My Charles Dickens Problem


Charles Dickens saw plenty that was wrong with the world, from child labor to bad schools to religious persecution to plain old poverty. But all he did was write about it. His chief shortcoming, as Orwell points out, is that he imagined no political solutions to the evils of his day. Every social ill Dickens decried was ultimately due to a failure of human decency. He abhorred the prospect of political revolution, and it seems he even feared ordinary political change. Dickens’ whole catalogue testifies again and again that he believed Parliament should not intrude on the business of the human heart. If he could just, as a fabulist, pave a road with sufficiently appealing good intentions, he thought, sensitive folk might follow it to a better world.

In other words, liberalism at its most flaccid. A certain kind of reader will rebel at this mindset. For every Cratchit family lifted up by a Scrooge’s benevolence, unnamed millions go neglected. What is the point of relishing Scrooge’s change of heart if it left virtually all of society untouched? Was Dickens just writing feel-good melodrama, or shouldn’t his books have sparked real debate about the system that produced his all-too-real villains?


I confess that I share Dickens’ affliction, an acute lack of political stomach. In a sense, this blog is a record of all the world’s offenses that I will not lift a finger to combat. At least my friends who march for better laws cast a moral light on the world; I only generate an idle heat.

So much for true confessions. But here I must pause to lodge a special complaint. Of all the the nations on God’s green earth, my tribe was supposed to have indulged my Charles Dickens problem and welcomed me as one of its own. On paper, our Christian land is a self-appointed refuge for the pacific and tender-hearted, souls who believe the Beatitudes are written on all their fellows’ hearts. Each of us, in our most American self, ought be the most amicable kind of citizen the world has yet brought forth.

For, as bleating Christian lambs, we surely believe that one’s assailant deserves kindness and forebearing; that peacemakeers are to be blessed; that we need neither spin nor toil to increase our wealth; and that society’s most vulnerable–the poor, the meek, the sick, and the grieving–deserve special esteem and protection. If any country was to embody Christ’s moral revolution on earth, it was supposed to have been ours. The last shall be first, and all that.

And yet, we know goddamn well who comes last, and the life of the average American citizen consists in the struggle to keep them where they are. I find myself living among Romans, not Christians.

Now before I start throwing stones at some three quarters of the citizens of our great land, I feel two caveats are in order. The first is that, if I seem to claim the moral high ground, it is only my natural inclination that is unusually beatific and not my actual behavior. I am a huge fan of Christian virtue, but I am no more capable of it than the next slavering wolf.

Which leads to my second caveat: I do not believe it is possible to be Christian. The surrender of self-interest that is required by Christ’s demands to always put others first, to forgive without limit, to give up striving for basic economic security, to gladly abandon one’s family, and to obey the sadistic command to love the God who created me sick with sin–all this renders the aspiring believer radically incapable of leading a coherent life, or even having a normal self. And of course we do lead normal lives, and for the most part we have normal selves. As I look around me I see countrymen who reject Christianity in the whole fabric of their being. And yet they insist on calling themselves Christians, and they say they live in a Christian republic. I think this is tawdry.

But I am not seeking converts today. I merely wish to point out ahead of time that if I attack the hypocrisy of Christians–and the special hypocriy of American Christians–I am really only getting at their remediable flaw, their insistence on flying a false flag. I leave untouched the less corrigible fact that Christianity is an impossible code of human behavior per se. Of course we are Romans, because that’s the only thing that normal humans can be.

But what do I mean by this? Let me start with surface appearances. These may look like mere frills or foibles, but bear with me: they lead to the heart of the matter.

First, we love chariot races. NASCAR is America’s most-attended spectator sport, and it makes the most money. In 2012 it pulled in more than double the amount of sponsorship revenue as the NFL, $3 billion. Why do we so love this loudest, gaudiest, and most pointless perfection of the old round-and-round? Do the Gospels demand such a wasteful, clamorous spectacle? Or is it more likely that our ruling class benefits from this circus, which helps empty our pockets and divert our attention from the policies that rule our lives? Rome’s plutocrats knew the real value of  the chariot race, and so do ours.

