How Tocqueville Predicted Cancel Culture and Political Correctness

Perhaps it is no surprise that the best characterization of American life comes to us via an outsider: the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who published Democracy in America in 1835. Outsiders have a way of noticing unique and bizarre aspects of society that can seem “normal” to those who live there. We are all strange in our own way, but we cannot see our strangeness. As a man of the Enlightenment and self-described leftist, Tocqueville shared enough of a philosophical foundation with his American counterparts to understand where they were coming from, but with enough distance to see where their path had diverged from that of Europe. Like Solzhenitsyn in the 1970’s, Tocqueville had the perfect vantage point from which to undertake his sociological study.

What’s more surprising to me is just how well someone writing in the 1830’s could foresee the events of 2020, almost two hundred years before they occurred. This suggests that many of our present problems are not recent in their origin. Rather, they evince dangers that have always been present to some degree, perhaps inherent in our own brand of democracy. Only now they are reaching new levels of absurdity.

Both a critic and admirer of America, Tocqueville has remained eminently quotable. This, despite the fact that most people have not waded through Democracy in America in its entirety (I myself have not). Some popular ones: “America is great because she is good.” Here Tocqueville locates the source of America’s strength in the particular religiosity of its people. America was then experiencing the Second Great Awakening, as Europe continued its slow drift toward secularism. Tocqueville understood that: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”

Tocqueville also said: “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” Yep.

And: “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”

Stop it, Alexis. It hurts us.

But I would like to draw the reader’s attention to these two, longer passages, which are of particular interest considering recent debates over freedom of speech. Consider this first passage, in which Tocqueville describes what we today might call “cancel culture”:

Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you. For if you seek the votes of your fellow citizens, they will withhold them, and if you seek only their esteem, they will feign to refuse even that. You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.

We are all imperfect. We all make mistakes. What strikes me today is how unforgiving people have become, especially on the internet. Most people have heard the story of Amy Cooper, the infamous “Central Park Karen.” A few months into the quarantine, she was walking her dog when Christian Cooper approached her and insisted she put her dog on a leash. When she refused, he threatened to “do something you’re not going to like,” and proceeded to start calling her dog over with treats. This is all based on a post he later made; see below:

Christian Cooper then began filming the encounter. In the tape, Amy Cooper asks him to stop filming her (he doesn’t). Then she threatens to call the police. His response: “Please do,” something he repeats several times. Again, I don’t know all the details, but he certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’s afraid of the cops. On the video, Amy Cooper proceeds to call the police, stating “an African-American man is threatening me and my dog.”

Now, I don’t know Amy Cooper. I don’t know Christian Cooper. Most of the thousands of people who have shared their opinion on the confrontation don’t know either of its participants. Amy Cooper has been accused of “weaponizing her whiteness,” as if by making that call to NYPD her intention was to initiate a scenario where Christian Cooper was killed by the police. A self-described progressive liberal, Amy Cooper quickly apologized profusely for her actions on social media. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough. She lost her job. She lost her dog. I can’t imagine she’ll ever work again. She just may be the most hated woman in America.

Now Amy Cooper has been charged with making a false report to police, a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to a year in jail. The twitter mob is gleeful at the thought of Amy Cooper being put behind bars. You get the impression that for some people, she could be burnt at the stake and it would not be enough to satisfy their bloodlust. But here’s the kicker… Christian Cooper, the man who posted the video, now says he does not want to see her in jail and will not cooperate with NYPD in their investigation!

A few years ago, this action would have earned almost universal praise. Christian Cooper would have been heralded as having taken the high road, and we would have all celebrated the power of forgiveness. Not today. The twitter mob literally turned on Christian Cooper, saying in so many words that the fate of Amy Cooper was no longer up to him, and that he was part of the problem for not seeking to punish Amy Cooper to the fullest extent of the law. For example:

Again, it is remarkable to me how uncharitable and unforgiving we have become, and this is just one example of many. See this recent article in the Atlantic about how ordinary folks have had their lives ruined.

People cancelling Amy Cooper make the point that there is an uneven power dynamic at play. For a white person, especially a white woman, to accuse a black man is to jeopardize his life. It conjures up memories of Emmett Till, the black teen who was lynched after supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955 (it was later revealed that he did not), or Tom Robinson, protagonist of America’s favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

But today a different power dynamic is also at play, as this other viral video indicates. If Christian Cooper were a white man and Amy Cooper a black woman, we would not be talking about this incident. If anything, she would be seen as the victim. A single bad encounter between a white and a black person should not lead to the black person being killed OR the white person being cancelled, which – though less severe a fate – is still a kind of metaphorical death. (I think most people would rather be dead than be Amy Cooper right now.) We cannot live in peace and harmony with each other if we are always afraid of each other!

Tocqueville also tackles the issue of political correctness, explaining how it can benefit a tyrannical state by making it harder for the people to criticize the government. Too much regulation restrains action by compressing the range of acceptable thought, stupefying the masses into passivity:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Now, a few disclaimers. By criticizing cancel culture, I am not arguing that people should not be held accountable for their actions. They should and they must, especially people with actual political power. What we don’t need is the cancelling and public shaming of random civilians: filmed, doxxed, and reported by complete strangers. We should also extend an extra dose of charity to those under the age of eighteen, who (for their own good) should be kept as far away from social media as possible.

Likewise, by criticizing political correctness, I am not disputing the notion that we should adhere to certain norms of civility and sensitivity. There are some views that are unacceptable to express in polite society, such as support for the Nazis. But a difference of opinion should not be presented as a personal attack. We have to be free to at least question the prevailing view, and follow the evidence where it leads.

I recently had a phone conversation with an old friend, who is much further to the left than myself. I told her that while I am conservative in many ways, I also hold certain classically liberal beliefs. For example: the belief that people should not be judged on the basis of race or skin color, that we should tolerate those with different views, and that freedom of speech is of the utmost importance. I agreed with her that it was a good thing that so many white people were waking up to something Black Americans have been saying for so long: that racism does in fact still exist, and that they suffer as a result. However, I explained to her my concern that in the effort to do something truly noble – to eradicate the last vestiges of racism from our society – we risked losing an essential element of our identity, perhaps even our humanity.

We will not achieve racial equality by tearing down statues of the Founding Fathers. We will not achieve racial equality by imposing a totalitarian system wherein one is not allowed to question the methods of the radical Left. We will not achieve racial equality by employing prejudice and discrimination against white people, as some in the “anti-racist” movement have demanded. (See Robin DiAngelo’s claim that all whites are racist, or Ibram Kendi’s call to use discrimination to address discrimination.) While I completely support the goal of racial equality, I object to these proposals on the basis that they are illiberal (even, one might even say, racist). If implemented, they would lead to the end of America as we know it, and not in a good way.

Despite disagreeing about almost everything, my friend and I ended the conversation on a positive note. She remarked on how good it was to have her ideas challenged, whereas most of her other friends just agreed with her and said the exact same things.

And this is exactly why we need freedom of speech: to avoid the echo chamber that results when it is absent. No author or scientist has ever handed over a manuscript to an editor with the directive to “tell me how wonderful I am.” Only by challenging each other’s arguments and assumptions can we better approximate the Truth, which is such a formidable goal that no man can reach it unaided.

In the words of Tocqueville, “Men will not accept truth at the hands of their enemies, and truth is seldom offered to them by their friends.”

Solzhenitsyn’s Critique of the West as a Warning for Our Times

The last few months have been difficult for many Americans. We have watched our nation struggle with a global pandemic, a history of unresolved racism, and violence in the streets. Economic and social turmoil have engendered feelings of helplessness and despair, as events continue to spiral out of control. Many are left doubting the foundations of American democracy, if not western civilization itself. Radical forces are currently seeking the destruction of both. Few seem capable enough or brave enough to defend them.

Years ago, a friend asked me to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address, a task I only recently got around to completing. Like Orwell’s 1984, Solzhenitsyn’s message is bound to resonate no matter the historical circumstance of one’s reading, but perhaps now more than ever.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a famed Russian novelist, philosopher, and outspoken critic of Soviet communism. He served in the Red Army during World War II only to be sent to the gulag for the crime of criticizing Josef Stalin in a private letter. Even after his release, Solzhenitsyn continued to provoke the ire of Soviet authorities. He was exiled from his native land, ultimately taking up refuge in the United States.

Two years later, when Solzhenitsyn stepped up to the podium at Harvard, the audience likely expected an attack on communism delivered by a grateful exile. Instead, they were treated to a blistering critique of their own supposedly more virtuous way of life. Solzhenitsyn prefaced his speech with the warning that “truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” Consider these seven points with corresponding excerpts from the text. One need not strain to see their relevance to the present day.

  1. The Impossible Trap of Materialism

“The constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”

  1. The Limits of Legalism

“(In the West) the limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad… Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.”

  1. Unlimited Freedom Leads to Decadence and Irresponsibility

“Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror… Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil…

“Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones…

“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It’s time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations…”

  1. The Pernicious Role of the Press

“Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none — and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers’ memories. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus… we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: “Everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”

  1. The Convergence of Opinion around a Few “Fashions”

“Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.”

  1. Dissatisfaction with Society and Calls for Socialism

“It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world a way to successful economic development… However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism, which is a false and dangerous current… Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death…”

  1. A Lack of Courage

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days…

“No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower… To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Soulless materialism, the shirking of responsibility, a pernicious press, a decadent and depraved “mass” culture, a lack of courage. These features have continued to characterize American life in ways that Solzhenitsyn himself likely could not have imagined at the time of this speech (he died in Russia in 2008).

