fear banished all my religious hope, all that former confidence in God, which was founded upon such wonderful experience as I had had of his goodness, now vanished…” But he recalls Psalm 50:15, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.”

Reasoning with himself, Crusoe tells himself that he has been here now fifteen years and has never seen another person, though it is possible that some have come and gone while he was unawares. Has not God taken care of him during that time?

One day two years later, he explored a corner of the island he had never visited before and was horrified at what he came across. Human body parts were strewn across the ground with a fire pit nearby. It was evident that a cannibalistic ritual had recently been enacted there. “I turned away my face from the horrid spectacle: my stomach grew sick, and I was just on the point of fainting, when nature discharged the disorder from my stomach.” He withdraws into himself, going about his routines but having lost the love of his earlier daily life. Two more years pass, but the pall of the discovery still hangs in the air. He is more careful now, traveling less and watching more. He travels heavily armed. He rages at the inhumanity of this tribal custom and determines to kill these heathen if they come to his island again. Then he reconsiders. Is he judge and executioner? Is this his fight? Why not leave these creatures to their customs and to God?

Another year passes. Then a few more. He is in his twenty-third year on the island. One December morning he is harvesting his grain when he sees a fire on a shore about two miles away. He sneaks close to the fire and sees that nine savages have come to feast on a human they had captured in battle, for this is the way victory was celebrated. He does not interfere, but determines to put a stop to it the next time he sees it.

The next year in May a shipwreck occurs off the coast of his island, and it appears that all hands are lost. Crusoe is able to access the wreck and salvage a few things, including a starving dog who will be his companion. He cries out in despair that there was not one man who survived. Two more years pass. Crusoe becomes obsessed with making a trip to the mainland to find deliverance, if there was any to be found.

One day, five canoes appear with about 30 natives in them. They carry two wretches bound in order to be butchered and eaten. On shore, one of the captives frees himself and makes a run for his life. Three natives pursue him but he outruns them. Crusoe calls the desperate man aside and helps him escape by killing one of the pursuers and wounding another. The remaining natives soon leave the island to catch the tides back to the mainland. Crusoe is alone on the island with his captive, whom he calls “Friday” to indicate the day on which he rescued him.

Friday becomes both servant and companion to Crusoe and the two men grow close. Friday learns some English, and Crusoe teaches him how to maintain the animals and the crops. “Never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me; without passions, sullenness, or designs, perfectly obliged and engaged; his very affections were tied to me.” Friday gladly learns of Crusoe’s God: “He listened with great attention, and received with pleasure the notion of Jesus Christ being sent to redeem us.”

Crusoe and Friday live together for three years, tending the plantation, as it was called, caring for the animals, and spending many days in pleasant conversation. Friday informs his “Master” that there are seventeen white men with beards living among his people. These, it turns out, are the survivors of the shipwreck that had happened about four years prior. They are in a miserable state with no way to escape, but his people are doing what they can to feed and help them.

The remainder of the book with its surprising twists and turns resulting in Crusoe’s and Friday’s escape from the island and their voyage to Europe I will leave to the reader to discover. The book has, of course, a happy ending. “And thus I left the island the 19th of December in the year 1686, after I had been upon it eight and twenty years, two months, and nineteen days… I arrived in England the 11th of June, in the year 1687, having been thirty and five years absent.” Friday travels with Crusoe to England. The seventeen men on the mainland also come to a good end.

Near the end of the book, Crusoe reflects: “And thus I have given the first part of a life of fortune and adventure, a life of Providence’s checker-work, and of a variety which the world will seldom be able to show the like of. Beginning foolishly, but closing much more happily than any part of it ever gave me leave so much as to hope for.”

In many ways, Robinson Crusoe is a retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son as found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter fifteen. One reflects on this parable again and again while reading the book, helped by Crusoe’s frequent conjuring of his miseries and his sorrow at disregarding his father’s original advice. But had the young man not made his foolish hegira to the ends of the earth, we would not have this book—perhaps the greatest adventure story in the English language—to fire our imaginations. As Crusoe frequently says, in every tale of woe there is good to be told.

A Culture of Therapeutic Repression

During the years of the old Soviet Union, those who dissented from the party orthodoxy were often sent not to labor camps but to psychiatric hospitals. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and the poet Joseph Brodsky have all spoken and written about the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. Of course, these “hospitals” were often prisons in their own right, but the regime’s attempts to psychologize politics set a precedent that is very much with us today.

Mutatis mutandis (making the necessary adjustments), let us count the ways.

The whole concept of “hate speech” is an attempt to apply psychological categories to political activity. Hate is an emotional phenomenon, not a volitional one. As we all know, there is a great deal of hate in our public life, but relatively little of it is perpetrated by those manacled with the hate-speech cuffs. Most of the real hate in American politics is disseminated by those who dismiss the legitimate concerns of citizens as varieties of sickness.

