The Bonds of Nostalgia

“I saw something on the internet; I’m not sure if it’s true, but people were drinking milk out of plastic bags.”

“Oh yeah,” I said to the teenager sitting across from me, “I remember that. Sometime around second grade, I think it was.”

“Why would people do that?” he asked in astonishment.

I shrugged. “Budget cuts, I guess.”

The whole group of teens was now gaping at me as if I had just recalled riding through town in horse and buggy. The moment quickly yielded to more pressing matters, just another reminder that I am quickly becoming what they would call an “older person.” They grew up in the age of smart phones and President Obama. I remember when cell phones and the Internet were new things.

I’m sure drinking milk from a bag at school exists on some list of “25 Signs You Grew Up in the 90’s” or “10 Things Only 90’s Kids Know.” It’s one of the little ways we reminisce with our peers — the only other people who truly “get it.”

Nostalgia is a complicated emotion, eliciting both joy and sorrow. The fond memory of times gone by is coupled with the sad knowledge that such times have passed. There is the feeling that something precious has been lost. Whether the past really represents a “simpler time” or not, that’s often how we remember it. To go from postmodern complexity to an earlier period of simplicity seems as impossible as un-frying an egg.

The world around us has always been changing. Over 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus observed that “a man never steps into the same river twice.” The river is not the same as it used to be, and neither is the man. But the irrefutability of this observation does nothing to lessen its emotional blow. No wonder Heraclitus is known as the “Weeping Philosopher.”

While change remains (paradoxically) one of the only constants in human life, the rate of change does vary. The greater the rate of change, the greater the weight of nostalgia. And the world seems to be changing at an ever more rapid rate.

I recently happened upon a Facebook page dedicated to the history of the Roanoke Valley. For thirty minutes or so, I scrolled through other people’s photos and memories, most from before I was born.

A typical post: “Does anyone remember Garst Dairy?”
Comments: “Best chocolate milk ever… My dad worked there for forty years… Delivered milk to our house every morning. Those were the days…”

A post about Lee Theater on Williamson Road had over 425 reactions and 244 comments like these: “Mama took us to see Mary Poppins there… Admission was a quarter… Had my first date there. We were ten years old and watched the Swiss Family Robinson… Saw Audie Murphy movies there. They let us get up on stage and dance occasionally. Those were the days… Met the Jackson Five there!… A Streetcar Named Desire… The Sound of Music… The Rocky Horror Picture Show… Sad that it ended up being an adult movie theater in its last days…

Another asked: “Does anyone else remember shopping at the Roanoke-Salem Plaza?”
Comments: “My parents took me there in 1972 for my 13th birthday. After lunch they bought me a birthstone ring… My great aunt worked at High’s Ice Cream… I took dance lessons from “Miss Hellen” there… Leggett’s and Lerner’s, where my mama layed away our school clothes… Such a pretty, peaceful area. I suppose a mall like that wouldn’t do well nowadays… It was a real neat little mall, the courtyard was like a little town, but when the crime got bad they had to block off the rear entrance and it went downhill fast…”

This post was shocking to me, as this particular shopping center has fallen into such a state of disuse that it is commonly used as a parking lot to shuttle people to nearby events. “Quaint” and “pleasant” are the last words I would use to describe it.

My family lacks deep roots in the area, as both my parents are from out of state. I didn’t grow up hearing about how Roanoke or Salem used to be; thus, most of this history is new to me.

I’ve recently taken to driving through the neighborhoods of Roanoke instead of bypassing them on the interstate. Each street has a story, almost every block the site of some business that has either changed or closed. I love studying the old brick edifices and wondering what they used to be. I am currently reading Truevine by Beth Macy. This tale of racism in the Jim Crow South is also a treasure trove of local history. I had no idea that the library I drive by almost every day was established by an African-American woman in the 1920’s with the blessing of the Catholic Church (which owned the land at the time), or that the historic black neighborhood of Gainsborough once attracted the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Knowing this history helps me to appreciate this area so much more.

Closer to home, every drive through my hometown is a trip down memory lane. Businesses like the Salem Ice Cream Parlor, Mill Mountain Coffee, Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy, and Mac n’ Bob’s occupy not just a segment of the local economy, but an important place in the local psychology. I walked or biked to these places as a kid. Now I take my own kids there.

I’m lucky to be able to share so much of my childhood with them, but not all has been preserved. The arcade where I used to play basketball and laser tag is now a Lowe’s. The field behind my elementary school used to feature grazing cattle; now it is crowded with luxury homes that make the hill look small. When Ridenhour Music closed its doors about a year ago, there was palpable pain and regret. The building is still there: empty, its windows papered over.

The changing landscape is just the most visible sign of the changing times. The bonds of family and community have frayed. We seem to be more isolated and divided than ever – adrift on a tide of what some have labeled “liquid modernity”; old institutions have declined, and things are changing too fast for new ones to even have time to develop.

I must confess an additional level of sadness as I reminisce about my own childhood and read the recollections of others. Will today’s children be able to indulge in the same nostalgia? So many of the small businesses that used to anchor our communities have been replaced by big, soulless chains. Who really cherishes memories from Ruby Tuesday, Walmart, or Check-Into-Cash?

The forces of globalization and other economic challenges have made mom-and-pop businesses an ever rarer sight. They have been replaced by businesses that are more efficient perhaps, but lack character. Their managers follow the dictates of corporate headquarters, unlike the owners of the past who could form real bonds with their customers. Gone are the small-time carnivals and amusement parks that used to draw local crowds. Instead people drive to Busch Gardens, or maybe Disney World when they can save up the money.

Will today’s kids get to reminisce about playing tackle football with the neighbors in someone’s backyard or hanging out at the coffee shop? If not, will Snapchat conversations and Minecraft provide adequate substitutes?

In this age of omnipresent electronic devices, almost every moment is frozen, photographed, and posted. Our apps even come with ready-made filters to add layers of faux-nostalgia, encasing the events of the past few minutes with the glow of soon-to-be-memories. But will all this hyper-documentation make it easier or harder to recall these moments? If we never fully commit to the present, how do we remember it as past?

Despite all these questions, there are traces of hope. There was a moment a few days ago when I saw my son and his friend walking back from the creek behind our house. Two boys playing after school, they were accompanied by our five-year-old neighbor, whose curly hair bounced along as she strode in her usual purposeful, tomboy way. Who knows what they were up to? Like most things, it seemed to involve some plan bordering on “mom-wouldn’t-want-us-to-do-this-but-she-doesn’t-have-to-know-the-details.”

I didn’t have time to snap a picture on my iPhone. The thought didn’t even cross my mind. I just delighted in how cute they looked and how happy I was that they were doing exactly what kids their age should be doing: playing – preferably in unstructured, minimally supervised ways.

In ten years, the boys will be off at college. The girl will be in high school. Just a decade will have passed, but they will be so much older, so different. I hope they meet up sometime, maybe at a football game (where the cheers are almost guaranteed to be the same) or Mac n’ Bob’s (where the calzones and chicken tenders will also be the same), and remember how they used to scheme and play together, all the fun they had. Maybe they’ll recall all the lost treasures they dredged out of that creek, a veritable time capsule in itself. I’m glad they’re having a real childhood, one that will afford them with real memories.

Perhaps the only thing sadder than nostalgia is the thought that current generations may never get to fully share in its sweet sorrow.

