Dear Intelligent American,
Having assembled the gaggle of links and excerpts, Your Humble Correspondent did a once over and realized the selections were overwhelmingly, well, buzz killers. As you will soon see, several of the selections come from writers who bemoan, condemn, lament, argue, curse, and decry—which gives this edition of Civil Thoughts a tinge of despondency. Maybe not?
Whether not, or so, should you in fact have acquired a taste for despondency prose, do read podcast paisan Victor Davis Hanson’s recent gone-viral essay cataloging what he calls “The Remaking of America.” Who’d a thunk, at the millennium’s outset, that come 2023 we’d be living in an America where justice was thoroughly weaponized, free speech and common law were in the crosshairs, the Supreme Court (and actual Justices) were under attack, debt had gone galactic, the ranks-depleting military cared more about the progressive culture-wish list than preparedness, and . . . well, there’s plenty more where all that came from.
Scratch that itch. But never forget this: Despair is a sin.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen—Lend Us Your Eyes
1. At The American Mind, fan favorite Daniel J. Mahoney makes the case for populism, “rightly understood.” From the piece:
Already in the 1970s and ’80s, independent-minded thinkers such as Irving Kristol and Christopher Lasch saw that in the ’60s we had lived through a radical inversion of “democratic man” (and his relation to the few) described by Plato in Book 9 of the Republic. Ominously, Plato brilliantly described the dialectical connections between democratic and tyrannical souls. Democracy may at first appear as diversity itself, a rich and many-colored coat. But this alluring image disguises moral rot, contempt for legitimate authority, neglect for good habits, and a degrading egalitarianism. With “no order and restraint in his life,” democratic man prepares the way for tyranny. A serious engagement with Plato’s critique of democratic man needs to remain an essential part of an authentic liberal and civic education, to tutor our perceptions and let us know what needs to be resisted.
In his day, however, Lasch did not think things were completely gone; he tended to set an out-of-touch-with-reality, symbol-manipulating elite against a working populace tutored by reality and educated in its limits. He was not wrong to see in the lower-middle class ethic a rugged common sense and real, if inarticulate, sense of limits. But since Lasch’s death in the early 1990s, this populist respect for limits and common sense has frayed, as elite relativism and the broader culture of repudiation have corrupted the good sense of those previously spared exposure to the quasi-nihilism that has come to dominate education, high and low. Irving Kristol too thought democratic man, still indebted to older civic and religious traditions, was far less corrupt than elites who respected fewer and fewer moral limits and had turned ingratitude and self-loathing into a destructive secular religion. Therefore both Kristol and Lasch recommended populism within limits, or “up to a point” as George F. Will used to say, as a corrective to both democracy run riot and elite tyranny. The people, not the few, had no taste for the “modernity without restraint” that Anglo-American democracy once resisted with a modicum of wisdom and a modicum of moderation. But things have changed.
2. At National Review, Vanessa Brown Calder and Chelsea Follett birth a plan for fertility. From the analysis:
Although fertility initiatives are not likely to revive U.S. fertility meaningfully or permanently, many alternative, low-cost policy reforms could make family life more affordable, easier, and more enjoyable for parents. By removing artificial, government-imposed obstacles to having and raising children, these reforms could even boost the U.S. fertility rate. Several current policies make being a parent harder than it needs to be, which could depress fertility, and are thus ripe for reform.
For example, various policies increase the price of family essentials. Reforming these policies would reduce the cost of housing, food, and child care while increasing the availability of goods and services that parents need. Reforms that substantially increase housing supply, including overhauls to zoning and land-use regulations and changes to federal lands policy, could meaningfully increase housing affordability. Permanently eliminating national tariffs and excess FDA regulations would improve access to baby formula. Relaxing day-care regulations—including educational requirements for child-care staff and staff-to-child ratios—would increase child-care availability and affordability.
Flexible and remote-work policies allow parents to combine personal and professional obligations more seamlessly, and the private sector has made major strides in providing remote-work opportunities post-pandemic. However, policy-makers should reform labor policies that get in the way of flexible and remote options, from overly restrictive regulations on home-based businesses and independent work, to licensing rules that punish part-time workers (many of whom are parents) and discourage telework. Women who were most likely to work from home during the pandemic experienced higher fertility, perhaps because combining pregnancy and early parenting with work obligations is easier within a remote-work context.