Second, we also love bloodsport. Witness two things. First is the rise of ultimate fighting in America. Lilly-livered souls have long worried that boxing, padded and venerated as it is, is too brutal a spectacle for civilized folk to enjoy. But when Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini pummeled Duk Koo Kim to death in the ring in 1982, it was not a shocked demand for decency that carried the day, but more of a quiet, secret thrill that this could be the way of the future. Our gladiators could deliver the utlimate spectacle, the satisfaction of a bloodlust so deep we dare not speak its name. So what did television’s first sporting homicide awaken among the masses? Christian horror? No: a desire for more, and, eventually, a demand to increase boxing’s lethality by literally taking off the gloves. In 1993 the bare-knuckles Ultimate Fighting Championship was born, and this all-American objet d’art has gone on to conquer the world in popularity. (You can read a coolly evenhanded history of that conquest here.)

I could stop here, but I also want to point out how we increasingly demand that our best-known gladiators, professional football players, wrack one another with shocking brutality for our entertainment. When I was nine years old, I thrilled to Terry Bradshaw’s 64-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Lynn Swann in Superbowl X. What electrified the moment was the fact that, by the time the ball floated perfectly onto Swann’s outstretched fingertips, Bradshaw was in la la land, knocked out cold by a blitzing free safety. He didn’t even see Swann make the catch. The hit made the play, but only in an incidental way; the perfect pass was still the miracle that defined the moment. In the coming decades, though, football’s balance between art and shock would shift dramatically toward the latter.

Game-winning long bombs are rare, but one thing the NFL could serve up on each and every play was harder hitting of the kind that left Bradshaw splayed out on his own 30 yard line. And we, the audience, discovered how much we liked seeing players incapacitated by hard hits. Today, brutal hits are an immensely popular part of the game, and the league’s players have the chronic brain injuries to show for it. A study in 2017 found that 87 percent of deceased NFL players had degenerative brain disorders caused by the repeated trauma of hard hits. These figures belie a disquieting truth–that we demand our football stars to make a near-suicide pact with their sport so we can enjoy a marginal, fleeting thrill at the ever-harder hits they inflict, and endure.

So we love circuses, and the crueler the better. But what of bread, their Roman counterpart? Our goverment needs no subsidies to supply us with cheap distractions in the form of foodlike substances. Under its guidance, the market performs nearly perfectly to bring us addictive, flavor-engineered junkfood, which we consume in increasing quantities knowing full well how bad it is for us. Snacking, not eating, is the wave of America’s future, according to a 2017 study. The visual branding of junkfood bathes our lives with stimulating colors and familiar images chosen to hook us on delectable chemical compounds many of which are patently dangerous. Read this explanation, which is not a muckraking exposé, but an actual industry paper on how to harness the subliminal power of color cues in effective food packaging.

If your junk food habit disinclines you to leave your couch or unglue from the TV, the Powers That Be congratulate you: you are halfway down the path toward a bovine Death of Despair prepared for you by the governmental-industrial complex. Rome’s rulers knew that a sated belly (and stimulated id) spelled political demobilization. Our regime take this a step further, hooking us up to a constant supply of foodlike toxins. Despite a few occasional chirps about the benefits of a “healthy lifestyle,” they mutely watch as an industry whose business model is addiction poisons us into quietude and early death. If you regularly consume this ready-made “bread” in the form of junk food, and if you cheer on the gladiators whose job is to thrill you with violence and tantalize you with the prospect of homicide, you are living in Caligula’s Rome, not in Augustine’s City of God.

Now in the original Rome, the plebes would jeer me at this point for mounting such a high horse. My squeakings are ridiculous, they would say. The people are not monsters for enjoying races, fights and tasty tidbits. Life is a hard contest. Daring spectacles dramatize how high its stakes can be; food ready at hand is the citizen’s reward for work well performed.

