The Most American Thing of All

It’s true what historians say, you interpret the past through the filter of the present.

When I read Gore Vidal’s historical novel Lincoln in the spring of 2016, it was my first attempt to understand the sixteenth U.S. president. By custom, we approach Lincoln as an amalgam of superlatives that we learn in grade school. He was the most mythical of Americans; he flew so high, we truly believe he touched the face of God.

Indeed Lincoln’s aura began to take form even while he was still alive. His closest friends in the White House called him “the Ancient.” They seemed to know that he would go down as a giant in history.

The last words that were spoken of Lincoln foretold the reverence we would always feel for the great man. “Now he belongs to the ages,” intoned Secretary of War Stanton as Lincoln breathed his last in William Peterson’s house. Well, he had always belonged to the ages.

Vidal’s novel about Lincoln caused wailing and gnashing of teeth when it came out in 1984, the high tide of Reagan’s America. If you’ve heard anything at all about the book, you probably heard that it was a hatchet job, done to chop Lincoln down to size. Great Americans, after all, do not contract veneral diseases, do not entertain atheist ideas. Infamously, Vidal insinuated the former of Lincoln and made a pretty plain case for the latter. (There is a whopping great literature on both controversies, and Vidal stoutly defends his sources. My purpose today is not to weigh in on this argument. If you’re interested in it, start here.)

But read Lincoln in any case, no matter where your instincts lie about the subject of Lincoln’s saintliness. It is a 650-page novel, and Vidal spends 640-odd pages detailing other things about the man than his atheism or alleged case of syphilis. It is a deeply nuanced, complex portrait that does a far greater service than any patriotic haigography ever could. Indeed, for me, Lincoln establishes convincingly that truly a god became man and walked among us. Even seen through Vidal’s realist filter, Lincoln is so gravely noble, it is hard to feel worthy of his legacy today. More on this in a moment.

The fact that Lincoln made the superhuman choices he did and suffered inhuman tragedies while bearing the burden of a potentially suicidal national question–Are we free or not?–and that he did all this on the strength of only the most human resources–stubbornness, introspection, humor, conviviality, pragmatism and patience–shows that he was more verily a giant than our pious myths ever made him out to be.

Say what you will of Vidal’s alleged subversiveness, but the fact is, he accomplished something nearly magical with Lincoln–he humanized a god, but kept the god part. And in so doing, he indicated something of the greatness that is attainable by any American. If each of us could muster even a fraction of Lincoln’s genius or compassion or magnanimity–or, yes, foxiness–we would help build a better country, or at least we would be better friends, parents, neighbors, teachers, officials.

There is a scene from Lincoln that I suppose I will take with me to the grave, it speaks so affectingly of the man’s courage and decency. It is September 1862, and the president is touring the aftermath of Antietam, the bloodiest battle so far of the Civil War. Lincoln and his entourage are about to retire for the day, having been briefed by the (disappointing) General Mclellan and having visited hundreds of wounded Union soldiers. They mount their horses and start back toward Washington.

They were now opposite a large farmhouse on whose porch a dozen wounded men lay on pallets. Lincoln turned to his colonel-escort. “What’s this, Colonel?”

“Confederate prisoners, sir. Wounded at Sharpsburg. We’ll be sending them on to Washington once we’ve finished shipping our own wounded back.”

“I think I’d like to take a look at these boys,” said Lincoln. “And I’m sure they’d like to take a look at me.”

Lincoln’s bodyguard stiffened, hated the idea. The Southern press relentlessly portrayed Lincoln as a criminal and tyrant. Washington was rife with rumors of Confederate plots to kill him, and he repeatedly tempted fate by ambling around the city unguarded. Lincoln’s bodyguard thought surely one of the wounded men inside would stand up and strike a blow for the Confederacy once they saw their nemesis before them so vulnerable. But the president pressed on, together with friend and advisor Elihu Washburne, a Repulican member of the House of Representives. “You stand outside,” Lincoln instructed his security detail, “while Mr. Washburne and I, two harmless Illinois politicians, pay these southern boys a call.”

The colonel led Lincoln and Washburne up the steps and into the house, which consisted, at this level, of a single large room lined on both sides with cots. At least a hundred men and boys lay on the cots, some missing arms or legs or both. Some were dying; others were able to limp about. The smell of flesh corrupting was overpowering; and Washburne tried not to breathe. But Lincoln was oblivious of everything except the young men who were now aware that a stranger was in their midst. The low hum of talk suddenly ceased; and the only sound in the room was the moaning of the unconscious. . . . [S]lowly, [Lincoln] removed his hat. All eyes that could see now saw him, and recognized him.

When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet voice was muted; even intimate. “I am Abraham Lincoln.” There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of tension and of . . . ? Washburne had never heard a sound quite like it. “I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in, and for that, I honor you, and for your wounds so honorably gained. I feel no anger in my heart toward you; and trust you feel none for me. That is why I am here. That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship, of any man among you.”

The same sigh, like a rising wind, began; and still no one spoke. Then a man on crutches approached the President and, in perfect silence, shook his hand. Others came forward, one by one; and each took Lincoln’s hand; and to each he murmured something that the man alone could hear.

The honor, goodwill and magnanimity Lincoln shows in this scene are almost beyond belief. But we know it happened. There were several eyewitnesses, and two of them recorded Lincoln’s words more or less as he must have spoken them.

For more than a year after I read this passage I believed that Lincoln’s decision to go into that house to speak those words was the most “American” thing that had ever happened in our history. Knowing full well he was lying about being a harmless Illinois politician (the famous Lincoln irony), Lincoln presented himself to those soldiers as their enemy personified, the very man who had caused the deaths of thousands of their comrades.

