Dialogue with a Catholic Leftist

I might want to call this “A Dialogue Between Two Catholic Leftists,” but that would be begging the question.

Sancrucensis

When the Manifesto of the Tradinistas came out I noted that while I agree with their critique of liberalism— and indeed with most of their political positions— I would never consider myself a Tradinista on account of the cultural and historical associations that they embrace. In other words, I would never consider myself a “leftist.” But what exactly does it mean to be a leftist? I recently had a discussion with Coëmgenus on that question that made me understand more clearly what the Tradinistas mean by it, and where I differ from them. With Coëmgenus’s permission, I reproduce a slightly abridged version of our discussion below.


Coëmgenus: People use the word “left” to mean very stupid things.

Sancrucensis: What should “left” be used to mean?

Coëmgenus: I use “left” to mean the inclusion of social questions and questions of production within the realm of the political. So that a distributist who…

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The Decline of the SJWs

Some recent reading on the U.S. in the 19th century has done much to dispel for me the myth that the goals and ideology of 21st-century activists represent a rupture with a “good liberalism” of the past.

In the abolitionists, in the feminists of the 1840s, almost everything we would recognize as modern is already to be found — not in embryo merely, or as a perhaps unintended potentiality, but as a clear and explicitly avowed doctrine. All of the the interrogation of privilege, the construction of a liberal subject unconditioned by its flesh or its nation or its social ties, the disdain or incuriosity they showed towards reasoned defenses of the status quo, which we would recognize on a college campus today, could be found as well in the lyceums and liberal churches of that time.

And yet it strikes us as somehow different. Even when we perceived the basic similarity of the argument, it strikes us as different in affect. Superficially, at least, this is clear: they denounced kings and gods while wearing cravats and corsets; Frederick Douglass’s condemnations of slavery were framed in the rhetoric of classical and much-revered slaveholding societies; the most promethean feminisms paid more than lip-service to the sacred office of maternity.

But it isn’t just that — it isn’t that they strike us as more elegant and cultured than the activists of today. It’s that they were in fact elegant and cultured, and knew it, and were proud of it. They were not opponents of civilization, but confident advocates of the better civilization whose midwives they believed themselves to be.

It is no coincidence that this kind of activism was born in the churches. In its confidence, in its indifference to worldly powers, in the strictness of its purity, it has rightly been compared to a kind of secularized religion. This is often said as a kind of critique, but it’s a species of praise: we who have religion may not understand fervor to be a sin. These people embraced mockery, privation, sometimes violence, often poverty, in the interest of their cause.

And today? One sees a few heroic gadflies on the margins, and a horde of activist personalities, or activists who seem to understand no mode of social influence than that of the celebrity: celebrity activists seeking a kind of communication of idioms with activist celebrities. Some of the energy, some of the fervor of 19th-century reformers can still be discerned, but it is put into the service of a personal brand.

Thus is our polity humiliated even in the persons of those who would condemn it.

“Navid has an advantage: he’s a Muslim.”

Today First Things published an interview I translated between the German novelist Martin Mosebach (more famous in America for his traditionalist views than his fiction), and the Muslim writer Navid Kermani, who has recently written a book appreciating Christian art from his Muslim perspective.

Much of the content of their conversation is relevant to this blog’s project; here I will quote two passages that readers are likely to appreciate, on living tradition vs. “traditionalist” attempts to recover the same:

Kermani: Unfortunately, we live in a time in which both the Catholic and Islamic traditions are breaking off; this is not just unfortunate, but dangerous, because traditions that have been broken off usually return as fundamentalism, as something reactionary, and then violence arises.

          But a return to the sources is exactly what fundamentalism claims to want.

Kermani: Yes, but in the process it wants, so to speak, to skip over tradition. It turns decidedly against the tradition, insofar as it claims to return to a first beginning.

          Then should one not simply allow traditions to be torn down?