Advertisements

The Benedict Option for a Brave New World

Last night I took my sons to a high school soccer game. One of the best teams in the state (my school) was playing an opponent from a rural county.

It was never even close.

We scored within the first minute of play, punching the ball in off a cross. It was almost unfair the way our forwards and midfielders carved up the opposing team’s defense with their speed and footwork — coming together seamlessly to find each other, and the back of the net, time and again.

By halftime the score was 4-0, and it was starting to show in the opposing team’s posture. Their shoulders were hunched. They passed the ball with an air of futility, as if waiting for it to be intercepted by our lightning-fast attack.

Trying to escape the midday sun, I happened to hear some of what the rural team’s coach had to say. He didn’t draw up complicated schematics. He didn’t explain how they were going to come back and win the game in the second half; it was clear to all that that would not be the case. As they sat together on a grassy hill, sweat pouring down their aching muscles, he simply urged them not to give up. “Don’t think ahead to the next game. If you can’t play to win, play for each other. Play so that at the end of the season you can look each other in the eye and say you did everything you could.”

This is one way to look at the Benedict Option. The battle may be lost, but the war rages on. It is later in the game than many of us had realized. We are unlikely to “win” the war for the soul of our nation’s culture, at least not anytime soon. But this is not a cause for defeatism. What we do still matters, as it carries us forward to the next season, the next generation. We can create a vibrant, dynamic counter-culture. We can come together, offering strength and encouragement, so that on the last day we may share in the final victory.

In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher acknowledges that Americans have a particular aversion to losing. We “cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind.”

But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.

Dreher compares modernity to a Great Flood, one that is swiftly advancing upon our Christian beliefs and institutions. The Obergefell decision was “the Waterloo of religious conservatism,” the moment the Sexual Revolution triumphed over traditional Christian morality and anthropology. But this defeat has been a long time coming. The philosophical underpinnings of modern secularism stretch back to the nominalists of the Late Middle Ages, progressing under the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.

Today we see its fruits. The nuclear family has broken down. Our system of public education has become militantly secular; as a result, each generation is more secular than the last. Our churches have tried to accommodate the dominant culture rather than resist its advancing tide. In 2011, only 40% of Christian 18-to-23 year olds said their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or religion.

Rather than piling sandbags, Dreher advises, better to start building boats.

Critics claim Dreher’s assessment is too grim, but to me it rings true. I used to see America as being divided into two great hostile camps – the Left, intent on dragging our country down the road to socialism (and eventually serfdom), and the Right – boldly defending the rights of the individual. Economic concerns predominated, especially during Obama’s first term – stimulus, Obamacare, financial reform. Social issues were on the back burner.

In Obama’s second term, the culture wars returned to the front and center of American politics. As support for same-sex marriage grew to become the new “civil rights” issue, traditional Christian beliefs were condemned as hate speech. Christian business owners came under attack for refusing to toe the line. States like Indiana and North Carolina lost business over relatively modest attempts to defend religious liberty and traditional definitions of “male” and “female.” Economic growth was no longer the priority. In fact, it seemed that no defense of truth or morality could withstand the power of the almighty dollar.

Then came the 2016 Republican primary and the rise of Donald Trump. This time it didn’t seem like my side against the other side. Instead of two giant cruise ships trying to steer the country in different directions, I found myself on a life raft, in search of a more sea-worthy vessel. Who on “my side” actually cared about the moral good of the individual, the strengthening of the family, and the prospect of cultural renewal? And who just wanted the “freedom” to engage in unrestrained consumerism? Who was just eager to be back in power, to once again be on the winning side?

This is not to say that I saw politics as irrelevant or the outcome of the 2016 election as meaningless. I fault no one for supporting Trump in light of the alternative. While not an orthodox Christian himself, Trump’s victory has bought a brief respite from the attack against religious freedom, at least as it comes from the executive branch of our national government. And this, Dreher argues, is the one area of political life in which Christians must stay engaged.

As the nature of the modern attack became more apparent, I began to put matters of faith before matters of politics. Instead of talk radio, I started listening to EWTN. Instead of Austrian economics, I started reading books about religion and culture. I stopped following the news of the day and started educating myself on the classics. Why listen to Limbaugh and O’Reilly when one has Shakespeare and Aquinas, Lewis and Chesterton? It was probably just a matter of time before I encountered Dreher’s work.

A couple years ago, I read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Having grown up as a Catholic in Southwest Virginia, I had never experienced the kind of institutional and social support for religion that Douthat describes during the postwar mid-century revival. But Douthat’s account of the decline of institutional religion resonated, especially how it has been replaced with a range of “heresies,” from nationalism to Gnosticism. The uncomfortable truth is that we can’t blame the secular Left for what ails society. We need only look in the mirror.

A couple months ago, I got the chance to see Ross Douthat speak at a local college. While his work was only five years old, he began by acknowledging that its basic thesis may need modification in light of recent events. In Bad Religion, Douthat argued that though we were a “nation of heretics,” we were still a Christian nation. In this sense he was hopeful; maybe bad religion was better than no religion. But after Obergefell and Trump, it was worth considering whether we were living in a post-Christian society, as Dreher contends.

Again, this is not a cause for despair. Instead of accepting defeat, we must focus on our continued capacity for action. Watching the endless stream of cable news, we often experience a sense of hopelessness. What can I do about the Supreme Court? What can I do to stop North Korea? What can I do to fix the healthcare system?

The obvious answer: not much.

So turn off the TV, take a good, hard look at your own family, your own community, and you will find something you can do. Environmentalists have a saying: “Think globally, act locally.” As Christians, we should think other-worldly and act locally. The point is not to elect more Republicans to political office; the point is not even to ensure America’s global dominance. The point is to get into heaven, and to help lift as many of our fellow man as we can along with us.

We don’t need to save the world – Someone already did. And He left some pretty clear instructions on how we are to act in light of His sacrifice and its meaning.

We don’t all have to move to little faith-based communities and send our children to private classical or religious academies. We don’t all need to withdraw from society and live as Benedictine monks. But we can all find ways to put religion back in the center of our lives instead of letting it languish on the periphery. We can get involved in our religious communities and seek out like-minded individuals for discussion and support. We can unplug from our iphones and use the extra time to cultivate deeper prayer lives.

I recently reread George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the twin classics of dystopian literature. Both describe a world in which objective reality is denied; thus, they have much to teach us about our present cultural moment. But today Huxley’s prophesy rings more true. Our lives have been taken over by technology and sex. It’s not that we don’t have access to the wisdom of the past, it’s that we simply don’t care to seek it. To quote the title of Neil Postman’s famous work, we are too busy Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman makes the following comparison:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one… In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us… What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.

In Brave New World, John the Savage is so disgusted by society that he withdraws to live an isolated existence as a self-flagellating monk. He can’t go back to the “savage” reservation, where he was never really welcome, and yet neither can he accommodate himself to modernity, where “nothing costs enough.” But the pressures of the outside world are too much for him to withstand alone. He eventually meets an unfortunate, though predictable end.

We are truly living in a brave new world — a radical departure from the traditional understanding of what it means to be human, facilitated by technology. But our fate need not be that of John the Savage. In the foreword to the 1946 edition, Huxley expresses the regret that he did not give his protagonist a third choice – to live in a community of other social “misfits.” There they could have assisted each other in seeking out the good, the beautiful, and the true, in a world that had long-since abandoned such pursuits for creature comforts and radical autonomy.