But we do not call our republic Rome. We say we are a Christian City on a Hill, founded on and guided by the principles of our meek and mild savior. We are a nation that beats spears into plowshares; we meditate on whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and good. We do not roar, spittle mouthed, for death and mayhem.

Before we pursue the implications of these claims–to which I think I have already given the lie–let me shine a Christian light into deeper matters than corn chips, concussions and car races. If you look just below the surface of the spectacles that so entertain us, they reveal dreams of nothing less than homicide deferred. They show us what we really yearn for at the bottom of our souls, which is the power to deal violent death. (Ordinarily I would hardly need add: a most unChristian thing.)

Consider the most highly charged political debate roiling our Christian land at the moment–the one over gun control. A certain number of us believe the widespread availability of guns has made homicide too easy. We’d like to experiment with laws that we think would make it harder. A certain, larger, number of us Christians insists that such laws would infringe on our God-given constitutional right to bear arms.

Law, tradition, and culture are all on the side of the pro-gun camp. At the very basis of our political existence we exhibit an unshakeable faith in the individual’s right to efficiently mete out death to anyone who would threaten his even more basic rights (although it is becoming increasingly hard to work out what these might be: not just liberty, but all its attendant blessings seem, to a number of us–good Maoists that we are–to flow from the barrel of a gun). As a people, we are not given to turning the other cheek to those who would assail us, but instead we take the more worldly stance that we ought to avail ourselves of superior force if we can. This is an eminently reasonable choice, but notice it is one that causes us to scrap Christianity’s prime directive of radical nonviolence.

Is our desire for lethal power unmotivated, a base sign of simple barbarity? No. But also, yes. The reflex to protect one’s life against the threat of death is what philosophers call a natural right. But how does it fit into politics and an orderly republic, where rights must be codified in law (if at all)? By means of what Thomas Hobbes called the social contract.

Absent a public authority that is vested with an agreed-upon monopoly on violence, communal life is an impossibly risky undertaking, Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. Life without police and courts would be what he called a “war of all against all”: I defend my turf against all comers, and they against me, no refereeing involved. Lethal force is the go-to adjuticator of competing claims, and life is rendered “nasty, brutish and short.” The purpose of government, then, is to receive and guard the individuals’ presumptive right to lethal violence. We may on occasion hate and fear the government’s overweening power (it’s not called Leviathan for nothing), but we have reason to prefer it to the unregulated state of nature.

What we have in the U.S. constitutional protection of gun ownership, then, is a failure to fully commit to the social contract. We surrender to the goverment our right to use lethal force, but not quite. If push comes to shove, we still want our guns, and it is because we do not fully trust the government to exercise its monopoly on the use of violence. What else is a loaded pistol in the nightstand for?

It is also said that the law cannot touch guns in America because they are part of our culture. In fact our commitment to guns is so intense, we use it to cheer both parties to the social contract. We love individual antiheroes who use their guns to make a last desperate stand against government forces, as did anyone who felt any sympathy at all for the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge. But we also valorize our increasingly militarized police who turn out in stormtrooper gear, doing the state’s bidding and armored against a world gone very mean. Dirty Harry was so popular because he embodied both these personas–a renegade and a cop ostentatiously fitted for the good fight.

(This ambivalence, by the way, also explains the underappreciated appeal of the Billy Jack movies of the 1970s. What could feel better to a culturally besieged Christian than watching a likeminded hero get fed up to the breaking point by the assholery of society and go into a kung fu rage so destructive it brings on a showdown with the authorities? Not schlocky enough for you? Try Dog the evangelical bounty hunter, who appealed to much the same audience, one that liked its Christian warriors muscled, mulleted and well armed. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Here is a paradox: both Christianity and gun love are responses to a fallen world. Christ instructed his followers to go out among sinful humanity and set an example of radical pacifism and forgiveness. If need be, they should even accept a martyr’s death with equinamity. The gun lover is more or less the opposite of what Christ thought of as a loyal follower–he is a death-dealing rational protector of his own interests, more of an antichrist than Nietzsche ever aspired to be.

