Letters to the Editor: October 2021
Wishful Thinking & Demagoguery
Richard Upsher Smith Jr. helps us understand what took place in Germany immediately after World War I and what’s taking place in the United States today (“The Root Causes of the Dislocation of Our Times,” June). He also reminds us of the truth of the familiar adage that history ignored or forgotten tends to repeat itself.
The rise of the far Right in Germany in the 1920s and the eventual success of the Nazis were the direct result of political instability and violence perpetrated by far-left socialists and communists often directed by Moscow between 1918 and 1923. The story of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis cannot be understood without a familiarity with Germany’s problems, including the thousands dead and wounded in the socialist and communist uprisings across the country, a collapsing economy, inflation, famine, and workers’ strikes and rebellions.
It is no coincidence that we are seeing similar events in our country today. The Communist International (Comintern) was active in the United States beginning shortly after the October Revolution in Russia, and in 1934 many people in New York welcomed the arrival of members of the University of Frankfurt am Main Institute for Social Research. Also known as the Frankfurt School and the Horkheimer Circle, they were soon established at Columbia University. In time, they shared their vision of Marxism, Bolshevism, Leninism, communism, and socialism across the United States. Perhaps the best known, most prolific, and most active member of this group was Herbert Marcuse. He worked for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services and the State Department, at Brandeis University and the University of California San Diego.
Today, the far Left and far Right in the United States repeat what took place in Germany a hundred years ago. And even though Marxist theories and regimes have failed wherever they have gained power, wishful thinking and demagoguery encourage those failures be ignored. For over a half century, a tyrannical, far-left “progressive” attack has successfully worked to destroy the religion, political traditions, and history of this country. We ignore the experience of Germany after World War I and the present-day activities of the far-left progressives and far-right extremists at our peril.
Port Orchard, Washington
Richard Upsher Smith Jr. correctly argues that the Orwellian-named Antifa and the Alt-Right reflect each other in their untethered belief in conspiracy theories. But then he conflates the Alt-Right with “Trump followers” who believe the “consistent fiction” that foreign wars, globalism, Islam, China, and NATO parasitism threaten America. Though difficult to resolve, these subjects do pose an undeniable threat to our country.
Smith writes that these beliefs are equivalent to the “grievances” of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which include police brutality, systemic racism, and women’s inequality, all of which he calls “explanatory fictions.” If each of these “grievances” is a demonstrable “fiction,” where is the equivalence? Systemic racism does not exist in America, where a parade of “individuals of color” are wealthy and influential, former U.S. President Barack Obama being one of them. The other progressive grievances are also unsupported, if not ludicrous. Noticeably omitted from Smith’s list of conspiracies is Obama and Hillary Clinton’s “Russia Hoax,” a smear campaign based on the fabricated Steele Dossier, which claimed Donald Trump colluded with the Russian government prior to his 2016 election.
Smith’s most pernicious point is that both extremes are equally dangerous, yet The New York Times reports that as many as 19 people were killed and damages totaling $1.4 billion were reported in the Antifa riots of the past summer. Nothing comparable is attributed to the Alt-Right.
Smith’s theme is that modernity creates alienated individuals who then rely on simplistic conspiracy theories to make sense of social chaos. Indeed, many studies are devoted to showing this. The irony, though, is that the Frankfurt School exploited this alienation by injecting its own neo-Marxist conspiracy theory into the bloodstream of the West.
Thanks to Richard Upsher Smith Jr. for his article about the “dislocating” aspect to what we’ve all experienced over the past four years thanks to Trump’s election, the ensuing and rather stunningly coordinated efforts to de-legitimate that presidency, the arrival of COVID, the institution of economic lockdowns that punished the lower middle class to the same degree that it enriched global elites, the murder of George Floyd, and the apparently miraculous but long-in-the-making advent of a fully functioning woke technocracy.