In facing those troops, though, and praising their conduct, he beheld them as equal men even in the midst of a war that pitted them as inhuman enemies. Lincoln’s offer of friendship was a superhuman act of decency. I confess that I sometimes fight back tears when I read this passage. Time and again Lincoln forced himself to feel the full weight of responsibility for the ruinous war that he was waging. If ever there were an American president who felt in his bones that his nation should resolve to know war no more, it was Lincoln. When he walked unguarded into that house and gave that speech, it was because he believed more deeply in our bonds of affection and our better angels than in our civil war and our demons.

But I no longer think that that speech is the most American thing of all. Today I think the most American thing of all was the bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth that exploded Lincoln’s brain and drove his thoughts from the world. Today we put more store in the power of violence to solve legal challenges than in civilized dispute and argumentation. We desire to be a country full of good guys with guns ready to mete out rough justice that bypasses any philosopher’s wish for peace. Admit it or not, we have chosen vigilantism as a form of government; let our violent angels range out over the land and do the work of law.

[Image: PBS]
Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamozov, who meets Christ face-to-face and finds that he hates him, today’s Republican high priests appear to scorn everything that made Lincoln great. Still more does the mob behind them reject everything Lincoln stood for.

The current adminstration is a hateful burlesque of presidential leadership. Lincoln’s high and noble legacy casts the noxiousness of Trumpism into deep, ugly relief. Insolence, sniggering, and the wholesale evasion of responsibility define not just Trump’s political style, but the whole substance of his administration. But for his mob we might be able to dismiss his rise as an anomaly that will pass with merciful quickness. Unfortunately, though, the currents of reactionarism run deeper than that. A large part of our country rejects the decency and humanity of our greatest president, and rather than striving to emulate any part of what made him great, we bow to a buffoon who mocks the very idea of responsibility and accountability (and tells us he does so). Republicans, are we? If so, it is not a republic that Lincoln would recognize.



What Sinclair Lewis Really Hated


Joining a recent trend, I finally got around this year to reading Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here, which depicts the rise of a fascist dictator in 1930s America.

But before I picked up It Can’t Happen Here, I first took in Lewis’s other major novels–Mainstreet, Babbit, Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith. It was an entrancing journey. Lewis is a keen, searching critic of American society, even if he is not quite in the front rank of America’s great novelists. His morality tales bravely answer Kafka’s demand that, “Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.”

Furthermore, Lewis’s novels form a fascinating historical bridge between post-Civil War, steam-powered America and the country we know today. Lewis was born in 1885, the year after Huckleberry Finn was published, and he died in 1951, the year Boeing produced the first B-52 bomber, which is still in service. Much of the language in Lewis’s early dialogues is either hilariously cornball (“Gee!” once expressed real vehemence, if you can believe it.) or barely intelligible (“Punk” was an adjective, not a noun, meaning inferior or objectionable.). By the time of his last novels, though, Lewis’s dialogue needed no translation even for those of us born after 1960.

For anyone who grew up in the rural Midwest, as I did, here is another charming part of Lewis: he mounts his critique of American prejudices and blindspots straight from the amber-grained heartland, bypassing the urban coasts where the smart set presumes all our great national debates begin and end. There is something wickedly fun about watching Lewis attack American complacency from the same Minnesota plains that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder to pen stories of such innocent wonder. The name “Mankato,” signifying a shining, magical place where Pa Ingalls went to buy real glass window panes for the little house and peppermint candy for the kiddoes, will never ring the same after Lewis uses the village to stage the self-satisfied duncery of middlebrow townies.

sinclair lewis
Sinclair Lewis, national scold (image: IMDb)

It was only by accident that I read Lewis’s back catalogue before I took in It Can’t Happen Here, but I’m very glad I did. Lewis was a great chronicler of social change in America. By the time he wrote It Can’t Happen Here, in 1936, he had already rendered a fine-grained map of the national mindset, one that is still capable of enlightening us postmoderns. It was this deeper fund of insight that I found more useful in making sense of Trump than the novel that was supposedly “about” him.



When the U.S. Electoral College produced Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016, obervers who had abstractedly scratched their chins and wondered what the College was truly for suddenly had concrete reason to ask whether this quirk in the system could somehow open democracy’s gates to barbarism. Could tyranny happen here, based on a technicality?

Trump’s first shot across the bow of democracy, on day one, was typical for an aspiring tyrant. Sending Sean Spicer out to shout plain falsehoods about crowd size to the press was a variation on one of Hitler’s and Stalin’s go-to tactics, the Big Lie. The Big Lie is a crucial test for an aspiring dictator. It doesn’t matter whether the people believe it or not, but if a large enough group is beguiled by its mere boldness–if they are stirred by the strong man’s ability to say whatever he wants and not be constrained by convention–that group becomes a mob. And mobs are very good for aspiring dictators.

Even if you dismiss Trump as a mere grandstanding, phillistine bigot, not a credible tyrant, his win was still disquieting. It raised the question of what might happen next, after Trump spends four years test-driving the country through the basic maneuvers of fascism.[1] Might a competent dictator then arrive?

A year and a half after Trump’s win, with white supremacists still Sieg Heiling him, ICE agents increasingly comporting themselves like stormtroopers, and Trump’s inner circle insisting he is above the law, we have ample reason to wonder how loathesome Trumpism can become before it hits a limit of some kind. And this is where the novels of Sinclair Lewis prove to be instructive. Lewis’s subject was always, in some way, the American national character, and if there are limits on Trumpism, it is in our character we are likely to find them. After all it was the American idea that gave rise to the Constitution, not vice versa. Unfortunately, to get to the heart of what Lewis had to say on this subject, you have to bypass some significant flaws in the novel that has brought his name back into national light.