There is an ongoing debate among political philosophers as to whether liberal democracy can withstand the current storm, or if the end is near. The former position can be found in Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, while the latter is best expressed in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.

Solzhenitsyn falls firmly in the latter camp, locating the source of the West’s spiritual crisis at the very root. The humanism of the Renaissance and the secularism of the Enlightenment put man at the center of his own universe, in particular his material needs. Solzhenitsyn decries the folly of making man the “touchstone” of everything on earth — “imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, vanity, and dozens of other defects.” He notes:

We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis.

America was founded on the Enlightenment philosophy of the likes of Locke and Montesquieu, who inspired our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Solzhenitsyn acknowledges that at the time of the American founding, a strong sense of religious responsibility remained as a check against unlimited human freedom. However, since then we have discarded every limit on the individual’s ability to satisfy his whims. We have lost a proper understanding of freedom, and society has become increasingly materialistic as a result. Communism too developed out of humanism, taking man’s earthly happiness as its highest aim. In this sense, the competing ideologies of East and West have more in common than either side cares to realize.

But Solzhenitsyn points out that “if humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die.” The basic fact of man’s mortality negates it, while pointing to the worthier goal of moral growth. He advises against “attach(ing) oneself to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment,” declaring that “we cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society.” He concludes:

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.

In our quest for spiritual renewal, we cannot simply crawl back into the comfort of the Middle Ages, an era as imperfect as our own. What is needed is a great infusion of the spirit, a moral awakening. Man has both a material and spiritual nature, and the needs of both must be met. However, our spiritual needs are always greater, as they pertain to that immortal part of ourselves. As Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has witnessed a recent resurgence in popularity, a predictable development considering the rising uncertainty and unrest. Based on the rule of St. Benedict, founder of western monasticism, Dreher calls upon orthodox Christians to turn inward, seek support from like-minded families and building “arcs” capable of weathering the coming secular Dark Age.

Dreher was criticized for surrendering mainstream culture too easily, after the publication of The Benedict Option in 2017. However, his book contains practical, common sense advice. We can start by taking back control of our children’s education, fighting pornography, limiting smartphone use, engaging in meaningful work, and building real communities. In the battle for hearts and minds, we should never compromise the truth. Perhaps most importantly, we can pray.

Sometimes it seems like we are fighting against forces so large and powerful that it is hard to maintain hope. For conservatives, it can be difficult and disheartening to accept that we have lost the battle to define our nation’s culture: in the arts, in the schools, and in the courts. But no lie can last forever, no matter how widespread; “the truth will out.”

Forty-two years ago, a Russian dissident called Americans out for our lack of courage. Only by reorienting ourselves to the truth can we rediscover the strength of will and self-confidence we have been missing for far too long.

On Liberty, Order, and Revolution

Two separate but related movements are playing out across our country right now.

The first is a grassroots protest movement driven by widespread outrage over the tragic death of George Floyd. Over the past few weeks, it has taken the form of speeches, peaceful demonstrations, discussions about the persistence of racism in America, and debates over police brutality.

The second is a radical, revolutionary movement seeking nothing less than a complete restructuring of our society and government. Its aim is to tear down America as it currently exists and replace it with something fundamentally different. Members of this movement are not interested in dialogue or the democratic process. They are determined to impose their will through intimidation and force, not debate.

This first group may be considered “liberals,” in both the classical and contemporary sense. They are concerned primarily with liberty and equality, and thus naturally skeptical of order, authority, and hierarchy.

The second group can be considered “radicals,” as they share many features of past radical, revolutionary movements. Unlike liberals, who are generally peaceful and accepting of gradual change, radicals view violence as a necessary and even righteous path to achieving their ends. Some are motivated by the naive belief that getting rid of existing institutions like the police will bring an end to problems inherent to the human conditions (i.e. greed, inequality, scarcity). However, many radicals are less concerned with building a better world than with burning down the old one. The thrill of rioting and looting and desecrating can become an end in itself. What they don’t realize is that there is always a smaller, better organized group waiting in the wings to capitalize on the chaos. Unlike the young, starry-eyed radicals being used to create the power vacuum, they know exactly what they will do once they step into it.

Of course, there is a third group: conservatives. These are the law-and-order types who have been watching the nation’s descent into anarchy with mounting horror and disbelief. They generally value liberty and security and support law enforcement, though they are more likely than liberals to own firearms for their own protection. Many conservatives do not recognize their country anymore. They are currently either thanking God that they live in rural, suburban, or red-state America, or else making plans to move there.

As I write this, a group of radicals has taken over a six-block area of Seattle, including a police station. They have declared it an autonomous zone, free from police interference. The irony that they have erected barriers (much like border walls), implemented ID checks, and posted armed guards is not lost on conservatives. How quickly do high-minded ideals melt away when injected with an infusion of power.

The radical Left has been equally merciless in the cultural arena. Even the popular kids show “Paw Patrol” has come under attack for depicting positive portrayals of police (talking cartoon dogs). A&E has pulled its hit TV-show Live PD. The Academy award-winning classic Gone with the Wind has likewise been pulled from HBO. Beloved author and liberal J.K. Rowling has been denounced by the radical Left for daring to defend the common sense notion that biological sex exists. When it comes to “cancel culture,” nobody is safe.

Where is all of this going? What is the end game?

I was discussing this with a friend recently. She wanted to know my take, as a student of history. My response: “The revolution will eat its own.” Allow me to explain.

While it can be exciting in the initial phases to denounce authority and demand drastic changes, the majority of people eventually tire of the unceasing demands of revolution. This includes even liberal “fellow travelers” who may have initially backed some of the radicals’ demands. At a certain point, the need for a return to normalcy overrides the desire for change. There’s a reason Mao needed a “Cultural Revolution” to bring back the spirit of revolution a few decades into China’s experiment with communism.

The irony now, as with the French Revolution of 1789, is that the liberals always give birth to the very radicals who eventually escort them to the guillotine. In 1791, the French National Assembly penned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a document full of Enlightenment high ideals. Less than three years later, King Louis XVI’s head was rotting on a pike, and France was in the grip of the Reign of Terror. Five years after that, the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte was cheered as he entered Paris. This from the same crowds who had only recently demanded “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” They were ready for the madness to end, and eager for a return to law and order.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 followed a similar pattern. What began as liberal criticism of Nicholas II and frustration with Russia’s continued involvement in World War I ended with the radical Bolsheviks seizing power, a bloody civil war, and decades of totalitarian rule.

Of course, America was also born in revolution, but ours was an oddly conservative one. Men like Washington and Franklin saw themselves as restoring rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta and English common law, not creating something radically new. We drew our inspiration from John Locke, who argued that governments exist to protect our natural rights to life, liberty, and property. These ideas can be found almost word for word in our own Declaration of Independence.

The French had for their inspiration one Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Coming at the tail end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic Era, Rousseau was critical of the overly rationalistic manner of earlier thinkers like Locke. He made a name for himself criticizing civilization itself in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in which he presented man as a “noble savage” corrupted by society, and the institution of private property as his original sin.

In his later, more extensive work The Social Contract, Rousseau posits the state as the ultimate expression of the General Will, or the people collectively. As such, the state cannot be wrong. People who differ from the General Will must be rooted out and brought in line by force. But in the words of Rousseau, this means only “that he will be forced to be free.”

If you want to know how someone can go from denouncing inequality to demanding totalitarianism, look no further than Rousseau. I find his call for a civil religion particularly telling and prophetic:

It follows that it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but as sentiments of social commitment without which it would be impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject…. While the State has no power to oblige anyone to believe these articles, it may banish anyone who does not believe them… As for the person who conducts himself as if he does not believe them after having publicly stated his belief in these same dogmas, he deserves the death penalty…

The dogmas of civil religion should be simple, few in number, and stated in precise words without interpretations or commentaries… As for prohibited articles of faith, I limit myself to one: intolerance. Intolerance characterizes the religious persuasions we have excluded.

Did you get that? If you don’t toe the line of the General Will, you will be banished. Pretend to do so and you will be executed. But all this in the name of tolerance!

In the case of Russia, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin provided the intellectual inspiration. A Germany historian and philosopher, Marx viewed all of history through the lens of class conflict. He saw mankind as divided fundamentally into two camps: the haves and have-nots. In Marx’s day, the haves were the bourgeoisie, the ascendant middle class of industrial capitalist society. The have-nots were the “workers of the world,” the proletariat. Owning nothing but their own labor, they were forced to sell themselves at starvation wages to the owners of the means of production.

An atheist and a materialist, Marx rejected all divisions based on race, nationality, or religion – “the opiate of the masses.” He thought it was only a matter of time before the workers began to think of themselves as a class and unite against their oppressors. Then the workers or proletariat would seize power from the bourgeoisie through a revolution. They would run society temporarily as a dictatorship of the proletariat until such a time as class enemies were eliminated (they could not be reformed). At that point, there would be no need for government, as Marx saw government as just a means by which the ruling class oppressed the others (surely the proletariat could not oppress itself?). The reward for their hard work would be nothing short of heaven on earth, the “anarchist utopia” that would signal the arrival of true communism.