Fortunately for us, we still have this choice.

White Supremacist: The Problem with Pro-Lifers Is They Believe in Human Rights

Richard Spencer, the leader of the “alt-right” movement and a proud white supremacist, just provided the most damning defense of abortion I have ever encountered, and everyone should read it. If you believe abortion is a woman’s “right,” or that it is just a personal choice the government should stay out of – even if you are Pro-Life but consider it just another issue – you need to read what he said.

Jonathan van Maren offers a spot-on analysis here; feel free to skip the rest of this post and just read his instead.

The big problem with the Pro-Life movement, according to Spencer, is that it promotes human rights:

And so the anti-abortion crusade becomes this ‘human rights’ crusade… (the idea) that every being that is human has a right to life and so on. Well that’s not how we think… You are part of a community, you’re part of a family, you’re part of a collective. You do not have some human right, some abstract thing given to you by God or by the world or something like that. You’re part of a community and that’s where you gain your meaning or your rights. The anti-abortion crusade is often associated with family, the traditional family, but to be honest it’s descended into not just a human rights dogma but a kind of dysgenic “we are the world” dogma.

Did you get that? Well? Do we have human rights simply by virtue of being human, or do our rights depend on the opinion of someone else, or the decision of the group? If you support abortion in any circumstance, you have to place yourself in the latter camp. Also notice how the totalitarian right blends into the totalitarian left in that both ultimately dismiss the individual and value only the group.

Unborn humans are still humans. They don’t magically become homo sapiens when they exit the womb. Do their lives matter? The pro-abortion side says “that depends.” To them, an unborn child’s value is contingent upon the whims of the mother. If a pregnant woman is murdered in most states, it is considered a double homicide. But if a woman ends the life of the child growing inside her, it is simply a private decision.

As a culture, why should we care about the lives and rights of the unborn? They leave behind no friends to mourn them. Society has yet to invest in them; from an economic standpoint, they certainly consume more than they produce. The answer is that a human’s value is not determined by their productivity, intelligence, or social connections, but by virtue of the fact that we are all “endowed by our Creator” with the inalienable right to life.

In “alienating” the rights of some, we deny the rights of all. Either all lives matter, or no lives matter. “Some lives matter” may seem to work for a while, but it eventually leads to concentration camps and mass graves. The Nazis began their executions not with Jews but with the mentally and physically handicapped, individuals whose value was determined to be less than the cost of even allowing them to remain alive. World War II claimed the lives of 60 million human beings, most of whom were not Jewish. You may not personally mourn the loss of the unborn – fragile, helpless beings you never got the chance to meet – just as you may not personally mourn the shooting of an inner-city youth. But when one group’s rights are declared contingent upon the decisions of others, or when society offers only an indifferent shrug in the face of their slaughter, it inevitably diminishes the rights of all. A culture that tolerates or promotes abortion will also accept euthanasia, suicide, child abuse, and domestic violence. Instead of universal respect, the world becomes one in which, to quote Thucydides: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

According to Spencer, the abortion issue is “complicated” and not a “‘good or evil’ binary.” In his twisted world view, abortion is good when it is used to control the population of “undesirables” – for Spencer, the poor and minorities – but bad when it is used to control the reproduction of intelligent whites. Spencer bemoans the use of contraception by “highly intelligent career women” who should be passing on their superior genetics to advance the white race. He concludes:

We should recognize that the pro-life movement—this is not the alt-right… we should be genuinely suspicious of people who think in terms of human rights and who are interested in adopting African children and bringing them to this country and who get caught up on this issue… We want to be eugenic in the deepest sense of the word. Pro-lifers want to be radically dysgenic, egalitarian, multi-racial human rights thumpers—and they’re not us.

To echo Von Maren – no, we are not!

Edmund Burke, the French Revolution, and What It Means to Be Conservative

When asked to define conservatism, the average person would likely rattle off a list of policy positions. Conservatives are for lower taxes, smaller government, stronger defense, and more traditional values. Liberals, on the other hand, favor higher taxes on the wealthy, a more generous welfare state, a smaller defense budget, and more progressive social norms. But this brings us no closer to understanding the essence of either term.

A casual glance through Wikipedia will reveal that not only are there conservatives and liberals, but liberal conservatives, conservative liberals, and libertarian conservatives. There are also fiscal conservatives, national and traditional conservatives, cultural and social conservatives, religious conservatives, progressive conservatives, and authoritarian conservatives. What do they all mean? Is it even possible to boil all these diverse strands into a single, essential conservatism? If so, what value does it offer today?

I would argue that there is such an essence, rooted not in policy but in outlook. When presented with a problem, conservatives look to past experience for guidance. They espouse a view of human nature that is basically fixed. Man has always been man, and will never be anything but. Therefore, any system of ordering society or government will accept the very real limitations imposed by human nature. Utopian schemes, be they Nazism or communism, are thus to be rejected out of hand. As psychologist E. O. Wilson said of communism, “Great idea. Wrong species.”

What do conservatives seek to conserve? Tradition is the most obvious answer. The accumulated wisdom of past experience. Virtues such as loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice – traits that have gone out of style in recent centuries.

Conservatives look to the past and find beacons of light that still illuminate the problems facing human societies, as human societies themselves reflect our unchanging human nature. Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Franklin, and Dickens stand ready to point the way with sage advice and observations. Though none would pass the test of today’s utterly liberal social norms, conservatives are willing to forgive these cultural icons for tolerating and even justifying certain evils of their day, including sexism and slavery. Conservatives lack some of the smug self-righteousness of today’s liberal social justice warriors. They understand that we are essentially no better than our ancestors in the moral sense, though we benefit from a necessarily larger pool of human wisdom.

What makes defining conservatism and liberalism so tricky is that the meanings of both terms have evolved over the decades along with the political debates of the times. Yet both ideologies trace back to the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and continues to reverberate to this day. In the nineteenth century, many conservatives favored absolute monarchy and maintaining the social hierarchy, while opposing revolutionary movements. Liberals espoused Enlightenment principles of liberty, democracy, and nationalism, while often supporting revolutionary change.

Edmund Burke, who many consider to be the founder of modern conservatism, had this to say about the French Revolution, in particular the execution of Marie Antoinette:

Oh, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! … little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

The relationships here described help explain why some liberals can’t stand Downton Abbey, the acclaimed PBS drama with a distinctly conservative bent. Why, they must wonder, do the servants appear to care for the family instead of organizing a labor strike, or at least spitting in their afternoon tea?

In Downton Abbey and Poldark, another PBS drama set a century earlier, it is the middle class that provides the chief villain. It is interesting that Burke’s assessment should be echoed by none other than Karl Marx, the founder of communism. He describes a similar historical process in his condemnation of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, denouncing Burke’s “economists and calculators:”

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence…

Marx would no doubt consider Burke one such “reactionary,” pining for the lost chivalry and glory of a bygone era. But Burke was not the mindless defender of the status quo that some of his liberal critics thought him to be. He supported the American Revolution, even making a pleading speech in Parliament to seek peace with America:

Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it…. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it…. Do not burthen them with taxes… If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery…

Burke’s support illuminates the essentially conservative spirit of the American Revolution, as oxymoronic as this may at first sound. Our Founding Fathers saw themselves as restoring their ancient rights as Englishmen, rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta, and before that to God’s creation of man. Unlike the Jacobins of the French Revolution, they did not seek to redefine and reinvent every aspect of society. They were, for the most part, students of history and men of faith. The idea of overthrowing Christianity would have never occurred to them, although it was attempted with disastrous results in France.