In the past few months I have used an hysterical-sounding phrase to sum up America’s attraction to guns. I have called our acceptance of gun violence an embrace of “indecency,” and I have for my own part encouraged my countrymen to own this appellation. If only to avoid neurosis, we are better off admitting our loyalty to our baser angels than affecting true love for our better ones. To our own selves let us be true.

I am now in a position to put my point in more clinical terms. The social contract, I believe, is the best bet mankind has for leading individual lives that are not nasty, brutish and short–in other words, decent. Furthermore, I believe the Christian attitude is clearly disposed toward the radical disavowal of violence that is crucial for making the social contract stick. Putting our right to kill into the hands of the government is a no-flinch moment.

But the American inclination to renege on the social contract and arm individuals against the state of nature–a state defined by the threat of violence around any corner–is literally a vote to be indecent; it is a desire to climb back down a rung of social progress. And the gun itself is not the thing. What defines us is our desire to retain the right to efficient, reliable death-dealing.

My critics will counter that our government has not subdued the state of nature; if it just did its job, there would be no need for the citizen to claim recourse to violence. This is true as far as it goes, but notice what it leaves untouched: the assumption that life is a struggle, inevitably filled with winners and losers. There is no way around the power order of nature, and only a chump thinks otherwise. This wised-up attitude is a deeply American one, very well put by H.L. Mencken: “It requires a conscious effort for me to pump up any genuine sympathy for the downtrodden, and in the end I usually conclude that they have their own follies and incapacities to thank for their troubles.”

Romans were hard. They knew life was a violent struggle, and they fortified themselves against fate, and their mortal enemies. They were social Darwinists before their time.

We, too, are social Darwinists. We believe that if an individual’s performance does not win him the life he wants, it’s because he was bested by rivals who wanted it more. It’s a fuck-you world out there, and if you come to play, you better come armed. This is America, and we are Romans, not Christians.



It’s Reigning Men


This was supposed to be the year I read more female authors. Call me politically correct, but the data about women in public life tell an undeniably appealing story–the more women are heard, the better. On balance, women are a civilizing force. Any society that features women in its A-list of artists, politicians and professionals has a better shot at being decent than a patriarchy does.

Last year when I reviewed Stephen Pinker’s magnificent The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I highlighted one of Pinker’s boldest conclusions: countries that empower women in politics have lower instances of social dysfunction across the board. The rising tide of female thought leaders, says Pinker, is one reason that developed countries are enjoying an era of decreasing violence and increasing protection of human rights.

Fair enough, you might say, women are great. But why make a special effort to read more of their books? Shouldn’t the free marketplace of ideas just bring them cresting toward me on a wave of excellence?

I suppose there’s is something to that. Middlemarch, by George Eliot, has long been my favorite novel in the English language. It includes better moral instruction and far more depth of feeling than the Bible. For recent social commentary, especially on the American scene, there is no better writer than Joan Didion. She is simply magical. I made no special effort to read these women, nor did I choose them for their “feminine” voices. They were (are) just outstanding writers, and I was hungry for their ideas.

But consider this. In the paragraph just above I tried, but could not follow, Aristotle’s advice to compose lists of threes. Eliot and Didion rose to the surface of my consciousness, but I couldn’t, without effort, conjure the name of just one more woman who had helped furnish my mind. I thought to add Hanah Arendt after the fact, but would I not be forcing a piety at that point? On the spur of the moment, I could only name two women whose writing had really shaped me.

Here’s a plain, solid fact: men predominate my mind, pacific as it is. I once dedicated a whole year to reading Dickens as Orwell understood him. This blog is literally a paean to Orwell. Another thing: glance down through the column of tone-setting quotations to the left and you will see men on parade–Whitman, Conrad, Orwell, Proust, Vidal, Camus, and Wittold Gombrowicz. You might not have heard of the last author, but I bet you can guess his gender. (Oops.) I searched my own posts for a third woman to mention in my introduction to this essay, but all I got back was praise for, inter alia, James Baldwin, Grotius, and Norman Mailer, a man who stabbed his wife in the neck.

charles atlas leopard
Charles Atlas, man’s man

The decision to read more women, then, seems to be a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. If I truly believe women deserve more space in an intelligent reader’s hall of heroes, it is actually right and proper to put more female writers to the test. And to do this, a reader must make a list and start checking it off, a blatant act of positive discrimination.