Kermani: Tradition cannot be kept alive artificially. But where it still exists, one can respect, protect, and renew it. Tradition is the mediation of divine revelation across the generations; it is more than an individual can know or come up with for himself. But today, everything must be in accordance with our sound human reason, and we do not consider that this reason, like all human reason before it, is temporally conditioned. Religion should be just as we’d like it, it should pronounce what we already think, it should be compatible with our time. But it is of the very essence of religion that it is not compatible with our time, or with any time. Jesus was quite obviously not compatible with his time.

 

The full interview is well worth reading, and can be found here.

Overlapping Consensus

In some hours of leisure I had before the Thanksgiving holiday began, I was able to turn to one of the many books that have sat on my shelves too long — Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution.

My original interest in it had been that of a #tradbro who looks for antiliberal counterhistories wherever he can find them, and likes his histories as unwhiggish as possible. This, Nelson does not fail to deliver. Even those of us who know better, even those of us who may indulge in Jacobite or other monarchical fantasies, or who have learned to sift through patriotic stories of the Revolution to detect among its actors interested motives and reckless ambitions — even we cannot overwrite completely the outlines of American history as we learned it with our ABCs. The Revolution always appears under the banner of “No Taxation without Representation”; it is always inspired by the books of Locke, whether we read them as wisdom or heresy; it is filed in a catalogue alongside other legends of heroes striking off the shackles of despotism.

Against this, Nelson advances two theses–

  • That Stuart theories of royal prerogative, resurrected in the colonies, were an important part of patriot political thought in the years before the Revolution, and
  • That these royalist theories, more than an expedient forensic device, outlasted the Hanoverian sway, and defeated more Whiggish ideas in the debates over the Constitution of 1787, leaving America with a President more monarchical than most monarchs — not as a “second Revolution” or American counterrevolution, but as the culmination of principles that had shaped patriot thinking since the 1760s.

Nelson proves these theses decisively, piling up citations until there can be no doubt that the royalist thought he sees among the patriots is more than the product of a reactionary imagination. (If anything, he shows this too exhaustively — readers outside the academy may not appreciate a history that is substantially its own sourcebook.) But whatever Nelson can teach us about American history, I am particularly grateful for up the example he gives of a kind of historical method.

For the aim of this book, in defending the idea of a “Royalist Revolution,” is not to refute the traditional Whig narratives: it proposes, rather, a kind of historical counterpoint, in which the opposition of Royalist and Whig plays against other themes. Nelson’s study sorts the political theories of the founding generation along several axes, the first of which is defined by the question of representation: does political representation require that a government resemble its citizens proportionately, or does it suffice for “legitimate” representation that the citizens have given consent, tacit or otherwise, to a government of whatever form?

On another axis, Nelson sorts thinkers by the types of constitution they will allow: must all decisions be authorized by a legislature as under the Articles of Confederation, or should the other branches of government be free to implement the law as they see best? Another axis concerns the grounds for rejecting the authority of the Crown: was the offense of George III that the mere fact of his kingship usurped honors due to God alone (as the atheist Paine and some fanatical Puritans agreed), or was it that particular misdeeds here absolved the Americans of their allegiance to a political form unobjectionable in itself?

Part of the purpose of Nelson’s endless citations is to demonstrate that almost every juncture of these axes was occupied by some American at some point in the 18th century. In each of the Americans’ transformations — from subjects to rebels, from rebels to democrats, from democrats to citizens of a balanced republic — one of these axes was for the moment the most important, but in each case the winners and losers were both unwieldy coalitions of various positions along the other axes. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that some actors in these coalitions adopted whatever principles they need to remain on the winning team, and Nelson does not pretend that every ideological contortion is equally plausible. But his aim is not to tell a story of cynicism or political trickery, but to demonstrate how the apparent forward motion of history, even the appearance of of clear ideological themes in history, emerge from the interactions of groups who may not share a goal or a set of political principles.

To explain this, Nelson borrows Rawls’s notion of “overlapping consensus.” There is nothing of Rawlsianism in his argument (and he avoids mentioning Rawls at all), but the phrase is a good one. The events of the 1760s-80s are advanced by shifting groups of people who on some level agree on the outcomes they want, but may have different or even opposed reasons for wanting them. By this “Royalist Revolution,” then, Nelson does not mean to point out a revolution of a clearly royalist character, but to indicate that it was a revolution from which nondemocratic theories and reasonings were never absent, and which in their absence could not have proceeded the way it did.