The first thing an educated reader notices about It Can’t Happen Here is the technical implausibility of its plot at several key junctures. When the dictator-president, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, imposes emergency rule mere hours after his election and has his Brown Shirt militia arrest several key opponents, the judicial branch offers not a squeak of resistance. With no device to explain this development, Lewis simply has every judge in the land roll over for Windrip. Are populist militia men poised to arrest the judges? We don’t know; Lewis fails to convince.

There are other similar plot gaps. They all turn on technicalities, but in a state governed by a constitution, court rulings, and a written body of law, technicalities are of primary importance. When Trump’s administration tried to pass off a jejeunely written, tub-thumping pamphlet as an executive order banning Muslims last year, the courts duly trimmed it down to lawful size. An essential technicality.

By mistake or by design, though, Lewis simply doesn’t attend to mechanisms like this, the features of our political system that could realistically curb a tyrant’s ambitions.

So why read him, then? Because he plumbs the deeper question I just alluded to about national character, which has implications for the potential cultural limits on Trumpism. Lewis compels as to ask biting, stinging questions about who we are and what the American idea is.

The most apalling thing about Trump’s movement is not the man himself. As George Will stoically pointed out recently, “Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, . . . .  The real horror of Trumpism is the relish with which his fanbase metabolizes his garish flaws, converting celebrity worship into organized bigotry. What kind of citizen has our country brought forth, capable of seeing Trump’s attacks on tolerance, honesty and responsibility as a tonic for our democracy?

I am an optimist about the truth and its importance for democracy. Sort of. I do not believe one man can tell lies as big as Trump’s and be believed based only on what he says. There must be people out there who already want to believe things that are extravagantly false. As I read Lewis’s novels this spring, it dawned on me how deep this well of credulity is in America. We’ve been digging it since we started to become a prosperous, modern country. In a moment, I’ll offer some thoughts on Lewis’s back-catalogue novels that deal with this history.

But, first, back to It Can’t Happen Here. In the riproaring weeks leading up to Buzz Windrip’s election, the establishment candidate is campaigning “as placidly as though he were certain to win.” (Sound familiar?) This is because the populist firebrand Windrip is simply not credible on the stump; his threats, promises and harrangues are all super sized. The novel’s hero, though, crusty old newspaper man Doremus Jessup, is starting to realize that  Windrip’s base, fueled by grievances not facts, will carry the day. “This,” Jessup pronounces, “is revolution in terms of Rotary.”

What did Lewis mean by that? What’s so bad about Rotarians? Aren’t they self-starting, optimistic do-gooders, boosters of the local community? How could their brand of public-spiritedness possibly menace American democracy? Shouldn’t it actually be good for Americans? De Tocqueville thought very positively of our habit of forming and joining prosocial clubs. Lewis’s ultimate Rotarian character, George Babbitt, describes his fellows’ worldview as “a loyal and vigorous faith in the goodness of the world, a fear of public disfavor, a pride in success.” This attitude seems virtuous enough, even if slightly parochial. What malice did Lewis sense lurking behind such small-town pride?

I said earlier that Lewis is a fascinating writer because he links vaguely-intelligible ideas of an American past to the familiar country of today. And so, his idea of “Rotary,” while suggestive of a certain late-Victorian mindset, requires a bit of recontextualizing to bring it up to date. For Lewis the Rotarian mind was one that equated get-ahead commercialism with civic virtue. In the Anytown, USA of Lewis’s day, it was the local business leaders who were creating the jobs that floated everyone’s boat a little higher. If anyone deserved to be listened to above others, it must have been these yeoman of the American dream. Without them, thousands, possibly millions of Americans gifted with less grit or creativity would have floundered in poverty.

This cross-section view of American class structure reveals something of great historical significance, the idea that all political power derives from property. Our Declaration of Independence says each person may claim freedoms based on her status as a human being, but our culture says she’ll need to beg permission of the wealthy first. It is they who safeguard the land’s political power and mete it out to those they deem deserving.

Today, the the quintessence of the Rotarian persona survives in the class of white, male Christian property owners, who believe implicitly that the political opinions of the differently-minded must pass a tribunal of WASP values to enter the marketplace of ideas. Gay marriage?–Hmm, maybe, but only after enough rich white Christians convince the mob to go light on Leviticus and Deuteronomy and politely ignore whatever it is the fags are up to.

But history occasionally cracks open to empower the voiceless. The tension in It Can’t Happen Here arises because America’s tycoons wake up to the Great Depression to find their presumptive status as gatekeepers under threat. History’s tectonic plates shifted in 1929, and the poor and unlucky were suddenly claiming a form of political agency that did not need or seek the say-so of the rich. Windrip’s campaign succeeds in It Can’t Happen Here because he promises to quiet the rabble and restore the gatekeeper status of the go-getter wealthy.

Lewis only imagined there were Americans who would believe a Windrip’s pledge to make America great again. With Trump’s rise, we now know there are living, breathing citizens of this country who favor a humiliating power order that compels the poor, the female, the colored and other bothersome little types to apply to the rich for political patronage.

For the rich and famous, things don’t get much better than this. The peasantry is actually cheering them on, praising the height and beauty of the walls they have built around their treasures. Lewis’s back-catalogue novels are great because they document the besetting sins that made this level of abasement possible.

Babbitt records the American idea that wealth is the best measure of a person’s value. Wealth worship starts out innocently enough. Everyone has to make a living; George Babbitt simply propounds the idea that, the more pep one puts into money-making, the better sort of person he is. Babbitt’s life falls apart because of the moral bankruptcy of this view, but never mind.