And so my admittedly trumped-up list for 2018 included Toni Morrison’s Beloved, all of Susan Sontag’s essays and novels, all of Naomi Klein’s recent criticism, and the major novels of Willa Cather. (Cather somehow enriched her soul from the raw materials of life on the underpopulated American plain, something I was unable to do. She also had no use for men except as buyers of her books, if you know what I mean.) I also wanted to discover the novels of Dawn Powell, a little heard-of author whom Gore Vidal praised to high heaven and called simply “the American writer” in an eponymous essay.

My plan has gone great, except for the beginning, and the part since then. Having nothing to read the day before New Years (when my plan should nominally have started), I snuck in Don Delillo’s White Noise rather than getting straight to Morrison’s Beloved. Everything I would read this year, I rationalized, would pass through a filter of post-9/11 American criticism. I would be better off just accepting this assumption, and using Delillo’s depiction of dumbed-down, media-entranced America to articulate my mindset going in.

Don’t get me wrong. I did read Beloved right after White Noise, and it was everything I hoped it would be, but somehow, I had to defer first to the solidities of my masculine self. Reading Delillo was my genuflection to maleness going into the temple of literature.

My regard for masculinity takes on physical size in my library. Several books by men’s men stand as pillars so large on my bookshelf, they pull like gravity. You are thinking it, so I’ll go ahead and say it: yes, pillars are phallic. Let us enlarge on this idea.

Two of the books in question are almost literally the product of a dick-measuring competition. Gore Vidal’s behemoth United States is a 1,200-page volume of essays written between 1952 and 1992, heavy on politics. I worship it: it catalogues Vidal’s magnificence as an American commentator. Norman Mailer liked it too, but in his own way. Not cottoning to Vidal’s faggishness but jealous of his heroic output, Mailer produced the 1,300-page The Time of Our Time to outdo United States. I have to believe he crossed the 1,300-page mark just to notch a victory of physical dimension. But boy foibles aside, The Time of Our Time is also a surpassingly great book. If you want to know, in your gut, what the riotous Democratic conventions of 1968 Chicago and 1972 Miami meant for America, you must read Mailer. And then you may, like myself, find you want to read him on other things as well.

Even mediocre masculinity takes pride of place on my bookshelf. To wit: there are, to my mind, two ways to understand the crucial concept of the power elite in America. One is to read C.W. Mills’ 1967 book of the same name. But my method of choice is to acquire and read every book ever written about America’s power centers by the great and dull chronicler Bob Woodward. I know in the upper reaches of my mind that Joan Didion is right about Woodward’s crippling inability to draw moral conclusions, but the Herculean task of digesting all of his solemn, hefty books does indeed leave one thoroughly instructed on the exercise of power in the Oval Office, the Pentagon, the CIA, the Supreme Court, and so on. Because I’ve found I can buy Woodward’s books cheapest in hardback, they stand like large fortresses on my bookshelf. They guard a certain something inside me, something “dumb-muscled, slap-bang” and male, as Don Delillo might put it.

What, then, am I trying to say here? I know where the majority-power lies in my mind–in the things that famous men say about the ideas and actions of other famous men. But if the principle of spotlighting the minority report is good enough for the U.S. Supreme Court, is it not good enough for your humble correspondent as well? Should I not make a deliberate effort to showcase dissent, even in the shabby, undiscovered theater of my own mind? And so I carry on with my list of female writers, knowing like Stephen Pinker knows, that it is a good thing, even if it takes effort. Everything worthwhile thing I’ve ever done has taken effort. Why should an education in human decency be any different? Bring on Sontag, Klein, Cather and Powell!