Vladimir Lenin made one key revision to Marx’s outline of revolution. The people themselves could not be trusted to guide the revolution. They would need an elite core to tell them what to do and crush all dissent.

Marx may have died in 1883, but his ideas live on in America’s colleges and universities. America’s Marxists have shifted their concern from the shrinking blue-collar working class (who tend to be Trump voters), to other “oppressed” groups: racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, and the LGBT community. As with original Marxism, the first step is to convince the majority of people that they are being oppressed. The second is to divide people into haves and have-not’s. After all, the flip-side of oppression is “privilege.” Just like the show trials in the old Soviet Union, class (now race) enemies must be made to publicly confess to their crimes, even the crime of simply belonging to a privileged group. But no apology can ever erase the stain of being an enemy of the people, a speed bump on the route to utopia.

Left-wing radicals are attempting to channel the legitimate grievances of historically underprivileged groups into an ax that they can wield against all the institutions they seek to overthrow: organized religion, law enforcement, the nuclear family. A cursory glance at the official Black Lives Matter organization reveals an agenda that goes far beyond saving black lives; it is saturated with Marxist thinking.

Marxists tend to denounce all authority and hierarchy as arbitrary. But as Jordan Peterson has explained, proper authority is not arbitrary; it is tied to competence. On an airplane the passengers listen to the captain; not because he is some tyrannical dictator, but because he is the only one knowledgeable enough to get them all safely to their destination. No sane person would suggest overthrowing the captain for the crime of elevating himself above the passengers; the result would be death for all.

Many hierarchies are just the natural results of variation across groups. There are necessarily fewer outstanding than mediocre basketball players. The same goes for plumbers, artists, and musicians. The excellent athletes, artists, and tradesmen make more money and receive more attention than their mediocre peers. This isn’t “unfair”; it’s life.

Perhaps academics and bureaucrats have a hard time understanding this, as their positions are more determined by connections than by merit (The same goes for the overfed children of the upper middle class who formed the core of Occupy Wall Street). They begin to see all hierarchy and authority as bad. There can be no families, as families subordinate children to their parents; no small businesses, as these subordinate employees to their bosses. Society appears like a house with far more people dwelling in the basement than in the upper levels. The only way to make everyone equal is to burn the house down.

And this would be a good solution, if one’s only goal was to make everyone equal, in some vague, amorphous sense. But what about liberty?

The radicals may be expressing themselves in the language of Karl Marx, but the real prophet of the nineteenth century was Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the book Demons (also translated as The Possessed), Dostoevsky describes how the generation of 1840’s liberals unwittingly gave birth to the radicals of the 1860’s. Even as the youth of the town descend further and further into nihilistic violence, the older, liberal generation looks on with mild bemusement until it is too late.

In Demons, one young radical proclaims:

“I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.”

Ha!

As Dostoevsky notes with both the title and epigraph of his book, there is something akin to demonic possession in the frenzy of the radicals. It defies logic or reason, but rather grips hold of a person or group, spurring them to commit violent acts. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the radical Saul Alinsky dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to the original rebel himself: Satan.

It’s worth looking over those rules now and seeing how they are being implemented. One in particular stands out: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

What the conservative understands is that freedom is not simply the license to do whatever one pleases; such a world would quickly descend into hell on earth. True freedom, properly understood, is the ability to choose the good. This kind of genuine freedom only thrives where there are structures in place to channel human passions toward constructive rather than destructive ends. We are not born “noble savages” as Rousseau once claimed; society is not the enemy of morality, but rather its teacher. We are not each other’s enemies, as Marx later claimed; the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, not between “good” and “bad” classes of persons.

Our country was founded on the concept of ordered liberty, or freedom limited by the need for order in society. Today our rights are being threatened both by anarchy in the streets and draconian lock-downs imposed by state governments to fight COVID-19 (limits that oddly enough do not apply to protesters). Both have enjoyed widespread support from liberals, most of whom don’t yet realize the radicals’ agenda or the greater threat posed by the globalists’ desire to establish a new world order with themselves at the pinnacle.

The Right is not immune from its own extremist tendencies in the other direction. Fascism results when the need for order becomes an obsession, and hierarchies become too rigid. But I would argue that too little order poses a greater danger to genuine human freedom than too much of it, for the reasons explained above. Chaos is only a temporary state on the path to a new order more tyrannical than its predecessor.

The revolution will eventually eat its own. The question is, how will we measure the collateral damage, both to individual families and freedom-sustaining institutions? How long will the process of rebuilding take, before a civilization more confident in its purpose than our own is able to rise from the ashes?

Diagnosing the Pandemic Conspiracy Theories

People are trying to sort through conflicting information on the coronavirus pandemic. How did the virus originate? How serious is it? What is the best treatment? How long should lock-downs continue? Should we encourage herd immunity or keep flattening the curve with stay-at-home orders? How likely is it that we will be able to develop a safe, effective vaccine?

I’ve never claimed to have all the answers, but I believe we should be allowed to ask these questions. Intellectual freedom starts to die and groupthink becomes the only option when you’re not allowed to ask questions.

Here’s another question we should be asking: Why are so many people willing to entertain ideas that others dub “conspiracy theories” regarding the pandemic?

I don’t think it’s because we’re stupid or uneducated. Some people seem to be suggesting that we all just turn off our own brains and do whatever the “experts” advise. (Because the experts have never been wrong before, right?)

I believe it stems from a fundamental loss of faith in our democracy.

In the last thirty years, an enormous gulf has opened up between the common people and the elites. Globalization has created winners and losers, with the winners moving to insulate themselves from the effects of their own policies (for example, by moving to privileged enclaves where communities and institutions still function), leaving the rest of us feeling unprotected. The biggest losers of globalization (whites without a college degree) responded to this perceived divide by voting for Trump in 2016.

Globalization has been a mixed bag of costs and benefits, but any way you spin it, it does pose a challenge to democracy. How can a people make decisions for itself (one definition of democracy) when the old borders between nations and economies have eroded?

During the Cold War we knew who the enemy was, even if our perception of the enemy often resembled a cardboard villain. Now the children of American politicians sit on the boards of energy companies in Ukraine, giving the appearance of corruption.

While the Internet has seemingly increased access to information, it has also resulted in a new kind of inequality: Facebook, Google, and YouTube (which is owned by Google) now have the power to kill a story by taking it down or bury it within their algorithms to minimize views.

Then there’s the classic case of FOLLOW THE MONEY.

We are told that profit is the only way to motivate people to innovate. So we allow pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers to make billions of dollars treating diseases.

The American people are not stupid. We know there is more money to be made in treating disease than curing or preventing it. It’s not that we don’t trust our doctors. But we know that they are operating within a paradigm that has been at least partially designed to profit large corporations.

Just watch the Netflix documentary “The Bleeding Edge” to meet some of the people who have been harmed by these profit-making products (Essure birth control, vaginal mesh, chromium cobalt knee replacements). Or consider the fact that pharmaceutical companies benefit from taxpayer-funded research and tax breaks for themselves, while charging exorbitant prices for essential drugs like insulin.

Remember the opioid crisis? 399,000 Americans have died between 1999 and 2017 as a result of drug overdoses involving prescription and illicit opioids. While drug dealers and individuals bear some of the responsibility for this, so do “experts” in medicine and government – you know, the ones who prescribed the Oxycontin and assured consumers that it was only minimally addictive.

Medical errors contribute to more than 250,000 deaths in the U.S. per year, according to a Johns Hopkins study. Other studies put the figure as high as 440,000. That makes them the third leading cause of death in the United States.

To recap: globalization, inequality, Big Data censorship, crony capitalism, widespread corruption, documented cases of medical malpractice and product liability.

This is why your friends are sharing a video about a doctor with dubious credentials.

This is why we don’t trust the experts.

This is why we are trying to think for ourselves, taking in the information from all sides and weighing the evidence as best we can.

If you don’t want people to believe in so-called conspiracy theories, you need to start by restoring faith in democracy. This can only occur by breaking up the monopolies that currently control our media, our medicine, and our government.

That is all.

Viewing the COVID-19 Pandemic through the Lens of Fragility

I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s four-book Incerto collection.

In the first book, Fooled by Randomness, Taleb posits that we know much less about the world than we think. Published just months before 9/11, he infamously floated the scenario of terrorists flying planes into the Twin Towers.

In the second book, The Black Swan, Taleb discusses low-probability, high-impact events like the 9/11 attacks and explains how our current models (investment, economic, political) fail to account for them. Published a few months before the Great Recession, Taleb confidently asserts that the financial system of the United States will to crash, as it has simply built up too many risky bets.

The third book, and I would argue Taleb’s best, is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. While the first two books mainly describe the world we live in – a world dominated by uncertainty and subject to Black Swan events – Antifragile lays out concrete tips for how to survive and thrive in the face of this uncertainty.

Incidentally, in Taleb’s fourth book, Skin in the Game (published in 2015), Taleb asserts matter-of-factly that the world will experience a global pandemic in the coming years. The current COVID-19 pandemic is thus not a “Black Swan” event, but rather something that anyone paying attention could have seen coming.

While Taleb has gained fame for his predictions, he cautions that the key is not to predict the future, but rather to structure our lives in such a way as to best handle the inevitable uncertainty and randomness of life.

According to Taleb, everything can be divided into one of three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. Fragile things, like teacups, break under stress and uncertainty. Robust things, like rubber balls, can withstand stress and uncertainty. Antifragile things, like human muscles, actually get stronger when subjected to stress and uncertainty (but only up to a point).