Smith’s thesis, gleaned from an analysis of the many ways in which Proud Boys and Antifa members mirror one another, is that we (Republicans and Democrats alike) have begun to orient ourselves by “fantastic” stories (alleging either that the 2020 election was “stolen” or that racism is “systemic”) rather than by reality as it comes into view through “common” sense. Smith suggests that this loss of common sense is the direct result of social atomization that inevitably occurs as modern, centralized states take on responsibilities that once belonged to families, neighborhoods, churches, and voluntary associations. It’s a compelling argument, not least because it reminds readers that reality comes into view through embedment in traditions rather than in spite of them.
Nevertheless, there are two instances in which Smith’s reasoning could be faulty, one minor and one not so minor.
First, I am not so sure that the Proud Boys and Antifa members are “anti-Semitic.” True, Antifa members tend to see Palestinians as oppressed by the occupying force otherwise known as Israel, but this tendency (so far) isn’t so much anti-Semitism as it is anti-Zionism. Regarding the Proud Boys, members of this organization seem mostly to be looking for a rumble with whoever might want to enforce political correctness. The Proud Boys are populists and, to that (unarticulated) extent, are wary of global finance, but that disposition hardly qualifies them as anti-Semites.
The bigger problem with Smith’s argument is not his characterization of streetfighters who serve, for him, as representatives of Left-leaning and Right-leaning dispositions; rather, it’s his contention that people on the Left and the Right have both taken leave of their senses. Might it not be the case that people on the Left share one fully functioning common sense, and people on the Right share a different fully functioning common sense? And, more importantly, that both kinds of common sense are oriented to reality as defined by the Christian West, to the extent that they support coherent positions for or against that same reality?
So far as I can tell, this latter account of the polarization currently on view in our country is more persuasive than Smith’s, given that (a) “Stop the Steal,” as a rallying cry, refers less to an iffy conviction that false ballots determined Joe Biden’s electoral victory than to a relatively sensible conviction that the FBI, Democratic leadership, and news organizations like CNN and The New York Times colluded to default on their obligation to seek and defend the truth so as to ensure Trump’s defeat; and (b) the decision by corporations, Black Lives Matter activists, and transgender theorists to substitute skin color or sexual preference for the dignity of the human person as a first principle in matters of justice is a concerted attack on truth, whether the actors promulgating these views know it to be an attack.
The question Smith needs to answer — and this question becomes urgent when considering that social atomization derives from the removal of a Christian center — is whether his proposal that we return to a kind of township-based “direct democracy” that reinforces federalism and ensures subsidiarity is not, in itself, a decision to side with the kind of common sense that sustains, defends, and defers to truth and reality as defined by Christendom.
RICHARD UPSHER SMITH JR. REPLIES:
I am most grateful to Monta Pooley, Terry Scambray, and Will Hoyt for their letters. I regret to say that each has mistaken the point of my article in his own way.
I analyzed a point in Hannah Arendt’s science of politics and then applied that point to certain political phenomena of our own time. The point I analyzed was an ethical point: that practical life in human community — that is, the ethical sphere of our common life — depends on common sense as it contributes to phrónēsis, or practical judgment. I regret that I allowed the excision of this word from my article, as it would have alerted readers to the roots of Arendt’s thinking in Aristotle’s Ethics.
“Common sense,” as Arendt uses the term, is the stuff of practical wisdom, prudence, and the making of decisions for mature, thoughtful action in community. Without common sense — which belongs only incipiently to the young, thus Aristotle’s exclusion of the young from the study of ethics — men cannot form prudent judgments about whom to trust or how to act in daily life. Common sense is necessary for and available to men in any culture and of any religion. Practical judgments may vary according to circumstances — for example, I will not drink the tap water here in Steubenville, but I will drink it where my son lives in New Hampshire — but the principle is the same: what is most practicable in light of the good.
Pooley points to the historical parallels between Germany in the 1930s and the United States today, and rightly so. However, she misses the ethical point explained above, and instead her attention is diverted to the far Left, which deserves attention but was not the point of the article.
Scambray objects to my application of Arendt’s thinking to today’s political situation, and he misreads me by saying that I “conflate the Alt-Right with ‘Trump followers.’” I actually said, “The Trump supporter’s sense that the America of his forebears is being dug up by the roots has some continuity with the Alt-Right.” I said the same about the “Bernie Sanders follower.”