Elmer Gantry establishes the indispensibility of religious fundamentalism for political credulity and the special role it plays in subjugating the poor to the the rich. Once a preacher turns the trick of fooling most of the people most of the time, he has produced  the ultimate political commodity–blind faith. And with God on any given politician’s side, there is nothing a mob cannot be persuaded to believe from him. Gantry is a profane, dimwitted womanizer who nonetheless succeeds as a preacher because he stands up and fights for the tribal Christian identity of America.

Mainstreet addresses the overwhelming power of social conformity, especially in small towns. The novel’s heroine, Carol Milford, leaves the big city for true love in a small town, but she soon discovers how overpowering her new neighbors’ desire is for sameness of thought. A panoply of structural injustices (against women, children, minorities, etc.) is disguised as the loyalty ordinary folks feel toward traditional ways. By trying to make the smallest of changes to her new surroundings, Carole discovers how deeply entrenched the old power order is and how strong its immunities are to new ideas.

Arrowsmith showcases the social significance of populist skepticism about science. One interesting division of a society is the kinds of invisible things its members believe in. Scientitsts tend to believe in entities too small to see–genes, atoms, microbes, etc. Non-scientists tend to believe in entities too wondrous to see–the Trinity, the Invisible Hand, the power of prayer, and so forth. In Arrowsmith, Lewis suggests, gloomily, that the latter camp will always have the upper hand. Science is fine as long as it makes money or reinforces the established power order, but as soon as it starts to upset the received view, the mob closes ranks to denounce it as “just” a theory.

Taken together, Lewis’s back catalogue goes a long way toward explaining the rise of the Trumpist mob. America used to be great, goes their narrative, before differently-minded people appeared on the scene to challenge the implicit political superiority of the country’s WASP gatekeepers. This is what Lewis really hated–the bland, presumptive assholery of WASP Mainstreet. His most blinkered characters believed that hardworking white Americans were just doing what came naturally to an organically virtuous, industrious people, and anyone who stood out–or stood up to them–was just asking for trouble.

Lewis’s novels encompass much more than this critique, of course. Read him for all he has to say. But you just might find yourself thinking he has a lot to say about who we are today.


  1. In an effort to keep my essays moving, I sometimes don’t slow down to define key terms. I realize I am using tyranny, authoritarianism and fascism more or less interchangebly about Trump depsite the fact that they mean different things. Without consulting a primer on political science, I consider tyranny to be a form of government, which elevates the ruler’s will over the law; authoritarianism to be a style of government, which coopts institutions to reinforce a ruler’s will; and fascism to be a political culture that uses nationalism, militarism and industrialism to advance an aggressive, rights-violating agenda. I don’t believe my slurring over these concepts does any serious injury to precision in describing Trump’s political style.

Why I Am Not a Christian


It is with fear and trembling that I borrow this title from one of my heroes, Bertrand Russell. A magnificent philosopher, Russell was much more measured and cogent on the topic than I will be. You can read his memorable essay here or hear it as a lecture here.

Orginally I wanted to call my post “Why I Am Not a Theist,” partly to avoid using Russell’s famous title and partly because I wanted to give an account of my disbelief in all gods, not just the one who sacrificed his only begotten son on Golgotha. As I started to outline my argument, though, it became clear to me that it was the god of the Christian Bible that I had a particular quarrel with. I had no deeply-felt objections to Zeus, Wotan, forest sprites, or any other dead gods, I suppose because all civilized people are already blithely atheistic about them.

Nor did I feel any need to go after exotic ideas of god. Almost all human cultures have evolved an idea of divinity, and at the end of the day, I think they are all either false or nonsensical. But, as William James pointed out in The Will to Believe and The Varieties of Religious Experience, the God-seeker approaches divinity through a cuturally salient framework. A spiritually thirsty young man at Harvard in 1900 (James’s main audience back when he was writing his books) would not have turned to the esoterica of Vishnu, for example, for salvation, since all his cutural touchstones referred to the Gospel of Jesus or at least the sissified Unitarianism of Emerson.

And so I would miss the point If I went after other cultures’ ideas of god, even if I think they all boil down to much the same thing as the Christian mythology I gew up with. (But please do give a moment to attend to the profusion and variety of theistic religions around the world. How likely is it that you, among these billions of divergent believers, were born to the one culture that identified the right god? Had you been born in Indonesia, would the Lord have, mirabile dictu, led you to Christianity? The Indonesian villager–probably a Muslim, maybe an animist–is as convinced as you are that he was divinely sanctioned to worship the one true God or panoply of gods in exactly the right way.)

My own disbelief was the outcome of a long journey, which I won’t bother to describe in any detail. Suffice it to say that, from the time of my baptism into the Southern Baptist Church when I was 11, to the time of my graduate studies in philosophy 20 years later, I had pulled a multitude of tricks out of the book to shore up my faith. I was an unusual animal, perhaps one of the few North American evangelicals who delved into Thomas Aquinas, then Augustine, then William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, to find an intellectual framework for my Christianity.

For a time I read the novels of Walker Percy, and I thought they were excellent. Now I only think they are good. They are mostly about the existence of God and the improbability of finding Him in America, the most death-dealing, wealth-worshiping land on Earth. (Percy did believe he found Him, though, in the South, of all places.)