To use some examples from mythology, fragility is the sword of Damocles – hanging over our necks, just waiting to hurt us. Robustness is the phoenix, rising from the ashes. But antifragility is the hydra, growing back two heads for every one that is severed.

Common sense dictates that we arrange our lives, our societies, and our world in such a way as to at the very least minimize fragility and maximize robustness, with the added goal of antifragility. However, many of the things we are currently doing actually “fragilize” the system. The natural world understands robustness and antifragility, and the complex workings of many moving parts. The modern, man-made, globalized world oversimplifies things into models or theories that then break when subjected to stress.

Corporations prefer optimization to redundancy. In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, “Inventory is evil.” Well, maybe — when things are going according to plan. But in the face of a pandemic, when supply chains are disrupted, inventory is a blessing; its lack a curse that costs lives.

Here are some additional takeaways from Antifragile that we can apply to the current coronavirus pandemic:

  1. Don’t interfere with things you don’t understand.

Our first instinct is often to intervene in a crisis. However, certain interventions actually do more damage than the situation they are trying to address. Examples of this phenomena include unnecessary surgeries, micromanaging forest fires, urban planning, and overprotective parenting.

Often it is better to leave the system alone and let nature run its course. Let your body heal itself, let smaller forest fires occur, and let your kids make some mistakes every now and then.

Now, in the current crisis it would appear that non-intervention is actually riskier than intervention at the macro-level. However, at the individual level, most people who contract COVID-19 will be perfectly capable of fighting it off without needing to visit the hospital at the risk of spreading the infection.

Furthermore, we should seriously weigh the costs and benefits of any major interventions to our economic and political systems, carefully considering the downstream effects.

  1. Embrace Stoicism.

Stoicism has often been described as indifference to fate. However, Taleb views it more as antifragility to fate. Success brings fragility, as a successful person has more to lose than to gain from the unknown. This fact is compounded by the negativity bias, whereby we feel losses more deeply than gains. Many of us feel we have much to lose from the current crisis.

To counteract this predicament, Taleb directs us to Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher and statesman, who advised mentally writing off one’s possessions in advance. This way, if we indeed lose them in real life, it hurts less. In other words, assume the worst, and be happy when the actual result is better.

Many people are financially stressed by the recent blow to their stock portfolios, or just depressed at the cancellation of sporting events and concerts. But as long as we have our basic needs met, we should view surplus income and recreation as icing on the cake.

Don’t take anything for granted.

  1. Adopt a “barbell strategy.”

Taleb uses the metaphor of the barbell as an antidote to bell curve thinking. Barbells take the extremes into account, while bell curves largely ignore them.

How does one survive in an uncertain world?

First, decrease your downside by lowering your exposure to negative events. Second, increase your upside by making some limited, high-risk bets. Taleb advises putting 90% of your money in boring, safe investments like bonds, while investing the other 10% in high-risk, high-reward options. His own options-heavy portfolio is structured so as to benefit from volatility. Banking on this strategy, he was one of the few winners in 2008.

Taleb illustrates the concept of optionality using the example of Thales of Miletus. Tired of being derided as a do-nothing philosopher, Thales put a down payment on the seasonal use of every olive press in the region, thus taking on a small risk. When the olive harvest turned out to be extremely bountiful, he released the owners of the olive presses on his own terms, earning himself a large reward.

Barbell-style investors like Taleb are probably doing just fine during this crisis, while the bell-curvers are suffering.

  1. Embrace trial and error.

Historically-speaking, more innovations have come from tinkering than from formal research. According to Taleb, “America’s asset is, simply, risk taking and the use of optionality, this remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again, and repeating failure.”

This latest coronavirus outbreak was not the first, and will not be the last. We have to be prepared to learn from our mistakes. If history is any guide, we will not be saved by central planning, but by grassroots trial and error.

  1. Understand that fragility is nonlinear.

In other words, negative effects increase not arithmetically, but rather exponentially. Much like infection rates from COVID-19, they compound over time. Anyone who has ever sat through a traffic jam understands this.

We should identify the potential traffic jams in our supply chains and act accordingly. Resisting globalization might cost more in the short-term and/or when things are running smoothly, but localism is a more robust long-term strategy.

  1. Follow the Via Negativa, or addition by subtraction.

Let’s say you have a problem: you are overweight. It is both cheaper and more effective to eliminate the unhealthy things from your life – junk food, smoking, drinking – than to add in healthy options – expensive gym memberships, diet plans, etc.

Simpler is better.

Less is more.

Increasing complexity also increases fragility. Hopefully the coronavirus pandemic will help teach us to simplify our lives where we can by showing us all the things we really can live without.

  1. Avoid neomania; opt instead for what has stood the test of time.

Taleb defines neomania as being too quick to embrace the latest (often-untested) thing. For example, books have been around for a long time, e-readers much less so. While the e-reader user might seem smarter in some situations (consider how many books you can fit on one device!), the traditional book-reader does better in the event of a power outage.

  1. If something is too big to fail, it should be too big to allow.

Taleb notes that large corporations and nations are actually weakened by their alleged advantage – their size – as they are more subject to Black Swan events. Smaller entities like city-states and small businesses are often more robust in a crisis. We should remember this during normal times, when people start advocating mergers, acquisitions, and various other economies of scale. It is easier to turn a small ship than a large one.

(Anecdotally, I can attest that smaller school systems have responded better to the coronavirus pandemic than larger ones. Likewise, larger businesses will likely have to lay off workers first.)

  1. The need for skin in the game.

Heroes take on the downsides of others, putting themselves at risk for the greater good. Charlatans and frauds keep the upside for themselves while passing on the risk to some larger group. Ethically speaking, we should not allow any entity to privatize its profits while socializing its losses.

Conclusion

This is not a pointless philosophical exercise. All of this matters; it matters a lot. According to Taleb:

Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called “efficiency” that makes people sail too close to the wind… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.

We must consider – individually, communally, and globally – how best to navigate an increasingly unpredictable world. We can take steps to increase our resilience, and even antifragility, but this will likely necessitate certain sacrifices that seem unnecessary or even detrimental in the short-term.

At the micro-level, relying on the medical system makes us fragile. Learning basic first aid makes us more robust. Improving our body’s health through exercise utilizes our natural antifragility.

At the macro-level, there is a natural inclination to prop up the existing system. But perhaps we should utilize this crisis to build in various redundancies and fail-safes. This way, when the next crisis comes rolling inevitably along, we will all be better prepared to manage it. Instead of trembling in anxiety at the fragilities inherent in our daily lives, we can draw strength from traditional sources of wisdom and comfort – our communities, our families, and our faiths.

 

Featured Image Credit: DonSpencer1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87998491

The Ballad of Thomas Smith

Can you feel the memory of this place?
Or does the weight of time erase
Blood from the root, leaving only fear?
Do you know what happened here?

In 1893 they hung me from a hickory tree;
Still hungry, they tore its branches free
And cut my clothes for souvenirs
Like something great had happened here.

What they say I did – does it matter?
Given tribe or truth, would you choose the latter?
All that mattered was that someone pay
The debt that bore their sin away.

Mrs. Bishop was selling grapes,
She led him down the cellar steps…
Man stole two dollars and beat her flat,
A black man, she said, in a slouch hat.

Willie was at the wrong place in the wrong shoes;
They got him at the wrong time, rubber boots…
Oh, don’t think I didn’t pray
That I had left my hat that day!

They got me at the train station…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman.
They had someone else too;
He even confessed, but I never knew…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman…

They made him swear to leave town
Then let him go;
They had me, and I would do…
“Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman!”

Shouting at the courthouse, gunfire at the jail,
Rough hands pushing me down, bidding me be still…
Would they risk their lives for me now, a negro?
Would they fight and die for me now, a negro?

Eight fell that night, by the Light Infantry,
Eight died that night, but not for me;
Eight men down, but they weren’t done,
They mourned for eight, but I wasn’t one.

Law washed its hands of me then – not proud,
They handed me over to the crowd…
At last, they tied me to the tree…
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

As a child I held my mama’s hand
As salt tears watered the scarred-up land;
She said, “Son, now we’s gon’ be free…”
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

They set me free on Franklin and Mountain…
Bullets biting from every direction…
Mama, why could they not let me be?
Lord… have… mercy…

It’s over now, Mama.
Into His hands I commend my spirit.

And then when they had cut from me
Every last piece that they could gut from me,
They built a pyre for me down on the river bank;
They lit a fire for me down by the river bank.

The blaze left only a few charred bones,
Smooth and polished as river stones…
My sister saw me burn that day;
She heard them sing, then turn away.

Days passed and no one could recall
The wind that blew in early fall
That made them whoop and shout for blood,
That made them throw me on the wood.

Now people pass, but do they hear?
Does my singing reach their ears?
God sent His mercy down on me,
But nothing ever grew from that hickory tree.

Historical Note: This poem is based on actual events. Thomas Smith was lynched in Roanoke in the early morning hours of September 21, 1893. The previous morning, a Mrs. Bishop of nearby Cloverdale had been beaten and robbed near the downtown farmer’s market. She identified Smith as her assailant on the basis of his race and his “slouch hat.” That night, Roanoke mayor Henry Trout called up the Light Infantry to protect Smith from the lynch mob that had gathered at the jail. When the mob tried to storm the jail, the Light Infantry fired into the crowd, killing eight bystanders.