In this book, Nelson focuses narrowly on the colonists’ and rebels’ theories of political legitimacy. No doubt an expanded study could show a similarly complex field of play across the other famous dichotomies of early American politics: agrarianism vs. industry, quietism vs. empire — no doubt a similar study could expose more complex ideological fault lines in the politics of 2015 than our pundits imagine.

And it is in this sense that I found in the book an education that I am grateful for; it gives an example of an historiography that neither dissolves ideology into the motions of markets or of armies, nor conceives of events as a kind of ideological puppet-show in which the theorists holding the strings are all that matter. In Nelson’s alternative approach, untangling ideology from events is a matter of great labor and considerable insight, and results in showing us a play of forces in which we are deprived of any clear banner to rally around.

The reactionary bro is a bit disappointed to be deprived of a devastating argument against the Revolution’s republicanism, but for that satisfaction foregone he receives a lesson not only in history but in practical politics.

We who are unenthusiastic about liberalism in an age when liberalism is universal are tempted to despair, tempted to write off all modern forces as bearing a liberal taint, and to approach modern debates with such ideological chastity that we can scarcely make our positions understood, and scarcely act, lest we find ourselves aligned with the bugbears either of liberalism or of those least-pleasant illiberalisms from which our liberal contemporaries are not wrongly in flight.

If we look for a party, we will find none. But if we can view the 21st century with the same clarity The Royalist Revolution brings to the 18th, we don’t need a party. Among those we disdain to join and those with which we share no principles there are still many with whom we share goals. And if we must be their allies, reminding ourselves that this “overlapping consensus” is provisional and extrinsic (and not some some fusionist love-marriage) may help us win a few battles without imagining that we are losing our souls.

Against René Girard

The death of René Girard has been followed by the flood of eulogy one expects for an author so often cited, a professor beloved of so many students, and a thinker so effectively popularized.

Much of that appreciation, I’m sure, is merited. Girard was nothing if not thought-provoking, and he gets plenty of mileage out of the few idées fixes that run through all his writing. (His key concept of “mimetic desire” strikes me as one that may bear great fruit for psychology and politics alike, and at any rate will keep the grad students busy for a long while.)

But among his disciples, René Girard is not only praised as a critic or as an interesting writer, but as a kind of theologian, as a sage whose anthropological key has deciphered the secret meaning of Christianity. His practice of the Catholic religion, and his personal loyalty to the Church, were commendable, and do nothing to refute this view. Girard himself suggests that he held such an opinion of his career — but it’s wrong, and wrong enough that those who would recommend Girard to Christians do him no service by repeating it.


Girard’s view of Christianity is so closely tied to his broader anthropology that it can hardly be explained without it. So for the perhaps unfamiliar reader, let me give a brief summary. (It’s brief not to dismiss Girard, but because his broader work is not my subject. For the curious, there’s a longer summary here, although the strictly philosophical criticisms in that article are not the same as my own.)

For Girard, who bases his arguments partially on literature, and partially on speculations about primitive human life, an essential motor of human desire and action is mimetic desire, a relation by which one person’s observing another’s desire for some object causes him to desire the same object himself. For Girard, this mechanism propagates desire across a society, leading inevitably to conflicts, when each cannot possess what all now desire. Girard believes that the pressures created by this mimetic desire build up within a society, and would tear it apart, were there not in his view a release mechanism in the device of scapegoating.  The selection of a scapegoat allows a group to nominate one part of itself as the cause of the tensions within it, and by the cathartic destruction or expulsion of that part, to restore peace for a time. But the wheels of mimetic desire do not cease to turn, and new scapegoats, more bloodshed, will again be required to purge the violence that otherwise would destroy the whole.

It is here that, for Girard, the story of Christian revelation intersects with his theories. We can set aside his unusual interpretation of the creation stories: his thought depends much more closely on his reading of Biblical atonement, and it is here that the principle objection to his thinking lies.