What is more hateful than ascribing mental impairment to those who dissent from widely-held assumptions?

Hence the pervasive use of such therapeutic mechanisms as sensitivity training and diversity workshops. College orientation processes now routinely indoctrinate entering students in the pieties of the cultural left. Children are now told to make “good decisions” and avoid “bad choices,” whereas in former, saner times, they were told the difference between right and wrong while at the same time introduced to the idea of proper authority.

In the old way of thinking, bad choices were not mere mistakes made by otherwise innocent children, but manifestations of the crooked timber of their basic nature, which could only be ultimately governed by religious and moral imperatives. Those notions of human nature are long gone. They are considered “repressive,” another psychological category.

Employers who want to be rid of squeaky wheels will use “HR” solutions to problems that are administrative in nature. The presence of an HR person in a room with a manager and an employee biases what may be a genuine workplace problem towards a psychological “solution.” This usually leaves dysfunctions in place that will be repeated later.

Political correctness is a culture-wide imposition of therapeutic categories onto normal human concourse. Terms such as “inclusive” are reflective of proper thinking, while “racist” or “homophobic” are adduced not just to denote error, but pathology. Those who depart from the prescribed formulas for speech and thought can be labeled as deviants so that they never have to be taken seriously again.

The nice thing about using psychiatric tools to “treat” dissident thinking is that there is no end date, as Vladimir Bukovsky has noted. Inmates can be drugged for years at a time.

I am reminded of all of this by recent efforts of Facebook to expunge what are considered “xenophobic” comments from its pages, especially in Europe. In Holland, police have come to the doors of Facebook users to warn them that they must cease posting comments that are deemed offensive to newcomers from the Middle East. Recently, Angela Merkel was heard through an open mic requesting Mark Zuckerberg to work with her to eliminate “xenophobic” comments from Facebook in Germany. Zuckerberg told her he could help with the project.

Legitimate concerns about mass immigration are being censored from public places.

Xenophobia is not a political category but a psychological one, which explains its wide use by the cultural left. In an America where a Sanders or a Clinton is President, we can expect such strictures to govern Facebook, other social media, or political speech of any kind. And who will object? After all, it is so much easier and quicker to dismiss someone as retarded than it is to grapple with his ideas.

Socialism’s Perennial Allure

The central conceit of liberals, progressives, and, increasingly, rank and file Democrats, is that wealth is always present in the world, and the only problem is to redistribute it. To turn the words of Jesus on their head: “The rich you have always with you” (John 12:8). It is the historical calling of liberals to take wealth from the wrong people and give it to the right people. Naturally, they cast themselves as the right people, while “the rich,” “the capitalists,” “the greedy,” etc., are not merely the wrong people, but evil people as well. Liberalism is not an economic model as much as it is a moral crusade. That explains its appeal to the young, who are always easy to enlist in one crusade or another.

Bernie Sanders personifies this crusade. Like all socialists he deems it his imperative to take as much social wealth into his hands as possible and give it to those more worthy than the moral reprobates who presently hold it. Indeed, if he could take all money from everyone and put it in a giant pot, he and his gnostic elites, so he believes, would do a much better job of using it than the rest of us.

Progressives, et al., always couch their crusades in highly moralistic terms. They use such terms as universal health care, living wage, nationalizing of the means of production, social justice and a host of others, but these terms all mean the same thing. They all mean the expropriation of private wealth by a morally and intellectually superior caste and the doling of it out to those deserving of it. The recipients of this redistribution are themselves cast in moralistic terms: “the poor,” “the 99%,” “the people,” “the marginalized,” the “other,” “the oppressed,” “people of color,” etc.

Socialism of various kinds has been tried numerous times and has never succeeded in creating a self-sustaining society. It failed miserably in such places as Cuba, the old Soviet Union, and North Korea. It has failed to some degree in Canada and England. It is failing in the western European countries, where a modified socialism called Social Democracy is becoming bankrupt. Where socialism has seemed to succeed, say in Scandinavia, it no longer does. The accumulated capital of previous generations is running out, having been spent on generous welfare societies while depressing the desire of the population to replenish it.

Socialism does not only discourage personal enterprise; it undermines personal morality, teaching populations to turn to the state for their social meaning as well as their physical sustenance.

Norway is an example. Most of the people of Norway live on the distributions of the central state, which until recently has received its monies from the oil of the North Atlantic. Norway seemed for decades the perfect society. The people were heavily taxed, well over 50% of their income, but they received benefits that led to a comfortable existence. With the fall of oil prices, however, the state revenues are being depleted, and there is little spirit of private industry left to take up the slack. That’s because most Europeans, to one extent or another, have been conditioned to expect their identities, personal and social, to be conferred by the state.

Norwegians travel short distances to jobs that are often little more than sinecures, watch state produced TV programs, shop in state-approved, subsided stores, and observe social customs that are thorough expressions of progressive correctitude. The merest hints of any judgmentalism, of any spiritual dissent, of any preference for public religious expressions, are expunged from both conversation and consciousness by an informal but effective secular politesse.