The mob eventually overtook Smith as he was being returned to the jail later that night. They hanged him from a hickory tree on the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue and shot him numerous times. A man cut souvenirs from the tree and Smith’s clothes, handing them out to the crowd. Many in the mob wanted to bury Smith’s body in the mayor’s front yard, but they were persuaded instead to burn him on the banks of the Roanoke River.

This tragedy was not Roanoke’s first lynching. A little over a year earlier, on February 12, 1892, William Lavender was lynched after twelve-year-old Alice Perry accused him of trying to rape her. He was identified on the basis of his rubber boots.

  1. “Boss I didn’t hurt that woman.” – Thomas Smith’s words from his arrest at the train station.
  2. “Oh, Lord, have mercy on me.” – Thomas Smith’s last words as he was being lynched.
Works Cited:
Alexander, Ann Field. “‘Like an Evil Wind’: The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 100, no. 2, 1992, pp. 173–206. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249275. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Eating Nature’s Diet

With another school year drawing to a close, getting back to a healthy diet was high on my priority list. I knew I had been slipping lately, making one too many trips through the drive-through as we raced from swim practice to soccer or T-ball. I told myself that if I just made it to summer break, I could finally ditch convenience and focus on eating whole, healthy foods again. Graduation couldn’t get here soon enough.

The day after cheering on the class of 2019, I laid out three simple rules for myself:

1. No processed carbs,

2. No processed meats, and

3. No dairy.

This is essentially a version of the anti-inflammatory diet. For years I had been wary of fully embracing the ketogenic diet, or any other plan that restricted carbohydrates indiscriminately. I love beans and rice and steel-cut oats too much for that. But even eating a “healthy” breakfast of “whole grain” toast was starting to take a toll on my waistline. I would be hungry again an hour or two later, triggering a cycle of snacking. So all bread was out, along with the crackers and pretzels that seemed better than cookies or potato chips, but honestly weren’t. I would continue to allow myself as much fruit as I wanted, despite their high sugar count. My rationale: if nature made it (and not scientists in a lab somewhere), it couldn’t be that bad.

For me, the decision to cut out processed meats came after reading the book Animal Factory by David Kirby. Factory farming is probably one of the worst ongoing disasters in America, the consequences affecting not only our health but also our environment and local communities. Accelerating dramatically in the 1990’s, small farms have been largely replaced by gigantic concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFO’s) which pollute our water with animal waste and often sicken local inhabitants. Millions of cows, chickens, and especially pigs are subjected to appallingly miserable living conditions and doused with antibiotics to reduce the inevitable infections that come with crowding so many animals together. The “product” is cheap, tasty (but only when mixed with salt, sugar, and chemical additives and/or deep fried), and hazardous to human health.

I have stopped eating pork altogether, taking a page out of Leviticus. But I will still consume organic chicken and beef, and have recently started eating more healthy fatty fish like salmon, anchovies, and sardines. And eggs are most definitely in.

When many Americans contemplate a life without processed carbs, the first thing they reach for is the cheese. Last night I broke my cheese fast with a delicious wedge of manchego to go with my lazy dinner of celery, hummus, pistachios, red wine, and dark chocolate. But I don’t plan to go back to topping every meal, from salad to eggs, with shredded cheddar. And I’ve decided I can live without milk and ice cream. My morning coffee now gets a splash of almond milk. The idea that a healthy diet must include dairy is a myth subsidized by the industry and propped up by dubious politics. Dairy is highly inflammatory, and should especially be cut out if one is prone to acne.

So, if dairy, processed carbs, and processed meats are out, what’s in? Fresh vegetables: cucumbers, celery (often with almond butter), beets, carrots, tomatoes, onions. Nuts, but not peanuts (which aren’t even real nuts). I’ve added walnuts and pecans to my fruit and oatmeal routine, which might occur at any time of day. Dark chocolate (85%) and the occasional glass of red wine let me indulge without triggering inflammation. Two recipes I’ve found highly delicious are red lentil curry with sweet potatoes and super-easy crockpot chicken with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes.

I’ve noticed that when I’m not eating processed carbs or dairy, I’m not hungry as frequently. I also don’t eat directly upon rising, but rather wait a couple hours to break the fast. Historically, only field laborers ate directly upon rising. But the breakfast wars remain controversial.

I’ve only been on this eating plan for a week, and I already feel thinner, healthier, and more energetic. I’ve also experienced more gratitude at the range of choices available to me, when our ancestors were limited to only what was in season locally. I’m sure I’ll eventually add back in certain carbs like whole wheat bread and waffles, and I’ve already indulged in some cheese, but I hope I never eat a hotdog again. I hope I can sustain this healthy lifestyle through both the enjoyment of delicious foods and the fear of a host of ailments (cancer, mad cow, heart disease).

What could sabotage this plan? Perhaps the unholy triumvirate of temptation, convenience, and cost. But I’ve found that it’s easier to resist the first cupcake than the third, and some healthy foods can be convenient (I’m fond of telling my children that bananas come in their own wrappers). While buying organic costs more, you save money on fast food and the 80% of the grocery store that’s now off-limits.

Despite the invariable costs, the benefits of healthy eating are more than worth it. Improving your diet also improves your mood, energy, skin tone, immune system, digestion, and mental clarity. In America we eat a poor diet of “cheap” foods and spend millions on energy drinks, expensive skin care products, and pharmaceuticals. The personal benefits of healthy living are clear, but I wonder, how many of our social problems could be improved with improved diets?

As soon as my high school students walk through the door, they are handed prepackaged bags of sugary juice, sausage, pancakes, milk — everything from my three “no’s” of dairy, processed meats, and processed carbs. Despite everyone at my high school receiving free breakfast, free lunch, and (if they stay) a free afternoon snack, they are constantly eating and constantly starving. They also have a hard time concentrating, which I’m sure is exacerbated by the very foods we are feeding them. It’s sad to see high schoolers already struggling with obesity and poor health.

The problem with the well-intentioned initiative of Michelle Obama to improve school lunch is that the new “healthy” choices just aren’t that tasty. Fresh fruits and salads and grains taste good; iceberg salad that was sliced a week ago and sad, shriveled carrots do not. Would it be too much to ask that students be given a hot bowl of steel-cut oats, to which they could add fresh fruit and nuts, in the morning? Or scrambled eggs mixed with freshly sautéed spinach, tomatoes, onion, and garlic (a new favorite of mine)? If this seems unlikely, then we as a society have sacrificed too much at the altar of convenience and profit.

I thank you for indulging me if you’ve read this far; I know how obnoxious it can be to read someone rambling on about what they’re eating or not eating. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist. This blog is not intended to cure, treat, or prevent disease. What works for me may not work for others. But now I’d like to make a more philosophical observation.

Basically, we disrespect nature at our own peril. Scientists are just now discovering things like the importance of the microbiome to mood and overall wellness. It seems the overuse of antibiotics has come at a steep price. Years ago, scientists thought they had found a “formula” that was just as good for a developing infant as mother’s milk. It turns out they were wrong. As Michael Pollan notes in In Defense of Food, mother’s milk contains substances that are indigestible to humans, but vital food for a certain microbe that populates an infant’s gut and prevents harmful microbes from causing disease. No formula will ever be as good as what nature provides.

In what other ways do we disrespect nature? Feeding animals to natural herbivores in CAFO’s, a common practice that may cause Alzheimer’s. Tricking the female body’s reproductive system into thinking it’s pregnant for years, when in fact it’s not. Spending our days indoors when we are designed by nature to need fresh air and sunlight. Living sedentary lifestyles, driving for hours to sit at desks for hours when we were designed to walk, run, crawl, jump, swim, and climb.

Science and religion are often presented as being at odds, but in the realm of nutrition the natural law tradition embraced by the Catholic Church gets us to the same destination as the evolutionary theory of Darwin: humans were designed/ evolved to eat and do certain things that we can’t change, even with all our science and technology.

In the Bible God says: “Behold, I have given you ever seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree whose fruit contains seed; they will be yours for food (Genesis 1:29).” For most of human history, we were hunters and gatherers. Only recently did we adopt agriculture and only very recently did we adopt the combination of a sedentary lifestyle and highly processed, chemically altered diet. The results: skyrocketing rates of diabetes, heart disease, depression, and host of other ailments.

I am reminded of the following lines from Wordsworth, which seem an adequate closing to these musings:

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

Identity and Morality in The Americans

What is it about The Americans that kept me glued to a screen for two straight days? And now that it’s over, why can’t I stop thinking about Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, fictional characters both in real life and on the show?

The story is certainly compelling: two KGB spies in 1980’s America struggling to complete their missions without getting killed or blowing their cover. They have to keep their true identities secret from their teenage kids and FBI agent Stan Beeman, who happens to move in across the street. They must also navigate the everyday struggles of parenthood and marriage, all as the threat of nuclear war hangs over America and the world.

The stakes could not be higher. The writing and production-quality of The Americans are both excellent, the “period” of the 1980’s brilliantly evoked through wigs, silk blouses, and retro cars. But in many ways the success of the show is a credit to the incredible acting of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. If left in the hands of lesser mortals, I may have been able to sleep more over the past week.