3. At The American Conservative, Declan Leary bemoans the forces that remove one from ancestral community and home sweet home. From the end of the piece:
It is often said that America is the only place in the world where an immigrant can come and be considered one of the people. You can spend your whole life in France without becoming French if you are not born so. Whether the same goes for being an American is a question of its own, but what is certain is that the more concrete a community becomes, the less abstractions like that hold.
I suspect my grandparents, and many of my friends’ grandparents, would have considered themselves Bostonians before Americans. They were tied together in time and place. But they were chased out of their city by a hostile regime, and the idea of return is unfathomable now.
I could go further out, to a little town or farmhouse on land no generation before me ever touched. The thought of peace—to say nothing of the savings—is alluring. But how much further can we run before there is nothing to leave for the next generation?
I was born and raised in the place where my forefathers’ forefathers disembarked four centuries ago. The particular house is its own concern, but there are graver things at stake here. There is no true solution, for conservatives or for Americans more broadly, that demands that this kind of inheritance be squandered.
4. More Localism: At UnHerd, Fred Skulthorp condemns Britain’s soulless housing. From the reflection:
In a local competition organised by the developers, schoolchildren presented contending utopias: green arches adorned with solar panels; a tram to ferry residents between parks and leisure centres. It got the adults talking, too. The town, it was proposed, would have its own community-based energy company. This would be an “innovation market town”, capable of sustaining local employment in an eco-idyll of tree-lined cycle lanes and allotments, a sustainable suburbia for 21st-century England.
Nearly 15 years on, the dream is dead. Visit Northstowe today and you are greeted by a Portakabin community centre that, as one local suggests, looks like a “pop-up STI clinic”. Bored children on bikes circle aimlessly, and a steady stream of cars forms an exodus from the leaden townscape of roofs and sky. There is, as one terminally bored 14-year-old tells me, “absolutely nothing to do”. No shops. No leisure centre. No green arches or trams. And certainly nothing that would give this place a collective hearth: a high street, town hall or a pub.
At the entrance to the town, I meet Richard of nearby Cambourne, who takes daily walks through Britain’s newest town to “try and work out what it all means”. Surveying the sprawl of identikit new-builds that stretch into the distance, he pronounces: “I have come to realise that this a soulless place built for a new generation of soulless people.”
5. More TAC: Christopher Brunet laments Canada’s carbon-tax policies, with the death of farms north of the border the price being paid. From the piece:
One has to wonder, is the focus on carbon taxation purely about reducing carbon emissions? Or is there a deeper, more sinister agenda at play? Richard Lindzen, who served as the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT for 30 years until his retirement in 2013, said, “Controlling carbon is a bureaucrat’s dream. If you control carbon, you control life.”
The maddening part is that even if Trudeau imposes a hundred new carbon taxes, it will all be for naught. Climate change is indifferent to borders, and Canada’s modest population of 40 million does nothing to sway the global balance. If Canada were a Chinese province, it would rank sixteenth in population behind Guangdong (127 million), Shandong (102 million), Henan (99 million), and thirteen others. Coal is the main source of energy in China.
“Canada’s own emissions are not large enough to materially impact climate change,” admits Trudeau’s own Parliamentary Budget Office, due to increased emissions from the developing world.
How can a Canadian farmer dream of competing with an American farmer? Consider North Dakota, which shares a border with the province of Saskatchewan. What incentive is there for an agribusiness to invest in Saskatchewan, when it could drive 30 minutes south and bypass the massive carbon tax? This is reflected in investment outcomes. Canadian business investment per worker was $14,687 in 2021, compared with $26,751 in the United States.
6. At The European Conservative, editor-in-chief Alvino-Mario Fantini considers a Frank Capra classic, and finds in it “John Doe conservatism.” From the commentary:
This journal routinely resists such narrowness of thought on the Right. We hold that there are important discussions to be had (perhaps about controversial topics) from which all of us—even the most cynical—can learn. Being intellectually promiscuous, perhaps even rebellious, is a sure way to fend off total servility to a dominant group.
The establishment powers behind today’s mainstream parties—including conservative ones that have the most to lose from new, dissident, right-wing parties—actively take steps to block newcomers. This is short-sighted, for whether they are ‘populist’ or ‘nationalist,’ the new parties resonate deeply with the ‘regular guy’: John Doe. People like him are unashamedly patriotic, protective of their families and communities, and willing to disrupt the ineffective and outdated ‘Conservatism, Inc.’