In graduate school, I became an analytic philosopher, someone who tries to understand the world through statements of predicate logic, which mostly look like this:

  •  abP(x,y)∀ a∃bP(x,y) where P(a,b)P(a,b) denotes a+b=0a+b=0
  •  abcP(a,b,c)∀ a∀b∀cP(a,b,c) where P(a,b)P(a,b) denotes a+(b+c)=(a+b)+ca+(b+c)=(a+b)+c

Analytic philosophers tend to believe, as Wittgenstein famously said, that whatever can be expressed can be expressed precisely. And some such philosophers were, like me, bedeviled by religious belief. So they constructed arguments like this one, which tried to make Christian theism technically daunting and, thus, intellectually respectable:

(1) If God exists then he has necessary existence.
(2) Either God has necessary existence, or he doesn’t.
(3) If God doesn’t have necessary existence, then he necessarily doesn’t.
(4) Either God has necessary existence, or he necessarily doesn’t.
(5) If God necessarily doesn’t have necessary existence, then God necessarily doesn‘t exist.
(6) Either God has necessary existence, or he necessarily doesn’t exist.
(7) It is not the case that God necessarily doesn’t exist.
(8) God has necessary existence.
(9) If God has necessary existence, then God exists.
(10) God exists.

The author of this argument, Alvin Plantinga, a fiercely intellectual Calvinist who taught at Notre Dame last I knew, still claimed that Christian belief was “fundamental,” a technical term which meant that faith is its own foundation; it stands in no need of further eividentiary proof.

All those fancy arguments down the drain! Plantinga (like me, and all the other philosophers of religion I knew of) was still right back where so much Christian belief founders–on the need to take everything in the Bible on blind faith. I think this is the right juncture, by the way, to reflect that the Bible enjoins us to kill fags, describes a beer bet in which God allows Satan to torture and kill several humans just to fuck with one particularly faithful human, Job, and invites us to find moral uplift in a story about cutting the throat of one’s child and then burning his body to make a pleasing aroma for the Lord. Pure poetry.

I also explored fideism, the “existentialist” idea that faith is valid because it consciously avoids the trap of rationalism. The central image of fideism is of the Orthodox Russian peasant desolate in his poverty but immovable in his belief, or the American hayseed slain in the spirit and prostrated by Glory in a sweaty Kansas revival tent. The idea is that the unlettered faithful tap straight into a root of wisdom that eludes the intellectual. In this vein, I read all of Dostoevsky’s big novels and Kierkegaard’s philosophical tracts, and they all say, don’t bother with an intellectual framework for faith; there’s no such thing. The Bible also appears to say this in places, at least where it is not saying that reason and intellect are also good for belief.

No matter where I searched, I increasingly found that I had no honest answer for the questions confronting Biblical faith. In no particualr order, here are  few that came knocking over the years:

  • If the Bible was authored and edited by fallible men, how could it be taken as perfectly true and authoritative? The Bible says in several places that its texts are “self-sufficient,” meaning that they need no reference to other evidence or authority to prove their truth; you may simply take them as self-evidently correct. Of course, this is what you would say too if you wanted to impose a doctrine of your choice on an uninstructed audience.
  • Why were there so many other kinds of believers who also thought they had exclusive access to divine truth? Did my faith not require me to deny the dignity of their beliefs, essentially dismissing them as less human than myself?
  • How would Heaven avoid being an eternal horror show? I have limited faith that humans can imagine what it is like to do anything forever, let alone all that blasting of trumpets and bellowing of hosannas the Bible promises (“Oh, to be there and at peace!” Mark Twain shouts as he tries, in his own mind, to be heard against the clamor of an imagined Heaven.) Seriously, though, to survive heaven–still more to rejoice in it–would require a transformation of our consiousness that would render us inhuman and no longer ourselves.
  • Is there any faith problem that magical thinking cannot fix? This last point about heaven and the perdurance of individual identity (whether the “you” that’s in heaven a million years from now is still you in any meaningful sense) really got me thinking: every time I came up against a hard problem of faith, I reflexively retreated to the idea that God can transform anything he wants to, and it does not matter whether we understand such transformations. The me that would last through all of heaven’s eternal existence would just magically be me, because I know that’s how God intends things to be.
  • How closely must I identify with such a stearn and jealous God as the God of the Bible? While I was still a believer, I did not dare to think of God as cruel, even though I was deeply interested in the problem of evil (how are bad things allowed to happen in a world governed by an all-benevolent and all-powerful God?). To call God cruel, as he occasionally appeared to be, was to break a powerful taboo. But my thinking evolved on this point. If my faith was real, I told myself, I should not be constantly fighting little rearguard actions against pathetic, creeping doubts about what God really wanted or what he was really like. Whatever God willed for his creation, I should be able to affirm with full and joyous confidence.

This is what what broke my belief–my inability to identifiy with the morally odious God of the Bible. Christians are presented with mixed messages about the goodness of God. On one hand he is supposed to shine forth with benevolence so pure and radiant that it overwhelms us and inspires us to be as good as we can, given our fallen status.

On the other hand, though, God’s goodness is said to surpass all understanding; it reflects a deep cosmic mystery that we won’t be able to apprehend until we pass through Heaven’s gate. This is the side of divine goodness that is invoked to console the victims of horrific, meaningless fates such as childhood cancer or ruinous natural disasters.

I have too many objections to this concept of divine benevolence to discuss all of them in one place. The most obvious one is that believers in the Christian God cannot have it both ways: divine goodness is either intelligible or it is not. (There are philosophical ways to squeak out of this problem, but I do not find them convincing.)

The place where Christian theism comes to grief is in God’s sadistic attitude toward his human creatures, namely that we humans are created sick and commanded to be well.

Let’s imagine a very watered down version of this situation. You have a child under your care. (It may heighten the relevance of this thought experiment to think of the child as your own, but it is not necessary.) You instruct the child to love and obey you, and you may it clear that your love and affection depend on his taking this instruction seriously. It works. When his faces turns up toward yours, it shines with hope that you will love and care for him.

Now you induce sickness in the child. A mild toxin with chronic effects would do the job. It is crucial that you actually imagine yourself doing this; you must not just regard it as an abstraction.