Both actors bring great emotional depth to their roles, and kick some serious butt when the situation demands it. They have an undeniable onscreen chemistry and believability, even in moments of extreme conflict. At times during the show, my attention began to slip, but never when Philip and Elizabeth shared the screen. It was no surprise to learn that Russell and Rhys are a couple in real life (Viva Philip and Elizabeth!).

At its core, The Americans is about much more than Cold War politics; it’s a heightened look at the complex interplay between identity and morality.

What should you do when different aspects of your identity come into conflict? Who is most deserving of your trust and loyalty – your country or your family? Whose good should you prioritize, when protecting one could endanger the other? Finally, what measures are morally acceptable in the pursuit of your ideals? Do the ends justify the means, or are there certain lines that should never be crossed? As viewers, we are rooting for Philip and Elizabeth to succeed somehow. But based on these inherent conflicts, we know their story can only end in tragedy.

Season 1, Episode 1 Spoilers Below (Go ahead and read it, even if you haven’t watched yet):

The conflict between Philip and Elizabeth is initially one of two strangers who must present themselves as the perfect American couple. Even after fifteen years of marriage and two kids together, Elizabeth still considers her relationship with Philip primarily as part of the job. Ironically, it is the intensification of their work together that draws Elizabeth closer to Philip, even as it reveals the second and more pivotal conflict between them.

Elizabeth is a true believer. Though she begins the first season as a devoted mother (if not quite a loving wife), her primary identity is as a KGB officer; her main loyalty is to the cause. She can’t stand American consumerism or religion, and disagrees pointedly with what her daughter is being taught in history class. When Elizabeth refers to “the Americans,” she is speaking of them.

Philip is more of an independent thinker. He mainly wants to do what is best for his family — Elizabeth and their two children. To Philip, America is not so bad: the lights stay on, the food is pretty good, and you don’t have to worry about getting sent to a Siberian prison camp. While Elizabeth’s instinct is to follow orders, Philip questions whether he can trust the KGB or the Soviet government. When it comes to “the Americans,” he could easily see himself as one of them.

The pilot episode introduces this moral conflict in the form of a Russian defector tied up in the trunk of the Jennings’ car. Philip seriously wants to turn him in and defect, something Elizabeth cannot fathom. Then he learns that the defector – a former Russian captain – raped Elizabeth back in the Soviet Union during her KGB training. This revelation is enough to take Philip from wanting to hand the guy over to killing him with his bare hands in a matter of minutes. We learn that Philip is more loyal to Elizabeth than his own comfort or desires. Foreshadowing future developments, we see he will put her good and protection even before that of his own children.

For Philip, it is obvious that their family should come before the KGB or the cause. For Elizabeth, it takes being kidnapped and interrogated by their own people to make her doubt her priorities, but only temporarily. Expressing her outrage at this betrayal, she calls the KGB “the people I’ve trusted the most,” to which Philip replies “and that’s the problem.”

Then there’s the conflict between following orders and following one’s conscience.

Season 2 – 6 Spoilers Below (Stop reading if you have not yet watched and take yourself over to Amazon Prime video where you can stream it):

Philip and Elizabeth’s actions cause untold damage. Through five seasons, their kill count is even at fifteen apiece. Some kills are in self-defense, while many are collateral damage. In the sixth season, Elizabeth’s kill count surges ahead of Philip’s, who is attempting to live life as a travel agent. This includes the most unjustified of all their murders – a couple of Soviet defectors whom Elizabeth slays, (unknowingly) in the presence of their seven-year-old kid.

But to really assess the damage wrought by Philip and Elizabeth, one has also to examine the countless lives destroyed and confidences betrayed. Philip’s biggest betrayal is of Martha, the secretary to the head of FBI counterintelligence whom he seduces and eventually marries, all the while conning her into unwittingly committing treason. Martha’s relationship with Philip, alias “Clark,” costs her everything she has ever had or wanted – love, family, country. Philip is distraught over Martha’s sad fate, but not too distraught to enjoy the company of his wife. At the end of the day Martha is alone, but Philip still has Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s biggest betrayal is of Young Hee, a Mary Kay saleswoman and mother of three whom Elizabeth befriends in order to gain access to her husband. This betrayal saddens Elizabeth the most, as she genuinely valued Young Hee’s friendship and knows her actions have destroyed her friend’s family and happiness.

A big theme here: it’s wrong to use people. It hurts them, and it hurts you too. But using people – manipulating them, seducing them, threatening them – is what the KGB does.

It’s also what FBI agents do. Stan Beeman’s conscience is not clean, as he sleeps with a source, kills an innocent man in retaliation for the loss of his partner, and refuses to do anything to save his failing marriage even as his desperate wife cries out for his attention. Ultimately, his attempts to do right by the people he has jeopardized fail to pay off.

Which brings me to the Jennings’ betrayal of Stan, a ticking time bomb that finally explodes in the last episode. Speaking in an abandoned parking garage, Philip reassures Stan that their friendship was genuine, and he was just doing his job. Despite the betrayal, Stan cannot bring himself to stop his former friends and neighbors; he lets them go. This decision reveals that Stan values their friendship, and perhaps his relationship as surrogate father to Henry, more than the good of his agency and his country.

But the betrayal that stings the most – the one I still can’t get over – is Philip and Elizabeth’s betrayal of their own children, Paige and Henry.

By Season 6, Elizabeth is no longer a good mother in any sense of the word. She mainly ignores Henry, and doesn’t quite know what to say to him when he is around. Back on a school break, Henry jokingly asks to bum a cigarette. After only a few seconds hesitation, Elizabeth holds out the pack to her son, to which Henry asks if she wants to give him lung cancer.

Things are more complicated with Paige, who plays a much bigger role in the show, as she eventually learns her parent’s true identities. The decision to bring Paige into their world and start grooming her for future espionage is a major point of conflict between Elizabeth and Philip. Philip is against it of course, whereas Elizabeth sees in Paige a kindred spirit in search of a just cause. (Yes, Elizabeth still thinks she is fighting to make the world a better place.)

Elizabeth tries to instruct Paige in the new responsibilities that come with this knowledge, but Paige finds it incredibly isolating – a pretty heavy burden for a sixteen-year-old to bear alone. She feels awkward saying the Pledge of Allegiance. She can’t have normal relationships with boyfriends or peers. Then when she confides her family’s secret to Pastor Tim, Elizabeth forces her to keep up the charade of being a surrogate child to him in order to stay in his good graces. (At least Paige’s honesty with her mother saves Pastor Tim his life.)

By the final season, Paige is no longer just keeping secrets. A college student now, she starts going on missions with her mother, mainly as a lookout. Philip is out of the business; Paige is in. But Elizabeth is clearly cracking under the pressure. It’s hard for us – and Philip – to watch Elizabeth deteriorate into a shell of her former self: either working, sleeping, or chain-smoking like a zombie on the back patio.

Elizabeth’s one remaining joy is teaching Paige about the motherland. She and Claudia give Paige lessons on history, culture, and (of course) vodka. But Elizabeth’s growing influence is hurting Paige – figuratively and even literally, as Elizabeth bloodies her lip in a basement sparring session. Paige has to witness her mother kill two men in self-defense – one a back-alley mugger who was threatening Paige, the other a reluctant source who was about to shoot Elizabeth. But the last straw for Paige is when she learns her mother slept with a twenty-one-year-old intern and ruined his life for a piece of intelligence. She calls her own mother a whore and storms off, declaring that Henry was the wiser Jennings sibling for keeping his distance. Ultimately, the never-ending lies have destroyed their family.

Phillip’s loyalty to Elizabeth is put to the test when he is contacted by Oleg on behalf of Arkady. They want him to spy on Elizabeth and stop her, if necessary, from being used by KGB hardliners to undermine Gorbachev. Philip’s ultimate cooperation with them is more of a decision to see the Soviet Union progress than to hurt Elizabeth personally, though of course she won’t see it that way. Then Philip finds another line he is unwilling to cross — hurting Kimmy, the daughter of a CIA agent whom he has been meeting since she was fifteen. Though he does eventually (and regretfully) sleep with her, he refuses to participate in her kidnapping and gives her a final warning to keep her safe. Philip has sacrificed everything for Elizabeth, including the good of their own children, but he cannot see his country fall for her, nor can he surrender his basic human decency.

Elizabeth’s moment of truth comes when she is ordered to kill a Russian diplomat. But this time (thanks to a certain intern), Elizabeth has heard the tapes and knows he is negotiating in good faith. In the end, she does something she never would have imagined – executing a fellow KGB officer – to protect the diplomat and Gorbachev’s mission to change things in the USSR. But just as both Jennings’ find a line they won’t cross, and themselves back on the same side, their cover is blown and they are forced to run.

In one of the most devastating moments of the finale, Elizabeth comes to grips with the fact that she is leaving Henry for good; the Jennings quartet is down to a trio. (For the record, I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to listen to “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits without wanting to burst into tears.) The second moment comes when Philip and Elizabeth see Paige standing on the platform as their train pulls away. The heartbreak is written over their faces as they realize they will be leaving both of their children behind.

In the end, Philip and Elizabeth lose their comfortable existence in suburban America. They lose their friendships with Stan and Young Hee. They lose the integrity of their own consciences, as they have killed innocent strangers and hurt the people who trusted them most. They even lose Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, fake identities that have become real over the past two decades, left to resume (if they can) their lives as Mischa and Nadazhda.