This is why some of the newer, more exciting right-wing parties—those who dare to shake things up—are regularly decried in the foulest ways by mainstream conservatives. They are subjected to bullying, censorship, and even emotional blackmail from fellow conservatives—many of whom have one eye on their own careers. Yet, it is often the newcomers who best speak for the people.
7. At Law & Liberty, Alexander William Salter gives a refresher on the conservative cause of “fusionism.” From the essay:
Any discussion of fusionism must begin with the Meyer-Bozell debate. Frank S. Meyer was a reformed Communist who became the primary intellectual architect of fusionism. Brent Bozell, his National Review colleague, was a traditionalist Catholic and the chief skeptic of a freedom-virtue synthesis.
Meyer championed “the common source in the ethos of Western civilization from which flow both the traditionalist and libertarian currents.” Man’s highest goal is the pursuit of the good, achieved through virtue: the ethical habits that predispose us to right action. Political liberty, which makes men “free from the constraint of the physical coercion of the unlimited state,” is necessary because it allows the “free choice of good over evil.” Government cannot make men good because compelled virtue is a contradiction in terms. Hence government power is necessarily limited by the “sacred sphere of the individual person.” Society exists to make men good, but the state, as society’s coercive apparatus, exists to make men free.
Bozell dissented. He was skeptical that “the choice necessary to virtue can be affected by external circumstances,” such as political coercion. Was not St. Paul supremely virtuous when persecuted by the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman state? “The freedom that is necessary to virtue is presumably the freedom no man will ever be without,” Bozell contended. The will is free to choose the best it can, political liberty or no.
8. At City Journal, Ed Ring argues that California can make a dent in its profound homelessness crisis by merely reversing some of its most destructive policies. From the analysis:
Anyone who expects California’s state and local governments to do anything sensible, however, is ignoring history and the corruption that grips the state. Amendment 2, passed by the state legislature and now scheduled to go before California voters in March 2024, will take away the right of local governments to reject the placement of public-housing projects in their neighborhoods. Piling on, the state legislature is also offering California’s spring primary voters Amendment 10, championed by Governor Gavin Newsom, which will declare an inalienable “right to housing” for all Californians. Imagine the implementation of this beast.
What about deregulating the most over-regulated housing market in America—the real reason housing is unaffordable in California? Not a chance. Better to tamper with the state constitution so that the government and its cronies can handle California’s housing shortage and homelessness surplus. They’ve done everything so well so far.
Not to be outdone by Sacramento’s follies, Los Angeles has come up with a “Responsible Hotel Ordinance,” a measure that would “require hotel operators to report to the city, every day, the number of vacant rooms at their establishments so the city can send homeless people over to the hotels to stay in the rooms that night.” Taxpayers will foot the bill, of course. The impact on tourists and conventioneers? Likely severe.
9. At The Wall Street Journal, William McGurn decries the religion test that Catholics who seek to become foster-care parents are failing in Massachusetts. From the column:
The author of their license study took care to note that the Burkes are “lovely people.” But with regard to LGBT issues, she also said “their faith is not supportive and neither are they.” Ultimately the license review team concluded the Burkes “would not be affirming to a child who identified as LGBTQIA” and the Burkes were rejected.
The Burkes have filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion have been violated. William P. Mumma is chairman of Becket Law, which defends religious liberty and is representing the Burkes. Like Justice Alito, he understands that the new orthodoxy on sex and marriage has its own dogmas, high priests and enforcers. Thus do ordinary Americans find themselves likened to terrorists by everyone from their local school boards to the FBI, which recently targeted Catholics who attend traditional Latin Mass.
“When government takes over a space formerly held by intermediating institutions or citizens acting through the democratic process, they promise dispassionate expertise, neutrality and justice,” Mr. Mumma says. “But what they deliver is a replacement ideology and a big stick to enforce adherence.”
10. Axe and You Shall Receive: At First Things, Alec Torres sharpens his blade and explains the pleasure of chopping wood. From the piece:
So why do I do it? And why do my friends want to chop wood too?