Burke understood the forces that connect us to each other better than most of his more liberal contemporaries. He knew that the strongest bonds are with those closest to us, but that “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon… is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” Any system of government must recognize that we exist not as isolated individuals or a single, uniform mass, but as members of families and communities first.

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the chief inspiration of the French Revolution, who first rejected this essential truth, seeing even the family as an artificial, modern construct that society would be better off without. Efforts to isolate the individual from the family culminated in the communist movements of the twentieth century and can still be seen today. Recall “Julia” of President Obama’s infamous campaign ad, who moves through life relying upon the state to act as mother, caretaker, and spouse. In sum, conservatives are more likely to see the family, not the individual, as the basic unit of society.

Can one be too conservative? Certainly, just as one can be too liberal. At the extremes of conservatism, we find reactionaries who reject practically all change and long for a return to a past that is already gone. At the extremes of liberalism, we find radicals who are willing to tolerate any amount of violence to bring about necessary social change, even if it brings only equal misery. Liberals praise dictators like Fidel Castro because they judge people on their good intentions and lofty ideals, not on the human misery and deaths that often result from misguided policies.

In their rush to remake society, many liberals dismiss the Constitution and the Bible as outdated and irrelevant, obnoxious hindrances to progress. They mistakenly believe that human nature itself can be changed. In their rush to redefine marriage, they jettison millennia of human experience without a second thought. But it does not stop there (it never does), as “male” and “female” are now up for redefinition as well.

It is true that conservatives are more cautious about launching into massive social experiments of the sort that liberals desire. But this does not mean opposing change at all costs. Recall that Burke himself supported the American Revolution and its emphasis on natural rights, while rejecting the radicalism of the French. As we survey the current generation of campus activists ready to protest at the slightest offense, it is worth asking – are we raising a generation of Jefferson’s or Robespierre’s? Does our path lead to the Constitution, or the guillotine?

Today – A Poem

Today

When I was a child I saw the world
through eyes that shone with every color –
of turquoise, emerald, crimson, gold,
and each rich shade of sister and brother.
But when this vision grew too bright,
I made myself a private night.
Dark shades I wore to block the day –
Today I decided to put them away.

When I was a child I heard the world
as songs the swallows sing each other,
of wisdom sought and stories told,
the private joys of passing strangers.
But when the voices of the street
brought forth demands I could not meet,
I wrapped my ears with heavy cloth –
Today I decided to cast them off.

When I was a child my hands were free
To skim the grasses as I ran –
and laughter sprang up naturally
without concern for price or plan.
But when my fate I could not know,
then did my doubts begin to grow.
No longer to carry ’round and ’round –
Today I decided to put them down.

Today I held my child’s hand
And in it found a new command:
Ears to listen, eyes to see
Hands empty, heart free.

Don’t Blame Everything on Imperialism

The lessons we draw from the past often do more to shape the future than the past itself, even if they are the wrong lessons. Most of our errors and exaggerations contain more than a grain of truth. We are highly capable of taking a valid insight and pushing it a bit too far, or maybe blowing it out of all sense of proportion. In these cases, an incomplete reading of history can be worse than no reading at all.

In this post, I will examine a particularly pervasive “lesson” in world history circles: the idea that almost every problem ailing the world today is the product of western imperialism. This argument has been on my radar for the last week or so as various authors look back on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that infamous document where France and Britain divided the Middle East during World War I into their respective spheres of influence, a move that would contribute to the “arbitrary” borders of Syria and Iraq. Later agreements also slighted the Kurds, leaving them without a state. To say that Sykes-Picot was a self-interested move that neglected the will of the Arabs and Kurds is obvious. To blame two diplomats – one French and one British, both trying to preserve their country’s alliance against the Central Powers – for everything that ails the Middle East today is madness.

The blame-imperialism thesis fits into the larger “blame the West” narrative that has profound consequences for our politics. There’s almost no problem some people will not pin on imperialists of yester-century.

Global inequality between the western and non-western world? Blame imperialism.

Genocide and civil war in Africa? Imperialism.

Economic collapse in Latin America? Imperialism.

Paris terror attacks? Imperialism, obviously.

When people bemoan “imperialism,” they often mean western imperialism, of the sort practiced by white guys (American or European) in non-white places (Africa, Middle East, Asia) in the relatively recent (though not directly experienced) past. Sometimes this first category is enlarged to include the non-white Japanese, but with the added explanation that they must have gotten the idea to invade other people from the Americans, or else it would have never occurred to them.

But the West no more invented imperialism than it invented slavery. To cast problems of greed and selfishness as uniquely Western, as opposed to simply human pathologies, is to employ a double standard in historical judgment.

We don’t tend to blame Russia’s present-day problems on the fact that it experienced Mongolian imperialism in the 13th century. We don’t explain the U.K.’s current crises with the fact that they have been conquered or invaded by Romans, Angles, Saxons, and Normans. Somehow the Russians and the English survived their experiences with imperialism in ways Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians have not.

Why is western imperialism such a popular explanation?

First, because there is a large measure of truth to it. Belgian imperialism in Central Africa certainly contributed to the ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis that exploded into genocide in the 1990s. The Sykes-Picot Agreement did help set the stage for the somewhat-illogical division of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But while it is important to recognize the influence of imperialism on more recent or ongoing tragedies, it would be a mistake to overstate the explanatory power of this argument. The Belgians were not the ones ordering bands of rage-filled Hutus to kill Tutsis. Poor Mssrs. Sykes and Picot did not draw up the plan for ISIS back in 1915, nor did they conspire to ensure that despots and tyrants would gain control of the Middle East. Nothing in history is inevitable. To blame Group A’s problems on Group B can have the unintended effect of turning Group A into passive victims of Group B’s villainy, depriving them of their agency in the past, present, and future. When people really don’t like their current borders, they act to change them. Sometimes attempt to redefine borders more “logically” can have the perverse effect of leading to more genocide and strife. Just look at South Sudan today.

Second, Western imperialism has a long history. In many ways, it has dominated the last 500 years of world history. It began in the late 15th century, when the Portuguese started seizing ports in the Indian Ocean and Spain started colonizing the Caribbean. At the time, however, Europeans were still suffering under the imperialism of the Ottoman Turks, who seemed poised to extend their control across the entire continent.

Western imperialism held off the Turks, but suffered a temporary setback in the 18th and early 19th centuries as large parts of North and South America broke free from European rule (thought they remained dominated by European descendants). It reached its peak in the 19th century, when European and American adventurists achieved a level of dominance over Africa and Asia, powered by industry and motivated by a potent blend of global capitalism, nationalism, and a newfound sense of moral and cultural superiority. Imperialism suffered two more setbacks in the First and Second World Wars, after which most colonized people gained independence. However, the blame-imperialism crowd will speak today of neo-colonialism, by which they mean the continued exploitation of the Third World by western business interests, international organizations, and even humanitarian agencies.

Again, there is some measure of truth to this. When the U.S. and U.N. try to impose a population control agenda on developing countries, this is neo-colonialism. When the U.S. criticizes African countries for failing to conform to the LGBT or abortion agendas, this is cultural imperialism of a particularly noxious variety.

