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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
A couple of days ago I wondered aloud on Facebook why movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy get off scot-free, when conservative events such as Tea Party gatherings pay for their security, trash cleanup and signage. We all, I suspect, know the answer. Liberals always get preferential treatment. Don’t they?
What if they had to pay their way like the rest of us? I believe many trendy progressive movements would fold and go away. The one thing we know about these people is they are abstemious in the extreme, preferring instead to use other people’s money and to mooch off of society while being self-righteous about it.
They are parasites in the most literal sense, living off the forbearance, patience and even protection of general society while defiling it with their sophomoric behavior and views.
It never seems to occur to our side to actually fight for equal treatment in these things. We are so conditioned to believe that, well, sure, they never pay their way, but that’s the way the world turns, isn’t it? And so left-wing mobs continue to destroy property, shut down businesses, poop on lawns and sidewalks and intimidate pedestrians while we yawn and tell them to grow up.
Well, one way for them to grow up is to feel the pinch of being billed for the damages they do to society and to private property. Who says we must forever indulge the Left the way we do teenage boys? Nothing will cool their foul jets like a demand for payment. Then all those millennial hangers on and those Baby Boomer hippies will suddenly melt away, because they will never put their money where their sizable mouths are.
Won’t anybody take up this cause?
Summary of Marilynne Robinson, Home (2008)
This is the second book in Robinson’s trilogy that began with Gilead (2004) and ended with Lila (2014). All the action takes place in and around the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, a town in the southwestern corner of the state. Two aging ministers, one Presbyterian and one Congregational, live as neighbors. Their wives are both deceased and they both tend small flocks of the faithful at their respective churches in town. The time setting is the 1950s.The Congregational minister is John Ames, whose story comprised Gilead. That book is essentially a long love letter to his infant son Robby, who shows up in Home at five years old. At seventy, John Ames has found the love of his life, a much younger woman named Lila, who comes to his church one stormy night. The two marry, in spite of their age difference and cultural backgrounds, and a son is born. Ames knows he will not live much longer, so he writes the letter to inform his son, when he is old enough to read it, of his life, ancestry and times.
The Novel Home, on the other hand, is the story of events in the parsonage of Rev. Robert Boughton, the Congregational minister. Since the two books, Gilead and Home, cover contemporaneous matters, there is some telling of the same tales but from different perspectives. Boughton and Ames, the two ministers, are best of friends, and their conversations on the meaning of various Biblical doctrines and stories are extremely well thought through. Marilynne Robinson is no theological lightweight, unlike many contemporary Christian novelists.
Rev. Robert Boughton is dying, and his daughter Glory comes home to care for him. She is 38 with a murky past and has become something of a spinster. Boughton has several other children, some quite successful. But he also has an enigmatic son, Jack, who was his most troublesome child and has not been home for twenty years. But Jack has always been the Reverend’s favorite child. Jack’s life too is murky, but he is a brilliant man who seems hunted by someone or something. It turns out that he is indeed a fugitive, not form the law, but from a love affair he had with a black woman in St. Louis. He comes home to sort out his life, and he and Glory form a strong bond with one another. His coming home is preceded by a letter, but his later departure, though long expected by his father and sister, still seems sudden.
Jack Boughton is a modern prodigal son, and his story, temptations and character are what this book is all about. There is not much of a plot, but the book moves along, borne aloft by Robinson’s exquisite prose and her keen insights into human nature.
Glory, the baby of the family, spends her days with her father reliving old memories. “But oh, the evenings were long. I am thirty-eight years old, she would say to herself, as she tidied up after supper. I have a master’s degree. I taught high school English for thirteen years. I was a good teacher. What have I done with my life? What has become of it? It is as if I had a dream of adult life and woke up from it, still here in my parents’ house.”