Looking out over the dark Moscow skyline, the one thing they have not lost is each other. We are left to wonder with them if it will be enough.

Declutter Your Soul with Christian Minimalism

Less is the new more. Marie Kondo is just the latest incarnation of a bigger trend toward living more with less. Yet minimalism is not without its critics. Some have accused it of being a luxury of the upper middle class, a subtle form of virtue-signaling akin to veganism. Others guard their beloved possessions from minimalist scrutiny with a fervor bordering on obsession. Marie Kondo, for all her joyful, pixie-like charm, recently found one group of Americans who weren’t having it  – book lovers. Her crime? Suggesting that you really only need about thirty books.

As an avid reader, I assume she means per subject.

Confession time: I consider myself a minimalist-enthusiast — in theory at least, if not always in practice. I love throwing things away, or better yet not purchasing them to begin with. I’m not particularly fastidious in my cleaning habits, but clutter certainly stresses me out. Part of me dreads each Christmas and kid’s birthday party, anticipating the inevitable tsunami of plastic crap that I will have to accommodate until I can safely donate it to Goodwill.

But for me, minimalism is about more than decluttering, more than tidying up; it’s about taking the time to reflect on what’s truly important, and then making time for it. It’s about rejecting the reflexive materialist consumerism that engulfs our culture. It’s about spending time in nature and investing in human relationships. It’s about eating healthy food made from a few natural ingredients versus fast food and processed snacks. (It’s about failing at all of these occasionally, but trying to keep myself on track.)

I have always felt that my minimalism was highly compatible with my Christian faith, but recently I decided to investigate this further. My motive: I was trying to adapt a lesson I had used with my high school history students for a Sunday school class.

First, let me explain the lesson.

While my reading list is mainly fiction, history, and philosophy, I do listen to a few self-helpy podcasts, including The Minimalists and The Art of Manliness. After both podcasts interviewed James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, I decided to do a goal-setting/ prioritizing lesson with my students on their first day back from winter break.

I started by asking my students why most New Years’ Resolutions fail. They came up with a great list, including lack of willpower, lack of support, bad environment, unrealistic goals, and waning enthusiasm. Then I helped them set monthly goals using a template that allowed them to break their monthly goal into four weekly milestones. We discussed James Clear’s contention that success is more about building good habits than having great willpower. They were with me so far.

Then I decided to make it more concrete, based on a story I remember hearing from another teacher. I brought in a big pitcher, a smaller canister, a bag of lentils, and six bouncy balls of varying size. At the beginning of the demonstration, I placed the lentils and bouncy balls in the pitcher, as shown below.

I asked a pair of student volunteers to attempt to transfer the contents of the pitcher into the smaller canister. Many students chuckled at this, clearly thinking it was impossible. In most of my classes, the first group tried to add a little lentils, then a bouncy ball, then more lentils, then another ball, and so on. They were able to fit four or five of the bouncy balls, but not the sixth. They certainly couldn’t close the lid.

I congratulated the first group on their effort and called up another pair of volunteers. This time I instructed them to fill the canister with lentils first and then see how many bouncy balls fit. The result: only three of the six.

Then I asked my students to predict what would happen if I put the balls in first before pouring in the beans. Many doubted it would work. To the amazement of some, I poured the lentils into the container of bouncy balls, shaking it ever so slightly to allow the beans to slip through the open spaces. It’s not often that high school students are impressed, but this was one of those times.

We then discussed what it all meant. The bouncy balls, I explained, were their priorities: school, family, career. The lentils were the little things – the Netflix shows that turned into all-day binges, the five minutes here or there scrolling through social media accounts that inevitably add up. They had to put the big things – their priorities – first in order to achieve their goals. To paraphrase this Laura Vanderkam TedTalk, “I don’t have time for X” is basically code for “X is not a priority for me right now.”

They got it. They liked it. I patted myself on the back for a good day-one lesson. But then I had to figure out some way to adapt it for my Sunday school students.

My biggest help came in the form of this excellent article by Haley Stewart in Public Discourse. In The Soul-Saving Grace of Christian Detachment, she writes:

If our pursuit of simplicity is not informed by the concept of Christian charity, focusing on mere minimalism will come up short… I can spend weeks decluttering my house, and it will certainly be more pleasant to inhabit our space with fewer items inside. But it will be an empty exercise if it is separated from the spiritual life and our obligations to God and our community. We all can and should take a look at how we view our possessions, but not simply so that our homes can be minimalist dreamlands. We should pursue detachment to “stuff” for a greater purpose: ordering our desires so that we can love God and other people.

To which I say, “Amen, sister!”

In a recent Minimalists podcast, a caller complained that he had followed the rules of minimalism but was still depressed and unhappy. The podcast hosts, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, tried to explain to the caller that minimalism was not in itself the answer to everything. Of course it’s not. Because secular minimalism looks like this:

It’s an empty canister. Or maybe there’s one ball inside – the one devoted to “me.” That’s like a starving person having one bite of food; it’s not enough to satisfy you. It’s not enough to fill you up.

A Christian minimalist understands that the goal is more than just my individual fulfillment because “I” am more than just an isolated individual. I am a child of God and a member of a larger community, with real obligations to both.

We all need things to survive (food, shelter, clothing), but we can easily fall into the trap of greed and excess. We forget that things are only means to more important ends. We fall in love with our possessions. This can be bad, very bad. As the Minimalists say frequently on their podcast: “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.”

This insight is not unique to religion in general, nor to Christianity in particular. Buddhism also discourages worldly attachments. Marie Kondo draws upon centuries of Shinto wisdom. But I would say that Christianity offers the best and most complete framework for implementing minimalist practices (though you would never know it by the way most American Christians live).

As a Christian, nothing should come before my faith – not my nationality, not my political ideology, not even my minimalism. But if minimalism is really about putting things in their proper order, then nothing could be more Christian. Consider these verses:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1 Timothy 6:6–8

Then He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15

We enter the world with nothing. We will all leave the world with nothing. In the meantime, we are to be grateful for what we have and eager to share it with others. Our priorities should be the eternal things – God, our souls, and the souls of others.

Some of the happiest people I know have big families with lots of children. Their houses are cluttered. Their lives are messy. But their treasure is in each other and in heaven, not in their possessions. They may not be living the minimalist dream, but they certainly seem to have their priorities straight.

Personally, I need a little help in ordering my life. This includes staying as clutter-free and tidy as possible. But I don’t judge the mother of eight whose kitchen table is a bit messy. I try not to judge in this sense at all, though I do pity those who let material possessions and the acquisition of status dictate their lives.

Failing to prioritize God and relationships is like eating a diet of only fast food. Your life might seem full, but it is ultimately empty of the things that matter — the nutrients you need to survive.

When I taught my Sunday school lesson, I reminded my students that faith and relationships should be the first bouncy balls in their containers, then their personal goals and ambitions. And really, who needs the lentils? The canister sure looks better without them (although it wouldn’t spell disaster to allow a few beans to trickle in). It is human nature to fear for one’s future security, and to seek refuge in the things we think we need. We should thank God for all He has provided, and trust that He will continue to do so in the future. We should remember to ask only for our daily bread, not a stockpile.

Beauty as a Gateway to Faith in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

Imagine two tourists standing in front of Chartres Cathedral in France. The first simply gapes in awe as everything clicks slowly into place: God, the Universe, his own life — microcosm and macrocosm. Transported by its resplendent beauty, his experience transcends human reason.

The second tourist mills about anxiously before pausing to take a selfie. “Nice old building,” he remarks, “but why do you think they had to go and put those funny crosses on top? Ruins the whole vibe.”

This is how I feel, having read Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, in comparing my reaction with those of others. Each reader is either the first tourist or the second. Either you get it, or you don’t.

Even in his own time, Waugh’s novel (written in 1944) polarized the critics. It represented a departure from his typical comedic style and evinced his own recent conversion to Catholicism in 1931. If internet reviews, podcasts, and the recent 2008 film are any indication, many people still don’t get it.

Brideshead Revisited is not a homoerotic romance, or a drama about the declining fortunes of the British aristocracy a la Downton Abbey, though it contains aspects of both. It is not primarily about friendship or nostalgia or family, though all three figure prominently into the story. At its core, Brideshead Revisited is a novel about one family’s inability to escape religion, which both entices us with its beauty and frightens us with its demands. To view this novel through any other lens is, to a large extent, to miss the point.

The protagonist of the story is Charles Ryder, an intelligent though not particularly motivated young man of the English middle class. While in his freshman year at Oxford, Charles falls under the charming influence of Sebastian Flyte, a whimsical aristocrat who is everywhere accompanied by his teddy bear, Aloysius. After a drunken night of revelry brings them together (Sebastian vomits through Charles’ first floor window), Charles comes to know Sebastian and his wealthy, carefree friends, including the flamboyant Anthony Blanche.

Charles and Sebastian spend an enchanted summer together: lounging in fields, drinking expensive wine. Charles describes Sebastian as “magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings out for live and withers at the first cold wind.” While their relationship is undoubtedly romantic, Waugh’s writing leaves it unclear as to whether it ever becomes sexual. Many readers are certain it does. I think the text supports both readings, but it ultimately doesn’t matter much either way to the plot of the story or its themes. While Anthony Blanche and Sebastian are clearly homosexual, Charles is not. He is attracted to Sebastian’s beauty and intrigued by the prospect of a perpetual adolescence, which Sebastian (forever clinging to his trusty teddy bear) represents.