There are a few possible reasons. Maybe the crack of a dry round and a growing pile of red oak logs overcomes the alienation of modern office work that separates labor from production. Maybe, as Ronald Dworkin posited in the April issue, happiness requires resistance—the pleasure of triumphing over something. Maybe men have an innate desire to learn physical, practical skills. Maybe breaking things is fun. Or maybe, like a workout at the gym, guys just want to do something that makes them stronger.
All of these reasons can be true. But for me, there’s another reason, at once facile and profound.
I chop wood because I choose to do it. By deciding not to call in the woodchipper, I manufactured an obligation, and it had to be met. It’s as simple as that.
11. At Comment Magazine, Cornelia Powers wields the abracadabra and finds the wonder-awakening that comes from fairy stories. From the essay:
As humans, we are born with all the necessary ingredients of awe, including an inquisitive mind, a lack of inhibition, and a fascination for all that surrounds us. This appetite for awe is something that children’s books both harness and encourage. Derived from the German Wundermärchen, these “wonder” or “fairy tales” present worlds marked by prophecies, spells, and enchanted forests, where fairies, wizards, centaurs, and elves are as real as you and me. Generally, children have an easier time inhabiting such worlds. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien conceded as much, writing that all those who enter “the Kingdom of Faërie should have the heart of a little child.” Yet even Tolkien believed that fairy tales had been mistakenly associated with children, having been “relegated to the ‘nursery’” after being declared “unfashionable” in literary circles. Using “adult” as imprimatur, the critics of Tolkien’s day accused fairy tales of giving children an impractical—and thus unhealthy—impression of the world they lived in. The sooner young readers abandoned fantasy as a genre, they argued, the better their lives would be.
Most of us can remember a time when we were told to “put aside childish things,” exchanging the magical for the real. Yet this trade comes at a high price. As “we move from the childhood world of play and daydreams,” wrote Madeleine L’Engle in A Stone for a Pillow, we “stifle our sense of joy and wonder,” finding security in cynicism and distrust. Regrettably, this shift is happening earlier and earlier. Across the country, art and music classes are being slashed from school budgets as curricula are being swallowed by assessment, generating precipitous declines in the number of young readers who reportedly read for fun. With every minute scheduled and every interaction digitized, children are being given fewer opportunities to cultivate their natural penchant for wonder, particularly as our world descends into patterns of further warming and extinction.
12. At the Driftless Journal in Decorah, IA, Samantha Ludeking is on the scene where flowers, dancers, and Nordic aspirations meld to raise some funds. From the beginning of the article:
A popular new activity at Nordic Fest this year was making live floral crowns, a fundraiser for the Decorah Nordic Dancers. As the Junior Dancers transition to Senior Dancers, they were excited to carry out some of the fundraising efforts they had been planning for some time.
With a selection of live flowers and materials, supplied by Ladybug Landscapes and Decorah Floral, Festgoers were able to sit down and create their own colorful crowns. The ever-popular dainty silk floral options were still available for purchase as well this year.
“We really want to go to Norway,” Anita Weis exclaimed as she detailed fundraising efforts for this group’s trip. Current Junior Nordic Dance directors Anita and Al Weis, Amanda Huinker, Ann Grimstad and Marcie Dodd will stay on as the junior dancers become senior dancers.
Lucky 13. At Front Porch Republic, Vermonter John Klar curses the country-relocated City Mouse. From the piece:
This intergenerational sapping of rural culture is evident in Vermont, where agriculture, especially cow dairying, has generally declined for a century. The “local” culture of Vermont was built on self-reliance and independence, which in turn was entwined with agriculture. But the poverty and deprivations that accompanied the death of dairy persist across the Green Mountain landscape even as more farms disappear. . . .
The Coventry Landfill in Coventry, Vermont has ballooned into a Bog of Eternal Stench. Locals call it “Mount Casella” after its operator and mountainous dimensions. This incongruous stain is striking because it is so disproportionately massive compared to the declining nearby city of Newport. The heights of the rising mountain of refuse overlook thousands of acres of pristine wetlands and the Black River, as well as the international Lake Memphremagog. Mount Casella is partly constructed of out-of-state waste, including “construction materials, sludge from sewage treatment plants, asbestos, ash, contaminated soil, medical waste and more.”