The letter arrives from Jack that he, too, is coming home. All of Boughton’s kids have longstanding grievances with Jack, who was a dark and sometimes cruel adolescent. Glory tells herself not to be angry. “She reminded herself of this because Jack would probably be insufferable and she had spent all her patience elsewhere.” They had fought as children. But when Jack shows up some months later, he is deferential, polite and somewhat gallant. As they adjust to one another, she realizes that neither of them had intended to be there, but had both turned up at this time due to some divine force. The two warm up to one another; she takes to gardening, he to cultivating the irises and repairing an old DeSoto in the barn.
Gradually, Glory, for all her inbred piety, realizes that she is not so different from Jack, that they are both fugitives. They are both keenly aware of the meaninglessness of their lives, both long to find that meaning in coming home, and both fearful that it will once again elude them. Thinking of the Bible one day, Glory muses: “What a strange old book it was. How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world… It expresses the will of God to sustain us in this flesh, in this life. Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we’ll know what it means to come home.”
Jack and Glory talk about religious things, and he confesses to a certain spiritual hunger, and asks if Glory, who was always the religious one, is going to try and save his soul. After a little banter, he says: “It is possible to know the great truths without feeling the truth of them. That’s where the problems lies. In my case.” Glory ponders the conversation, and thinks to herself, “he was so practiced at reciting what he was also practiced at rejecting.”
One evening, the neighbor Rev. Ames, who was Jack’s godfather, came to dinner with his wife Lila and their son Robby. Jack was nervous all day, not sure how he would get on with Ames, with whom he had had frank words in the past, and from whom he had once stolen a baseball mitt. As they all sat down for dinner, Ames asked old Boughton to offer the prayer, and Boughton referred it back to Ames. There was a silence, and then Jack spoke up. He had prepared a table grace and asked if he might say it. “Jack glanced at Ames, who shrugged, and he began to read. ‘Dear Father,’ he said. He paused and studied the paper, leaning into the candlelight. ‘My handwriting is very poor. I crossed some things out. ‘You are patient and gracious far beyond our deserving.’ He cleared his throat. ‘You let us hope for your forgiveness when we can find no way to forgive ourselves. You bless our lives even when we have shown ourselves to be utterly ungrateful and unworthy. May we be strengthened and renewed, to make us less unworthy of blessing, through these your gifts of sustenance, of friendship and family’. And then, ‘In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.’”
Jack is full of unexpected admissions and confessions, and he and his sister learn to love each other more as the days pass. One day, following the church service held by Rev. Ames which Jack had attended, he was approached by Glory in the barn. He was sitting dejected in the old DeSoto. It seemed to Jack that Ames had taken a potshot at him in his sermon. “Consider our situation, Glory,” he said. “Two middle-aged people in decent health, sane and civilized, generally well disposed toward the world—perhaps I am only speaking for myself here—sitting in an abandoned DeSoto in an empty barn, pondering one more thoroughly predictable and essentially meaningless defeat. Does that strike you as odd?”
Jack has a self-effacing humor that is low key and mildly ironic. But he often expresses the feelings of his sister more clearly than she can herself. He is the voice of the fugitive in many of us, the sense that we are both guilty of something and vulnerable to something beyond our control. He enjoys putting unanswerable philosophical questions to the two old reverends.
As the months pass, both father and son seem to decline into weariness and a sense of death. The early bonhomie fades. Old Boughton begins to be slightly confused, and Jack becomes more devious and flip. Glory observes it, and suggests various remedies But nothing seems to be working. Jack is aware of his influence on the home, but he also seems unable to please his father or leave. He comes home drunk one night and brings all of this to a head. But old Boughton’s increasing senility means he has little memory of the recent confrontation, and he asks Jack to play “Softly and Tenderly” on the piano. The old pastor knows he is dying, and his senility grows worse as the days progress. Jack and Glory decide to call the siblings and let them know their father doesn’t have much time left. Jack agrees to stay with Glory until shortly before the others arrive and then be on his way, aware that his presence will disturb the family.