You are, at this point, a moral monster. I would understand entirely if you stopped the thought experiment and excused yourself to go perform some restoring act of kindness for a loved one. But, to truly emulate the God of the Bible, you must take the thought experiment beyond its present Mengelean limit.

Josef Mengele: Almost as bad as God

Now you command the child to be well, and you tell him repeatedly that if he really loved you, he would do so. You keep administering the poison, though. Again, it is crucial that you not regard this idea as fiction but that you try your best to imagine yourself doing it, and that you expect the fulsome, unrelenting praise of your victim, along with pitiful cries for “forgiveness.”

But this is too much to ask. A morally serious person with even a scrap of human dignity cannot imagine such sadism. The thought experiment must end here.

If I have any Christian readers (and in this most Christian land, why wouldn’t I?), they will object at this point that I have entirely missed what they mean by Christianity.

To which I respond: Of course I have. Almost all the Christians I know are decent, humane, and often reasonable people. Which means they have found ways to ignore, minimize or re-interpret the parts of the Bible that call for them to be barbaric.

Most Christians in America have also found ways to avoid the main injunctions that started their whole religion, including the one about being abundantly merciful, the one about not seeking wealth, and the one about trying to avoid war. We have not just picked at the frayed edges of Christianity: we have gutted it at its center. That we should forgive our enemies 70 times 70 times and know war no more?–give me a fucking break. And by the way, I’m packing. If you don’t fear my power to kill, you haven’t really caught the loving mood of Christian America.

So the question naturally arises, if we American Christians have found ways to change or ignore anything we don’t like about our religion’s foundational text–the big stuff and the little, the good and the bad–why do we insist on continuing to call ourselves Christians? Why do we not admit that we use utterly non-Biblical standards to make sense of the Bible and that those standards have ipso facto interpretive priority in our lives?

I would be tempted to call this puzzle a burden, but I don’t think many Christians experience it as such; it does not weigh them down. Most simply don’t care, would simply never be bothered to work out the implications of their faith.

But, as Christopher Hitchens once implored his audience in an excellent article about blowjobs, stay with me; I’m doing all the hard thinking for you. At this point in our country’s history, where we have so clearly thrown off several principles of Christianity and bent others to accommodate our love of money and killing, Christianity is much more like a silly hat than a philsophical burden, as it was for, say, Dostoevsky, or even your humble correspondent. Faith problems don’t drag us down; they adorn us with a garish spectacle of ridiculous “beliefs” which our actions robustly indicate we do not hold.

I wanted to end this essay with a heartfelt invitation to lay down your burden. You need not live a life of chronic and dissipating hypocrisy. You may be rid of a spiteful Bronze Age idol god and be glad for it. But that would miss the point. You probably already do not believe. Lay down your burden? No, there is none to lay down. But do take off that silly hat.


And Now For Something Completely Different


This is a blog about books and ideas, and I try to keep the mood appropriately grim. For those of us who dwell in our heads, life does, after all, appear to be a pointless warren of Kafkan dead ends, a spectacle of existential horrors, best met with a permanent affixture of the Edvard Munch Scream Face.

So let’s just go ahead and get it out of the way, shall we?–


But the thing is, I while away so many of my allotted hours in pure animal joy, dumb as a dog licking the air as it holds its head out the window of a moving car (Where is that air coming from?) that I feel Munch can’t really speak for everything that goes on between my ears.

Because I am also a trail runner.

And here I come to my point. I only wish to keep up one blog, and it is about literature. It is not about athletics.

My sniffiness on this topic is not to protect a sense of purity about great books and ideas. Fully half the essays I write take wings somewhere along forest trails, and, shabby and pretentious as they may be, I know that I owe their existence to the endorphins produced by running.  I am already crossing the streams.

But the thing is, I have only so many hours in a day, and trail running is sort of an obsessive sport. If you tack blogging about trail running on top of trail running itself, you have pretty much blocked off your calendar for the rest of your running life. Unless you are a professional flaneur–and if you are, God bless you.

But today I can’t resist. For about the fifth time (I’ve lost count), I’m preparing for the Zermatt Ultra Marathon, a bucket list run, which takes place the first weekend in July every year in the shadow of the Matterhorn. It is a long, stately climb to the highest rail station in Europe, here. I’ve never made it to the starting line, but I’ve come close often enough to keep after it, year after year.

In 2013 and 2014 my knees were too rickety, and they gave out about three-quarters of the way through my training plan, somewhere along May or June. I couldn’t quite taste the race, but I could sense it just over the horizon.

In 2015 I had back surgery, after which I sort of died. So that year was a wash.

In 2016, still recovering from the long-term loss of fitness brought on by back surgery, I tried for a 61 km ultra in the Dolomites of northern Italy. It was an abject failure in a spectacular alpine setting. I got my pacing wrong and missed a cutoff time at the 35 km mark. I documented the ignominy here, along with a redemptive experience just a month later at the Heidelberg Trail Marathon. Live and learn.

Last year I was going like wildfire. I had taken a full month off during the winter, started in slowly with some stretching and strength training and steadily built up my speed, distance and climbing strength. By late-April of 2017, I was more or less in good enough shape to finish Zermatt, still three months away.

And then I got ambitious. I decided to do some speed work. On the last day of April I put in an intense session on the treadmill, running 10 km in an hour with a climb of 900 meters. If you use a treadmill, that means you’re going 6.2 mph on an incline of 9 percent. It may not sound brisk, but in hill running, you gauge speed on an entirely different scale.

I felt great while I was doing the run, but as soon as I stepped off the treadmill, I felt an unusual tightness near the top of my quad.

I won’t bore you with the details. It was a muscle tear, and it put me out of action for six months. Just like that, Zermatt was off my calendar again.