Observing that Sebastian has “completely captivated” Charles, Anthony Blanche – the great “aesthete par excellence” – warns him of Sebastian’s family:

“I forget if you know his family. Now there, my dear, is a subject for the poet – for the poet of the future who must be also a psychoanalyst – and perhaps a diabolist, too. I don’t suppose he’ll ever let you meet them. He’s far too clever. They’re all charming of course, and quite, quite gruesome. Do you ever feel there is something a teeny bit gruesome about Sebastian? No? Perhaps I imagine it; it’s simply that he looks so much like the rest of them, sometimes.”

Anthony describes Brideshead — Sebastian’s elder, much more serious brother — as “something archaic, out of a cave that’s been sealed for centuries… a learned bigot, a ceremonious barbarian, a snowbound lama,” with a face “as though an Aztec sculptor had attempted a portrait of Sebastian.” He labels Julia — Sebastian’s younger sister and spitting image — a “Renaissance tragedy” with “a face of flawless Florentine Quattrocento beauty.” However, he warns “she’s a fiend – a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless killer… all she wants is power. There ought to be an Inquisition especially set up to burn her.”

But Anthony Blanche reserves most of his venom for Sebastian’s mother: the charismatic and pious matriarch, Lady Marchmain. Blanche criticizes her for refusing to grant Lord Marchmain a divorce; after the war, he ran away with a dancer and set up residence in Venice. Now she “keeps a small gang of enslaved and emaciated prisoners for her exclusive enjoyment… like wraiths following her around. They never escape once she’s had her teeth into them.”

Charles eventually does meet the Flyte family for himself. He finds them not quite the monsters of Blanche’s hyperbole, though very charming and intriguing. Sebastian watches in despair as Charles’ interest shifts inevitably from him to his family. This process of transference begins with their first visit to Brideshead Castle, the Flyte’s ornate family home in the English countryside. Brideshead awakens in Charles the longing for a different kind of beauty. He sketches its great fountain and begins painting its panels, inadvertently launching his own career as an artist.

The family watch in anxiety as Sebastian transforms from a fun-loving youth into a hopeless drunkard. It’s as if the estate and the family that inhabit it are driving him to despair. Lady Marchmain enlists everyone in the cause of saving Sebastian from himself, including Charles. After it is discovered that he lent Sebastian money to get drunk, Charles is sent away in disgrace. Sebastian exiles himself to the Middle East, where he predictably flounders. Charles tries to find Sebastian and bring him to his mother’s sickbed, but to no avail. Lady Marchmain dies.

Years pass. Charles goes on to become a moderately successful artist, specializing in architectural paintings. He travels through Latin America, painting ancient ruins and colorful vistas before returning to his loveless marriage and children he doesn’t care to see. On the crossing back to England, he meets Julia, who is just returning from an ill-fated affair in America to her equally hopeless marriage to Rex, an aspiring politician. Seeing her with fresh eyes, Charles is immediately transfixed. The two begin an affair that lasts a couple years, resulting in Charles’ divorce from his wife. Julia is about to divorce Rex to marry Charles when Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead, himself on the verge of death. His deathbed conversion is the final straw that convinces Julia to end her relationship with Charles, who goes on to enlist in the army.

The entire story is recounted by Charles years later, as he finds himself once again at Brideshead, which has been transformed into a military barracks during World War II. Charles, once an avowed agnostic, is drawn to the stone chapel, where a little light still burns. There he evinces his own conversion, which is not so much a sudden transformation as the gradual acceptance of a beauty and a truth so great it can no longer be denied.

Many secular readers are left confused by Waugh’s tale. After starting off with such promise, why does Waugh feel the need to bring it all around to God? This frustration on the part of some readers perfectly mirrors Charles’ own frustration as the Flyte family manage to turn every conversation around to religion. Lady Marchmain makes no secret of her desire to convert him to Catholicism, an effort Charles resists. In the first part of the book, he describes his initial view of religion thus:

I had no religion… The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teachings was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of “complexes” and “inhibitions” – catchwords of the decade – and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries.

What an adept summary of our own age. Yet each character, and indeed the setting itself, symbolizes either some aspect of the Church or people’s reaction to it.

Most obviously, Brideshead (the estate) is a metaphor for the Catholic Church, which is known as the Bride of Christ. All four children are brought up in the Catholic faith, literally in Brideshead. The separation of Lord and Lady Marchmain is accompanied by his giving up the Catholic faith, signaled by his leaving Brideshead. And yet, at his deathbed he returns, as so many do.

Lady Marchmain is like an autocratic pope, or at times a representation of the Church itself. Anthony Blanche tells Charles that both Sebastian and his father hate Lady Marchmain in a manner very similar to way many hate the Catholic Church and its clerics. They hate the demands she places on them, revealing their inadequacies in meeting them. Like a well-meaning but overbearing cleric, Lady Marchmain enlists spies like the tutor Samgrass and conducts “little talks” to try and nudge people in the right direction. She never curses her children or warns them directly of the fires of hell that await their unrepentance; that is not the Catholic way. She merely reminds them of what they themselves know to be true but would rather forget. At one point, Sebastian even quotes St. Augustine’s prayer: “Lord make me holy, but not yet.” Just like Augustine’s mother, Lady Marchmain will not give up on her son. Yet she can be ruthless to those allies who disappoint her, such as Charles when he gives Sebastian drinking money; Lady Marchmain essentially excommunicates him from the estate for this transgression.

Each of the four children represent one reaction of people brought up in the faith to religion.

Brideshead (the heir), described as dull and monkish, represents the response of vocation to the religious life. However, his desire to become a priest is thwarted by the fact that as the eldest, he is expected to marry and produce heirs. Brideshead’s dilemma illustrates how family obligations can both encourage and interfere with religion.

Cordelia, the youngest and plainest of the bunch, has never wavered in her faith. She represents the call to humble service, having served as a wartime nurse and now a homely spinster. But even she confesses upon her mother’s death that she never really loved her. In Cordelia’s words, her mother was “saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate Him and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that.”

Sebastian initially describes himself and Julia as semi-heathens. They have both rejected the Church in their lifestyle choices: Sebastian by refusing to grow up, Julia first by marrying Rex and then having affairs. Yet both find themselves drawn back to the faith, as though by an “invisible thread” that has only to be tugged to send them moving. Sebastian ends up as a sort of caretaker in a Tunisian monastery, while Julia rejects happiness with Charles in favor of loyalty to God and His commands.

Some readers find these conversions, along with Charles’ and Lord Marchmain’s, contrived or unrealistic. How could Waugh have ever accepted the Catholic faith after describing how it “destroyed” everyone in the Flyte family and ruined their happiness? Of course, Waugh knows it is not the Church but sin that destroys, and there is a greater calling than earthly happiness.

Rex (Julia’s husband) and Charles (Julia’s lover) represent two different reactions to those drawn into the world of the Church by their association with the Flyte family. Rex is a thoroughly modern man, embodying the ignorance of the age. He tries to make quick and easy compromises with the Church for the sake of convenience, as symbolized in his attempt to convert to Catholicism leading up to his marriage to Julia. He can not truly appreciate her beauty, nor can he understand her morals. He simply lacks imagination, and depth.

Charles is the modern man who, though he initially holds the Church and its teachings in contempt, has not yet lost his ability to appreciate beauty. This appreciation for beauty ultimately leads him somewhere he would have never expected: faith in God.

Throughout the novel, Charles never engages rationally with the claims of the Catholic Church, except to dismiss them as ludicrous. He even tries to keep the local priest from visiting Lord Marchmain at his deathbed. And yet simply being on the estate works a conversion within him, one that passes first through layers of beauty (Sebastian, the house, Julia) before arriving ultimately at God. Brideshead Revisited is indeed largely biographical of Evelyn Waugh, who describes the book as dealing with “the operation of grace” in people’s lives.

It is no coincidence that Charles becomes a painter of architecture, which he sees as being more real than the people who temporarily inhabit it. He claims to love “buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation, while time curbed the artist’s pride and the Philistine’s vulgarity, and repaired the clumsiness of the dull workman.” In the final pages, Charles enters the chapel, observing:

The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend; they made a new house with the stones of the old castle; year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness… Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played: a small red flame… the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; the flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

This seems as good a description of the Catholic Church as one can find: an ancient and mysterious building – falling to pieces in places, yet still possessing great charm, nostalgia, and power. Despite its rising and falling fortunes, the Church has managed to keep alight the small red flame of truth that can survive even our post-modern age.

Bishop Robert Barron writes that Brideshead Revisited provides Christians with a model for evangelization through beauty. He observes that buildings like Chartres or paintings like those in the Sistine Chapel “work a sort of alchemy in the soul, and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and finally to share.” He quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar’s claim that “the beautiful claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission.”

This is exactly the transformation we see in Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Puritans who would strip religious spaces of their brilliance – or forgo decoration as an unnecessary expense – should remember the value of Beauty as a window to Goodness and gateway to Truth. Agnostics or atheists who reject the claims of the Church would do well to stand for a few silent moments in its great cathedrals, to engage the sculpture of Michelangelo or the poetry of Dante. Perhaps, like Charles Ryder, they will find themselves moved by something they do not entirely understand. Like great art, Christianity is not something that can be simply reasoned; it has to be experienced, so that one might fall in love with it.