In his system, the animal and vegetable sacrifices of the Jews, typified but not limited to the sacrifice of the goat from which we take the name “scapegoat,” represent a first step away from the cyclical violence he imagines the primeval scapegoating to have involved. It is still through bloodshed and destruction that the escalating tensions of mimetic desire are relaxed, but this violence is no longer found in human bodies, but in other sacrifices that Girard would have us understand as their typological equivalent.

More importantly, in the religious life of the Jews one hears also the words of the prophets, who in Girard’s view call the efficacy of the Jewish sacrificial order into question, even as they remain in that order. Here he exploits real tensions in the texts: a God who desires obedience and not the fat of rams, a God who sends his servant to suffer in innocence, is a God who does not preside over a simplistic order of scapegoating in which the nomination and elimination of the guilty one is sufficient for atonement.

And on Girard’s reading of the New Covenant, this tension is finally resolved in the Passion, as a perfect being, a victim that cannot credibly be proposed as a scapegoat responsible for our suffering, is nevertheless offered as a sacrifice. The Passion discredits forever the sacrificial economy, and gives to those with eyes to see the understanding that social violence is avoided not through scapegoating or sacrifice, but through the pacifism Girard takes Christ to have preached.


Such, in a nutshell, is the role that Christianity plays in Girard’s system. It is his intention to take a favorable view of it, and he is certainly correct to see Christianity as leading mankind from strife into peace, but his goodwill towards the tradition cannot excuse the basic errors in his interpretation of Christian revelation. Three of these errors deserve our attention most:

1. René Girard’s Christian narrative is purely immanent — it is anthropology, not religion. This is not to deny that Girard uses religious language, or spends much time discussing the mysteries of the Christian religion. Though he himself was a Catholic, his intellectual interest in the Christian religion was not that of the believer, but of one who thought he could use it as a tool for what was at heart a secular project. In his thought, the redemption the Gospel preaches to us is not the justification of sinful men or their regeneration in the spirit — it is rather a kind of Enlightenment, by which man, finally given a standpoint from which to pronounce judgment on the psychological forces of mimetic desire and the mythic imperatives of scapegoating that have ruled him for so long, realizes that a better, more peaceful, happier life is possible. René Girard does not hesitate to use the language of redemption, but what he describes is really the clarification of a mistake in political theory. When he talks of things hidden since the creation of the world, he does not, as the Christian does, intend the secrets that God had not yet made manifest in Christ: Girard’s Gospel, of the futility of scapegoating, of the need to discipline one’s desire, has nothing properly supernatural about it, even if he believes man happened to be too muddle-headed to figure it out without Christ.

In their enthusiasm to embrace Girard, then, his Christian fans run the risk of reducing the Gospel to an anthropological story. It can be seen as a more humanistic equivalent to the just-so stories of evolutionary psychology: mimetic desire and scapegoating are the natural inclinations that shape human life; Christ brings a kind of mutation that competes with the predominant traits, and Girard’s eschatological hope is that the Christ-meme will in the end prove more adaptive. This is an interesting and very creative story — it might even be successful as a secular account of the role of Christianity in history — but it is far poorer than the story Christians should tell to themselves.

2. René Girard’s view of the Old Covenant requires that we consider the Mosaic revelation to be ironic, at odds with itself. Girard does not deny that the laws of the Jews are from God. In their use of innocent victims, Girard even believes the Jewish sacrifices to be a step forward for humanity, as opposed to earlier mythic practices that he claims required the imputation of guilt to the victim. But this faint praise of the Old Covenant should make the Christian wary: Girard praises these sacrifices only because they point the way beyond sacrifice. The Jewish tradition of sacrifice is not  propitiatory but propedeutic, a ladder to be kicked away once it has been climbed.

It is certainly true that God spoke to the Jews in a means appropriate to their times, but it is gross impiety to think on this account that he did not mean what he said to them. Yet for Girard, it is what is most expressly commanded by God that is most wrong — the sacrifices God commands for his praise and for the expiation of sins do neither of these things, even if (as Girard claims) they point forward to a later age of true religion. This is not strict Marcionism, but it is not Christianity: the Christian believes that the New Covenant fulfills the Old, not that it declares false what the Old Covenant had stated ironically. But it is not with respect to the Jewish rites that Girard’s errors about sacrifice are most damaging.