I came back slowly. I had no choice. Five kilometers one week, six the next. And always slowly. By January I was over the muscle tear and more or less back to normal. My off-season training started to look a lot like it had the year before–strong. But I was a year older and, I suppose, wiser. (Hemingway said the wisdom of old men is a myth. We do not grow wise with age, he said; we grow careful. He was a 30-year old shit when he wrote that.)

So I’ve made it through April this year without wrecking my training plan, and I still feel strong. In fact, I’ve experienced a minor miracle, a late-life relief of chronic runner’s knee symptoms which for several years had kept me from running on flat terrain at all. The whole reason I got into trail running is because I discovered that the shorter stride and lighter footstrike of uphill running was something I could do without inflaming my deeply unreliable knees.

And then, what do you know, but my knees up and became reliable. So far. Over the last two years I’ve discovered that I can mix a respectable amount of flat urban running into my training for the hills. It’s a kind of cross training. The hills are still where I grind out most of my effort, but the flats offer a new kind of freedom too. I’ve found I really love going out for a couple breezy hours and discovering I’ve sailed through 24 km rather than the usual 19 km chug through the hills.

So this weekend I’m trying something completely different. I’ve worked in enough long flat runs this spring that I’m doing the Gutenberg Marathon in Mainz as part of my cross-training for Zermatt. Except for a little tightness in my right Achilles, I feel ready. I did a 35 km flat run two weeks ago with no discomfort at all. In fact it was a lot of fun.

Mainz Marathon
Marathoning through Mainz (image: SWR)

My heart is still set on Zermatt, of course, and I will quit 5 km into Mainz this Sunday if I feel like I’m jeopardizing my headline goal in July (hmm, maybe Hemingway was right), but for the moment I’m saying vive la différence!

Orwell and the Meaning of Life


Orwell’s reputation as a journalist and political essayist hardly needs any buttressing. His name regularly appears in lists of the 20th century’s most important writers. He was the first writer to note–as he lay dying, in fact–that the Allies’s victory in World War Two had not abolished but merely transformed the threat of authoritarianism. We are still tasting the bitter dregs of this prophecy today.

Orwell’s early books, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, were pioneering examples of what we today call “immersion journalism.” Orwell did not just visit the world of the poor to write these books. He actually and truly became poor, and used his perspective to tell society’s upper crust what deprivation looked and felt like, right next door to their comfortable lives.

“Our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.”

In a way, Orwell’s books about economics and poverty make an analogous point to his more famous books about politics and authoritarianism: just as authoritarianism can be seen to survive even inside the walls of a democratic fortress, poverty, it seems, will always be with us, blighting the ranks of the working class even in the richest societies.

Orwell had a nose for paradox and a stomach for–as he put it–“facing unpleasant facts.”

I would respect him even if his legacy stopped here, as a trenchant observer of hard social realities. But the reason I love Orwell and identify with him (and the reason this blog is about him) is because he also wrote very movingly about the meaning of life. Orwell gets surprisingly little credit for his philosophical depth and occasional lyricism.

His own life slipped away tragically early, at the age of 46, the end of a decades-long battle with tuberculosis. (He never liked sports, even as a boy, because he was constantly short of breath. He recalls in his school-days memoir, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” how he was made to run harder as punishment for being “weak-chested” during football.)

Orwell never complained about his fate, even as he felt it approaching. This was probably because he failed utterly to believe there was a department for receiving metaphysical complaints. Orwell was a staunch atheist from the age of 14, and he saw supernaturalism of any kind as an attempt to escape the hard work of real life.

Although he occasionally indulged in hectoring the religious attitude, he usually focused on the positive side of his anti-spiritualist arguments–that human life was an agreeable, often noble adventure that deserved our loyalty and affection; it was not a mere vale of tears to be dismissed with a “this too shall pass.”

Orwell’s deep humanism comes out beautifully in his essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” which initially hits out against Tolstoy’s asceticism:

If only, Tolstoy says in effect, we would stop breeding, fighting, struggling and enjoying, if we could get rid not only of our sins but of everything else that binds us to the surface of the earth–including love in the ordinary sense of caring more for one human being than another–then the whole painful process would be over and the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive.

What, then, we might ask, is the point of life, if not to store up treasure in Heaven, as many of us were taught to believe? Surely if we are not storing up treasure in one place, we are doing so in the other–on the surface of the fallen, sin-stained earth.

One of the stock charges against philosophical materialism (the belief that only physical stuff exists, not ghosts, gods or eternal truths) is that it implies a sort of crass, shallow hedonism. Why not live for the pleasure of the day if there is no higher law to guide us, no heaven or hell to receive us after the crucible of judgment?

But the humanist in fact does answer a higher calling, which proves to be a more serious one than Christianity can envision. In the continuation of the passage above, Orwell responds to Tolstoy’s wish that we break our earthly bonds and seek only after the Kingdom of Heaven:

But a normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is “weak,” “sinful” or anxious for a “good time.” Most people get a fair amount of fun in their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.

For me, this is one of the most victorious passages not only in Orwell, but in all of 20th century English literature. I spent thirty-odd years wandering into pointless adventures and thinking about life in alternately superstitious and  desultory ways–in short, wondering where I was “coming from.” For years I thought my choice was between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but the power of Orwell’s words awakened me to my real wellspring–the ordinary struggle for life, bound by love to a small group of people on the surface of the earth. Fairy tale kingdoms not only looked decidedly silly next to that reality; they seemed to constitute an insult to real life. If I have a code of ethics today, it is not to insult life unnecessarily.

One of the great pleasures of reading Orwell is that ideas like this one, on par with Epitectus or Seneca, are often hidden away in the most unassuming places.  When I bought my first volume of Orwell’s essays, I moved hungrily from one hearty course to another, looking for the titles I knew to be his classics–“Politics and the English Language,” “Why I Write,” and so forth. Even if you’ve never read any of his lesser-known works, such as “Can Socialists Be Happy?,” you can often see what you’re getting into just by the title.