But once again, there are limits to this argument, especially when explaining the origins of global inequality.

Why does the West still dominate “the rest” on many indicators of wealth and health? Why have China, Japan, and Russia imported far more elements of western civilization than we have borrowed from theirs? The blame-imperialism crowd would have us believe that this global imbalance in wealth and power is the cumulative effect of five centuries of plunder, while defenders of the West credit superior institutions. It’s probably not all one or the other, but what is the right combination?

If one believes the West predominates because it stole from the non-West, then the solution is for the western nations to “give back” the wealth they unjustly stole through some form of reparations, as some Caribbean nations have suggested. At the very least, westerners should feel very guilty for their ill-gotten advantage and non-Westerners should seethe with resentment. However, if one believes the success of the West is due to its superior institutions of private property and intellectual property protections, human rights, the rule of law, and the democratic process, then the non-West should be encouraged to emulate the West, to “westernize.”

But there is a certain degree of arrogance among the blame-imperialism crowd. No matter how distant the injustice, the West is always to blame. “It has to be our fault for their problems!” they insist. As if African and Asian societies did not have their own problems before the first white men arrived with their treaties or guns.

The truth is, imperialism has a complicated legacy. Some members of indigenous societies actually benefited from European colonization. Just ask the Native Americans not subjected to human sacrifice, or the Indian women not forced to commit sati. Several sources from Indians themselves attest to both the benefits and drawbacks of their experience with British colonization. On a big-picture scale, imperialism resulted in the diffusion of modern science and technology to peoples eager to exploit them. India and China once fell victim to European capitalist expansion. Today, they use the global free market and many western innovations to increase the standards of living for their people.

In the history of humanity, one would be hard-pressed to find a group that has never suffered injustice, never been defeated in battle, never been encroached upon by territorial rivals. The fact that we are all alive today can be viewed as a sort of historical “privilege,” to use the popular buzzword. We all descend from the people who did not die before they could reproduce. But we likewise descend from a mixture of conquered and conquerors, invaders and invaded. The Peruvian mestiza may have a hard time determining whether to blame or praise their European ancestors on behalf of their Native American ones, as might the Brazilian mulatto. The Spanish conquistadors who subjugated the Americans likely carried the blood of Moorish invaders who once subjugated Iberia.

But the blame-imperialism crowd suffers from a pervasive double standard. Somehow, everything must be the fault of the lighter-shaded group, while darker-shaded people must remain blameless. In this paradigm, the Crusades were a terrible case of Europeans trying to take over lands that didn’t belong to them, but little is said of the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries that devastated the earliest Christian communities. Israel is loathed as an illegitimate state built on the theft of Palestinian land and culture, while the ancient claims of the Jews are dismissed. The Atlantic Slave Trade is rightly criticized, but the Muslim-dominated trade that predated and out-lived it is ignored.

A more complete and honest reading of history would acknowledge the challenges imposed by past imperialism without laying all the blame at the feet of long-dead colonizers. We should be able to acknowledge the damage the slave trade and imperialism did to Africa, while also examining the roles of indigenous slavery, lack of women’s rights, and cruel dictators like Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin. We can acknowledge that Sykes-Picot did little to help the Middle East, while also examining the problem of extremist violence within Islam.

By blaming the West for everything, we let off the hook many of those directly responsible for present-day atrocities. It is an odd reality that much of the rhetoric of extremist groups like ISIS is virtually indistinguishable from left-wing accounts of history. Young Muslim radicals in Europe gush over the film-making of Michael Moore, while left-wing intellectuals seem to argue that if non-Western groups hate us, we must have done something to deserve it.

It’s a cliché that “those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.” A less-acknowledged truth may be that those who draw the wrong lessons from the past are doomed to never move beyond it. If someone were to confess to an unhappy or even abusive childhood, we would not look at them and say “what a pity you will never get ahead.” Instead, we would encourage them to not let their past define them, to seek out new opportunities, and to accept personal responsibility for their future. The same should be the case for peoples with unhappy histories, as most histories at some point are.

What’s Really at Stake in the Bathroom Wars

On February 22nd, the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, regardless of biological sex. North Carolina’s state legislature responded on March 23rd by passing a law requiring individuals to use the restroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. Since then, our country has been engaged in a national debate over who should pee where. But the real debate is about much more than that, and the outcome matters more than one would think.

First, it’s not about stigmatizing transgender people, or making it easier for them to perform necessary biological functions throughout the course of their day. Yes, transgender people often struggle over the issue of which restroom to use, especially if they look like one sex but have the parts of another. But as many have noted, transgender people have been using the facility of their chosen gender for decades. It’s not like there’s a gender policeman stationed at each bathroom checking birth certificates.

Second, the debate is not primarily about sexual predators, though the safety and privacy of women and children is certainly at stake. Policies like the one recently announced by Target will make it easier for sexual predators to gain access to women and girls. Several men have already been caught trying to film women under the stall dividers. But bathrooms – both men’s and women’s – have always been places where predators could lurk, as they feature people at their most isolated and vulnerable. This is why girls pee in packs. This is why I don’t let my eight-year-old son use the men’s locker room without a male relative present.

The great bathroom debate, like the marriage debate, comes down to this – will our culture and our laws recognize the fundamental truth that men and women are different in important and immutable ways, and that this difference structures much of human society? Or will we abandon reason, tradition, and common sense in our attempt to deny the obvious and assert the opposite?

Claire Chretien recently made this argument in Lifesite News:

The battle over men accessing women’s bathrooms and vice versa has little do with bathrooms or even transgenderism, a well-known LGBT activist admitted last week.  It has everything to do with re-working society and getting rid of the “heterobinary structure” in which we live—eliminating distinctions between “male” and “female” altogether.

But these distinctions are not matters of opinion. People are born male or female. This is a scientific fact. Sex is binary. Men have XY chromosomes, male genitalia, and higher levels of testosterone. Women have XX chromosomes, female genitalia, and higher levels of estrogen.  There are very rare exceptions where an intersex person may not fit neatly into male or female categories, but these exceptions do not disprove the rule that sex is binary. Some people are born without arms, but this does not mean that arms are just an arbitrary thing that some people have and others don’t.

Your sex is assigned to you before birth, at the moment of conception. It cannot be changed. No amount of hormonal therapy or surgery can transform someone to the extent that they are indistinguishable from a person born as that sex. A man that seeks to become a woman will never bear a child. A woman that seeks to become a man will never impregnate anyone. The best that can be accomplished is a crude imitation, a farce.

During childhood, males and females must develop healthy gender identities as men and women. A biological male must figure out what it means to be a man, and a biological female must figure out what it means to be a woman. This is where “nurture” enters an equation that has previously been dominated by nature. Not all biological males like getting dirty, playing with trucks, or tackling other boys. But they must all accept their role as men so that they can become tomorrow’s fathers, uncles, and husbands. Not all biological females like playing with dolls, wearing dresses, or doing other “girly” things. But they must all accept their role as women so that they can become tomorrow’s mothers, aunts, and wives. Sexual difference is born out in numerous statistics, but where we mainly see it is in the disproportionate success of children raised by their biological mothers and fathers.