Scambray also rejects the equivalence I see between Trumpite Republican grievances and progressive Democratic grievances because he feels the former are true and the latter false. This is a partisan position, and it misses the point I am trying to make.
Finally, Scambray says my “most pernicious point is that both extremes are equally dangerous.” Again, he simply misses the point of my argument.
Hoyt does get the ethical angle of my article. However, he misses its Aristotelian roots — mea culpa — and thus takes it that I am suggesting that our perception of reality depends on our embeddedness in tradition. To be sure, the traditions of one’s family, ethnic group, region, and nation do influence how one sees reality. Even influential African Americans are wary of the police in a way I shall never be. But this is not the same point as the one I am making about common sense. I am confident that Tim Scott, a black senator from South Carolina, would make a different judgment — based on his experience and common sense — about how to behave when pulled over by a white policeman for a traffic violation than would, say, an undergraduate enrolled at Howard University who is a BLM member.
Hoyt doubts that either the Alt-Right or Antifa is anti-Semitic. As to the latter, he distinguishes anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism. That anti-Zionism does not involve anti-Semitism is debatable. As to the former, the anti-Semitism of the Alt-Right is demonstrated by George Hawley in his book Making Sense of the Alt-Right (2017).
Hoyt’s third point is that the Left and Right have not “taken leave of their senses” but that both sides have their own common senses — or “coherent positions” — that are oriented toward either supporting or destroying “Christendom.” By common sense, or coherent position, Hoyt means, on one hand, the disposition of the Right to believe that “the FBI, Democratic leadership, and news organizations like CNN and The New York Times colluded…so as to ensure Trump’s defeat,” and, on the other hand, the disposition of the Left to replace “the dignity of the human person as a first principle in matters of justice.” But neither of these examples of common sense is an example of common sense. The former is a first-rate example of a mentality no longer governed by common sense. The latter is an example of the immature, thoughtless application of abstract principles — bad ones, too — to human affairs. Neither rates as ethical thinking as neither rests on common sense and practical judgment.
I think Hoyt means to say that Christendom — roughly Constantine to Henry VIII — got human life right and promoted human flourishing better than any other historical period. I believe there is truth in this view. However, Christendom did not get everything right. Even Jacques Maritain saw much good in modernity!
Hoyt also seems to think that the Right is on the side of Christendom — in the sense, I suppose, that it still values some of the traditions that have descended to us from those times — while the Left is trying to destroy it. Each side sees the same reality — Christendom and its traditions — but reacts to that reality with opposed common senses or coherent positions.
However, in practical ethical considerations, reality is the circumstances that life presents to us, and experience and common sense inform our judgment, so that we can act in those circumstances for the best. Hoyt’s idea, therefore, of reality as a past historical period, and of two common senses formed in reaction to it, simply misses the point.
Common sense and practical judgment are vital for keeping our feet on the ground, for helping us act prudently in the various contingent situations of life, including politics. The loss of these capacities by many has disjoined the theoretical capacity of mind from practical judgment and its world of the contingent, and it has made the worst kinds of conspiratorial thinking possible, on both the Right and the Left.
Breakthrough or Con Job?
Anne Barbeau Gardiner’s review of Jean-Jacques Walter’s Le Coran révélé par la Théorie des Codes (Jul.-Aug.) shows that though the late Dr. Gardiner had many great intellectual capabilities, knowledge of higher mathematics was not one of them. This is not a criticism; it is simply an acknowledgment that this was not her field.
“Fourier analysis,” as it is called in English (the French term does indeed translate literally as “analysis of Fourier,” as Gardiner wrote), is a standard tool in any engineer’s or scientist’s toolkit. In its original form, it is applied to continuous functions to express them as a series of sine waves of different wavelengths or frequencies. The list of amplitudes of the waves is called the “spectrum,” which is probably rendered in French as something that comes back into English as “specter of rays.” The idea behind Fourier analysis is that if a complicated function can be described with just a few sine waves, it is easier to gain insight into how it behaves.