But not so with, say, “Inside the Whale” or “Raffles and Miss Blandish.” It was only because the subject seemed naughty that I began one day to read “The Art of Donald McGill.” It turned out to be about tits and ass. McGill, it emerges, was a postcard artist of the 1930s and -40s who performed what Orwell called “skits on pornography” by turning out lurid, sexually frank drawings that unmasked the suppressed English libido (yes, there is one).

Going only by Orwell’s reputation, you might think “Donald McGill” would be about freedom of speech, but it’s not. Orwell did not, in fact, want McGill to be censored, but his defense of the cartoonist was more philosophical than political. McGill’s vulgar drawings, Orwell said, were a psychologically healthy expression of humanity’s “unofficial self.”

Although the sexism of this passage has not aged well, its underlying message still rings remarkably true. Each of us, Orwell says, has a Sancho Panza lurking inside us:

There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantage of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie toward safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with “voluptuous” figures. He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One, to be unfaithful to your wife, to bilk your debts, and so on and so forth. Whether you allow yourself to be influenced by him is a different question. But it is simply a lie to say that he is not a part of you, just as it is a lie to say that Don Quixote is not part of you either, though most of what is said and written consists of one lie or the other, usually the first.

Is Orwell suggesting an unrestrained wallow in licentiousness is good for us then? Not exactly. As usual, he is trying to balance both sides of a morally significant debate. There is a sound reason, Orwell argues, why the social control of sexuality has conditioned us to aim so artificially high (for sainthood) and to believe that sexual “purity” is somehow bound up with human nature:

A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise. So also with all other jokes, which always centre around cowardice, laziness, dishonesty, or some other quality which society cannot afford to encourage. Society has always to demand a little more from human beings than it will get in practice. It has to demand faultless discipline and self-sacrifice, it must expect its subjects to work hard, pay their taxes, and be faithful to their wives, it must assume that men think it glorious to die on the battlefield and women want to wear themselves out with childbearing. The whole of what one may call official literature is founded on such assumptions (my emphasis).

Many writers have arrived, in one way or another, at this conclusion. You can find it expressed a dozen different ways in Shakespeare, for example. Why does Orwell revisit it? He believes that the “worldwide conspiracy” to pretend that our baser selves do not exist comes with dangerous moral consequences. A free, thinking being ought not lie to itself about who or what it is. To do so debases one’s dignity, devastates the human person at its very foundation.

Admittedly, I am putting words in Owell’s mouth at this point. It was Kant who believed that lying to a human was an attack that bordered on violence. Orwell seems to be saying that lying to ourselves compounds the outrage. McGill’s vulgar, sexist, salacious postcards proclaim a sacred truth from within our inner nature, one that tries to keep us honest with ourselves about who we are. Orwell concludes his essay, “The corner of the human heart [McGill’s drawings] speak for might easily manifest itself in worse forms, and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish.” Although we need not obey our inner Sancho Panza, we should stop promoting the lie that he does not exist, or that his existence is shameful.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Orwell had a particular scorn for sainthood. And I believe he did, although it might be more accurate to call it horror. Recall that the most terrifying monsters of 1984 are the officials of the Ministry of Love. They are the elect who guard the highest ideals of Oceania’s society. It is O’Brien, the high Minister of Love, a saint and fundamentalist, who tortures Smith to the breaking point. Beware sainthood, Orwell tells us again and again: it is a variety of fanaticism.

Despite the high pitch of Orwell’s fear of otherworldliness, he never gave in to demagoguery as he was denouncing it. His most nuanced critique of sainthood appears tucked away in his essay, “Reflections on Gandhi.” Again, Orwell surprises us with his philosophical depth.

While Orwell gives Gandhi high marks for political activism, he cautions against the ascetism and otherworldliness of Gandhi’s expressed spiritual pieties, which were based on vegetarianism, sexual abstinence and the avoidance of close friendships. (In 1984, Orwell has Big Brother’s regime make idols of these last two ideals, requiring the party faithful to avoid both sex and intimacy.)

The defining sin of otherworldliness, Orwell argues, is that its partisans “too readily assume that ‘non-attachment’ is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human is a failed saint.”

Not only does this idea not ring true philosophically for Orwell, but he also thinks it to be bad for ordinary political engagement. “Gandhi’s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.”

Why does Orwell keep coming back to this idea that we should accept ourselves as we are, that we are not a race fallen from a mythical heaven? There are probably too many reasons to count, but one is bald optimism. Despite the real-world evils Orwell witnessed and fought against, he was too much an optimist to think we ought to invent reasons for loathing ouselves in the very core of our individual being.

And this attitude was no mamby pamby I’m-okay-you’re-okay sort of thing. Orwell believed at the bottom of his heart that we are nothing if we cannot conjure up the loyalty and vulnerability it takes to love others. Although he often accused E.M. Forster of limp-wristedness, Orwell was at the end of the day an advocate of Forster’s most lapidary injunction, “Only connect.”

The very peak of Orwell’s writing for me comes in a passage in “Reflections on Gandhi” where he is putting the sharpest point possible on his attack on asceticism. It so lyrically sums up the meaning of life that I hope one day it might be understood by my successors to sum up the meaning of my life and that it might be recited with some justice at my funeral:

This attitude [of asceticism] is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which–I think–most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.

At the end of 1984 it is not a political principle that brings about Smith’s death warrant; it is his fastening of love on Julia, another human individual. Since we all live with death warrants, we should all be so brave as Smith and live primarily to love others, principles be damned.



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!