ACF PoMoCon #19: Yuval Levin


We continue our series in memory of the later public intellectual and professor of political philosophy Peter Lawler. Today, I talk with Yuval Levin, who served with Peter on the President’s Council on Bio-ethics in the George W. Bush administration, which was led by another distinguished conservative scholar, Leon Kass, Levin’s mentor. We talk about the council, about dignity, and the need for moderation, institutions, and a sympathetic understanding of each other, lest our conflicts lead to madness.


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  1. Jim Beck Member
    Jim Beck

    Morning Titus,

    I have one or two of Mr. Levin’s books and have heard him a few times, he is not my favorite.  However in this conversation, I was impressed with his observations…..mostly.  You and Mr. Levin recall that Mr. Lawler would say that things are better and things are worse, this is similar to the zek saying that Solzhenitsyn writes in referring to the chronic shifting of prisoners in the gulag from one camp to another.  The line is “never be to happy, never be to sad”, or to paraphrase Mr. Lawler, the next camp may be better and worse.  Now when Mr. Levin says that the political urgency that this election is the most important ever, or is a flight 93 election, is too wound up and that this panicked approach is just a political tool that fools some folks into a state of irrational tribalism, I think he is choosing to stop being curious.   He in his talk with Peter talked about building up the institutions, I do not think he mentioned marriage, I think he focused on the institutions of government.  This, I think, is where I fault his understanding of human nature.  He doesn’t understand the essential components of culture, I think he think that if government is revitalized culture will be as well.  You mentioned that no man ever births himself, I would add that for 90% of human life, no children were ever born outside of a tribe.  We were made for a life that was eclipsed by kingdoms and empires which could turn resources into children more efficiently.  That modern man is a wanderer and a wonderer is a natural outcome of living in social structures for which we were not made.  So that the modern consensual government, like all other earlier systems is a jury-rigged structure, not entirely satisfying.   So when Mr. Levin thinks about building institutions, I think he is missing an understanding of the essential factors in cultural health.  This lack of understanding down plays the possibility that folks may be sensing that the culture maybe at risk and the culture’s instructions are facing change either more or faster than it can handle.  Maybe using Lawler like compassion, we should look at how folks feel their culture is threatened and invest time in understanding not only their feelings but also study the times when culture have come under threat in the past. How do culture meet challenges, and when do challenges overwhelm cultures.  Note how neither he nor any of our conservative thinkers are thinking about the uncertain state of marriage, and the broken structures of courting, and the confusion about what it means to be a man or woman.  Marriage is the most foundational part of culture,  immigration and a breakdown of common beliefs are not on the top of the thoughts our conservative thinkers.  Our thinkers are thinking more about politics, while wondering why the public behaves the way they do.  Even in talking about polarization or tribalism, there is a lack of understanding and even a lack of curiosity about how we got this way in the US and in the West.  

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  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Jim, if you have those books, read’em. He ‘s an astute writer & an intelligent patriot. He not only shares your concerns, he has tried far more than most Americans alive or dead to get politicians to take family seriously & reroute GOP policy from an obsession with tax cuts to everything from tax credits for raising children to understanding the implications of being created in God’s image.

    We’re friends, so you won’t take it the wrong way when I say, I know conservatives are continuously looking to blame someone for their ills, but it’s not us–we’re not at fault for what’s happened. Levin’s closer to my age than yours & his experience has been, the GOP pays lip service to reform conservatism, then goes on with the obsessions of business. It would be cruel & ridiculous to add to that the ingratitude of his fellow Americans.

    I know you mean well–you’ll see, Levin is as serious about the importance of family & faith for happiness as anyone. If he’s not interested in anthropology or tribes as much as you are, that’s only because he’s trying to get people now to think differently & change policy at the same time, so that families can at least marginally be better off.

    The truth is, money & popularity matter in America. The ideas you & I share, even this way of talking about the need to recreate institutions by accepting commitment & duties–Levin talks about institutions as from family to Congress, going through churches & academia, it’s right there in the subtitle, lest anyone miss it–need support. We are not getting that support. Without it, there is very little we can do. 

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