A Norwegian friend tells me that when he visits the home country he is struck by the passivity of the people. It colors everything. “The government will take care of it,” they say regarding the issues of the day. As an evangelical Christian, my friend finds this submissiveness even among the biblical churches that he visits. When his Norwegian relatives visit this country, he continues, they are unmoored by the dynamism and seeming chaos that characterizes American social processes. They look around, shrug their shoulders, and hurry home to the prescribed languor that makes up their lives.

This languor is on display in the current best-selling memoirs by Karl Ove Knausgaard, a contemporary Norwegian author known for his long, introspective examinations of the details of his daily life. So far, Knausgaard has published six volumes of such personal longueurs titled “My Struggle.” This vast expanse of tedium has caught the imagination of millions of Europeans, perhaps because it expresses their own sense of boredom and moral drift.

My Norwegian friend may overplay his country’s anomie a bit, but the fact that he picks up on the differences so readily indicates that in many ways Social Democracy has transformed the very character of the typical Norwegian. This could be said of several large, western European societies. One wonders what is going to happen now that millions of Muslims are flooding those societies.

Socialism is the illusion of rich countries conditioned to feel guilt about their prosperity and made to believe that personal and social redemption are to be had through the observance of a complex ritual of secular penitence. Multiculturalism is the engine of this penitence, while political correctness is the language in which it is couched.

Bernie Sanders, like Barack Obama before him, is the moral crusader of the moment, bringing this vision of life to America. Have we declined to the point that we will wish it upon ourselves?

How Liberals Plan to Transform America

Many people ask me why liberals have such animosity towards suburbs when so many of them live there. I can’t pretend to plumb the cognitive dissonance of the typical liberal mind, but I can tell you a little about why their progressive overlords harbor this contempt.

Since WWII, the intellectual classes have identified suburbs with middle-class conformity, obsolete religious beliefs, racism, and reactionary political views. Think back to your TV days. What were the leading sitcoms of the ’50s? Right, the suburban happy families of Ozzie and Harriet, the Cleavers, and the Andersons (“Father Knows Best”), and other such shows.

That world underwent a debunking in the ’60s and ’70s that has continued to this day. “All In the Family” was the archetypal, anti-suburban progressive sitcom, in which Archie and Edith represented the benighted suburbanites, while Meathead and Gloria were, though humorously ineptly, the new wave. “Levittown,” the Long Island development that led the suburbanization of America after the war, became a pejorative term regularly applied to the subdivisions that were popping up everywhere.

Movies continued the assault on the suburbs with flicks ranging from the 1950s’ “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” to “Elmer Gantry” (1963) to “Easy Rider” (1969) to “American Beauty” (1999). Books are too many to enumerate, but they included the cultural broadsides of C. Wright Mills, Richard Hofstader, Herbert Marcuse and many others, academic as well as popular.

Leading intellectuals like H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Dwight MacDonald, and Norman Mailer made their names, and their fortunes, by ridiculing and demonizing the suburbs. To this day, the 1950s are the one era of American life that it is scandalous to try and reprise. Even conservatives duly begin their apologies with “well, nobody wants to go back to the ’50s, but…”

The question is: Why this single-minded assault on that decade?

It is, I believe, that the 1950s, for all their faults, were a period of our national history that presented a believable and achievable vision of America that promised an alternative to socialism. It did this not so much through the McCarthyite suppression of dissent that introduced the decade, but through the more mature cultural and civilizational recoveries of the later ’50s.

These were the years when The Great Books began appearing on home book shelves, when Readers Digest classical music albums became commonplace, when Norman Rockwell created an authentic indigenous art form, when electric organs appeared in living rooms, when TV featured Liberace and Van Cliburn alongside Milton Berle and Lucille Ball. It was nothing less than a new American renaissance, in the words of historian George Marsden. Night schools opened for working adults to bone up on their music, literature, science and history. Political writer Michael Barone called it “The Midcentury Moment.”

Since the 1950s, much of America, even small Midwestern towns, have become “suburbanized” in the sense that they all share a middle-class ethos of national pride and personal cultural development. Towns of 50,000 routinely have local artists and community orchestras. Even on America’s farms, often large conglomerates, you find patrons of the arts and ticket holders to the local live theaters.

In spite of all of this, America’s progressives, working from their bases in cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle, have continued the propaganda war against America’s real heartland, the suburbs. This is now so central a tenet of modern progressivism that we have all succumbed in one degree or another to its canonical status.

To the point that today’s liberals mouth this catechism from their living rooms and coffee shops tucked away in what Charles Murray calls the “Superzips,” the rich and tony suburbs of most large cities.

It is important for us to know where Mr. Obama and his acolytes get their ideas for what is best for our country. In this case they come from the self-contradictions of his followers.