Coding theory, on the other hand, involves translating discrete data from one form into another. On the surface, it would appear to have little to do with Fourier analysis, as continuous functions, which involve fractions and irrational numbers, are different from discrete functions, which, in essence, involve only integers. There is probably a connection between the two fields, but without knowing more about them, I cannot say.
The process of applying coding theory to the letters of the Qur’an echoes strongly the “form criticism” of the Gospels in the latter half of the 20th century. Indeed, it would be fascinating to apply Dr. Walter’s methods to the Gospels and see the results. Gardiner mentions linguistic work by Claude Tresmontant and Jean Carmignac establishing an early date for the Gospels; Walter’s methods, should they prove valid, would settle the question of individual versus community authorship.
Mathematics is an exact endeavor with a mindboggling logic behind it. Its application to the real world, on the other hand, is only as good and logical as the person making the application. Based on Gardiner’s review, Walter’s analysis is either a major advance in our understanding of the Qur’an or some very well-done con artistry dressed up in advanced mathematical language. I join her in hoping for a translation into English soon so I can find out firsthand which it is.
Dr. John F. Fay
No Laughing Matter
In a senseless age of Big Tech autocracy, it is well to reflect on how technology itself is becoming a manmade disaster, sweeping through everything and taking down everyone in one fell swoop of artificial stupidity. We have moved from the sensory to the virtual, from the use of common sense to artificial means of knowing our world, even our own wants, desires, or predilections.
It is no wonder, then, that smartphones have turned us into idiots, and our children into nervous wrecks. Eric Brende’s percipient article “A Perfect Media Maelstrom” (Jul.-Aug.), on the 2011 Joplin tornado, is an object lesson in how not to lose our connection to the natural world, our senses, and our own minds to save us from disasters.
Brende, a major voice of reason on matters technological, has ably marked the problem, and he has shown us through classical allusions how we are bowing down before strange, one-eyed gods. Media has taken over our consciousness and deprived us of our human powers. Brende has written much on the ways in which we can restore our sense of balance in a world gone wild, by flipping the switch on technology in small ways, going out into the beauty of things, listening to worthy music, learning poetry, growing things, and pulling away from slavery to the machine of modernity in various ways.
As the prescient Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
We had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision [in Nineteen Eighty-Four], there was another — slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
We need more than ever to rescue ourselves from the tyranny of technology, from the cowardly new world of smartphones, tablets, computers, and instantaneous character assassination. We have to admit that we have a problem and that we are powerless against the behemoth of social media, smartphones, devices on our wrists and eyeglasses, and apps on our TVs and in our cars, watching us watch ourselves being watched. We have come not only to adore technology and the ceding of freedoms, but we feel naked without being watched and told what to buy and what to do. No wonder we are tuned out and turned off to nature and all its signals that could warn us away from impending disaster.
Who or what is watching us and artificially enhancing our stupidity is not benign, not devoid of moral content. It is none other than the rough beast advancing on us. Let us hear what Hilaire Belloc said about the barbarian’s advance on our civilization:
We sit by and watch the barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creed refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.
It is no laughing matter what our dependence on technology has wrought in our families, our intellectual lives, our schools, our political order, and even our economy. We are dependent addicts, in love with oppression, dancing to demonic algorithms, laughing our way to a predetermined Hades of our own creation. We need to pull back to save all that is decent and good in America. Eric Brende’s is a voice of sanity in an ocean of obtuseness. It is not too late to hear his voice and heed its message before we literally amuse ourselves to death.
Hon. Scott J. Bloch
A New Low
Out of fairness to Susan Kassman Sack and Teilhard de Chardin, I cannot refrain from commenting on Charles Molineaux’s review of Sack’s book America’s Teilhard: Christ and Hope (Jul.-Aug.). I have a stake in this matter because I recommended Sack’s manuscript for publication when it was in its dissertation stage.