Long-term success and happiness can only be found in the truth, never in a lie. It may be initially liberating for a man to try out a new identity as a woman, or for a manly woman to quit trying to be feminine and just “be a man.” But statistics and personal testimonies show that transgender people are far more likely than just about any group to suffer from depression and to commit suicide. This heightened risk is not due to a lack of social acceptance. Even transgender people in liberal areas with tons of social support are more likely to take their own lives than a random “cis-gender” person.

Across numerous statistical measures, gender dysphoric disorder is more harmful to a person’s long-term health than alcoholism. What is the compassionate response to alcoholism? Obviously, it is not to accommodate the alcoholic by installing beer kegs in bathrooms and workplaces. A combination of counseling and support are required to help the alcoholic cease engaging in destructive behaviors and create a new identity as a non-alcoholic.

I have noticed an abundance of Facebook statuses seeming to extoll that person’s tolerance and compassion for transgender people by criticizing HB2 or voicing support for men being allowed in women’s restrooms. “I am happy to share a bathroom with a biological male who identifies as female,” many have suggested, “I would even hand her the toilet paper if she needed it.”

While the intentions of such posts may be noble, they do not consider the long-term consequences of promoting gender confusion. Many people today act like hurting someone’s feelings is the worst thing you can do to another person; thus all subjective beliefs must be validated by society as “real” lest some irreparable emotional damage occur. But what about the confusion this debate is causing children who are still in the delicate stage of developing a gender identity that fits their biological sex? What about the pain and frustration and regret that will be suffered by more boys who decide they are really girls, and more girls who decide they are really boys? As with so many other issues, we celebrate the short-term emotional satisfaction of supporting a certain policy with no regard to the long-term damage it will inevitably produce.

Gender is binary. Men and women are different. We complement each other in important ways. We are not just people, not just interchangeable individuals. We are men and women.

What happens to us when we deny this basic truth?

For starters, we forget what marriage is. We used to understand that marriage requires both sexes, a man and a woman. Sexual difference was essential to the definition of marriage. Now this understanding is gone. Marriage has been redefined as just another relationship, just two people who love each other and get sexual satisfaction from each other’s bodies (though not of the sort that creates and nourishes new life).

Now that marriage has been redefined, it is only a matter of time before it is legally destroyed. People in polygamous and incestuous relationships will demand that their love be recognized as marriage. Singles will defend their “rights” by demanding that all laws privileging people in relationships are discriminatory. People will soon tire of the endless controversies and debates that result when such a core truth is abandoned. Finally, both sides will embrace a “compromise” – get the state out of the marriage business altogether. Gone will be parental rights, gone will be the rights of children, and gone will be the legal recognition of the family unit, all in an attempt to be “tolerant” and “inclusive” of the small minority threatened by the traditional understanding of marriage.

The truth is, marriage has never been especially compatible with the homosexual lifestyle, especially for gay men, who have much higher rates of promiscuity than their heterosexual peers. Even “married” gay men are likely to have multiple sexual partners and agree to open relationships. Now that the male-female component of marriage is gone, the expectation of fidelity will not be far behind. Why should married straight men be expected to be faithful to their spouses when gay men are free to explore other options?

Numerous sources can be found from gay rights activists admitting that they seek to transform or just outright destroy marriage, not simply access it as they claimed. While the transgender movement claims it only wants to broaden the definition of what it means to be a man or a woman, the end game is to abolish these labels entirely. Chretien quotes Stella Morabito, an expert on cults and propaganda who writes for The Federalist:

“What we are really talking about is the abolition of sex. And it is sex that the trans project is serving to abolish legally, under the guise of something called ‘the gender binary.’  Its endgame is a society in which everyone is legally de-sexed.  No longer legally male or female.  And once you basically redefine humanity as sexless you end up with a de-humanized society in which there can be no legal ‘mother’ or ‘father’ or ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ or ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ without permission from the State.  Government documents are already erasing the terms.  In such a society, the most intimate human relationships take a hit. The family ends up abolished… A sexless society is ultimately a totalitarian society because it erases in law the most basic human relationships, particularly the mother-child bond.”

When most people support gay marriage or trans bathroom access, they don’t understand that they are really working toward the abolition of male and female identities; they just think they’re fighting for equal rights. But others know exactly where the train is headed. Just this morning, John Sutter published an opinion piece for CNN calling for a “restroom revolution.” He starts by highlighting the plight of James Sheffield, a transgender man, who looks far too manly to be allowed in a ladies restroom without causing alarm. Sutter writes:

But you know what else is absurd? The idea that Sheffield — or anyone else — should have to choose a male or female restroom at all. And, beyond that, that any of us would feel entitled to decide someone else’s gender for them — and, consequently, where they can and can’t pee.

This isn’t a binary gender world. People don’t fit neatly into the “M” and “F” boxes. It’s time our public restrooms reflected that. The fairest way to do so is to desegregate restrooms by sex, and that means eliminating the men’s and women’s rooms in favor of “all gender” restrooms.

According to Sutter, “the only justification” of refusing to let a biological female in a men’s restroom “is bigotry and ignorance.” Forget reason or common sense; gendered bathrooms are now “absurd.” Sutter notes that several buildings have already removed gender identification from restrooms. The restroom revolution is already underway; we just haven’t noticed it yet.

While the worst may be yet to come, there is hope for those who would like to see a return to reason in our culture. Writing in 1938, the great Catholic historian Hillaire Belloc noted the anti-rational nature of what he labeled the “Modern Attack” on the Faith:

Being Atheist, it is characteristic of the advancing wave that it repudiates the human reason. Such an attitude would seem again to be a contradiction in terms; for if you deny the value of human reason, if you say that we cannot through our reason arrive at any truth, then not even the affirmation so made can be true. Nothing can be true, and nothing is worth saying. But that great Modern Attack (which is more than a heresy) is indifferent to self-contradiction. It merely affirms. It advances like an animal, counting on strength alone.

The contemporary reader will find this description all too familiar. Recall PayPal’s hasty decision to pull out of the entire state of North Carolina over HB2. The message is clear: get in line– or else. After all, when one attempts to deny objective truth, one must get everyone else onboard. If the emperor is truly to parade around in no clothes, even the voice of a child may expose the whole charade. However, Belloc offers this glimmer of hope:

Indeed, it may be remarked in passing that this may well be the cause of its final defeat; for hitherto reason has always overcome its opponents; and man is the master of the beast through reason.

In the bathroom wars as in the marriage wars, our culture may yet return to its senses, triggering a change in our laws. Even better, the triumph of reason may yet inspire a return to the Faith, allowing our society to recover its moral center.

Questions for Each Candidate after the 11th GOP Debate

Here’s my analysis of the 11th Republican Primary Debate in Detroit, as well as some general observations and questions for each candidate.

First, Trump. It should be clear by now that Donald Trump lacks the seriousness, maturity, temperament, policy knowledge, etc. to be President of the United States. Last night, he brought the Republican primary race to a new low by reassuring a national audience of 15 million about the size of his penis. I didn’t really appreciate Rubio’s schoolboy joke about Trump’s small hands at the time, but now I think I get it. It was all bait, and Trump took it.