3. Girard’s view of Christianity rejects the sacrificial understanding of the Passion and of the liturgy. Girard and his disciples talk often about the evils of “substitutionary atonement,” adding their voices to the large chorus of Modernist and Eastern scholars who have built careers denouncing this theological bugbear. But I don’t mean here to offer a defense of substitutionary atonement (Hart, I think, does this well enough in his Beauty of the Infinite); the Girardian critique is radical enough to disturb even Christians who reject that understanding of the Cross. For Girardians, “substitutionary atonement” is a broad enough idea that all who believe in the effectiveness of sacrifice are guilty of it.

In every language and in every rite, Christians have viewed the eucharist as a sacrifice, typologically tied to the offerings of Melchizedek and of the Jewish priests, and figuring the perfect sacrifice of the Passion. This typological connection is everywhere in Christian thought. When the Church repeats Christ’s words — “this is my body, given for you” — this is taken to refer equally to the cross and to the liturgy, which are understood together to be the perfection and seal of the finite sacrifices offered by those who had not yet heard the Gospel.

The difference between this and Girard’s view is vast — for him, the Cross is not the perfection of sacrifice but its final refutation, an absurdity and an offense designed to convince us of the fatuity of all sacrifice. Christ’s Passion saves us not because he is offered in our place, or as a propitiation to the Father, but because it teaches us to set aside the myths of sacrifice and the economy of violence they entail. It is not Christ’s blood, but his instructive witness, that saves.

But to say this is to say that Christians have always misunderstood their religion, that all who have prayed in traditional forms, or participated in traditional liturgies, or even read certain passages of the scriptures ingenuously, have implicitly rejected the Gospel, and fallen victim to a delusion that for Girard is more or less synonymous with original sin — the idea that sacrifice is effective in itself, and not merely as a sign to those who look at it correctly.

To dismiss this view is not to imply that the Christian concept of sacrifice is simple, or uncontroversial even among the orthodox, or comprehensible without much prayer and meditation. It is merely to say that when the Church talks about sacrifice, when the Church tells us that God commands and blesses sacrifice, she is speaking neither in irony nor in delusion. But if we accept Girard as a correct expositor of Christianity, we can receive the Church’s words in no other way.


If this blog will have a sacred principle, it’s that it’s worthwhile to read authors who are wrong — that salutary food for thought and no small measure of wisdom can be found even in writings whose overall argument we reject. To show me the weight of an objection I’ve disregarded, or to draw my attention to a potential solution I’ve overlooked, is to do me a service. But there must be a curb set to our gratitude, lest the professional respect due to an able thinker run over into the honor due to the sage, or into the deference due to the prophet.

It is not to belittle any true contributions of René Girard that I suggest this curb has been in his case too often breached — that many Christians, thrilled at the idea of having such a man on their team, have failed to read him with an adequately critical eye.

On Free Speech at Yale

From an opinion column I wrote in 2009, when the stakes of free speech on campus seemed much lower:

When [Alexis de Tocqueville] pronounced that “there is no freedom of mind in America,” he was fully aware of the equality of persons and lack of political oppression that Americans enjoy then and now. Nor did he mean it as an unmixed complaint; he admired the fact that — at that time at least — atheism and scurrilous sexuality could find no foothold in the American public sphere.

Tocqueville meant his critique as a warning that, like economic markets, the “marketplace of ideas” must be regulated if people are to flourish, and that Americans’ love of free speech — or, rather, of the term “free speech” — can lead to a dangerous state of intellectual laissez-faire, in which sensationalism and modishness take the place of good sense and sobriety. (His uncharacteristically unrealistic suggestion was that the authority of the Church might fill the regulatory gap.) Tocqueville knew that a neutral realm of discourse could not exist, that we choose between the overt influence of censorship and the invisible influence of the half-unconscious attitudes of a culture.

Six years ago, the idea that discipline on campus speech might be imposed not by the administration, but by students, could not have occurred to me.