Molineaux is so annoyed and distracted by what he calls Teilhard’s “ramblings” that he forgets to offer readers a serious review of Sack’s informative book. Dr. Sack is perfectly capable of defending herself, but as a student of Teilhard’s thought for more than half a century, I have to say that Molineaux exhibits no scholarly expertise in his remarks about Teilhard.
I do not have the space here to list all that is wrong with Molineaux’s review. I have to point out, however, how shocking it is that a Catholic critic would support his hostility toward Teilhard by approving (without argument) the malicious and now debunked accusations — originally conjured up out of thin air by the late evolutionary materialist Steven Jay Gould — that Teilhard must have been involved in the famous Piltdown hoax. Molineaux, failing to cite any of the scholarship defending Teilhard against Gould’s fabrications, employs the fiction of Teilhard’s complicity in the notorious scientific fraud as a reason why readers should avoid Sack’s book. His approval of the calumnious assaults on Teilhard by mostly secularist intellectuals is unfair to both Teilhard and Sack.
The late “new atheist” Christopher Hitchens once remarked to me in a debate that he disliked my Teilhardian point of view because Gould had assured him that Teilhard was a scientific fraud. I can understand why Hitchens would utilize this fiction. In 50 years of dealing with caricatures of Teilhard by my fellow Catholics, however, this is a first — and maybe a new low.
Molineaux insists that Teilhard’s influence on Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” was negligible, and hence Teilhard is theologically irrelevant today. In my forthcoming book The Cosmic Vision of Teilhard de Chardin (Orbis, Dec. 2021), I refute this claim at length. I agree with Sack that Teilhard’s ideas are reflected visibly and substantively in Gaudium et Spes (e.g., nos. 5, 21, 34). That bold document clearly echoes Teilhard’s call for transplanting Christian thought from its former cosmological setting — a static, pre-Copernican, and pre-Darwinian understanding of nature — to a dynamic, evolutionary one.
The renowned theologian Henri de Lubac, S.J., who wrote three books defending Teilhard’s doctrinal orthodoxy, rightly confirmed Teilhard’s influence in his post-conciliar remark that Gaudium et Spes expresses “precisely what Père Teilhard sought to do.” Teilhard scholar Robert Faricy, S.J., refers to Teilhard’s influence on the document as “a dominating one,” and my own reading confirms this claim. I wonder if Molineaux is happy with Pope Francis’s advice that fidelity to official Catholic teaching now includes paying attention to the ecumenical council known as Vatican II.
It is too bad that Molineaux fails to look at the list of conservative Catholic theologians, bishops, and popes who have written in defense of Teilhard’s contemporary relevance. (He might start by visiting this website: tcreek1.jimdofree.com.) I have to wonder what credentials Molineaux supplied to the NOR that made him seem qualified to criticize a scholarly book on Teilhard.
John F. Haught
Professor Emeritus, Theology Dept., Georgetown University
Charles Molineaux does not like Teilhard de Chardin, so it’s no surprise that he has a dim view of Susan Kassman Sack’s America’s Teilhard. Dr. Sack has produced an interesting book with a clear focus: tracing the impact of the thought of Teilhard on American Catholic thinking during the years 1960 through 1972. She knows a lot about Teilhard and has a superb background for understanding him, having been trained as a scientist and a theologian. But I find myself sympathetic to Molineaux’s critique that Sack does not make the case that Teilhard can be viewed as a bellwether of American Catholic life.
The arguments she puts forth are, unfortunately, dulled by her habit, probably learned in writing a doctoral dissertation, of citing numerous secondary sources to the point of confusion. She seems unwilling to tell us what she thinks and to construct an argument based on original sources. We fly from generalization to generalization, always drawn from some secondary writer who is duly acknowledged and footnoted ad nauseam. Often the result is the loss of any thread of an argument, as Molineaux notes. While one could counter that this is a book about secondary responses to Teilhard, that’s just not enough to save it.