Gradually, over decades, Vermont’s remnant of poor ex-farmers and their families and homes have been displaced by mansions and estates, as the colonization and gentrification of this rural hold-out region has worn down the “locals” much as the harsh winters have withered their leaking barns and drooping farmhouses. In their Exodus back to the country, the City Mice have decided they too prefer Aesop’s “crust with peace and quietness.” But they are not bringing an agrarian culture back from the cities to Vermont. They are more likely to suburbanize its towns and seek modernity and convenience. Much like that ringworm analogy.
BONUS: At Plough Quarterly, Brett Bradshaw finds that water’s blessings include rain-soaked, dancing daughters. From the beginning of the piece:
Rain began to fall after dinner one evening. I watched from the front porch with my two oldest daughters. The younger one, who was three years old at the time, inched toward the roof dripline. “Can we go in the rain?” she asked, grinning. I gave permission. She leapt into the yard, quickly followed by her five-year-old sister. “Come on, Daddy!” they pleaded. I chased after them. The soil squished like a wet sponge beneath our bare feet. Big raindrops mottled my white undershirt. I stopped, and the younger girl looked up at me. Her face was wet and very pretty, water glistening on blushed cheeks, dimples tucked in, lips curved upward, blue eyes squinting. She was washed in a kind of grace, delighted and free. As Marilyn Robinson writes in Gilead, “It is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing.”
I am reminded of my childhood in Nacogdoches, Texas, in the nineties. I was more familiar with Walmart aisles than garden rows, but people still talked about rain as a serious and pleasurable thing. About once a month, my father would take me downtown to Milford’s Barbershop off Main Street. We would walk into the shop—the Barbasol scent, the red-dirt-stained linoleum floor peppered with hair clippings, the buzz of clippers—and take a seat on a vinyl-covered bench lining the length of the room. Our reflections looked back at us in a wide mirror on the wall behind a row of barber chairs. Old-timers and young men, farmers and ranchers, skilled laborers and businessmen, friends and strangers sat waiting their turn. Talking about the weather, especially rain: the lack of it, who got some and who didn’t, when it was coming in, and when there was too much of it was a way of keeping company, a shared concern, a form of neighborliness. I have not visited Milford’s in years, but I imagine if I were to stop by most of the men would have their heads hung in a smartphone-induced stupor. I wonder what we lose when we stop talking about rain as a matter of shared hope, lament, and delight.
For the Good of the Cause
Uno. At Philanthropy Daily, Jonathan Hannah announces the 2024 AmPhil Fundraising Fellowship. From the piece:
The AmPhil Fundraising Fellowship is a nine-month leadership program where fellows will learn the history of philanthropy in American civil society, explore contemporary issues related to fundraising, and complete a personal project enabling them to bring value to their nonprofit organization.
Fellows will meet virtually on a monthly basis to discuss readings, workshop ideas, and examine the vocation of fundraising. Fellows will also have special access to AmPhil’s online educational opportunities, including our In the Trenches master classes, and will be invited to our annual Givers, Doers, & Thinkers Conference, which will take place in Southern California in October of 2024.
Interested? If so, you’ll find complete information here.
Due. Here and now is the ideal place and time to remind you about the forthcoming Center for Civil Society conference—“Rise of the Nones: How Declining Religious Affiliation Is Changing Civil Society.” It takes place on November 7–8 in glorious Scottsdale, AZ. You had best get complete information, which you can find right here, because you are indeed coming, by golly!
Tre. Lend an Ear: On September 7th, the great Jeremy Beer will host another AmPhil “Scotch Talk,” this one focused on grant writing and foundation fundraising. It’s a talk, as advertised—not a soliloquy—so joining Jeremy to share their immense wisdom on these matters of great importance to nonprofit worker bees (and even queen bees) will be Iain Bernhoft and Stephanie D’Anselmi, who will discuss how to write polished and compelling grant proposals, woo foundation officers, and plenty more. So get your favorite tumbler, drop in a few ice cubes, pour a sweet liquid—whether the fruit of the barley or that made while the moon shines—and join the conversation. But to do that, you’ll need to register, which can be done right here.
Department of Bad Jokes
Q: What do you call a sad cup of coffee?
Hana is a tough lady fighting that nasty disease, which has established beachheads and battlefronts throughout her besieged body. It would make one weep to know. Bloodied but unbowed, she fights back. You go girl! It might lessen her load if you keep her in your prayers. Oremus.
May We Go Aware that We Do So but for God’s Grace,
Jack Fowler, who happily hears from even the unhappy at email@example.com.