Jack goes next door for one more conversation with Ames, an event covered in some detail in the first book Gilead. Jack says little about it, but Glory finds him playing a hymn on the piano and takes comfort in that. A woman, Della Miles, had been part of their many conversations. In some way, she and Jack were connected back in St. Louis, or perhaps Memphis. Jack had sent her many letters, but they all came back unopened. One day, Glory picked up the mail and there was a letter for Jack from Della. He read it and let everyone know that the time for his leaving was coming soon. He would leave as soon as Teddy, an older son and a doctor, had arrived.
In the meantime, he had gotten the old DeSoto running, and so he took Glory and old Boughton for a spin around Gilead. Then they all went to bed. In the morning Glory came into the kitchen and Jack was there in a suit (people traveled in suits in those days) with his suitcase. “Now you know where to come when you need help,” Glory told him. “Yes,” he replied. “Ye who are weary, come home.” Jack said his goodbyes, took $40 that Glory offered him, and set off. “He was too thin and his clothes were weary, weary. There was nothing of youth about him, only the transient vigor of a man acting on a decision he refused to reconsider or regret. No, there might have been some remnant of the old aplomb. Who would bother to be kind to him? A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.”
I won’t spoil things by giving you the final scene,, but it brings many things together in this most wonderfully mystifying of books. Glory’s final thoughts at the end are: The Lord is Wonderful.
Summary of “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens, 1853
Bleak House is many things, but what it is not is an inferior novel. Dickens even into the 20th century was often considered a lightweight in the same way Felix Mendelssohn was considered lightweight. Fortunately better heads have prevailed, and this amazing novel now sits among the very best of the century and among the best of all time.
In reading Bleak House, the reader is advised to keep pushing ahead. There are places where the prose becomes dense, and it is best to jump ahead a few pages. One of the characteristics of the novel is that there are two narrators: Esther Summerson herself, and an authorial omniscience that sets the context and provides a sense of moral censure towards Chancery and other aspects of Victorian England.
Bleak House is the story of Esther Summerson through the first twenty years or so of her life. Esther, like Charlotte Bronte’s great heroine Jane Eyre, is an orphan. The heroic orphaned woman was a major theme in Victorian literature: Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch fame was an orphan; Charlotte Bronte’s other great novel Villette starred the orphaned Lucy Snowe; Henry James’ great Portrait of a Lady has as its protagonist the orphaned Isabel Archer; Even Willa Cather casts the central role of her O Pioneers! in the person of the orphan Alexandra Bergson.
Dickens’ vast tableau features many interesting characters in a plot that almost defies description. Nominally the story of the saintly Esther Summerson, it is also the tale of John Jarndyce, a wise, rich and deeply good man who is Esther’s guardian, and later intended husband. It is also the tale of London’s poor, working class, and impoverished landed gentry. It is the story of the breakdown of the old hierarchical order in England, of the social disaster that industrial development often was, and of the Byzantine process of legal transactions that often led to the ruin of both defendant and plaintiff. Some of the worst villains are rich lawyers, and some of the best characters are from the struggling middle-class as well as the landed aristocracy.
The main theme, like the cantus firmus of a Baroque chamber piece, is the spiritual and worldly progress of the delightful and beautiful Esther Summerson. She and two cousins are taken in by their rich relative John Jarndyce, and she plays a role in the redemption of a number of lives, including another orphaned girl Charlotte, or Charley; Caddy, the castoff daughter of an irresponsible mother Mrs. Jellyby; a little boy named Peepy; a crusty old man burned out trying to get his case heard by Chancery (if the novel has an overarching evil spirit, it is the unfeeling, unsensing High Court that grinds on slowly and exceeding finely, ruining life after life); a waif named Jo who figures as a kind of victim of a cruel system; and Esther’s own cousin, Richard, who was once a vivacious member of her original threesome. Richard weds Ada, the third member of the original trio of orphans, but he dissipates himself in a futile quest to win his inheritance at Chancery. His efforts and obsession exhausts him and finally kill him.