Unlike Molineaux, I like Teilhard. No doubt, some of his ideas were bold and pushed in new directions, yet not with the willfulness of a heretic but with the courage of a pioneer encountering new lands. Teilhard was a man of the Church who lived under obedience, even when it cost him. He was one of the most significant Catholic inspirational writers of the 20th century, many times more original than his contemporaries like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, or Fulton Sheen. He wrestled with modern science and evolution, with creation and death, and with the ultimate destiny of humanity and the universe. And he did it all with a poet’s tongue and a mystic’s heart.
He was thinking about God outside of the medieval Thomistic presuppositions that Vatican II began to re-examine. Neo-Thomists, of course, did not like Teilhard, but that is no condemnation. Like his fellow Jesuit Bernard Lonergan, he re-thought centuries-old ideas, but unlike Lonergan, he did it from his world of paleontology, not systematic theology. Teilhard was not a hack or idiosyncratic, and calumniating him because he is the inspiration for novel inspirational events adds little.
Teilhard is buried in an obscure grave at what is now the Culinary Institute of America, just north of Poughkeepsie, New York. He deserves more than that, as do his writings, even in an age of considerably less hopefulness than the 1960s.
Dept. of Religious Studies, George Mason University
CHARLES MOLINEAUX REPLIES:
The giveaway in John F. Haught’s lengthy letter regarding my review of America’s Teilhard appears in his strawman argument and in what he omits. As to geologist Teilhard’s involvement in the infamous Piltdown scandal (which led to Time magazine’s cute label, “Holy Hoaxer”), this is not a matter of “debunked accusation” but of fact. Geologist Teilhard was there at Hastings, England, and his participation, actively or passively, is not a charge “conjured up out of thin air,” as Prof. Haught claims.
As a mere civil lawyer and canonist, not a scholarly academic, I did not rest my critique solely on Piltdown. There is more — or, should we say, less — to say about Sack’s wordy book. No substantive discussion of geologist Teilhard’s “theology” is found therein, and, as John Farina’s letter notes, Sack flies from generalization to generalization.
Though I mentioned specific critics of Teilhard, such as Wolfgang Smith and Dietrich von Hildebrand, Haught vaguely cites as Teilhard supporters unnamed “conservative Catholic theologians, bishops and popes” (conservative presumably meaning “orthodox”).
The aha! moment in Haught’s letter comes in his announcement that he has his own Teilhard book about to be published; the publisher is listed, evidently for marketing purposes. Perhaps his book will have more substance than Dr. Sack’s.
In brief, we have choices here: the perennial teaching of the Church (per the Scriptures) as to God’s immutability and unchangeableness or Teilhard’s “improved Christianity,” fuzzily featuring an evolving Christ moving toward the Omega Point.
As to the book reviewed, the case for Teilhard’s impact on America has either been made or not.
Pieter Vree links Pope Francis’s urging of Catholics to “make a mess” with the current de-facto schism of the German bishops (“Some Dare Call It Schism,” New Oxford Notebook, Jul.-Aug.). Vree presents the schism as an example of “the law of unintended consequences,” which is to say, he assumes the Pope did not foresee or intend the intra-Church chaos his decisions, statements, and policies have caused.
Surely, there is overwhelming evidence, some of it cited by Vree, that Francis did indeed foresee and does intend chaos. Why? Because he wants to subvert the authority of the Magisterium, above all, in matters of sexuality.
What’s in an Acronym?
Thanks to Jason M. Morgan for his nimble and multifaceted reflection on how in these later days FIRE has come to flash among us (“World on FIRE,” Cultural Counterpoint, Jul.-Aug.). But what’s in an acronym? In this case, it’s financial independence, retire early. But wait. Dependent rational animals that we are, there is no independence to be had, financial or otherwise. And this is a good thing, since we flourish as persons only when we are in community with others. We are all in it together, even if we sometimes don’t see the ties that bind. Blimey, when we do see them, we often try, always in vain, to sever them. But without those ties, things fall apart. Fast.
And what’s with retirement? It’s not a biblical theme, is it? How about, as an alternative, exploring redirection? If we break free of wage slavery, let’s redirect our efforts. How about a new FIRE: free investment in renewing the earth. Every movement, of course, needs a motto. How about “Thy Kingdom Come”?
James G. Hanink
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