Trump has dictatorial tendencies like Benito Mussolini and Vladimir Putin. He has to see himself as the alpha male, the top dog. He can’t let a dig at his privates go unanswered. But by answering it, Trump revealed that all his braggadocio and bluster may mask a deep-seated insecurity. It’s never a good sign when you have to fall back on bragging about the size of your manhood. It’s quite pathetic, really, like a bunch of teenage boys measuring themselves with rulers in the locker room. Does Trump realize that he is vying to run against Hillary Clinton, who will be attempting to make history as the first woman president? Does he really think voters care about his size? Trump may have sealed up the frat boy vote, but his short standing with women likely shrunk even further (pun intended, can’t help myself).

I actually think Trump’s low of the night was when he said that the military would do whatever he told them to do because that’s leadership. This is the biggest confirmation that Trump does not understand the difference between being a womanizing CEO and the leader of the free world. It is one thing for a “wolf of Wall Street” to go around bragging about his affairs and penis size, rating women on their physical appearances, and insisting that all his underlings do as they are told or “you’re fired!” The military doesn’t work that way, and neither does this country.

In the course of the debate, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and yes – Megyn Kelly – were able to reveal the full extent of Trump’s “flexibility.” Trump has no core, no principles, just blind faith in his own power of personality to get things done. But Trump has spent his entire life abusing the very system he now seeks to change. He wrote checks to Democrats and checks to Republicans, and you can bet he expected something in return. He defrauded thousands of students at “Trump University,” and left a trail of failed businesses in his wake.

Through it all, Trump always manages to come out unscathed. He has lived the most sheltered, protected, privileged life one can imagine. He already has everything. The question for Trump is: why does he even want to be president to begin with? Despite his oft-repeated red baseball cap slogan, I have not yet been able to answer this question. Was it all just a big joke, a publicity stunt, except too many people took it seriously? The question for America is how long his supporters can persist in their delusions. I still have a little bit of sympathy for the unemployed blue-collar worker still clinging to the hope that Trump can bring back American manufacturing and stick it in the eye of the establishment. I have none for people like Sean Hannity and Chris Christie who should know better.

Second, Rubio. I think it’s pretty clear why fewer candidates attacked Trump early on. Attacking a fellow Republican candidate never makes you look good in the process. But Trump must be exposed, and Rubio is doing the country a favor by unmasking him as a con man and a scam artist. Rubio gave mostly solid answers to questions on foreign policy, gun control, and the economy. But while John Kasich was able to rattle off a long list of governing accomplishments, Rubio’s resume looks pretty thin in comparison. He also got down in the gutter with Trump, interrupted too often, and seemed a little under the weather. His voice was raspy, his energy lower than usual. It’s hard to be the Republican “hope and change” as well as attack dog for the establishment at the same time.

I still love Rubio for his ability to inspire, his appeal to Millennials, and his beautiful family. I’ve seen people falling over each other to get his autograph. I’ve pushed through crowds trying to shake his hand. Like Obama, he has a bit of the celebrity factor. But so much of Rubio’s appeal is the idea of what could be. His lack of experience and willingness to work with the establishment in the past (both Democrats and Republicans) leaves some real questions. I think he has the biggest upside, but also the biggest potential downside if things don’t pan out. The question for Rubio supporters (myself included) is: is he worth the risk? Can he be trusted? I still think so, but in the words of Donald Trump, I’m flexible.

Third, Cruz. I honestly believe Ted Cruz is probably the smartest man to ever run for president. In last night’s debate, he was sharp, prepared, and focused throughout. If voters are serious about turning the establishment upside down, they should vote for Ted Cruz. He would be the most principled, uncompromising man to ever hold the office. But I still have doubts about whether he could get there in the first place. The rest of the country is not nearly as conservative as Cruz, and he would need to build on his existing support. Cruz can be charming at times, but he remains personally unlikeable to much of the electorate. The question for Cruz is: can he grow his support in swing states? If I knew Cruz could defeat Clinton in November, he would have my support now.

Fourth, John Kasich. I hate to say it, but Kasich had a great debate. He didn’t speak as well as Ted Cruz, but he probably picked up more new supporters. He didn’t attack Trump; with Rubio and Cruz leading the charge, he didn’t have to. He got to be the “adult in the room,” as he likes to say. He also reassured conservatives like myself on the issue of religious freedom, a topic over which he had stumbled in the previous debate. I personally know at least four moderates, some of them Democrat-leaning independents, who voted for Kasich in the Virginia primary. They would support him over Clinton, but not Rubio or Cruz.

The question is, would the moderates Kasich picks up outweigh the loss of enthusiasm on the conservative end of the spectrum? My guess is yes. One of the biggest conservative goals is a balanced budget, and Kasich seems like he might be the guy to do it. Usually nominating a moderate Republican is a bad bet (see Romney, McCain, Dole), but this year moderate Democrats are looking to jump ship. They’re not all socialists like Sanders, and they’re not all so forgiving of Clinton’s pretty obvious corruption.

In terms of personality, Kasich still reminds me of a high school guidance counselor, or your awkward-but-sincere uncle. He’s Mr. Responsible, at the ready with some old-fashioned life advice, or (when needed) a hug. Kasich’s a little too “aw-shucks-y” for my taste, but based on resume alone he’s the most qualified for the job. The question for Kasich: is it too late? Also, would he be tough enough to take the fight to Hillary Clinton, or would he once again stay “above the fray,” this time to his detriment?

Of course, the bigger questions are for the Republican Party (can they survive Trump?) and the country (will we go from eight years of Obama to at least four years of Clinton?). I think the answers can still be yes and no, in that order, but only if we are very careful.

Everyone is talking about the need for more candidates to drop out, but I think that would actually be a mistake. If any of the remaining three non-Trumps leaves the race now, it just means more votes for Trump and a greater risk that he wins the required number of delegates outright. None of the three are currently strong enough to take Trump down on their own. In my opinion, they should all stay in the race and take us to a brokered convention in July. Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich should start building the necessary bridges between their campaigns now to pave the way for the coming reconciliation.

As for Trump supporters, there’s a very real chance they refuse to come along and instead go full-rebellion mode. There’s also the chance that the GOP establishment resigns itself to the fate of a Trump candidacy, but a smaller one after the recent allegations of racism and the prospects of a 2016 shellacking in the House and Senate. But each week that goes by exposes more Trump weaknesses. The coming onslaught of attacks will prevent him from gaining additional followers, as he has already failed to win over late-deciders. We may have already hit peak Trump. My guess is the rural, working class whites who form the base of Trump’s support are more interested in sending a message to the establishment that they will no longer be ignored than they are personally loyal to the New York billionaire.

The breakup of the Republican Party and the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton are still possibilities, but they are far from certainties. There is still time for the party of Lincoln and Reagan to rally. For the sake of this country, I pray they do so quickly.

Are We Serious?

In the wake of their resounding victories in New Hampshire, the excitement emanating from the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns is palpable. Both (old, white) men are populist leaders. Both have built their campaigns on the promise of what they can do for the people, though in somewhat different ways – Sanders by getting the government to fund everything from your health care to your college education, Trump by using his force of personality to revive the economy and stop illegal immigration.

Even if you disagree with Trump and Sanders, which I emphatically do, it’s not hard to understand their appeal. Both men are unapologetic “straight talkers” who claim to be beyond the influence of big corporations and their party’s establishment. In fact, both men only recently joined the parties they are now vying to represent.

I get it. People are fed up with Washington. They’re fed up with Wall Street. They’re tired of both parties, let down by Bush and Obama. Voters are sending the message that they will not be controlled. They will not dutifully line up behind their party’s Chosen One. This year, people are choosing passion over pragmatism.

And perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing. Party leaders who would prefer to bypass the people will now have to persuade them. In a democracy, this is where all power originally resides. But the same can be said for a lynch mob. What keeps our system of government from descending into mob rule, anarchy, and despotism? Respect for the rule of law, certainly, but also the virtues of moderation, prudence, and humility. In embracing Trump and Sanders, I fear we have abandoned both.

My question for America after New Hampshire is, are we serious? Do we realize that we are choosing someone to do a job here, the most important job in the world? This is not reality TV, and it’s not a popularity contest. We are not deciding the next American Idol here, but the leader of the free world.

The next President of the United States will have to work with Congress to pass legislation that the American people will accept. Not a passionate quarter of the electorate, but the whole country. You might love the idea of socialized medicine, but guess what? The rest of the country doesn’t. You may want to deport all twelve million illegal immigrants currently residing here, but this is never going to happen.

The main task of the next president will be to deal with the international crises that have been accumulating over the past seven years, as well as any others that may arise. These include, but are not limited to: the Syrian Civil War, the spread of ISIS, deteriorating security in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian and Chinese aggression, the threat of a nuclear Iran, saber-rattling in North Korea, and European democracies threatening to buckle under the weight of millions of Muslim refugees.

And yet it is on foreign policy that both Trump and Sanders are at their weakest. Trump offers few specifics beyond “getting along” with Putin, killing the families of terrorists, and doing “much worse” than waterboarding. For all his tough trade talk on China, he erroneously identified them as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Sanders is even worse, preferring to ignore foreign policy altogether. I don’t doubt he would dissolve the military entirely if it meant being able to fund his domestic agenda. When Sanders does address the issue of global terrorism, it is to utter something truly idiotic, like the claim that ISIS is the result of climate change.

I know that a good chunk of the American electorate would prefer to ignore the rest of the world and focus on things here at home. I recently had a Bernie Sanders supporter tell me that ISIS doesn’t matter because more people die from car accidents than terrorist attacks. But whether we like to think about it or not, these are dangerous times. In an era of globalization and terrorism, the distinction between domestic and foreign policy is increasingly blurred.

Just think beyond the rallies and debates and campaign trail euphoria, and imagine an actual Trump or Sanders presidency. Do you really want to see either of these men in the Oval Office? Do you want them representing America, negotiating with Congress, and handling all the inevitable crises and surprises of a presidential term?

I realize the Democrats don’t have much of a choice here, as a Hillary Clinton presidency would be no better. Their rejection of Jim Webb, the only Democratic candidate qualified to do the job, is truly disturbing. But Republicans still have options. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are conservative alternatives to Trump, though I still don’t see how Cruz gets elected. Even Jeb Bush and John Kasich, though too moderate for my liking, could do the job of commander-in-chief.

You wouldn’t choose a doctor, a pilot, or even a dog-walker on the basis of their rhetoric alone. Why are we treating this election with less seriousness?

Rubio’s Night Not as Bad as Reported

The big story being reported by the media this morning is that Marco Rubio had an awful debate. Marco Rubio did not have a bad debate. He didn’t say anything offensive, there were no “gaffes,” and he never even appeared flustered. He had a bad ten minutes of what was otherwise a solid performance.

First of all, Rubio gave the best answer of the night on foreign policy, explaining with force and nuance a clear strategy for defeating ISIS. He articulated an intelligent and appealing definition of conservatism’s three pillars – limited government, free enterprise, and strong national defense.

He also gave a good answer on abortion, with a particularly memorable line that he would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life. He was brave to defend all life, even life that results from rape (a crime of the father, not the child). He was pragmatic enough to accept signing a law that limited abortion even if it kept these exceptions. However he also accepted the faulty premise that abortion pits the rights of a pregnant mother against the rights of her unborn child. But, otherwise solid and principled.

Rubio did have a shaky start. It usually takes him about twenty or thirty minutes to settle in and move beyond his talking points. In the past few debates I thought Rubio started off too fast and took a tone that was too angry before he was able to relax and be more natural. But this time, Chris Christie was waiting. He pounced on Rubio early, and kept hitting him hard.

When asked about the question of his limited experience and accomplishments, Rubio smoothly rattled off a list of accomplishments before pivoting to his message, that Obama is a failure because of his ideology, not his inexperience. Christie interjected that Rubio was too inexperienced to be president, as all he had were canned stump-speeches. Rubio responded, most unfortunately, with a canned stump speech.

Now, usually it is smart politics to repeat yourself, to hammer your message home. Think Trump’s “build a wall” and “make America great again.” Your message needs repetition to stick with voters. You also don’t want to be seen as retreating from your points. However, this was the one moment when Rubio desperately needed to speak off the cuff. He needed to appear authentic, not automatic. This was his moment to shine the spotlight on his ideas, his record, and his potential, not rehash Obama’s failures. Instead he repeated, almost word for word, his previous answer. Then he followed with a pretty weak attack on Chris Christie, that the New Jersey governor didn’t want to go back to his home state to deal with the recent snow storm.

Chris Christie may be feeling pleased with himself for drawing blood, but he did himself no favors. If anyone benefits from a Rubio slide, it will be Kasich and Bush in New Hampshire, and possibly Cruz in the long-term. Chris Christie is a bully with baggage who will not be the nominee. His “I’m a tough guy, I don’t care what people think about me” persona is much better-suited to his former job as a prosecutor than it would be to President of the United States.

Still, the ten-minute exchange did hurt Rubio, and that’s unfortunate. Rubio is the brightest young star in the GOP. He has stood up to pressure in a way that Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker have not. Ben Carson would love to be able to deliver a stump speech with Rubio’s ease. His answers may be more impromptu, more “from the heart,” but they are often too stilted to really follow, and he always looks on the verge of falling asleep. Rick Perry would be happy to just remember all three points to his three-point plan. He may have been an effective governor, and he can pull off the “average guy” demeanor, but voters also want a good communicator. This is an asset for Rubio, not a liability.

Rubio might emerge from last night’s debate bruised, but he is not broken. If anything, he will be hurt more by overblown reports that he “lost the debate” than what he actually said or didn’t say. Remember, Cruz also had his worst debate of the campaign before going on to his greatest victory in Iowa. Once again, we will have to wait until the results come in from New Hampshire to know for sure.

Still, I doubt we are about to witness a major resurgence for Kasich, Bush, or Christie. The biggest criticism against Rubio is that he is “too perfect,” not real enough, a GOP version of Barack Obama. But that is far less troubling than Cruz’s personality (and equally inauthentic tone), Jeb’s legacy issues, Kasich’s moderate mushiness, and Christie’s Bridge-gate scandal.

If this were an NBA game, I’d say Rubio turned the ball over early, but then recovered to score a solid 20 points on 10/18 shooting. Unfortunately, politics is not sports. What matters isn’t the score at the end of the debate, but the moments that will survive beyond it, and the impressions they leave. Still, if this is a Rubio “bad night,” then that just goes to show what an All-Star he is. 20 points from Kobe Bryant or Lebron James is a “bad night,” but for other players it would be a career-best. In sports as in politics, it is easy to play the Monday-morning quarterback. It is something else entirely to actually go out and perform.

Maybe GOP voters should remember that, despite his youth and inexperience, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008. Don’t Republicans want to beat her in 2016?