Esther, in trying to help Jo the waif, contracts smallpox and nearly dies. When she recovers, her appearance has changed due to the scarring of the disease. She seems to lose nothing of her charm and confidence, however, and the central men of her life find her even more beguiling.
Along the way we meet dozens of interesting types and persons: the “telescopic philanthropy” of Mrs. Jellyby, who spends all her time trying to help natives in Central Africa while neglecting her own family; the incorrigible selfishness of the entertaining and charming Harold Skimpole; the common heroism of George Rouncewell, a discharged trooper who can’t seem to find himself but who blesses everyone he crosses; Inspector Bucket of the London police, who helps Esther track down her tragic mother Lady Dedlock; and Allan Woodcourt, a somewhat unsuccessful doctor to whom Esther is finally married.
Somewhere near the middle of the novel, Esther and her mother, Lady Dedlock are reunited for a short time. Lady Dedlock had been deceived by a relative who informed the mother that her newborn daughter had died. Now, making the discovery that her daughter is alive, she is distraught and wishes her daughter to disown her. Esther is all forgiveness. “I looked at her, but I could not see her, I could not hear her, I could not draw my breath. The beating of my heart was so violent and wild that I felt as if my life were breaking from me. But when she caught me to her breast, kissed me, wept over me, compassionated me, and called me back to myself, when she fell down on her knees and cried to me, ‘O my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! O try to forgive me!’—when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all of my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God… I told her that my heart overflowed with love for her…I held my mother in my embrace, and she held me in hers; and among the still woods in the silence of the summer day, there seemed to be nothing but our two troubled minds that was not at peace.”
Her mother tells her that they will never meet again. Then she flees. Like a Greek tragic character, Lady Dedlock seems driven by some force of guilt and shame that not even the forgiveness and reassurance of Esther can still. She will eventually run out into the storm and perish at the grave of her lover and Esther’s true father.
Esther Summerson grows closer and closer to her guardian John Jarndyce, many years her senior. They plan to marry and she is meant to become Mistress of Bleak House, the Jarndyce estate. It is not stated where Mr. Jarndyce’s fortune comes from, but he is a generous as well as a circumspect philanthropist. When Allen Woodcourt appears after years at sea, however, Esther begins to doubt her love for Mr. Jarndyce. Finally, she and Allan confess their mutual love, but she tells Woodcourt that she is betrothed to Mr. Jarndyce and must be faithful to her commitment. Jarndyce is such a good man that she does not despair, but her real love is for Woodcourt.
As you read this difficult but magnificent novel, you will begin to construct your own ending, so I won’t spoil things by telling you how the book ends. Esther does end as the Mistress of Bleak House, but the turns and twists along the way are what make the book what it is, a ripping good yarn!
Near the end of the book is a chapter called “Beginning the World,” which is the telling of the death of Richard, whose young wife Ada is pregnant with their child. During the recent past, Richard and John Jarndyce, formerly close confidantes, had grown estranged when Richard’s obsession with winning his case colored his life and broke his health. Richard is on his death bed. “’It was a troubled dream,’ said Richard, clasping both my guardian’s hands eagerly. ‘Nothing more, Rick, nothing more,’ replied my guardian [John Jarndyce]. ‘And you, being a good man, can pass it as such, and forgive and pity the dreamer, and be lenient and encouraging when he wakes?’ ‘Indeed I can. What am I but another dreamer, Rick?’ ‘I will begin the world!’ said Richard, with a light in his eyes. A smile irradiated his face, as Ada bent to kiss him. He slowly laid his face down upon her bosom, drew his arms closer round her neck, and with one parting sob began the world. Not this world, O not this! The world that sets this right.”
I hope you make time in your busy lives for this moving, edifying, ennobling novel.